A little while back we ran the first news of Sandy Collora's Hunter Prey, the new feature length science fiction picture from the director of Batman: Dead End. Collora has a long history with practical effects, having started his career working at Stan Winston Studios when he was just seventeen, and is taking very much a throwback, build-it-and-shoot-it approach to his debut feature. We had the chance to talk with Collora about the project recently and not only does he prove to be hugely insightful into the film making process, he is also a very entertaining read and provided us with a stack of new, exclusive images from the picture. Read on!
TB: Going in to Hunter Prey you were primarily known for the 'fan films' that you made even though you've been working in the industry for a long time. To what extent did that reputation help and to what extent did it hurt you? Did you have trouble getting people to see past Batman and catch your original vision?
SC: I don't think it's any secret that I've been a fan of all things genre, my whole life. I'm an admitted, out of the closet geek. Period. I read comic books. I have a huge collection of action figures, Star Wars memorabilia, DVD's, and genre magazines including Heavy Metal, Creepy, Eerie, and Famous Monsters. That being said, I've also been a proud, upstanding member of the Director's Guild of America since 2002, and have made my living directing commercials for the last 6 years. I've also shot a lot of music videos and short films in that time as well, most of which, were with my own money. Previous to that, I began working in the industry at 17 years old as an artist and sculptor at Stan Winston Studios. So, I'm fan who's a working industry professional. I'm supportive of the fan film movement and I think it's great that digital technology has made it possible for young people to explore filmmaking, but in all honesty, when I was prepping "Batman Dead End", I never said to anyone; "Hey, I'm making a fan film." I never knew the term even existed. I had seen "Troops" and loved it, but I never knew I was watching a "fan film". I'm not uncomfortable with the term, nor do I deny the fact that by some people's definition, they are fan films, I just prefer not to use it because it's not a term that's recognized or even acknowledged by mainstream Hollywood.
The industry does not refer to what I've done as "fan films", they call them short films, which is essentially what they are. When I'm in meetings at studios, or with my peers, "Batman Dead End" is simply referred to as "Your Batman short", or "Your Batman movie"... It's even been called "The Batman thing". But I have never heard any of my work labeled as a "fan film" in a professional environment. The fact that some people choose to call them fan films has neither really hurt, nor helped me. The films stand on their own and speak for themselves, as does the reaction to them, regardless of the moniker used to classify them. I think studio executives or independent producers who were at the time, in a position to give me a job, had questions regarding me being able to direct a feature, but those concerns were based on the fact the films were only a few minutes long, and not very dialogue heavy, which is completely understandable. The bottom line is, those films put me on a lot of people's radar and did great things for me and my career.
Getting people to "see past" Batman as you put it, hasn't been an issue at all. As a matter of fact, I think most people who really liked "Batman Dead End", or even those who didn't, claiming it was short on story and just an action clip, are very curious to see what I'll do with original material, and are excited that they're finally going to see a feature film from me, as opposed to all of the short films and commercials. I am eternally grateful for all the support I've gotten from the fans and from everyone who downloaded those films, or sought them out at conventions and so forth. All I can really say, other than thank you, is that I hope they continue to be as supportive of "Hunter Prey" and my future endeavors, whether they be original concepts or not.
TB: Science fiction at one point was a haven for sculptors, artists, painters, model makers, etc. People who actually made things. But in recent years science fiction has - probably more than any other genre - become the domain of CGI effects and big budgets. I know you do character design work, do you feel we've lost something by taking the actual physical artifacts out of the art?
SC: Absolutely. Over the past 15 years or so, CGI has gone from this incredible filmmaking tool, that can enhance and help flesh out worlds and the characters that inhabit them, to a horrible excuse and crutch for the industry. Computer generated imaging is a phenomenal tool in the hands of the right people, with the right director, no question. I think a strong Visual Effects Supervisor and a great team of digital artists can bring a lot to a genre picture, especially one like "Hunter Prey". Johnnie Semerad and his company of the same name, have contributed voluminously to the film and have elevated it to another level, by enhancing in some cases, even by the slightest bit, what's already there in the frame. Being able to achieve that believably, takes a lot of talent and a very astute, discerning, artistic eye. The elements being added need to look organic and as real as possible because what's already been shot on location is real. They need to blend into the picture seamlessly, and in a sense, go somewhat unnoticed. That's actually how I knew Semerad was the right house for this film. Johnnie simply told me; "Our work needs to be invisible..."
However, when filmmakers start using CG to achieve things that can easily be done practically, when it becomes a creative choice instead of the only choice to create a particular character or effect, that's when it starts to look phony to me. When you create an alien, a dinosaur, or a giant robot utilizing CG and it's done well, the audience has much more of a tendency to believe what they're seeing is real, because no one's ever seen a real alien, a dinosaur, or giant robot before. But when you start using CG to recreate planes, armored soldiers, or even people, audiences know what those things look like because they've seen them before in real life. They're going to be much more critical of the CG work in those instances because they have a frame of reference.
Case in point; Last night, I went to see the "The Day the Earth Stood Still" remake. The most fascinating thing that came out of that experience, was a conversation I overheard between two guys as I was exiting the theater. One was telling the other that he simply couldn't understand why there was so much CG used for shots like when a helicopter is taking off... At one point in the conversation, one of them actually said; "Do they think we're stupid? That we can't tell that's not a real helicopter? It completely took me out of the movie!" To me, that statement said a lot, because one thing you definitely do not want to do when you make a movie, is give the audience even the smallest excuse to be "taken out" of the film at any point. Which is why I personally feel, if you can't get the CG work to look at least passable, like it could be an organic part of the story, just don't do it. Either achieve the effect practically (what a concept), or cut the scene out of the film. Or even better yet, don't make a bad movie. Some of the best genre films ever made; "2001", "Planet of the Apes", "Star Wars", "CE3K", "Alien", "Terminator", "Blade Runner", "The Thing", were all made without CG.
TB: It also seems that, increasingly, those science fiction films that are not remakes are adaptations of Japanese manga and anime. But you're going back to a different well. What in your mind distinguishes American SF from the creations of other nations?
All I can do there, is speak from my own personal experience; I've sat in meetings across from development execs at all the major studios, sometimes even with powerful industry producers backing me, and still couldn't get anyone to pull the trigger on any of my original scripts or ideas at that time. So it's kind of a weird thing, and very hard to figure out. Everyone will say that they're looking for original ideas or new blood, but when you go pitch them that stuff, they tell you that unsupported movies, based on originals ideas are a hard sell. I'll tell them that "Star Wars" was an unsupported original idea, and look what happened there. Then of course, in true studio executive form, they'll respond with; "Yeah, but look at how many studios passed on that movie, how long it took to finally get made." You have to laugh and take it all in stride. I have a lot of fun in those meetings and truly enjoy pitching projects, but sometimes I just wish they'd develop more original content. I'm over the remakes, sequels, prequels, and all these Japanese, skip framed, white eyed kid, horror movies. It's time to move on... Evolve.
To me, it seems like these movies get kind of force fed to us these days. Shoved down our throats, instead of just releasing the movie and letting the audience discover it on their own. Everything has to be an "event", a big spectacle with a huge marketing angle. That's what I think has changed the most about the film industry over the past 25 years or so. Back then, these movies were all pretty much lower budgeted films. B movie scripts, that in the talented hands of directors like Ridley Scott, James Cameron, and John Carpenter, became genre classics. Films that inspired or gave birth, so to speak, to the tentpole, fast food marketing extravaganzas of today. "Hunter Prey" is my attempt to try and recapture a little bit of that old school, 70's and 80's grass roots, low budget, genre magic... Not only for myself stylistically as a filmmaker, but more importantly, for the audience.
Regarding the last part about what distinguishes American Sci-Fi from the foreign stuff; Great question. I think the short answer would simply be style. I've always been a big fan of Heavy Metal magazine. European artists like Moebius, Drulliet, Liberatore and Segrelles were very inspirational to me. But I'd also have to say that American Sci-Fi and comics through the 70's and 80's had a huge influence on me as well. I read a lot of Sci-Fi novels when I was younger. Dune, the Star Trek series, Ringworld, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Teachers at school were always taking them from me, telling me they weren't "serious" literature, not worthy of even reading, let alone a book report. The art of Richard Corben, Frazetta, Berni Wrightson, Neal Adams and John Byrne, as well, were constantly being wedged in between the pages of my textbooks during class, so while the teacher was droning on about fractions, I was catching up on the latest exploits of Batman or the X-Men. Sure, there were issues that got confiscated here and there, but it was a good technique. Eerie, Creepy and Heavy Metal were too big to hide in the textbooks, so I had to read those at lunch or on the bus.
They're both important and influential, just in different ways, I think. The European and Japanese stuff seems a bit more edgy and extreme to me, more expressive. The films and comics say more about their creators. It really has a lot to do with the culture of those places and how artists and filmmakers are looked at socially there, as opposed to here in the states. I also think that Europe and Asia are not only much more in tune with the genre, but have more of an appreciation for it as an audience. I don't think you'll ever see an American studio or production company, especially in today's market, with all the remakes and sequels, make something like Bilal's "Immortal" , Del Toro's "Pan's Labyrinth", or the Juenet and Caro masterpiece "The City of Lost Children". Even when a film like "Blade Runner" with a very visual, European director, finds it's way into the studio system, (mind you, that was over 20 years ago) it's a full blown war with the studio to get the thing made right, only to be tossed away like a bastard child, left to find it's audience on video, cable, DVD, ect... And look what that film has become today, even in spite of all that. It's obvious to me anyway, what the genre audience wants. Speaking not as a filmmaker, but as a member of that audience, I just don't think there are a lot of filmmakers delivering those kinds of pictures nowadays.
TB: It appears as though you're trying to do a small story - ie just a few characters - in a big world with this film. What sort of challenges did that pose? To what extent was it a story choice and to what extent a budget choice?
SC: To a large extent, the budget pretty much dictated what the story choices would be on this project. I think it's important for a director to be able to adapt and work within budgetary constraints to tell his story. To do the best he can with what he's got to work with. I've had to do that a lot in my career, and I think its pushed me to be more creative and inventive. I've talked to bigger, A-list directors, who've made hundred plus million dollar movies, and they've all told me the same thing; That you're always gonna be fighting time and the budget, it's just on a much different scale and there's more at stake. Making this movie has been incredibly challenging, but like I said, that forces you to be a better problem solver, and a better director. That being said, there are limits to everything. "Hunter Prey" is a personal story, I simply did not have the budget to do anything else. There were specific parameters that the movie had to work within. My co-writer Nick Damon and I knew this from day one, so the entire film from beginning to end, was approached that way and that's why I think we were able to make it work. It's an interesting journey of two characters that are stuck in the middle of an interplanetary war, that have much more in common than they actually think. The backdrop of the movie is vast, and the world in which the story takes place is quite vast as well, but the story itself is much more contained. The apple next to the pie, so to speak. Audiences should not be expecting a big, epic, action adventure movie, because "Hunter Prey" is really not that kind of film.
If we're fortunate enough for the film to do well, and are given the opportunity to do a sequel with a little bit bigger budget, then maybe some of the "bigger picture" ideas that Nick and I came up with, can be explored. The ending of this film was specifically written to be a set up for another adventure, so the possibility of making another "Hunter Prey" film is very exciting. The chance to realize some more of this elaborate, organic universe that we created is without question, something both Nick and myself are excited about. It would be a fantastic opportunity to show in much more detail, what was was only hinted at in "Hunter Prey". The film could also be a very cool platform to launch these characters and this world into many different forms of entertainment. We're really into the whole snowball effect, "reverse engineering" idea to expand and exploit this universe. More often than not, especially these days, a feature film usually is a result of a cool comic book, video game or TV series. In the case of "Hunter Prey" however, the whole thing would work in reverse. We're looking forward to exploring the property in all those ancillary venues after the release of the film, and hope we're provided the opportunity to do so.
TB: I'm curious how you developed the story, particularly because of your design background. Did you start with a particular image in mind and build your world around that or did you start with a story and develop images to suit?
SC: Usually, I do start with an image or series of images. I'm constantly sketching and sculpting out ideas for characters, worlds, weapons, costumes, etc... I'll sit and stare at the sketches and maquettes and just let my mind wander endlessly about what the background of that character is. What planet did he come from? What do his weapons do? What's his story? Does he have a ship? Is he part of an army of some sort? Then I'll start sketching those ideas out, and before you know it, there's tons of drawings all over the walls, all in different degrees of detail... Once I can't cram any more artwork up there, then I usually start writing. That's pretty much how the creative process starts for me. I'm an artist and just a very visual person in general, so images play a very important role in my filmmaking process. Another thing I"ll do, is when I hit "the wall", when I'm writing or making a shot list, I'll literally draw out the idea and solve the problem or get past the wall, via illustrations. You should see my script pages or my shot lists, they're littered with thumbnail boards, scribbles and little sketches.
However, in the case of "Hunter Prey", that's not exactly how it happened. Nick came to me first with the original story idea. Once he explained the basic concept to me, then I started drawing. Some of the sketches I did wound up becoming new characters that got added to the story, some of them never got used at all, but sometimes those would inspire another idea... A better one. My artwork is very spontaneous and pure. When I'm shooting the movie, I'm always trying to capture the power and mood of the original sketches on film. To a large degree, that's what inspires my lens choices, camera angles, and lighting set ups. Seeing my original concepts come to life, right there in front of the lens, through all the talented people who've collaborated with me and supported my vision for the project, is the true joy of making motion pictures. It's something that is very special to me, that I will always treasure and never take for granted. I look forward to doing it for the rest of my life.
TB: And speaking of suits ... the first comment many people had to the first images from Hunter Prey were how the armor looked like some sort of cross between Boba Fett and Iron Man. Did you have those characters in mind when you did your design work?
SC: Actually, the comment I found much more telling, was that those were real suits of armor. Audiences are getting so conditioned to CG, that when something like "Hunter Prey" hits, I think it's sort of a natural, knee jerk reaction to compare it "Star Wars". That was the last time the fans saw great characters like Boba Fett and the sandtroopers for real, up there on the screen, dirty, dusty, rusted, dinged and dented. Those characters were products of their environment, and their costumes reflected the reality of how their past adventures affected them. That gritty, organic, flawed sense of reality that ran rampant through films like "Planet of the Apes", "Rollerball", "Alien" and "Star Wars", is something truly lacking in Science Fiction films today. Everything is so slick, so shiny, plastic and fake looking. My own, personal take on why a lot of the fans are reacting in such a positive way and citing the similarities to the Star Wars universe, is the fact that since those films, no one's really approached futuristic soldiers in armored suits and helmets in that particular way. Here's a post I pulled from a film website that covered the io9 interview. Read for yourself;
Sam Shade says: November 23rd, 2008 at 1:22 am Wow. That stuff looks awesome, what the new Star Wars films SHOULD have looked like. Cool, original designs that look they could be part of the Star Wars universe. I can't believe it's taken over 30 years for someone to finally do this. This guy knows what the fans want, and is giving it to them.
I don't feel that the actual designs of the suits in "Hunter Prey" are that similar to Boba Fett, or anything else for that matter. They're soldiers in flight suits, wearing armor and helmets, so naturally anything that looks like that is going to get cited as an influence. I've heard everything from Boba Fett, to Cylons, Clone troopers, Warhammer and The Rocketeer. Someone even commented that it looked kinda like the Fox NFL robot. Most people referenced the similar look to the Star Wars films, though... Well, of course... I'm a product of the seventies and eighties. I grew up with "Star Wars" and "Battlestar Galactica". Like I've said before, "Hunter Prey" is my love letter and homage to all those great movies that inspired me when I was kid. I'm respectfully acknowledging the incredible films and filmmakers that have done great things before me, nothing more, nothing less.
TB: Are you a hard or soft Sci Fi guy? Does it matter to you if the science behind your worlds is plausible?
SC: That's an interesting question. I always try to make the science of the world as plausible as I can, but I don't think that's necessarily as important as making your story plausible. It's far more important, to me anyway, to make the story and the characters believable. If an audience believes that the characters and the world you've created are real, I think they'll be a little more willing to forgive some science or technology that doesn't quite "work" or make sense, per se. Good writing helps, and that's where Nick did a really fantastic job. Once we had the story fleshed out and got the characters nailed down, Nick figured out how all that stuff would work within the context of the story.
It's a little harder to do I think in movies as opposed to something like a television series or a book, where you have several episodes or pages to explain or show how something works. When you're making a ninety minute movie, it's hard to cram absolutely everything in there. I try to shoot things like the props for instance, very naturally. If a character has a piece if technology or weapon that he's had for quite some time, or uses frequently, it's important for the actor to just use it like the character normally would. Not "show it off" to the audience. Overshooting or concentrating too much on stuff like that for the purpose of saying "See... Working technology.",takes the viewer out of the movie. It's all about connecting with the audience and keeping them invested in what they're looking at, because
whatever steps a filmmaker takes to make the entire world of his film believable to an audience, all go out the window the second the lights go out, that curtain goes up and the movie starts. At that point, you can't say or do anything to influence the audience, one way or the other. They're gonna watch the movie and either believe it, or they won't. It's that simple.
TB: And, finally, when are we going to see some of this in action? Is there a trailer coming soon? Will there be a theatrical or DVD release?
SC: Everyone is asking this question, LOL... Which is a good thing. I'm under sort of a gag order from the investors and executive producers, but what I can tell you is that there has been an absolutely overwhelming amount of interest in this film. There is no question it will get a wide release, and people will be able to see it, but you have to remember; even though it may not look like it, we're still an independent, low budget, genre picture. Marketing a film like this to buyers, both internationally and domestically, is quite different from marketing a film to an audience, so right now we're in the process of figuring out what deal will ultimately serve both the film and the audience best. A teaser trailer will be coming very soon, so stay tuned!!!
The bottom line is, I'm part of the target audience for this film. I made it for the fans because I am a fan. Over the years, I've seen the geek audience become increasingly vocal about the fact that genre films and genre culture have become a joke... A pale, sickly, zombie-esque mutation of its former self, and I am listening. Like them, I'm choking on all the re-makes, re-imaginings, re-boots, and bad movies and am trying to implement change by giving them something that harkens back to all the great genre films of the 70's and 80's, that made us all film geeks. For me as a director, It's all about being able to tap into that innocent, idealistic part of me that was so captured as child by the sense of wonder and magic of the movies.