A bit better than a decade ago, Fox had a television hit with the critically acclaimed Ally McBeal. To me, the show was insipid and clichéd – but people connected with the comical foibles of a creepy computer-generated dancing baby and its friend, a neurotic animated skeleton. The show’s creator, David Kelley (a guy with a list of hit TV credits only slightly less impressive than oh, say, Norman Lear), eager to parlay his television success into the opportunity to craft a feature film not starring Judd Nelson, inked a deal with the director of Friday the 13th Part 2 and wrote a movie about a giant killer reptile.
Ally McBeal…not so much. Giant killer reptile…that I could get behind.
Constructed as an homage to old-fashioned monster yarns (like Tremors before it and Slither after), Lake Placid is oddball mishmash of monster movie clichés and screwball comedy patter featuring a cast that would never have shown up were it not for Kelly’s imprimatur. It was a minor theatrical hit, and – like most creature features – it killed on video.
Which 20th Century Fox clearly adores. From the resurrection of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to continual attempts at sequelizing Big Trouble in Little China or Buckaroo Banzai…to the insistence that the world can’t live without Aliens or Predators – Fox works to exploit its catalog in a way only MGM can touch. Recently, the company started a DTV arm to better take advantage of their properties. Unlike other studios who’ve taken this step (Universal, I’m talking to you), Fox has managed to do something right – they made Wrong Turn 2.
With that film fresh in my mind, I approached Fox’s DTV sequel to Lake Placid with an open mind. Honestly…I tend to do that a lot. In the end, as much as I’d like to fool myself into believing I’m a film snob, I saw No Country For Old Men about two weeks after it opened. I was out for Rambo 4 opening night. My priorities are fucked.
So…Lake Placid 2. I settle into the screener and end up sorta’ perplexed as the film begins. Fox and Sony co-producing, you say? Hmm. And then…Sci-Fi Channel?
Yeah – Sci-Fi Channel. I know what you’re thinking. And I’m right there with you, trust me. Most of the Sci-Fi Channel’s original programming is the exact opposite of original – or good, for that matter.
I can tell you that there are elements of Lake Placid 2 that pleased me – the film looks pretty damned nice…there are some slick shots and some cute comedy bits. It’s always good to see Pa Kent himself in action (isn’t it wild that there are kids who will only ever know John Schneider as Tom Welling’s TV dad – and never as the ravine-hopping hillbilly with a racist car?), and Cloris Leachman’s comic timing is obviously powered by some demonic machine. I’d love to tell you that director David Flores conquers that Sci Fi Channel curse, but…
Don’t get me wrong – it’s not his fault. Flores fights like a brave and – aided by a game cast – does what he can with a budget that wouldn’t have paid for the trailer Bridget Fonda lounged in between set-ups on the original – but it was probably a losing battle from the start for exactly that reason. A creature feature only works if the creature does. And if you don’t give a guy enough time and money to make that creature happen…
I’d watched Lake Placid 2 a couple of times by the time I was connected with Flores. I knew what I thought of it. I wanted to know what he thought. Right off the bat, he was all frank and open – and in a pretty cool place about the whole thing…
How do you feel about the finished product?
Well, it’s never the way you want it to be – you only accomplish a fraction of what you intend to. There are things we could have done better, but given the time and the money, I think we were able to achieve some of the things we wanted to.
Your resume has a lot of creature feature and monster stuff on it, which makes me wonder if you enjoy the genre…or if it’s simply where you’ve found work?
It is a genre I have fun with – but it also ended up being the first kind of work I could get. I started working as an editor when I was twenty years old, and I started directing – with Boa VS Python – at twenty-five. And there’s not a lot of work…I didn’t go to a big film school or anything like that, so I didn’t really have the contacts. These were the only kinds of projects I could get.
But to be honest, they are a lot of fun to do. And usually everybody’s got a good attitude – ‘cause you’re just gonna’ come in here and make some kinda’ creature movie – so you just go ahead and have a good time with it.
How long did you shoot?
Did you go HD?
No, no – we shot 35mm. For whatever reason, most distributors still require you to shoot these kinds of movies on film. I’ve been told that it’s to maintain a certain standard for international distribution – and I believe it’s something the bond companies and insurers want.
There’s a very clean, crisp look to the film – and especially with your schedule, I thought HD might have been easier to manage. There are some really good-looking shots, and it felt like there were a lot of setups…was that just busting ass, or was it the result of a well-oiled machine?
I think it’s a very well-oiled machine. I’ve worked with the same first AD – almost the exact same crew now…I’ve worked with Lorenzo (cinematographer Lorenzo Senatore) a couple times now, and we’ve got a relationship that helps us achieve what we’d like on the visual side of things, at least. I’ve learned a lot from my first AD and the D.P. in terms of how to get things done efficiently. I don’t think I had a really good idea of how to make a commercial film until I started working with these guys. So they helped me a lot more than I’ve helped them in terms of how to shoot a movie.
I don’t know…I think I end up disappointed with the computer graphics – and I’m also disappointed with the gore content this time. There were varying producer opinions on how much gore should be in there…
As far as the CG goes, I feel like, at this point – audiences know that it’s not gonna’ be WETA every time out, so the CG doesn’t need to look real, it just needs to look cool. And there are a couple of moments in the film where it’s apparent that you’re reaching for that “money shot” level, despite a lack of money – which is weird, since Fox, Sony, and Sci-Fi – which is Universal – are all involved! Do you have any idea how that happened?
I have a little bit of an idea…I don’t know how much they want me to talk about it, because anytime you get into the low-budget stuff, the real agenda is just to make something quick and cheap and get it out there to the video market, but basically the production company I was working for had a relationship with Sony already, and Sony wanted another direct-to-video monster film, like I had done with Boa VS Python. And someone at the production company had connections at Fox and said, “We can get the Lake Placid license.” Then they teamed with Sci-Fi – and they don’t usually do sequels, but I think they couldn’t resist doing a creature feature that was already a property. So the three of them just came together…which didn’t mean I got more money…(laughs)
Which is really odd – because I had assumed, based on the look of the film, that you must have had more time and money than these DTV productions usually get.
Well, thank you for that.
And how in the hell do you shoot Eastern Europe for Maine?
You shot this in Bulgaria!
Yeah – 100 percent in Bulgaria.
I know they do that to keep costs down, but I’d think that, after a fashion – you’re spending extra money just to make the foreign look familiar…
The toughest shoot I’ve done in Bulgaria was Boa VS Python – because it had to take place on the streets of downtown Philadelphia – and that’s the true nightmare, because the architecture has that sort-of Eastern Bloc/Communist…menace.
And every car was made in the sixties…and all the signage is – you end up having to overhaul the entire street. And those details are tough because you have an entirely Bulgarian production crew – including the wardrobe and production design staff – and they’re not fully aware of the little details that make things truly “American”.
We were doing one of the beach scenes – the kids end up on the beach, and when it comes time to look at the wardrobe selection – it’s all Speedos! ‘Cause it’s Europe – isn’t that what people wear when they go to the beach?
Yes. And people still wear legwarmers…
It’s really hard for me to not laugh at some of their fashion sense.
I noticed in the film that there’s a hillbilly character named Larry…and one of the more loathsome characters proclaims himself a fan of Jeff Foxworthy – do you delight in insulting the less-fortunate?
It does seem as though there was an anti-redneck agenda there, doesn’t it? I don’t know – I never got to talk to the screenwriters…
So the script came to you as the shooting script?
Pretty much – that’s another drawback to doing these movies at times. Once the money’s in place, they want to get them out as quickly as possible. It’s really hard for these production companies to stay afloat, and when you take out a loan – they don’t take a loan out for a full two million, but they take out close to a million dollars. And these are pretty small production companies – you have a staff of like…eight people working at some of these places – so it’s a pretty big deal to them to get the movie going immediately and get it turned in and close these bank loans – because the interest just kills them.
So that’s the drawback – they get the script going, they’ll have a conversation with me, and the next thing you know…the script will show up, and I’m told, “Read it – you’re leaving in forty-eight hours…or twenty-four hours.” The money’s there – and they need to make it happen right away.
But in that sort of high-pressure environment…this is more film school than film school, isn’t it? Without script revision, without pre-production – you’re working on instinct, really, right?
And in lieu of the Roger Corman School of the 70’s and 80’s, these sorts of projects seem like a good place to hone the skill set.
I’d like to imagine so. Sometimes I feel like I’m getting a little lost – that I’ll not ever be able to escape them. In some ways, it hurts your career a little bit. I think maybe I’ve done too many creature movies at this point. I’ll go into interviews for certain projects and they’ll look at my resume and see “Boa VS Python” and “S.S. Doomtrooper” – and it’s a serious drama for maybe Lifetime or Hallmark – and they’re like, “Uh…yeah…we don’t think you’re the guy for our movie…” But in film school I was doing movies like that – I was doing drama. They just don’t believe it.
But what you’re saying – the film school experience? It’s absolutely awesome. Because you get to play with everything that’s going on in terms of cameras and equipment, integrating CGI – all of the technical things that have become so important to commercial filmmaking are there…
How much does your previous work as an editor inform your directorial style?
I would say that – without a doubt – on action movies and movies with CG, that is an absolute necessity to understand editing. I’ve heard of – without mentioning names or anything – I’ve heard of directors who have a background in working with actors. An actor’s director – and that is completely valid. But on these types of films, you can’t rehearse the scene for two hours and then go figure out how to shoot it. You have to have a strategy for how to shoot, and you have to cover eight to ten pages a day – with action…and CG…and green screen work…
And some of these directors – they’ll get that ten page day…but they’ll cover three pages of dialogue in a master. And that’s like…bad 70’s television. And it’s stuff like that where I think that understanding editing is critical knowledge.
But you did a decent job with the actors…
Oh – the cast was great. John Schneider and Cloris Leachman were both just awesome. I was a little intimidated by John Schneider, being a Dukes of Hazzard fan as a kid. I got the announcement and was like, “Oh shit. He’s coming. How do I not tell him that I’m a total dork?” My fourth birthday had a Dukes of Hazzard theme. How do you tell somebody something like that without scaring them immediately?
The cast went for that sense of mean-streak snark from the first film – especially Cloris Leachman. Everyone in this film is attitudinal. Was that in place from the start?
Some of it was there in the script – but a lot of it comes from watching the first movie. I can’t tell you how many times I watched the first film before shooting just to study the tone, and I talked to people who’re supposedly fans of the film to figure out what they liked about it. And that was one of the things – all of those little jabs – where I thought, “Let’s try to mimic that.” Because if the first film was a success, that was one of the reasons why, and it’s something people responded to in David Kelley’s script.
Were you a fan of the original, or did you see the film just to get the tone?
I was a fan of Lake Placid. Doing creature movies, you can’t not do your homework and watch as many of them as you can – at least the popular ones. So I was a fan of it for that reason.
Because it happened to be well made?
Yeah. Creature features were jarring to me when I first started, because film school doesn’t teach you to…you’re supposed to gravitate to the “high-brow”. They say that this isn’t really film – this is fast food. So you do end up with a real appreciation of the ones that work.
You mentioned what film school trained you to do – what do you want to do?
I want to do adventure movies. The reason I got into filmmaking – like about a million other filmmakers like me – was Raiders of the Lost Ark. Watching that when I was a kid…I remember making short films of me running around like Indiana Jones – and they were total rubbish. Just crap 8mm stuff. But I’ve always been in love with the adventure genre because of Raiders. Unfortunately, there aren’t many projects lined up like that. And it’s probably because they’re hard to make.
You’re at work on a film right now that sounds like an adventure piece – what is Captain Drake?
It’s a fantasy/adventure take on the exploits of Sir Francis Drake. It’s sort of like The Odyssey in that it’s Drake and his motley crew…and after his defeat of the Spanish Armada, he’s asked by a group of people to search for the Tree of Life. He doesn’t believe it exists, because he’s never encountered anything fantastical or supernatural – but he gets involved and ends up on this great adventure. And he encounters creatures of Norse mythology – like the Nidhogg and Jörmungandr…and there are giant crustaceans…and then there are conflicts with the Spanish, because there’s still bad blood between them.
The great thing about it is – I don’t know how much you know about him – but if you do a little research on Francis Drake there are like…fifteen movies you could make about his life. You cannot believe the stuff this guy pulled off.
And you’re working on this now?
Oh yeah – I’m cutting it at home, right now, in fact.
And who’s producing this?
It’s Sci-Fi. But just Sci-Fi.
They’ve welcomed you back.
I think my relationship with Sci-Fi is growing, and I’ve got a reputation with the production companies who make these movies…I’m just trying to figure out what Sci-Fi likes – or at least what the audience they’re focusing on likes. And I’m starting to get an idea of what they’re looking for…
Cylons with boob-jobs?
What’s weird is that they don’t seem interested in appealing to people on the internet as a demographic. The people on the internet sort of talk about the lack of gore or edge in these movies, but I think the movies are being made for an audience that wants a sense of familiarity.
But you’re getting closer to the adventure genre – Drake reads like a combination of Pirates of the Caribbean and National Treasure – it’s that same sort of fantasy/adventure married to historical fact.
That’s actually a pretty good – I’ll end up using that!
It does seem like a much bigger project…
That…is true. It’s definitely the biggest movie I’ve ever done – and the hardest thing I’ve ever done. And it’s the first film where I very nearly fell behind…because we’re trying so many things – there are these naval battles and monsters and I’m just like, “WE CAN DO IT!!” (laughs)
You have to have that attitude…and you have to maintain that attitude with your cast and crew.
Did you have a bigger budget for Captain Drake?
No. It’s a lower budget…
Uh…wow…well – it seems like Sci-Fi Channel treats their homegrown stuff with a bit more care – if Battlestar Galactica and Stargate and the Dune projects are any indicator. Is it possible that even with a smaller budget, you might be in better shape?
That’s a definite. That’s one hundred percent true – because they’re in control of those movies. When they partner on them with Fox or Sony or whoever else – there are a lot of chefs in the kitchen, and everybody has an opinion of what should be happening in these movies. And I don’t think Sci-Fi likes that as much…but they also can’t argue with the ratings.
And your projects do well in the ratings?
Lake Placid 2 was the highest rated Sci-Fi Channel movie of 2007.
There you go. Does that success for the network translate into freedom for you on a set? How involved are the producers?
It depends. Because they know that these are lower-budgeted movies, there are certain things that need to happen onscreen in order to sell the movie. I remember going into my first meeting for Boa VS Python…and I was totally nervous. I was going into the Sony building…and it looks like this epic pyramid – and I sit down with these executives and I show them images I’ve done to give them an idea of what the movie’s going to look like…show them my shooting style…
I wanted to show them that I was serious, and that I wanted the job – and I wanted these guys to be excited about me.
And the guy finally says, “Oh yeah…you know – that’s good, kid. Just make sure you…get a bunch of snakes, lots of action, and lots of nudity and you’ll be just fine.
That’s kinda’ like a metaphor for our souls.
It was so shocking to hear that that’s all they really cared about – but it’s what these movies need to have to recoup their budgets. I came in like I was gonna’ change the whole creature-action genre…and it’s like, “Wow…that’s really…what we’re doing….”
But there’s a trust in you now, and-
Ahhh…to an extent – I mean, I keep getting hired. I think they feel like I get the job done – and that I take that job seriously. You get people on these things…you’re treated like a hired gun, and so it’s really easy to be sort-of frustrated by that – because you’re not given total control – you don’t have final cut. I’ve seen directors who finish shooting and say, “Fuck this, I’m outta’ here!” But for me, it’s fun to do – so I can look past all of that.
It’s bizarre that these guys wouldn’t want to see the thing through post-production. You’re name’s on the thing!
Yeah – if you’re doing that, why are you even making movies? You’ve gotta’ get in there and do the best you can with these things.
And you stay with them to the end – you just mentioned that you’re cutting Captain Drake now.
Yeah – I’m not even getting paid to work on this anymore. They had an editor working on it, and he’s a good friend of mine – he edited Lake Placid 2. But he was cutting this like he cut Lake Placid 2, and to me – the tone is very different. The sense of humor isn’t setup-gag-punch line-reaction shot. So I asked the producers if I could take the film and cut it, and if they don’t like it they can do whatever they want to it – but at least I’m able to do my version.
And that they said yes is pretty supportive…
It is. But it’s also no loss to them. I’m cutting the movie for them, and making promises that the movie will be better for it – and it doesn’t cost them a penny.
Well, that’s not exactly true. They paid to ship me a hard drive.
Time is tight on these films, and the script is set in stone because a group of investors or producers have already signed off on it, but is there any chance for you to play…?
Oh yeah – there’s some wiggle room. You might have to barter with the executives a bit, and they’ll turn things down – or there’s something they like, and they’ll let you have your way. But on the set…or on location, dialogue almost always changes – because these scripts aren’t always written with logic in mind.
Right – they’re written around the saleable elements or set pieces.
Yeah – so the dialogue doesn’t always reflect what’s happening. So you get to play with the dialogue a little bit – just so long as you don’t alarm the companies or the network.
Were you able to do that on Lake Placid 2?
Yeah – there were two things – one of which did end up getting cut out…and it was my favorite moment. But the one…
In the script, there are always these moments where the characters are moving…creeping…and they’re being watched…and they turn – and the deer runs away. This happened three or four times in the script. And the movie’s kinda’ ridiculous to begin with, so I took it one step further – and I made it the same rabbit every time. Every time they turn around – this stupid fucking rabbit.
And then that leads to the Looney Tunes reference – John Schneider does the Yosemite Sam line-
That was all John Schneider. Total ad-lib. He got the humor – and he points the grenade launcher at the rabbit…
What was the one you didn’t get to do?
The young couple, the romantic leads – Kerri and Scott – they run into Sadie’s house at the end, and they’re holding the door closed…and the crocodile’s ramming the door with it’s snout, but you never see outside…
It’s ramming the door – and then it stops for about two beats…like maybe the croc gave up on them…?
And then…you hear “ding-dong!”
Nice. Total Chevy Chase.
Yeah – Land Shark. Totally. They didn’t go for it. Too silly for ‘em. Every now and then I get to put my little stamp on things…but I can’t say I’ve ever gone in and completely taken over a film. I’m still waiting for that day.
We were talking earlier about these films being training camp. You learn to do a lot with very little. It makes you wonder why there aren’t documentaries attached to some of these DVD releases – to show people what goes into this kind of filmmaking?
That would be nice – because there’s a real gap in the understanding of how little money and how little time you have to do these movies. And when you read what some of the message board posts say – I mean, I try not to, most of the time – but these movies are held to the same standards as movies that cost ten times the budget – or…more like forty times the budget…
And you would think that the web kids would have a better sense of how these things are made – you don’t have the money or time afforded James Cameron. This isn’t going to be Terminator 2: Judgment Day – this is going to be Cyborg Kickboxer 2: The Reckoning. Which, by the way, I would make.
I used to think that I had to make a “powerful” personal drama – but now…if I could make a movie about a guy who kick-boxes cyborgs, or a cyborg who kickboxes guys – because people don’t need more depressing drama – they want to be entertained. And where do they go for that? The horror film. The creature feature. Possibly cyborg kickboxing.
Yeah – these movies are escapism at its finest. And apparently – they’re good movies to watch when you’re drunk.
So maybe he didn’t make high art. But Flores is a filmmaker who shot Bulgaria for Maine in 35mm in twenty days on twenty bucks. And in so doing, he accomplished something that many of the wish-I-may-wish-I-might filmmakers who play here at CHUD (myself included) might not have in them. He delivered a film to Fox, Sony, and Universal on-time and on-budget. Sometimes that’s all you can do.
And sometimes…just sometimes – the crocodile rings the doorbell.