Chris: I would find it very difficult to resist the leg clutch, like a three year old grabbing an adult’s leg. You know how they cling on and you walk and they…that’s how I would do that. I want to jump back actually to a question just about how long production and post took because there was this big spike of awareness of the project and then a long dark night of the soul where I didn’t know if it was even going to happen or not, had it vanished? And of course my friend Ryan tells me he’s scoring it and then my heart soared because I was like oh thank God! I wanted to see this so badly! Can you tell us what was happening there?
Mike: When you make a film and if anybody takes notice, then you’re like running a company in a way and sometimes you just don’t have the budget to actually bank roll people working on it other than yourself. We had a fantastic media coordinator, Dave Bencourt, but at a certain point he’s got other things to do as well so a lot of the (inaudible) came back on me to do the social networking and I’m just trying to get this thing done! We basically…I came up with the idea and mulled it over for a bit in about 2008 and then I finally pulled the trigger on trying to find a concept artist in 2008, found Robert in December, basically designed it out and made the suit. Mid 2009, late 2009 basically started putting together the story, originally I was just going to do a concept short that was maybe 2-6 minutes about this soldier that is basically getting chased by a tank and the tree explodes and shrapnel hits his leg from the tree and he’s limping and these Germans are coming up to him and then pretty much all of them get taken out and the tank explodes and the Arbiter is revealed. We were just going to use it for that little thing at the end, and you know, we basically had the suit and then everybody around me was like, “Wait, wait, wait. You’re only going to show the Arbiter once at the end? You’re crazy! You need to do an entire piece!” But it also came from alright, well I’ve done this Narrow Road film, I’ve done The Reason, but I haven’t really done anything where I would say alright, this is my pro-level effort. Those were ones were I was really still learning and so I just said alright, well I’m going to create the concept short and a short film that I can take to festivals and also use as a calling card, but also allow everyone on the team to use it as a crazy calling card. My visual effects team, they get a lot out of it I believe.
Chris: It looks amazing.
Mike: And that also comes to finding a unified goal for everybody and just making it obvious. Like yeah, we all have selfish desires that we want to make bigger films but we can do it together if come together and try to make something of quality. So yeah, so basically that was about a year and a half of pre-production. We would actually have quite a few calls, use Basecamp to coordinate everybody online and then we had two large pre-production meetings. And at that point we basically shot in the summer of 2010 and we shot for roughly about eight days, a couple days on blue screen, a couple days in San Martin on an air strip and B12 Mitchell which we used as our XB61 plane. And then we filmed a few more days, but I think it was like four days or so at Hans Beerbaum’s place called Kannon King Ranch which is basically Kannon King with two K’s. Instead of a C for cannon, it’s a K. And this guy, amazing. I found him through a gaffer friend of mine who does the Arbiter website as well, Hector Aranda, really talented. He does web design and he also gaffs, so he paints with light and pixels which is his slogan which I love. But he connected me with Hans, there’s another filmmaker that actually filmed with him, I got to see some of his stuff and it was a fantastic film. And it was much more grounded than ours, it was very true Russian and German sides of the war coming together and POWs and it was an amazing film. And I saw his location and I was like wow, this is spectacular, I need to meet with him. And so I met with him and his wife Miriam and we became really good friends and we talked about the film. And what was amazing was that myself, Vicki, and Jason (my cinemaphotographer), we got to go up there probably four or five times. And I became such good friends with Hans, he would let me direct some of his shoots, and he would have all these reenactors come in, we would film at his location in places around there in Petaluma, California which is about 45 min north of San Francisco. And we would do these reenactment moments where he’s using I think it’s legal style pyrotechnics so it’s not like accelerants, so it is legal. And he would do these crazy explosions and it was a candyland, this was stuff I’ve wanted to do since I was a kid. He gave us the playground and we would go off and shoot and we kind of taught him a bit more about the Red One camera system and how to use like high level pro cameras. And so we would test all the stuff out and we found our look for Arbiter as well as our style for shooting actually during those tests. So that’s why we were able to move so quickly on set and just basically do our twelve hour days and burn through quite a few pages.
Chris: You’d practiced.
Mike: Yeah, quite a bit. And it’s so helpful and what’s really interesting about this stuff too is, if you are doing a concept short which even if it’s a short film, it’s practice for a feature film. So a lot of what we’ve done in the short has informed what we will do and do better in the feature which is it’s a lot of fun and it’s inspiring because again you’re always learning. And I kind of equate it to any great filmmakers out there, looking at James Cameron when he made The Terminator, that’s a great freshman effort and then when you look at Terminator 2, that is like well refined. Like it’s like night and day, at least quality wise, that’s what’s so cool about it, you’re always learning and you’re making it better.
Chris: Can you, I mean I’m just curious about that Tudor style house, the great, great house you got to shoot around and inside of. I assume you were in the real house, but I don’t know if that’s actually true.
Mike: No we really did, we retrofitted his entire basement into like a torture style experiment lab and a lot of that stuff too, I didn’t put that stuff in there for shock value. I talked to Vicki, my producer, quite a bit at length about that. And there was budget concerns about if we could even do that whole basement scene because we were doing so much else. And so we just said you can’t take that out because that’s the core moment where he realizes what he’s doing is, it’s not about the mission, it’s actually about the people. And he gets a little infuriated about it, which causes him to do what he does in the subsequent scene, but he was amazing. He just gave us the ability to change his house, and one of the biggest changes here, you’ve got to see this in the behind the scenes when we release it is, Traci Hayes, production designer, came in and built a faux wall, a fake wall in his bedroom to make the office. So he gave us his bedroom to actually retrofit into an office. So we painted that thing up like with different paint all over the walls and brought all this stuff in and just changed this entire room for a week. While we were shooting outside we were prepping the basement and the office, so he was just very, very gracious and he’s a humble guy and he’s got so many story ideas too. It’s always great working with him and just talking about film.
Chris: He slept in the tank.
Mike: Yeah, well that’s the thing is, when we were doing the test, we put a lot of that stuff in the promo video and so the tank you see at the end of the promo video is actually a Russian tank. So like we tried to be as authentic and accurate as possible but that was just such a cool shot we just could not help ourselves but put it in the little promo because we knew we were going to have a digital tank. And the choice came from number one, we kind of get a tiger tank which is just so expensive to get a real German tiger tank. And again like I said, we kind of used his tank because it was a Russian T34. So what we decided to do was actually utilize a tank which kind of goes in the pedigree of Arbiter, which is we always want to find the unseen things in World War II so there’s a big emphasis even in the short as well as the feature to expose battles and elements of World War II, almost Forrest Gump style in a way, that you’ve never seen before, the unseen espionage stuff that really happened. So one of the crazy vehicles, no one’s ever really seen before, there’s an elephant tank and it had a Porsche chassis and they made like eighty of them or something, but they just turned up like so much gas and everything and they couldn’t…they’re basically a tank killer. And so that’s why our Arbiter is going up against one of the most formidable ones but it’s only weaknesses, it’s Achilles Heel is it doesn’t have a turret, its’ can’t rotate. So it’s a fixed gun so that’s why when the XP61 flies in, it just blasts it from the side and takes it out. Yeah, the XP61, the Black Widow, that’s a prototype version of it and it made it like a mobile command base inside which they never really did but we did for the purposes of our story. That’s again, a plane that most people don’t know about, so we’re always trying to just get people to talk about alright, well what else is out there that we haven’t seen? But back to your point, I kind of skipped away from it, post production was supposed to take a year and a half. We knew it was going to be a lot. It took two and a half years pretty much if you count all the adjustments to the final mix and things like that. We have an awesome opportunity of going to Skywalker Sound before they got bought by Disney which is amazing. So got to go there and work with Steve Boeddeker to do the 5.1 mix, and we took his stuff and worked with a talented mixer, Keith to basically adjust some of the mixing items before we finalized our 5.1.
Yeah, it was quite a big effort, we originally had quite a few folks signed on to do the visual effects and then some of it just fell through frankly, they just got too busy and schedules just didn’t line up anymore. So we had to reach out to different avenues and we found some folks over at Cogswell College that they do like 3D, so they worked on the tank.
Chris: Wow, it looks great.
Mike: Yeah, James McCarthy worked on the plane, he’s our 3D visual effects supervisor, and then a lot of the like the look dev for like the cloaking, the Arbiter vision when you’re in the helmet, and things like that, that came from actually overseas and around the world. We had people in Poland, Germany, New York, just people we’ve never met before work on visual effects shots for us and we picked the top people to finalize shots with us over the course of about eight months, and they all came through FxPhD which is an online visual effects school. So yeah, that was the big key there, them and the folks from Cogswell, we were able to expedite post. But the big thing was, we could have finished it earlier but we just again said, it doesn’t look right yet, it’s not ready, you’ve got to make it great.
Chris: How does one get their film mixed at Skywalker Sound, how does that happen?
Mike: And again, if you’ve been listening to the whole thing and you haven’t skipped through this podcast, you’ll find out that I worked for Mark Shepherd. It was my first film related job, it was my first editorial job working for him as an editor. We became really good friends and he was my co-producer and my executive producer on The Narrow Road so I made that with him and he subsequently made Legacy Films in entertainment. A lot of great stuff coming out of there and what’s cool is, one of his friends is an acquaintance with Steve. And I talked to Steve very early on about The Narrow Road and he came in and was very gracious with his time, and this is a guy who started his career on Seven. His first film that he did sound design for was Seven and before that, he was just working on Kawasaki keyboards in Los Gatos. And he told me his whole story of how he came up and then if you listen to any of David Fincher’s films, there’s so much nuance with the sound and he did a lot with it. So I respected his opinion, I got a lot of great stuff from him on The Narrow Road just for mixing and he really taught me the scene that goes beyond your eyes and what you hear. So I talked to him a bit about this and Mark brought it to him and he saw it and he flipped out over it and he worked with us for a better part of a year.
Chris: You hinted at a feature and yet it sounds like the feature would perhaps take place before the short and yet the short, it opens with a bang and then it twists and then it ends with a cliffhanger. So I guess what was originally going to be one question is actually two. One is, what can you tell us about this potential feature and two would be, would we find out at any point in any medium what happens after the short?
Mike: Oh yeah, yeah. Actually, the questions that arise out of like the short film are actually built into the feature as well.
Chris: Okay, cool.
Mike: Again, think of the concept short as something that is a proof of concept. It’s something that we look back to kind of like as a Bible in a way but we’re not held by it in like saying this is cement. Like we’re still about to architect different things with the same characters and build similar moments but there’s a lot in the feature film that I’m extremely excited about. I’m working on a lot of projects right now, but some of the moments in Arbiter are things that people have never seen before, and that’s things that get me really excited is bringing new imagery but just bringing new characters in the story to people. So yeah, in the feature film I’m currently writing it with a talented script writer Ay Asamba, we’ve been starting to work on that and we’ve basically got everything mapped out and we’re just working over the next three to four months here to finish that up. And we have a few interested parties in different mediums actually that are pretty exciting because there’s a bit of a larger strategy than just one film and it goes into other media. I don’t want to talk too much about that just yet, but there is kind of like a transmedia plan for the characters that are involved in the story and how they develop over the course of multiple films and other aspects. But yeah, the biggest question is, what do you do with this ability and I also want to study in the feature film the proximity of war and what that does to people. Because in the suit it’s amazing, you can be an observer or you can be an active participant without people knowing. And a lot of films that use invisibility quite well, it’s such an interesting thing and you see them always being observers and watching things and I just want folks to be more of like an active participant. So I’ll just leave you with this, imagine his adversary being a Nazi version of this and they’re being core teams going against each other during historical battles. And then you’ve got moments like the best scenes in like a Borne Identity film but just imagine the folks being invisible in a room with everything breaking apart? So it’s pretty trippy to wrap your mind around but it’s so cool because people haven’t seen it yet.
Chris: It’s the age of DIY, right? And most of my listeners, they have their own audacious ideas and they dream about giving them life. And sure, we can encourage them or attempt to encourage them by saying that you just have to start, you just have to be optimistic about it. But the fact is, they’ve all heard that a lot and yet a lot of them still feel stuck. What would you guys say, what’s some practical advice that you can provide for people in that place kind of mentally and emotionally?
Mike: I don’t have anything, what do you think Ryan?
Ryan: Um, I don’t know if this directly answers the question, but maybe. I study not just musicians, but writers and directors and artists and everything else. And I think the number one thing they all have in common is that they’re prolific. That they’ve done tons of work. There’s just so much Mozart music that nobody listens to, even though he’s on every concert every night all the time, there’s just so much other stuff. And there’s so much Beethoven that nobody bothers to listen to because there’s so much other stuff. And I always say the Beetles are famous for having like twenty-one number one hits, but what about the thousands of other songs that are okay or that are not so good, or are fine or whatever. And it all just comes back to, they write a lot and a lot and a lot. And not only does that just make you get better at it, but just some mornings you’re going to sit down and write something kind of lame and try it and the next day you’re going to sit down and write Hey Jude. But you can’t get Hey Jude without 99 so so’s. So I know that’s not a directly actively walk into Hollywood and say like hey, shake my hand, take my script. But if you’ve written thousands of scripts, a) you’re going to be fantastic, just because you’ve written thousands of scripts but b) 20% of them are going to be awesome and somebody’s going to notice.
Mike: Yeah, and I totally agree with that and I think also to build on that too, one of the things I’ve found just over the course of probably the last five years of my life is trusting in what you do. And like Ryan said, you have to go through those inevitable, hundreds of iterations of something to finally get to that gem. And I think people respect you more if you actually put in the work and literally the hours and hundreds of thousands of hours to actually just make something of quality because it can easily in this day and age turn on a television and watch a lot of reality crap. I mean there are some great stories out there but a lot of it is just fabricated and you’re not seeing things with substance or value so I think people judge you on the final result and to me I also think…Ryan does this as well, when we create things yes, we want to do it as fast as possible. But at the same time, you have to make sure that it’s going to be lasting, something that actually has a value that you can come back to it. And the thing I always look at with my films is, I kick myself with this, how do I create an aesthetic that is timeless. If I watch Battleship Potemkin or like The Thin Red Line or things like that, are there things in it that feel dated or are they still relevant? And the further back you go with the film and you can still watch it and it’s still relevant, like on the waterfront. And the story and the pacing and all that stuff, if it’s still relevant, then you know you have something that is timeless. And to me, trying to hone your craft and trying to create something that is of quality and that is timeless. If you’re trying to set your vision in on that, then I think the other things are going to come because frankly if you’re setting yourself towards creating quality, people are going to see that and they’re going to want you also to collaborate with them and create quality with them.