I was so pleased and appreciative when Jen Thym agreed to let me pick her remarkably visionary and articulate brain for an interview. Thym is the writer/director/producer of the mysterious and enchanting web series Lumina. I love Lumina because it stands out as being gorgeously and intricately layered (unlike with Heroes or Lost you feel like the people with the reigns actually know what they’re doing). It’s so exactly like a modern fairytale that I find myself feeling as I did when I was younger – aching for the reality of the story to be my life. That means I’ve been looking at mirrors questioningly and wishing there was a secret world inside of them. (And if there just so happens to be a cute “prince” in there I’m very okay with that… Especially if he looks like John Mayer or Ewan McGreggor.)
Read on for the Jen Thym interview where she discusses the cruel nature of fairytales, the realms she invented for Lumina and why she made a career change so recently. I really didn’t hold back in asking the questions I wanted to ask, and she answered everything with thorough care. We’re impressed with Thym and pretty much everything she does. (Seriously, I heard she even flosses her teeth really well!)
Small Screen Scoop: Most web series that I’ve come across are comedies. How big of a risk did you think you taking when you decided to make a webseries that was a dramatic, indie thriller?
Jen: I enjoy watching comedy, but I adore watching dramas and thrillers. So in a way, I created what I wanted to see on the web. LUMINA is also my first film project so I wanted to experiment with genre, with style, with story, with format – and completely leapfrog analog and go straight to digital. If you can’t take risks with your first film, when are you going to take them?
You recently had a screening of Lumina in Hong Kong at the Clockenflap Music & Multi-Media Arts Festival. What was that experience like for you?
Awesome! I love the fact that LUMINA is online so that anyone can see it, any time they want to. But nothing beats that experience of seeing your work on the big screen. It reminds me of how lucky I am to be doing what I love, and how I want to keep making more films!
Am I correct that you invented the three realms that are featured in Lumina? As a child did you often play make believe? As an adult do you still wish there were secret worlds?
Yes, there are three parallel universes: Corwaith (the Dark Realm), Earth (the Light Realm) and Bastion (the Realm of Jewels), and we’ve really only touched on the first two in the first season. Bastion is something radical that I want to play with at a later date once audiences are more into the story.
I wrote a lot of stories as a child and as a young adult – then I stopped for many years. It’s great getting back into the habit of playing make-believe now. And as for the existence of secret worlds – from a purely scientific viewpoint, the great thing is that there are so many things we don’t know! It’s entirely possible that there is life out there in the universe somewhere. Maybe it’s far away and maybe it’s right next to us.
Lumina is visually beautiful and captivating like nothing I’ve seen in terms of s web series (not to mention many movies). You’ve attributed a lot of this to the RED ONE camera, but the scenery (locations and set designs) are something that I also really loved while watching. What was it like finding spaces to represent and film the Hong Kong that you know? And, as a director were you trying to heighten the reality of Hong Kong to be as you imagined it in your head when creating Lumina’s reality, or was it a matter of filming (capturing/translating) the beauty of Hong Kong as it is in your own reality?
We wanted to show a different side of Hong Kong, a magical beautiful side of a very modern city. Hong Kong is a also a strange juxtaposition of shiny modern and faded old; and they didn’t keep an “old town” as they do in alot of modern cities in Europe. They just built the new buildings on top of or right next to the old ones. So you can see distorted reflections of old crumbling buildings in the impeccably kept mirrored window glass of corporate skyscrapers. I wanted that visual dichotomy to match the rampant corruption in the Hong Kong of LUMINA. Beautiful, but corrupt; and then in the mirror world, it is even more corrupt.
Prior to filming, I spent a lot of time wandering around and staring at corners that no one else was interested in, and I think that alarmed people a little. There was one spot that I loved (but we weren’t allowed to film there), where I could see myself reflected in a curved mirrored column, and everything in the reflection was yellow with warm incandescent lighting, and everything next to the column was a deep dusky evening blue from the windows to either side. It was perfect!
I was also really lucky to have two incredibly talented DP’s on board who shared my vision – XiaoSu Han and Andreas Thalhammer. They are young, energetic, and so versatile, it’s incredible. My editor, Bettina Enigl, and my sound designer, Ben Robinson, also understood the dreamlike atmosphere I was looking for and helped accentuate that.
Did you also envision creating Lumina as a series with more than one season? How many seasons could there potentially be?
I think eight seasons would be a good number. 😉 I hope it’s a universe that we can expand on officially for awhile, and then we can leave open for everyone else to play in after we’re gone.
Have mirrors always fascinated you?
Two of my favorite childhood books are Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, both of which were founded in the idea that there was this bizarre strange world just on the other side of a shiny piece of glass. I also was fascinated by the black mirrors that European painters in the 17th and 18th century used.
What sort of creative process did you use when writing Lumina?
Some days were easy, and some days were frustrating. I disciplined myself to write something every day for two months, and then put it away for a week, then re-edited it; rinse and repeat. Whenever I felt writer’s block coming on, I played a few mindless games for awhile. Sudoku is great for that – it really helps “re-set” my brain somehow.
There was one moment in September 2008 when I had all these pale green virtual post-it notes scattered on my computer screen, literally dozens of fragments of story arcs I was trying to bring together on a webisode by webisode basis, and I thought to myself, “How did I get here?”
What can you tell us about the future for the Lumina web series and Lumina our heroine?
We’re working on finding investors for a bigger, better LUMINA season 2! We’re also listening to our fans and going to increase the length of the webisodes and finally show more of the Dark Realm. There have been requests for a novelization of LUMINA as well, and I’m giving some serious thought to it.
As for Lumina Wong, her life is not going to be easier now!! It’s almost evil how much I enjoy plotting what’s going to happen to both her and Ryder. Fairy tales are meant to be cruel.
They’re meant to be cruel?
The original fairy tales were meant to be morality tales; they were often violent and featured grotesquely bad endings for the hapless characters involved – they were also meant as entertainment for adults! What we perceive as fairy tales today are incredibly diluted versions of the original stories. One obvious example is Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid, which is a beautifully written, tragic, poignant tale, whereas the current Disney version, although colorful and amusing, retains very little of the original depth of Andersen’s fable.
What is the most important motto for you as a writer vs the most important motto for you as a director?
As a writer – Be as weird as you want, but don’t forget to make your characters real and accessible to the audience.
As a director – Half the work is in the casting; get believable stand-out performances out of everyone you choose. Although lush visuals are important to me, I want to consistently get amazing performances from the actors.
Jasmine is a new project that your company RockGinger is producing. What can we expect from that?
Jason Tobin is a tremendous actor, and I am truly honored to work with him. We’re in the middle of filming now, so we’re looking at a fall/winter 2010 release for the arthouse thriller Jasmine. In addition to LUMINA Season Two, I’m working on a new feature film script that I am going to direct next year. It’s going to be busy!
Let’s talk role models and inspiration. Who are your artistic role models, and what are the inspirational forces behind your creative life?
As a film director, I respect Ridley Scott, Tim Burton and Danny Boyle. Ridley Scott has done a wide gamut of films from the fantasy film Legend to scifi noir Blade Runner to strong female heroine driven Alien and Thelma & Louise to the edgy American Gangster. I admire his ability to direct different genres and his strong visual style. I also really love action films and would jump at a chance to direct one.
Tim Burton (Big Fish, Nightmare Before Christmas) brings weirdness to the mainstream and hasn’t completely sold out in the process. I like that that makes the monsters appealing and the villains cool!
Danny Boyle – I know everyone is crazy about Slumdog Millionaire, which I quite liked, but my favorite Boyle films are Sunshine and Shallow Grave. He’s great at making the audience empathise with the underdog, and he isn’t afraid of making strong visual statements.
I read somewhere that you were an investment banker up until 2008 when you broke away to start your production company (RockGinger.com). That seems like a radically rewarding decision to decide to make. But there was a great risk involved. What happened in your life as a tipping point for you to make that decision?
I moved from London to Hong Kong in 2007, so it was a good time to make a career change. I had toyed with the idea of writing a novel for a few years, but writing alone didn’t give me the feeling of satisfaction that I thought it would. Drawing webcomics came closer – but the “dawning moment” so to speak was in July 2008. I thought, why not make a bigger leap? I have always wanted to direct films, and I could write and draw while doing it, and I could work with other people to create magic. And I was certainly old enough to figure out how to make a plan and stick with it!
When you do what you love as work, everyone assumes that the world becomes magically perfect. Is there ever a conflict in overwhelming yourself in areas that used to be regulated as hobbies and passions on the side? If so, how do you move past that?
Every time I get stressed or frustrated, I take a step back, re-evaluate the situation, and try to find a way to pro-actively resolve the issue. I am in the film industry very much by choice, so I accept the good and bad sides of it. I also try to work with people I respect and admire – that makes a huge difference to my daily happiness! Maintaining a sense of balance between work and play is still important – the danger of working at home like I do is that I could theoretically be working all the time. I have to consciously set time away from the computer, and then I find that I am more efficient with the time I do spend online.
Are you happier now – in what is almost 2010, than you were in 2008?
Definitely. This is the best career for me on Earth, and it was the right time in my life for me to do it. I’m not sure I would have been ready at 20!
We’d love to get a sense of where your good taste has led you in terms of TV shows, books, websites and music. Can you give is a big ol’ mixed-bag answer of some of your favorite entertainment? (Though I’m a TV addict, I am especially curious about what books you like to see if they are mostly in the Lumina vein of fantasy and romance.)
TV shows – Lost, Prison Break, Nip/Tuck, and Rescue Me are favorites. I love complex, dark stories, and these TV shows are shot better than most films and have wonderfully intricate storylines! I also think that these shows have given rise to iconic controversial characters – Susan Sarandon on Rescue Me was awesome; Famke Jannsen on Nip/Tuck was mind-blowing. I would love to work with them someday.
Books – My favorite genre is the brief late 80’s/early 90’s cyberpunk movement by writers like William Gibson, Pat Cadigan, and Neal Stephenson. My favorite writer at the moment is Lewis Shiner, who also rose to fame as a cyberpunk writer, but the work that I enjoy the most from him are his recent novels set in the music industry (Glimpses, Say Goodbye). I have read alot of epic fantasy and vampire series, but my favorites in the fantasy genre tend to be visual ones: the Elfquest comic book series from Wendy and Richard Pini, Angel Sanctuary manga from Kaori Yuki, films like Legend, Labyrinth and the Dark Crystal.
Music – My Chemical Romance, Muse and Killer Soap.