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Everybody “Limbo”! A Conversation with First-Time Director Thomas Ikimi

Adam Moses (Christopher Russo) is a lawyer whose latest case gets him into more trouble than he bargains for. A run in with Tony Tachinardi (George Morafettis), and an unusual encounter on a city rooftop changes his world completely. Adam becomes trapped in Limbo, a place where time stands still. In this new world Adam will contemplate the possibilities of his power as a human being whose actions no longer have meaning or consequence. How long will it take for what’s buried to surface? An eternity?

When he gets involved with some mysterious clients that may have underground connections, the life of hotshot lawyer Adam Moses (Christopher Russo) gets thrown into chaos. After a bizarre rooftop encounter where he is nearly killed by an assassin, Adam discovers himself in a Groundhog Day situation where he’s forced to repeat the same hour of his life over and over again.

The only variable is Adam himself, and as he’s forced to relive the hour he attempts to discover just what happened to him. Along the way, he realizes the freedom inherent in being ‘a human whose actions no longer have meaning or consequence.’ In much the same way sanity gets stripped away in a Paul Auster novel, Adam gradually shuffles off his morality and adapts to his new, metaphysical environment. But is he the only one trapped in time?

With his feature debut Limbo, writer-director Thomas Ikimi crafts an ambitious fantasy project on a limited budget. He’s helped enormously by the aggressive cinematography of Jon Miller (Calling Bobcat) and the moody, evocative score by Andrew David Daniels. caught up with Ikimi after the New York premiere screening of Limbo, attempting to make sense of his esoteric adventure story. How did you get involved in filmmaking? What is your background?

Thomas Ikimi: I got involved in filmmaking by chance, as an undergraduate studying literature and writing at Columbia University. I was two years away from graduation and had no idea what I was going to do. My brother suggested that since I had so many story ideas, I should consider filmmaking. I’d already been toying with the idea, but that conversation gave me the validation I needed to go through with it.

How was Limbo conceived?

TI: I kept thinking about this concept: What if your actions had no consequences? What a trip. There would be no reason not to be a complete maniac, and enjoy it. It was a scary thought that attracted me to writing Limbo. The framework came from my Catholic background.

Can you tell me about the writing process? It’s a complex narrative, and you have quite a few rules to cover…

TI: I start out most of my stories just thinking about them for months. If after three or four months they don’t seem stupid and pointless, I know it’s worth committing to the page. At that stage, I write a prose short form version of the whole story. Maybe five pages. Some parts would be like short ‘points’ format. Then I use this as the basis around which I form the detailed script. All the rules of Limbo had to be drawn out this way before I started. There are many loopholes that I left in because Limbo is more about symbolism than making perfect sense in the real world.

What ‘time travel’/’time limbo’ rules did you create for yourself?

TI: Adam is the maker of his reality. Time is all relative to himself and his actions within that single hour. We only see what he does – and what he allows us to know about. We don’t see his first meetings with people, only the meetings that matter. It’s like how when you tell a story, you skip the boring parts and [relay] only the parts where things happen. I had to do this to save money, time, and to separate this film from the by-the-numbers style of Groundhog Day where you keep seeing the same scenes over and over. That’s old school.

How did you conceive of the visual look? What was your process with your director of photography, Jon Miller?

TI: I saw the movie in my head as I wrote it. It had to be black and white and classic looking. Money prevented me from really going to town, but think The Man Who Wasn’t There. That was what I wanted. Jon Miller has a very astute eye when it comes to framing and lighting. He rarely misses a move or a shot and he knows how to use shadow to effectively create mood and ambience. I’d just tell him the emotion I wanted and he’d do the rest. I’d tweak things here and there, but we generally never argued or disagreed at all during the whole shoot. Remember, we had no dolly, no cranes, and no real mobile camera equipment. He did a magnificent job with nothing but the barest minimum.

Why black-and-white?

TI: Good and evil – black and white – direct opposites – and so much cheaper than post-production in color!

Were there any surprises in the editing room?

TI: Yeah, the movie was too damn long – the first cut was almost three hours. There is a whole other Limbo feature on the cutting room floor. Some things from the script didn’t translate well to film. My inexperience, some weak performances, and general lack of preparation in a few areas caused this. The biggest tragedy was the loss of the Rebecca and Adam semi-love story. A major factor in the script, it was excised from the movie.

What are your plans for the film now that it’s done?

TI: Distribution on DVD and video and runs on TV and cable. Maybe a limited release theatrically. I just got back from the Cannes market with it, and we are now an official selection at the Taormina Film Festival in Italy in June 2005 – one of only 12 international movies in the major Italian festival. This will be our international premiere and will hopefully launch a movie that is very unusual indeed. This is not a commercial picture and is for a niche audience. I have gained little to no recognition in the U.S.A., and the fact that I was a student when I made this film probably didn’t help in making people here take me seriously. It has been rather heartbreaking to face so much negativity to my work here, but alas that is what you have to go through when you try to be different. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard ‘not enough violence, more sex, too much dialogue, black-and-white was a mistake, should have been in color, no one wants a black and white movie these days, why couldn’t you get at least one name in your cast, you should have waited till you had more money.’

You worked with a limited budget. The disadvantages are self-evident, but could you describe the advantages?

TI: The advantages were few but important. You knew exactly what you could and couldn’t do, and it made us more efficient and fast in preparation and execution. You can’t make a lot of mistakes when you have no money or time. It also forced me to be very creative in portraying script elements and think on my feet. I had to sometimes cut scenes and create new ones on the fly.

Any tips for guerrilla filmmakers such as yourself? What would you do the same/different?

TI: I wouldn’t change a thing. Take the plunge if you believe in yourself and the project. There are too many variables to have a defined plan. Just be as prepared as possible for the unknown, and surround yourself with good people. They are the ones that will make it happen in the end.

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