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

This week we are talking with Mike Zawacki, director of steampunk short film Wars of Other Men, and Scott Norman, who plays the Lieutenant.

 

Airship Ambassador: Hi Mike and Scott, it’s really great to talk with you again after seeing you at Teslacon.

Mike Zawacki: Thanks! It was good seeing you at TeslaCon and I’m glad to be chatting now.

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AA: Attendees at Teslacon and some other conventions had a chance to see Wars of Other Men on the big screen and enjoy a follow up Q&A with you and others on the team. What is the film about?

MZ: It’s about a lieutenant fighting in a war that never happened in a past that never was. The army he fights for is on the verge of defeat, knocked back on its heels by the introduction of the enemy’s new chemical super-weapon – the Fog.

The Lieutenant is ordered to lead a team of soldiers into the heart of the urban battleground to steal the secrets of and means for making the Fog. His mission will turn the tide of the war but at a terrible personal and moral cost, as use of the Fog would proliferate and kill countless soldiers and civilians. There’s an even more sinister angle to his mission and throughout the film the details of that aspect are slowly revealed until the moment when he has to choose between his duty and his humanity.

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AA: I found the multilayered story and messages to be very engaging when I watched the movie. What was the motivation for creating Wars? How did it all come about?

MZ: I’ve always had a fascination with alternate history (especially Steampunk and Dieselpunk), the Battle of Stalingrad, World War I, and war films in general, so the overall spine of the project came together pretty easily. My fellow filmmakers and I had been doing projects in the urban wilds of Detroit for a while and I wanted to use that backdrop for something other than post-apocalypse and the other sorts of projects that generally get set there. You don’t see a lot of war films that take place exclusively in urban settings, and there aren’t a lot of Steampunk war films so that became the other component of the project.

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The zeppelin gunship fielded by our heroes’ forces. Though formidable, their technology lags behind that of their enemy and as such the vehicle has fewer and less powerful weapons as well as a much more basic gas envelope, propulsion system, and superstructure.

AA: How did elements from the team’s lives and experiences play into creating Wars?

MZ: We had a few military veterans on the team and one of them, Keith Dean, who played a couple of roles on the enemy’s side, took some of the cast out shooting with some period appropriate rifles. There were some bolt action rifles like a Mauser (I think it was a German 98k) and a Russian Mosin Nagant 91/30, and a couple of semi-auto rifles – a Garand and an FN-49. I think that gave them a sense for what their weapons in the film would feel and shoot like. He also offered up advice on how to move through dangerous areas, how to hold your weapon, things like that which made our soldiers more believable in their soldiering.

Beyond that there was just the passion for filmmaking in Detroit that a lot of the cast and crew already had. Many of us knew the places where we shot very well – all the cool little out of the way locations, the idiosyncrasies of the buildings and lots, and so on. But in a lot of ways most of us were stepping out of our comfort zones on Wars and operated outside of anything that was familiar. We hadn’t really done much in the way of war films and had never done any kind of alternate history. The scope of the film was outside what any of us tried as well.

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The enemy’s dreaded zeppelin gunship. Note the armored gas envelope and reinforced super structure, which allows the guns to be rotated along the circumference of the envelope.

AA: Why use steampunk as the design aesthetic?

MZ: Oh man… why not? Because it’s cool and fun and you get to make it up as you go along! There’s so much creative play in Steampunk and it’s a really striking and distinctive style. And even to people who aren’t used to the genre it’s this immediate visual cue that you’re watching a film that takes place in a past that’s completely unlike our own. So it says a lot without having to utter a single line of dialog. Given all that it’s a choice that’s hard to resist.

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AA: What kind of backstory is there for Wars which didn’t make it into the final film?

MZ: There was just tons of stuff. Before shooting I had conversations with each of the actors individually and then as distinct groups – like, all the soldiers, all the officers and so on. We talked about their characters, their pasts, events that shaped their lives, and in group settings we’d talk about things like how they related to the other characters, and so on.

With a short film, even one like Wars that’s pretty long by short film standards, you have so little time to explore things outside the central character and the central narrative. But we worked in what we could. Chief amongst those were the camaraderie of the soldiers. Little things would sneak in too, and I think it really helped give the actors a sort of emotional bed for their characters. We knew that very little of what we talked about would make it in, but I wanted to give the actors as many tools as possible to work with.

In addition to all those character stories there were notes about the world, some rough outlines for the history of the conflict, discussions about the rigid and almost hereditary nature of the leadership of the Lieutenant’s army, just lots of material. Again, we knew very little of this would make it in to the finished film but hopefully it gave the costume, production design, and art teams something to work with while they were creating their parts of the film.

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AA: That makes a lot of sense to have that information for everyone, even just to flavor their character in small ways and actions, and nuance their performance. Are there any plans for a sequel or spinoff?

MZ: Yeah, given all the stories we feel are left to tell and the positive reception we’ve gotten from the Steampunk and Sci-Fi communities once we stopped to catch our collective breath we didn’t have to think too hard about what to do next. I’m working with Scott Norman, who played the Lieutenant, and some other friends and fellow filmmakers to work the elements from Wars into a full-fledged series. We’re writing the pilot episode and mapping out character and story arcs for the first season.

We’re also going to be shooting a teaser for the series to show at TeslaCon. For now we’re pursuing an independent funding model rather than trying to pitch the show to networks or whatever. That may change but for now we’re much more excited about hooking into a lot of the options for online self-distribution that would allow us to maintain ownership of the project and keep working closely with the Steampunk community.

Scott Norman: It’s probably going to be more of a “reboot” than a sequel or spinoff. While we were initially taking TWOOM on the road, I asked Mike “What is this all for? What are we trying to accomplish other than get this short film seen? And, how can I help?” He told me that his dream was to do it as a series. I always believed in his talent, so I jumped on board to see if I could help make it happen. His dream became my dream, and we’re pushing toward that end.

Airship Ambassador: It’s always fun, and inspiring, when someone’s idea takes hold like that. Creativity can be infectious and exciting.

 

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

Join us next time with they talk about the actual filming of 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 29, 2015 at 10:15 am  Comments (5)  
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Review of Wild Wild West Con 4

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Wild Wild West Con 4 was another rousing immersive steampunk convention success for directors Diana Given and Jason Drotman. Held on March 6 – 8 at Old Tucson, the event surpassed all previous attendance marks. Anecdotally, I heard that the park had it’s highest attendance ever on Saturday.

Old Tucson is a working film location and western theme park located in Tucson, Arizona, and has been the location for filming more than 300 movies and TV shows. First built in 1938 for the movie Arizona, it opened to the public as a theme park in 1960, while remaining a filming location as well.

Little House on the Prairie was filmed there, although the wardrobe collectibles on display, and a good part of the studios, were destroyed in a fire in 1995. The park reopened in 1997 with some new buildings, but it would be 2011 before the site had new old-looking and feeling buildings.

The current setup is a great place for an immersive convention – old time buildings with mostly 1800s interior design, dirt streets, horse drawn carriage, and small passenger train running around the park. The natural setting is spectacular in every direction as the studio is surrounded by mountains which are the remains of a volcano, active about 70 million years ago. All those years ago, it was a seething deathbed of lava. Now, it’s a hotbed of tourism and steampunk shenanigans.

A few things to note if you are going to attend the convention:

  1. You’ll need a vehicle to get there. Old Tucson is not walking distance to anything except scrub brush and some amazing cactus.
  2. Bring sunscreen and use it! Tucson is 2,600 feet above sea level.
  3. Drink plenty of water. It can be warm, even hot, but it is dry, dry, dry, and it’s very important to remain hydrated.

WWWC4 had an amazing assortment of guests and performers. It was quite the line up!

Performers

Guests

Panelists

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The events of the weekend, listed in a gorgeous program book, artwork provided by artist and guest Brian Kesinger, started with a meet and greet mixer on Thursday night at the hotel, being entertained with the rope and lasso skills of Loop Rawlins.

Friday started off with Opening Ceremonies with Jason and Diana, and the day was filled with panels ranging from DIY to grooming and fashion, to social media to manners. All day long, there were also street-side musical performances by Poplock Holmes, Unwoman, and Frytown Toughs. There were also performances by League of S.T.E.A.M., Drake & McTrowell, and Professor Gall. Madame Askew also started the weekend long bout of Tea Dueling. Friday night wrapped up with an evening concert featuring an energetic performance by The Cog is Dead and an engaging follow up by Steampunk Powered Giraffe.

Saturday was off to a great start with maker’s panels, costume techniques, and flash fiction writing. There was also special effects makeup, the fashion show, and an appearance by Iron Man 1889 (courtesy of Thomas Willeford). Rounding the afternoon were comics, weapons, films, and SteamGirls! The evening was completed with high octane performances by Frenchy and the Punk (who spent a few days traveling to the convention due to bad weather and mechanical misfortunes) and Abney Park.

Two late nights in a row didn’t stop people from diving right into Sunday’s activities. The day kicked off with The State of Steampunk, the science of electronics, and Thermoplastics, history, more DIY, more writing, more music. MORE! Winding up the weekend were the final battles of Tea Dueling, the Costume Contest (where a steampunk dinosaur courtesy of Lord Towers (Will Brown) just about stole the show!), a special guest Skyping in from Europe, and the Closing Ceremonies.

As ever, steampunk and conventions are all about people. It was a great opportunity to connect with new people, reunite with old friends, and enjoy the hospitality of the convention staff. There were around 200 volunteers helping to put on this event, and while I only got to meet a fraction of the team, I want to thank all of you very much, for the pre-event communication, on-site handling and liaisons, and for all the work you put into making such a fun weekend!

If you are looking for a fresh experience in conventions, enjoy a wide variety of guests, performers and panels, and want to get in on collecting as many badge ribbons as possible, this could just be the right convention for you. Start planning now for next year’s convention!

Published in: on March 22, 2015 at 8:37 pm  Comments (2)  
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