When Doug Karr started becoming paranoid about societal collapse about a decade ago, everyone laughed his worries off.
Well, no one’s laughing now. (Except for Doug, of course.)
Following the outbreak of the pandemic in 2019, the themes in his short film Adystopia started to become so true to life that he had to make some serious adjustments just to keep it science fiction.
Set in the future after the world has been ravished by an (ehem… different) apocalypse, the film follows a half-bionic mercenary who happens upon a tiny pocket of human flourishing.
We sat down with Doug before the Adystopia’s debut at the Science Fiction + Fantasy Short Film Festival to find out how his work was influenced by his spidey senses — and the heartbreaking loss of his wife, Aimee.
So let’s dig in — where did the idea for this film come from?
“About 10 years ago, I started to feel very strongly that there was going to be some kind of major disruption to society. I had some sort of ‘urban paranoia,’ I guess you could call it. [laughs]
“I started doing a lot of research into ‘zoonotic plagues’ as they were called before one actually occurred. I made a bug out bag. I bought a little bit of gold and silver. My wife at the time stopped me just short of buying a crossbow. So yeah, definitely — I was losing it. [laughs]
“It was sort of for [comedic] effect. It was a funny thing to talk about at cocktail parties. But then the pandemic hits, and it all of a sudden, it doesn’t seem so crazy. [laughs] We actually had to push [the setting of the film] a little further into the future. Because it started to be like, ‘Oh, this is actually really happening.’”
You’ve called the film a “tone poem.” What were you trying to communicate?
“I definitely didn’t make this film purely as a piece of entertainment. It’s more of an investigation into what [issues] we may want to start thinking about.
“We’ve built our society around these very simplistic monetary policies, where you have to make enough money to be able to eat and sleep and take care of your kids. And to do that, you have to either get educated or be a laborer. But with the advent of automation, that’s gonna get disrupted.
“That means more people are going to have a harder time accessing the limited amount of funds that they need to survive. And to me, that feels like a really unsustainable way to be as a society. I think if we keep going down this road, people will end up turning on each other.
“That pressure is pushing people to treat each other in horrible, horrible ways. And I think a thing we need ask is: Are we under more pressure right now than we would be in a society where everything fell apart? That, I think, is a great thesis for discussion.”
Let’s talk about the world you created. It’s very bleak, and yet, there’s an unmistakable undercurrent of hope. Why’s that?
“One thing that has been an influence in my work since I started is this idea of basic goodness. Fundamentally, I think everyone’s got the capacity to see past themselves, to look at society as a group. I’m hopeful about this idea that, yes, the world is increasingly complex, but even if that complexity falls apart, the basic goodness doesn’t go anywhere. And in fact, there might be more opportunities for people to take care of each other [in that scenario].
“Within this small group that we showcase [in the film], the people are taking care of each other. They’re using a mind-body connection to be connected to the land and to live in a simpler way. To factor nature into what they need and not just take it for granted or steal from it endlessly, as I think we do at scale.
“That’s what I imagine will transpire if we do end up in more of a societal collapse scenario — everyone won’t be going completely rogue and negative and murdering each other. I think there’s gonna be people who band together and figure it out and work towards some level of human flourishing. To me, that’s a hopeful story.”
Your wife passed away from cancer right before filming started. How did that tragedy influence the message in film?
“That’s a very significant question because she was… [pause] One thing about losing a loved one, you know, my partner in life… it opens you up in a way that allows you to really experience the world in a much more raw and direct way. I don’t wish that kind of pain on anyone, but I do wish that we had — I wish that I had that openness all the time.
“Making a film right at the beginning of that, I felt really, really connected to the life I had with her, and to the incredible team, cast, and crew. So there were a lot of really cool through lines. From [Aku Orraca-Tetteh] playing a drum that Aimee had made a month earlier — that’s the closing song in the film. And at one point, you see a bone-setting treatments from traditional Chinese medicine that Emily Morrison and Sean Orlando are performing. That is a treatment that [Aimee] had been getting for about a year that was super helpful.
“I think everybody really had this feeling of Aimee being there with us. Which was pretty magic. It really felt like this community that had been there through her illness. It really helped her death not feel like this horrible ending, but like some kind of amazing transition.”
Adystopia will be featured alongside other sci-fi and fantasy shorts during the 17th annual Science Fiction + Fantasy Short Film Festival on Saturday, May 21 and Sunday, May 22, as well as online. Tickets are now available. See the full lineup.