Set Visit Coverage: Tobias Jelinek Talks Fire City: The Interpreter of Signs
Directed by Academy Award-winning special effects makeup artist Tom Woodruff, Jr., Fire City is a movie we’ve been watching very closely from its inception as a short film, during its successful Kickstarter campaign, and right on up to the filming on-set...
Which is where we got all kinds of exclusives on this “hellish fantasy,” which is set against the noir backdrop of Fire City -- where demons secretly live among humans.
When we caught up with lead actor Tobias Jelinek, he was in full-on demon garb as his character, Atum Vine. Right down to his pointy fangs!
Tobias Jelinek: Hi, let me take my teeth out... here.
Dread Central: The writer-producers Michael and Brian were telling me that they had seen 80 people for your role; you must feel really privileged to have been selected.
TJ: I am certainly thrilled. Just from the get go, when I read the description of this character, it’s a dream character. It’s so much fun with this role.
DC: It seems that you have a lot to plan in that you get to play a human version of Atum Vine, and you get to play a demonic one. You get to play the protector of a child (even though you’re not really happy about it…).
TJ: The story is one that I love because there are several different storylines in it... I really like the story with the girl and what becomes kind of a love story, assuming the role of protector. It’s fun... just getting to be this kind of badass where you've got the gun, you get to fly, you’re having demon sex. And then you get to save the kid as well. It had everything.
DC: You’re halfway through shooting, about a little more than halfway?
TJ: We’re a little more; we only have two more days after this. So yeah, we’ve going strong here. It’s been six days a week, twelve-hour days, and fifteen of those days is with the makeup... it’s amazing to work with someone like David Elsey (special effects makeup).
DC: He seems to be so down to earth and doesn’t seem to have an attitude, like, “I am an Academy Award winner!” (laughter)
TJ: No, not at all... it’s been great... we've been listening to some books on tape while we are doing the makeup, and it’s really fun talking to him about how he originally got interested in monsters, ever since he was a young child, where he’s come from. It was nice. I’ve never done a mask like this before so I was stepping into another world.
DC: Can you talk a little bit about how it feels from the inside of all that makeup and prosthetics?
TJ: I’ll say that there is something so helpful about actually having the makeup and the contact lenses and the teeth... [especially] nowadays when so much is done with CG. I didn’t find the voice for the character until it was day one and we were going. Actually getting to see everything come together really helped give me a sense of who this character was... I’m trying to think what else I’ll say about the process for this cause it’s unlike anything I’ve done. There’s a good deal of discomfort just dealing with the actual head gear and it really helped me… It helped me stay focused on this world. It’s interesting. You don’t think about it when it’s just you and your physical form, but then having this additional appendage... it’s a whole different thing. With the walk changes, too, I think most actors would appreciate what it does to have the physical transformation rather than a handful of dots standing in front of a green screen.
DC: Exactly! And Michael is a big fan of film noir, and that’s what part of the characterization is. [In our interview here on set] he talked about Fred MacMurray, Humphrey Bogart, actors like that. Are you familiar with that world as a fan yourself?
TJ: I’m a big Humphrey Bogart fan. Yeah, I really have enjoyed all his characters and also just how he was able to do so much with so little and I loved his simplicity. I also do have to say that Danny, who is the DP here, has worked very close with Tom. They’ve done an exceptional job with the lighting and creating the mood; it’s phenomenal. A lot of the time I feel like I’m stepping into [a different] world... The vision that they had behind creating a noir. I didn’t think that it was going to go this far. I mean, I understood the idea of demon-noir, but with the budget we are dealing with, I think a lot of favors were called in and people were ready to create a passion project.
DC: Brian was saying that one of the things they were toying with was the sci-fi noir like Blade Runner; there’s a voiceover in there. And they kind of were like, ‘We love noir, but we’re not going to do that’. So how were you sort of given something to hold onto to make your character feel like one of those flawed heroes?
TJ: Well, for me it again came to what originally attracted me to this project, which was the script. They shaped it with the anti-hero in mind. It really is that fallen hero... it’s funny cause even though these characters are demons, you've got the femme fatale; you have these iconic archetypes that are now living in a world of demons, which is phenomenal. And then of course having the split where we’re seen as humans when another human is present, it makes things so rich, it’s so full to have that transition, and on a dime the world is suddenly seen through another filter. And often that’s one of the great things of noir: Things are not as they seem.
And a lot of it is picking up those clues, and that’s what my character is doing. It’s wonderful because this is the world of demons, yes, but what you’re stepping into is a paradigm shift. I’m someone... I’m a drug dealer who’s a demon and I deal in misery, but that’s the status quo and things are about to go through a major transformation and I of course am at the center of it. And then you've got all these colorful characters that would fit... it's noir, but it's splashed with this rather different light because it’s in the world of demons. I think that people try to do noir today and it’s tricky not to make it feel dated, you know. It’s like 'noir had its day,' but that’s why it’s been very interesting because this works. It’s really working, like the mood is really working, the story is holding up, in this noir context.
DC: Have you been allowed to see some of it being cut together yet?
TJ: You know, they came in and I chose not to watch.
DC: I know some actors love it, some don’t.
TJ: Yeah, people were really excited. They came in and showed a seven-minute section and I’m choosing to wait. I’m looking forward to seeing everything put together.
DC: Some actors say that if they see their performance, then they’ll alter things.
TJ: It’s a part of it... Brett is the editor and Taylor is the assistant editor, and they’re a great team. I think it’s my job to put this character in this circumstance and make it believable and I certainly trust everyone involved to find the moments, come up with options and allow them to do their job as well...
DC: Working with Tom Woodruff as your director... Can you tell us a little bit about how he directs you as the demon and as the human? Is it different?
TJ: There are a handful of really great qualities that Tom has. He's an actors’ director. We’ve been on a very fast schedule here; we’re trying to do a lot. It's very ambitious to do this film in eighteen days, and you know this is his first major feature... one of the things he’s done which has been so wonderful is he always tries to give us a chance to rehearse a couple of times before we launch into the scene. It’s really helped get everybody in the room and on the same page, and I think that also just his experience with doing this type of work... I had no idea what to expect... it’s like a shamanic journey almost. Like you’re going into another world. And it’s wonderful to work with somebody that of course has been there so many times and understands it... he knows what these creatures are capable of and so I’m certainly going to trust what he is pushing so that we can get there... It’s been a lot of fun.
Another thing that I want to say regarding the project overall is it’s very interesting because Tom Woodruff has worked in effects for years on some of the biggest, most iconic films we know, and it’s such a joy to get to see him and his team get to make films the way they know they can be made when it's not happening as much today. Getting to see all these practical effects and also just knowing how to make things look real and how to entertain people with creatures... he’s going to do what he wants to do and what he does so well. It’s not being held back by certain restrictions of the studio, of them saying we only want you to create this certain type of creature. It’s like they’re bringing out so many punches, pulling out creatures that were cut from film but had been developed.
The film centers around a fragile balance that exists between humankind and the demons who secretly live among them and the crisis for all when this balance is broken.
Harry Shum, Jr., plays an abusive alcoholic boyfriend who suddenly transforms into a caring and loving person, along with the rest of the humans in his seedy tenement building. Dependent on human misery for survival, the demons in the building begin to starve.
Writer-producers Brian Lubocki and Michael Hayes successfully funded a Kickstarter campaign for the film in August 2013. For more info visit the official Fire City website, "like" Fire City on Facebook, and follow Fire City on Twitter (@interpreterfilm).