Director Jesse O'Brien Discusses the Twists & Turns of Funding Sci-Fi Feature 'Arrowhead'
On a desolate planet a lone mercenary waits stranded, hoping against hope that rescue will come with only his ship's computer for company, but he soon discovers that he's not as alone as he initially thought. That's the basic outline of Australian director Jesse O'Brien's well received sci-fi short Arrowhead: Signal, but far from the full story of Jesse's journey along the independent road to completing his debut feature Arrowhead. We talk to Jesse about working outside the tradition production model and the benefits of using a short to build interest in your future feature.
Before we dive into our interview with Jesse, get familiar with his sci-fi world by watching Arrowhead: Signal:
NFS: What's your background as a filmmaker?
JO: Like any first-time filmmaker, my background is reinforced by a lot of movie marathons, a decades-old love of cinema and a lot of trial-by-fire short film shoots. My friends and I have tried to continue making short films throughout the years. There have been highs and lows, a lot of procrastination and recently a lot of luck.
If there's one other element that I think helped me get to the place where we made Arrowhead: Signal, I'd say it's a professional background in motion graphics. I worked for a few years creating trailers and TV spots for Disney, which required a lot of editing and graphics knowledge. My editor and cinematographer Samuel Baulch still does that kind of work. So he and I were able to ask ourselves what skills we had before creating the short film; it was a lot of digital matte paintings, sky replacements and glow effects, and not a lot of heavy CGI.
It's important to bring your own experiences into a movie, and in this case it was practical skills and an attempt to use what we know to our advantage.
JO: There's something fun in playing within a template, and it's not about safety. It's easy to lampoon a genre, and certainly that's what we were doing when we made A Night of Fowl Play back in 2004. That's almost a decade ago, and there will be a decade separating that experience with my first experience directing a feature, which is interesting.
Back then it was all about emulating the genre, and in retrospect it's because I hadn't had much life experience. So it was a fun movie and an unforgettable experience, even if it lacked depth. But what I've always tried to do, even then, was to create memorable images.
In that short, the first image I had in my mind was a guy in a mascot suit holding a tommy gun. That's something I hadn't seen. In Halt, it's a yellow umbrella spattered with blood, and the symbol of a mother protecting her son.
What I like to think is that I could create an action figure out of every short film I've done, because I love playing with iconic images. I'm interested in straight drama too, and dialogue scenes, they're the backbone of any compelling storytelling. But to me the best drama, even if it's not genre or high concept, is accompanied by a lasting image. Cinema really is just a series of images anyway. Genre is the best way to make that memorable.
NFS: How did your frustrations with current genre cinema lead to writing the Arrowhead screenplay?
JO: My frustrations aren't to do with genre cinema as a whole. There are a number of great genre films from the last few years, particularly independent films. In Hollywood, there's been a great resurgence of science fiction, because of the technology on hand.
For any kid raised in the 80s who loved comic books and Saturday morning cartoons, there's an internal struggle between loving all these tentpole movies and wishing they were more like the films we watched back then.
So to me, it's an exciting time to be a filmmaker because audiences are welcoming genre content, but there's also a huge gap in the market for more grounded, practical effects work. That's partly what put me on the road to writing Arrowhead, but the frustration came from the fact that in Australia, there's barely any genre cinema. And if there is, it just seems to be committee-formed and market-driven. There are some great Australian films but a complaint I often hear is that there's not a lot of variety.
Over three years ago, I started writing Arrowhead because we thought we could make a movie cheaply, easily and independently by using the local landscape and making it mostly with one character. The story grew from there, so that it was impossible to make without funding, but the grain of the idea started by us saying, "Let's make our own movie."
NFS: Why did you choose to go the independent route over pursuing a traditional production model?
JO: I have nothing against traditional models, except they're completely unfamiliar to me. Also when doing things officially, everything gets a lot more expensive. This same movie made with government money would cost millions of dollars, but by doing it ourselves with a lot of hard work and favours, we're doing it for way less.
Even with funding, which isn't millions but it's more than we hoped for -- we're still on the outskirts making this movie the same way we always have, figuring out how to organise everything in our own way.
When SF contacted us and offered to fund us -- completely unprompted -- one of the first things they asked was, "Why didn't you come to us for help?" So I think there's a lot of miscommunication between filmmakers and people who want to invest. They don't know how to find us, because there are so many of us, and we don't know if we're allowed to approach them. Arrowhead: Signal, and the Pozible campaign we launched, was enough to stick our heads above the crowd for just the right amount of time for SF to see it, so we were very lucky.
NFS: Was the short Arrowhead: Signal always part of the plan or was it necessitated by the move to independence?
JO: The short film was something that happened very organically. Production designer Ryan Stevens, who was my flatmate at the time, liked my feature script and said I should do something with it. At that point it had been circulated to a few people in the industry, but it never went anywhere. It was a huge gamble financially and I was unproven as a filmmaker, so I was a bit frustrated.
As undramatic as it sounds, the short happened when Ryan decided to sketch up Kye's costume as an art project. Then he started to make it. And we had lots of casual chats about driving to the desert and filming a short scene. When we reached the point where we were talking about building the spaceship set in our living room, it was full steam ahead. I really feel like the short film was a very happy accident.
NFS: Duncan Jones' Moon has been cited in many write ups of the short, what were your inspirations for the story?
JO: A lot of people bring up Moon in reference to Arrowhead, but in truth I'd already written a few drafts of my screenplay before Moon came out. I saw it at the cinema and my heart sunk a little because GERTY was a very similar character to REEF -- a benevolent, friendly computer who pretty much already sounded like Kevin Spacey in my head. That was the only similarity at the time. Tonally and visually they're very different films.
Arrowhead will be much more earthy, warm, and sun-drenched. Where the Wild Things Are is a common example of the gentle aspect of the story. But it goes to some very dark places too. If I'm honest, the whole thing only exists because of a deep love of Aliens, Starship Troopers, Star Wars, and The Thing. I'm not trying to recreate those things, but the footprints are there. And I welcome them!
NFS: How is what we see in Arrowhead: Signal similar/different from what will come in the feature?
JO: The short film was by necessity very simple. It didn't touch on the creature elements very much, but that's a huge element of the feature. The life cycle we've created is quite elaborate and how it ties in to Kye's journey is key to the plot.
We think it's important to create a mythology, so that the audience can take something with them. It's not just a small portrait of one character's experience, like the short film was. It's a world that we're trying to create. That being said, that mix of nostalgia and gentleness that you saw in the short will hopefully still come across amongst the broader, darker elements of the feature.
And I really believe you learn something after every project, so there's a lot we can bring to the table when we go back to that desert moon.
NFS: Arrowhead: Signal was impressively created for just $600. How did you manage to achieve that?
JO: We didn't make a huge effort to not spend money, believe it or not. A good few months were spent salvaging junk from the side of the road. Whenever Ryan and I would walk home, we'd look through every pile of discarded rubbish that we saw. Vacuum cleaners, televisions, microwaves, electronic typewriters. We eventually had a stockpile that gave us enough to create all our props, and it was all free.
We did spend some money on a few minor elements, but no more than $150. There were ten crew members and we stayed in the cheapest desert hotel we could find. Nobody was paid because we're all friends doing it for the love of creating something bigger.
I understand why in the industry, professionals need to be valued with proper pay and I am in no way meaning to change that. But in the independent world, I truly believe there's too much emphasis on needing money. I'm guilty of talking myself out of a lot of good ideas because I didn't have money. But we proved to ourselves and the audience that there's no excuse to not go and create.
If you're lucky enough to have a few willing friends and creative enough to problem solve every little element and find designs out of objects you have, then you can make a movie, and it will get seen. Whether it's good is the tricky part, but that's what the script is for.
NFS: It also contains several effects shots. Were they mainly practical or digital effects?
JO: There were no practical effects, ironically, since we have such a love for this kind of work. Budget wise, we couldn't afford to be making creatures. But we did have motion graphics in our skill set, so we wrote the short film around what we can do.
The floating device, for example. It was built out of an old slide projector and some wires. Ryan (who acted as Kye in the short) simply lifted the device to make it look like it was floating, and we added glow and deleted the cord it was hanging from. The planets in the sky are another example. It's a subtle effect but it's a lasting image and it was very simple to do. We had a professional effects artist create a CG ship for us, when Kye is walking towards his camp and he did that for free as a massive favor.
For the feature we're building part of it on set for real, but there will be some digital extensions. A mix of both is always a more subtle effect than doing it full CG.
NFS: Were there lessons learnt on Arrowhead: Signal which directly translated into your confidence that the feature could be achieved for the $40,000 budget you were seeking on Pozible?
JO: As much as I would like, it's not as simple as scaling up a $600 two-day shoot and multiplying it by twenty. So we knew we needed to spend a lot more money. The Pozible model would have seen everybody working completely on a volunteer basis, but with all their accommodation and food paid for, it still adds up.
We also wanted to pay a professional actor, and buy materials for our creature elements. When you boil it down to its basic form, filmmaking is really just a camera capturing things that happen. Things happen all day, every day, for free. Making a movie is as simple as pretending things are happening, and making them look good by dressing them up with props, sets and costumes.
If these elements cost you next to nothing, then you can make a $40,000 movie look like $2 million. Creating the short film for $600 certainly solidified this confidence. We're spending quite a bit more than $40,000 on the feature now, thanks to our funding through SF. But that look on people's faces when they hear how low-budget the short was -- that's something I now have a taste for. I can't wait to see it on their faces again. The dollars are higher this time, but the production value will be too, so it's in proportion.
NFS: Could you take us through the funding journey for Arrowhead; from the unsuccessful Pozible campaign to SF picking the film up and the current state of play now SF is to close?
JO: It's been a roller coaster of a journey since we filmed the short almost 18 months ago. It took a week for us to believe we had Pozible in the bag and two months to realise it'd slowed down to a halt. It was pretty hard to recapture that energy level and reach the $40,000 goal, although we made it just over half way.
I was in the UK when the campaign ended. As sad as it was that we couldn't go with that model, I never lost hope for the project because I'd reconnected with an old friend, Eric Machiela. Along with Eric Johnson, the two Erics run Gorilla Pictures in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I went to film school. Eric Machiela had read the Arrowhead script but like everybody, didn't know what to do with it. Impressed by the Pozible campaign, he rallied his production company to commit to the project no matter what happens.
They're a great community of filmmakers who work with the best equipment, professionalism and enthusiasm, so it was a huge blessing to have him involved. I received an email from someone at the Australian Sci-fi channel SF in Sydney, who had seen the short film online. Apparently they were big fans of it in the office and they'd been looking for a local project to support.
So a month or so after the Pozible campaign ended, and after a few Skype conversations with SF, I was on a plane to Sydney to meet Eric Johnson and Eric Machiela and pitch the idea. The Erics brought large printouts of the concept art we'd created and I put together a pitch video that bridged the gap between the short film and the feature. SF have been nothing but supportive ever since and unfortunately now their doors are closing.
It's a real shame, but the first thing they told me after news of the closure broke was that they remain committed to helping get the movie made and finding a new home for it. Our distribution options are wide open now and we're confident it will be on screens in 2014. As far as our production crew goes, nothing is changing. We're still just making a movie!
NFS: Where are you now with the production of Arrowhead?
JO: Storyboarding and casting are the focus points at the moment. We're seeing a lot of newcomers and approaching some bigger names. It'd be great to cast a mix of known and unknown actors; even though it's Kye's story, there are other characters.
Attaching a name would help from a marketing standpoint, but it really depends on who is right for the role. From our local production crew, to Gorilla Pictures, to the SF executives, there is no push for one way or the other. It's all about getting the casting right, which is a huge blessing.
Meanwhile we're building our costumes, sets and props. We've shot some landscape footage while scouting locations, some really great atmospheric stuff that should make it into the cut. We're gearing up towards shooting the bulk of the movie in February, which is the hottest time of the year. We've had an easy run so far, so maybe that weather will be our punishment.
NFS: How will audiences get to see Arrowhead when it arrives in 2014?
JO: Distribution is up in the air at the moment. If I was asked a month ago, viewers would have had to subscribe to Foxtel, Australia's biggest Pay TV network and watch the movie on the SF channel. Now, we're open to other ideas. It may find a place on a new Foxtel channel, it could go to free to air television or an American network or even online or cinema distribution.
Everybody wants what is best, which is exciting. So while we can't say where it can be seen, we can definitely say that it will be seen. There will also be a lot of behind the scenes content that we release, so audiences will be able to experience the journey of the film leading up to whatever the release will be. We're excited to start releasing that online soon.
NFS: Any advice for other filmmakers looking to go their own way with a project?
JO: It's very hard to pitch a project with words. You're trying to convince people to give you money so that you can make something, so make something first! Most people would rather watch a ten minute short than read a 20 page treatment.
The best thing my crew ever did was make Arrowhead: Signal, because it speaks a thousand words about the feature film story, but also about the tone, mood and attitude we want to convey. And it demonstrated the skills we were bringing to the table.
Go out and make something and if you have no money, don't be afraid of it being cheap. Just don't let it look cheap. I think good filmmaking is a mixture of luck, creativity and good taste. It seems to be working for us so far. A year ago, we had no idea we'd be making a fully funded movie and now we are and it's the best thing in the world. So go out there and make something, because people will see it. Whether or not they like it is up to you and your hard work.
That's quite a journey Jesse has been on to get Arrowhead into production and (as our own Ryan Koo has pointed out,) he discovered along the way that a short is one of the most powerful tools you can have when drumming up interest for your feature project.
What did you guys think of Arrowhead: Signal? Can you see how the world building and production values of the short led to funding support for the Arrowhead feature?