A brilliant but disturbed scientist freezes his children alive, while he races to cure their deadly genetic disease by decoding the DNA of the immortal Turritopsis jellyfish.
(Los Angeles, CA) – December 5th, 2017. Praxis Media Ventures is proud to announce the completion of the science-fiction thriller Chimera, created by first-time writer-director Maurice Haeems, produced by Jay Sitaram and Eric B. Fleischman, and starring Emmy-nominee Henry Ian Cusick (Lost), Oscar-nominee Kathleen Quinlan (Apollo 13), and LGBT-rights advocate Erika Ervin a.k.a. Amazon Eve(American Horror Story).
“While our story pushes the central character down some very dark paths, we still wanted the audience to see that despite his many flaws, Quint is always driven by a utopian vision and noble intentions,” says director Maurice Haeems. “This film asks difficult philosophical questions like ‘How far would you go to save the ones you love?’ and ‘Without your family, would you still want to live forever?’,” says producer Jay Sitaram.
Over the last two decades, Mumbai-born and Los Angeles-based Maurice Haeemshas enjoyed successful careers in mechanical/fluid engineering, investment banking, and software entrepreneurship. In 2014, Maurice decided to pursue his fourth career (and first love) - storytelling and filmmaking. He returned to school to study screenwriting and directing, and wrote his first screenplay, Chimera. He collaborated with former investors and business partners to raise the capital for the project. Chimera was shot in Fitchburg, MA and will be released in 2018.
Q&A with director Maurice Haeems
What inspires you as a filmmaker?
What inspires me as a filmmaker is the same as what inspires me as a human being and what motivates me to open my eyes every morning - the deeply entrenched desire to discover what the day, and the future, will hold.
In my writing, I love to speculate about what is going to happen, how a particular discovery, development, or breakthrough might impact the life and the world of a realistic and interesting character and how will he/she will cope and react.
For me, the point of science-fiction is not to watch shiny machines and flashing gizmos magically teleport a character across space and time, even though often, that can be a lot of fun.
In my opinion, what elevates the genre and makes science-fiction really interesting and illuminating is that it introduces us to a new and unique world that is both consistent within itself, and also consistent with the real world as we know it. Only such a world can elicit from the viewer the desired but elusive “this could really happen” response.
It gets even better when, within this world, we meet an interesting character who sets off, against all odds, to achieve the impossible.
Something truly magical happens when we begin to ask ourselves, “What would I do? How would I behave?” That is science-fiction at its finest, serving simply as a jumping off point for us to launch our own mental explorations of this exotic futuristic dreamscape.
The answers to these questions often yield insights about present issues and the practical lives we are leading. Those insights and revelations are what inspire me as a filmmaker and that is what makes science-fiction so rewarding.
As a science-fiction storyteller, it is my privilege to gaze each day into a crystal balls of my choosing, one that is limited only by the power of my intellect and my imagination. The visions that my crystal balls reveal inspire me as a filmmaker and that is what makes science-fiction so rewarding.
Where did the idea of “Chimera” come from?
I am a huge fan of smart, speculative but grounded sci-fi and so when I decided to try my hand at writing, naturally that was the genre to which I gravitated and aspired. Since I wanted to write a screenplay and knew we would be operating with a small budget, I attempted to craft a story that could be told in a single location and with only a handful of characters.
I was particularly interested in exploring (but in an entertaining rather than a pedantic tone) what contemporary genetic and medical research might achieve just in the next 50 years.
For example, will scientists figure out how some creatures can regenerate damaged cells and lost body parts, how the Turritopsis Dohrnii jellyfish can reverse its lifecycle and revert to a healthy, youthful state? Will they then be able to apply that knowledge to humans, enabling us to regenerate like the jellyfish? Will scientists be able to perfect the technology (depicted in CHIMERA as “Cryptobiosis”) for preserving people alive and bringing them back when needed? Will it be possible to grow human organs in other animals? Will gene editing and engineering lead to the eventual elimination of disease? How much can the human lifespan be extended? These are all big questions with massive biological and philosophical ramifications.
Yet, the central themes of CHIMERA – love and loss, regret and redemption – are intensely personal, emotional, and easily relatable. How far would you go to save the ones you love? And, if they were gone, would you still want to live forever?
Why is telling this story so important to you?
The genesis of CHIMERA lies in three unhappy events.
After losing her two sisters to sudden heart failure, my wife was diagnosed with a rare form of hypertrophic cardiomyopathy which each of our children (the youngest plays Miles in CHIMERA) has a 50% chance of inheriting.
Then, my childhood friend’s nineteen-year-old daughter succumbed to complications stemming from two successive organ transplants.
Finally, my three-year-old nephew, Gautam (the littlest boy in CHIMERA) was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and endured a crippling regime of radiation and chemotherapy.
Powerless and inconsequential – I was a passive onlooker rubbernecking a highway crash, while people I cared about struggled for their lives. Medical diagnoses and prognoses sounded like jargon and gibberish, the science felt like mysticism, and we made decisions with about as much free will as sheep being herded.
I challenged myself – even if I could not impact the course of events, I would comprehend. I read biology and chemistry textbooks. I became fascinated by the human body, that most complex apparatus – so resilient, and yet so delicate; blessed with the potential for much achievement, yet cursed with many frailties. I approached physiology with the mindset of an engineer.
I read about the work taking place around the world. Contemporary research might seem mundane but it is the tip of the spear, the frontline where the best human brains, these warriors of modern medicine, wage fierce hand-to-hand combat against the enemy forces of aging, injury, disease, and death.
My belief is that man will prevail, and ultimately a world without suffering will be attainable, and from that utopian dream, that ethereal chimera, came the ideas for this story.
It has often been pointed out to me that the tragic episodes of my life should be treated with gravity, their story told as a serious documentary/drama. How could they serve as inspiration for a frivolous piece of science-fiction?
While I did consider other approaches, I felt that a factual retelling of those stories would be a clichéd and inadequate response. There was no way to address the enormity of the upheaval, the pain endured, the losses suffered, while still maintaining the privacy and dignity of everyone involved. What would be accomplished simply by reliving all those heartbreaking moments?
Instead I decided to find another path to respect and acknowledge those affected, to honor the dedicated doctors and scientists, to highlight some risks, and to ask some questions.
The path that I chose is unusual, but it is my own. My best testament to their grace, strength and courage. A highly fictionalized, hyper-stylized, graphic-novel-esque science fiction tale. One that will thrill and entertain, but also provoke and inspire without being sentimental or pedantic. That, I hope, is CHIMERA.
What was the most challenging part in making this film?
As a first-time filmmaker, everything was challenging – raising the money, finding an experienced crew, getting the actors, identifying a location, negotiating with the unions, meeting the daily schedule, staying on budget. Nothing about making a movie is easy (though everything is a ton of fun!)
But the single most challenging aspect was Quint. Because of the way that the story was set up, and because of the lack of exposition and backstory, it was important to properly set up and portray our lead protagonist, the brilliant but disturbed scientist, Quint.
In CHIMERA, we push Quint to such extremes that, in order for him to achieve his goals, he may have to cross some lines that, in normal circumstances any viewer would consider morally and ethically un-crossable. To achieve his goals, Quint may have to make some rather unpalatable decisions.
While I do think that putting a character in a boiling hot pressure-cooker makes for interesting viewing, the biggest risk with this approach was that the viewer may not connect with Quint, and, as a result, they may not identify with his quest or root for his success. If viewers don’t empathize with the protagonist and care for him, nothing else matters and the movie fails.
While our story pushes Quint down some very dark paths, we still wanted audience to see that, despite his many flaws, he is always motivated by a unblemished vision and noble intentions.
One of our goals was to hold up a mirror to viewers, so they could question themselves. By having single minded focus on a distant end goal, however important it may be, does one’s lose sight of right and wrong? Even in the pursuit of the most altruistic goal, can we condone the crossing of ethical boundaries?
I think that one of the reasons we were able to pull this off and get away with a morally ambiguous hero is because of Ian’s (Henry Ian Cusick who plays Quint) sensitive, intelligent, and multilayered performance. He is simply brilliant as Quint. Every time I watch CHIMERA, I am amazed how he took this extremely difficult character and made him so relatable, believable, and comprehensible.
Have you always been a fan of sci-fi movies? Talk about the genres that define you as a filmmaker and/or film lover.
While I do love science-fiction, I am not a fan of the entire genre – within every genre there are many entries and it is impossible for every film to connect with every viewer.
I would say that I am a big fan of movies that are logically consistent and stay true to the rules of the world they establish. I love movies that take me along on dark flights of fancy, wild weird excursions of the night, journeys that I could have never undertaken on my own. I admire movies that follow their premise to its natural conclusion with storytelling compromises, tricks, or shortcuts. Movies that spark our imagination and make us think, even as they thrill, surprise, challenge and entertain.
What was it like working with children, and more specially having your son play one of the supporting roles?
When I first came up with the germ of the idea for CHIMERA, before even a single word was ever written, I knew that Quint’s two children (Miles and Flora) could only be played by Raviv Haeems (my youngest son, 12 years old at the time) and Kaavya (8 years old, the younger daughter of my business partner and fellow CHIMERA producer, Jay Sitaram).
If I was the first person to be attached to CHIMERA as the writer/director, and Jay was the second as producer, then Raviv and Kaavya were the third and fourth, being immediately cast as Miles and Flora.
The kids had never been in front of a camera before or done any acting, yet they conducted themselves like consummate professionals. They always arrived on set fully prepared, with their lines memorized, having thought through the emotional beats and the interpersonal dynamics of the scene. They always had a great attitude, always ready to try something different and unexpected, and always ready to go the extra mile to make the scene better. In every sense, it truly was a great pleasure to work with the children.
I will admit that, without realizing it, in the early day of the shoot, I was very hard on my son Raviv. Now, having reviewed the dailies and reflecting calmly on the events of the production, I can see that Raviv was actually doing an excellent job. Often, he would nail it on the first take and I still made him redo the shot several more time because I felt like he was holding back and could do better.
Looking back, now it is apparent that I was unnecessarily tough and demanding, but in that moment, it just seemed to me, because of the deep and intimate knowledge that a parent has of his child, that I knew him and I knew that he was capable of doing and giving more.
To his credit, Raviv was a really good sport and just gamely kept trying to do what was being asked of him.
I really appreciated that, midway through the third or fourth day, Ian took a moment to pull me aside and point this out.
Initially, I was taken aback, but thought carefully about what he was saying. I am so glad that I took Ian’s advice, and eased off. After that, we all had much more fun on set. Thanks to Ian’s intervention, to this day, Raviv and I are able to look back fondly on CHIMERA as a father-son project where we enjoyed collaborating. This is a beautiful memory that we will always share.
Would you like to share some production anecdotes?
Ian’s (Henry Ian Cusick, who portrays Quint, the lead character of CHIMERA, a brilliant but disturbed scientist) wife Annie called me up on the day that Ian was travelling from his home in Hawaii to our location in Fitchburg, in central MA. She told me that the very next day was Ian’s birthday and because Ian loved chocolate so much, she had a box of chocolates sent over for him. This was still a few days before we were to start shooting and so we did not have the full crew assembled yet. But the next day, Ken Golden (our Line Producer) bought a chocolate cake and some more chocolate. So, the first time that Ian came onto the set, he was expecting a table read of the script but instead we had a surprise birthday party!
Almost every day Ian (Henry Ian Cusick, who portrays Quint, the lead character of CHIMERA, a brilliant but disturbed scientist) and I would have very involved discussions regarding whether Quint would do or say what was in the script. The one incident that stands out for the most, was when we were shooting a scene in which Quint is injured and he goes into his comm. room to call for help. The script called for Quint to come back out into the lab where he collapses, falling to the floor at a particular spot. Ian felt that Quint, being an intelligent man, would not needlessly go back out of the relative safety of his comm. room. “Give me one reason why Quint would go back out.” This was not something I had considered while writing the scene but I had to admit that he was right, and I was stumped. I really needed the shot of Quint, gravely wounded, lying on the floor. But I needed to know why he would come back out. Then it hit me! Quint had been performing a dissection of a monkey when the scene opened. So, his surgical tools were on the table in the lab. It seemed logical that Quint would not want to wait for help to arrive, he would try to stitch himself up, and for that, he would need his surgical tools. Ian agreed! After calling for help, Quint would stumble out of the comm. room trying to reach for his surgical tools, but since he had already sustained serious injury, he would not be able to reach the table and would fall to the floor where exactly where we needed him to end up. Phew!
Being a true professional, Ian (Henry Ian Cusick, who portrays Quint, the lead character of CHIMERA, a brilliant but disturbed scientist) had to suppress his gag reflex, when he realized that the prop he would have to work with all day for the liver transplant scene was a real dead pig that smelled worse with each passing hour. At that weekend’s crew get-together, we enjoyed barbequing the pig – perhaps a dubious first, where all of the crew feasted on the prop?!
My son Raviv (Raviv Haeems, who plays Quint’s sick and dying son, Miles) was 13 years old when we shot the film, but it took over 2 years to complete postproduction. Last year, when he was home in LA on spring break from his boarding school in New Hampshire, I took him in to the post facility as we needed him to record a few ADR lines. The moment he spoke his first lines we realized that we had a problem – sometime over the last year his voice had broken! That meant we had to go through every scene in the movie and re-record all of his lines, and that was a very significant undertaking. Unfortunately for Raviv, that year his spring break ended up being a working “break”. For a whole week, he came in to the studio every morning at 9 and worked until 5, diligently going over and re-recording every line in every scene of the movie. I was expecting him to complain but he smiled through the whole ordeal, impressing me and everyone at the studio with his attitude and work ethic.
Talk about your method and/or any extraordinary or unusual aspects about your creative process.
I am a very pragmatic and deadline-focused writer, who enjoys finding creative solutions to practical financial constraints.
Jay and I had decided we wanted to be filmmakers. We tried several times to hire freelancers to write something for us. We had tried to acquire pre-existing materials – foreign films, novels, and TV shows. But, none of those efforts had panned out.
One day, in a moment of extreme frustration, Jay reminded me that, when we were in engineering school, I would always say that I wanted to be a writer. He challenged me, “Why are we chasing other people’s material? Why don’t you write something?” I had to admit it but he had a good point.
That night I was on an eight-hour drive from Mumbai to Ahmedabad to visit my parents. I set myself a deadline. Before I reached their home, I needed to have an idea for an original story.
I fell asleep in the car and when I woke it was 6 am. I was only an hour away from my destination. But my subconscious mind had been working and I already had the germ of the idea that would become CHIMERA. I called Jay, woke him up at 6 am on the Saturday, pitched him the idea (I think he was too sleepy to say no), and we agreed that the only way we would do it is if we could cast our two youngest children as Quint’s two kids.
But now came the hard part. All I had was a rough idea in my head, but no concept of how to write a screenplay – I had never done it before.
So, I decided for my 47th birthday (October 6), my birthday present to myself would be an eight-weeks filmmaking class (October and November). That class ended up being curtailed to only four weeks. But I got a lot out of it, and I was hungry for more.
That year my Christmas present to myself was an eight-weeks screenwriting class (starting in January the following year).
And I set the deadline that by the end of those eight weeks, I would have the finished first draft of the screenplay. In order to do that, I had to, as a 47-year-old, attend class and do my homework diligently every day like a school kid.
I was so dedicated to meeting the deadlines of my writing class that, on some nights, I did not return home after class, choosing instead to check into a hotel room near the school. I would sit alone in that room and write through the night, in order to meet my page requirement for completing that day’s homework.
In March, I enrolled in an online screenplay rewriting class and through a strict adherence to the assigned homework deadlines I was able to finish a complete rewrite of the CHIMERA screenplay. Thus, I finished the second draft.
I am also a very research-intensive writer. I spent hours researching the science depicted in the film because it was very important to me that it not appear fantastical or unbelievable. I felt that, for the movie to work, the science had to feel like it is within reach, that within the next 50 years all these things will actually happen.
Working with Actors:
As a first-time writer/director I was very fortunate to be working with such a talented and seasoned cast of actors. Though I have never done any acting myself, I do recognize that acting is one of the most difficult jobs. I am in awe of how actors do what they do, how they get in front of the camera and expose themselves and their vulnerabilities in their search for the truth in the moment.
I did not try to “direct” the actors how to act. They know how to act much better than I do. But where I tried to be helpful was to work with them to jointly discover the subtext, the emotional intent, and the core dynamics of the scene.
The benefit of collaborating with intelligent actors was that their insights and suggestions invariably resulted in vast improvements to the scene. Since we had no time or budget for rehearsals, so in our case the scene blocking and the first take had to serve as de-facto rehearsals.
As a result of discussing a scene with the actors, often I found myself rewriting the pages on-the-fly and then passing out new handwritten pages. It is a testament to the professionalism and versatility of our actors that they were able make these hastily rewritten lines work so well.
A lot of the lines in the film are actually improvised by the actors in the moment, and this is all the more admirable since there is so much technical jargon mixed in as well.
You went to study writing and directing later in your adult life. Can you talk about what motivated that transition and how it shaped the filmmaker that you are?
I have had three fairly successful careers so far – engineer, banker, entrepreneur.
As I was approaching my 47th birthday, I had the feeling that “my time was running out”. I felt that I needed to change careers again, but this time I wanted to do what I love to do and not let my career choice be motivated by any financial or pragmatic considerations.
So, it was on nothing more than a whim that I decided to pursue my fourth career and first love – filmmaking and storytelling.
But the transition was anything but simple. The world does not need a 47-years-old first-time filmmaker. Filmmaking is a young person’s game (this is after all an industry that worships youth, and that exists as a microcosm within a youth-obsessed culture) but I decided that I would not let ageism stop me or even bother me.
Instead I decided to leverage my age and experience to my advantage.
For example, having 25-years of background in science and engineering, I was able to undertake all the research by myself and tell the story within the confines of scientific accuracy.
My experience in business has also taught me a lot about grayscale of human nature – a continuous spectrum that stretches from black on one end to white at the other, and where everyone (but a very few outliers) fall in clusters somewhere in the middle. Basically, we are all just different shades of grey.
In CHIMERA, there is a lot of darkness within the protagonist Quint (a brilliant but disturbed scientist, played by Henry Ian Cusick). And the antagonists, at times display great nobility, loyalty, and other admirable qualities. I think this makes for more interesting conflict where right and wrong and good and bad are not easily discernible, as such situations more accurately mirror real life.
I also believe that age and maturity give me some distance and perspective to better appreciate and articulate the complex themes and difficult trade-offs that are presented in CHIMERA. For example, in CHIMERA we have a very keen debate between the scientific and the spiritual sides, as Quint struggles to find the right karmic path forward, to identify that singular path which the universe intends for him to take.
The actors in your film are simply outstanding. How did you cast them?
Quint (Lead protagonist, a brilliant but disturbed scientist):
I had never watched Lost, but I did know of Henry Ian Cusick and luckily for us, his name was suggested by Mark, our very wise casting director. One evening, Jay (our producer) and I committed to some uninterrupted Ian binge-watching. We started with an episode of Lost and were completely sold on Ian midway through that episode and we just knew instinctively that Ian would be the perfect Quint. Just for the heck of it, we kept watching (a little bit of The 100, Scandal, and Girl on the Train) and by the end of the evening we had both become die-hard HIC fans. We were thrilled when Mark (our indomitable casting director, Mark Tillman) told us that Ian had read the script and had liked it.
Dr. Peter Quint is a very complex character – he feels deeply for his wife and children and will do anything to protect them, so there was a need to portray him with sensitivity, warmth and tenderness. But, conversely, Quint has a dark side and is not afraid to do whatever unpleasant task must be done. Due to his no-nonsense approach, his actions may sometimes appear to be cold, harsh and unfeeling.
Quint also has a dark past for which he feels deep regret and, to some extent, his actions are motivated by his quixotic, misguided quest for redemption.
He is a study in contrasts - a very intelligent man who may be losing his mind. A soft, gentle man who must make very tough decisions. A dedicated husband to Jessie, but still involved in an illicit relationship with Charlotte (Charlie). A father who cares deeply about his children, but who is so deeply focused on being their doctor that he has forgotten how to be their dad. He is not an action hero, but he acts decisively when called upon. He is a man of science, not a fighter – but he is unafraid to fight for those he loves.
The script gave Quint absolutely no exposition, so Ian had to figure out how to be consistent and convincing in portraying this complicated character. Now, having seen what Ian has done, it is simply impossible to imagine anyone else as Quint.
Gruze (The trusted lieutenant of the antagonist):
There was a lot of thinking that went into the casting for Gruze. There were two reasons why I only wanted there to be one henchperson for Masterson. Firstly, we could only afford one actor. Secondly, we needed to avoid falling victim to the Henchman-loyalty paradox - the inexplicable motivation of armies of movie henchmen to willingly sacrifice their own lives for their boss’ life. I can never buy it. Money alone cannot possibly be the only motivation enough for that ultimate sacrifice. There has to be something else – either a close personal relationship or deep family ties. Perhaps obsessive political views or profound religious convictions, but that is about it.
In my opinion, the way to avoid this “henchman loyalty paradox” is to only have one henchperson, so that a one-on-one relationship between the boss and the henchman is possible. In that type of relationship, it is conceivable that the henchperson would actually be willing to lay down their life for their “master.”
It follows, that if we are only going to have just one henchperson, then that henchperson had to be really special. This one person would have to do all the work of an army of henchpersons.
As soon as we met Erika and observed her in action, we knew that she was one of a kind. In this most gentle, caring and sweet actress, we had found the fearsome and awesome Dita Gruze!
Masterson (Our main antagonist):
We struggled to find an actress who could embody the right mix of playfulness and ruthlessness to play Masterson. Though we had many good candidates, even two weeks before the shoot, we still did not have “the one”. Then our casting director Mark proposed that we speak to Kathleen Quinlan. Kathleen asked many probing questions about the character and her motivations, some of which I hadn’t asked myself. This forced me to dive deeper into the psyche of that character and develop her even further. That is how I knew that Kathleen was the right choice for Masterson.