Interview With Filmmakers Annie and Lisa of SPARKS

Image from SPARKS

Sundance Channel presents SPARKS, an ALL NEW digital series premiering Monday, August 9th.

Equal parts absurdist comedy, mystery, and documentary, SPARKS is a web-based serial about humans and technology. The story follows 30 year-old Sarah Sparks in her quest to serve the tech-dependent citizenry of New York as a freelance technologist.
Her special “connection” with technology, however, takes her far beyond simple repair jobs, and into both the lives of her clients as well as some of the city’s darkest, most chaotic corners.

Filmmakers Annie Howell and Lisa Robinson provided us with this digital exchange:

Where did the idea for SPARKS come from?

SPARKS was born simply from the desire to make something for the web that we had not yet seen much of — a comedy, but not gross-out or slap stick, which is what was dominating online when we began. The theme of technology and how it vastly and ridiculously affects our lives just seemed like the perfect fit for an, er, comedy with absurdist undertones. We also had both been in development as director/writers on larger budget feature films for years and decided it was time to make something, regardless of budget constraints and without any kind of creative oversight other than our own. We thought… this may not work… but it’s going to be fun!

Are either of you like Sarah Sparks?

AH: I personally do NOT have my act together. I’ll vouch here for Lisa (she is the tech savvy half of this duo) I’m the inspiration for those who need Sarah Sparks. My own tech frustrations include distinguishing between remote controls, locating any control panel on any menu anywhere, and managing RSS feeds.

LR: The fact that I am the “tech savvy half” should be worrying to those who know me well. It’s true… for someone in the arts I’ve always laid claim to a techy geek edge. I was the one boldly rewiring the computers in the editing lab or getting excited about camera optics. However, I’m beginning to wonder, maybe there’s a limit on how much tech information can fit into one brain, as recently I’ve felt like this drive is full!

Are there moments when either of you could have used a techno-therapist?

So many moments. Of every day, actually!

Was there an inspiration for the Guru?

AH: Mary Beth Peil, the actress who plays the Guru, has been a personal ‘guru’ to me for a good 15 years now. She was my spirit guide when I moved to New York City; my mom’s college roommate. We’ve really enjoyed writing characters for actors based on their own lovely characteristics.

How has SPARKS the series been received?

It’s been really great. The very young (5) and the very elderly (80) seem to particularly dig it. If that’s not you, though — still, watch it, please. No seriously, considering we started this as an experiment, essentially for fun, we’re thrilled that so many people seem to really relate to both Sarah Sparks and her clients.

What made you decide to make SPARKS into a feature film?

LR: We wanted to take it somewhere deeper and send Sarah on some kind journey. We thought: What if Sarah gets pregnant and has to face the fact that she likes machines and tech gadgets better than people and possibly … babies? How is she going to deal with her pending collision with motherhood? One thing led to another and suddenly Sarah was on a road trip out West dealing with dysfunctional family and unreliable technology. I’m not sure it was a logical process that got us here. We asked the question, Can we make a micro-budget feature in the same way we made the web series? And the answer seemed to be maybe… so we just kept going.

What can we expect to see in the further adventures of Sarah Sparks? Is this a continuation of where the series left off, or will it include plot lines from the original series?

The feature is pushed forward in time from the series, about three or four years, and is, again, one road trip during a crucial time period in Sarah’s life. We wanted to experiment here with storytelling, so in fact the absurdist quality of machines talking to people is played down in the feature. Some actors who appear in the series are with us for the feature, some in the same and some in slightly different roles.

Will Sarah Hudnut and any other actors from Sparks the series be involved with this project?

Sarah Hudnut, who we adore as Sarah Sparks, was not available. But a few of the series actors were … Andre Holland, Mary Beth Peil … as well as bringing in a whole new fantastic crop. We meet members of both Sarah and Leon’s families.

How do you divide the labor when working together?

Somehow it just all works out. We write as a tag team. When one of us runs out of steam the other takes over and so on. As directors, on paper, Annie works more on the image and Lisa works more with performance, but we end up switching it up once things get rolling. We both do sound. Annie shoots the series; Lisa edits.

How were you able to obtain financing?

One big tool was Kickstarter and Indiegogo — websites designed for crowd source fundraising. It’s an idea that Sarah Sparks would love. (Find us on those sites to back our project!)

How are you able to best transfer your vision to the screen given the financial constraints? How much flexibility are you open to from screenwriting to production?

For the series, we were very very flexible, and often did not have a totally clear picture of what or how we were going to shoot something until we showed up. It was relaxed, fun, and an adventure around the city. Short days! With the feature, we have more people involved but still really no crew — we now have a producing team, a DP, an editor and production management help in certain locations on the way during our road trip. So we imagine a little less flexibility but are still hoping to keep the tone on set very playful.

As Sarah Sparks hits the road on her journey, where will principal photography take place and how many locations will you use in the film?

It’s a doosey — L.A. to Santa Barbara to Vegas to Grand Canyon to Arizona. Then some NYC scenes. We’re only taking what fits in the van….

In the feature Sarah will explore her relationships with technology and her family. What are your thoughts on technology’s impact on human interaction?

AH: Well, it has changed everything, hasn’t it? I read about a young 20-something blogger who has a rule with her fiance — no laptops after 7. To self-regulate in that way and understand innately the implications on a relationship signals to me that my generation (I’m 41) was sort of thrown into the pool instead of slowly swimming year after year after year. We’re totally impaired actually, because we came to our tech lives in our late 20s, too late to be prodigies, too busy to learn everything and now too tired to keep up. But we are expected to! As opposed to my parents, who just live with dial-up and smile through the whole thing. My mom does needlework while her pages are loading.

LR: Technology seems to both help us stay connected and disconnect us at the same time. In equal amounts maybe? It’s hard to tell which side wins or whether it’s a wash. But as Sarah Sparks says “Don’t blame the technology! We’re the ones who need to get our acts together.”

Has your perspective on the tech space changed since you created Sparks?

AH: Not for me. I simply see that it is as crazy as ever.

LR: No. I just wish Sarah Sparks was a real person and my best friend.

Be sure to catch SPARKS on on August 9th.

Check out Annie Howell and Lisa Robinson’s current project, SMALL, BEAUTIFULLY MOVING PARTS, here.