Wednesday, December 2, 2009
Plaguers is here! An interview with director Brad Sykes (part two)
And here we have part 2 of the Brad Sykes-interview, the director of Plaguers! You can read part 1 here.
The computer-screen graphics was also very, very retro. Loved that. How did you work with the design of the movie, and did you and your team do a lot of research, watching old movies and so on?
I’m glad you appreciated that. The design of the entire movie, on some level, grew out of the sets that we ended up shooting on.
Years after writing the script, I found some old spaceship sets lying around that were built in the early nineties, but looked more like they were left over from a seventies or eighties sci-fi movie…I felt like I had literally walked into one of those films. At that point, the sets themselves became an inspiration, pushing the movie more and more in a retro direction. Everything followed suit: the prosthetic FX (which I love anyway), miniature ships, costumes, the computer displays, etc.
Some of the team – like myself and the FX guys, for example – didn't need to do any research. This stuff is in our blood. Vicky Avery, our costume designer, also has a encyclopedic knowledge of genre films past and present, and we intentionally wanted the pirate girl's costumes to have an iconic 60’s look, like something from Planet of the Vampires or Barbarella.
Our production designer, Scott Enge, hadn’t seen all the reference points, but he really wanted to capture the look I was after and would ask me for movie recommendations, and he would watch one after another…Battle Beyond the Stars, Android, Lifeforce, etc. He had to build quite a few new sets for the film, and really did a wonderful job matching the stuff he built with the old ones that were standing. My discussions with our DP, Scott Spears, when talking about lighting and framing, were all about maintaining a certain naturalistic, carefully composed quality that I associate with older movies like Aliens or a lot of Carpenter’s stuff, as opposed to the quick-edit, jittery, saturated look a lot of horror films have today. It was really important that everyone be on the same page so we could get the look and feel I wanted.
How did you get Steve Railsback involved? One of my all time favourites is Lifeforce, and it was great fun to see him back in a sci-fi movie like this.
I was a fan of Steve’s work growing up, especially Lifeforce and The Stunt Man. When I was writing the part of Tarver, I thought “wouldn’t it be cool if we could get Steve Railsback to play this part?” Every writer has thoughts like this, but how often do they come true? When we started casting, my wife and producer Josephina got hold of Steve’s former agent, who then contacted him, and then Steve called us! We sent him the script, he liked it, and then we met up and talked more about the character and the movie. He signed on soon afterward. In fact, he was the first actor on board. Later on, I admitted to him that I wrote the role with him in mind, and he told me that the only one other writer who ever did that was X-Files creator Chris Carter, who wrote the memorable “Duane Barry” character for Steve.
Having Steve in the movie was a real thrill and I can tell you, no other actor gets as involved as Steve does during prep and during shooting. He loves the crew and is very generous with the other actors. He even brought a friend of his in to coordinate some of the fight sequences. One of the things I really liked about Tarver – and I think this was one of the reasons Steve wanted to play him – is that his character is an essential part of Plaguers from the beginning till the end. The intensity and dedication Steve brought to the part was rewarded in 2008 when he won “Best Actor in a Science Fiction Film” award at ShockerFest International Film Festival.
My friend Jocke (also a fellow horror-blogger) is obsessed by the poster-art for Plaguers. Did you have the idea yourself and let someone else do the design of the poster, or have you done it yourself?
The poster was created by our foreign sales company. I’d like to take some credit for it, as it captures the movie perfectly, but I really had no involvement with it…although back when I was writing Plaguers, I drew up a “fake poster” for fun (I often do this to motivate myself to finish the script), and my own crude sketch (which I never showed to anybody) was really close to what they ended up doing! Back then, I was thinking about the poster for Nightflyers, which was basically a ghostly face formed over a starfield, with a small ship in the corner. If you look at the art for Nightflyers and Plaguers, made about 20 years apart, you’ll see how similar they are.
Explain a little bit about the casting process, how do you choose actors? Is there any special actors you want to work with?
Casting on Plaguers was pretty much the same as any of my other films, only we had more time and money and were able to see more actors. When holding auditions, I always look for the same things: acting ability obviously, a certain look, enthusiasm, and a good attitude. On Plaguers we were asking a lot from people, as the girls especially had to be attractive, talented, good at physical action, and comfortable wearing a lot of makeup for day after day! A pretty tall order for any film, especially one as low budget as ours. I explained to them in detail that they would be spending long hours in the makeup chair and even more hours on set wearing contacts, fangs, and other prosthetics, and they all seemed fine with it. In truth, once we got on set, some of the cast had difficulty with the makeup while others had no problem with it and really got into their “plaguer” side. I’m used to these types of situations after doing so many effects-oriented movies and was able to get what I needed in the end.
As for actors and actresses I’d like to work with, well, there are too many to list. I like actors who take risks and make creative, rather than commercial, choices. Here’s a partial list: Willem Dafoe, Colin Farrell, Viggo Mortensen, Lance Henriksen, Evan Rachel Wood, Asia Argento, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Kim Dickens, Juliette Lewis…
I'm 32 years old and still love’s some good gore, and in Plaguers we get some nice nasty surprises. John Carpenter once said that he enjoys making genre-movies because it's always something fun to film, and I guess the shooting of a gore-sequence both can be fun and stress. Or both at the same time. Let us know some more about shooting gore, action and effects and what you feel about it.
I agree with Carpenter about that…with a genre movie there’s never a dull moment, and not just because of the effects, sometimes it can be a certain lighting trick or camera movement, or the intensity of the performances. Special effects can be time-consuming to set up, and the stress comes from not having enough time or money to do a few more takes or really get it right. But when a gag works, it’s a great feeling and for me, a real rush…
For example, the scene in Plaguers where the creatures rip Steve Railsback’s arm off and drag him down. It took a long time to set up the arm gag and the blood tubing, and it was a “one shot deal”, we had no time to set it up and do take 2. So there’s Steve, with a fake arm attached to his torso, and two FX artists below him with blood tubing rigged just out of camera view. And three more actors made up as plaguers attacking him and ripping the arm off. Everything had to work – performances from all four actors had to be good, the arm had to come off and blood had to spray out at the right angle, tubes had to remain hidden, camera had to be set at the right angle, etc. So needless to say it was pretty stressful, but we double-checked everything and when we shot it, the gag worked perfectly, everyone performed well and we were all happy with it.
We had other shots that were harder to capture, like another one I remember in the “medbay massacre” as we call it, where Kyra (Noelle Perrs) stabs a female plaguer (Stephanie Skewes) in the neck with a cleaver. Tubing was running up under Stephanie’s dress to her neck, where the cleaver would strike. Goo was to spew out through the tube on cue, with cleaver basically concealing the end of the tube. Complicating matters, poor Steph was literally blinded by the contacts she was wearing, which had made her eyes redden and swollen (we later found she was allergic to them). It was in theory a simpler setup than the arm-rip gag but took three takes to get something usable. The first two takes, Noelle held the cleaver too close against the tube, pressing it against Steph’s costume and blocking the flow. So both times, all the goo just bubbled up at the top and leaked downward, soaking the inside of Steph’s costume! I have to say, Stephanie was really great about the whole thing, especially considering her total blindness at the time! Just moving the cleaver a hair to the right, a few inches away from the tube, did the trick and the gag worked. It’s funny to recall it all the details now, but at the time it was agonizing.
We shot Plaguers in fourteen days, and every day on the shoot was like this. We had actors in makeup (which in many cases went through several “stages” from basic contacts and fangs to advanced prosthetics) splattery gore effects, actors in full creature suits, fight choreography, stunts without stuntmen or doubles. I took on a lot of action and FX in Plaguers, definitely too much at times for our budget, but I was so tired of seeing films that didn’t deliver the goods. I really wanted to go for broke and put in all the cool stuff that I’d been missing lately.
Talking about gore an violence, did you have any problems with censorship in your career?
As most of my films are released unrated, I have not run into too many problems with censorship. I have had a few movies, like Plaguers, released in the US with an R rating. On that one, we didn’t have to cut anything to get the R. I also know that my movies Goth and Death Factory were released on DVD in Germany in two versions, a cut one for the rental market and an uncut version for sell-through. The two versions are radically different. I think censorship in general, at least towards violence, has relaxed recently in the US. It’s usually sex that censors have a problem with here.
Do you handle the distribution yourself? A lot of these low budget movies seem to be released in Hong Kong and Thailand first, is that an easy market to sell your productions to or are they just faster then the rest of the world? We're of course talking legal versions.
I’ve never been involved in the distribution business, though I have made a few movies directly for distributors. Every film seems to have a different trajectory once it starts being sold for foreign and domestic. It depends on a whole host of factors, many of which have nothing to do with the actual movie that’s being sold! A lot of my earlier films came out in the US first, then showed up overseas later on DVD and cable. In Plaguers’ case, it’s been kind of the opposite. Our foreign sales began last November (almost a year ago to the day I’m writing this) and the movie had its first release in March 2009, on a Hong Kong region-free DVD, before our domestic sales agent had locked a US distributor. Plaguers comes out here in the US on Dec. 8 and by then, it will have been released either on cable, on DVD or both in Thailand, Japan, Russia, all of Eastern Europe, the UK, Germany, the Middle East, and a few others – in fact I was recently told it sold to Sweden, so keep your eyes peeled.
And since you mentioned legal versions, I will mention here that after Plaguers was released in Russia, it was immediately pirated and showed up on a gazillion illegal download sites. It can happen to indies just like it happens to the studios. The only difference is we indies don’t have the studios’ deep pockets and really depend on making our money back, or if we’re lucky going into profit, from legal releases. So if you like indie films, rent them or buy them, don’t download them, please. Not only does this hurt the filmmakers’ livelihood and keep them from making more movies, you're not viewing the film the way the filmmakers wanted you to hear or see it.
I bought the Hong Kong-release, which is excellent when it comes to picture quality. But now there's an upcoming US release and I guess I have to get that one to :) It will be a lot of extras on it, so can you tell us more about to expect from this new release?
I’m glad you picked up the Hong Kong version. I have one here, as well. The packaging is great but believe it or not, that DVD was made off a DVD copy! It came out in Hong Kong before we had delivered the foreign deliverables (HD master tapes) that other territories have used to create their DVD releases. I guess it’s a testament to the quality of the photography that the HK release looks as good as it does. That release is also, for some reason, missing the first few seconds of the movie, which consists mainly of three title cards. Otherwise it’s intact.
The US DVD release, coming out from Image Entertainment on Dec. 8, is the definitive version of Plaguers. It will present the movie at 1.78:1, in a 5.1 Dolby stereo mix. Extras will include the official making-of, “Scares In Space”, a 35-minute making-of featurette that Josephina and I produced containing tons of cast and crew interviews, FX tests, behind the scenes footage and more. And it will have an audio commentary by myself, Josephina, and Steve Railsback that we recorded at Image.
You directed 19 movies since 1999, Camp Blood being the first and Plaguers the latest. It's amazing, and as a former producer I know the hard work behind every movie. I made 3-4 movies and then I gave up, just doing stuff in front of the camera now and writing scripts. It just takes so much energy to produce. So I'm impressed and wonder how you can manage to do so much?
I’m very fortunate to have had so many opportunities to write and direct over the last ten years. I got to direct my first feature about half a year after moving to L.A. I wasn’t expecting that at all and it was an opportunity which literally came out of nowhere. But at the same time, I was ready for it when it came. The finished movie didn’t really go anywhere but it did get my career started. Ever since then, I’ve just kept working hard, dealing with all kinds of situations, from compromised shoots to botched releases to “friends” that can’t wait to try and screw you over and take over your film. But no matter what, I’ve never given up and always keep a lot of balls in the air at once. Like you said, it’s hard work, not just the filmmaking but the pitching, looking for financing, etc. Once we started preproduction on Plaguers, I decided that for once, I was going to devote all my time to that one project and not take on too many other gigs it I could help it. I stayed 100 percent involved through the final delivery to the distributor. This process went on for a few years but I am more satisfied with the end result. In the future, I would like to make more films this way.
I'm sure this movie will be great success, so I really hope you will make a sequel :) Any plans for the future?
Thanks! Plaguers certainly has done pretty well over the last year. We’re really happy to see all the different overseas releases it’s had and of course we’re very excited about the upcoming US release. I had ideas for two sequels even while we were editing. Here’s the basic idea for the first one…it would open with the “space coffin” crashing on Earth, in a desert wasteland and bursting open, releasing Thanatos – and Holloway, who is now a plaguer! I’d love to do something more like Mad Max or After the Fall of New York, with lots of souped-up vehicles and car chases along with the usual gooey plaguer mayhem.
And yes, this alien energy-ball… what was that? That's one reason why you need to make a sequel! :)
The energy ball is called “Thanatos” (it’s not just a made up word - look it up). It’s sort of an embodiment of evil that sort of moves from place to place, spreading death and devastation in its wake. It’s been around forever and our characters are just unlucky enough to bring it on board their ship. The only thing we’re not sure about if it’s a “he” or a “she”, but no matter what, it would have to play a big part in the next one…after all, you can’t have Plaguers without Thanatos!
I would like to thank Brad for doing this interview with Ninja Dixon, and I hope you all go and buy this movie now! It's worth every penny!