Watch Out: Prodigy is Coming [Director Q&A]

The Kansas City FilmFest, an annual juried film festival featuring more than 100 local, regional, national and international films is now in its 20th year. More than $200,000 in cash and prizes have been awarded since 1997.

Recently, Alex Haughey (pronounced “Hoy”), a filmmaker in LA, contacted me to let me know about his Kansas City roots, and that he will have a film screening at the FilmFest – “a Science Fiction thriller with a Twilight Zone-esque edge.” He offered to let me screen the movie before the festival. Not one to pass up an opportunity like that, I jumped at the chance, and slipped in a few interview questions along the way. Wait till you hear about his big senior film project back at Blue Valley North high school!

Alex Haughey, Kansas City native, and writer and director of "Prodigy"
Prodigy Co-Director, Alex Haughey

When did you first become interested in filmmaking and what drew you to it?

I went to high school at Blue Valley North, in Overland Park, and they had a state-of-the-art Broadcast Technology program at the time. I was in one of the first classes to participate in the BVTV program, where we put on a live news broadcast once a week. It was that program that put a camera in my hands.

In order to learn the basics, they sent us out to make short films and music videos. I picked up on nuances of visual storytelling very quickly. While a lot of my classmates struggled with this new “language”, it was very intuitive to me. I was always confident in my ability to visualize what I needed to capture in order to convey my ideas effectively. I quickly became known as the guy who made great videos.

I grew up loving movies, the stories and heroes molded my impressionable little mind as much as anyone. However, I had never considered the craft, or the idea of studying it. I played a lot of sports as a kid, and the only way I knew how to get better at anything was to dive headfirst into “training”. When it comes to film, the only way to train is to watch, and that’s what I did. My college years were spent watching more movies than any human probably should, but at that point, I was hooked.

Though you now live in LA, you grew up in the Kansas City area. What are some of your favorite Kansas City memories?

I remember the people the most, my friends growing up. We lived in Brookside, when I was very young, and I always loved the drive up Ward Parkway toward the Plaza in the fall, as the leaves changed. The best KC memory I have, however, is one we made ourselves.

After establishing myself as the community filmmaker, I wanted to do something big on my way out. My senior year, I organized my closest compatriots and enlisted their help in a 45-minute remake of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie. That is right — a group of 18-year-olds running around town in green tights, filming fight scenes. It was glorious.

It seems silly now, but it was the time of our lives. Not only that, it was a hit! We organized a “premiere” screening, and more than 300 people showed up to see it. It was an amazing send off, and it is always the first thing I think of when I come home.

Are any of your Kansas City experiences reflected in your films or writing?

Kansas City never felt like a small city to me, yet at the same time, I always felt such a strong sense of community there. You lose a lot of that in bigger cities. I live in Los Angeles now, which has a lot to offer in its own way, but I think it sacrifices that communal vibe in the process.

Big metropolitan hubs draw a lot of individuals, who are seeking individual goals and accomplishments. This fosters an environment of detachment, as people become singularly focused on their own path, and subsequently less concerned about their neighbors. I always felt like KC struck a great balance of big city ambition, without losing that sense of moral cohesion — of shared values that makes it feel like we are all in it together.

In my creative work, I find myself drawn to exploring the human condition, and how flawed it is. In our own way, each of us is striving toward a paradigm of what we see as an ideal way to live, both individually and together. I think my experiences growing up in Kansas City shaped my own moral compass, and hopefully molded my explorations into something relatable to others.

Let’s talk a little bit about your current project, Prodigy. Where did the idea for the film come from?

My co-writer, Brian Vidal, and I have been working together since we met at USC, 10 years ago. We’ve collaborated on a number of short films and writing projects, and finally decided it was time to dip our toes into the feature length pool. We knew we would be working with limited means, so we started brainstorming ideas for contained thrillers.

Brian won a “one sentence logline” contest a few years ago with a simple idea about a psychologist analyzing a child supervillain. We went back and forth on the idea for a while, altering it slightly, and ended up with the concept for Prodigy. We both latched onto the idea of centering a story around a character with the intellect and divisiveness of Hannibal Lector, but in the form of a young child. We thought it was a bold idea, and we went for it.

Directors Alex Haughey & Brian Vidal on the set of Prodigy. Image courtesy of Prodigy Film, LLC.
L to R: Directors Alex Haughey & Brian Vidal on the set of Prodigy. Image courtesy of Prodigy Film, LLC.

Prodigy addresses the concepts of fear and guilt. Why those concepts?

In Prodigy, nothing is ever what it seems. The main character continues to peel back layer after layer, always revealing there is more to the situation, and the characters, than we initially thought. I find this true in everyday life. We rarely see who people really are. Fear and guilt are broad concepts, but they are almost always the reason we hide our insecurities, resentment, and shame from others.

It is incredible how deep bury these secrets inside sometimes. To me, Prodigy is a story about what it takes to dig them up. We force our characters to pick up a shovel and get after it until the very last frame.

What appeals to you about sci-fi?

Science Fiction was a huge draw, especially on a project like this, because it gave us liberty to tell a bigger story within the confines of our little movie. Twilight Zone was huge influence on the project, especially in the conception stages. The best Twilight Zone episodes always utilized heady sci-fi, which relied more on characters and concepts than spectacle. The fantastic elements were always present, but the focus remained on the realism of the conflict at hand.

We fashioned our story in the same mold. The characters were always going to be at the center of the film, but within the confines of a science fiction backdrop. We knew our fantastic beats needed to be thrilling, to justify the audience allowing us to roll them out slowly, just like in the Twilight Zone. Luckily, thanks to some impressive practical effects, the supernatural elements pick up speed in a conclusion that would make Rod Serling proud.

What response have you gotten to Prodigy screenings?

The response has been overwhelmingly positive, thus far. It has been my favorite part of the process — sitting in the audience, feeling their reactions to the moments we labored over. Against the advice of many, we staked our movie on the performance of a nine-year-old. That performance is now the element garnering the most praise, which has been immensely satisfying.

I also think people are genuinely surprised by the quality of the dramatic tension. We play up the “creepy little girl” hook in our marketing, which makes a lot of people think the movie will be scary. In reality, it is the interplay between the characters that has stuck with audiences. They have been pleased to find that the movie is much more Good Will Hunting than Silence of the Lambs.

Prodigy will be shown at the Kansas City FilmFest. What are you looking forward to seeing or doing while back in Kansas City?

Eating. I can’t understate how important that is going to be on this trip. My wife has only been back to town with me once, and she still dreams of Jack Stack. I only have limited time to make sure she gets a taste of the city, so I’m going to try and get her a little bit of everything.

Other than that, I always like to just drive around — stop in to see people and places that were important to me growing up. It is a nostalgia tour, for sure.

In addition to filmmaking, writing, and sci-fi, what else are you a geek about?

I am a huge geek for early 90’s cartoons. I’ve already incriminated myself regarding my unhealthy Ninja Turtle obsession, but Batman: The Animated Series (TAS), X-Men TAS, The Real Ghostbusters… as far as I’m concerned these are seminal creative works that defined my childhood. Same goes for Nintendo back then. NES through N64 was the golden age of gaming, and let the record show that I still don’t believe there will ever be a better game than Ocarina of Time. Prelude of Light is my jam!

When can people see Prodigy at the FilmFest?

Prodigy is showing at 9:30pm on April 7th, and 10pm on April 8th. Both screenings are at the Cinemark Palace on the Plaza (526 Nichols Rd, Kansas City, MO 64112). Tickets are on sale now on the festival’s website

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What future projects lay ahead for you?

Before Prodigy, I worked as the Cinematic Director on a story-based video game, and I have been developing another interactive story with the same team. We are gearing up to go into production in the next month or two. Working in games is a fun opportunity to apply my craft within a new medium.

I also have another script I am hoping to bring to life — a gritty, revenge thriller with a subversive twist; the protagonist is female. I found that plugging an already capable woman into the typically “hyper-masculine” avenger role gave the script a unique edge. There is some interest in it already, thanks to Prodigy, and I’m hoping it materializes into my next project.

Where can someone find more information about your work?

Have you been to the KC FilmFest? Do you have plans to go this year? What types of festival films appeal to you? Share your experience with a comment below.

Photo credits:
Savannah Liles as Ellie & Richard Neil as Fonda in Prodigy. Directors: Alex Haughey & Brian Vidal. Image courtesy of Prodigy Film, LLC.

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