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The Hour Before Morning: Interview with Arwen Spicer

I recently had the chance to interview Arwen Spicer m the writer, director, and producer of Hour Before Morning, on her film and the process of creating it.

The Hour Before Morning is an independent science fiction film focusing on the struggles of three prisoners Elek, Jenchae, and Meravyn,. On board a spaceship taking them to their deaths, they have only the length of the flight to make sense of their lives, if they can. Their story takes place against a backdrop of struggle between the Ashtorian conquerors and the Sama people who resent being forcibly “civilized” and want their worlds back. There is a deep hatred between the two peoples and a long history of struggle in which the questions of right and wrong are not easy to answer. “Most Samas are convinced that the Ashtorians are the “bad guys,” yet they have their own history of expansion, warfare, and oppression, just as the Ashtorians have their own conception of nobility, art, and virtue. Human civilizations are all human in the end,” Arwen writes. Four years now in the filming the film is moving toward completion. The musical score is being written, special effects are being added, and, most exciting for those of us who have been following the film’s development, there are screenshots.

How long have you been working on Hour Before Morning?
I started work on The Hour before Morning in 1996. At the time, I conceived of it as a novella. After working intermittently for a couple of years, I sent a draft off for critiquing at critters.org, where responses ranged from “this sucks” to “it has some interesting elements, but I can’t understand it.” The most helpful comment I got was that it seemed to require too much backstory to be comprehensible in a short story format. Based on this, I went back and lengthened it into a short novel (available in Kindle format from Amazon) and, from there, a script.

You also wrote a novel, Perdita, soon to be re-released in a new edition under the title, Help the Gods.. Is Hour Before Morning set in the same universe?
It is set in the same universe, the Continuation of Daughter, which is the home base of 95% of what I write (that’s not fan fiction!). However, Help the Gods and The Hour before Morning don’t cross over much in terms of cultures or characters. One of my future projects, however, The Dying Cycle , brings together elements of both.

When did you first realize that you were writing a movie script?
When I was working on the novel version of the story, my mother, Patricia Spicer , read a draft and told me that she thought the story would work better in dramatic format than as a novel because it’s all about people “on a stage” talking. This made sense to me, and since I’ve never been that attached to live theater, my first thought was essentially to film a “play,” which would just be, as my mom noted, people on a stage, talking about their lives. When I started floating the idea to various screenwriting groups, however, I consistently got the feedback that I might as well “go for broke” (as this project nearly made me!) and put in flashbacks, effects, etc. “You can always take them out later if they’re not filmable,” they pointed out. However, most of them stayed in.

You mentioned elsewhere that you’d “always wanted” to film in a quarry. Care to elaborate on that?
Oh sure: It’s the Blake’s 7 love! Seriously, 1970s BBC science fiction is an inspiration to me. If you look past the cardboard spaceships and three locations, so much of it is so good. It’s good because the acting (and sometimes writing) is superb, and the actors clearly loved what they were doing and took it seriously, just as if it were the Shakespeare they cut their teeth on. I firmly believe that good acting and good writing are what make good film. The other aspects–editing, camera, lighting, effects, music, etc.–are all extremely important, but whether a story is fundamentally lovable is a question of whether you get believable characters showing believable emotion.

What is one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced in this process?
The inherent unpredictability of filming on people’s spare time. We had, across the board, a great team of talented, good willed folks who put in enormous effort for little or no remuneration, but everything got done by the seat of our pants: essentially no rehearsal time, no spare time to film B roll, no time to think twice about continuity (hence many continuity errors), inevitable last minute cancellations from cast and crew (amazingly few of these actually!). Lessons learned: buy more duct tape; buy more Sharpie pens; take lots of on-set photos; make time for B roll.

What was the most fun you’ve had working on The Hour Before Morning?
Hanging out with the people. Despite the frustrations, it was a blast. Most everyone got along, and we had lots of on-set fun, creative discussions, a good teamwork. I can’t wait to have that experience again, once I have the script and money! The very most fun I personally had was probably watching Joel Albrecht (Elek), Greg Black (Jenchae), and Trish Luna (Meravyn) do their prison cell scenes: we filmed those scenes late, and that was where the project really took off. It was so awesome to see them become those characters!

Why make an independent film?
Well, for one thing I have neither the desire nor the personality to do what you’ve got to do to break into the industry: go to Hollywood, spend years scrabbling up through the ranks, etc. I’ve always been an independent person; I don’t have a lot of stamina or right type of creativity for doing “marketable” projects to “make myself known.”

And being independent, I want to maintain creative control over my work. Now, I love feedback, and I’m very open to it. The Hour before Morning is very much a team project and reflects the actors’ interpretations of their characters (and input on their lines), Jake Macklem’s fantastic direction and shot lists, Matt Pryor’s painstaking editing and art direction, and so many contributions from so many others. But I do enjoy having a veto–or at least having a say; I get nervous at the thought of giving over my work to a studio to put my name on something that might end up looking very different from my intent.

What is it you hope the audience will take away from this film?

My ultimate dream would be if some of them fall in love with the characters enough to want to play around with them fannishly: writing fic, doing vids, icons, etc.
For the broader audience, I’d like them to feel that for a microbudget first film, we did a bang-up job. It’s far from perfect, but for its production circumstances, I’m pretty proud, and I would like my audience to be reinforced in the sense that it’s possible to do good work on a small budget with a local group of people.

Got any tidbits for us? Spoilers? Things to look forward to? More screenshots?

Uh… should I give out spoilers? The thing I’m most looking forward to, besides the film itself, is the blooper reel. As you can imagine, we have a lot of material. I also hope to have a nice array of special features on the DVD release, including interview and a commentary track. So I hope folks will look forward to that, and maybe consider it an incentive to check out our DVD.

You recently began a Hour Before Morning community site. Care to comment on that?

A friend on LiveJournal who had just finished the book of The Hour before Morning asked if there was a particular place she should go to discuss it. There wasn’t, so I created a LiveJournal community. Right now, it basically has updates by me, but I like to think of it ultimately as a place where people can go to discuss the book and film, post fic, etc. among themselves. I don’t see myself as a big presence there. I started the community so it would be available for others.

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2 Comments

  1. Rebecca Miller

    Oh, how cool! LOL! Love she was inspired by Blake’s 7! I adore that series!!! And Quarries are intrinsic to Brit Scifi!!! Now, I really want to see the movie!

    • Jessica Greenlee

      Yep. The whole “quarries” thing really caught my attention too!

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