Director Thunder Levin Talks The Asylum's American Warships
He’s photographed naked women for Roger Corman, made a movie called Mutant Vampire Zombies from the Hood!, helmed an Asylum mockbuster that spawned a major studio lawsuit, nearly made a mega blockbuster for a major studio, and, best of all, his name really is Thunder.
With The Asylum’s lawsuit-inspiring mockbuster American Warships premiering on Syfy this weekend (May 19th at 9/8 Central) and hitting DVD shelves next week (May 22nd), I chatted with its writer-director, Thunder Levin, about the trials and tribulations of making an Asylum mockbuster, graduating from the school of Corman, and navigating the pitfalls of the b-movie scene filmmaking.
FOY: Forgive me. I have to ask a question you’ve no doubt been asked many times before. Your first name is really Thunder? That’s not just a nickname?
THUNDER: (sigh) Yeah, I’ve been asked that a few times before. Yes, Thunder is my real name. And before you ask, no, I don’t have a brother named Lightning or a sister named Storm. I guess my parents were just trying to be hippies.
FOY: So how did American Battleships (now American Warships thanks to Universal’s lawsuit) come about? What insight can you give us into The Asylum’s mockbuster process?
THUNDER: Frankly, I can’t give a lot of insight into how the Asylum chooses their mockbusters, because I don’t understand it myself. I pitched them “Cowboys and Zombies” but they didn’t go for it. That seemed like a slam dunk to me. “American Warships” (I guess I have to call it that now), got started when they liked my work on the script for 200 MPH. I initially went into that writing assignment under the impression that I would be directing, but then it turned out they already had a director lined up for it. So it was informally agreed that the next thing I wrote for them I’d direct as well. They asked me to pitch them ideas for a movie that could be called “Battleships” (which was the working title at the time, but I don’t think they ever intended to actually call it that). I pitched them a handful of ideas, and they chose one about the USS Iowa, the last American battleship, chasing a North Korean ship that could become invisible and thus threatened to change the balance of military power in the world. During the development process they asked me to change the enemy from North Korean to a stateless rogue, and then later they asked me to change it to aliens. And as you’ll see when the film airs, the first and third ideas came to co-exist in the same movie. At that point I didn’t even know the Universal film would have aliens. In fact, I made sure to avoid the trailer or anything else about it, until we’d finished our rough cut. All I knew was that Liam Neeson was in it.
FOY: What would you say are the most challenging aspects of having to direct a movie like American Warships that is essentially a large-scale movie being done on a small-scale budget and very tight shooting schedule?
THUNDER: American Warships really was a $200 million action film made on a tenth of a percent of the budget. And of course that entails great compromise in almost every aspect of the filmmaking process. But for all the corners that one must cut, it’s the time factor that’s the worst part. We had three weeks to shoot what a studio film would have taken months and months on. We had no rehearsal time before the shoot (which was new for me). Every single thing needs to be planned down to the tiniest detail, only there really isn’t time to do that, so you get to the set each morning and your plans go out the window and you shoot with what’s put in front of you. It can be very frustrating and I have to be honest that I long to make movies with the resources they deserve. But having said that, when you can accomplish what we did with American Warships on such a tiny budget, it’s wonderfully satisfying! And it also gives you an appreciation for just how much more you could do given a budget even ten percent of a big studio film!
We were very fortunate in that we found an actual battleship to stand in for the USS Iowa (the USS North Carolina in Wilmington, NC) and we were granted pretty much full access to the ship, so long as we didn’t damage anything. That provided a lot of production value right there.
And then it’s just a matter of making use of everything in your bag of cinematic tricks, shooting just what the audience really needs to see and nothing else.
The real key is to focus on the characters. If you can get the audience emotionally involved in the characters, then they won’t need quite so much spectacle to keep them entertained. I was blessed with a wonderful cast. Not just Mario and Carl (who were extraordinary) but also Johanna Watts and Nikki McCauley who brought such great humanity to their roles, and also the local cast members from North Carolina who filled out the rest of the cast and made the whole thing believable. I wish I had had more time to work with them. I made some great friends on this shoot and met some great, talented, professional actors, who were working far from the limelight, who really helped bring this story to life. In the end, for a movie to really connect with an audience, it’s got to be about the human connection, and so when I don’t have the budget to create spectacle around them, I make sure the human connection is there.
Then of course there’s the issue of special effects. We have over 250 vfx shots in American Warships. That’s more than they had in the original Star Wars! What a studio film would use hundreds of people working for a year to create, the Asylum’s VFX team did with about a dozen people in three weeks! Now, are all those shots up to blockbuster standards? Of course not. But a lot of them ARE! A lot of the effects shots in this film absolutely blew me away when I saw them. And I can’t help but wonder what this team could do if they actually had a whole MONTH to work on a movie. The entire post-production team was like that. These people work long hours for low pay with incredible dedication, and just when they’re done and deserve a rest, the next film in the pipeline is already a week behind schedule. I really can’t say enough about some of the people over at the Asylum. In so many ways, they really have become the new Roger Corman, and I mean that in only the best possible ways.
The final element I’d like to comment on is the score. The Asylum has an in-house composer named Chris Ridenhour, who seems to churn out an entire movie score every two or three weeks. I think he took his work to new heights for the final version of American Warships because the music he created is just extraordinary. It’s exciting and moving, and really made me feel like I was making a big budget epic. I kept expecting to see him conducting the London Symphony Orchestra! Unfortunately, the final version of the score didn’t make it into the Syfy version because their deadline came up before it was quite done, so folks will have to buy or rent or stream the DVD version to hear the score the way Chris and I really wanted it to be.
But of course, even that isn’t the way a movie is meant to be seen. I wish people were going to be able to see this film on a big screen with great sound with a couple hundred other people in the audience with them. Movies are a communal experience. You can feel emotional shifts go through an audience as they watch a movie together and that really heightens the experience. We’ve had one public screening. We were the invitational feature at the Cape Fear Independent Film Festival in Wilmington, NC, where we shot the film. Premiering the film there was a great way to say thank you to all the people who worked on it. But the screening was open to the public and we had a sold out house, with a big percentage of the crowd that didn’t have anything to do with the film. So I think it was at least a semi-objective audience, and seeing it together really made it come alive. They seemed to have a really great time with it. I hope that same experience will translate to the living room. The theatrical experience seems to be teetering on the brink these days, but if we ever lose it, no matter how wonderful our home theaters might become, I think we’ll really be losing something important.
FOY: Any thoughts on the lawsuit Universal filed against The Asylum or are you not at liberty to discuss at the moment?
THUNDER: I can’t discuss the details of the lawsuit.
FOY: You mentioned that you first began with The Asylum penning their street racing film 200 MPH. How did you come to work for The Asylum?
THUNDER: I had known David Latt (one of the partners at the Asylum) for years, but had never been able to convince him to hire me. After he saw “Mutant Vampire Zombies From The ‘Hood!”, I guess he realized I could actually do what I’d been telling him I could do for all those years and he brought me into the Asylum family.
FOY: Let’s talk Mutant Vampire Zombies from the Hood!
THUNDER: Ironically, Mutant Vampire Zombies From The ‘Hood! came about as the result of a death. This was a little while after my epic sci-fi script “2176” had been optioned by Ron Shusett (Alien, Total Recall) and Daniel Alter (Hitman, The Apparition). They’d come pretty close to getting it set up, but in the end no one wanted to risk making a project that expensive that wasn’t based on a pre-existing property. So my collaborator on that, George Saunders, and I were feeling pretty down. Then a friend and filmmaker from San Francisco named Roger Saunders (no relation) told me that he’d finally put together the financing deal he’d been working on for ages and that he needed a script for an “urban horror film”. So George and I wrote a script pretty quickly (it was called “Restless Dead” at that point, but I always hated that title) and sent it off to him. And then we didn’t hear back. Finally, after my emails went unreturned for a while I called Roger to find out what was going on, and ended up leaving a message on his voice mail. The next day I was informed by his wife that Roger had suffered a massive heart attack and died! And this was a big strong guy in the prime of life! So that really stunned me. And it made me realize how much time I’d been wasting waiting for someone else to make one of my movies. The next day I called George and told him that we’d better make this film ourselves because we could be dead before you know it. So we wrote a business plan, solicited investors, raised $150K, hired C. Thomas Howell, and made the movie. It took a year to raise the money, two weeks to shoot, and a year to complete post production, working part time while I had a full time day job. I also had the good fortune to cast, and then become friends with, Johanna Watts, who went on to become the leading lady opposite Mario Van Peebles in American Warships, and now I can’t imagine making a movie without her!
FOY: I understand you’ve been working in the film industry for around 20 years. In what capacity?
THUNDER: I started out as a Still Photographer for Roger Corman. That was actually a great learning experience because the still photographer is the one person on a set whose job it is to watch everything that’s going on. I remember the first day of production on Stripped To Kill II: Live Girls, Roger came to the set, took me aside, and said “Get lots of nude shots. That’s how we’ll sell the film!” Needless to say, I had fun on that movie! ;-)
And there were a lot of talented people there who would go on to do big things in the industry. The Gaffer on that film was Janusz Kaminski, now Spielberg’s cinematographer. The Key Grip was Mauro Fiore who went on to win the Oscar for his cinematography on Avatar.
I also worked on Wizards of the Lost Kingdom II where I got to know Lana Clarkson. She was a real sweetheart. I’ll never understand why anyone would want to kill her.
I later went on to work as an editor, a screenwriter, and to direct a wide variety of (non-feature) projects before finally making MVZFTH!
FOY: Having worked with the legendary Roger Corman for whom working is often described as being better than actual film school, what, if anything, did you learn from the experience?
THUNDER: Working with Roger Corman was my first real experience on a professional film set. So while I might have learned how to direct (to a certain extent) at NYU, at Corman’s I learned how to make movies. And unlike the PA’s or grips who would have to concentrate on their own jobs and probably miss a lot of the other things going on, my job was to watch everything going on. So I feel like I was ideally positioned to absorb as much as possible. And of course working at that speed, you pick up a lot of helpful tips, like never lay dolly track for just one shot. And because my girlfriend at the time worked in the production office and the executive offices, I also got a look into all the behind-the-scenes political maneuvering that goes on.
FOY: Any news on your next project?
THUNDER: I am in the early stages of putting together a $5-$10 million action-thriller, with producer Greg Alpert, called Shadows Of The Jungle. It’s sort of a twist on a classic werewolf story, but takes place in the jungles of Guatemala and involves Mayan mythology and an ex-Navy SEAL.
I’m also still trying to make 2176 happen. That’s really my dream project, but since it would be an epic trilogy that would make Lord of the Rings look small in comparison, it’s going to take just the right producer to make it happen.
At the same time as all this, I’m also developing a couple of new projects for the Asylum. We’ll see which one happens first.
FOY: Final question. Who’s cooler? Mario Van Peebles or Carl Weathers?
THUNDER: That’s like asking who’s the greater god: Zeus or Jupiter? They are both gentlemen and actors of the highest caliber, and it was both an honor and a pleasure working with them.
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