With a shoestring budget, a small but dedicated crew, and an abandoned animal shelter to film in, co-directors Alex Haughey and Brian Vidal created their feature film debut, the sci-fi thriller Prodigy. Centered on a nine-year-old genius with some lethal psychic abilities to go along with her amazing intellect, Prodigy is out now on DVD and VOD platforms, and we caught up with Haughey for a new Q&A feature to discuss the journey to the film's home media release, including changing the main character from a boy to a girl during the casting process, making the transition from short films to a feature-length project, only having one take for a crucial glass-breaking scene, and much more.
Prodigy synopsis: "A secret branch of the military calls upon psychologist James Fonda to take the case of a dangerous patient, nine-year-old Ellie. As their session begins, the young girl dissects Dr. Fonda's unconventional methods, revealing her genius-level intellect. Only by challenging her to a battle of wits does Fonda begin to unravel the supernatural mystery surrounding Ellie -- a deadly secret that threatens to destroy them both."
Thanks for taking the time to answer questions for us, Alex! Congratulations on your new movie, Prodigy. How and when did you and co-director Brian Vidal come up with idea for this film?
Alex Haughey: I am thrilled to get a chance to talk to you guys. It is nice to be able to get the word on our little movie out directly to the audience that it resonates with most: your audience!
Brian and I met at USC over 10 years ago (which is insane!). We worked together all the time at school, and carried that relationship over when we graduated. As we worked in and around the industry, we would both still take time to help each other with shorts and writing projects. In 2014, we came to the realization that we had gotten really good at making something cinematic out of nothing (budget-wise). We decided it was the right time to pursue a feature.
We knew we would have to limit our resources to pull it off, which presented a fun challenge in selecting the project. We bounced several ideas off one another, until Brian dusted off a logline he had won a contest with a few years before. It wasn’t exactly the logline of Prodigy, but it was definitely the seed the project grew out of. We both took to the idea immediately, and within a couple months, we had a first draft. We refined the script for nearly a year before we finally felt it was ready to go.
Were you inspired or influenced by any other psychological or supernatural horror thrillers while you were making Prodigy?
Alex Haughey: We were definitely influenced by a lot of horror and thriller films that had a child in a major role. We knew that had been done before, so I watched A LOT of them (The Exorcist, Firestarter, The Sixth Sense, Looper, etc.) to see what worked about them, and more importantly, what didn’t work about them.
However, we settled on The Silence of the Lambs as our biggest horror influence. We noticed how effective playing kids as more mature than you would expect was within these films, but they all seemed to be used as side characters that the true protagonist had to deal with. We saw an opportunity to make a film centered around an advanced child character as something that would give audiences something new and exciting… if we could pull it off.
Where did filming take place for Prodigy, and how long was your shooting schedule?
Alex Haughey: We were lucky enough to work with the county of Riverside, CA, on our locations. The ladies who run their film commission were incredibly helpful, and the perks they offer on county-owned locations are insane. We ended up in a terrifying, abandoned animal shelter that we built out into a government black site of sorts. They basically handed us the keys to the building and gave us free reign to bring our vision to life. The “abandoned” nature of the place created a lot of challenges, but we were able to make the most of it.
We shot for two weeks straight, six-day weeks, and then had three days of pickups a week later. It was a very intense schedule that forced us to be very well-prepared for every day of work. We had to make it through 8–10 pages of material on certain days, which was totally insane. They were long days, but we got everything we needed somehow, and slept for about a month after we wrapped.
This movie really hones in on the mental chess match between psychologist Fonda (Richard Neil) and his nine-year-old patient, Ellie (Savannah Liles). What was it like working with Neil and Liles, and what made them the best fits for their respective roles?
Alex Haughey: Richard and Savannah carry the movie, for sure. The most consistent remark we’ve gotten about the film is that their scenes together make the movie. Savannah’s character was our number-one priority going into the production process, as we knew we would have to find a kid to pull this role off, or the movie would sink. We had originally written the role for a boy, and had several weeks' worth of auditions with young boys. We really weren’t getting what we needed from them, and were getting worried that we might have to tweak the script to accommodate the limitations of a performer.
Luckily, in that same discussion, we decided to open the call to girls as a last-ditch effort. The next day Savannah submitted, and we freaked out. She (and most of the girls) were a good head and shoulders better than the boys. This was a little hard for us to stomach, as boys, but it made the decision to switch the role to a young girl very easy.
We were still very concerned about how wordy and complex several parts of the script were for a nine-year-old. She needed to not only be able to say the words on the page, but communicate a complete understanding of them if she was going to be convincing. She put a ton of work into learning and understanding every line, came to set the first day and blew everyone away. That is the best way to describe Savannah—her dedication made our lives very easy as directors.
Richard is a consummate pro. He was the only person to come into the audition and read through the scenes so perfectly on the first go that we had no notes for him. We were worried he might think we didn’t like him, because he was in and out so fast.
He is such a thoughtful, talented actor. It is hard for me to believe he isn’t playing the endearing dad on a network show somewhere. He took so many lines that we had considered cutting, because they ran the risk of sounding forced or cheesy, and delivered them with such sincerity, that now I look back and can’t believe they were ever on the chopping block to begin with. He completely embodied the character of Fonda, and ended up bringing him to life greater than we ever imagined.
Working with him was a dream. He kept everyone sane on set. He was the only person in every scene, so he was there every day, yet he never had a pessimistic moment. He was all smiles the entire shoot, which was incredibly comforting to us and the rest of the cast and crew during those long days.
You have plenty of experience directing short films, but Prodigy marks the feature directorial debut for you and Brian. What did you learn from being behind the camera on your first feature, and how did your work on short films help prepare you for experiences on a feature-length project?
Alex Haughey: It was definitely our work on short film projects over the years that gave us the confidence to even attempt to undertake this project. We had become incredibly confident with the tricks of getting the most story out of shoestring budgeted shorts, and felt like if we found the right story, it would simply be an extension of that process—which it did feel like, at times.
The biggest lesson I learned on the film is: get some help! On a short, you can get away with overseeing every department yourself, because the volume is manageable. I was trying to wear all the hats again on Prodigy, and it came back to bite me in the ass. I ended up being stretched very thin during shooting, which made the process incredibly overwhelming.
I would be in the midst of directing an emotional scene, when someone would come in and let me know the bathrooms have exploded… director hat off, producer hat on. It is on me to make sure everyone has an acceptable working environment, so I have to leave the set to go handle it. That story exemplifies what every hour on set felt like for me.
Looking back at your time on set, what was the most memorable experience you had while making this movie?
Alex Haughey: For me, the best moment always comes in post. It is the first time I see a cut of the movie that is put together “enough” to see that the original vision is on the way. On Prodigy, I believe said experience materialized after viewing the third cut. It is an indescribable feeling, and I have no eloquent way of articulating it, so I usually end up walking around, screaming obscenities to myself out of sheer excitement.
What was the most challenging or exciting scene to shoot?
Alex Haughey: There is one scene where a plate of glass bursts out into the room. Well, we only had ONE piece of real glass to break and one take to get it in. I was responsible for throwing a vase through the window and breaking it out in the opposite direction. We set up the camera, and everyone left the set and gathered around the monitor to watch. The pressure was on… and I Tom Brady’d it—right in the breadbasket! The glass blasted into the other room, catching the light perfectly, as everyone cheered enthusiastically from the monitor. It was awesome.
With Prodigy out now on DVD and VOD platforms beginning March 13th, what other projects do you have on deck that you can tease?
Alex Haughey: I am very excited to see how Prodigy connects with a broad audience. We have been living in the festival world with it, and I can’t wait to see how people respond (good and bad) to it in the real world!
I have been doing a lot of writing recently. I have a female revenge script that I am shopping around the agencies, trying to put together a package to go out and make next. I also have another script I am in the midst of writing now, which is a really cool satire of tech/app culture. Finally, I have worked in video games before, and I have developed a game with a colleague of mine that looks like it is ready to get green-lit too. A lot of coal in the fire—excited to see which one lights next!
Left to right: Prodigy co-directors Alex Haughey and Brian Vidal: