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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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