One of the hardest working filmmakers in the independent circuit is John Lyde. With a variety of genre pictures already under his belt, his films have a unique look and style all his own. He’s made a handful of vividly realized sword and sorcery films – Curse of the Dragon Slayer (a.k.a. SAGA: Curse of the Shadow), The Christmas Dragon, and the upcoming films Mythica: The Iron Crown and Mythica: The Godslayer – and he’s also made a cool post-apocalyptic action film called Survivor with Kevin Sorbo.
Lyde’s latest film is the Dolph Lundgren-starring action film Riot, and Lyde’s stamp is all over the film with stellar action scenes, and solid editing and cinematography.
In Riot, Lundgren plays a character type he’s not really been afforded the chance to star in before, and his fans will be pleased with how the film turned out, greatly due to Lyde’s directing.
I’ve been aware of your films for a few years now. I tend to gravitate to smaller, independently made genre movies. That’s my niche, that’s where I feel at home. I see all the big stuff, but I have a real love and appreciation for these small films that are made really well. Your movies caught my attention awhile back, and you tend to make movies with the same group of people. Anne Black and Steve Shimek and Maclain Nelson, all those people. Let’s start with your latest movie Riot with Dolph Lundgren. It’s interesting that you made this because everything I’ve seen of yours didn’t really point you in the direction of a Dolph Lundgren movie. Say something about how you got his one off the ground and got Dolph to star in it.
I’ve always been a huge Dolph Lundgren fan. I grew up watching Jean-Claude Van Damme movies and Jackie Chan movies. I’ve been a huge fan of martial arts and action movies since I was very young. I loved Rocky IV and Masters of the Universe. Those films with Dolph. I was the stunt coordinator on a film called War Pigs. Ryan Little, the director of that film, called me up to be the stunt coordinator on that. That’s where I met Dolph and Chuck Liddell. When we were putting together Riot, we always wanted Dolph in the project. We worked with distribution early, and they were able to help get Dolph. We wanted him to play Balam, the villain, and he was like, “No, I have no interest in playing those kinds of characters anymore, but I’m really drawn to the character of William.” I said, “Okay,” and he had some ideas, and so we worked the script according to what he wanted. He was looking for something different, acting-wise. It worked out. We were able to bring him to Utah for a couple of days.
When he shows up on screen for the first time, it was really interesting. He didn’t do the usual stuff he does until late in the movie, but I actually really appreciated that. It gave your young star Matthew Reece a chance to shine. Say something about Matt.
I met Matt on a project called Beauty and the Beast. It was nine, ten years ago. I was the DOP on it. It was a cheesy romance film. There’s one sequence in it where Matt was doing a kata, and I thought, Wait. I asked him if he did martial arts, and he said, “Yeah, a little bit.” I said, “Well, I love martial arts movies, so we should make one together.” He sold one of his companies to give himself a little extra cash, and so we did a movie together called The Eleventh Hour. It’s an action film. We hit it off. We’ve done some different projects together. With Riot, we wanted to up the budget and bring in some other talents and showcase Matt’s skills.
It’s a nice role for him. He’s good in it. Something that is a recurring element in your movies is that your actors are actually really good. That’s a key thing. A lot of these indie movies I watch, the actors are bad, the acting is amateur. But the people you surround yourself with are really good. I appreciate that.
Thank you. It makes my job a lot easier. There’s nothing worse than a bad actor, even in a minor part. Everything could be going great, and then there’s a bad actor that brings the whole film down. Unless it’s like the investor’s daughter, but most of the time even that works out well.
Riot isn’t the kind of action movie I’ve seen in awhile. A prison escape movie. It’s not something I’ve seen from Dolph, acting-wise and movie-wise. It’s not similar to anything else he’s done. The action was great. Danielle Chuchran is great. I’ve liked everything I’ve seen you do with her. You’re really good with action because I’ve seen other things you’ve done with action.
Gotcha. When I was doing a movie with Danielle called Curse of the Dragon Slayer … when I was doing that project, we had a guy named Braxton McAllister come in for gaffing for a day, and it was this young guy who had just gotten back from stunt school. Most of the time when you meet someone who says they can do stunts, they’re usually not very good, but this guy was awesome. It turns out that he grew up a few towns over, and he grew up on action films. We did a few projects together, and we talked about doing a project where there wouldn’t be any guns, and where we could isolate the characters somewhere and then force them to fight. We’d watched The Raid and The Raid 2. That inspired us. We’d set it in a prison and call it Riot. That was the gestation of it. We had to write everything budget-conscious. We knew of a prison that was no longer in use about an hour away. We went there with the writer, and then he wrote it based on what we had access to. We knew we wanted Dolph to be in it and we wanted Chuck Liddell too. We wanted to use Danielle Chuchran as one character. We knew three or four other actresses who could fight really well. It was all like that. I gave the writer three or four pages of what the movie had to contain. He did a really good job of taking my treatment and going into it. With Dolph’s involvement and taking that character, we wanted it to be different. It was a different experience to put him in those glasses and it was fun to work with him on it.
You always shoot in Utah. Why Utah?
There’s a great tax incentive. I finally took advantage of it on Riot. It’s mostly because there’s a lot of talent here in Utah. I don’t use big crews. I only use about 12 people. Maybe a little more. I just find that there’s a good group of people who know exactly what they’re doing. Location wise, it has everything you need. It has suburban areas, it has red desert, and all these unique, different locations. You drive an hour somewhere and you’ve got anything.
Let’s talk about your post-apocalyptic film Survivor. This is my genre. It was a solid movie. I’m a fan of Kevin Sorbo. I’m glad he’s working with you guys.
The Kevin Sorbo story is fun. He was doing a movie out here with Danielle Chuchran called Storm Rider. I was doing a project at the time called One Shot with Matthew Reece. We needed Kevin Sorbo for one day and we were going through the casting director for a while and it wasn’t going as smoothly as possible, and so Danielle invited me out to the set, and she introduced me to Kevin. I showed him some scenes of Curse of the Dragon Slayer, and he said, “Oh, you know what you’re doing.” I asked him to give me one day, and that we could shoot all of his stuff in that day. His flight was at like three or four in the afternoon, and his call time was like at 7AM, so we brought him in and shot all his scenes out, and we even finished early. He goes, “This was great. If you ever need me, just give me a call!” So when I pitched my idea for Survivor to Arrowstorm, they said yes especially with Kevin Sorbo. It was one of those things that was written around the budget. I wanted to do an action film with Danielle to show off her talents with fighting and climbing. With Kevin, we brought him in two different times for that one.
Survivor looks incredible. You had great locations, excellent costumes and makeups on that one. Talk a little bit about the genre itself. Are you into post-apocalyptic films?
I love Mad Max: Fury Road. It’s probably one of my favorite movies. I loved the original Mad Max movies too. I like the genre if it’s done correctly. I liked The Hunger Games books. It just depends on how it’s done. As a filmmaker, it gives you so many options. It’s easy to find run down places where you can film. It’s also easy wardrobe wise. Plus, you can be creative. You can do whatever you want. You can have creatures and other sci-fi elements to it. You can do straight-up drama. It leaves so much room for creativity when you go into that genre.
Would you be willing to go back to that genre for another project if it materialized? Now that Fury Road has come and gone and made an impact, the “B” market tends to follow the path the blockbusters create.
If it’s a good story. There’s a script being written called Mech Warrior with machines. It’s post-apocalyptic. It would be a lot of fun to film. The visual effects are easier when it’s mechanical instead of a dragon or a creature. We lucked out with Curse of the Dragon Slayer because it was right when The Hobbit came out. We hitched off of that. We don’t go the route of The Asylum and do something like Transmorphers.
Your movies are 125% better than anything The Asylum has done.
(Laughing.) Thank you! Being in the “B” movies is really hard, but I’ve always loved them. I just want to make the best possible films in the “B” movie market, but not have it feel like a rip off of an “A” movie. I want to make them their own thing. With The Raid and John Wick … they were both really well made. John Wick had Keanu Reeves, but if you look at the story without Keanu Reeves, it would be a straight-to-DVD movie. The directing was great, and the action, and the music is what really put that movie on the next level. I have a great composer on my movies. It really helps.
If the world were to end as you show in Survivor, do you think you’d survive in that world?
Um, personally, no. I don’t think I’d make it. I do know where Danielle lives, so if she was there I think I’d make it. I’d take my family over to her and let her help us!
When I saw your movie Curse of the Dragon Slayer I remarked to myself that it wasn’t that long ago when I could go to the movies and see something like this movie. It’s that good.
With The Christmas Dragon … one of my favorite movies growing up was Willow. With that movie, I tried to emulate Willow. There are a lot of similarities. One of the producers was like, “What’s the difference between this and Willow?” A couple extras here and there … but I said, “The big difference is that was 1988.” I think The Christmas Dragon 10-15 years ago would have been a good theatrical movie, but times have changed. That’s where it is. I try with each one … budget is a frustrating thing because you basically … even if I spent up to five million, you’re still competing in the “B” movie world. If it’s the right project … like 10 Cloverfield Lane was five million dollars, and it had J.J. Abrams’ name on it.
So, what’s with the dragons? You and Maclain Nelson, Anne Black, and Steve Shimek make all these dragon movies. What am I missing here?
The secret behind the dragons is that when you go to a distributor or a buyer, like five, six years ago, they always looked for something in the independent market that sticks out from the others. If you have good visual effects, you stuck out from everyone else. There’s a group here in Utah called Blue Fire that does the majority of my effects. They did a dragon movie with Arrowstorm that was successful called Dragon Hunter. It was extreme low budget, but the distributor was able to sell quite a bit of it. Then there was one from Ryan Little called Age of the Dragons with Danny Glover. That was back in 2010, 2011. It had a star that used to be an “A” lister. It had a draw and it had dragons. And it was a retelling of Moby Dick, so that was unique and successful because of those elements. A lot of people jumped on that. Arrowstorm just loved dragons, and so that’s why we did Curse of the Dragon Slayer. There were others like The Crown and the Dragon.
Are you doing these fantasy films because it’s what distributors want from you or are you doing them because you love this genre?
It’s a combination of both. For me, I love doing costumes and sets. It’s different. Riot was a stretch for me because it was set in modern day. Costumes help everyone get into character. It helps create a whole world, especially fantasy. The production teams that worked on The Christmas Dragon and the Mythica films … they really created some cool sets. It’s so much more fun to go in there with makeups and elves and demons or whatever it is. That makes filmmaking that much more fun. It sets you apart from the normal independent filmmakers.
You mentioned Willow being an inspiration, but what else in that genre do you gravitate towards for inspiration? Do you play D & D? I can feel a real affinity for the genre in these films. These movies you guys are making are special. They feel unique from the last one you did. They’re all so good.
For me, Willow was probably my favorite movie growing up. The idea of a hero who has to save the princess. It’s a Super Mario Brothers kind of thing. There’s a very unique fan base. What helps me is having the producers Jason Faller and Kynan Griffin … they are the ones who grew up playing Dungeons and Dragons. Them writing it and me helping it come to life, I think that’s where the fun is. There’ve been so many sword and sorcery films that have been made that are just chintzy and bad. Knowing our limitations and budgets, we make the best possible independent fantasy films that we can. With Mythica, I cut the trailer for the first one, and I did some second unit stuff on the second one, and so I saw the evolution of the series. I directed the fourth one, which is very heavily influenced by Mad Max in terms of pacing. The first three movies are a lot of character development, and so by the fourth one, we just launch right into the action. We still have the character arcs and things like that, and part 5 is completely different. I finally shot like a horror film. It’s just dark and depressing.
At this point, I’ve only seen the first two Mythica movies because those are the only two that have been released as of this moment. It’s a really intriguing concept. There are five films in this series, and they were all crowd-funded, right?
It’s in part because of the success of Anne’s movies The Crown and the Dragon and Dawn of the Dragon Slayer. We were looking at doing Curse of the Dragon Slayer 2, and we had a script written and things were pressing forward, but then the DTV market in foreign sales went down. Even though Curse of the Dragon Slayer did really well, the foreign buyers said, “If it’s better than the first one, we can only pay half of what we paid you for the first one.” That’s where the market was. We were trying to figure out what to do, and with buyers if it was a five-picture deal, they would spend more money. They were going to do five at the time, but then we wound up only doing three; it was going to be three for a while. The third one was shot over two years ago. Then they were successful, but because the market was so different and there’s not much DVD purchases anymore … but they ended up getting a good Wal-Mart deal and parts 1 and 2 sold decently. Since they already had a five-picture deal set up, they knew that if they made parts 4 and 5 that would help with the budget. That’s why we made 4 and 5. If the first one was terrible, it would be a bad situation because the next ones wouldn’t sell, but the first one turned out to be pretty good. The third one was very different than the first two. A. Todd, the director, has a different style than Anne. He was the DP on the first two. They did the first one and did crowd-funding to cover post-production. What that did was help generate a fan base.
Who do you think your audience is for these fantasy films you’ve been making?
With Mythica 4 and 5, what I love about this genre is that the fan base is out there and they love this type of movie. Luckily, I’ve been getting fun scripts. They’ve created these worlds. I show up and look at these costumes and it’s like playing. You’re just playing. Especially without the visual effects in there. If you have a big lizard battle, you’ve got people waving their arms around and firing bows with no sound effects. My kids just laugh at it when they watch it. We’re just having fun. Once you add the sound effects and the visual effects, it adds a whole new life. It’s so much fun.
There’s a name for that. It’s called LARPing. These movies are some awesome LARP sessions.