Director Robert Lieberman on commercials, science fiction and his CDGA nomination

Lieberman on the set of The Expanse.

American director Robert Lieberman is no stranger to accolades. Having directed commercials for 30 years, Lieberman has been awarded 29 Cleo Awards, has attended Cannes three times, and won the Director’s Guild Award for commercials the first year it was given. His resume is impressive, his experience extensive, but for Lieberman, receiving a nomination from the Canadian Director’s Guild Awards is an honour, and an entirely new one at that.

“I’m a new Canadian,” says Lieberman. “I’ve only been here for about a decade. I’m honoured to be recognized by my peers in the country I’ve chosen, especially given the competition.”

Lieberman has been nominated for the CDGA award in television direction for his work on the science fiction series The Expanse. The show follows a United Nations executive, a detective, and a ship officer uncovering a conspiracy that threatens the peace and survival of the human race in a colonized solar system. Shohreh Aghdashloo plays the executive, Thomas Jane plays the detective, and Steven Strait plays the officer. The show is based off of the book series by James S. A. Corey, a pen name for writers Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck.

Lieberman was initially a fan of the book, and joined the television adaptation halfway through its first season. “The show they were approaching wasn’t the show I had in mind when I read the book,” explains Lieberman. “[The showrunners] agreed with me. We decided to revamp the look of the show.”

Changing the look of a show partway through the first season is risky, but the creative team behind the show liked Lieberman’s vision for the show and ran with it. It paid off. The show is now entering its third season and boasts an 85% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

Lieberman describes his take on the world created in the book as crowded — real estate is at a premium in space, so everywhere you look there’s stuff. It’s different than the cold, minimalist space so iconically portrayed in movies such as 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s realer, it’s gritty, it’s not very different from our current reality.

“They wouldn’t fill up cubic yards of oxygen just for the sake of filling it up,” says Lieberman. “I recommended they fill the sets with gack [set decoration] so that it all looked grungy and worked. For the episode I’m nominated for, the set was called the Winnebago of space crafts.”

Lieberman didn’t start out directing television, and didn’t even start out wanting to be a director. His first foray into the entertainment industry was as an actor. While growing up in Buffalo, Lieberman was one of the few working child actors in the area. In University, however, his goals shifted.

“I started to realize I was more of a control freak than I thought. I didn’t like being told what to do and I like telling people what to do. Directing is the perfect profession,” jokes Lieberman.

His heart was in the arts, but Lieberman says his aptitudes were pointing towards mathematics. There are a couple of ways to marry the two and directing is one sure way to do so. The combination of technology, planning, number crunching, and coupling an artistic eye with a logical one made the choice for career clear to Lieberman. And the first big destination that choice brought Lieberman to was Hallmark commercials, where he made a name for himself in the industry. “I love stories about humankind and interaction between people,” he says, “I imbue my films with really in-depth characters.”

Lieberman does bring up a good point: no matter the genre, the stories we are invested in are always about people. If we have no characters, no relationships, nothing human to identify with, then engagement and enjoyment become that much more difficult. Science fiction is no different. While the setting is concerned with technology, machinery and futurism, the story is always revolved around the people within these worlds. But what Lieberman says also draws him to the genre is the aspect of a blank canvas.

On another set for The Expanse.

“You have to invent everything,” says Lieberman. “It’s challenging to create worlds that don’t exist.”

Lieberman’s creativity is clear in The Expanse, but also shows in his eclectic body of work. Looking into his ear future, Lieberman shows no sign of becoming pigeon-holed into a particular genre or position.

“I’m doing a package of Toyota commercials,” says Lieberman. “I’m writing a personal play I’d originally intended as a movie, but I decided is better on stage. I’m writing three things simultaneously — there’s a sci-fi YA novel, which I hope turns into the next Harry Potter.”

With projects scheduled for the coming years and an inexhaustible work ethic, it’s no wonder award nominations such as the CDGA keep heading Robert Lieberman’s way, and despite the “I’m just happy to be nominated” phrase being a bit of a cliche, Lieberman did tell me, very seriously, that he is happy just to be nominated.

You can visit Robert Lieberman’s website here.

Love & Slaughter — Bong Joon-ho’s Okja

When we talk about animals in movies, there are usually two images that come to mind: a best friend, like My Dog Skip or Marley and Me, and a dangerous predator à la Jaws. Our fictional images of them reflect our relationships with them. They are our companions or our aggressors. They are our downfall or our victims.

In the case of Okja, they fall into the latter category.

Bong Joon-ho’s latest is a strange fable of animal companionship. Babe but set in a world on the brink of rule by Orwellian-esque conglomerates. But instead of being separate from reality, Okja is based on a premise terribly close to where we find ourselves now: searching for a way to feed a booming population while reducing our carbon footprint on the planet. The solution? Genetically-modified organisms. A multi-national chemical company called Mirando Corporation has created the answer to everyone’s prayers: giant mammals called superpigs that are cute, leave minimal carbon footprint, and will apparently taste delicious once they reach full growth and are harvested for their meat. Coinciding with the announcement of this miracle pig, the Mirando Corporation also beings a ten-year contest, where farmers around the world will raise 23 of the babies to determine one winner as the best superpig.

One farmer in South Korea is given a superpig. The superpig is given the name Okja and grows up with a girl named Mija.

Okja and Mija (Seo-Hyun Ahn). Photo source.

The majority of the movie revolves around Mija’s quest to save Okja from the Mirando Corporation, but along the way Bong delivers so much satire that you could pick and choose where you want to read it. Biting social commentary is a bit a signature for Bong. We also saw it in the fantastic post-apocalyptic film Snowpiercer, in which a class system emerges on a train driving non-stop around a frozen earth. In Okja, the first target is companies such as the Mirando Corporation, who create gimmicky campaigns and contests to detract from the harm their company may actually cause. The second target is us, people who cry fear of GMOs but are able to shut down those concerns for delicious, questionably sourced food constantly. The parallels are undeniable, especially since Okja doesn’t take place in a vague future like Snowpiercer does. It is set in today. Literally now, in 2017, and while the conditions Okja is placed in the movie are purposefully manipulated to draw maximum sympathy, the similarities between the conditions in Okja and those within our current factory farming cannot be denied.

Tilda Swinton as Lucy Mirando and Seo-Hyun Ahn as Mija. Photo source.

We get to know Okja. The huge mammal is, in a word, odd and, in another, adorable. Within the first few minutes of the film you’re able to get over the fact you’re seeing a giant, CGI, hippo-pig hybrid-thing on your small laptop screen. After that, you love her. Okja’s animation is stunning. Every movement she makes, every twitch and blink, is placed with such precision and detail. It seems as though some of her mannerisms are dog-like, while her eyes express human-like intelligence and emotion. It’s easy to get attached, both to her and Mija, played by the outstanding Seo-Hyun Ahn.

Seo-Hyun Ahn as Mija. Photo source

While Okja the animal is marvellous, Seo-Hyun Ahn is the true star of the show. She gives a performance that, in my opinion, is more notable than Tilda Swinton’s turn as the high-strung CEO of Mirando Corporation, or Jake Gyllenhaal’s as a boozy, washed-up nature show host. I could watch a two-hour film of just Mija and Okja in the South Korean mountains without a problem. Bong takes his time in the Korea sequences, making use of the gorgeous landscape. These shots are languid and soft, but as soon as the story moves to Seoul and New York, the cinematography takes on the same frenetic pace as the plot. Bong makes use of everything within a scene: from a young woman taking a selfie while a giant pig is chased through a mall to the employees in a corporate office being totally duplicitous but also blindly faithful. The potential for satire is enormous and Bong gladly delivers.

Okja is a surprising movie in a number of ways. There are shocking moments of violence and cruelty, gleefully dry and dark humour, and a conclusion in which no one turns out to be “the good guys” except Mija and Okja. There is a clear divide between “them” (Mirando) and “us” (Mija and the Animal Liberation Front), but the animal rights activists don’t emerge entirely unscathed either, with moments of hypocrisy, deceit, and self-righteousness within the group. Mija and Okja are the true heroes of the story and to the audience, the most redeemable characters. There’s a possible reading into that, the idea that only animals and children are safe from the inevitable selfishness and violence that plague humanity.

Mija and Okja. Photo source.

Okja is full of meaning and criticism. It makes judgements on our current ways of life and questions how we got to this point of resource depletion, the ethics of factory farming where animals are put under conditions that are terrible at best. Okja doesn’t offer any answers or solutions, but it makes you think and that in and of itself is an achievement. It’ll entertain you, just like any movie should and needs to in order to be seen. That being said, once you turn on Okja, it’s hard to turn it off, and it’s hard to forget both the giant superpig and everything she represents.

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