May 15, 2012
This is the third and final post in DTV ACTION ITEMS, a three-part series on direct-to-video action movies. Click here for Part 1, an interview with Outlaw Vern, and here for Part 2, a profile of actor Stone Cold Steve Austin.
The Asylum is the most disreputable studio in that most disreputable of markets: direct-to-video. They made their name cranking out cheaply made “mockbusters”, thinly veiled ripoffs of Hollywood blockbusters starring Z-list celebrities, many of which air in constant rotation on the SyFy channel. Last month Universal Studios sued them for copyright infringement on The Asylum’s Battleship take-off, American Battleship, starring Mario Van Peebles and Carl Weathers. Despite a hilariously cocky press release defending their film (” Looking for a scapegoat, or more publicity, for its pending box-office disaster, the executives at Universal filed this lawsuit in fear of a repeat of the box office flop, John Carter of Mars. The Universal action is wholly without merit and we will vigorously defend their claims in Court. Nonetheless, we appreciate the publicity.”), they changed the title to American Warships, which will be released on video May 22nd.
They are a crew of brilliantly amoral hucksters pranking Hollywood for fun and profit — a commendable goal for sure, but are the movies worth watching? When I spoke to Outlaw Vern two weeks back, he didn’t think so, nothing that “I get a laugh from the titles and covers like everybody else, but the parts I’ve seen have been terrible and not in a fun way.” One of their upcoming releases may indicate an uptick in quality, for Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies (out on DVD/Blu on May 29th) is a taut, resourceful piece of survival horror, completely lacking the forced campiness of most of The Asylum product. First-time Asylum director Richard Schenkman is an industry veteran who has made everything from indie comedies (The Pompatus of Love) to sci-fi (The Man From Earth), and his experience pays off. The pace is snappy, the action well-staged, and lead actor Bill Oberst is gruffly engaging as Honest Abe. I’d be surprised if its Hollywood counterpart, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, is as energetically entertaining. I spoke with Mr. Schenkman about his path into moviemaking, his opinion of The Asylum, and his experience shooting Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies.
How did you get into the movie business?
All I ever wanted to do was make movies. From the time I was a very small child. So while there were bumps and detours along the road, and while unfortunately when I was young it was much harder to break into independent film than it is today, that was the only direction I’ve ever traveled.
Who were your idols growing up?
When I was a little kid, Jerry Lewis. I guess the first book of filmmaking I ever read was his book The Total Filmmaker. That was when I really began to understand the difference between writing, directing, producing and cinematography. Because when I was very little I thought I wanted to be a cinematographer. When I started reading American Cinematographer magazine and Jerry Lewis’ book, I began to understand what everybody did, and realized what I wanted to do was write and direct. I didn’t want to be a cinematographer; there was too much math involved. So like a lot of people I tried to make little films, I did films with GI Joes and clay, and tried to get friends involved to make live action films. In those days it was so much harder, because you had to shoot on film, it was expensive and you had to send it to the lab, and when it came back you had to cut it with a blade and splice it with glue. It was much more complex and difficult. I have a daughter in fifth grade and she has friends, peers, making films. Eleven, twelve-year-olds. If I was growing up today my whole life would have been different. I would have been making films from the time I was ten, eleven years old.
Was your first paying job working on Playboy documentaries?
No, I started out at MTV. That was my first real job. I was very lucky. I was at MTV when it first started, so I got to have an enormous amount of creative input.
Is that where you learned how to be creative on a budget?
Yes. That was absolutely how I learned it. I’d get an idea on Monday, and I’d write the script and get it approved on Tuesday. I’d go produce the audio for it on Wednesday, the video on Thursday, and it would air Friday night. It was fantastic. The pace was crazy and the hours were long, but it was very very exciting.
How did you transition into filmmaking from there?
I took a bunch of money that I’d made and did a 35mm short, and came to Los Angeles. And said, “OK, great, this is going to get me an agent”. But nobody told me back then that there was no point in going out there with a short until you had written a feature script. I thought I would find work as a director but it didn’t work like that, and it still doesn’t. But it’s much easier to find all that out now. So I went back New York with my tail between my legs, having spent all my money on the short, and wondered what to do next. And that’s when the phone rang. An old executive from MTV had come to Los Angeles to become the new president of the Playboy Entertainment Division. So he brought me out. And again, it was, for a time, a really exciting opportunity. For I was both an executive, the in-house head of production, and a working writer/producer/director. I was able to hire a lot of people to create material, but I was able to jump out there and make stuff myself. It was like being a kid in a candy store.
You had more money to work with there, right?
I did, yes. And, for a time, I had extraordinary autonomy. I was given a pile of money, not a lot, about $400,000. And this money I was given that was just supposed to go towards interstitials for the channel, and I was able to stretch that money so far, that I made full-length shows. More and more the production came under my purview. A lot of short-form stuff. I tried to explain to them how inexpensively they could be making feature films, and own that segment of the market. You know, the softcore, very sexy movies. I was trying to make the point that if we improve the quality of them, made them ourselves, with real actors, working with real scripts, we could really expand the genre – making real movies. Every year for a few years they would put it into the budget, and at the last minute pull it back out. The year after I left they started doing it, and had a huge success with it the first few years.
Were you interested in genre films growing up?
Not particularly. I’ve always loved every kind of movie, as long as it was fairly smart or entertaining. A lot of horror movies are stupid. Too many horror movies, they think it’s enough to scare people, that they don’t really have to make sense, and not have anybody you can identify with. I suppose that’s why I was never much of a genre fan. I’m definitely not one of these guys who grew up seeing every zombie movie and Nightmare movie. I’ve seen lots of them, and the classics are great movies, like The Exorcist. But I’ve never gone for cheap jumps and scares, that always bugs me. To me, Alien is scary.
So the power of suggestion, not having to show everything…
Yes, but also just legitimately frightening you, the way Hitchcock would. Not just go, quiet, quiet, quiet, BOO! I don’t think that’s very clever.
So what appealed to you about Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies?
The historical mash-up aspect of it. Definitely. I saw it was an opportunity to do a bunch of research and figure out fun and clever ways of working this fictional story into real history. To me that was the fun of the project. How do we insert this story into what we all know to be true? And so my first idea, when I was initially told about the assignment, was the Gettysburg Address. When we think about Abraham Lincoln what do we think about? Holding the nation together, freeing the slaves, and the Gettysburg Address. I just thought, wouldn’t it be great if this zombie adventure tied into the creation and delivery of the Gettysburg Address? That became the spine of the story.
How did you end up getting the job, since you are not a genre guy?
My friend Karl Hirsch is a writer/director/editor who’s done a lot of work for The Asylum over the years, although I don’t think he’s ever done a feature. He’s done some editing of their movies and trailers. They have a relationship, and they came to him, kind of out of the blue, and said, “we’re going to do a direct-to-video title called Abraham Lincoln Vs. Zombies. Are you interested?” He was debating whether he wanted to do it or not, because he had other projects, and he knew it would be very, very challenging. He and I were having breakfast, and he told me about it. So I told him, “Oh, man you have to! That sounds like so much fun. How can you turn that down?” He said, “because there’s not going to be any money, there’s not going to be any time”. And I said, “It’s making a movie!” So I said, “I’ll help you write it. I’ve been trying to find a way to get my foot in the door with The Asylum anyway, because they’re making so many movies, and it would just really be a gas to work on.” And that’s what happened. I pitched him the Gettysburg Address idea, and we beat it out together, along with his wife Lauren, and submitted it. Asylum said, “Yes, we’ll do this.”
And when we were working on a treatment, an eight page, eight act treatment, when midway through that Karl got offered a huge documentary project that he could not turn down. And I said I’d really love to stay on, at least as the writer. Everybody seemed fine with that. David Latt at The Asylum had seen a couple of what he thought were my more indie films, like The Pompatus of Love, although I consider it more of a comedy. So I was offered to stay on as a writer, and pretty early on I said, “I’d love to direct this.” At one point, about a half-hour left before the thing needed to start shooting, they said, “well, there’s going to be no money, no time, nothing that you’re used to having, but if you want to direct it, you can.” I said, “I’m up for the challenge.” In some good news, the line producer Devin Ward figured out how to put the movie together to shoot in Savannah, Georgia, and he got us Fort Pulaski to shoot at. That decision to shoot on location makes the movie exist on any level in terms of quality. If we had to shoot in Los Angeles it really would have been crap.
How much time did you have to shoot?
We had 15 days on location and then a further half-day on a green screen stage. Looking back, how we did it, I have no idea.
Did you have any qualms about making the film for The Asylum, considering their reputation?
The short answer is no, because they make movies. Lots of people talk about making movies, but The Asylum actually makes movies. Here’s the thing from the outside you might not know about The Asylum. Everybody there is really nice, really smart, really hard working, and really loves movies. And everybody there is busting their ass to do as good a job as they can. The people in special effects are there like 20 hours a day trying to make these effects look beautiful. And by the way, some of the effects you have seen in the past in some Asylum movies, and thought, “by God that’s terrible”, a lot of those were done out of house, by people they took a chance with who didn’t deliver, and then they were out of time and out of money. It’s a hard working dedicated bunch of people, all of whom, I think, would like their movies to be better. And I honestly would not be surprised if starting with the movies that are coming out in April-June, if you see a bit of improvement. There is a development executive there, Micho Rutare, who has been there about a year – he’s been pushing very hard for the scripts to be better. As I said, on the technical side, everyone there is challenging themselves to improve the technical quality. I would be surprised if Nazis at the Center of the Earth and Abe Lincoln do not start a trend towards movies that are at least trying to be better.
You were approaching this as a real movie…
I was not encouraged in any way to make a quote unquote Asylum movie. In fact, the way Micho described it was, write an $80 million movie, and then figure out how to do it with nothing. In other words, I was specifically encouraged not to write for the budget. And I was told flat out, “we do not need camp, we do not need intentionally made camp anyway”. Which I had no interest in regardless.
There are no ex-celebrities in the film, right?
No. Basically, we did the movie locally. They are all local actors, except for Bill Oberst, who came from L.A. Everybody else was local, or if they weren’t local, they got themselves to Savannah somehow, and worked as locals.
I think that would make people take it more seriously. When you see a face you recognize before, it automatically becomes something else. With unknown actors, you become more involved in the story.
There’s that argument. There have always been directors who prefer to work with unknowns or even non-professionals for just that reason. I don’t know where I stand on it. To me, you hire the best actor you can. Frankly, in terms of marketing the film there’s something to be said for getting a known actor. The film’s being produced by its distributor. So they know exactly where they’re selling it, how they’re selling it, and to whom they’re selling it. And they don’t really expect to do much in terms of cable on this title. They do their business in DVD/VOD and foreign sales, and so the movie’s made to fit the place in the market, and within its budget. And the budget is dictated by what their expectations are of how it’s going to sell.
How did the shoot go? Were the budget constraints frustrating?
It’s so funny about a movie shoot. It’s like giving birth to a baby. You end up forgetting just how much it hurt. But if you didn’t forget, you’d never have another baby. If every woman only had one baby, our population would be decimated. So, there’s some mechanism that causes you to forget just how unpleasant it was. And I have to say a couple of months out, I’m beginning to forget how unpleasant it was [laughs]. But it was a very, very difficult shoot. Everybody worked really hard, the community of Savannah really rose up to try and help us get this movie made. People did us all kinds of favors, and the production value we achieved using these local locations is extraordinary. The movie looks like it cost far more than it did. And a lot of that is simply the locations. Having said that, we had a very, very small crew, and almost nonexistent budgets for props, special effects. So you’re asking creative people to pull off miracles every single day. You’re saying to them, “there’s no time to prep, and no money to buy or rent anything, but we need a cool switchblade folding scythe for Lincoln that is going to look mean on screen but not actually hurt anybody. Could you have that by tomorrow?”
The special effects and makeup guys must have worked like crazy…
That’s the thing, it was a zombie movie with no special effects department. Yes, we had a makeup team who worked ridiculously hard, and we had a bunch of day players come in on heavy zombie days. But the casting director and her daughter were on set most days, helping do makeup. And I don’t think they were paid for that. They did it to support the film, and we had a lot of that. Just to support local production in Savannah, to support the project. A lot of people really liked the script, and even though it was, quote unquote, just a zombie movie, I think people really got into the story, and the respect with which we were treating history. I know that sounds crazy to say, but we really were trying to be respectful of history, and the historical characters that were in the film.
Did you at any point look of the promotional images from Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter?
No. I specifically avoided it until I was done. I never read the book. If there are any similarities at all, they’re an unfortunate accident. I honestly know nothing about it. I haven’t seen the full trailer, but I did see the teaser trailer after we wrapped.
I would guess your movie is more historically accurate than that’s going to be.
That would be great! That would be hysterical. Obviously in my mind, it would be nothing short of wonderful if my movie was better than that movie in any aspect at all. If there’s one thing, like “Their Lincoln is better”, or “it’s more historically accurate”, or “It makes a little more sense”, or anything. It was a huge book by a successful writer, a huge budget movie with extraordinarily talented and successful people making it, so if there’s any way my movie compares to theirs favorably, it would be just great. But I don’t expect to come out on the winning side of most comparisons.
How was working with the actors?
They were lovely. Starting with Bill Oberst – he really took it seriously. He was the kind of guy showing up already knowing Lincoln’s speeches by heart. And he actually played Lincoln before on stage. He’s a very dedicated actor, one of the most dedicated I’ve met. He’s also very talented in terms of acting ability and technical skills. He would show up, and let’s say through some scheduling snafu he had prepared for a different scene. Even if he had a page and a half speech to do, he would go off for 5-10 minutes and come back and have the thing memorized. I’ve never seen anything like it. A true professional and a great leader for the rest of the crew. We had a lot of young actors, a lot of inexperienced actors, and while everyone was super-thrilled to be there, it was great to have someone as experienced and serious as Bill heading up the team.
Especially because you didn’t have time for many takes, right?
That’s kind of a myth, the whole, “we do one take and move on” thing, like Eastwood. In my experience, the time does not go into takes, to do another take is five minutes. That’s not where you lose your time. You lose time getting a shot set-up and trying to load equipment into a huge fort that doesn’t have an elevator, you can’t bring vehicles into, and is open for business for vistors at the same time. That’s where the time goes.
So you had to work around the schedule of the fort?
Yes. It was crazy! Visitors came and went, cannons went off, and we had to shoot around that. We had to get twenty people into makeup with a two-person crew, that was challenging. But the only time I’m forced to say, “we’ve got to move on”, is, for example, you’re against a really hard deadline like lunch, or wrap. If you’re five minutes over, you’re into penalties, and that sort of thing. But having said all that, we didn’t do a lot of takes. I try to rehearse, so…
You had rehearsal time?
Um….no. We did not have rehearsal time before production time. But while the crew was lighting I tend to rehearse with the actors as much as I can.
You worked well with your DP?
We had a terrific camera department. We had two cameras going all the time, and we did that with a camera crew of three, basically. Which is half as many as you’d usually have on a two camera shoot. We had a DP, and two camera assistants. Everybody operated, even I operated sometimes, and we had two cameras almost every shot. It’s the only way we could have ever finished the movie.
While stressful, are you satisfied with how it turned out?
I am happy with how it turned out. Of course there are scenes I would have loved to shoot again. People who’ve seen it so far say it’s a very entertaining film. As retrospect becomes longer, the shoot grows less and less difficult and more and more fun in my mind. It’s always fun to make a movie, because there’s this constant sense of achievement. Every time you get a shot, and it looks good, or complete a scene, or wrap your day. Those are all measurable achievements.
Did you have to improvise a lot on the set?
Sometimes, yes. I try not to improvise utterly on the fly. If I have to improvise I try to do it a day in advance, so that I can write it out and give it to people.
Can you give an example of something you had to improv?
We had a walk and talk along the railroad tracks. We wanted to do it as a tracking shot beside the tracks. Then it occurred to me, can’t we could build some kind of a rig, and take the dolly and customize it so we can track on the railroad tracks? I mean, they’re here, they’re used to having giant things wheeled along them. A couple of our guys got together and dismantled the dolly and reassembled in such a way that it could roll on these railroad tracks. So we did the walk and talk. Then the camera operator was just goofing around, and showed me what it looked like if you rolled the thing pointed forward. He was running in front of it like it was a train coming towards him. Then we realized it could actually roll over a person. I had a scene that needed to be scrapped because we lacked a key prop, and I basically had a character who needed to die a coward’s death. It occurred to me that we could have him run away from a fight, run along the railroad tracks, not realize a train was coming, and get run over by it. And we could get the key shot from the POV of the train by using this rig. So we hurriedly got the guy in wardrobe, and we shot the last part of it.
Would you work with The Asylum again?
Oh yeah. In fact I’m hoping to roll right into another project with them. I hope to work for them again very soon.