We talked to Romanian Born Filmmaker Mattson Tomlin about his passion for filmmaking, about shooting his Directorial Debut, sci-fi thriller MOTHER/ ANDROID in full pandemic, and about future projects.
Tell us a little bit about your Romanian background, when were your born and in which city, how you arrived in the USA and tell us, in a nutshell, about your journey to become a filmmaker
I was born in Bucharest in the summer of 1990 and was adopted before I was six months old. I spent my childhood growing up in a very small town in Massachusetts where there was a lot of woods and not a lot of other people, so a lot of time was spent entertaining myself. Growing up as an only child, there was a lot of quiet time spent reading books and watching movies. From a pretty early age I was focused on being a storyteller… In early childhood that manifested through wanting to write books and draw comics… But as I got a little bit older a couple of films really hooked me in a powerful way that drew me into filmmaking. By the time I was about nine years old I knew it was what I wanted to do with my life.
What triggered you to choose a career in the filmmaking?
There were a couple of things in my childhood that happened within an 18-month period. The first was being introduced to a family friend who was a film producer. He was the first person I met who actually worked in the field of filmmaking at that really opened my eyes to the concept that movies were made. I always loved movies but their creation had been an abstraction up until that point. Meeting this friend really made the idea clear: movies are made by people. It was modeled for me as a legitimate job and not the “starving artist” cliche that most people think of when they dream of an artistic leaning career… It was a huge moment for me.
The second thing was seeing the 1999 film THE MATRIX. I was 8 years old when that film came out and it holds a place in my heart that is like STAR WARS for the generation above me. It was mindblowing on so many levels and really opened up my understanding of what a movie could be.
These two events happened within a year of each other and they were extremely foundational in lighting the spark for wanting to make films but also having a model in which I understood it was a legitimate job and not completely out of reach.
Those are two of the big tangible, real-world “facts” of the beginnings of my interest… But beyond that, movies became a very real way for me to experience life, other peoples experiences, to learn, to grow, and to connect. Experiencing over and over how movies are both transportive and transformative made me want to have a place among the storytellers. To this day, my favorite thing in the world is watching a movie with a group of people and listening to them talk about how the experience made them feel.
Please give us a quick review about your previous movies and how the sci-fi thriller MOTHER/ ANDROID is different from your previous projects?
I worked as the writer of two other films that came out in 2020, PROJECT POWER and LITTLE FISH. Both of those films were wonderful and challenging experiences, but they ultimately became someone else’s movies. MOTHER/ANDROID is the first film I’ve written, directed, and produced. It is mine in a way my other works is not. To that end, MOTHER/ANDROID is much more personal and somewhat autobiographical film.
The description of the film says that it tells the intimate story about creating new life in a dying world. The topic is not new. How is MOTHER/ ANDROID different from other films on this topic? What is the insight message?
MOTHER/ANDROID is a love letter to my Romanian biological parents. While the sci-fi elements may be familiar, they really just serve as a vessel to get people to watch the movie. When I sat down to write the film, I took the few things I know about my biological parents and adapted them into this story. For a long time I considered making the movie as a drama, set in 1989 during the Romanian Revolution, but it felt to me that for my first film, I would have an easier time getting the movie made if there were familiar genre elements to lean on. I transposed the Romanian Revolution to a fictional Android Revolution and went from there.
Ultimately I wanted to tell an extremely personal and vulnerable story. While there is imagery that may feel very TERMINATOR, the film ultimately leans into a much more quiet, romantic and personal direction than what audiences may be used to for this kind of film. That kind of rebalancing of genre, with personal filmmaking hidden within sci-fi tropes was extremely exciting to me as a filmmaker, and extremely cathartic as an artist with a story to tell.
Regardless if audiences know about me, my adoption, the connection to the Romanian Revolution, or anything beyond the facts of the film, I hope people will see it and be moved by the very human story and the acts of love the movie ends with.
I think what sets the movie apart from others in the genre, is that is the only way I know how to say ‘I love you’ to the people who brought me into this world.
How was the movie shot? During the pandemic? and if yes, what were the challenges?
We shot the movie in Massachusetts in the autumn of 2020. The pandemic created all sorts of logistical challenges around safety that wouldn’t normally factor into a movie. As a specific example, there were many times where we were shooting on a location and the room we were shooting in was on the smaller size. Because of Covid, we have to keep a certain distance, wearing masks, and in the case of some of these rooms, it means that there could only be two or three people in the room at a time. Normally on a film set you have a dozen or two dozen people working simultaneously to get the set ready to shoot, and there were so many times where we had to work in waves. It was a disjointed and logistically complex way of doing things that really disrupted any sense of community with the crew. The pandemic also, was frankly just frightening. I did not want anyone to get sick and die while working on my movie. There was a real emotional burden of wanting everyone to be okay, and that created a real conflict with my ability to enjoy the process of making the movie.
The movie was shot in less than 30 days, so any and all challenges around the pandemic had to do with time. The number of people in a room was a challenge. Wearing masks that made it difficult to hear people and even more difficult to express yourself created new hurdles. Human beings are pretty remarkable. The way we read facial expressions, little looks, a hint of a smile, these micro-expressions really add up and when you’re dealing with the merging of the physical hurdles of production in order to capture deeply emotional moments, you want your communication to be clear. Everything was slower because everything was dangerous and that meant that everything had to be more deliberate. It was a pretty incredible experience.
How has the pandemic affected your career as a whole?
I’m not sure that things would be much different for me with or without the pandemic. For the first few months of 2020 I focused on writing and expected to be at my desk for years on end. Getting the opportunity to direct MOTHER/ANDROID was kind of unexpected and so to have the experience of going out and making the movie during a plague has armed me with a bit more know-how that a first time filmmaker normally gets when they make their first film. If anything the pandemic has just made me stronger. As I’m continuing to write for other filmmakers now, I have a deep understanding of the logistical hurdles that pandemic-filmmaking will present that I wouldn’t have otherwise.
What’s next, what projects are in the pipeline?
When I was working on MOTHER/ANDROID and people would compare it to TERMINATOR, I would laugh and jokingly say to them “this isn’t my audition to go and make Terminator” and yet that seems to be what has happened. While I was shooting my film I got a call from Netflix if I was interested in writing a Terminator animated TV show. Once I understood what they were looking for, I jumped at the opportunity. The first season has been written and is currently being storyboarded in Japan with Production IG. It’s been a lovely experience to lean into the biggest, most genre version of a robot apocalypse after making a quiet human robot apocalypse.
Other than that, I just completed my first comic book for DC comics titled BATMAN: THE IMPOSTER, and have a number of other films I’m writing for other filmmakers, but my hope is to get back in the directors chair and make another film very soon.