Interview with Mike Zawacki and Scott Norman, The Wars of Other Men, Part 4

Welcome back for the conclusion of our chat with Mike Zawacki, director of steampunk short film Wars of Other Men, and Scott Norman, who plays the Lieutenant.

Read Part 1 here

Read Part 2 here

Read Part 3 here

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Airship Ambassador: What do you do to keep a balance between steampunk projects and the rest of your life?

Mike Zawacki: I have two kids, which is a pretty handy built-in limiter. They’re my number one priority so I just make sure that we’re all spending enough time together and work on projects as much as possible on the side. Having a day job is another built-in gauge for how much time you should be spending doing what. The end result is a lot of juggling, but I just keep checking in with my family, filmmaking friends, and coworkers to make sure everything’s getting the care and feeding it needs.

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AA: Do you get to talk much with other writers and film makers to compare notes, have constructive critique reviews, and brainstorm new ideas?

MZ: Yeah, as much as possible. Honestly I wish I could do that more. You learn a lot by watching other people work, and by having them watch you work, and then talking about the process afterword. A lot of the people who crewed Wars are friends who are really talented filmmakers in their own rights who were just pitching in on a project they thought would be cool and fun, so we all end up talking shop while we’re on set or hanging out afterwards. I like going to screenings and talking to the filmmakers after watching their film, and vice versa. In my semi-professional opinion that’s a really important part of keeping sharp and increasing your skills.

Scott Norman: We have a small team we’re currently working with to develop the next TWOOM project. It really does help to bounce ideas off each other and compare notes. Each of us has a different relationship to the story and the project, and different levels of experience in the world and with the military. I think it’s a good mix.

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AA: How have you and your work grown and changed over time?

MZ: As you make films your grasp of effective writing and visual storytelling will get stronger, so there’s that. Also I’ve gotten away from doing straight horror or straight action and have worked hard to add some solid story and emotional components to whatever I’m doing.

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AA: How is Michigan for this kind of project? Does location matter for resources, access, publicity, etc

MZ: It’s a good place to make films, though the film incentives changed the game for us indie players. In a way it’s been a double-edge sword. On the one hand it’s brought a lot of really talented crew into the state – folks with industry experience and some really solid skills. If you can present them with an idea that really grabs them they may come aboard and bring that skillset or even equipment that you wouldn’t have access to otherwise.

On the other hand, where you use to be able to get people really excited by the mere fact that you were making a film and turn that into some really cool opportunities for locations or other resources now it’s like “Yeah, well ‘Superman vs Batman’ just came through and gave me 10 grand to use my bar for a film. What are you gonna do for me?”. So you take out passion and replace it with money. It’s not always like that – there are still lots of really neat people who want to do neat things – but it does happen more than it used to.

That said, the upside is that Michigan filmmakers who apply for participation in the program get access to a lot of state held locations. So Keith Jefferies, who was our Director of Photography, made a very cool short film called Tommy Button and was able to shoot a bunch of it in a Michigan state prison. It added a ton of production value to the film and didn’t cost Keith a dime.

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AA: Most of the people I’ve talked with have some type of day job and that writing is their other job. What has that situation been for you and how has it helped/hindered in creating and promoting Wars?

MZ: Thankfully the companies I’ve worked for have all been very good about letting employees pursue outside projects like Wars, so I’d say being able to go to TeslaCon with your boss’ blessing (I actually invited my boss to come along!) is a huge help in making and promoting films.

SN: Lately, I’ve considered the creating/writing my main job that doesn’t pay yet because of this “other job” during the day that gets in my way. Having the other job pays the rent, and also forces me to fit in the writing and creating before I let it take my energy. So, in that way it helps. But, it is a hindrance when the schedule just doesn’t allow for certain conversations, meetings, or convention visits.

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AA: Do people outside the steampunk and convention communities recognize you for Wars? What kind of reactions have you received?

MZ: Outside of the Steampunk community I’m usually only recognized by other filmmakers, which is kind of neat in and of itself. And that’s fine – I think being super famous or whatever would freak me out and ruin my life.

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AA: Looking beyond steampunk, filming and working, what other interests fill your time?

MZ: Well there’s the aforementioned parenting! Outside that I really like natural building and hippy type stuff like that. Doing the research for Wars turned me on to the world of military surplus weapon collecting, so now I do that! Most of my guns are World War II or earlier guns from communist countries.

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AA: What other fandoms are you part of in some way?

MZ: I’m a giant, shameless sci-fi, fantasy, and role-playing dork. As your readers have probably guessed I’m into military history. I’m also really interested in the history of the internet and computing in general. Almost every job I’ve ever had has been tied into some sector of deep geek internet history, so it just kind of grew out of that.

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AA: How do those interests influence your work?

MZ: Well the sci-fi and military history things are hopefully obvious! Also I think being into sci-fi primes you to look at things differently and ask lots of “what if” type questions.

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AA: Who or what do you count as your influences, motivators, or role models?

MZ: There are a lot of them! Influence-wise where films are concerned Joss Whedon is a big one, both in terms of what’s on the screen and how he seems to deal with the folks he works with. John Hillcoat’s films – the sparseness, desolation, and poignancy of films like “The Proposition” and “The Road” are really memorable and amazing. In terms of motivation? Having fun, collaborating with cool people, contributing to a community, telling interesting stories, all those are big ones. And it’s going to sound cheesy but my two biggest role models are my mom and dad. They’re just generally awesome people and spectacular parents. And now that I have kids of my own that appreciation for them has deepened.

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AA: Three quick fire, random questions – what is your favorite time of day, condiment, and famous artwork?

MZ: Oh jeez…. Um, nighttime, horseradish, and Franz Marc’s Blue Horses.

SN: Whenever I happen to be most awake, ketchup, and I don’t pick favorites when it comes to art.

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AA: Any final thoughts to share with our readers?

MZ: Make more films! Especially you Steampunks! Seriously. We have an awesome community and a fun, creative, and visually distinctive genre. It would be way too easy for Hollywood to come in, rip all the cool stuff out of Steampunk, and just leave the gears, goggles, and top hats. And then they’ll give it to Michael Bay. Do you really want “MICHAEL BAY’S STEAMPUNK” become the thing that introduces a broad swath of the world to Steampunk? We can do a better job that’ll be truer to the roots of our community and will include all the fun, whimsy, history, creativity, and general awesomeness. So the parting shot is: get out there and make cool stuff that will show the world what Steampunk can really be.

 

Thanks, Mike and Scott, for sharing all the great stories about making The Wars of Other Men.

Follow the latest news and information on the movie’s website, twitter, and facebook.

Information is also on IMDB, the internet movie database.

Published in: on April 2, 2015 at 8:34 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Interview with Mike Zawacki and Scott Norman, The Wars of Other Men, Part 3

Welcome back for part 3 in our chat with Mike Zawacki, director of steampunk short film Wars of Other Men, and Scott Norman, who plays the Lieutenant.

Read Part 1 here

Read Part 2 here

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Airship Ambassador: What are some memorable fan reactions to Wars which you’ve heard about?

Mike Zawcki: There’ve been some good ones. We’ve had people tear up at the end, including a couple of people who served in combat in various wars. Those are definitely the most humbling. I remember a lady who came up and thanked us, saying her son was serving in Iraq. So we gave her one of the collectible patches we had made for the film and some other swag. And there have been a lot of people who just really enjoyed the film and were enthusiastic about it. That’s really nice to see too.

Scott Norman: I love watching people watch the film. (I’ve seen the film so many times that the audience is more interesting to me. ;-} ) The “oohs & aahs” when the blimps appear on screen always tickle me. A few people have gasped when one of the characters falls victim to The Fog, and held back tears at the end (or let them flow) — that lets me know they’re caught up in the story. I think some of the other more flattering responses are the questions afterwards about things that aren’t even in the film, when people want to know more about the world they’ve just been introduced to, back stories of the characters and the war, and whether there is going to be “more”.

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AA: People continue to hear about and watch Wars. How are those new viewers finding you – conventions, website, word of mouth, etc?

MZ: Pretty much all of the above. We’ve really been concentrating on attending conventions, especially Steampunk and other alternate history conventions and doing as many screenings and meeting as many people as we can. So most of it comes through that, or through write-ups we’ve gotten on Steampunk sites and filmmaking publications.

SN: I made an effort to get the film into smaller and newer conventions where I thought it might be well received. It was kind of hard being a two-man promotion team who had other responsibilities. But, people took to it, and I guess the convention initiative let to word of mouth, because we’ve gotten invitations to screen at other conventions we hadn’t heard of or approached. So, it’s a cycle. Conventions lead to word-of-mouth, which leads to conventions, and so on…

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AA: What kind of attention and opportunities has Wars generated?

MZ: We’ve been asked to screen at a lot of conventions, including a goodly number of international events (sadly we couldn’t afford the airfare to places like Holland or the UK!). We’ve had lots of offers for help on the next project, from everything to production assistants to costume and prop makers to having some really cool locations offered up for shooting.

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AA: Every creator I’ve talked with has a different journey to seeing their work come to fruition. What was your experience like?

MZ: My experience… Ugh, it was hard. Really hard. Harder than anything I’d done before. As I’d said before we set out with the intention of making something that was slightly more ambitious than we were comfortable with. We’d never done a period military history (even if it was a made up period). We’d never done something with so many visual effects. We were also stepping it up a notch in terms of the equipment we were shooting on.

This is the first film where I had to worry about lens changes, for example. In the past we’ve shot on some decent prosumer cameras like Panasonic HVX-200s or Sony EX3s which just have a stock zoom lens. We didn’t shoot with any zooms – everything was prime lenses. Which means they gave us really great shots but it does slow you down – if you want to move from a medium shot to a close-up you can’t just zoom in and adjust focus. You have to pull the lens, swap it out with the new one, move the camera, adjust focus and a few other settings, and so on. I wasn’t prepared for how much that would impact our schedule.

The complexity of the guerilla shoots was more than we’d ever tried. Usually when you’re going in guerilla you just run in with a minimal cast and crew, shoot in the available location, and get out. We were going in and setting up power in some cases, doing complicated make-up effect shots, and doing a lot of set dressing. It was really demanding for the cast but it was doubly (or triply, even) for the crew.

What I really wasn’t ready for was how long the visual effects took. That surprised us all, even Kevin Capizzi. Having never done anything on that scale none of us had a solid idea of how long all those shots would take. We ended up adding more people to Kevin’s team but it was still very complex. That got really demoralizing, actually. We were used to being about to turn films around fairly quickly so to have Wars grind on for so long with our poor VFX team doing great work but having so much in front of them. It was worth it but, man, there were times….

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AA: Personally, I’m glad all of you persevered, but it does sounds rather gruelling. For the aspiring film maker, what lessons did you learn along the way in creating Wars?

MZ: The big lesson I learned is that if some portion of your team is starting to experience seriously overwhelm start looking for more team members to help them out as soon as possible (in my case it was Kevin, slaving away on dozens of shots all alone).

We did a very good job on the preparation side, and that’s something I would stress to any aspiring filmmaker. Connie Mangilin, who was one of our producers, did a lot of heavy lifting at the outset of the process to plan everything out, have location scouts handled, our shooting schedule laid out in a way that minimized any waste of time or energy, and so on. Everyone was clear on how the cast & crew would get to the set, get fed, where they’d be able to go to the bathroom, and when they needed to be done. It didn’t keep some of our shoots from going long but at least we knew where we were supposed to be and when.

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AA: If you weren’t creating steampunk films, what else would you be doing now?

MZ: Boy…. Having a lot less fun, I guess.

 

AA: Hahaha, well, at least there’s that ! What have conventions been like, and the fan reaction?

MZ: The conventions have been amazing! We’ve had a tremendous time screening the film, talking to people about the project, discussing how we could all work together on future projects, and just generally meeting and playing with cool people.

SN: We haven’t been able to appear at all the conventions that we’ve screened at. Well, not physically, anyway. Skype and Google Hangouts have come in handy to field questions and conduct talk backs after the film. One sci-fi group seemed really impressed with the virtual visit after the film,

The reactions we get to the film are overwhelmingly positive. I think there’s a real appreciation in the Steampunk community for people who are creating content for the community, so people have been great. We’ve gotten good, honest, constructive, and really positive feedback.

 

Let’s break here in our chat with Mike and Scott.

Join us next time as they talk about influences, life, and being creative.

Follow the latest news and information on the movie’s website, twitter, and facebook.

Information is also on IMDB, the internet movie database.

Published in: on April 1, 2015 at 8:38 pm  Comments (1)  
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Interview with Mike Zawacki and Scott Norman, The Wars of Other Men, Part 2

Welcome back for part 2 in our chat with Mike Zawacki, director of steampunk short film Wars of Other Men, and Scott Norman, who plays the Lieutenant.

Read Part 1 here

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Airship Ambassador: It’s always fun, and inspiring, when someone’s idea takes hold like that. Let’s talk about actually making the movie. How did the group first come together?

Mike Zawacki: A lot of of the crew and some of the cast had worked together on at least one project together before. In more than a few cases we’d worked together for years on a goodly number of films. We identified the remaining key positions that needed to be filled – visual effects, costuming, and prop design were some of the big ones.

Many of the open positions were filled up by people who came to us by recommendation of the existing crew. So in a lot of ways it was really just a big group of friends who got together to make a film whose scope was outside anything we’d done. We were intentionally challenging ourselves and flexing our film making muscles in ways most of us had never tried.

Scott Norman: I think the group came together over a few years in bits and pieces working on other projects. I worked with Mike and a few other people on the project a couple years earlier, on a local series called “In Zer0″. I think all the main players on the project were already honing their film making skills on other small independent projects in the area, so the network was already in place.

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AA: Where was the film shot? What can you tell us about the actual filming and production?

MZ: With the exception of the fog factory interior (which was just an empty warehouse in a city about 30 minutes outside of Detroit) everything you see on the film was shot in Detroit proper. A lot of it was shot in and around the Packard Plant, which is this vast and now abandoned industrial complex. It’s just massive and goes on for blocks and blocks. There were a few other wrecked industrial spaces that rounded out the locations and lent that war blasted look to the film.

Filming was hard, really challenging at times. We did a lot of guerrilla shooting in some very inhospitable locations. So we had to be careful about being found out and booted out of our locations. If we wanted food or water someone had to bring it in (and be sneaky about it!). If we wanted electricity we had to sneak in generators and set them up in such a way that they wouldn’t be seen or heard. That scene in the tunnels is a good example and was hands down the most difficult guerrilla shoot any of us had done. We carried in two generators, hundreds of feet of electrical cable, these massive lights, cleared out a tunnel, built a raised platform on the tunnel floor so the actors could safely move around, and did all of this while remaining effectively invisible from the street. The crew really kicked a lot of butt adapting that location and I think their work looks great on set.

SN: Mostly in Detroit in famous industrial buildings in decay. It really did make it look like a war zone. The officers meeting was shot in an old mansion and historical landmark that was currently owned by a law firm. Very cool of them to let us into that. Then there was the empty warehouse that became the factory through amazing cgi. That was actually outside of Detroit, in the suburbs.

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The prop rifles used in the film. The three rifles on the right are the weapons carried by the enemy. The four on the left are the rifles used by our heroes. They started their lives as Chinese air rifles patterned after the SKS rifle. Roger Fowler of RDF Squared and Box Truck Productions then crafted them into armaments fit for retro-futurist soldiers!

AA: Yikes! Guerrilla film making – balancing good art with good camouflage. What kind of support team was there behind the scenes?

MZ: The on-set crew was a huge and critical part of work behind the scenes, as were the parts of the crew that were more focused on per-production like prop and costume design. But there were a number of people who saw to it that the folks on set were fed, that materials and personnel got to the locations at the right time and so on. They really kept us going! When you’ve been working like dogs all day trying to knock out scenes in the midst of some really challenging environments it’s a huge thing to duck into a gutted tire factory to find that someone has set up a table and there’s pasta salad and sandwiches and drinks! We were all really lucky to have a great bunch of people making sure the cast & set crew were looked after. It makes a huge difference in everyone’s energy levels.

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AA: The airships in the movie are pretty amazing; what kind of work went into creating them?

MZ: There was a fair bit of research into Victorian era balloonery, military airships in World War I, and as many references to weird, experimental airships as I could find. Our lead visual effects creator Kevin Capizzi and I sat down, looked through all these reference photos, and talked about what would look cool for the friendly and enemy zeppelins. Then Kevin came up with a bunch of drafts for the airships on both sides and refined the designs from there. After that Kevin “built” both airships using a suite of 3D design software. Then he and eventually a small team of visual effects artists composited those 3D models into the various shots where we wanted to have airships.

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AA: I liked how there is really a war at multiple levels and the decisions that individuals make. When people watch Wars, what would you like for them to take away from the story and the characters?

MZ: The big theme behind Wars is duty vs. humanity. I’d hope that people would walk away from the screening with the experience of seeing a believable, sympathetic hero who is caught in a horrible quandary and ultimately makes a very hard choice which serves humanity far better than following orders would have. Also, we wanted to create a film that presented an audience with characters who had some emotional depth to them and clearly had their own things going on. It’s easy to just have the other characters in a film, especially a short film, seem to exist just to move the hero along. We tried to make a film where the other characters had their own agendas.

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AA: What kind of research went into creating the Wars world?

MZ: A lot! I went back and refreshed my reading on the Battle of Stalingrad and World War I. I got very into obscure military small arms for a while to come up with sources for props. Likewise with the costumes – there was a lot of looking through other countries’ uniforms going back to late 1800s. The airships and tactics of World War I were also something I dug into, as well as a lot of early tank designs.

When we got into the post-production process I ended up looking at a lot of videos of bullets hitting buildings and earth embankments for the visual effects crew, and learned a lot about air raid sirens and nautical klaxons for our sound designer, Clark Eagling. I’d collect dozens and dozens of links to reference photos and videos and just bombard everyone with these things and let them go nuts on how the world would look and sound.

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AA: What were the important elements you included so viewers could quickly understand and believe the Wars world?

MZ: I wanted to have some visual cues that would immediately signal the fact that what audiences were seeing wasn’t something that was rooted in our past. I think the uniforms, especially the helmets our heroes wore, were a decent clue. And I wanted to have some kind of technological display very early on to drive home that fact that this world was not at all our own. The enemy zeppelin which overflies our heroes in the first few minutes followed by the appearance of the Fog were also intended to demonstrate the alternate history aspect of the film.

 

Let’s break here in our chat with Mike and Scott.

Join us next time as they talk about the reactions and opportunity the movie.

Follow the latest news and information on the movie’s website, twitter, and facebook.

Information is also on IMDB, the internet movie database.

Published in: on March 30, 2015 at 9:08 pm  Comments (2)  
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