‘Prodigy’ Star Richard Neil Talks About The Smart Sci-Fi Thriller

How far should we go to get inside someones heart?

As much as I am a horror fan- a lover of blood and guts, I still want to watch films where people speak intelligently; movies that make me think and feel. I’m not saying you never get that in horror films, but…. sometimes in this genre, the conversations are just leading from one kill to the next, and the things being said aren’t exactly intellectual. Kinda goes with the territory I guess. So, for me Prodigy was a breath of fresh air. A film where the character’s connection, the words they are saying and what they are feeling is more important than violence. A movie with empathy and humanity. There is enough supernatural thriller action in Prodigy for a horror fan. But it’s also a smart indie Sci-Fi thriller with great dialogue, that uses some clever and well done, old-school practical effects.

Synopsis: Dr. Fonda, (Richard Neil) an unconventional psychologist, is consulted on the case of a troubled young genius, Ellie (Savannah Liles). Upon meeting the girl in a high-security facility, under the watchful eyes of a roomful of experts, Fonda is surprised to discover the advanced nature of Ellie’s intelligence, but is unaware of the supernatural power the girl possesses. However, as their session progresses, he uncovers just how desperate and dangerous this situation really is. Unfortunately, he soon realizes that her life hangs in the balance and that time is running out.

I had the honor of talking to Richard Neil, one of the stars of this intelligent and emotional supernatural Sci-Fi thriller.  

LAZG: Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule for me. You just got done with a call-back for a new film? How do you think it went?

RN: “I did, and it felt very good, but we’ll see what happens.”

LAZG: Good luck! So, the reason for the interview today is the film Prodigy. This film surprised me, and I really loved it! How did you get involved?

RN: “I got involved in the usual way. I auditioned for it with another hundred actors and I guess the directors liked me enough to bring me back for a call-back, and the call-back was with Savannah Liles who plays the young girl in the film. They really liked our chemistry. After that, there was a waiting period, of about a month, before I heard back, and we got started. With these independent films you’re never quite sure if its gonna happen or not. There’s always insecurity in this business, like I don’t believe I actually have the job until I’m on the set!”

LAZG: What can you tell me about the film and your character?

RN: “The character I play is Fonda. I am a psychologist that is brought into a military compound as a kind of last ditch attempt to save this young girl Ellie, who is basically there as a prisoner by the government, because they fear her special telekinetic powers could pose a national security threat. I am brought in by a former colleague of mine to see if I can convince the authorities that she can be saved, and that we can use her powers for the forces of good, so to speak.

I’m the benevolent psychologist who has a bit of trauma in his own past and he is essentially a loner at this point. Fonda spends a lot of his time playing chess and working trying to help troubled youth. He’s sort of a wounded soldier in a way and he has a great deal of empathy. So, he is brought in by this former colleague of his from college, Olivia and she knows he had this kind of gift for working with young people and that his methods can be a bit unorthodox. She has tried in her own way to help Ellie, without success, so she brings me in as a desperate last move to try to save this girl. Through the course of the film, as I get to know Ellie I’m, in a way, also rescued. Something is brought out within me, that also changes my life and gives me a sense of hope for a different type of future.”

LAZG: We could see in your eyes what a sad and beaten man you were at the beginning of the film. What did you do to prepare for such an emotional role?

RN: “Well it’s more in the imagination. For a character like that, I use the fact that I am a father of a 16-year-old girl, and I’m very involved in her life. Without getting too new-age here; when you allow yourself to become a parent and be really involved, I think there’s an opening up of your heart as a father and you get to be this empathetic type person. I guess I’m a softy; my wife and daughter chide me when I cry at anything, watching any movie. It’s pathetic. It doesn’t take much for me to imagine the kind of tragedy that happened to Fonda. So, all you do as an actor is fully embrace that place within you.

There is a sort of depression he carries with him and a weight, along with a sense of guilt. So, I just embrace that emotional life and imagine the tragedy happened to me, and what that would feel like. I think such an event in your life can traumatize you to such a degree that you’d be paralyzed. I think Fonda, in a sense, turned the tragedy into a way to motivate himself to help young people, purge the feelings of guilt and give himself a sense of purpose. In a sense, it makes him fearless especially when he butts up against authority figures that in his mind are just silly and working out some egotistical machismo. I think he thinks of himself as above that and it’s not hard for me to imagine being there as the character.”

LAZG: What was it like working with Savannah? She is really believable as the young genius Eleanor. You two are truly the core of the movie.

RN: “Thank You! She was terrific to work with, it was a lot to take on. I don’t know if you are aware, but in the initial casting process the two directors had originally envisioned the role to be played by a young boy. It was written as such, and they had auditioned some young male actors, but they couldn’t find anybody they thought could carry the film. So, they opened up the casting to young girls and Savannah walked in and basically knocked their socks off!”

LAZG: Yay! Girl Power!

RN: “Yeah! Right? She had this intensity, this stillness about her, a sort of inner fierceness. It’s a difficult part technically, as you can see, but also with the dialogue, the words she spoke had to just roll off her tongue. She’s playing this hyper genius and I would like to say that Savannah is a hyper genius, but I think she is just really a terrific actress. She worked very hard, she had an acting coach and her mom coached her as well. As I said earlier we also had a few months to ruminant and work on the script on our own before the shooting began. We only had two rehearsals before we got on the set. The directors, her acting coach, and her mom really worked with her, making sure she knew what she was saying and why she was saying it, typical actor questions. She needed to understand exactly what she was saying to break it down emotionally. So, she pulled it off, she really did.”

LAZG: There are really only 4 sets in the entire film, do you think that made it easier to film or did it create more challenges to keep it interesting?

RN: “This is a first-time feature for Alex Haughey and Brian Vidal, the co-directors, and I think they really honed this script to make it as strong and solid as possible. I think also, because of the budget restraints, necessity became the mother of invention here. They were trying to make it as interesting visually as they could because basically 95% of it takes place in only two sets. There were hallway and exterior shots they used as bookends to the movie, but for the most part it’s the interrogation room and the control room. These were physical rooms and it was crowded. The cinematographer with the camera set up, lighting and audio equipment; all that had to be there. It is difficult to try to create a sense of dynamics and energy in a room when you are so constricted spatially.

I think the DP and directors really worked hard to create a sense of movement and momentum in the film. I think it made us work more economically in terms of what we could do visually. In terms of our own performances, I think Savannah and I tried to create a sense of movement. Also, the use of editing and the addition of music really helps to build the tension needed. If you have too much money or sets it can be too much eye candy; you might not follow all the action. So, since this was the directors’ first feature I think they were well served to keep it simple and keep it more of a psychological, dialogue driven type movie.”

LAZG: How much of the film was practical SFX and how much was CGI?

RN: “Brian Vidal, one of the directors, was essentially the technical director too, handling all the special effects. I would say that 90% of the effects he used were practical. They used a lot of fish line and things were moved that way. The chess pieces that moved on their own, papers flying in the air, all that was done with fish line, so that was all very practical. The only CG was to remove anything that was seen by the camera and that was done in post-production. But all the effects, like the table flying, was done practically.”

LAZG: What kind of behind-the-scenes story can you share?

RN: “Hmm, let me think. Well a few people got sick during the filming. We shot non-stop for two straight weeks and they all had to work through it, but luckily were able to recover. I’m sorry, but that’s not a very good story to tell.

Savannah was a pleasure to work with and Alex Haughey the director, really bonded with her. They had these breaks where he would spin Savannah around the room just to break up the monotony, because a lot of the time she was in a straightjacket and it’s an uncomfortable thing, especially for a nine-year-old body that’s being fed Frappuccino drinks by her mom!

Also, when you’re working with a child actor, the only major drawback is that they have such a restricted amount of hours they can work in a day. So, for most of my close-ups I would deliver my lines to the script supervisor who is a 28-year-old woman. Very, very nice, but she wasn’t a freckle faced nine-year-old girl. Coco, her name, had to squish down so I had the right eye line when I said my lines. But that’s what you have to do on a low budget film, you have to shoot a certain number of pages every day and you don’t have time to fall behind.”

LAZG: Do you believe that powers like telekinesis really exist or is it just Sci-Fi?

RN: “Well Vicki, do you believe?”

LAZG: I want to believe. But I have never been 100% convinced myself. I do think that the power of the mind can be an amazing thing.

RN: “That’s how I feel too. I would like to be convinced. When my wife lost her cat, she went to a psychic. The psychic said ‘I hear your cat. It’s nearby your house, in an enclosed space and you’ll have to go find him.’ Sure enough, she asked around, and a neighbor said there’s a cat stuck in his garage. So, she found the cat, and this was days and days later. That made me believe a bit more. So, I think it’s possible that people have psychic abilities. So, perhaps that kind of extrasensory intelligence could make it possible for you be able to do other things with your mind.

Years ago, Yuri Gellar was popular, but it turned what he did really wasn’t true, so it makes it hard to know who is real. The famous magician Houdini spent his life exposing all the frauds who were holding seances. He was very close to his mother and was always trying to reach her. Seances were huge, because people really thought you could communicate with the dead. And he made it his goal to expose all these people while he tried to find a real one. I would also like to believe it is possible, for sure. But I would like proof.”

LAZG: Yeah, if it’s real we need to be careful how we treat people with special psychic abilities. We don’t want any little Ellie’s, Carrie’s or Firestarter’s coming after us. It’s scary to think about an adolescent with mental powers!

RN: “That’s why we need good mental health services. Ha Ha”

LAZG: And good parenting and less Frappuccino’s!

RN: “Exactly! Keep them away from sugar and caffeine!“

LAZG: Do you have any upcoming projects that you want to talk about?

RN: “I have a few films coming out, but I just recently worked on a video game for a show directed by Tim Miller who directed Deadpool. It’s going to be a graphic anthology series on Netflix. But I’m not supposed to mention anything more about it. It comes out later in 2018 or early next year, I do one of the main characters, it’s a voice, kind of a Nick Nolte type voice and that was a lot of fun. I’ve got some other independent films coming out. There’s a Film Noir Sci-Fi hybrid called Clyde Cooper, which is quite an interesting film if you are into Sci-Fi as well. It’s a very relevant movie. And there’s another film called This Much, and it’s actually a romantic comedy. I got to play the villain in that, so that’s pretty cool.

Prodigy is currently available on DVD & Blu-Ray and various VOD Services. Also available to buy now on iTunes and Amazon

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