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What Lives Inside: Q&A with Social Film Director Robert Stromberg

Deb Miller Landau iQ Managing Editor

Director Robert Stromberg discusses this year’s social film, asks for audience participation and explores the relationship between creativity and family.   

The concept of storytelling is always evolving, and in our world of sharing and liking, re-posting and commenting, the concept of crowd-sourced creativity is growing. That said, the concept of a “social film” is, surprisingly, still a novel idea in our hyper-connected world.

In 2011, Intel partnered with Toshiba to create “Inside,” which was considered to be Hollywood’s first ‘social film.’ In that series, the audience was invited to help Christina, the lead, find her way out of horror-film predicament.

That episodic production was followed up in 2012 with “The Beauty Inside,” about a guy named Alex who wakes up every day as a different person (this time, the audience auditioned and won roles as Alex) and, in 2013, with “The Power Inside” invited the audience helped determine the fate of young, dead-end job stuck Neil who is barraged by mustached aliens.

All of these films have been hugely successful across social media, thanks to spectacular storytelling combined with high-powered directors and actors keen to jump in to a new and evocative arena of interactive storytelling.

This year, Intel teamed up with Dell to create the forthcoming “What Lives Inside,” a four-part social film directed by Robert Stromberg, a veteran visual effects master known for his Academy Award-winning work on James Cameron’s “Avatar” and Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland.” He made his directorial debut with the 2014 Disney film “Maleficent.”


We had a chance to visit with Stromberg, who discussed his work on “What Lives Inside.”

Q: What is “What Lives Inside” about?

A: Our story is about a young man named Taylor Delaney (played by Colin Hanks), whose father created a world of puppets, magic and wonder. The father’s creative passion ended up causing a disconnect in their relationship.

His father dies and Taylor ends up going back home. Through discovery in his dad’s workshop, he’s transported to this magical place where he meets characters who help him find the relationship that he was missing with his father.

Q: After working on a big project like “Maleficent,” how did you come to be part of this Intel/Dell co-sponsored social film? 

A: I was drawn to the project when I first read it. As a filmmaker, I go off and do these big films where I’m creating worlds. I have a son and daughter, so I really connect with what it takes to go out into the world and create these epic things while balancing creativity with family life.

Q: What’s the difference between creating a social film and a big-budget production?

A: Whether you’re working on a $150 million or lower-budget film, you’re still going through the same process of evaluating emotion, the pacing of things and artistic sensibilities. I find doing any project — whether it’s a personal painting project or making a film — there’s always a certain passion that goes into it.

Q: How does this project hit home for you?

A: I’ve been a creative person my entire life. I was inspired by my father, who was a low-budget filmmaker, so I was always around the filmmaking process with strange artistic things happening.

It’s really fun to explore the personal relationships you have with people you love, but also the creative connection, which is also a love and passion in my life.

In this film, the relationship between Taylor and is father is broken. We’re trying to reconnect that relationship.

My biggest pursuit outside of directing right now is to be a really solid dad. I honestly think that in order to be truly happy you have to find a way to balance the passion you have for creativity with having a good family life.

Q: What were your early influences? What helped you in your career?

When I was in elementary school, a retired Disney artist become a teacher and he took a liking to what I was doing. He mentored me through the early part of my life.

When I got older I was fortunate to meet a man named Albert Whitlock who used to run the Universal Studios visual effects department. He taught me so much. I’ve been really fortunate in having some great artistic mentors.

Q: You started in visual effects and then moved on to directing. Tell us about that.

A: I’ve had a very unusual career path. I started as a little kid drawing pictures with pencils and that led to paint. I became fascinated with what are called matte paintings, where you combine photo-real painting with live-action photography so you can create any place on earth.

That led me to becoming a visual effects supervisor, which led me to meeting director Peter Weir. He took me under his wing and we did a movie called “Master and Commander” and by the time we were finished I was meeting really influential producers and studios, and that led to directing. It’s been a very strange path, but every step I take it seems to become more and more interesting.

Q: “What Lives Inside” is a social film, which means the audience participates in the film. What are your thoughts on that?

A: I love the idea of people out there contributing to this. I remember when I was a kid they’d have contests and you’d draw pictures and send them in — you could be part of something. I love that this project is organic.

Let’s inspire people and let’s get great stuff from people out there in the world and integrate it into what we’re doing. I think that that’s a tremendously cool thing to do. I look forward to everyone’s participation, not only watching it but having a hand in creating it. Now through March 9th, you can submit your drawings at www.WhatLivesInside.com.

I look forward to having the finished product and having the people who have contributed see their own work fully rendered, alive and living.


Q: This film features the Dell Venue 8 7000 featuring Intel RealSense Technology. What’s it like to have a product become, essentially, a character in the film?

A: Using this product to help tell the story is part of the fun for me. Integrating the features of what this product can do helps push along our main character toward his ultimate goal. He not only uses it as a tool to change the world — this fictitious, strange, surreal world — it is also a utility to help him get through certain situations. It helps him go from being a man who is very bitter and doesn’t like his job into someone who finds the magic in imagination.

Q: Does this project stoke your creativity?

A: Someone once asked me what makes one person an artist and another not… I’m not sure if you’re born being an artist but i think what’s really important is that curiosity leads you to pay attention to the little things in life, which actually are what get you through the process of creating something. The more little bits of information that you’ve paid attention to, the more creative you can be.

When I’m directing, I use all of my history and all of my background everyday. I’m very fortunate to have gone through what I have to get to this point.

The first episode of “What Lives Inside,” starring Colin Hanks, J.K. Simmons and Catherine O’Hara, will premiere exclusively on Hulu on March 25. Submit your sketches today for a chance to have them appear in the film at www.whatlivesinside.com.


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