Monday, November 13, 2006

Stand By For Retro-Adventure!

Here is my interview with Richard Lowry, director of the fantastically fun retro-adventures Monarch of the Moon and Destination Mars! This double-feature will be coming out in December from Image Entertainment and Dark Horse.

Both movies were made with a lot of creativity, planning and perspiration. Money was not a factor (or maybe it was since they didn't really have any). Richard and his brother Tor took what they had and made it work for them... but let Richard tell their story:


Where are you guys from?

Tor and I grew up in Bettendorf, Iowa and dabbled in filmmaking when our father bought us a Super 8 camera. Over the next few years we made countless shorts, culminating with HAWK JONES. HAWK was an all-child cops-&-robbers movie that Tor wrote and I directed. It enjoyed a modestly successful video release and sparked my drive to become a movie director.

What were your influences growing up?

As my interest in films grew, my father introduced me to many of his favorite directors; Hitchcock, Capra, Wilder and more. Their work greatly influenced me. I also became excited by the contemporaries of the time, which were Carpenter, DePalma, Spielberg and Lucas.

How long have you been in Los Angeles?

Before moving to Los Angeles, I spent four years in Portland, Oregon writing music for a commercial company, while also pursuing my interest in filmmaking. Though I was successful writing music, my real passion was making films. Unfortunately, there was little opportunity in Oregon. During those four years I did manage to make my second feature, JESSICA for a few thousand dollars. It was subsequently released by Omega Pictures and Image Entertainment.

Los Angeles has been my home for nearly 15 years. In that time I've managed to produce and direct five more features and a few shorts. The last feature,MONARCH OF THE MOON, is my highest profile project to date and has established a working relationship with Dark Horse Comics, who executive produced the movie.

What is your style?

I don't have a particular style, I tend to emulate other director's techniques. I always employ a style that's appropriate for the subject matter. It creates a nice diversity in my work. Someone can watch "Destination Mars", "Don't Feed the Animals", then "The Looking Glass" and not have a clue that they're made by the same director.

Destination Mars!

How did you decide to make homage to 50’s sci-fi?

Tor was the mastermind behind MARS. It was during his bout with chicken pox that he endured PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE every day for a month. On the 31st day he sat down and wrote the screenplay. When he sent it to me, I was impressed with how well he
captured the Ed Wood flavor.

How long did it take to make?

With the script in hand, I attempted to raise funding. I secured a very unusual cast -- Carl
Anthony, Dolores Fuller, Conrad Brooks, Kenneth Tobey, Warren Stevens, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Brink Stevens and even Charlie Callas as the nutty scientist. With this cast signed on, I was sure I could get a hundred thousand or so to make the film. I struck out, getting rejections from Tim Burton's company and even Sam Raimi's, among more.

After a year of struggling, Tor finally showed up to Los Angeles with a few thousand in his pocket. He asked if we could make a movie for $7,000. I said yeah, let's do MARS on MINI-DV. Tor was skeptical, but somehow, we put it together and movie got finished
two years later.

What was involved in the production process? Who contributed ?

The movie's producer, Chris Patton, donated his Cannon XL1 to the project and introduced us to Adobe Premiere. Also, he acquired a filmlooking software that was amazing. We built sets in a Burbank warehouse and shot the principal photography in 14 days. Casting was done through Backstage West and our cast was perfect. Having no-names in the movie helped sell it as a lost film. At the OJAI film festival, when the movie was finished, audience members were
convinced that it really was fifty years old.


During post for MARS, Tor mastered the most valuable software tool for the project: Adobe After Effects. Within months he was a skilled compositor. In the end, our $7,000 movie had over three hundred visual effects that Tor single handedly pulled off.

What did you learn making DM?

MARS received acclaim from many noted people, including Leonard Maltin and Harry Knowles. Harry loved it so much, he put it on his 2002 favorite movies list. What did I learn from this experience? That with the tools, a filmmaker could make an entertaining, quality movie for very little money, as long as he or she is smart about the execution.

Monarch of the Moon:

Is this a sequel to Destination Mars!?

While we were in post on MARS, we discussed other potential lost film ideas. I had always enjoyed the serials, and suggested the idea. It was one of many good ideas we all had, and when Dark Horse Comics approached us to do another lost film, we decided to go with the serial idea.

How did this picture come about?

Mike Richardson of Dark Horse orchestrated our deal with Image Entertainment. It was Image that requested another MARS-type film, on the condition that we make this one in color. The fact that MARS was in black and white hindered its distribution for almost five years.

Did your budget affect how you wrote it?

Chris and I wrote the screenplay for Monarch, always keeping our limitations in mind. Image was only giving us $85,000, so we had to be careful not to bury ourselves with a script that was too ambitious. We discussed every scene carefully and how we could pull off the effects. Chris had a vast knowledge of the effects softwares, so nothing we wrote couldn't be done. Consequently, MONARCH (many of which you can see in this trailer) ended up with nearly 900 visual effect shots. We're sure we set a record for a film of this budget.

How was it working with green screen? Especially on a low budget.

Well over a third of the movie required green screen photography. Our initial approach was fatal. We shot a good portion of the green screen with a diffusion filter. This caused glows around the actors, and it was nearly impossible to key out. Chris had to turn to his friends at Filmworks in Santa Monica to save us, and the clean up work they did was amazing.

We were also limited on lights, so the green screen was never really adequately lit. This resulted in countless rotoscope jobs. Also, our costume designer would show up with outfits containing bright green and blue colors. One of the actors wore a headpiece that had greenish-blue feathers. Another keying nightmare.

The complications in post added a year to the film's completion. Image was gracious enough to
allows us this time, and they are extremely pleased with the results. MONARCH and MARS will be released as a double-pack DVD set on December 5th.

Equipment you used?

MONARCH was shot with the Panasonic DVX100a. The image it produced was fantastic. To date, few people who've seen the movie have questioned the format. The clarity, color saturation and 24p motion prove that this camera is a must for independent filmmakers.

Advice for filmmakers wanting to do this themselves?

My advice to independent filmmakers is to avoid the high cost of film. With good execution, a camera like the DVX100 can produce an image equal to good 16mm. By saving costs this way, your shooting ratio can increase and schedule be extended. You can focus on quality rather then attempting principal photography in ten days because the Arriflex is due back. And unless there is an understanding of effects software and its limitations, don't attempt a visual effects extravaganza. Only do so if you have experienced artists at your disposal.

Above all, spend time on a good script and use only good actors. Don't let your brother Biff or Aunt Tildie play major roles. Independent films suffer most from this. There are many serious, professional actors willing to do independent films as long as the script is good.

Any questions can be addressed to myself or Tor via our website,


Matt Davids said...

Great interview. I was encouraged especially when it was mentioned they shot with a DVX100a just like I use.

Matt Davids

Kelly J. Crawford said...

Great interview. Thanks for that, Bill.