JONE: Sci-Fi Short Film Provides A Fascinating Point Of View On An A.I. Trying To Fit In With Humanity

Jone — a sci-fi short from director Jesse Pinho — tells the story of an android attempting (and failing) to fit in with humans. Here, we discuss the creation of the film with Pinho and Jone star Katy Corbus.

These days, it seems every little corner of the sci-fi genre has been explored. However, as with any other film genre, science fiction still has a deep well of storytelling opportunities from which to take. Look no further than Jone, a USC (University of Southern California) sci-fi short directed by Jesse Pinho and starring Katy Corbus.

The short centers on Jone, a sentient A.I. working as a costumer-service representative who longs to connect with her co-workers and humankind in general. Jone has been finished, and SFF Gazette got the opportunity to talk to Pinho and Corbus about the behind-the-scenes process of the film, bringing the character to life, and the future of this story. 

The Making of J​one

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Below, Pinho walks us through what difficulties he and his crew encountered during production, where Jone fits in genre-wise, the idiosyncrasies of its protagonist, and whether or not he would like the movie to become a feature-length project. 

Q: What were the challenges you encountered during filming?:

"One of our biggest challenges came from the location restrictions we had to deal with. We shot most of the film in USC's Doheny Library book stacks. Doheny Library is pretty strict about what kind of filming they allow, so we were prohibited from using just about any equipment beyond the camera. That meant, for example, that we couldn't even use a tripod. Joyzel, our cinematographer, had to hold the camera herself, which made for some pretty exhausting shooting days. [...] Another challenge was getting the performance right. Katy Corbus and I worked together to develop a body language and a way of speaking that was subtle enough to not be too cheesy, while still getting the point across that she's not fully human. Katy did an absolutely incredible job with it — I can't count how many times I've heard people compliment her performance in the film. She really made the film what it is."

Q: The movie is very futuristic concept-wise, but still feels grounded in a realistic society — the cubicles being an example of that. Was that due to budgetary restrictions, or was that sci-fi/realism combination something you wanted from the get-go to emphasize the relatable journey of a character trying to fit in?: 

"I often use the term 'speculative fiction' rather than 'sci-fi,' because most of what I write is less fantastical than, e.g., movies about aliens, or space, or giant killer robots. My inspirations include Margaret Atwood's MaddAddam trilogy and Black Mirror — stories that feel like they could happen in the next decade or so. At this point in my storytelling journey, I'm interested in creating stories that feel very connected to our present-day experience, rather than offering audiences an escape like sci-fi often does.

As for your question about budget: Our budget was extraordinarily [limited], and our timeline even more so. With a bigger budget and more time, I likely would have invested a little bit in some visual effects to heighten the sci-fi-ness of the piece. That said, with the benefit of hindsight, I'm not actually sure that additional VFX would have made the film any better. Our professors often talk about how constraints breed creativity, and nowhere was this more apparent than with Jone."

Q: The character of Jone is meant to be sweet, but still kind of eerie. As such, do you think the film fits more into the horror or drama genre? (There are a few elements that imply a more horror-leaning story, like her overall reactions and the music used in her fantasy.):

"I always struggle with putting a film strictly into one genre or another, since there are usually elements of several genres in any film. For example, Jone also has a bit of comedy, such as when she rotely repeats what she overheard her co-workers say. If and when I create a longer version of [the movie], I'd be interested in exploring a number of directions for the tone, and horror would certainly be one of them. Imagine a sweet, well-meaning android who causes death and destruction in her misguided search for inclusion. That's a story I'd love to tell."

Q: Is the end implying that Jone will turn bitter or was her reaction a result of her desperation of not fitting in?:

"Jone's fantasy is to be human — to be included in human conversation and relationships like anyone else. At the end of the film, when the rude customer tells her she's 'more human that I gave you credit for,' she returns to her daydream from the beginning of the film, once again believing that her fantasy is possible."

Q: Do you see Jone becoming a feature-length film in the future? Is that something you'd be interested in?:

"Absolutely! There is a ton more that can be done with this character, and I'd love to bring Katy back for a longer version of [the film]. That said, I have a lot of feature film ideas in the speculative-fiction/sci-fi space that are higher-priority for me at the moment. One of them is a feature-length screenplay I wrote in 2020 titled 'Transfusion,' about a near-future world in which the rich can pay to offload their mental illnesses into the minds of the poor. I expect that to be the first feature film I shoot after USC."

The technical and storytelling sides of the film are one thing, but there's also the performance aspect of it all...

Finding the Right Approach to Jone 

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Portraying an A.I. with burgeoning emotions who's also attempting to imitate the basic human experience is a tricky task. Delivering a believable performance for that requires a considerable amount of forethought, as proven by the process followed by the film's star, Katy Corbus.

The actress provided us some background into her approach to portraying Jone. She stated that one of the most challenging aspects of bringing the character to life was balancing her A.I. mannerisms with her palpable desire to fit in. To that end, Corbus worked with Pinho to perfect her body language: 

"It was definitely intimidating to play a non-human character whose emotional arc was also the crux of the plot. So, the focus (and challenge) was balancing a few key A.I.-like tells with her deep emotional longing to connect with others. Jesse [Pinho] and I had several rehearsals together before shooting and dedicated a lot of that time to figuring out what Jone's mannerisms would be and why, so I would say a lot of her development was more outside-in here. We worked on a couple of head tilts, vocal qualities and expression changes that she would flip through while listening/interacting on phone calls and with others, and having that vocabulary helped a lot once we were ready to film." 

The actress further stated that Jone's robotic nature was actually a helpful gateway into the character:

"Jone is actually a highly attuned, empathic being who just is without the physiological skills or patterns to communicate that. Getting into her head was accessible in that sense; her feelings are very human and very relatable. Jesse's script and vision for the film really built this in so well that I was able to have a great time just living and playing in the circumstances as Jone. I had to shake out my stiff joints a bit on breaks, but had such a blast making this piece."

We thank Pinho and Corbus for their time to discuss the movie. 

The trailer for Jone is available below. To know when the film will be available to watch, you can follow Jesse Pinho on Instagram at @jessepinho. You can also follow Katy Corbus on Instagram at @katyrey.

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