Alumnus plans film using old school technique

feil and brent

Director Stephen Pfeil discusses final details about the robot suit with its creator
Avery Brent.  
Courtesy of Tony Romain

In a world that is becoming more digital by the minute, cinema is no exception. The use of analog film is quickly dying out in mainstream cinema, which makes it all the more remarkable when filmmakers choose to use older techniques.

Southeastern alumni Stephen Pfeil is currently shooting a futuristic-based project entitled “Does God Hear Robots Pray” on 16 mm film. He hopes the mix of futuristic subject matter and older filmmaking techniques will create a unique cinematic experience.

Pfeil’s experience with film goes back nearly a decade, from humble beginnings in his own backyard.

“My younger brother and I started making movies during my sophomore year of high school,” said Pfeil. “We raised enough money to buy a digital camera and shot movies in the backyard. We had to learn the rules from the big movies we saw, like how to edit.”

Pfeil’s cinematic influences are varied, from childhood favorites to current directors who have touched him on an emotional level.

“When it boils down to it, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were big influences,” said Pfeil. “With this project, the general aesthetic, it jives with how George Lucas created a universe. I’m really influenced by the solid cinematic storytelling they embodied in the late 1970s and 1980s. ‘Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland’ was a big influence as a kid. As an adult, I’ve been influenced by Darren Aronofsky and Spike Jonze, because of the emotional strength [of their work]. Their films just get into you, which is really appealing to me.”

The film does not fit into any particular genre. According to Pfeil, ‘Does God Hear Robots Pray’ is neither science-fiction nor does it qualify as a religious picture. He is more interested in raising questions and achieving emotional resonance with audience members.

“The premise is encapsulated in the title, ‘Does God Hear Robots Pray,’” said Pfeil. “The story follows a robot questioning whether it can have a relationship with a higher power. He’s trying to find his way to a priest and this church, so that’s the frame story conflict.”

This project has been years in the making, according to Pfeil.

“The idea came to me two years ago,” said Pfeil. “Last summer, I finished the screenplay. I sent it to Bruno Doria and Sarah Smith’s production company, and they liked it. We originally planned on shooting the film on Super 8, but they upgraded it to 16 mm. We’ve also been working on the robot costume, currently being created by Avery Brent, another Southeastern alumni.”

“Does God Hear Robots Pray” is Pfeil’s attempt to create a purely visual and emotional experience, using certain techniques from an earlier time in cinema when spoken dialogue was not an option for filmmakers.

“Silent films are an influence on this particular film, purely visual filmmaking,” said Pfeil. “A single image can show so much story. My problem with some current films is that they’re afraid the audience won’t get it. At times, there’s too much expositional dialogue. Sometimes I’m like, ‘Why would you say that?’ It’s like explaining a joke. The audience is smarter than they’re given credit for and if something does go over their heads, then it challenges them.”

Pfeil feels the restrictions posed by using older filmmaking techniques aid him creatively. Unlike digital film, using real film means filmmakers cannot shoot as much as they please and that every inch counts. Pfeil feels that when shooting on film, there’s no room to be “indecisive.” He and his fellow filmmakers have had to make creative decisions farther in advance in order to make sure they do not run out of film while shooting.

Rather than cheers and applause, Pfeil hopes audiences will be awed into a different sort of reaction to the film.

“I know it will sound weird, but it would be an incredible achievement for me if there was profound silence at the credits,” said Pfiel. “When you hit that moment where you know you’ve created art, conveyed emotions from your soul to someone else’s, that’s great.”

Pfeil is using the IndieGoGo campaign to raise money for the film at