DIY sci-fi: Brant Smith (DJ Bad Vegan) is shooting his latest, 'In-World War,' at a variety of Bay Area and international locations.

'In-World War:' Brant Smith's Directorial Debut

Michael Fox May 20, 2009

In the year 2075 or thereabouts, a beta tester finds himself unable to escape the confines of a virtual reality mock-up of the so-called war on terror. Financially strapped and increasingly anxious, he desperately tries to log out—only to wake up in a different city, and a different body, every time. With every body-switch, a different actor takes over the role.

That’s the delicious premise of Brant Smith’s In-World War, a dark sci-fi comedy that reps the writer-director’s debut behind the camera. A co-writer and one of the producers of the 2004 low-budget sensation Quality of Life (directed by Benjamin Morgan, who’s handling executive producer duties here), Smith begins production July 6, less than seven weeks from today. "It’s going to be hectic to say the least," the Oakland-based filmmaker admits, "but that’s the way we do things in this indie world we live in. It’s even more austere than indie: We’re DIY filmmakers."

In-World War will shoot for three weeks mostly in the East Bay, with a couple of San Francisco locations, followed by a few days each in New York, Dublin, a French town outside Geneva and possibly Paris. DIY filmmakers tend to prefer guerrilla filming, but Smith won’t cop to a flagrant disregard for rules and regulations. "We had permits where we needed them on Quality of Life," he says, choosing his words carefully. "We expect to do the same on this project as well."

Smith, who’s adopted the onscreen "nom de guerre" DJ Bad Vegan for this venture, is less circumspect discussing his screenplay’s underlying themes. Although the torture tactics of the previous administration continue to generate headlines and controversy, the current occupant of the White House has jettisoned the bogeyman aspects of the "war on terror." Isn’t there a risk that In-World War reflects a prior era, and not the current one?

"The Bush Era may technically be over but it scarred us—it scarred America and it scarred the world," Smith asserts. "This film is about mythologizing history, and the calcification of conventional wisdom as the accepted narrative of what happened. Specific issues of Muslim stereotyping and the 2002-03 fear-mongering era may be behind us, but they still have lasting imprints that will affect us through the ages, at least for the next few generations."

The protagonist, incidentally, is not a Muslim. "I could not in good faith try to write and try to tell a Muslim story," Smith says. "It’s not cinematically ethical. But I did want to address non-Muslim, Western perceptions of stereotypes of Muslims, specifically around equating ‘Muslim’ with ‘terrorist.’ Essentially I’m coming from a humanist perspective: We’re all people, with the same needs, aspirations and desires for our families. The film is not meant to be a propaganda film."

Smith reports that some readers found hints of Brazil in the script and The Matrix in the milieu, while the rotating-actor concept evokes Doctor Who and The Prisoner to us. A movie set in the future presents particular challenges for a filmmaker with a small budget, but the director erases our concern that In-World War will play out in a locked, claustrophobic room in front of a computer terminal.

"The film is set 60 to 70 years in the future," he notes. "By that time the virtual reality technology will be at a point where it will be indistinguishable from real life on a phenomenological basis. You won’t be able to tell the difference."

Smith is finalizing the team that will line-produce the film, but he’s got the big-picture producer responsibilities as well as his helming duties. So it’s not surprising that a question about his current state of mind elicits a financial response, albeit partially tongue in cheek.

"At this moment, I’m most eager for people who want to watch smart sci-fi to send me a check for $25,000, so I can put their name in the credits and we can get this film done right," he says. But he quickly adds, "I’m a DIY filmmaker, which means I’m not going out and seeking investments for this project. There is not an established market for these kinds of films. One thing I learned on Quality of Life is how to distribute outside of the established channels, and we’re going to take this film to the next level."

To follow the In-World War production blog, visit

Notes from the Underground

HBO hosts a free screening of the Academy Award-wining documentary short Smile Pinki May 27 at the Sundance Kabuki. One-time Bay Area filmmaker Megan Mylan will be on hand for a discussion after the film. RSVP at … The sharp, smart and unflaggingly entertaining relationship comedy North Beach marks its 10-year anniversary with a June 13 matinee at the Roxie. Proceeds go to the SAG Foundation in the name of producer Rob Mulloy, who died of cancer in 2004. Tickets are available at … At the SFIFF’s The Lost World/Dengue Fever show at the Castro a few weeks back, programmer Sean Uyehara announced a December pairing of the Magnetic Fields with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.

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