Interview With Alec Gillis
We are delighted to have had the opportunity to interview legendary creature-effects wizard and now sci-fi director to watch Alec Gillis from Amalgamated Dynamics Incorporated (ADI.) As you're no doubt aware, ADI created some incredible practical effects for The Thing (2011) which were replaced by considerably less-effective and appropriate digital counterparts. Our previous interview with Alec and ADI co-founder Tom Woodruff Jr. around the time of the release shed some light on these matters.
Since then, a lot has happened, most notably here Alec and Tom's decision to take matters into their own hands, resulting in their eagerly-awaited, Kickstarter funded, directorial debut features Harbinger Down and Fire City: The Interpreter of Signs. These movies have the potential to start a renaissance in practical creature effects.
In this extensive interview, Alec shares his thoughts about the movie industry from a visual effects perspective and his experiences working on and, hopes for, Harbinger Down, along with taking us on an epic tour through his illustrious career. Enjoy!
Outpost #31 webmaster Tony and Alec Gillis at the Harbinger Down premiere, Chinese Theatre, L.A.
Download the mp3 here!
See also our interview with Tom Woodruff Jr.
ADI official site:
ADI YouTube channel:
Harbinger Down Facebook Page :
Harbinger Down official site:
‘CG or Not CG War Crimes’ :
Where are things at this stage of the production right now? Is the principal photography over and are you into post-production and things like that?
That's exactly right. We finished shooting in February and now we are into post-production. We’ve got a rough cut of the movie and we're actually in the beginning stages of shooting our miniature photography and I just came over from Robert Skotak's studio which is just around the corner where we're shooting some miniature creature stuff which is very exciting for me because I just love that stuff and it's been so long since I've been on a set using a miniature puppet creature and shooting them at 60 frames per second. I can't tell you how great it is.
The Skotak brothers, they worked on Aliens as well, didn't they? Did they do the miniature Queen Alien, the powerloader and that kind of stuff?
Yeah, to kind of give you an overview of my relationship with them, I worked with Robert and Dennis on my very first job for Roger Corman. I was 20 years old and I actually interviewed with Robert and Dennis Skotak and they hired me and James Cameron because we carpooled together and we both interviewed together back in 1980 and we got the job working on a movie called Battle Beyond The Stars. Really, the Skotaks were two of my first mentors. So I learned a lot about miniatures and miniature photography and I increased my appreciation just by watching these two masters work. We worked with them then on Aliens which they got an Oscar for: the Queen Alien, the powerloader, the dropship, those landscapes, the atmosphere processor, all that stuff. We worked with them on Tremors. They did all the table top miniatures where we built the creature and puppeteered it in their sets and they photographed it. They got an Oscar for T2 I believe and also for The Abyss and they're just like starts of miniature photography and like us they've been feeling a little bypassed and they have a lot to offer. So I was just thrilled when they said they'd help out on the film and they're doing a spectacular job.
Are there any other larger scale effects that have to be done? I'm just thinking about the original John Carpenter's The Thing. A lot of the stuff that Rob Bottin did, he did afterwards, after the principal photography was over and the actors were never really involved.
I'm a big fan of that model of film making and it's something that’s gone by the wayside because of the expense of these big, bloated studio movies where you're burning money every minute and these days it's less common to do it that way but what we did, our version of that was, we shot everything that we could with the actors in the sets, all the story stuff and the creatures as little as possible with the actors to tie them in together. And then we had the ten day second unit period right after wrap, where we ran around through the sets with just six people in our crew and we would dress somebody in a, you know, put the pants on of one character so we could shoot past them, get their feet, all those connection things and really take a little bit more time with the creature effects, working the puppets, playing with reverse photography, all that. Basically what you want to do is save your meticulous work for when you have fewer people on the crew. That way it gets cheaper, it's more economical, you can afford to take the time with it. So we did the same thing that Bottin did, it's just that ours was sort of a mini version of that. Now we're in the last steps which are photographing the miniature stuff at the Skotaks' studio and we do have some insert things that we’re going to be doing with some pieces of sets that we need to get particular effects with. Everything that we're shooting with the Skotak's is going to feel huge but it's miniature.
It's just incredible what these amazingly talented (miniature makers can create.)
Yeah and you guys in the UK have a long tradition of fantastic miniature work. I was thrilled to see in Mon how much miniature work was being done by English people. I'm a huge fan of UK miniature stuff going back to the Thunderbirds, Space 1999 and all that stuff. I love that stuff. I hope to keep going with this, you know, and make more films and I'd definitely want to stick miniatures in there. Christopher Nolan is good about that. He uses a lot of miniatures. In fact, a little recommendation to folks who go to your sites: there a miniature effects studio called New Deal and they do a lot of Christopher Nolan's stuff. If you look at some of New Deal's work in The Dark Knight, the first of the Christopher Nolan Batman movies, it’s stuff with the Tumbler and trucks, it's unbelievable. It is stuff that I just assumed was full scale. It's high-speed miniatures and it just shows you how alive all these practical effects techniques still are.
So in terms of going forward, I guess there's things like the editing. Are there going to be any pick-up shoots?
Yes, we're still in the thick of all that stuff and we're hoping that by sometime in fall we will have a finished film. We don't have a distributor yet because they all want to see the final results. But we were fortunate to have a bunch of distributors come by while were shooting and they were all blown away with the sets and the look of the film. Out domestic distributors anyway, they want to see how it shapes up and I have high confidence that they're going to love what we're putting together.
Of course, we'd love to see it in the UK as well so are you hoping for a worldwide release?
I would love it. I would love to get theatrical everywhere. That's in my DNA. That's my first thought, right, although I’ve been talking a lot with people who do kind of multi-platform releasing and I have to say, even for me, as a fan of cinema, and sitting in a movie theatre, I watch a lot of movies on my laptop too and that is, in a way, put headphones on and you watch the movie on a laptop, you're kind of in a very comfortable environment and it is immersive. It could be argued that that’s a more immersive...it's not so much of a shared experience perhaps as sitting in a big IMAX theatre. You also don't have a kid kicking your chair and you can pause the movie and get up to pee because you drank too much Diet Coke or whatever. So, I'm not such a purist that I say I would never want anyone to watch Harbinger Down on their hand-held device because I think that's a perfectly fine way to view a movie. I'd be thrilled but, having said that, we would love a theatrical release, yes.
Because I've been very aware of this project right from the start, I'm not really able to be very objective I suppose, in the sense of 'What's the awareness that Joe Public has?', not just of this tremendously exciting project but of the underlying issues of practical effects versus CGI and stuff like that. What's the casual viewer's level of awareness? I see it as being hugely well-publicised but that's me being very selective in terms of what I know about.
I do think that that's kind of an important aspect of 'pre-promoting', I'll call it. We're going to be releasing this trailer on Monday and we want to get as many views as we possibly can so that we can take this to a distributor and we can say 'Look at the awareness there is out there for this movie.' But you're right. I think Joe Public doesn't necessarily know the story behind this movie and I think the story behind this movie is compelling, and that is a community of people on the internet, or multiple communities on the internet, have come together to make possible the renaissance of an art form, and I think that's a very compelling story that will make people be interested in this, more interested in the movie than perhaps they would normally be. Having said that, it's always been my goal when I was writing the thing and all of us when we were making it, is that it's got to be more than just a pet project or just a little thing that nerdy folks who love monsters made happen. It has to be a movie that is entertaining to Joe Public. I hope that I've done that. That was all our goal to give everybody who's a fan of practical effects, everybody who's a fan of The Thing, everybody who's a fan of Alien, give them what they want while giving Joe Public what they want also.
Are there any thoughts yet about a possible release date?
The release date really depends on the distribution deal and it's a little premature for us to say that. I do say that our internal goal is to have a finished film by the Fall. So, if all's going well, it will be shortly after that, although if a distributor picks it up, they really strategize as to when they think is the best time to release. It really becomes a little bit out of my hands at that point.
I'd like to ask about the origins of the story and the whole concept. I've read you saying at one point that this was something that you had been wanting to do for a very long time anyway. So how did the whole concept begin?
As you guys are well-aware, when our work was digitally embellished/replaced on The Thing (2011), that was not an easy reality to face. We're huge fans of the Carpenter film and obviously of Bottin's work and we were really hoping that this would help top spark a little renaissance. When The Thing (2011) came out, people would say "That was cool, that had a look that we're not used to seeing" because it would have been a combination of practical and digital and then they would say "Where does this come from?", again Joe Public, and they'd look backwards and they'd look back to Bottin's work and we would have this sort of crossing the divide of a couple of decades and maybe it would even give a little boost to our art. To the contrary, when our work was replaces, it seemed to be yet another nail in the coffin of practical effects. So, people had been asking us "What happened? Why was this stuff replaced?" and those are complicated issues. That's when we put the video up. You guys saw it. At that point Jennifer Tung, who's one of our producers on the movie, urged us to just do a whole YouTube channel and then we started putting them up, one after the other, of all the work that didn't make it to the screen and we realised then people care and so, victory snatched from the jaws of defeat. Now, to your question, I'm sort of telling you what you already know, this is a film that I've always wanted to do. I love this genre, sci-fi/horror and particularly of body effects work. I think that it is for me the most intimate of science fiction stories.
Suppose that what happened with The Thing, the replacement of your effects by the CGI and so on, if that hadn't happened, do you think you would still be making Harbinger Down, maybe not just now but maybe at some point later?
Well, I have about five scripts that I've been trying to get off the ground and had a certain level of interest in three of them, so it has been my goal. I've been moving towards doing something. It probably would have been one of them. That experience of The Thing (2011) connected me with a lot of fans that inspired me to do this. As I was mentioning, I love this genre sci-fi/horror, body-horror, intimate kind of stories. I'm a big sci-fi fan and I don't believe that you have to have $80M, $100M, $200M to tell a story about giant monsters tearing up cities. That's not the only way to do sci-fi. We're talking about Moon. Moon is an example of a nice, contained, small sci-fi movie. Yeah, so those are the kind of movies that excite me now. I'm very much less excited by big blockbusters so when this opportunity came about, my first thought was 'What if I do an unofficial sequel to The Thing, where you have a fishing boat in Antarctica that's come off out of Chile or something that hauls a half-thawed, frozen body of MacReady out of the water and you never show the face? You know they pick up a water-logged hat and pull out an old...what is it...Jim Beam...J&D...and then I spoke to my lawyer and she said "Yeah, you don't want to do that!". I said but that would really be the only reference to it and certainly Universal doesn't own transformations and alien infections, there's all kinds of movies and video games. She said "Yeah, but you don't want to fight them and if they get litigious you don't want to spend your time in a law suit." I said "Yeah, you're right." I'm a fan of the show Deadliest Catch so why don't I do that instead. So, really what this movie has been has been a challenge to take all the parameters that I've given. Not limitations, but parameters. That philosophy has permeated this movie. We go to Kickstarter. We engage the Kickstarter and practical effects community and we pledged things like 'We'll kill you' - deaths, you know? We can do a couple of those. So there are story points that became parameters that were introduced even through the Kickstarter, even before I wrote the script and I enjoyed all of them. And those parameters are what made the movie feel more organic. There are certainly the parameters that practical effects can impose upon you, of scale and of materials and all that. You can get wonderful things out of embracing parameters and that's what this movie has been all about.
This is your first time directing a feature-length movie. You've spent a very long career working with lots of famous directors and know probably all there is to know about making science fiction movies. Were there any surprises at all about being the director's (chair)?
Just how much I enjoyed it, really. I've been on sets enough. I've been second-unit directing, directed shorts, I've written scripts so I have all of those skills that just were not brought together into one opportunity until now. You'll be the judge of it when the movie is done, what kind of job I did but I can tell you that I've very much enjoyed it and luckily I have lots and lots of great people to role-model from, not just the splashy, big-name people but some people whom you guys might not know who are very talented and know how to get results and to keep a certain amount of excitement and harmony among the crew because we don't have a lot of money so it really has to be fun. It really has to be rewarding and fun and generally speaking we got that. Not that there weren't tense times, not that there weren't things that I wish could have been done differently in retrospect but that's okay, you know? That's okay. I'm very happy with the results we got and Darren, I was just saying that I’d just broke away from shooting miniatures with Robert Skotak and this is a new high that I'm feeling. I haven't stood in a room shooting miniature creature puppets with Robert Skotak since Tremors so we're all having a great time.
So have you got a big taste for it now? Do you think you are going to keep directing?
I definitely want to. This isn't sort of like a flukey thing that I decided to try my hand at to see what the big fuss is. I've literally been pursuing directing for as long as I've been in the movie business. It's just that my first love is creating creature characters and that has been such a...I've had so many opportunities and we've been so busy...I don't want to say like the 'golden handcuffs', that's not quite right. It's just that the circumstances around The Thing (2011) were the motivator and I'm very happy that it happened. I'm sorry that our work wasn't in the film but there's always a way to turn a negative into a positive and everybody has helped us do that so I'm thrilled, you know?
Is there going to be a major creature set-piece in the film, something like the chestburster from Alien?
When you see the trailer, which is this Monday, you might say 'Oh my God, they're showing too many creatures! What are they going to have left?' But I can tell you that what we're shooting now is even more stuff which will not be represented in this trailer. You know, the structure is very much like Alien and The Thing. What I loved about The Thing was, there wasn't just a scene comparable to a chestburster. Every ten minutes you had something happening so we've got nine or ten creature aspects that we're going to be showing. So, I'm hoping that despite it being a little, tiny movie, you're going to come away like you just saw a monster fest!
(I think I just wet my pants!)
I know how that feels. I'm fifty-four you know!
We were talking about Rob Bottin a couple of times. Have you ever met him?
Oh yeah. When I started at Roger Corman's in 1980, on Battle Beyond the Stars, the miniature effects facility had some little rooms off to the side where they were shooting pick-up shots from Humanoids of the Deep. So, my first experience of Rob Bottin, whom I had heard about by then, was that I walked into this room and I was looking at all of the creature parts, the suits all laid out nicely on blankets on the floor getting ready and I heard this booming voice "Hey hey hey! Get outta here!" and I turned around and it's this giant guy, shaggy dude who literally hustled me out and I was like "Oh, hi Rob!" trying to say "It's okay, I'm a Roger Corman employee too." and I also, like, slammed the door closed. But he was very helpful to me back then. I was able to call him, because I hadn't worked around much. It was my first job back in 1980 so I had just come from working in my mother's garage - that was my workshop. So, I was able to call him and ask him questions about materials and he was always very gracious about that. And then here and there over the years, we've chatted. You know, he's about my age. I don't know if you guys saw that song that those gals sang on the Stan Winston school, Come Back Rob Bottin. Did you see that?
You've got to check it out. I think it's called The Rob Bottin Song, and it's these two girls singing with this beautiful, lilting voice about how much they miss Rob Bottin. But, having said that we're the same age, the guy was accomplishing so much in the 80's. I mean, that was his decade. Oh my God did he do a fantastic, I mean, just the career building, one great project after another so I hold him in very high regard.
The rumour that I've heard is that he's involved in real estate these days.
I don't know anything about that.
Tom (Woodruff Jr.) is also doing Fire City: The Interpreter of Signs. Is this now what you see for ADI, making a transition from being a creature effects company to a fully independent film studio?
We never want to say that we are exclusively one thing or another. I always liked the Henson company's approach which is that, they were making movies like Dark Crystal and Labyrinth which made use of their creature shop but then they were also doing creature effects for outside filmmakers and I think that's the way to go. I guess Weta does that also, right? So, I think that we may be adding something to our capabilities though not necessarily closing off any avenues. You know, we love working. We've got a bunch of people that we're loyal to and who are loyal to us and we want to keep them busy and just promote the art whether that's working with and for filmmakers on other movies or generating things in-house, we're up for all of it.
To what extent is Tom involved in Harbinger Down? He's listed as a producer, I think?
Yeah, so we were both going simultaneously. It's amusing the way that things happen. We’d been trying for many years to get our projects off the ground and then two happen at the same time. So, obviously we bounce ideas off each other and use the studio space and all that but both movies are individual expressions which are kinda nice, you know? We have the home base of ADI. We know we have the talent pool for the creature effects and lots of other problem solving we can do here. We have the other guy there who's just across down shooting his movie if we have need to rely on the other guy's advice. A lot of it is just encouragement, you know, and commiserating! Yeah, so it's been a very exciting time.
Of course, one of Tom's great talents is his ability to play the creatures. Has he done any of that kind of thing in Harbinger Down?
There's only one creature that is a suit creature and I chose Mick Ignis because he's freakishly thin. If you look back at our days on Alien 3, for instance, Tom played the alien. He was 6'3", 170 pounds or so and he's in terrific shape but he's packed on muscle, now. He's probably packed on 25 pounds of muscle which is great for, like, for instance, his role in Zookeeper which I personally think is the best character performance role he's ever done, as the gorilla in that, the talking gorilla.
My girl loves that film.
Yeah, it's a sweet movie and Tom needed that kind of strength and stamina to make that kind of role happen. And also, even if you could have him in a suit, he was off shooting his own thing, so that's how that shook down. My experience in working with Tom, because I generally handle the puppeteering aspects outside the suit while Tom is inside the suit, and I'm usually working with him if the director gives some bit of direction that is very, you know, odd or uninterpretable I'm usually trying to interpret it for Tom because he's cut off. You know, he's not necessarily hearing everything that's being said. So I will sort of work with him to liaise between, to get the director what he wants by putting it into actionable, performable terms that a suit performer can use. Like, I remember that one of the directions that David Fincher gave (in Alien 3) was, he said to me "Go tell Tom to be a little less like a Barbie Doll." Because I'm walking from Fincher to Tom, I've got to figure out 'What exactly does that mean?', you know? Fincher has a great sense of humour so he's probably trying to like, watch how I interpret that bizarre note. So I take my experience with Tom into anything I do in terms of directing suit performers. So Mick Ignis benefitted by Tom's history and experience as a suit performer.
How have you approached the sound design and score for the film?
Well, we've yet to get to that point. But the key to doing anything well is to make sure you have the right people. So, in terms of the soundtrack, I have my old friend Joel McNeely who’s done A Million Ways to Die in the West that is out now. And he's done a lot of Lucasfilm things as well.
He is a very experienced, very talented guy but I'm also bringing Mike Larrabee who’s done most of the music on our YouTube channel - if you wanna listen to what he's done. He's very prolific and he has a very interesting and odd way of coming at scores. So, between those two guys there's the music component.
My DP Benjamin Brown comes from the post production world. So he's kind of like a one man wrecking crew. He's a shooter. He's an editor. He does sound design. So he comes from that world and has a lot of contacts in sound design. And it is one of the things that I've learned a lot about. I learned back on Aliens where I would watch our dailies. And I would think, the facehugger looks lacklustre. The tail looks like it's barely moving. And then, when you see the final film and it's got that whip crack sound to it - it suddenly gives the creatures that much more energy and interesting life. I thought the sound design in Godzilla was excellent too. I loved all those odd choices of creature sounds. And of course, there are odd choices that Carpenter made in The Thing - and we'll be looking to that sort of stuff. Signature sounds and strange disturbing sounds are also very important. We'll be getting to that shortly. We're hoping to have the film finished in the fall. And that means we're working hard over the summer. In editing and shooting our miniatures. Soon, once our picture is locked we'll be getting into the specifics of sound design.
One of the disappointing things about The Thing Prequel is we saw the creatures too much. How did you approach when and when not to show the creatures in Harbinger Down.
One of the fantastic things about directing Harbinger Down is that it's up to me. And I don't have to argue with anyone about the philosophy of how much to show and how much not to show. And nobody's going to change the plan on me either.
I look a lot of what the masters have done. In this case for me it's Ridley Scott and John Carpenter. I'm a big fan of scenes that are lit by flashlight. Especially when you're looking at creatures that could be tucked into alcoves or in between machinery and so on. Creatures that you want to look like they're hiding from you and that you have to sort of find them and extract them. So, in terms of our lighting philosophy we used a lot of LED lights in the set - practical lights. I came to Ben and said I would like to have this movie to be mostly lit by practical lighting that's just right there. So he got a bunch of great bulbs from a company called Cree. And they donated $2,500 worth of light bulbs. LED light bulbs. In addition to that, we found a bunch of great LED flashlights that have very powerful beams. So, wherever we could we used that to back light the creatures. To put the creatures in quick glimpses in front light, spotlighting - that sort of thing. And I'm a believer in less is more, you know? There comes a time where generally in the third act of these films - and this is what this sub-genre demands - is that you have some sort of bigger show-stopping Queen Alien or creature, like the one in The Thing that comes up through the floorboards. But even then I'm looking for something chaotic. Something to obscure the lens. We've got bio-luminescence in the film. That bio-luminescence will be used - actual internal lighting in the creatures - that will be used to distract and confuse the eye - sort of stroboscopically. So that your mind fills in the details. So you're not just looking at some awesome creature that the creature effects people are happy with where you've shown too much and ruined the effect for the audience.
So you'll see that we'll be trying to give you glimpses, obscured glimpses and quick cuts. Frantic movement and so on. That's what I like. That's the approach I like. Which is why I like the work in Alien. We had the pleasure of working with Ridley Scott on I am Legend when he was developing that movie and he told me that the style of the film and the way he showed the creature (or rather didn't show the creature) was dictated by the suit. You hear the same thing with Jaws. He said that the suit was not as mobile as he had hoped. Because it was made from stiff latex reinforced with cheesecloth. So if you read the original Alien script it does have lots of shots where it's running around in the airlock. And it's in the hallways, doing things, fighting people. Stuff like that. He realised he had to embrace the limitations of the suit. And shoot it in a much more 'mysterioso' way. He said it made the film better for it - which I agree with.
I was really kind of surprised to hear Spielberg say recently - that now that digital technology is available, how would you do Jaws differently? And he said, 'Oh, I'd be able to show the shark more!'. And I thought, wow. For Spielberg to say that it surprises me because he established a lot of these needs. And I would respectfully disagree with that.
Of course, you guys did the Alien in all of the other Alien films.
If you look at the evolution of them. I don't like to say anything about AVPR because that ultimately ended up getting printed so dark that you virtually couldn't see anything anyway but each of those Alien movies gets more and more… the alien is shown more and more upfront. I mean Alien Resurrection you're just looking at it, right? They're in a cage and you're staring straight at them. I don't personally think that that's an interesting a way to treat a creature - a sci-fi horror creature. If you're talking about sci-fi where they are characters. That's a totally different situation. For those characters, they've been getting more and more out in the open all the time - which I'm not thrilled with but that's generally what happens with sequels, you know?
You mentioned the scene in the cage in Alien Resurrection. The versions of the Aliens in there I thought were really aggressive. They were actually frightening in a different sense because they were so aggressive.
We want to do a little video that talks about the changes to the alien. We've just been silent about it. Mainly it's because we respect Fox's franchise and the material. We don't wanna be going out there and appearing to be sore or whatever… we just wanna stay positive about it. People have commented specifically on the Resurrection creatures looking really different - I think they called them the Beast style. You see a lot of things online about how we screwed up H.R Giger's design and all that. And what people don't know - because it doesn't come across in the film - is that the Director asked us to do a more organic alien. Because all of those aliens were supposed to have been cloned from Sigourney Weaver's alien DNA. So, he wanted it to have human DNA - so the biomechanical aspect was softened in favour of a fleshier kind of alien. But it doesn't really come across that way. And the culmination of that is the Newborn who is really like half-human, half-alien and in my opinion - all terrible. I'm not crazy about that character - I think it's a misguided notion. And we did the best we could with it. So, yeah, they were shown to be aggressive and they were shown to be a little more communicative with each other. But anyway there won't be any sort of that long, lingering looks at the creatures in Harbinger Down. It's not that kind of movie. And hopefully what we'll have is, like with Bottin's work, you'll have things that confuse the eye. That disgusts you and delights you and then so something outrageous and then you move on.
One thing about both the Thing and Alien fan communities is that they all have theories about the creature itself and what its principles are. How it works. Is the creature concept in Harbinger Down, is that something that will be a similar talking point for people watching it?
Yeah, we'll see. The honest truth is that both Alien and The Thing made such definitive statements about alien life forms and morphing and how they relate to human beings, and how they use human beings - that everyone's being imitating that for years. There are video games that are imitating that now. People aren't really coming up with fundamentally new mythologies about alien creatures inhabiting people and changing them and ripping out of them or morphing them or what have you. What I will say is that I tried to root it in actual science. And I've come up with a fun, connect-the-dots thing which is all based on scientific fact. It's based around tardigrades. Tardigrades are micro animals. Not micro-organisms. There's a difference between a micro-animal and a micro-organism. This is an actual animal. And they're kind of adorable little things. They're also called water bears. But I started reading about them. I was looking for a hook that I could hang the science of Harbinger Down's science upon and I knew about Tardigrades. I've always been a kind of a tardigrade fan. They've been experimented on. They've been sent into space where they've just been left out in open space radiation. And most of them survive. But they are chromosomally-damaged. So as a jumping off point I'm saying, that's cool. This is a creature that we've created. Because the tardigrade is the hardest creature on the planet. It can survive something like negative 400 degree Fahrenheit up to over 400 degree Fahrenheit. You can dehydrate it and then when you rehydrate it three years later it pops back and it's alive again. And there are unbelievable numbers of them. They were just talked about on the show Cosmos. And in Cosmos they said that for every human being there are one billion tardigrades. So tardigrades are all over and they've never been explored. So that is the basis for the science in Harbinger Down. So, I hope it's interesting enough for people.
That's a good starting point because I guess if they're chromosomally-damaged you can do whatever you want with them?
As you'll see from the trailer, there are aspects. Russian space wreckage that is embedded in ice. Global warming. Break-up of the ice cap. Dredging up this chunk of ice with an experiment on board. And a dead Cosmonaut… things like that. So there's some fun, grisly preamble details that hopefully set the stage for the science. So that you can get on to the monsters and enjoy that and not feel like you're just watching Alien or you're just watching The Thing. Although we definitely have one foot planted in each of those fantastic movies.
The Thing also had a subtext, whether intentionally or not, about the spread of HIV and other concerns at the time. Is there any subtext in Harbinger Down relating to contemporary concerns?
The global warming aspect is a contemporary concern and we do see that when you effect the environment. When you clear the rainforest for example, you unleash bacteria and diseases that have not had human contact in… ever… or hundreds of thousands of years and the human body is not prepared to deal with that. Like the Ebola virus and things like that. And with the thawing out and warming up of seas, you start to get old, ancient, micro-organisms that are being released again. Or viruses that are still alive. There's a recent report about a thawed virus from way back when, so these kinds of environmental things are always with us. It goes back to Godzilla. Nuclear testing unleashes ancient, giant lizard. I'm not an apologist and I make no excuses for staying neatly within the sci-fi sub-genre but hopefully any movie has certain timeliness to it and that people go, oh yeah. The most important thing is you to establish that this could happen. We have a tech company that we worked with on the film, a science company who does medical science and their chief guy read the script, and knows tardigrades, and said that this could happen. So in real life when this happens you get things like flesh-eating diseases. We get to exaggerate it and have fun with it and make it much crazier.
So Lance's character is the captain of the ship?
Yeah, he looks every bit a sea captain to me. He doesn't mess around man.
Was the role written for Lance?
Oh yeah, absolutely. There was no script when we did the Kickstarter campaign. What I said is that I will write and direct a film. So what I wanted to do… is what you have in Hollywood all the time is you write a script and then they apply a dollar amount to that script. I knew I wouldn't have the luxury of a big budget. So I wanted to see how much my budget was before I started writing the script because I think you can do fantastic things on low budgets as long as your appetite isn't too big. If you can only afford a couple of tubes of paint, don't try to paint a wall-size mural. Paint on a canvas that makes sense for your resources. So once we got funded and then when Sultan brought his Dark Dunes money that gave me the total number within which I could work and then I OK… I think that I can pull off this. Stay away from that. But luckily when Sultan came in it gave us a little more funding so we didn't have to be, you know, people holed up in a closet on a ship with little tentacles coming in under the door. We could expand the fun, you know?
Has there been a lot of funding since the Kickstarter campaign?
I'm not going to be specific about what the budget for the film was. You guys all know that it's a low budget film and that we've pulled off miracles. And the reason that I'm not specific is that we are going to be engaging in conversations with distributors and their interest is going to be to get the movie for as cheap as possible. So I don't want them to have any information. After the movie comes out I'll be happy to tell you honestly. But Sultan did bring enough funds for us to have a craft service table. I'll give you that much! And also to do many, many more creatures than we would have if we had to have relied just on the Kickstarter money.
Someone said when Sultan came in with the money, well why did I bother pledging? Well, it wouldn't have happened… we wouldn't have gotten that if we did not meet our goal in Kickstarter. Because what meeting the goal in Kickstarter did was it showed an investor that there's a community of people who really want this to happen. So that is very important because it hedges your bets toward success. Had we not been successful no one would have brought any more money because it would have just looked like nobody cares. But everybody does care and that's fantastic.
As fans we are lucky because we get to lose ourselves in the story. Do you think you'll ever be able to sit back and watch this film and lose yourself in it - in perhaps the same way that you did when you wrote it?
The short answer is No. But I'm OK with that. Because there are other films and other filmmaker's work that I do watch and I do get lost in it. And that inspires me to try and do the same thing and get the same kind of reaction and feeling. One of the things I really love about writing is that it is immersive but you're always clear that you are building something or creating something. And that has a different reward from watching the results of someone else's creative process. I love watching the results of someone else's creative process because it feeds me, it fuels me and I'll always have that ability… but with my own work, and it's been this way, whether it's an effect I've done or whatever - I always see the limitations. I always think about what I could have done better. Different etc. Doesn't mean that I don't enjoy the process. It's a deeper sort of… it's almost like when you got to a school talent show and you watch someone else's kid singing beautifully - you enjoy that. You applaud. You really appreciate that. When your kid gets up there and does the same thing there's a deeper, more emotionally involved. Even though it is the credit of that child but hopefully you've had something to do with it. But I believe that when you make a film once you release that movie - it is kind of no longer yours. It now belongs to the world. And to the fans. For better or worse. And people read all sorts of things into the meanings of movies and all that. Sometimes filmmakers go, No, I didn't mean that. But that doesn't mean it's not there. It can still be there if people feel that reaction to it. But I wouldn't trade this experience for anything. The trick is to try to experience it when you look at it, when you're shooting it, when you're editing it, or building things for the film - is to look at it in a way that an audience member might see it. And you can't just be caught up in the way you want them to see it. You have to be aware of like… Is this going to be communicated properly to an audience member or is it just me that thinks it is. And there is a line there. I don't really know… there are some things that we're playing with… we're pushing some limits here that I'm in love with right now. But ultimately when I see a cut of it I have to have enough respect for the audience that if it ain't working the way I felt. I need to approach it differently and fix it.
Do you think you'll sneak into a cinema and watch it with an audience? ‘Cause that's got to be a bit special?
I would love that. I've always enjoyed doing that with films that I've worked on. So, yeah, I would love to do that. It would be nice to just pull up a folding chair at the front and just face the audience but it might put people off.
In terms of that creative process… what makes a good monster? And how do you keep it fresh? You've made so many films with so many creatures in them. How you maintain a fresh approach to it each time?
That's a big question. I think to just boil things down. For me… it's kind of like being an actor. I look at the parameters of the creature on the page. I say what's it got to do. What's the context? What's the overarching meaning of this film? I look into what the writer has established. To say what should this creature be? So that's a living with the context of the reality that that Director has established. So, then what you have to do is, and this is exactly like an actor, you have to keep it fresh. What you don't do is just start going back and looking at other monsters that have been made for movies that are sort of in this vein. Unless you're doing that to find out what not to do. That's not to be disrespectful to anyone that's done great stuff, it's just that you want it to have an angle. You want there to be something fresh about it. Having said that, there tonnes of psychological cues that are embedded in our reptile brain from the beginning of human history, that you can't just ignore. We go through this… we want to be different. I don't wanna put sharp monster teeth on this thing. And then you look, and you go, what's the alternative? Let's look through nature books and find out what other ripping, biting, tearing surfaces has nature evolved in order to do this. And then you start looking at that and you say, do any of these work? Can we make it, can we put a spin on it. So generally, I like to root my creature design into some sort of reality - especially if you're dealing in sci-fi. If you're dealing in horror, like psychological horror, then I think, you shouldn't just be specifically looking at nature because… if you've got like a ghost or a demonic creature - it has a different language than a sci-fi creature. So, there's a tonne of different parameters that you weigh in on when you're designing.
For Harbinger Down, I wanted to contain it to sea life. These tardigrades carry with them the DNA of hundreds of sea creatures. So I wanted it to be recombinations and reworkings of sea creatures feeling stuff as opposed to just suddenly giving it a reptile texture or now, it's got feathers and wings. I didn't wanna go there I wanted to keep it a little bit more focused - like the film is. Because it is about the ocean. This thing was dredged up from the ocean and that's the motif I wanted to work in. Then I looked at what are some of the characteristics of sea creatures and what are some materials that, for instance, Rob Bottin didn't have back in the 80s. And a lot of that is translucent stuff. Translucent. Transparent. And now that we have lightweight LED technology we can embed actual lighting inside these things too. So there's a lot of factors in that. And part of it is what your gut as an artist tells you to do. And that's what makes every artist unique I think.
When’s it coming out?
That is kind of what kind of deal we can make with the distributor. We've got a bunch of distributor's interested. We've had distributors come to the set while we were shooting. They were all mightily impressed. We will have a finished film - sometime in the fall. But the actual strategy of when is the right time to release this film will fall to the decision making of whoever ends up distributing it. So, it's hard for me to point and say it. To that end, what we're trying to do is raise awareness online about the film and push past our group. We know that our group supports it, and I think when the trailer comes out on Monday I think you guys are gonna like what you see but what we wanna do is get views from beyond our smaller communities and reach out to a wider audience of movie fans so that we can point to those numbers to a distributor - and say look, there is a viable community of people who will buy this movie, who will endorse this movie and this art. And that's how we really make a difference and we make this whole movement towards practical effects sustainable is by continued support. And really all it takes is for everybody to get out there and watch that trailer over and over again and like it on Facebook and do all those other things. That shows distributors that there is a large amount of interest in the film.
You guys have been with us since day one and we really appreciate that which is why we wanted to come to you guys now. We show a lot in the trailer in quick cuts but it ain't everything we got - and that's what we're busy shooting today.
Is it going to be a teaser trailer or a full-length trailer?
This is more a teaser trailer. This is like our trailer. When it gets picked up a distributor is going to do their own advertising campaign but what we're trying to do is give back to the fans - here's a sneak at what you want to see. Really this trailer is like something you would show towards the release. Ideally we'd do like a little teaser. Show you this. A little snippet of this and that. But we're busy working. We're making the film. We don't have the budget to do a full on proper ad campaign. So we're just gonna hit it hard with this awesome very cool trailer and hope everyone gets excited about it and takes us to the next level.