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Friday, October 30, 2009
[Note: this interview was originally done in June 2006.]
In part one of our interview, jack-of-all-trades indie filmmaker MIKE CONWAY filled us in on the making of his sci-fi film, TERRARIUM (aka WAR OF THE PLANETS). This time, we get to find out what went on behind the scenes of his latest production about a genetically-engineered superwoman gone nuts, THE AWAKENING, which cost roughly one-fifth of the budget it took to film TERRARIUM while surpassing it in just about every way. How does this low-budget auteur do it? Let's find out!
porfle: How did you get involved in THE AWAKENING?
MIKE: Producer Kelly Johnston, bought a copy of my previous movie, TERRARIUM. He then emailed me and we hooked up. He told me about the story by Erik Manion and I liked it enough to collaborate.
porfle: What changes or additions did you make to the existing story?
MIKE: I told Kelly that I would do the project if I could make some alterations. He and Erik were very cool about this. I took out all but one of the narrations. It was better to just show. I added the scenes with Lara's mom and the doctor. With a lot of Kelly's ideas, we added a number of military scenes, including the Sergeant Benson character. I added in the SUV scene, where Lara throws it. The original ending was not a cliffhanger, so I added those final shots to spice it up a bit.
Erik's story nailed the characters and their attitudes, as well as the story's scope. A lot of dialogue got cut. It made my job easier, to have more than enough material. There was also a scene where Lara hovers off the ground, as well as some scenes where she shoots lasers out of her eyes. I got rid of that stuff, because I thought it went a bit too far, or wasn't as easily explained, like the radioactive super strength was. Some people might prefer that, but I wanted to keep it just outside the realm of feasibility.
porfle: What can you tell us about Tamra Ericson Frame, the statuesque blonde who plays superwoman Lara Andrade in the film?
MIKE: She is a part-time model and has been Kelly's business partner for several years. Kelly always had her in mind for the story. They did a 25-minute short, called GIRL OF STEELE. That was her only acting previous experience, so this was a tall order for her. I think she has the right kind of blond, sassy attitude, that plays well into the character's more confident moments.
porfle: What about the 6'4" (in heels) Heather Lei Guzzetta as the sinister mastermind behind the film's "Project Gladiator"? She makes quite an impression.
MIKE: Heather was actually a last minute replacement, when the previous actress got pregnant. She was in Greg Parker's indie movie, BLADE OF DEATH. Kelly and I met her at the premiere of that movie and never forgot about her. I'm not sure of the extent of Heather's acting background, but she's really good. She took that sinister part and just ran with it. Yes, being tall really added to her character's presence.
porfle: Did you enjoy playing a lead role ("David Andrade") this time? How challenging was it to do this in addition to directing the film?
MIKE: On this movie, I would have never suggested myself, but I'm glad that Kelly thought that I would fit. I really do love acting and who knows if I'll get the chance to play a leading character again, so I jumped at the opportunity. It was even better to play the husband of a pretty character, like Tamra's.
It did make some things challenging, especially since we didn't have a director of photography to shoot the scenes that I was in. It would have helped to have that critical eye, when I wasn't shooting. You probably noticed some of the whacky headroom in a few of those shots, eh?
On the flipside, our lead male actor was always available. When the role is that prominent, that is a good thing. I hope that I get that chance again.
porfle: How were the digital effects in THE AWAKENING accomplished? Some of them--replicating extras, Lara tossing an SUV--were pretty impressive considering the budget.
MIKE: The SUV toss was a model that was shot against a greenscreen. It was added into the real shot of Lara and the street. As for cloning extras, once I saw some of Kelly's practice footage, in After Effects, I understood what we could get away with. We bought 6 Black Ops uniforms and 6 Marine uniforms. Some of those shots show 12 actors! It was always the same 6 guys, put in different positions and shot a second or third time. When the footage was composited, you couldn't tell.
Our budget was so cheap that we only had one labcoat for a while. There is a scene with Donald and I, where I'm standing over a crate and he is talking to me. We are wearing the same labcoat! We shot the scene with me wearing it, then I handed it to him. Again, no one knows!
The other main effects were gunfire and blood, which Kelly became quite efficient at. To make a guy look like he was torn in half, Kelly would just erase his legs and use the mask of the real floor. It's really incredible.
porfle: The explosive climax of the film was done using greenscreen. Didn't you shoot that in your livingroom?
MIKE: Yes, I've got Tamra on my shoulder and the building blows up behind us. We set up a greenscreen behind us, then put a queen-sized mattress on the livingroom floor and fell onto that. In the final shot, it looks like we're outside, almost getting blown up.
porfle: One of the most memorable scenes is the one in which Lara backhands a Black Ops guy's head off--the body stumbles to the floor, while the still-living head continues to observe the rest of the scene. How was this done?
MIKE: We shot a plate shot of the empty corridor. Then, we had the actors stand in the corridor. Keith Ford had a mouthful of fake blood. When Tamra hit him, Keith started drooling the blood, staggering, then falling. Kelly took the two shots (empty corridor/actors) and simply masked out Keith's head. He used the drooling blood as a mask point, because that was easiest to follow. When you see the final shot, it looks like Keith has no head, but he still has a neck and chin!
As far as the head watching from the floor, we threw a dummy head, which rolls into place. We did the same thing as the corridor; we took a plate shot of the empty floor, then had Keith lay down into the shot. Kelly masked out his body, so all you see is Keith's head, with the blinking eyes.
porfle: In an earlier scene, Lara turns over a van in front of her house and then struts away--it's a beautiful shot. Was that a first take? Where was it done?
MIKE: For the overturned van shot, we moved from the street, where the rest of the scene was shot, into my backyard. Kelly tied a towstrap to the back of his truck and connected it to the roof rails of the van. Tamra put her hand against it and pushed, while Kelly's truck pulled it over. Yes, that was one take.
porfle: What about Lara's barfight scene? It looked to me as though someone had a really nice bar/poolroom in their basement that was dressed to look like an actual bar.
MIKE: Actually, that was a 2 level bar, called Jose Hogs. For some reason, the bottom level is closed, so we were able to shoot there, without having to close the place down. A couple of the extras at the bar doubled for Black Ops. The bartender, Shae Wilson, was Dena from TERRARIUM. Also, the pool player with the bandana, George Miklos, was one of the actors who played the monster in that movie.
porfle: What was the location used for the government research complex where your character, David Andrade, works?
MIKE: That was a combination of several different places, including a storage facility, an office building, a warehouse, my garage and my friend Mike Rick's house. All of these locations are several miles apart from each other.
porfle: Which sets were actually constructed and shot in your garage?
MIKE: We shot the truck scene, with David, the captain and sergeant, in there. We used a greenscreen and had people shaking the truck. We also built the Laboratory, Radiation room, Autopsy room and a mock version of one of the storage facility hallways. That last one was because we needed to get a little bloody.
porfle: Where did you get all those cool-looking military weapons used in the shootouts between the Marines and the bad guys?
MIKE: Most of those weapons belong to a Las Vegas Airsoft club. A lot of these guys are former vets who like to get together for wargames, on the weekends. Some of the guns, with modifications, can cost up to $1,300 or more.
Airsoft is the name of the company that makes the weapons. The guns are near perfect replicas of the real thing. Most of the rifles are electric, while many pistols use gas. This allows the guns to display realistic blowback action. Kelly would add the muzzle flashes with After Effects. Kelly also had a real M4 rifle and I had some Collector's Armoury blank firing pistols.
porfle: As I've mentioned before, Timothy S. Daley ("Capt. Harris") makes a great action-hero Marine. He also played the main authority figure in TERRARIUM. Is he anything like these characters in real life?
MIKE: I love that Tim really got a chance to shine, with this movie. I would have to say that his real-life persona is pretty close to his characters. The haircut stays the same and that low, authoritative voice can stop people in their tracks. That was why I picked him.
porfle: You had two extra crewmembers on the set this time. Do the Conway kids, Shawn and Carmen, appear to be picking up your interest in filmmaking?
MIKE: Supposedly, Carmen wants to be a veterinarian and a filmmaker! Shawn definitely likes being on a set. As you saw in the documentary [GUNS, GIRLS, & CLONES, which is included on the DVD], he gets very upset when we don't take him to a shoot.
porfle: Was the budget for THE AWAKENING really $5,000?
MIKE: We finally added up the receipts and it was $5,900. A good portion of that was taking the actors to T-Bird's restaurants! One of the reasons that the producer, Kelly, wanted me for this movie, was because I already had the camera, lights, mics, greenscreen, motorhome (with generator), etc. Because of that, the Steele Productions' equipment cost was pretty much just DV tape.
Production money went to Lara's costume ($300), 6 Black Ops and 6 Marine Uniforms ($1,100). $600 was "incentive" to a warehouse manager and staff. There was also 3 paid cast days (after which, we ran out of money), props and food.
porfle: How long did it take to complete principal photography and post-production?
MIKE: Usually, we shot very short days, 5 - 6 hours, because a lot of the cast was unpaid and Tamra couldn't be away from her kids for more than a few hours. Shooting days totalled up to 43, spread out over an 8-month period. I usually can't get weekends off, so we would shoot on a Tuesday or Wednesday, depending on what everyone's schedule was.
There was about 6 months of post-production, including the documentary. It got spread out more than that, because Lionsgate wanted a lot of fixes on TERRARIUM. That meant shutting down THE AWAKENING for most of that summer.
porfle: As a personal accomplishment, how does THE AWAKENING compare with TERRARIUM and your earlier efforts?
MIKE: I think that THE AWAKENING is an awesome improvement and is my best movie yet. But, I still have some people tell me that they prefer TERRARIUM, because of the story and scope of that project. A lot of that has to do with the huge ship set and 16mm film.
THE AWAKENING has the edge with the action and much more realistic FX. The story is big, there are 40 actors and the locations are numerous. Unlike the dubbed TERRARIUM, THE AWAKENING is sync sound, so the acting comes off much, much stronger, particularly Tim Daley's.
porfle: I'm interested in seeing what you have in store for us in the future--where do you go from here? Oh, and any chance we'll ever get to see that "superchick" battle that's hinted at in the final shot?
MIKE: Though the movie ends with that superchick cliffhanger, there are no plans for a sequel. I kind of threw the cliffhanger in, because the original story ended with David and Lara in their home, getting away scot free. After all of the carnage that resulted from their doings, I couldn't settle for that. I didn't have "sequel" in mind, as much as "what comes around, goes around."
As for where I go from here, my main goal is to improve my filmmaking skills with each new feature. After being so stretched out on the massive TERRARIUM project, my last thought was to take on a 40-actor project, which was as ambitious as THE AWAKENING's script was! I feel that we pulled it off about as good as we could for the near zero budget. My goal is to go "smaller." I want more technical control and less people to deal with. What you'll see, next, is something a lot more polished and tight.
I have another pet sci-fi project that I want to get off of the ground. I also have a horror idea about a reptilian/human hybrid. There is also the possibility of doing a hitman type of movie. It just depends on finances. If I had my wish, I could leave my day job and make all 3 of these movies, in the next 12 -18 months. I like horror, sci-fi and suspense themes.
porfle: Mike, thanks for speaking with us today! It's been a real pleasure.
MIKE: Thank you!