I caught up with director Richard Raymond for a chat on film, influences, film-making and much more as it relates to his award-winning short film, Souls of Totality starring Emmy-winner Tatiana Maslany (Orphan Black, Stronger) and Tom Cullen (Knightfall, Downtown Abbey).

Lady 18 (Maslany) and Guy 3 (Cullen) have a secret. They are members of a cult that believes if they die during a solar eclipse their souls will be taken to paradise. But that’s not their secret…

Souls of Totality was a funny and profound little short that had a successful New York premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film was also selected for Palm Springs and recently won the Grand Jury Prize at Hollyshorts and won Best UK Short at Raindance Film Festival.

Richard Raymond.

Souls was also the first film in cinematic history to film a single-take sequence during an honest to goodness solar eclipse (the "Great American Eclipse of 2017") which is one of the many things which make this such a remarkable little film.

Check out the film and making-of featurette below the interview.

Hello Richard and welcome to The 405! To start things off, what initially attracted you to Souls of Totality as a project?

The film came about in a very organic way. Last summer there was a lot of excitement about what was dubbed the "Great American Eclipse", the first total solar eclipse in 100 years — visible in America from coast to coast. Millions of people from all over the world had booked out every flight and hotel available in or near the path of totality so my better half, Nousha, and I lost hope that we’d get a chance to go and experience it.

But then our baby sitter (Makenna Tague) mentioned she was from Oregon and that we could camp at her family house, where we would be right in the path of totality. We told our friends, Kate Trefry and Ben Bolea (who are writers) and they jumped at the chance to travel with us. A week later we had dinner with two actors – Tatiana Maslany and Tom Cullen — we mentioned the trip and they also wanted to come and see the eclipse.

I suddenly had an epiphany. Actors, writers, a total solar eclipse and I’m a director…. we should make a film!  The problem was it was only about 6 weeks to go until the eclipse — we had no script, no money and no equipment or crew, I'd never shot in America before — we were at the mercy of an impending deadline set by the universe.  

Nice. Those kinds of challenges usually result in pretty great art – and absolutely did that here.

So, the next day Nousha and I flew up to Oregon to meet Makenna's father, Mike. He drove us around and introduced us to his friends who are farmers — that's how we found the main location. I took photos of the locations and sent them to Ben and Kate, and – bless their creative wisdom – two weeks before the eclipse they handed me "Souls of Totality." An original story about the sacrifices we make for love and the intensity of a looming moment that can change everything. Reading their script, it perfectly captured for me what interested me the most — capturing a never repeatable, can't turn back event that forces characters to find the most real, honest part of themselves to help determine how they will handle it.

Interesting. I found it really compelling how you balanced everything that was going on, the humor, the inherent drama, and the love component to the story. What was your creative process like towards that end?

Because this was essentially just a group of friends coming together to experience something, to create something – together – it was without ego. It was for me the most pure of filming experiences I've ever had. I loved it. That atmosphere on set, this sense of excitement and feeling that each of us was part of something potentially really special – I think – fed right into the fabric of the film itself. The funny thing was that Souls was made by multiple couples in love, (the writers, the cast, the grips, the producers, the investors) all working together to seize a never repeatable moment and replying on their authentic partnerships to help see it though.

The cult in SOULS OF TOTALITY.

There was a lot of love on set. And I believe that same love is felt in the film!

Absolutely it was. What I'm also curious about (visually speaking) is the process of getting the visual language you did – especially in light of the single take sequence which I understand was actually shot during the big eclipse. What was the process like there?

The cinematographer was Jarin Blaschke, who shot the movie The Witch. We both share a passion for the classic aesthetic, wide symmetrical compositions – that play out on the big screen. I knew going in that the last eclipse shot was going to be a single take sequence and we both did not want that shot to stand out in such a way that it pulled the audience out of the film. So we chose to do single take scenes throughout the film... to keep the camera back and allow the visuals to enhance the narrative and most of all to allow the camera to tell the story. I'm always a big believer that the only star of a film is the camera. At the end, we went handheld – not just to give it that "immediacy" but also to free up Jarin (who also operated) so he could keep up with Tatiana Maslany, who was running full speed!

It was absolutely incredible I thought. Not just because of its very nature but also how it served the story the film tells. Seemed to be the right choice at the right time. How does it feel being the first in cinematic history to shoot a long take sequence during a solar eclipse?

Thank you so much. It was nerve racking and tense – but also I had total faith in the cast and crew that we could pull it off.

The eclipse scene essentially has two lead actors performing over half a mile in distance, with around 30 background extras – if one single person did the wrong thing, if the camera man tripped up, if anything went wrong then the whole film would be for nothing.... but the eclipse had a meditative effect on all of us, it brought an ethereal focus and even a strange calmness on us all. After I called cut everyone began to cry. It was an incredible moment, something that we'll take with us and remember for the rest of our lives. My hope is that the audience shares in that feeling when they watch the film. 

Utterly fascinating how events like a solar eclipse have that effect on people. What were the other challenges like with that sequence? 

Getting the timings right. We used the timing data on the NASA website at our GPS location to plan and rehearse the shot like a piece of dance choreography. If we were one second off then the shot would not have worked. It was like a high wire act without a safety net. 

Part of the incredible long take shot in SOULS OF TOTALITY.

Wow. Really makes one appreciate Souls more knowing that. What were the other challenges like on the film?

Probably just getting the script, the crew, the equipment and the money together in 2 weeks! It was crazy. But I was blessed with some incredible producing partners on this – John Trefry and James Mitchell from the Los Angeles based production company 4WT Media. They're the unsung heroes on this film. They got the crew together and were the backbone of the film. Without them there wouldn't be a Souls of Totality

Any funny or memorable moments that stick out from filming?

Probably getting the 700lbs Wagyu Bull to stay on the road! Have you ever tried directing a bull?!

[Laughs] yeah. Bet that was interesting.

 What do you hope audiences will take from Souls of Totality?

A reminder that love is the most powerful force in the universe. The world needs more love right now. 

That it does.

Switching gears a bit, what were some of the lessons you took with you from your time at Pinewood Studios? You worked with quite the who’s who list of film talent there including Neil Jordan (Interview with the Vampire) and Luc Besson (The Fifth Element).

I think that everyone is equally important, that even if you're making coffee, you're part of the whole of something. An essential clog of the machine so to speak. Being part of a crew and seeing things from the crew's point of view, observing how different directors work – how the actors prepare... the blocking, the lighting... and the way film making is constantly evolving... it was all so enlightening.

A question I ask everybody: what films and directors have influenced your evolution as an artist? 

We all have our cinematic influences and I'm certainly an old school romantic at heart, growing up obsessed with Ridley Scott. But thinking back one of those big role models was Lord Richard Attenborough. I had a few days’ work experience on the Shepperton Studios set of Shadowlands, which he directed. Spending a few days on Attenborough’s set, watching him work, was one of the most incredible experiences of my life. He was so kind and generous and loving to his actors and crew. He created such a safe and collaborative space, where anyone could approach him with an idea. That's what influences me… not just the memory of a master at work but how he did it.

Tatiana Maslany in SOULS OF TOTALITY.

That would've been a great experience. What makes a great film?

Collaboration. Making film is not a single hero's journey, it's all about the team. Find a diverse group of talented people who will challenge your vision. 

I like that and I don't think people do seek out those who will challenge their vision enough really. Last, what is next for you?

Souls of Totality has opened some amazing doors for me. I'm really excited for what's going to come next. Watch this space! 

Souls of Totality from Richard Raymond on Vimeo.

Making of Featurette - Souls of Totality from Richard Raymond on Vimeo.