Anyone wandering the University of Illinois Quad late at night last fall was bound to have caught a glimpse of a lanky Belarussian man trying to save the campus from the threat of a mummy. And while Paul Karpenko is featured as the unlikely hero in Chris Lukeman’s forthcoming film The University of Illinois -vs- A Mummy, the Minsk native and math/computer science senior has spun a bundle of his own self-written and directed projects since he arrived in Urbana from his second home of Newton, Mass. His most recent film Assassins was screened at the April 30 Illini Film and Video Student Film Festival. Copies are available, along with his other creation, Acetaminophen, at his Web site http://paulkarpenko.com/.
Why does film capture your interest as a medium?
I like film as a medium because it’s the art form closest to real life in its presentation, but at the same time, it’s still entirely subjective, which allows for some excellent subversion. Student Film, specifically, allows me to express myself in a way almost impossible a decade ago. With today’s incredibly cheap digital cameras, pretty much anyone can make a movie, which is a double-edged sword, of course. I would think far more people regularly watch movies than go to art galleries, examine photographs or attend plays. Because of that, people are very much aware of what a movie is supposed to look like, and so they’ll be much quicker to deem a film unprofessional versus another artwork. This makes it very hard to make a film as a student that is actually “good.” My theory is that if you take yourself and your film too seriously and try to make a film in the vein of a Hollywood production, you will fail. There will always be dead giveaways that it’s a student film. Bad lighting, bad sound, bad acting, shaky camerawork, awkward editing and so on. These things are impossible to escape since you don’t have millions of dollars to keep them in check. Because of this, I always think it’s best to make student films with a bit of self-awareness-of both yourself and your medium. Not to say that you shouldn’t be original, but you have to be aware of the confines of cheap student filmmaking and choose your battles.
What was the premise and inspiration for Assassins?
The premise of Assassins is very simple. It’s based on the popular game of Assassins that’s played around college campuses. Everyone is given a name of a person to assassinate with a water pistol, so everyone becomes hunter and hunted at all times. The idea to make a film about this came about my sophomore year. I knew I wanted to make another movie with IFV, but I didn’t have any ideas. That was, of course, until we played a game of Assassins at ISR, and I was the first one out. I realized it was the perfect idea for a student film. I’d make an action movie-something that’s incredibly hard to do if you’re going to be serious about it, with real guns, etcetera-but the water pistols would add the exact dose of tongue-in-cheek-ness that would be needed. Now I could make the characters take the game as seriously as I wanted because the audience would always be aware of the preposterousness of the situation.
How does the screenplay-writing process usually proceed for you?
It’s been different every time. The first One Day’s Hell didn’t have a script and the second One Day’s Hell was written over a few weeks as a collaboration with my friend Rory. Assassins was the first movie I wrote entirely by myself. I didn’t want to at first and actually begged a lot of my friends to write it for me, given a loose premise. But nobody had time, which is very indicative of a student film: If you don’t write it yourself, no one will unless you pay them. So I just sat down and wrote it over the course of two or three days. The bonus of writing your own script, of course, is that you’ll write scenes that you both want to shoot and, more importantly, have some idea of how to shoot. If someone else wrote it, I would have had to change some things around simply because I either wouldn’t know how to or be physically unable to shoot them. And even though I wrote it myself, I still left out several shots and scenes. Either the lines didn’t work, we didn’t have a location, or we just ran out of time.
How did you get involved in film projects here on campus?
I actually came to the University knowing I wanted to join a film club. I was walking around on Quad Day my freshman year, looking for one, when this guy Anthony yelled, I swear to God, “You! You look like you want to make movies!” and shoved a flyer with “IFV” on it in my face. Since then, I’ve been pretty involved with IFV, even taking the reins as president one year. IFV is an excellent resource for anyone who wants to be involved in filmmaking on campus. We have tons of equipment, from cameras, lights and microphones, to a Macintosh with FinalCut Pro for editing. It’s incredibly easy to get started.
What came first for you-computer science or film? How has your experience in computer science influenced your work in film?
I’ve always been a huge film geek. From about sixth or seventh grade till the end of high school, I saw pretty much every movie that came out in theaters. I’d go every week, sometimes twice a week, regardless of whether or not I got someone to come with me. So I think getting into filmmaking was a pretty natural progression. The computer science stems from my interest in technology. I definitely majored in computer science more for the promise of a job, though, than some deep-rooted passion. I’ve always been more into the artistic side of computers. Sophomore year in high school, for example, I made a seven-minute-long 3D-animated movie called Andromeda with an animation program called Lightwave 3D. I still do a bit of 3D-animation, now mostly in 3D Studio Max. So, there’s definitely some room for intersection between filmmaking and computer science. If I can understand the technological aspect of filmmaking as well as the artistic, I think it can only be a good thing.