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25th January 2018
Rocket fuel
Title of film: Donny the Drone
Director: Mackenzie Sheppard
In the credit roll for Mackenzie Sheppard’s short film, Donny the Drone, there is a discreet thanks to The People Who Saved Our Lives in Bangladesh. Intrigued we called 27 year-old Mackenzie in his hometown Tokyo. We had initially planned a profile interview to showcase his brilliantly experimental personal work collaborating with W+ K Tokyo creative and writer Andrew ‘Oyl’ Miller which indeed will be published soon. But then we became more and more enmeshed in the story behind Donny the Drone and why Mackenzie and his three crew are lucky to be alive…

Your music videos and short films are uniquely inventive and explore the morality of how we use technology, how it defines us. Where did the desire to create the story of Donny come from?

The concept sprouted after our short film Man in Phone, and wanting to do something a lot more emotional and less experimental, really making an inanimate character alive, like personification, giving something anthropomorphic qualities, breathing life into technology, and exploring it more in a magical realism way.

And you developed it with Andrew from Wieden and Kennedy Tokyo?

It’s a really unique creative relationship we have that’s just naturally evolved over the last three years, and it’s amazing how that’s unlocked stuff in us that we’ve always wanted to be making, but didn’t really have the balancing board, or the other creative force to mesh with. So he’ll be, I’m pretty sure, a lifetime collaborator in all of this universe that we’re building and the ideas that we’re exploring.

How does your experimentation in terms of craft come about?

Every story brings about the desire to try certain things, for example, I knew I always wanted Donny to be a real puppet. I didn’t want him to be CG because I knew that would be far too expensive for the short film budget that we had, and I wanted his story to be epic.

I needed to be able to take him to these actual places so that people could really feel that he was there, and he literally was there.

So from there, I was like, “Okay, well I’ve got to learn more about how drones work. I’ve got to learn how to 3D print a shell,” and that was all done by a very small team of people just figuring out as we went.

It’s very rewarding when it’s just you and one or two other people and you’re just tinkering, and you figure out how to blend the limitations of what you have available to you, and also just trying to tell the best story. The final product becomes something very honest, and really from your own heart and your own fingers. Like, I’m very proud when I watch my work because I know I’ve touched every frame.

I’m so pleased you say that, because so many people watch their work and they only see the flaws and are disappointed.

Well, I definitely see flaws, but I know what I went through to make Donny, like I have some crazy stories. Like, in Bangladesh, we got taken hostage for about 20 hours because we basically … You know the ship breaking scene with those tankers?

Yes, with the huge ship carcasses….

We basically went inside their property unknowingly, and a huge mob of workers took us hostage with knives and machetes and every tool you can imagine, like crowbars, and they really roughed us up. They beat our fixer up, and they would not let us leave, they wanted us to get in a car and go somewhere with them, and we just had to use every ounce of energy to refuse.

Luckily Kai our PM got a line out to the Pentagon who patched us through to an agent in Dhaka who assembled a team to rescue us.

Then, meanwhile, as we get this phone call out to the embassy… I’ll try to summarise the story.

It’s riveting, keep going.

Everyone is threatening and then yelling, and then things go quiet, it’s chaos.

I know that our only bargaining chip with the foreman is that the US government knows that we’re here being held against our will. So that made them very protective of themselves, not wanting to release us, because they’d become fearful of us.

So it became this weird dynamic of are they going to shank us and make us disappear? Because people die in this ship breaking yard every week. The workers get paid a dollar a day, and that’s why they’re so sensitive about it because it’s a human rights violation, and there’re so many NGOs in Bangladesh that fight against these gangsters, essentially, who buy these broken ships and then use the steel to sell to build up Bangladesh’s infrastructure.

I thought I was going to die. I say it in an entertaining way now, but that was the longest day of my life.

When we finally did get out, we were basically put under arrest by the police, which are under the bribe and pocketbook of the gangsters, and they wanted to throw us into jail.

They wanted to take all of our footage and all of our gear, and luckily we had one local government guy who was there fighting for us against all of these gangsters and the police, threatening that the US was going to take action, and they were all … It was just like a whole bubble of fear on everyone’s side.

The gangsters were scared of what we were going to do to them, we were scared of what they could do to us, and the Bangladeshi government was scared about their reputation, the US government threatened them so severely, it just created this odd stalemate between all three parties, and that’s why it just got dragged out and dragged out, until the wee hours of the morning when we were finally released after more threats from the US embassy.

It was a shattering day, and we evacuated to Bangkok the next day because they took all our passport numbers, and I thought our visas were going to get blocked. It was the most wild place I’ve ever been. Bangladesh, southern Bangladesh is literally like mediaeval times.

The pollution is horrendous, it’s worse than Beijing. The people are very nice and warm, but in this particular area, there’s a toxic power environment. It’s modern day slavery, it’s just disgusting. So basically, we got out of that situation because we faked deleting the footage.

Of course, I had internal copies inside of each drone that they were looking at, inside the internal hard drive. I only deleted the external SD drive. So I told a white lie to them saying that it was gone, but we really had all the footage, we escaped with it all.

I’m really glad that’s in the film because everyone in this community that we were filming in is basically being bullied by these gangsters who are in it for the money, and they don’t give a damn about any of these people’s lives. There were heroin needles on the ground, it was just a very nasty picture in that area because they’re obviously keeping them tethered on drugs so they come back and work every day.

It was very dark, but the one golden rim of this whole story is, while this was all happening, like hundreds of people around us, the most claustrophobic environment you could imagine, and it’s smelly and it’s hot, 40 degree Bangladeshi weather, the local kids of that area who had been hanging out with us for the first two hours of shooting there formed a gang around us. They wanted to protect us. They wanted to stand up to these guys, because they kept whispering in our ear in their broken English, “We don’t like these people, they’re mean. They’re mean, we don’t like them. We’re with you.”

So there were some glimmers of humanity in all of that, but mostly it was just … I saw how dark the world could be, and ultimately that formed how we adjusted Donny’s telling of that part. Like when he says, “I came across things hidden in the shadows of our world. Things that I didn’t know could exist,” and of course he’s seeing those machines as a machine, you know? It’s almost like a corpse lying on the ground, it’s like a naked tanker with its rib cage gutted out. It’s very graphic to him. So yeah, that’s just one story, but it was a true filmmaking experience in that regard.

When did you finally get out of the country?

Then, cut to 12 hours later, we’re in Bangkok. My friend who runs a five-star hotel takes us, puts us in a suite… And then we’re down by the pool, and I’m just in shock. We were shaking. You go from having a knife up to your face and being threatened you will be made to disappear, and then within six hours later you’re in a pool with a British family ordering their Pad Thai lunch with a $10 glass of beer, and a Chinese family taking selfies on the other side of the pool, and then we’re there in our still drenched safari uniform, smelling like shit, and just in shock.

Hair-raising but the outcome surely was down to you and your team’s ability to stay calm.

I just remember praying at the beginning, like, “God, help.” When you’re in that shit, you realise how you have no rights, you have no power, you are powerless as a human being. Yeah, it was a real faith building experience for me actually. I think there definitely was some intervention, whether it be from a butterfly effect from a phone call that happened, or something divine, I don’t want to label it, but in my gut I feel like we were definitely saved.

How did you fund it?

I made it in between commercials. It was basically self-financed with a few executive producers that helped as well, but most of the upfront money came from me. The advantage of directing commercials is that my policy is 50 percent of everything I make goes back into the art of stuff outside, and then 50% is just for living.

So you didn’t have a production company behind this project?

It was all independent. I found the locations, I built Donny, I was Mick, I was the puppeteer of Donny, I organised the American shoot, going to Bangladesh. There are other producers involved who were there for the speech scene, so they’re credited, but it was really a three-man team.

Just me, the production manager Kai, who’s a young fellow living in Tokyo, and then three DPs including myself. So it came down to me just doing it, really. I don’t want to do it that way again. For the longer form idea of Donny, it needs a whole elevated look and feel and the story’s … It needs more support, but I’m really proud of the fact that it was just basically three people in a room making it most of the time.

I edited it all myself as well, so I was doing that on weekends, and then finally in September, I approached Guy Pearce about doing the voice, he only saw the rough cut with none of the visual effects and he leapt at the chance. I flew to Amsterdam and we recorded in a studio for a couple of hours. He smashed it, and he’s a world class super talented guy, and then I came back, did the audio edit, and we were done.

You have amazing tenacity at being able to make it all happen..

I never didn’t enjoy working on it. I think there were difficult moments where I was like … We’d organise a three day shoot in the desert, and then for some reason my DP fell out, and then I had something come up, or I’d book a commercial and then that commercial would get cancelled, and then I’d have nothing to do for a month because I couldn’t organise everything in time. So those moments were really frustrating for me, that balance of work and art, you know? Making money or spending money. That’s a real life decision you have to make as you pursue things, but I never felt like giving up. Like, I believed in the characters so much, and I always had Andrew to come back to here as well and show him stuff, and we’d get re-inspired about how to retell a certain part of Donny’s story. So it was just a wonderful process making this character come alive.

Are we going to see more of Donny?

Well, the short film is really just an episode of his life. We’re developing the feature film version. There’s a lot wrapped up inside of Donny that we can reveal in the longer version, but it’s more of a morality and ethical slant, as opposed to what it means to have one AI singularity consciousness that’s emanating throughout the world. I’m less interested in that, I’m more interested in emotional character building.

We’re not trying to make a robot film that’s overly complicated and nerdy in a science fiction way because, to be honest, I probably couldn’t last very long in a debate about singularity in AI.

Donny - Guy Pearce Director - Mackenzie Sheppard Writer - Andrew 'Oyl' Miller Executive Producers - Harry A. Hill, Motoki Tomatsu, Nick Johnston DOP - Ian Holliday 2nd Unit DOP Oliver Millar Co-Producers - Motoki, Mackenzie, Kai Sandy, Satoshi, Moriya, Airi mackfilm LTD, NION, audioforce, JUICE, Mt. Melvil, Oyl Entertainment