Making its world premiere at Paris’ NewImages Festival ahead of an October berth at Montreal’s Festival du Nouveau Cinéma, the Canadian-French production “The Passengers: Her and Him” presents an interactive, location-based VR piece that covers a chance encounter from two different perspectives – and still only tells half the story.
This work-in-progress, written by French screenwriter Nicolas Peufaillit (“A Prophet”) and directed by Quebecois multi-hyphenate Ziad Touma (“Saved by the Belles”), will eventually offer an interactive multi-user experience consisting of four chapters, synchronized to be experienced by four viewers simultaneously.
Set in the cabin of a moving train, the interactive experience will exist as four interlocking and interacting films, each one fixed to a different passenger’s perspective.
“The version that we’re showing features a woman and a man [named Her and Him],” explains Touma. “At the same time, we’re finishing production on the other two parts, featuring an older Lady and young Child. Once you put on the headset, you are really immersed in your character’s mind. You’ll see the three other characters in front of and next to you, and you’ll hear the thoughts of the character you are embodying.”
“The project is really about getting to know what goes on in someone else’s mind,” Touma continues. “[It’s built on that moment when] you’re travelling and you see another person and wonder, what’s going on in their head?”
“Depending on your gaze, your thoughts will change,” he adds. “When I look at the Lady, there’s a script dedicated to her. Then if I turn my head and look at the Child, I will think something different. One will make me think of my mother, and about motherhood; the other will make me think of my own childhood.”
The filmmaker designed this project as an exercise in full-on embodiment, with those thoughts leading to live-action, stereoscopic flashbacks. But participants can do more than glimpse their characters’ pasts, they are also able to affect their futures via actions taken in game.
“You have to help the character accomplish their quest by either speaking out loud or doing hand gestures,” Touma explains. In “Her” and “Him,” for example, both characters are fighting their own internal battles, which can be overcome via participant interaction and vocalization. Only each vocalization changes the story for everyone else.
“The stories influence each other. If one person speaks, it changes the other person’s film,” Touma continues. “So we’re trying to be as fluid as possible to how the user perceives the world, because they manage to create a new narrative every time. “
The project’s myriad variables required years of scriptwriting and development, forcing the filmmakers to approach the story in a very different way. “Instead of something linear, the script was written in columns,” says Touma. “Because it’s interactive, you have to approach the narrative in three dimensions. When I printed out the script pages, I could stack them on the floor and walk between them.”
In terms of variables, each of the four parts will employ a different visual style, with “Her” depicting the world in watercolor, and “Him” in oil painting; subsequent entries will be rendered in pencil and felt tip marker. More ambitious still, the filmmakers mounted the entire project in two languages, shooting versions in both English and French.
“For the U.S. and world market, it has to be in English, but we wanted something to offer French Canada and France as well,” Touma explains. “In VR you can’t really do subtitles, and it’s not something you can dub. So you really have to go all in.”