I took the time to inquire of a beloved Action-Horror filmmaker and his diverse line of work in the ever-changing film industry. Here in this very story, you will get sound advice, heartbreak, excitement and stellar inspiration!
So what were your earliest memories of film as well as ones that inspired you as a filmmaker?
I was into Horror as a kid. I loved the Friday the 13th movies. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Night of the Living Dead. I, of course, loved Star Wars, Empire & Return of the Jedi. Raiders of the lost Ark was the first action film I really truly loved. The blending of action and the supernatural was genius and inspiring. Also, anything by John Carpenter. That guy’s a genius. Escape from NY, The Thing & Halloween were my holy Trinity of awesome films. I dressed as Snake Plisken for Halloween in 3 straight years!
I also really loved Beverly Hills Cop. That film is a masterpiece. And despite the Herbie Hancock synthesizer score, it holds up to this day. 48 Hours, Top Gun were also some masterclass of action filmmaking I loved. THE TERMINATOR & ALIENS were massive influences on me (and millions of others) as well. And then DIE HARD came along and changed the game again.
But ultimately, when I started thinking seriously about making film my job/career/life, I went back to my horror roots. I saw Evil Dead 2 in the theater when I was 15(?). It was the most fun I had ever had watching a film. This was the first time I asked, “Who made that movie and how did they do it?” Suddenly, the idea of “making” a movie crept into my brain.
How would you describe your upbringing in Medford, Massachusetts?
My friends and I used to say that Medford was where “Boring” happened because nothing exciting ever did. Our town had nothing. There was a mall (that was pretty lame). We didn’t have a movie theater. No arcade. Medford was where fun went to die. Don’t get me wrong, it was a fine place to grow up. Great friends, safe community. But I think it was because it was so boring, it motivated me to develop my imagination.
I really liked going to Revere or Somerville, neighboring towns, because they had a movie multi-plexes. If I had my way, I’d spend all day at the movies. My friends stopped asking me what I wanted to do after a while b/c it was always the same answer, “The movies”.
I even got a job as an usher at the Revere cinema when I was in high school. I loved it, although it was not very glamorous. The best was on Thursday nights, the projectionist tested the prints of the new releases that were opening on Friday. So the staff was allowed to watch the new movies the night before, for free, and you got free popcorn too. One of the (few) perks. It made wearing the horrible blue plaid uniforms tolerable.
What did your experience like at Seton Hall University when getting your BA degree?
I credit Seton Hall for giving me focus. I started as a business major. While I had dreams of making films, as I got older, it didn’t seem tangible. I was a kid from the suburbs of MA. Movie stars, Hollywood… that all seemed like pipe dreams. My dad owned his own business. The plan was for me to take over that store or the convenient store that was in the building next door.
After 3 semesters, I was seriously considering dropping out of college. I was always an “A” student and suddenly I was struggling b/c I hated my classes. But I didn’t. Instead, I took my first film class. It was an elective. The first time I was allowed to take an elective. It was “Intro to Visual Theory”. I thought, “I’d watch some movies and get my GPA up.” But the professor was amazing. He really opened my eyes into the potential of cinema. Movies weren’t just entertainment anymore. They were art. Or had the potential to be. I learned about the power of cinema. The influence a movie could have. It was an eye opening experience.
So I decided I’d make my parents happy, stay in school and get a business minor, but I changed my major to Communications with a concentration on Film/TV Production. Suddenly, I went from a struggling student back to straight A’s because I loved going to class again.
Seton Hall wasn’t NYU. The film department didn’t have great equipment. But I did make some short films on the 16MM Bolex they had. Nothing I’d ever want to show anyone.
Seton Hall did have (at the time) a state of the art TV studio. My classmates and I were there 24/7. We eventually got permission to launch our own network the semester after the campus got wired for cable. They didn’t let us do much. We got to produce a “student life” talk show and a sports talk show. But they let us promote the station anyway we wanted. So we made a series of original shorts (like extended commercials) to promote the station. We mainly spoofed Films. We did one for “Toys”, another for “Friday the 13th”. We even drove down to Washington DC and did a JFK Spoof. Shot in some of the same locations as the Oliver Stone film. Lots of fun.
No one had any labels for the jobs they did. We’d all write, direct, act, boom operate, etc. We were just doing it because we loved it.
But those experiences gave me the confidence (aka ignorance) to think I could at least go “try” to make it in Hollywood.
Now to the film stuff: you started out as a set production assistant after writing fanfare to Sam Raimi before working your way up to assistant director duties. What were your memories of that and who else’s brain did you finally get to pick in order to finally find your seat at the beloved chair?
The Sam Raimi experience… I still can’t believe that happened. Talk about a miracle? Sam was everything I hoped he’d be. Smart, funny, intelligent, passionate… and so fucking kind. That was a big film for him. And yet he was very gracious allowing me access he didn’t have to. I learned 90% of everything I know about on-set filmmaking from working on THE QUICK & THE DEAD. Preparation, passion, how to inspire cast and crew.
Sam made sure to say good night to every crew member at the end of the day. I do this too. It’s a small gesture, but it goes a long way. That crew would’ve jumped in front of a train for Sam. Believe me that wasn’t the case for every director I worked for as a PA. The crew loved Sam.
I had the remarkable good fortune to work on set with Sam Raimi, James Cameron, Michael Mann, Noah Baumbach, and John Carpenter among others. In the opening of this interview, I talked about these guys as the guys I grew up watching who inspired me and here I was WORKING ALONGSIDE THEM. Helping them (in a small way) realize their vision.
James Cameron can only be described as pure energy. The guy was a force. While Sam was loved, Cameron was feared. Intensity personified. He was the 1st director I worked for that used a walkie to speak to every department. And he was in control of every aspect of the set. And I loved it. He yelled constantly, but I never witnessed a time he yelled where it wasn’t warranted. Well, maybe once or twice 😉
Jim (as he liked to be called) surrounded himself with one of the best crew’s in film. It’s not that they needed to be yelled at. They were some of the best at their job. I learned this was his process.
John Carpenter was so kind and always had a smile. He loved making movies. He loved his actors and his crew. You couldn’t help but want to work hard to make John smile. This was a tough movie. ESCAPE FROM LA. It was 70 production days all at night. Nights really wear on you. Nothing worse than waking up Friday afternoon, get in your car, sit in traffic, heading to work and seeing people going home to start their weekend. Ugh.
Michael Mann was probably the most closed off and least sharing of the group. But that was his process. I respected that. But I learned focus and drive from Michael. We’d shoot an 18 hour day and as the crew and cast were all exhausted, ready for bed, Michael would go out shooting with a helicopter unit to get aerials. His drive for perfection was unreal.
I worked with many other directors and I think I took a little bit of things from every one of them. Even if it was something “not” to do. I used this period as my Grad Film School. I was learning how to make real films and getting paid. Not much, but it was better than any film school IMO.
I realized at this time that they don’t hire directors in the want ads. If I wanted to be a director I had 2 paths: (1) Make a film (or short film) or (2) write a script everyone wants and attach myself to direct. I believe these are still the 2 best ways to get a directing job. I didn’t have money to make a film or short film, so I taught myself to write. I started by taking the scripts of the films I worked on, and watching those films. I’d see what scenes made it, which ones got deleted, trying to figure out why, etc. I then just started writing. Every weekend, I dedicated 10 hours to writing. Being a P.A., you work 13-15 hours a day. You’re exhausted when you come home. So, I had to sacrifice weekends. But again, I was in my 20’s. You’re supposed to struggle and pay your dues in your 20’s. I wasn’t worried about anything other than becoming a filmmaker. I didn’t mind the struggle. I was poor. It was fine. I embraced it. I had my eye on the prize.
Would you say you preferred directing over writing or was it all relevant to you?
When you are on a writing assignment, the hours are great 🙂 Writing is stressful but much less stressful than directing/production. You can go to the gym, go out with friends, etc. You pace yourself. You’re usually given a decent amount of time – and I’ve never had a producer or executive balk at you asking for a week (or two) longer. Better to ask for a few more days than hand in something you don’t think is “ready”.
Developing the script is the cheapest part of the entire process. There’s only 1 person working. YOU. Once the film moves into preproduction, that’s when the studio/financier starts spending real money and suddenly there’s pressure.
Money dictates EVERYTHING.
Directing is (for the most part) more satisfying. When you are just the writer, you lose control once it goes to another director. Film is a director’s medium. You know this going in. If the director wants something changed, they change it. And I never mind if I’m involved. But it’s when they hire someone else or they do it themselves that it gets irritating.
I mean, just because you can talk, doesn’t mean you can write. Right?
An actor would never think about rebuilding the dolly track platform, but they won’t blink an eye about changing a line. I don’t know about other writers, but I stress over every line. I’ve written something a certain way because it pays off later. It relates to the plot or the character. So that bugs me. I’d prefer if they gave me the note: “We don’t like this, we want to change it to something like this.” That’s fine. The writer is the best person to make this change because we have the entire story in our heads at all times. We know you can’t just change Scene X without adjusting Scenes Y & Z. Make sense?
There’s nothing worse than reading a review of something you’ve written where the Critic will call you out for bad dialogue and then they use a line YOU didn’t write as an example. I’ll take the hit if I deserve it, but that bugs me.
When directing, YOU get back this control you had to hand over as a writer. But the director has a ton more responsibility. You have to stay on budget, keep a studio, crew and cast all happy and still manage to keep your sanity. It’s the hardest, best, most frustrating, fun, stressful, enjoyable, horrible job you can ever have. And I love it. I can’t envision doing anything else.
Now, I don’t get the big films… Yet 😉 Most of the stuff I do is low budget. This adds to your stress level. Money doesn’t guarantee a hit film, but money can help ease the stress on your budget. As a PA, on those big studio films I worked on, we’d usually shoot may 1 1/2 pages-2 pages a day. On most of my films, I’m shooting 6-8 pages a day. Time is the thing that money buys and time is so valuable.
Some of your readers may ask why is that a big deal? If you’re shooting 1 or 2 scenes in a day, you get more time for rehearsals, with the crew and cast. You get more time for more coverage (meaning more camera angles with which to use in editorial). When you have to shoot 6-8 scenes, you are pretty much locked into a MASTER, then some close ups. Style suffers. Performance suffers. The DP gets less lights and less time to light, so your picture quality suffers.
Not always. There are some beautiful low budget films with epic performances, but when you also have a ton of stunts… that’s where it gets tough.
You’ve done many Action sub-genres (Action-Crime, Action-War, Action-Horror, Action-SciFi) so what would you say is your favorite genre mash-up?
I’m a story first guy. I don’t care about the genre as long as the story is compelling.
The main challenge on any action film, first and foremost, is safety. Action films have lots of stunts. Sometimes those stunts require explosives, that adds another layer.
On CHAOS, we had no VFX. Real old school filmmaking. We blew up 2 big structures (the bank and the house). For the bank, I wanted Jason Statham and Ryan Phillippe in the shot. So you have to take precautions that ensures safety that also the bond company and insurers will approve. That film was shot mostly handheld, two cameras all the time. Almost entirely on one lens (35MM). Really fun way to shoot.
DOOM had close to 1000 VFX shots. It had Demons which were practical suits with stuntmen inside. So, you don’t have to do just the action, each shot has multiple layers. Each layer takes up more time and money. And that puts a strain on the rest of your day. Things that aren’t obvious… the demon suit takes 45 minutes to get into. It is incredibly hot inside them. And a person is in there, expected to jump, run, dive, etc. It’s challenging. You can’t just go 4-5 hours in a row, you have to plan breaks, etc.
Now, on RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE, every shot I did had complex VFX, major stunts, practical effects, etc. But the difference was that was a $60M film. We had time and money to really make sure everything was perfect.
An example, there’s a scene when Alice (Milla Jovovich) runs through an office that is full of glass. We shot this in 3D and at 1000 fps. We built this room with movie glass, which shatters easily. A reset would take a day. We could only do it once. We were on a dolly. So we had to make certain the stunt woman (we did face replacement in VFX word to make it look like Alice) ran at the same pace as the dolly. Also, the FX people had to time the explosions at the exact time the stunt woman ran past. I think we rehearsed it the entire 1st half of the day. Maybe 25 times. And we shot it right before lunch. It was perfect! Low budget films don’t have that kind of time and patience.
On SWAT, the day we flipped the bus, which had an explosive element, I also had to do the entire Michael Jai White van fight, as well as the shootout in front of the SWAT compound. That should’ve been a day for each sequence. Minimum. But, these are the cards I was dealt.
I like action-comedy too. I enjoyed making EXTRACTION. That was an insane shoot. Just 18 days. But I really feel like that film, made for only $1.1 million, was a great reflection of me as a filmmaker. Good action, good story, all the actors really came to play. Not a perfect film, but I have a soft spot for that one.
Soccer Dog and In Enemy Hands were some of the first ones that made you a TV name. What were your experiences like those first few directing/scribing years?
Soccer Dog was a 26 year old kid who thought he was “ready”. I wasn’t. You never are. Still, that film finished on time and on budget on a budget of $500K, shot in 24 days, non-union, with kids, dogs, and during El Nino. The studio loved it. It made a lot of money for them (not me – my deal stunk).
I felt comfortable on set of Soccer Dog, but where the learning came in was post. Editing is a completely different animal and I had no experience. My first editor really had to hold my hand through it. What you look for early in post is “do you have a movie”. That sounds odd, but it’s the truth. Do you have a beginning, middle and end? If you do, then you’re 75% of the way there. I vomited after I saw the assembly of Soccer Dog. It was NOTHING like I thought it would be. But the editor gave me great guidance. He’s like, “This isn’t the film. This is just the scenes assembled. We now work to make your film.” And then we work on the director’s cut.
By the end of the process, I felt better. But there’s so many tricks I learned.
One story: so after the dog scores his first goal. In the script it said the dog shoots, scores and the crowd cheers. So we cut it like that. But it seemed odd that people just cheered. I was like, “a dog just scored and no one’s acting like it’s weird or special or anything.” So the editor and I went through all the footage. We stole “pre-roll” shots of all the actors, moments before I would yell “action”, where they’re just staring dumb founded. We cut together a series of these put that right after the dog scores, then cut to the ref yelling “Goal” and then the crowd cheers. It gave us that moment that was missing. And that was a scene that didn’t exist, not only in the script, but I never shot it. We just created it in the editing room.
IN ENEMY HANDS taught me how to direct stars and I learned everything about that from William H. Macy. Along with Sam Raimi, I credit Bill Macy with my career. He’s the most generous, gracious, and kind men you’ll ever meet. That was a loaded cast. Macy, Til Schweiger, Thomas Kretchsmann, Jeremy Sisto, Ian Somerhalder, Clark Gregg, Scott Caan, Lauren Holley, Xander Berkeley and Gavin Hood. Just incredible cast for a $4M film. Bill would side with me on every debate. All the actors fell in line. So what I really learned was win over your main star, and the others will follow – especially if they’re someone as respected as Macy 🙂
Quick story: I was a little intimidated the first couple days. Macy’s not intimidating but he was William H. Macy and I was me. He did a take. He came back and saw that I looked unhappy. He asked what was wrong. I was hesitant, but I was in the moment and I said, “You came off like a coward just then.” He gave it a thought and said, “okay, got it.” He went and did another take and it was perfect. The lesson I learned was the simplest direction is the most effective. Direct the emotion, not the action. Actors hate, “Faster” or “More feeling”. Direction should be tied to the emotion the character is feeling in that moment.
I also learned to never give 10 different people dialogue in a small submarine room 😉
IN ENEMY HANDS was like a family. All the actors revered Macy and that led to a very easy shoot, despite some rather bad men who were our financiers.
Follow-up: So wild how In Enemy Hands got a DVD release and played religiously on every other cable TV yet actually got released theatrically in Thailand. Did this crazy releasing market prepare you for the the marketing trouble surrounding Chaos (where it came out in other markets in 2005 before finally being seen more throughly three years later)?
The biggest takeaway I learned from IN ENEMY HANDS was that is it’s not just the cast & crew that determine the film’s ultimate success, it’s also the studio. Our film was originally with Artisan, but while we were in post production, Artisan was sold to Lion’s Gate. In LG’s defense, this was a film they didn’t make. So when they saw it, they were like “This is an anti-war period drama half in German, what do we do with this?” We didn’t get the resources we needed to finish the film the way we wanted. Artisan talked about releasing it in art house theaters, capitalizing on Macy’s recent Oscar nom and our insane cast. Lion’s Gate simply dumped it to video. It was heart breaking. But it was a lesson learned. Again, I don’t blame Lion’s Gate, it wasn’t their film.
Now, while LG had the rights to Domestic release of the film, around the world, different companies owned the rights. In Thailand, for whatever reason, that company felt they could make money with it in the theaters. I honestly don’t know if they did.
CHAOS was chaos. Chaos was not supposed to be like In Enemy Hands. We were being financed independently by Franchise Pictures but they had a theatrical output deal with Warner Brothers. We knew before we were shot, we would be released on 2,000 screens across US & Canada.
THIS WAS EVERYTHING I EVER WANTED.
IN ENEMY HAND’s fate had not been decided yet when we were putting together CHAOS. I was seen as a “rising filmmaker”. As mentioned, Macy had just got an Oscar Nom for THE COOLER. I got signed by William Morris. I told my manager/producer I wanted Jason Statham to star in CHAOS. And within 2 weeks, I was at lunch with Statham and he was agreeing to be in the film. Statham was the hot rising action star, fresh off THE TRANSPORTER & THE ITALIAN JOB. Once Jason was on board, financing came. Stars came. Ryan Philippe was on board. And then Wesley Snipes. This was pre-Jail Wesley Snipes. He had just finished shooting Blade 3. I had $25M and 45 days to shoot this film. I felt invincible.
And then… chaos.
Two weeks into preproduction, Franchise was sued by their German partner. Plug pulled. Movie over. Now, most indy films have what’s called a gap financier. This is a company that loans the film money until all their finances close (which takes a long time). This gap financier was about to lose something like $1M he had already invested (maybe more). So he said, “I’ll just finance the whole thing.” And then suddenly we were saved.
But not really.
WB dropped us b/c their deal was with Franchise, not this financier. And this financier had no clue how to make a film. This guy was the worst. He’s currently in prison if that gives you an idea of the quality human being we’re talking about.
Anyway, he didn’t have $25M. He bounced payroll checks, he failed to pay vendors. Production shut down 7 different times. We started with 45 days, ended up with 21 days – and I kid you not, the film shut down at lunch on day 21.
Somehow we finished the film (for the most part). We were severely compromised. It took another 3 months before I could start editing. And when I was done, the film was surprisingly in great shape. It looked great, the performances worked. It didn’t have everything I wanted and we could’ve benefited from a few days of reshoots, but overall, for what we went through, it was a miracle.
We received 2 offers for theatrical domestic distribution. One from Sony and one from Lion’s Gate. But our financier bungled the Sony offer and they pulled it before doing business with them. The financier accepted the Lion’s Gate offer. We got put on a release schedule. I was amazed. I was finally getting the release I wanted.
I was sent my itinerary for the press screenings in NY. I even had my travel set.
But then our financier, who agreed to pay for the advertising, never sent Lion’s Gate any money. Not once, not twice, but three times. Finally, Lion’s Gate tired of waiting, simply released the film to video, some 4 years after we shot the film.
I was devastated. No one knew the financier. He was new to Hollywood. So the stigma of why the film took so long to get released fell on me. We had the first Jason Statham film ready after TRANSPORTER 2 came out. Everyone wanted a Statham movie. And we had one, but we couldn’t show anyone. This financier did the same thing to several more films including David O’Russell’s NAILED. In that case, O’Russell simply walked away from the film. He had a big resume and could do that. I couldn’t. But that made the town aware of this financier. People finally realized he was the issue and not me, but too little too late.
So to answer your question: No. Nothing in my career, could prepare me for what happened on CHAOS. I can’t recall another film that went through the insanity we did. If you tell me, “You got 21 days to make the film” – I’m fine. But if you tell me “you have 45 days” and you start shooting as if you have 45 days, but they slowly cut a day, two, a week, then half… you’re screwed b/c you schedule up front based on the time you feel you need some everything. The stuff we shot on days 1-4, before the shutdown, I could’ve shot those 4 days over 2 days.
Another example, originally, we had 4 days for the opening bank robbery. But I had to do it all in 1 day. Now, we did it, but there’s a difference making a film for 2000 screens and making a film for TV/home entertainment. I would’ve used those 4 days for more coverage, cool angles, etc. Instead, I simply had to shoot the scenes as basic as I could to cover the scene. Everything I prepared was thrown out.
As a writer/director, you can control many things, but there are many things you can’t control and sadly they’re the most important things. We make movies for people to see them. If the distribution is derailed, the entire process gets hurt.
Timber Falls was a well-regarded, above-average Deliverance-type Horror Thriller that allowed you to bounce into that genre and have fun with it. You have any fun accounts making that film (which is known in other countries as Wrong Turn 3)?
Yeah, I saw a couple of those Wrong Turn 3 posters. So lame of the local distributors to do that, but again – out of my control.
I always try and have fun. I was looking forward to finally getting a crack at horror. Dan Kay penned a great script and I did a rewrite. It was meant to be more intense, but over the course of making the film, there was this dark humor that kept pushing through, I couldn’t ignore it. So we went with it and I think it helped.
One of my favorite moments was the opening scene. We got a hold of the only super techno crane in Eastern Europe (we shot the film entirely in Romania). I wanted an uninterrupted shot that started on one of the victims and ended on the other in the other room. Romania allowed us financial flexibility. We built the cabin out on location but then bulilt all the interiors of the cabin on a sound stage, so I the ability to move walls, etc.
So we get the crane and it’s a very complicated shot. The camera is on a rotating head, it starts close, spins as it raises and then cranes into another room, down a chain and into a close up on the second victim.
We did it in 1 take.
We did a couple more for safety but we ended up using that first take.
I loved Romania. One of the great perks of this job is traveling. We shot in the mountains of Transylvania. It was amazing. Over the course of my career I’ve worked in Vancouver (twice), Toronto, London (for 9 months), Italy, Netherlands, and most recently Bulgaria.
The most fun sequence to shoot in TIMBER FALLS was that crazy 3rd act. Killing Clyde and Ida, having Sheryl face off against Deacon, the rain, at night, just fun stuff.
One of my proudest career moments was screening TIMBER FALLS at Screamfest. A horror festival here in LA. A packed audience at the Mann’s Chinese theater. They loved it. The film played much better with a large crowd than on TV/video.
And with Timber Falls I finally got my theatrical release. It was limited, but we opened in 50 theaters across LA.
Extraction became a well-regarded hit film for the Crackle streaming service. How was your first venture with Danny Glover and Vinnie Jones as well as rising martial artist Jon Foo?
I mentioned EXTRACTION earlier as one of my favorite films. I loved THE RAID and I pitched a “THE RAID-like” idea to a producer I knew. He set up the meeting at Crackle. I pitched it there and they bought the pitch in the room. An actress friend I know named Natassia Malthe (she was in CHAOS) turned me onto Jon. I met with him and I thought he was great. Crackle wanted stars. I didn’t think a “star” could do all the fighting/stunts themselves and not kill themselves in our tiny 18 day schedule. So they let me have Jon as the lead if I put stars in the supporting parts – a very reasonable request from the studio.
After IN ENEMY HANDS, CHAOS & TIMBER FALLS, I was actively searching for a studio. I was tired of the indy film whirlwind. I wanted studio interference! Kidding. I simply wanted to know that (1) the films had money and (2) a distribution plan in place.
Immediately after TIMBER FALLS is when I starting writing Death Race 2 for Universal. I also directed 2nd unit for Sony Screen Gems on RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE. I didn’t have to worry about getting paid or what’s going to happen with the film. I could just worry about the work.
Danny Glover was a sweetheart. A true gentleman. He had some issues with the military dialogue. You’d never know thanks to my amazing editor (Peter Mergus – who’s done 4 of my films). But all the emotional, non-military dialogue, Danny killed. He was exactly the way you think he would be.
Unfortunately, so was Vinnie Jones. Kidding. Vinnie brings to the table something only Vinnie can bring. And he does bring it. It was a weird request made by the studio to cast him in that role. He was supposed to be Chechen. But Vinnie wasn’t bout to do a Chechen accent. So we reworked the script for him. And he loved it.
I really loved that film. No money. No time. But everyone really worked hard. Such a group effort. And I do believe we are the first ever feature film produced for a digital streamer. Something that I think is cool.
You also got to conjure up Arena, a fun Running Man/fight-to-the-death film with Kellan Lutz and Samuel L. Jackson.
I really wasn’t involved with the production of ARENA and can’t speak of it too intelligently. It’s one of those projects you write, sell, and you have no control. My draft was called FURY, but Sam Jackson made them change it so folks wouldn’t think it was based on his character in the Marvel films. The director is a friend of mine, Jonah Loop. He was my VFX supervisor on 2 films and even came to help me on EXTRACTION when we ran out of money. So, I was rooting for him and ARENA.
You found yourself assisting in the scripting duties for Universal’s Death Race franchise. What was it like scripting the proceedings then handing it off to Roel Reine to then helm? Any notes for making the content entertain while also making for a less challenging shoot to other rising indie filmmakers?
I was the sole screenwriter for DEATH RACE 2 & 3. I shared writing duties on DEATH RACE: BEYOND ANARCHY (the 4th in the series).
The formula for the was Paul W.S. Anderson comes up with the “pitch”. Then together, we flush out the story. And then I write the script. And this was a really successful formula, for myself and Universal.
Death Race 2 was a huge success. And I loved writing these films. Writing a Death Race film is like therapy. You can literally write anything. These films are an escape. And being made for Home Entertainment, you don’t have the restraints that films released theatrically have. They had over the top action, wild chases, insane fights, gorgeous women, wild, wild fun stuff.
Originally I was asked to write and direct Death Race 2. As I was writing the script, Paul WS Anderson and I developed a friendship. He was about to go shoot RESIDENT EVIL: AFTERLIFE. I met Paul and his partner, Jeremy Bolt, a few years earlier when I interviewed to direct RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION. I had 4 interviews for that. I did storyboards, set concept drawings, etc. I really wanted that movie. The studio ultimately wanted someone with more VFX experience.
But Paul and Jeremy remembered me and brought me onto Death Race 2.
While I was writing, Paul asked me if I’d like to direct 2nd unit on AFTERLIFE. I jumped at the chance even though it took me out of the running to direct DR2.
Universal hired Roel and he was the right choice. He did a great job. Again, it turned out differently than I envisioned, but that’s the deal. Roel did a great job on Death Race 3, which got an immediate green-light after DR2’s release. Roel’s gone on to have a great career, now doing BIG TV shows.
The truth is I always want to direct everything I write, but that doesn’t always happen. I really loved writing all the Death Races. They’ve been great for me creatively, financially, and they cemented my relationship with Universal. I’ve now written 5 films for Universal and directed 1 film.
You’ve been well-regarded for slashing budgets and making use of reshoot days. What other pros are you often noted for (just as a positive promotion here on the site for you)?
A couple of things… I NEVER slash a budget. I’m usually offered films that need $10-15M but the financier/studio only has $4M (or less) to make the film. I beg for more, but rarely get it. Also, over the course of 7 features, I believe I have had a grand total of 7 total reshoot days. I make films with the assumption I won’t get any reshoot days.
On a side note: Reshoot or additional photography is a very standard practice in filmmaking. For some reason, people hear “reshoot” and they think something bad has happened. More often times than not, it’s a good thing. The studio sees the potential in the film so they spend MORE. If a studio didn’t like a film, or didn’t see potential in it, believe me, they won’t spend more on it.
I’m the guy that gets hired b/c I have been able to work within the confines on the budget. I give the studio back a film that’s on time, on budget, and while maybe not perfect, it’s good and they make money off it. I’ve also shown I can deal with insanity quickly. I also like to think I’m easy to work with. Well, not “easy”. I’ll fight to make the film the best it can be and if you are too, then we’ll get along. If you just want to put your fingers on the film for your own vanity, I’ll come after you and beat you up. If I was difficult to work with, believe me, I wouldn’t work. People tolerate James Cameron’s screaming b/c he’s James Cameron and makes iconic, amazing, highly profitable films. I’m not James Cameron. I’m easily replaceable.
Making a film is extremely difficult. And that’s under great circumstances. Needless, selfish drama only makes things worse.
I also have had the great pleasure of working with some legendary and outstanding talent. Studios want to make certain actors will respect the director. Working with Macy, Statham, Jovovich, etc. makes actors feel comfortable with me.
I understand when to fight and when not to fight. You have to realize, on low budget films, it’s impossible to get EVERYTHING you want. Know this going in. If you fight for EVERYTHING, you will end up alienating the studio and producers. I’m passionate. I treat every film with respect. I respect the audience. I don’t like talking down to them. I fight for the audience b/c at the end of the day, they’re what matter.
In recent years after the Death Race sequels, you’ve sorta become the go-to sequel guy with SWAT 3 and DOOM reboot doing well in their respective markets. Both once again entailed having contained one-location chaos while once again incorporating genre expectations (gory shoot-outs, intense close-ups, brooding mystery). Would you say by this point it was a walk in the park given your previous crew experience?
No film is “a walk in the park” but I definitely found this odd niche lately. And the “contained” premise is more budget related than anything. Low budget films can’t afford scope. You can’t have 1000 extras in a scene, or do shots in downtown traffic. So the budget on these films dictated the film’s premise. It’s backwards.
The more you direct, the more experiences you have. I can look at a script and know what’s possible based on my experience. When I first read SWAT, I was brutally honest with the producers, I said, “This film as written can’t be done for the budget.” The script had 20 major action beats, hundreds of locations, and a helicopter rooftop decapitation. So if they wanted to proceed, at least with me, we had to make changes.
My philosophy making low budget films is we CAN’T compete with $200M Marvel, Fast & Furious event epic theatrical films. We just can’t. So we have to make our story work. We have to pick and choose our moments to flex our creative muscles. If you try to out epic the epic films, you’ll fail.
I recently watched Michael Bay’s 6 UNDERGROUND. I can, without hyperbole, say that they probably spent more on the opening chase scene of that film, then the combined budgets of all 7 films I’ve directed.
Follow-up: How did either project come about especially after years of DOOM becoming a theatrical franchise and SWAT 3 coming out around the same time that co-producer Neal H. Moritz started up the SWAT TV show version?
I went in on a general meeting with Jonas Barnes of Original Films. He had been developing this SWAT film for a few years. I was told they had a director, but I read it anyway. We ended up talking at length about many things, films, life, etc. He’s a cool guy. We then discuss SWAT. This is the guy I told it couldn’t be done for the money. I told him how’d I’d change it. And then wrapped up.
I was walking my dog the next morning when he called me directly on my cell. He said he wanted me to come in that afternoon to meet the studio. He wanted me to direct. So I did. I met with a Sony executive. Told him the same stuff I told Jonas. By the end of the week, I had an offer. We were in pre-production about 4 weeks later.
We were in post-production when I heard about the TV show getting started. So, we were first by a little.
The big draw for me to SWAT was Neal Moritz. I won’t lie. He’s arguably one of the most successful producers in Hollywood. I wanted to be in his family. That said, I’ve actually never met him. Haha. But Jonas has become a good friend. I also loved shooting in Vancouver. My 2nd time there. And unlike the first time it wasn’t “chaos” 😉
I had always wanted to work with Adrianne Palicki, so that was a huge plus. She’s amazing. Gorgeous, funny, and can kick ass. A force to be reckoned with. I hired a bunch of actors that worked with me on CHAOS as well.
The film didn’t turn out exactly as I hoped. I felt I made “Training Day”-light. My director’s cut had a darker/moodier tone. But the studio “brightened” things up. That happens sometimes.
That’s the difference between some projects. Sometimes you make a movie with a studio partner, sometimes you make a movie for a studio. SWAT was the latter.
DOOM was the former.
My relationship with Universal has been the best working relationship of my career. In the world of low budget filmmaking, they are the best. They care. They are very filmmaker friendly and, if they trust you, they give you a long leash.
Universal 1440 makes films based on IP they own. So after having written 4 films for Universal, I pitched my version of a DOOM film. The previous DOOM film disappointed financially and with fans/critics. I pitched a more faithful adaptation. Being a fan of the game, this was a dream project.
This was one of the most challenging films I’ve ever made. Low budget, 1000 VFX shots, tons of stunts, make up FX, and a rabid fan base. The film’s not perfect, but it was made with love of the source material. The studio loved it and it’s exceeded sales expectations. I’m very proud of it.
But you (and fans) have to realize, for DOOM or SWAT to be available to be produced at the budget levels we’re talking about, helmed by a director at my level, it’s that the theatrical divisions of these studios didn’t want it. I heard a lot of chatter online about Universal only making Doom as a “cash grab to retain the rights”. The truth could not be further from the truth. I pitched this to them. This was not on their development slate. And they were reluctant at first based on the previous film’s failures. I pushed them. Me. So blame me.
I have hopes for a trilogy with DOOM and then have it become a TV series. So, stay tuned 😉
Onto a more personal take on today’s Action cinema (since you’re one of the masters of that), what would you say is missing from the genre that audiences still want to see and what newer trends are you seeing that indicate that studios want every other Action movie to be a certain way?
I think there’s too much VFX/CGI in films. VFX should be used to support the story, not be part of the story. Filmmakers used to use all kinds of awesome practical tricks, now they rely on VFX to do it. That’s not to diminish the talented VFX artists we have. But they’re being put front and center when they should be there to support.
When the helicopter goes UNDER the bridge in T2 chase… that was real. And when you’re watching it, you know that. You FEEL it. The actors can feel it and it comes through in their performance.
There’s a disconnect now. You can tell someone’s just standing on a green screen. You can tell they’re in a mock up with a crane holding the chopper or they’re not really on the edge of a cliff.
The best action films also put character and story first. DIE HARD is a classic b/c you wanted John McClane to survive/win/and reunite with Holly.
MY DINNER WITH ANDRE would have 200 VFX shots if made today. VFX are part of filmmaking as much as color and sound now. But we can’t lose sight as to what makes movies special: character, story, drama.
What have you been wanting to do for awhile but for whatever reason haven’t been able to develop yet?
I love possessed object horror films. Can’t get enough of them. ANNABELLE, OCULUS, CHRISTINE, etc. I have a haunted typewriter script that I’d love to do called CIPHER. It’s in the vein of that old story “The Monkeys Paw”.
I have a sci-fi action thriller called ILLUMINATION that’s part THE FUGITIVE, part TOTAL RECALL that is super dark and one of my favorite scripts.
But my absolute favorite is a script I co-wrote with a friend called DEATH OF A TYRANT, which covers 17 days in April 1865. It opens with the end of the Civil War, takes us through the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and then the manhunt & death of John Wilkes Booth. It’s more of a thriller than bio-pic. And Booth is the lead character. It’s his story.
And to close it off, what current projects can we anticipate seeing emerge from your creative realm rather soon?
I have partnered (once again) with Jeremy Bolt and Constantin, on TITANOBOA, which is a horror/action film based on the legendary prehistoric snake.I’ve written the script and I’m attached to direct. We’re still in development but we’re hoping to move into production sooner than later. This is an epic monster movie, set in present day Amazon and would be a big(ger) budget film. We’re aiming to open in theaters worldwide in 2021.
Finally, thanks an eternity for being able to do this interview in the ever-busy world of film. I hope (as well as trust) that your next shoot will be just as stellar!
Thank you for the chat and all the kind words! Your support of my work means more than you can imagine.