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Helmer John Suits Talks POV Apocalyptic Action-Thriller Pandemic

Despite the gaming industry’s long-standing penchant for emulating blockbuster movies and TV series, as video games now offer so much extra bang for the buck, roles are beginning to reverse and it’s filmmakers who are taking heed of the benefits go-to gaming mechanics have to offer when it comes to creating the ultimate immersive cinematic experience.

Ilya Naishuller’s soon-to-be-released POV actioner Hardcore Henry is being touted as THE best action film ever made, but a week before that comes out, director John Suits (The Scribbler) gets HIS gaming geek on as he also tackles the first-person perspective in Pandemic.

To celebrate the film’s release (April 1), we caught up with Suits as he explains how, in his eyes, POV and found footage are two very distinct concepts and just how tough it was to recreate a first-person shooter style movie given the fact there wasn’t a particularly tried and tested formula for shooting a film of this ilk.

DC: Can you tell us how Dustin T. Benson’s script reached your hands and what convinced you that his POV perspective wasn’t going to play out as just another found footage style gimmick?

Suits: It was actually on the 2012 Blood List and was called Viral at the time. We were prowling for our next project and I saw this logline that sounded pretty crazy, but then I read the script and it was incredible. We worked a long time with Dustin developing it and I think what is a lot of fun about it is that it didn’t feel like a gimmicky POV film at all; it actually felt like a story with good characters and art, and that was what we really tried to focus on.

DC: From a directors point of view, what was the biggest challenge in terms of shooting a breed of film that has rarely been tackled before?

Suits: That was definitely the hardest thing. We had to do a lot of research to find things that had been shot in this kind of first-person perspective. There were things like Maniac with Elijah Wood and Into the Void and movies like that that we looked at. Rather than a found footage movie, I consider it more as a POV first-person movie.

An issue I have with found footage is that you have to spend the whole movie kind of justifying why we’re seeing what we’re seeing, but with this first-person perspective you’re on the journey, you’re on the road. In Pandemic it’s not shaky cam either; it’s more trying to emulate what the eye would see and that involved us really exploring how to use camera rigs in a way where, when the character is running, it’s not all crazy and shaky but rather it has more of a bounce to it, more like how you would see everything if you were running. We put A LOT of work into that with photographer Mark Putnam, and we also worked with Radiant Images, who work with all different kinds of rigs and cameras, so we spent countless days there trying to figure out different variations and what worked for each situation. It was a big undertaking but it was a lot of fun trying to unlock the formula.

DC: How many sleepless nights did you spend playing Call of Duty et al, as the film embraces video game aesthetics and narratives in a big way?

Suits: Through my younger years I loved video games and I love that genre. Fortunately (or unfortunately) I have kids now [laughs] so my video game days are behind me but I did play some beforehand but it was hard to find time. I have friends who played things like Modern Warfare or Left 4 Dead, and I also went on YouTube to watch those kinds of games to get the look and feel of how it feels to be in that space. We also looked at different kinds of weapons and I asked our stunt guy, “What are fun ways to kill people?” We had a full bunch of meetings just about that.

DC: And how did the cast adapt to the challenge of shooting POV style?

Suits: The way that we did it was we had a male and a female camera operator who would put on the camera suits of whichever character they were going to play. The actors really enjoyed it too, though. They were a really cool group of actors that were really into it. I went into it really nervous, wondering how we would be able to coordinate the actors when we had camera operators working inside their suits, but they were all super professional. They also spent the time to go over each and every movement for every scene with the camera operators to help them mimic their movements in the film.

All of that aside, I think they were phenomenal actors and I think with Rachel (Nichols), you really get invested in her character because she brings us all on this whole journey. I don’t want to give anything away to readers but she really has to play a lot of different things and the way she was able to accomplish that was remarkable.

DC: Let’s talk special effects. It looks to be roughly a 50/50 split between CGI and practical.

Suits: Yeah, there are a lot of visual effects for sure and we had a great team of guys doing that. Doing visual effects in the first-person perspective was tricky. It’s obviously easier when you have a locked down shot so it was essential to have a person on set to guide us through how we were going to do it. And then there was the job of turning Los Angeles into this post-apocalyptic wasteland, all the street design and stuff like that. Our production designer, Yong Ok Lee, would do all the work with our team and he would take us down to LA and turn it into a post-apocalyptic landscape in like two hours. But then we had to add fires and deteriorate things afterwards so that’s where the video effects team was crucial. They really ploughed through it because there were so many complicated shots because of all the camera moves involved and they really crushed it.

DC: Editing Pandemic must have been one hell of a challenge, particularly in the action scenes with hordes of virus carriers in the frame.

Suits: Absolutely! Nicholas Larrabure was our editor and it was very hard because a lot of the scenes involved trying to make the editing feel seamless. Obviously, another thing we had to work really hard on was how to tell a story in first-person because there are scenes where we cut around different perspectives and then there are others where you just stay with one character. So having to choose when to do that was tough. And then we had to figure out exactly how to cut because, again, there’s not really a tried and tested formula for this kind of film.

In the action scenes you mention you’ve got the cameras looking to the left and right and you’ve got to add all the CGI stuff there, or you’ve got an actor whose head is getting smashed in so it was a very tedious process where there’d be something that feels like one long shot where it’s often a bunch of different takes stitched together to really enhance it and bring out the best elements of it. So the editing was definitely extremely crucial, and at the same time we couldn’t really follow habitual editing rules because those rules don’t really correspond to a first-person style film. It was definitely a big challenge.

DC: Aside from Pandemic is there anything you are able to reveal about upcoming projects? I know you have a few things planned with your co-producer, Gabriel Cowen.

Suits: Yeah. Gabriel and I have a production company called New Artists Alliance and we just finished our 20th feature. We also went to film school together and went on to work on movies together. Our next movie is actually directed by Gabriel, and it’s called When the Lights Go Out. It’s a very cool end of days type of realm. And then we have a bunch of other films coming soon such as Fear, Inc., which will be screening at Tribeca in April, and also Jekyll Island.

Pandemic’s vicious virus is all set to spread like the plague this April 1st, and we’ll leave you with the trailer, which we hope persuades you to give it a whirl…

Pandemic 2016 Movie Poster - Helmer John Suits Talks POV Apocalyptic Action-Thriller Pandemic

Written by Howard Gorman

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