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Prying Open “Tin Can”

August 3, 2011

If you were going to make a low-budget movie, you might not think of science fiction as the most promising genre. But Stephen Maas saw it another way: “I was interested in telling a story that took place in as few locations as possible, because we had no money.”

So, how about the interior of a spaceship? And a story that focuses on the human hardships of a mission gone badly wrong? Well, that’s Tin Can, a full-length film made by a small group of Vermonters. And despite its minuscule budget, Tin Canis a compelling story that’s very well told.

The crew: Alan Kenneth (Jayson Argento), Peter Bennett (Stephen Maas), and Mark Riley (Eric Clifford)

Maas is the lead player in the movie and in its creation. He’s listed in the credits as… let’s see now… actor, writer, editor, music supervisor, composer, producer, technical director, assistant director, production designer, assistant set designer, visual effects supervisor, special visual effects, construction supervisor, locations manager, graphic artist, camera operator, lighting designer, and foley artist.

Somehow, he missed “key grip.”

Oh, one other thing: The movie’s primary set was built inside his one-car garage. “Actually, the first thing you told me was that you were building a spaceship in your garage,” said Logan Howe, who joined the project after that intriguing intro. (Well, “joined” is a mild word for her involvement; she was the film’s director, set designer, art director, carpenter, and one of the actors, among many other things.) “Yeah,” replied Maas, “that was the hook to get people to help for no money — ‘Dude, there’s a spaceship in my garage!'”

I got to meet Maas and Howe in late June, when I was guest hosting The Mark Johnson Show on Radio Vermont/WDEV. (The quotes in this post are taken from that interview.) In preparing for the interview, I got to see a movie that hasn’t officially been released. Yet.

And it was a captivating watch. Tin Can follows three men who set off on a two-year-long mission to Mars. After many months in their small craft, they begin to show signs of strain. Then come a series of equipment failures and accidents that put their survival (and their sanity) at risk. Finally, there are questions about the nature of their mission and what, exactly, is really going on.

The premise of Tin Can is based on real science — in particular, aerospace engineer Robert Zubrin’s proposal for a (relatively) low-cost, simple manned mission to Mars. “This is a real mission design,” said Maas. “We could do it tomorrow.”

Building a spaceship in Steve's garage

The film’s intensity is greatly enhanced by Howe’s set design — a masterpiece of minimalism. She called the design “a spectactular challenge that I pored over for two weeks.” The cramped quarters reinforce the isolation of the voyagers — and the dangers they face when things go wrong. “I’d envisioned the set in pieces like a conventional one,” said Maas. “But Logan insisted on making it a real space that was completely enclosed.”

Good call.

Tin Can isn’t always an easy film to watch; its emotional intensity is downright scary at times. What I hadn’t realized, until the interview, is how much of that intensity was all too real. At one point, the astronauts are forced to take refuge in their bunks — small, completely enclosed “pods.” When it’s time to come out, Maas’ character (mission commander Peter Bennett) is trapped in his bunk. Try as they might, his crewmates can’t get the door open. Bennett is imprisoned in that tiny space for months and months. Eventually, he goes insane; in a particularly harrowing scene, Bennett rages at his crewmates and begs them to release him.

“I’m claustrophobic in real life,” said Maas. “It’s one of my worst fears. I’m 6 foot, four inches tall; the bunk was only seven feet.”

So he had to control his real-life terror while at the same time, exploiting it for the sake of the movie. “That was one of the most stressful days on the set,” said Howe. “I hated putting him in that position. I think we even had a ‘safe word’ if he had had enough.”

That’s real commitment. And it shows in the final product, a remarkable piece of work by a team of very talented people.

As of this writing, there are no scheduled showings of Tin Can. The next move is to send it to potential distributors and submit it to film festivals; many of them will not consider a movie that’s already been shown publicly. “We will show it eventually,” said Maas. “One way or another, we will insist on showing it locally. We’re hoping a distributor will do so, but we’ll do it ourselves if necessary.”

I’d advise you to be on the lookout for Tin Can. I’d like to see it again myself, this time on the big screen of a theater instead of a TV set at home. I imagine the intensity would only be that much greater.

You can keep up with the film at its website, or follow its Twitter feed or Facebook page. And if you’re so inclined, give them a donation in support of their publicity and distribution efforts.

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