Filmmaking once felt so far away and unattainable.
When Eddie Alcazar made his Cannes Film Festival debut in 2021 with his short film The Vandal, he was a long way away from his hometown of Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he was raised by a single mother, planning for his future financial security, and nurturing a filmmaking dream that seemed, in his own words, “far away and unattainable.” At that world premiere, where the film’s executive producer, Darren Aronofsky, presented their collaboration, a modest Alcazar, a former game developing wiz, expressed his puzzlement over how he even ended up on the Requiem for a Dream helmer’s radar in the first place. He was also thankful that, with Aronofky’s support, and that of his mentor Steven Soderbergh, he is able to continue realizing his dreams.
Prior to The Vandal, Alcazar made his feature debut with 2018’s Perfect, which was executive produced by Soderbergh. Soderbergh also served as the EP on Alcazar’s latest monochrome mind-bender, Divinity. The Sundance-lauded feature is set in an otherworldly human existence, where at some point in the past, scientist Sterling Pierce (Scott Bakula) created a groundbreaking serum called Divinity to prolong human life to near-immortality—a drug that has also made 97 percent of women infertile. Upon his passing, his son, Jaxxon Pierce (Stephen Dorff), now controls and manufactures his father’s once-benevolent dream. However, two mysterious brothers—said to be made from stardust with one sole purpose of maintaining balance in the universe—are sent to earth when Divinity causes a disturbance in that order, with plans to abduct the mogul. Meanwhile, a group of women, led by the mysterious Ziva (Bella Thorne), sense the presence of a rare fertile woman in Jaxxon’s vicinity and, hatching their own plans for salvation, beam down to rescue her.
Divinity opens in NYC on October 13th, LA on October 20th, and nationwide on November 3rd.
After the trailer dropped for Divinity, I knew right away I was going to enjoy this film. It’s just that I didn’t realize how much I would fall in love with the visionary world you created.
That’s awesome. I’m glad that the movie fulfilled what you were expecting from the trailer.
Do you find that challenging in itself?
That’s always a challenge. It’s tricky.
With this level of worldbuilding, coupled with your background in visual effects, video games and animation, I’m reminded of prodigies who are able to do so much on their own. That must give you a lot of confidence and reassurance going in because you clearly have the know-how. I’d imagine that you can get pretty darn close to what you’re setting out to create.
The confidence definitely comes from experience within all these different facets. But what keeps me on my toes is doing stuff without knowing whether they will work or not. I think that’s a pretty big motivating factor when you’re stacking up all this stuff against you. You just believe in yourself and that, somehow, we’re gonna make it happen. I think that is really important to have on this type of project especially because not many people know what they’re doing day-to-day. We have a basic idea and a foundation with storyboards and everything, but things can change so much with any given limitation. What’s fun about it is just trying all these things that are really difficult to achieve on any type of scale. We’re basically being buried by all these things we’re reaching for and then trying to dig out of them. So it’s as much about perseverance to keep going, to keep pushing, not letting things go, and making sure that you take it to the finish line. That’s a big, big thing for me. That’s probably the most important quality a director on these types of films can have ‘cause so many things can feel overwhelming. On my last [short] film, The Vandal, we created this whole aesthetic called “meta-scope.” I literally had this idea in my head and it just took a lot of experimenting and exploring in order to achieve the final product. If you have people along for the ride that are also having fun doing it, I think that’s key, instead of it feeling like, “I’m gonna charge you for another day to try and figure this out.” I mean, it would never get done. You need equally motivated people who really want to explore this stuff with you, and who will have fun doing it.
What’s also refreshing about your approach is that a lot of filmmakers facing constraints, especially the financial kind, are naturally looking to contain or strip back their ideas, or involve few locations and actors to create a chamber piece. Divinity feels like an inverse of that. Your world remains incredibly sprawling despite sharing those same limitations.
I think that’s totally right. The “inverse” is a hundred percent what we’re setting out to do, which seems kind of crazy, right? We’re pretty much reaching for the stars constantly and trying to figure out a way to do it. Again, I guess it comes down to having the right team and everybody being motivated towards the same goal—not doing it for anything other than trying to do something very creative. These films weed out those folks that are only about the money or whatever. The people that stick with you during this type of process really, really need to love it. It’s so much work.
This is clearly one of those instances where you watch a movie and it feels so connected to the filmmaker—your DNA. Your fingerprints are all over this thing. And crucially, it’s well done.
It’s funny because I kind of connect my films to dreams in the sense that when I finish them, I forget what it is I made. It’s like, “What just went on?” I’m so immersed when I’m creating. When I’m done, the first thing I want to do is get time off, meditate, and just go on to the next one. When I do these interviews and reconnect, it’s almost like psychoanalyzing where my brain was even, at which point I sometimes discover a lot of new things. Going back to what you were saying, I think that comes down to having the control, which is really important. It’s about having [Steven] Soderbergh trust me because I could imagine having a producer who would want the control and change things. That would be like the worst case scenario for this type of project. But with this, we put so much effort into going in a certain direction. If somebody were to change that, you would lose a lot of confidence with all the artists that are involved, too, and it was just never like that. In fact, with the production and the creativity, it’s almost like I had to push Soderbergh a little bit to comment on stuff because I think he really wants me to find my own way. That’s pretty amazing.
Divinity, this serum you concocted, is interesting in the way you present it. It’s an incomplete solution to obtaining immortality because, so far, it only addresses the physical, not the mental. And since the serum also makes you infertile, you’re made to choose between self-preservation and continuing the human race, basically. So Botox sounds real good, real good.
[laughs] These are questions I ask myself. I leave them open because I don’t have the answers. I’m just really curious and intrigued by them. I think the biggest thing to start any film like this is to deal with a subject matter that will continually motivate you and not make you give up in the couple years that you’re creating it. And I was already reading up a lot on longevity, like this book called Lifespan by David Sinclair. I think Tony Robbins just came out with a book as well. There’s a lot of people out there trying to solve death. It’s a high concept that my mind constantly swirls around, and I’m still asking myself fresh questions every day. Hopefully, I get close enough to at least sparking ideas in other people watching the film. If somebody figures out any type of medicine to help you live longer, what then? What if people abuse it? That’s what really came into my mind. What if you overdose on something like that? What would happen then? I asked David Sinclair this, too. Nobody knows because it’s obviously not reality just yet. It’s almost a question for AI, which also, supposedly, could be used for a lot of good. But anything could be abused, so what happens when that’s abused? That’s the question. When I first talked to [Stephen] Dorff, I really wanted to make him to be the most villainous person who got hold of this, or who created it.
You must get asked this often now: would you choose immortality? Do you believe in the afterlife? I don’t know how close we’ll ever get to solving death. Is it even something to solve?
That’s a big part of it, right? A lot of people that don’t wanna die probably don’t believe in the afterlife because they fear death. With me, if you look at it from a cosmic and spiritual level, we’re just constantly being regenerated. That’s my belief. And if you’re being regenerated, there is an afterlife. It just keeps on going and going. It’s different forms and pieces of you spread everywhere on a molecular level. So I believe in it in that way. That’s kind of what the brothers represent in the film. They don’t understand death in the same way humans perceive it. They’re not fearing death. They’re experiencing what humans are for the first time, and that’s when the fear starts coming in. As far as immortality goes, if you wanna live forever, that’s one thing, but longevity is a whole different thing, right? How many years do you add to your life? I think everyone would choose differently. The common line that you usually hear is that life’s too short. So what if life wasn’t too short? It could be a positive or a negative thing depending on what you do with that time. I mean, I always think it’s hard to remember even last week. In 200, 300 years from now, are you gonna be able to really appreciate things and retain all that stuff you’ve learned in your experience?
I think that’s the most disturbing part of all. What might that do to us, reliving memories and thoughts—this incalculable load—for all eternity? Wouldn’t we circle back to wanting to die?
I think we can only know that once we attain it. I don’t know if you can really answer that question until you’re living through it. It also depends on your quality of life. Are we talking about being immortal in your prime? And I feel like people would just become desensitized. A lot of this is a reflection of what we’re already seeing day-to-day. With Divinity, as well as all my other films, it’s about holding up a mirror to society and all that’s happening in the media and social media, and amplifying that. That’s where my brain goes. What type of world will it be in 20 years, 50 years?
I think there’s a real-world phenomenon I can sort of draw analogy from. It’s crazy to me whenever I hear about those ultra-rare cases of people with total recall. You give them a date and they’re able to recall with full clarity what they were doing that day, that day’s current events, and the worst of it, I think: they can recall every feeling, good and bad. And they’re only reliving decades of their life experience. I can’t fathom how they can manage even that. Not that we would all have total recall in this way, but it’s like an endless stream of triggers.
That’s what depression is, really. A lot of people that deal with heavy issues remind themselves of dark things constantly. They can’t get ‘em out of their brain. But I’m thinking more of recalling the same events, I guess, instead of random days. It’s interesting that you don’t hear about the opposite too much. I don’t think people remind themselves of their happiest moments nearly as much. That would include nostalgia, too. Nostalgia’s connected to that, when people have this amazing feeling of what they went through as a kid. That all connects you more to the positive.
There are also big-world implications with this serum. Infertility, of course, but will progress slow down if we operate from a place of, “We have all the time in the world”? Where crime is concerned, what does a life-term sentence mean when it’s forever? Executions? We’re no longer talking about severing decades off a life. It’s wild to think about.
It doesn’t make any kind of sense that we have consecutive life sentences that span hundreds of years. To actually be able to live that out is really crazy. Imagine how much the world would change, and none of that stuff is rehabilitating, either. I explored this a little bit with The Vandal.
How do you account for your taste and proficiency in high culture? Upon acquiring the worldwide rights to Divinity, Utopia and Sumerian released this joint statement: “The film represents a cultural crossroads of film, music, fashion, and art.” That got me thinking about the purveyors of good taste who can cross-pollinate in all these different areas and make it work, as you do. You have the cool factor as well, which is undoubtedly an interesting ingredient in thinking about filmmaking because that’s what helps you connect with discerning audiences and the culture consuming the film at large. Also, it’s obvious that you can’t teach somebody to have good or “cool” taste. You can only hope to imitate it, poorly.
All that stuff is swirling in my brain, too: how do you always connect with what is fresh, forward-thinking and aesthetically pleasing? I think it comes from a couple places. Coming from visual effects and video games, my background is highly visual. I was always a visual artist. I’m very in love with films and that plays a big part. And I always try to collaborate with talented people that are like-minded. I think it’s such a big thing for directors to know how to spot other talented and motivated people, and for those people to be motivated at the right time in their careers to do something like this. You have to keep up with stuff in a way where you can still spot fresh talent. It also relates to what type of films you do. A lot of it comes down to venturing into the unknown. You take that risk, and you try your hardest. You just kind of have to mold things in that way. You could fail doing it, or you could be successful where people like it. That’s true of this film as well. People will love it or hate it. Something that I talk to Soderbergh a lot about is how it should be about experiencing something different you’ve never experienced before. Maybe you’ll like it right away or maybe you’ll grow to like it. That’s the unpredictable stuff. It’s hard to tell what the audience will like at what time. So I try my best. I put what I’d like to see myself out there.
When we arrive at the final leg of the film, or what I now lovingly refer to as your “final boss moment,” that’s where the aforementioned “meta-scope” kicks into high gear. That’s how you’ve coined it, and it feels peak-Alcazar watching that scene. Would you agree?
Yeah, and I love how it came out. It was a big question mark in my head as I was creating it: “Is this gonna work?” The number one thing was like, can we even finish this? Because those three minutes took about three months. You’re getting roughly two seconds of footage a day. What if something goes wrong? What if the puppets break? There were so many things against you in that stop motion sequence that I was just so relieved once it was finished. Then I could take a breath and see if it was actually serving the film like, how is this working or how can we make it work? It’s something The Vandal helped a lot with because I was now confident in taking on a big risk.
I think the payoff is huge. It feels really fresh—not exactly like anything I’d ever seen before. That’s also where this idea of cross-pollination feels really palpable. It’s like a video game moment living inside of a film. That line is blurring more and more, where video games are looking and feeling more like movies. But I don’t think we often get to see how a movie can look and feel like a video game—without disparaging video games as a lesser form or simply taken as an adaptation. You fashioned a stylistic device that’s uniquely your own.
It’s also interesting to say that because we’re using the oldest technique in filmmaking, right? Stop motion is literally how films got started, whereas I’d say video games are probably the most advanced form in media technology. Then there’s obviously James Cameron doing his thing. There’s the Sphere that I’m really curious about in Vegas. These are all important things. I’m going to the Sphere this Sunday to check out [Darren Aronofsky’s Postcard from Earth]. Darren is going.
It looks completely surreal.
It’s been so long since there has been this kind of jump in the theatrical experience. It’s a very important part in all this. Nobody’s really taking the time in the industry to advance the presentation side of things. Experimenting and playing around with ideas should also be done in how we view films. The way we take them in has been stagnant forever. It’s like we went the opposite way: everyone’s watching these films mostly at home on a screen the fraction of the size.
Coming from visual effects and animation, where you have so much control, where you can scrutinize and tweak every detail pretty much—like we were talking about, coming so close to what you originally intended—and then pivoting to live-action shorts and features, I wonder if that gives you anxiety. I’d be willing to hazard a guess that you’re a perfectionist as well.
I just try to make things as good as they can be. I don’t think anything’s really finished until I just run outta money. [laughs] There wasn’t any deadline [on Divinity]. The only thing I was really running out of was the budget, at which point I would just ask people for favors. Then you use up all your resources when you do these type of films. It’s kind of crazy. On the subject of control, that’s what really attracted me to going into films. In visual effects, you do have full control over everything. You’re literally working in a 3D space where every character is a puppet. You move them frame by frame and you look at every detail. The reason I got into filmmaking was just so I don’t have to do all that stuff. With characters especially, I want to be surprised. I want people to surprise me with their performances, or whatever area they’re in while we create the film. What I love is setting a foundation where everybody’s taking my preliminary day and just taking it further into a place I couldn’t ever think of on my own. There’s a perfectionist aspect to me, but that’s when I was in visual effects. I think it was just time because I was in front of my computer for seven, eight years just doing that. I just really had this urge to start working more with people.
An element of surprise.
I try to figure out what that really means. That’s why my films are way more collaborative. I’m never so strict in saying this way or that way because everybody brings their own ideas. It’s just fun. I also try to tap into what actors want to do in this time of their lives to creatively express themselves. The conversations I have with actors are really important because if I can tap into that, it’s also how this type of film can be made with no script and just storyboards. I’m like, “What do you really want to do?” If I can merge that with my preliminary idea, it makes everybody motivated because we’re all wanting to do this thing. It’s a strong form of their expression as well.
The Divinity script remains a bit of a mystery to me from what I’ve been able to gather from past interviews with your actors. There are mentions of a “script” with certain folks, while with Bella [Thorne] in particular, it appears she didn’t know that existed until much later. I wonder if a script always existed in some form, only to materialize when it was required.
Simply, I only used storyboards. The storyboards are my script because they’re so detailed, like a graphic novel for people to really understand it. If I bring everybody into the office, I could run ‘em through the entire film just by explaining all the boards on the wall. So that’s the very first step. Then I want to have conversations with specific actors to see if this is something they even wanna do. The last piece of it is that conversation with the actors for me to write anything in terms of dialogue, and it comes to me so quickly because I know who’s playing the part. I’m just doing what feels natural to me. When I’m with a pencil and paper, it’s really difficult and I’m really slow at that. So I’m trying to figure out ways to make films outside of the normal process. But to really answer your question, for production, I sometimes have an assistant to kind of transcribe what they see on the board onto paper in order for them to plan it correctly. It serves as a kind of backbone to the boards. You could call it a “boards script” or simply dialogue. That’s pretty much what we did and it’s not your normal format. And even that was only 30 pages or something like that.
It works for you.
I don’t think I would be making films any other way. I’ve had amazing luck or just amazing folks that have trusted me to do something unique. Whenever I’ve tried to do something “normal”—like how agents or reps tell you how you’re supposed to make films—nothing ever gets made. I’ve spent two or three years trying to create something like that and it feels like a waste of time. But if somebody just gives me the financing, it’s moving and I can figure out how to make it happen.
I would like to pause and give you the “segue king” award. You’re making this a real breeze.
What seems certain is that, text or no text, you had everyone’s trust, which is paramount in filmmaking. Bella brought up the good point that there is a trained way of thinking for actors where you do this, do that, know your lines like the back of your hand, know the world your living in—and that wasn’t really possible on Divinity. I think that kind of trust is reserved for a small margin of directors. You can’t buy that kind of creative freedom.
I’d known Bella and Dorff from before. I knew Bella for a year before I asked her to be a part of this. But yeah, that trust is important. You can’t second-guess the director when you’re doing something of this nature. That’s what I’m trying to tap into, too, with people who want to do something different. And what I’m finding out is that there’s a lot of people that are kind of fed up with doing things the same way in a corporate-like structure where they’re not really getting the opportunity to express themselves creatively. All that stuff is constricting. It’s just too sterile. It’s this weird form that’s used in every common production. So if you can break away from that and try something different, it really excites people. I’ve had the luck of working with those people.
Stephen in particular gives an unhinged, physically out-there performance in the movie and I loved every minute of it. The visual of him becoming this giant tumor, basically, called to mind Chris Cunningham’s Rubber Johnny. He really trusted you, and he was clearly hungry to do this kind of work with you after he watched The Vandal. I mean, he had often voiced his opinions in the media about how he thinks movies these days are “really bad and unoriginal.”
He’s somebody that comes from doing a lot of different films, like working with John Waters and then Sofia Coppola. He’s keeping it pretty fresh. I just saw I Shot Andy Warhol by Mary Harron, who also did American Psycho. Did you see that? I was like, “Man, he has such range.” He’s down to do whatever, and the people he works with are pretty amazing. I think this is a big, big part of why Hollywood’s in a weird place: not that many big actors are doing small films, and giving opportunities to new voices. I read something where Jim Carrey just said he’s tired of Hollywood because it’s not changing so much and becoming more corporate. Then he does Sonic. He’s going back to taking some risks. I think a lot of people avoid it because it’s really hard and there’s a lot more money [in Hollywood]. But imagine if you had a Robert Downey Jr. or a Brad Pitt doing small films at least once in a while. I think that would really help the film world at large. That’s what’s amazing about Stephen. He is taking those risks, and it was really tough for him. He said it was the hardest role he’s ever done because of all the prosthetics, the heat and everything. So it’s pretty amazing when you have folks like Stephen, Bella, and Scott Bakula. These actors are very experienced and they’re taking a chance on doing something different. We just need more of it.
Since you bring up Robert Downey Jr., I’m remembering him from In Dreams. Do you remember that movie from the ‘90s? I personally think it’s his greatest performance.
I haven’t seen it. But I remember Less Than Zero, and I think one of the first films I ever saw was this movie called Tough Turf with James Spader and he was also in that. Who did In Dreams?
Neil Jordan. You have to watch it. He will never be as creepy as he is in that performance.
In thinking about that, as soon as he did Iron Man—no more small films. But during his struggles, some amazing things came outta that. He did Chaplin. The same kind of thing happened with George Lucas where you wipe your motivation clean from wanting to do anything else that might be risky or different. I think that’s where we see the negative side to the superhero era, which affects the industry. It pulls these amazing actors into its orbit. They stop doing anything else.
Hopefully, some of them can circle back around. Hopefully, that desire will return to them.
It seems like it’s happening now, right? It seems like it’s starting to subside a bit.
I read in Flaunt that you recently launched Entropy Pictures to make character-driven, high-concept films with commercial appeal. What will be your first feature under that banner?
That’s a tricky question because the strikes really affected a lot of stuff that was on the table. It’s kind of letting up at the same time that Divinity is coming out so I have to bring these things back to the table. There’s been new developments as well. I have to see how Divinity does, then I can continue doing some amazing and different things that motivate me. But nothing specific just yet.
You previously said that Divinity closes a trilogy of projects in the black and white format, preceded by Fuckkkyou and The Vandal. Where are you going next, aesthetically speaking?
Yeah, I wanna do something in color. [laughs] But we’ll see. Again, it’s about doing things I’m really interested in exploring so it would be a mix of my toolsets and combining what I’ve learned into one film. I’d like to find a really cool script that I see eye to eye on, where I don’t have to think about the foundation and the dialogue. That’d be pretty amazing. David Lynch was doing his own thing, writing and creating, with Eraserhead and his shorts before Elephant Man was brought to him. I’d be curious to see how my sensibilities might combine with an existing narrative. It’s the same with Nicolas Winding Refn. I think he always wrote his own stuff until Drive. Elephant Man and Drive seem to be their most successful films, at least in terms of accessibility.
Growing up in Albuquerque, what were you thinking about as your creative end goal?
I mean, I’ve always done what I’m doing now: experimenting and playing around with ideas. I owned a VHS camera. I did stop motion with action figures. Then I got into short films. But I never thought I’d have a career in it. Coming from Albuquerque, it wasn’t a place where you have the most opportunities. And growing up with a single parent, I was just really focused on making money and making sure I would be okay before getting into filmmaking. That’s what getting into video games offered, and I was a huge video game dude. So, number one was, how can I make money doing something I love? With video games, it seemed to be visual effects. Filmmaking once felt so far away and unattainable like, “How do I even get into this stuff? It doesn’t make any sense.” But with video games, I could teach myself visual effects. I could understand how to do it. Then I moved when I got a full scholarship to Academy of Art in San Francisco. That’s what put me in the center of the industry. After I made enough money in that field to not worry about it, I was able to take the risk into directing. Ultimately, that’s what I wanted to do for most of my life. It just didn’t become real until I had the cash. It’s really tough to do the type of films that I’m doing and make money from them. So to have a bit of cash while going through the process and finding my voice was very important. I don’t know how I could have done it without it.
Like Soderbergh sees in your potential, you found your own way.
And it’s still going. We’ll see what the future hold.