Quint (Henry Ian Cusick) is desperate to save his children from the same disease that claimed their mother, but to save them, he'll have to freeze them, and that's only the beginning of his disturbing journey into the dark side of science, where messing with the wrong people could mean waking up with your organs missing.
Heart-wrenching drama and science that is both fascinating and cautionary collide for a potent sci-fi story in Chimera Strain, and with the film coming to theaters and VOD platforms on March 15th from Vertical Entertainment, we caught up with writer/director Maurice Haeems to discuss his decision to switch careers at the age of 47 to write and direct his first film, working with Cusick and Kathleen Quinlan on his debut feature, and the real-world science that inspired Chimera Strain.
Thanks for taking the time to catch up with us, and congratulations on Chimera Strain!
Maurice Haeems: Derek, thank you for your kind words.
This movie marks your directorial, writing, and producing debut. What sparked your interest in filmmaking and what made you want to bring this story to life for your first feature?
Maurice Haeems: I had always loved writing and filmmaking and for as long as I can remember, I had secretly dreamt of doing it. But, for a host of reasons, I had made other choices that had led me down other paths. No regrets—in fact, I’m thankful to have had three fairly successful careers. I’ve been a mechanical engineer, an investment banker, and a software entrepreneur. However, as I was approaching my 47th birthday, I started to feel like “my time was running out” and I had one last shot at trying something new. This time I wanted to do what I love, follow my passion, without worrying about pragmatic considerations. So, I just made a leap of faith into my fourth career and first love: filmmaking and storytelling.
I was acutely aware that the world did not need a 47-years-old first-time filmmaker, unless there was a unique story to tell. I had always loved sci-fi, so the genre choice was easy. The challenge was to create a wholly original sci-fi tale, one that would draw upon my personal experiences and my 25+ year professional career. Chimera Strain is the result of this effort.
Quint’s laboratory is an effectively isolating location. Where did filming take place, and what was your shooting schedule for Chimera Strain?
Maurice Haeems: Chimera Strain has nine characters and one location that effectively serves as a very colorful and important tenth character. This project was written with extreme awareness of our budgetary constraints. We needed a single location that fulfilled two criteria. It must have all the sets and props—we had no money to build, buy or rent anything. And, we must be able to finish the movie without a company move. Having worked as an engineer, I knew that there were decommissioned chemical/biochem research and manufacturing facilities out there. The trick was to find one that was just right and to convince the owners to permit us to film there. After an extended search, we found the perfect location in central Massachusetts and were able to prep, shoot, and wrap the movie entirely within that 30-acre property. In total, we were there for just over five weeks.
You do a wonderful job balancing scientific research with heart-wrenching drama in this film. How much did you research the science behind this story, and how important was it for you to balance it with the family elements?
Maurice Haeems: A lot of the science depicted and hypothesized in the movie was based on research that is currently taking place in labs, universities, and hospitals around the world. I was aware of these initiatives and had been following developments for years just because I am fascinated by it. Of course, in order to write the screenplay, I had to dig deeper and formalize a lot of that, but the basics were already in place. I started with reading my daughter’s high school biology textbook, just to refresh the basic concepts and my own understanding of the human body. Then, I tried to imagine what might happen in these research areas over the course of the next 25–50 years.
But all of the science by itself would only make for an interesting news story or documentary. The key for me was to overlay human characters with intensely personal stakes. Quint’s goal is not to change the world or to save it from some threat. Having recently lost his wife, he simply can’t bear the thought of also losing his children. I could not imagine higher stakes than that. To me, that drama feels grounded, real, and relatable, and I think it makes for interesting situations and compelling viewing.
You and casting director Mark Tillman assembled a great cast for this film, including Henry Ian Cusick as Quint and Kathleen Quinlan, who is menacing and fascinating to watch as Masterson. Did you write the role of Quint with Ian in mind, and what was it like working with Quinlan on your first feature?
Maurice Haeems: Mark Tillman had the unenviable task of casting this movie for a first-time filmmaker without even a short film to showcase. It is a testament to his special skill set that we were able to get actors of this caliber.
Somehow Mark was able to get Ian’s manager, and then Ian himself to read the script. Then Ian and I had a very productive Skype meeting. Our visions for the character and for the film were uncannily similar, and I was thrilled when he agreed to be a part of Chimera Strain.
Like Ian, I can imagine that Kathleen also had her own reservations about coming onto the project, but thanks to Mark’s efforts, she eventually agreed. My approach to working with both Kathleen and Ian was to be very collaborative and completely trust their instincts and years of experience. I did not presume to know what they needed to do. Instead, we would collectively brainstorm ways to best translate words on the page into action for the camera.
It has been a few years since we finished shooting and both Ian and Kathleen continue to support Chimera Strain. I am thrilled and honored that I got to work with them on my first feature and remain very thankful for their involvement.
Looking back at your time on set, is there a favorite or memorable moment that stands out?
Maurice Haeems: We celebrated Ian’s birthday, which happened to be the very first day that he arrived on set, and that proved to be a great ice-breaker for everyone. The pig that we used in the liver transplant surgery scene was a rare instance of a prop doubling up as barbecue for the crew. All of us—cast and crew—were Fitchburg, MA residents for those few weeks, all sharing a few apartments in a single building that was just a few miles down the road from our location. Most weekends, we all ended up at the same bars and restaurants and over the course of working on Chimera, a lot of very close friendships were formed. And then, of course, we had the longest, craziest wrap party that went on and on and on!
Were you influenced or inspired by any other films, TV shows, or books while making Chimera Strain?
Maurice Haeems: Chimera contains overt references to Henry James’ novella The Turn of the Screw, Samuel Beckett’s play Waiting for Godot, and the Wachowskis’ The Matrix —all iconic works of genius that have influenced and inspired me in many ways.
What do you hope viewers take away from Chimera Strain?
Maurice Haeems: While I was writing the screenplay, I did not try to embed any messages or morals into the story. I simply took characters that I thought would be interesting and put them in high-pressure situations to see how they would react.
Now that I’ve had a chance to watch the finished film and reflect upon it, I do see several key ideas coming through rather strongly. In the audience interactions that I have had, different people seem to have picked up on different aspects and I think it would be best to let each viewer discern what this story means to them.
With Chimera Strain coming to theaters and VOD platforms on March 15th from Vertical Entertainment, do you have plans to write and direct a second feature?
Maurice Haeems: I continue to be enthralled by advancements in biotechnology, the extension of human lifespans, and the science/fiction of immortality and transhumanism. I have completed the first draft of a script currently titled The Archetype, which further explores these themes and their impact on human relationships.
Also, I have just finished my first supernatural drama screenplay, currently titled Absolution, that deals with themes of parental responsibility and the karmic consequences of an impulsive action.
If things go as planned and lady luck continues to smile upon me, maybe I will have the opportunity to direct one or both of these projects.