Last month, Columbia University announced the winners of their 2015 Sloan Grants, and graduate film student Alex Cannon was awarded the Sloan Feature Film Grant for his screenplay Sonic Boom. Sloan Science and Film talked with Alex about his project and the triumphs and challenges that come along with making a feature film.
Sloan Science and Film: Can you tell our readers a little about yourself?
Alex Cannon: I was born in Rhode Island and I’ve been making movies with my brother Paul since our dreaded all-boys Catholic high school days. My projects have been featured in festivals and venues including SXSW, SPIN, Fader, and NME. I’ve also created work for companies including the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Dovecote Records, YouTube, and PUMA.
I’m presently on fellowship at Columbia University, where I’m pursuing an MFA in Directing.
SSF: What’s Sonic Boom about?
AC: When a disgruntled weapons developer has a crisis of conscience, he assembles a ragtag group of activists and engineers who surreptitiously contract the town’s worst garage band to help them weaponize audio. Set in 1970s suburban Pennsylvania, it’s a science-based comedy about a few ruthless hippies and the birth of non-lethal weaponry - in the vein of This Is Spinal Tap and The Big Lebowski.
SSF: What kind of science are we going to see in the film? Are you working with science advisors?
AC: The lion’s share of science in the film centers around the physiological effects of manipulated audio – from harnessing pulse pressure and acoustic bombardment to infrasound and sub-audible bass tones. Audio can be employed to do everything from disorient or deafen a crowd to resonate the respiratory path of an individual. All told, the film involves biomedical engineering, electrical engineering, and audiology.
It’s also a period piece. The 1970s were an era of rapid technological advancements in electronics and particularly audio, and the screenplay stays true to that history. There’s no shortage of Moogs in this film.
I have been exceedingly fortunate to partner with both Dr. Elizabeth S. Olson, Ph.D and Mr. Colin Raffel, M.A. Colin helped me determine how period-appropriate, household audio equipment could be transformed to affect people physiologically.
Dr. Olson guided my research into what happens when manipulated sound waves and pressures are directed toward the human body.
SSF: Tell me a little about some of the challenges you’re anticipating in bringing the film to the screen.
AC: Often, the problems that you encounter in post-production have their roots in pre-production – namely, the script. So, that’s the main focus right now. Taking the time to make sure it’s funny and still emotionally grounded.
But films are an industrial art and come with all of the difficulties, joys, pitfalls, and compromises that characterize any colossal collaboration. There are always challenges but, hey, you’re making a movie. These are the good kind of problems to have. That being said, one of the challenges I’m most excited to tackle is shooting period in the 70s.
I think that if you can build a team of people who you trust, you’ll be alright. They'll help the film become greater than the sum of its parts. There’s probably a math equation that describes this, but I’ll need to find a math advisor to confirm that.
SSF: What are your next steps to get there? How will the funds from Sloan help?
AC: Research, revision, and a bit of luck. The funds have permitted me to focus my time and creative energy on this script so that one day it can go from the page to production. I’m nearing a new draft and hope to share it with anyone who might be able to help.
Next up is the golden question: who wants a film about this topic, by this guy? And for me it’s no small token that, in a Sloan office or in a Sloan advisor’s living room –somewhere - someone read this story and got as excited about it as I did. I guess I’m just banking on the hope that it’s
not an anomaly. What can I say? You’ve got to keep the faith.