By Robby Henson
Introverted and cerebral, Dekard is an agricultural engineer who monitors a regimented greenhouse laboratory that produces hybrid asparagus, sealed off in a transparent control booth buried beneath a destroyed landscape in the near future. When fertilizer delivery agent Elena Navarro arrives for a surprise visit, Dekard accidentally knocks an inferior asparagus he is culling to the lab floor in his rush to spend more time with Elena. After a trip to a dating compatibility center forecasts Elena and Dekard’s romantic future, he returns to his greenhouse to find an unlikely testament from his forgotten asparagus.
I arrived at the story of Asparagus by riffing on the idea of probability calculation based on personality and behavior calculus if extrapolated to the extreme.
I thought of how software programs now chart our likes and dislikes, GPS systems tell us how to reach our driving destinations, iTunes suggests music we'll like, and online dating services calculate romantic compatibility based on exhaustive questionnaires. Amazon.com tells me what movies and books I am most likely to enjoy based on my previous purchases. These are all examples of technology creeping into the human heart and soul.
At this accelerated rate of technological advancement, I began to picture a future in which relationships no longer have to play out in real time. You could step into a booth with your prospective mate and experience the shared ecstasy of your future happiness together or the soul-numbing experience of love gone really, really bad — in, like, 10 seconds.
Is this a good thing? Or is technology the square peg and humans the round hole? Not being the most technologically gifted (I don't use social media), my story veered toward the latter as a theme.
Once I decided that my story was about dating in the future, I needed characters functioning in a future society at its most synthetic and regimented. I came up with an asparagus engineer who must grow his crop underground with computer assistance because the landscape above has been poisoned. This alluded to other byproducts of human "advancement," which if left unchecked, would lead to an environmental apocalypse; a parallel cautionary tale that represents my green philosophy.
I wanted my film to be whimsical, not dour, so I decided it would be visually fun to see asparagus shafts grown by an agricultural engineer in a biohazard suit — the contrast of a vegetable so lyrically, stoically organic rising like a mini Stonehenge in a non-organic setting.
— Robby Henson, Writer/Director
This project allowed me to boldly go into uncharted territory on many fronts. I had never made a web movie before, nor a science-fiction movie, nor a movie about asparagus, nor a narrative short (at least since film school eons ago), and the concept of making something for the web that could be downloaded onto cell phones I found simultaneously inspiring and uninspiring (I count Lawrence of Arabia in my top 10 faves; try watching that on a cell phone). And I tended to skew toward the technologically backwards (I can remember when there was no MTV). So taking on a multitude of challenges, I hobbled ahead, with the goal of creating an amazing sci-fi web short on a very short budget.
And then I lost my original producer during pre-production (she got a job working on Poland's Next Top Model), but, as luck would have it, I was introduced to producer Paul Merryman, a recent graduate of AFI's producing program, and he brought to this project a talented and energetic crew of young AFI grads — the visionary DP Michal Dabal and the production designer Kil Won Yu. This core group had the creative zing the project needed.
Perhaps the biggest miracle-worker of our crew was Kil Won who designed and built our awesome futuristic greenhouse/control room out of plywood and tape on a sound stage with cracked floors near LAX. We had thought on our budget we would need to shoot a real greenhouse up in Ventura, but by constructing a custom-designed set on a sound stage we achieved a more futuristic look, controlled the lighting, got more shots done in a day, and we didn't have to drive the crew to Ventura.
There are more than 100 special-effects shots in Asparagus. My favorite effect is the "infinity" greenhouse, where the underground crop rows seem to run on forever. This was achieved by using a blue screen on the butt-end of our 20-foot-long set and then hiring VFX supervisor Jon Julsrud off Craigslist to make magic. Jon was a recent émigré from Minnesota and I was able to talk him into moving into the tiny garage apartment behind my building where he created an awesome stream of effects on his laptop. And he was right outside my door anytime I needed to bug him.
We shot on the Red One digital camera, and this was another first for me. I had made five features, all shot on old school 35mm, but I immediately fell in love with the instantaneous results DP Michal Dabal could dial up on the Red One. And also Michal contributed significantly to the look of the film by making me visit an old rock quarry location up near Lancaster that he had used in a student film. I seized on this location immediately because it had this decayed, twisted metal and tunnels and mining equipment that looked like a civilization in ruins. This location supplied a Blade Runner-esque backdrop to our story.
I cast the central roles of Elena and Dekard by placing an ad in the LA Breakdowns and then culling through 3,000 submitted photographs and calling about 100 actors to audition on tape. I loved working with Ryan and Tara, and I think they are terrific in the film. Tara had a real spark and sass and Ryan was introverted yet appealing and I felt they had great chemistry together. I filled out supporting roles with talented actor friends I had worked with before, such as Tom Bower, the gravel-voiced narrator who has been in 130 movies from River's Edge to Herzog's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. And my Texas friend Lew Temple had just come from a scene-stealing role in Tony Scott's Unstoppable. He played a neutered dating counselor alongside the lovely Lin Ciango. And if you look closely in the dating center scene you'll also see my good friend Chas Garabedian making a cameo. Chas is widely considered one of the finest Los Angeles painters ever. And he's still quite the golfer at 85.
After it was all said and done, this web project allowed me to learn a ton about digital production and I had stretched my editing skills on Final Cut Pro. Plus my refrigerator was stuffed with cases of leftover asparagus. I had stinky pee for a month.
— Robby Henson, Writer/Director
Writer, Director, Editor
Robby Henson received his M.F.A. from New York University's graduate film school; his thesis film won the Student Academy Award. His films have been seen on PBS, the BBC, at Lincoln Center, the Museum of Modern Art, the Georges Pompidou Center in Paris and at film festivals in Canada, Ireland, France, Yugoslavia, Australia, and Poland.
He has directed more than 30 theater productions in New York, as well as regionally, and has made six award-winning documentaries shown on PBS including Spalding Gray: A Life in Progress and Trouble Behind. His ITVS funded documentary Summerstock was shown last year on the international series True Stories: Life in the USA hosted by Danny Glover.
Robby's first dramatic feature was Pharoah's Army. He wrote and directed The Badge, which was nominated for a GLAAD Media Award (Gay and Lesbian Alliance). He directed The Visitation, a supernatural thriller which was released by 20th Century Fox in 2005. His fifth dramatic feature film House was released in 2008.
Paul Michael Merryman
Originally from Austin, Texas, Paul earned his undergraduate degree in Radio, Television, and Film from the University of Texas at Austin. During his studies he wrote and directed the short subject documentary APD: Downtown Discipline, a piece about police accountability that helped foster better relationships between the police department and the community. Most recently, Paul earned his MFA in Producing at the American Film Institute where he made his 35mm thesis film The Escape.
Dekard – Ryan Sandberg
Ryan Sandberg was raised in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota and moved to Los Angeles to launch his acting career. Starting with performances in dozens of student films from all of the area’s colleges and art schools, he is now enjoying great opportunities on shows like Spike TV’s 1000 Ways to Die and G4’s Attack of the Show.
Elena – Tara Shayne
Tara grew up in Carefree, Arizona and has been entertaining audiences practically since birth. From her debut performance at age 5 as the narrator in Jack and the Beanstalk, acting became her passion. At her request, she began dance lessons, followed by piano, musical theatre, acting, and voice. She consistently trained and soon began to compete and perform professionally in the arts. In Los Angeles, acting coach Amy Lyndon helped her land her first role in the Weinstein Company film The Boston Strangler: The Untold Story. Tara has since then starred in many festival award-winning films; most recently the comedy Devolved, released in 2010, and as the leading lady in The Last Day on Earth, a psychological thriller premiering early 2011. In her spare time, Tara enjoys singing and writing music, drawing, snowboarding, and reading Shakespeare to her toy poodle Ophelia.
Tom Bower - Narrator
Tom is best known to audiences as Marvin the Janitor in Die Hard II; "the drunken pilot” in Clear and Present Danger; as the FBI Agent who came to Ashley Judd’s aid in High Crimes; as Cecil Skells in True Believer, and as Richard Nixon’s father in Oliver Stone’s Nixon. For the nostalgia buffs, Tom played Mary Ellen’s husband, Dr. Curtis Willard, in The Waltons. More recently he has appeared in Appaloosa, Crazy Heart, and Werner Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: New Orleans Port of Call. Tom is a long-standing member of the Actor’s Studio.