We've relaunched as a full community! Get the scoop:

September 11, 2013

Director Jesse O'Brien Discusses the Twists & Turns of Funding Sci-Fi Feature 'Arrowhead'

Arrowhead Signal

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.

NFS: Before Arrowhead you made Halt, a zombie movie and A Night of Fowl Play, a noir short. What is it about genre filmmaking that so appeals to you?

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.

Arrowhead concept art

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?

Link: Arrowhead

Your Comment

20 Comments

Great film! Great writing and directing!

September 11, 2013

0
Reply

I respect the effort, but I didn't liked the movie. I didn't like the performance at all, the lack of direct sound totally kills it anyway. I found the FX terrible (even with no money) and the storytelling is really slow and felt kind of boring. But mostly, and that's the hard aprt : I didn't fell anything. Sorry for the hard critique, it's just my opinion but I totally admire the hard work and I hope the next one will be improved, I guess that's the point (and i'll totally watch it ;)).

September 11, 2013

0
Reply

Yeah, unfortunately that's how I felt as well. Definitely needs a good sound designer on the project. And I'm not sure how the final story is written but I think the pacing could be quicker and more interesting, with less aimless wandering around the desert. 90% of sci fi shorts on the web are people wandering around a sci-fi desert with some vague sense of mystery, but with nothing to actually grip the audience. No real goal or purpose. I hope they don't fall into that category with the feature. As for the CG, it looked OK but it was super low polly. Like a 90's game almost. Don't be afraid to add lots of detail. It will react better to light and shadow and not look like a bunch of flat planes with textures on them. For a first attempt though, I think you did a good job. I have much higher hopes for the feature if you get some more crew members on board and get your story on lock. Congratulations on the funding and Good Luck!

September 11, 2013

0
Reply
Mike

While I applaud the Director's efforts, I'm not that crazy about the short. Of course, I have some issues with shorts in general; too little time, usually, to tell too much story, forcing the audience to care enough in a few minutes when our hero falls, and to cheer for him to rise back up. That happens here in spades. This feels more like a calling card, something to say, hey, I can make a film, rather than, hey, I can drive a story and make you care. I just didn't care about anything in the story. I didn't even get that the computer was talking to him, I assumed it was someone else trying to communicate with him. He didn't seem to care that the computer was trying to talk to him, but that's the problem; you didn't SHOW us that, he just didn't pay any attention at all to the computer. Also, the soundtrack was FAR too heavy in most places. Soundtracks should be used to help create or release tension, and it's wall-to-wall here. The first few minutes shouldn't have had any soundtrack at all, to help us feel the astronaut's desolation.

Just my two cents though. Hopefully the Feature will be significantly better.

September 11, 2013

0
Reply
Edmund Dale Lloyd

As if mathieu auvray or Edmund Dale Lloyd could ever achive anything anywhere near as good.
Great short.

September 11, 2013

0
Reply
Sam Biel

So you're saying that opinions only count if the person can demonstrate that they made something better?

September 11, 2013

0
Reply
mitch

Those opinions are clearly reeked in bitter jealousy in an attempt to undermine the credibility of the filmmakers.
I mean, who says things like, "As for the CG, it looked OK but it was super low polly."? That might be a fair criticism of a Hollywood blockbuster but is highly unfair for a sub $700 indie movie with a crew of 5.

I bet these guys ramming on the film have Vimeo pages with only Philip Bloom type videos of people in the street going about their business.
These guys made a sci fi short and are now making a sci fi feature. Those other guys are probably more concerned with saving up for a new Zacuto shoulder rig.

September 12, 2013

0
Reply
Nonce

That's a hilarious comment mate, well done. I actually think it's entirely fair to critique the sci-fi elements of a sci-fi short that has now been bumped up to a feature. If you're investing either money or your time in a story and a director then it's fair game. Nobody that I can see here is ramming on the film. Ramming would be to call it a dull, slightly aimless, piece of crap. Which I can't see anyone doing.

Personally, I think it's admirable what they've managed to achieve but as with so many filmmaking endeavours the story is in the production struggle and not necessarily in the quality of the end product. I didn't jump out of my chair when I watched it.

And who am I to have an opinion?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-1pQScWzN_U

Will that do for you?

September 12, 2013

0
Reply

Hey Sam, did you watched any of my works : http://mathieu-auvray.tumblr.com/ ? I'd be happy to have consistent critiques ;) And I totally agree with Mitch !
I'm not saying that I can do it better myself. I'm just expressing my very own viewer's opinion. And still, this is a promising short film to be transformed in a feature !

September 12, 2013

0
Reply
mathieu

Come on, it's a fundamented opinion, something to think about. I for one agree with Edmund even if I don't know what he's capable of. That has nothing to do with it if one's eloquent on the argument (and he wasn't even rude or disrespectful).
By the way, here's my humble take on sci-fi, from under $700 on the budget (although shorter and with no sound effects, it's still a narrative piece, a short film that wraps around a song). Feel free to critique.
https://vimeo.com/60013574

September 12, 2013

0
Reply

I thought it was terrific for $600! Shot in H.264!
Some of the music choices were odd, and yes, some decent foley would have been nice, but still, very very good. Wish you all the best.

September 11, 2013

0
Reply
marklondon

I thought this was powerful piece, not only because it was shot on such a low budget, but because of the depth you could feel that was behind the character/s I felt the world has a lot more to give, I'm excited to see where this will go. Can't wait to see more.

September 12, 2013

0
Reply
willcook

Great film, and amazing work for such a low budget. It's especially great to see some more people pushing genre films out in Australia. We gotta find a way to wedge that door open! Good luck with the feature, can't wait to see it.

September 12, 2013

0
Reply

Loved the short. Agree, foley was off, and I also see a lot Moon in it, as said in the article, but overall it had a really big and lasting effect on me. We're covering it and featuring it this week as a must watch. Cheers.

September 13, 2013

0
Reply

I believe movies of this type need a slower pace.

September 14, 2013

0
Reply

I didnt get the ending. Can somebody explain it to me? :)

September 14, 2013

0
Reply
Laurel

Great job. I easily get bored and quit after a few shots when it comes to a lot of films. But you kept my interest throughout the whole short!

September 14, 2013

0
Reply

Those who didn't like the movie miss the point: it's to use the short as a pitching tool, not as an end in itself. In this I think it succeeds admirably. I doubt if The Great Spielberg himself could have done as well given the resources available.

They also miss the point that an article, video, and interview like this are wonderfully instructive and valuable for a site like nofilmschool.

Now, the plot is clearly in the vein of Robinson Crusoe and Cast Away, with some nice modern touches. And who in the name of God doesn't like Robinson Crusoe and Cast Away (7.6 on IMDB)? In my opinion -- and it is only my opinion -- all you need now to make this a blockbuster is... Tom Hanks.

September 15, 2013

0
Reply
Mike

Great work Jesse and team! When i look at what these guys have achieved on a shoestring budget i'd have great confidence in seeing what they can produce on a real budget!

To me, bottom line, these guys got out and busted their ass to make a killa short, that now has them on the tip of making a feature. How can you not love that outcome. Inspiring stuff fellas.

September 15, 2013

0
Reply
Timmeh

Great Work BoysandGirls!

Few made it and sometimes critisism is nothing, if you only sit there and
you did not made it. On the other side of bib big money-productions it is
much harder to go. And for the "profesionalaudience" only consume without
clipping it down every scond of the run. no.

just look. so if a 1955 sf-film must be a amusement and Snake Pliskin would like to
coem to us now in slow....be fair.

so many stories will be told,and so many should. that is ist.

written in anti-nsa-we-are-the-world-boston-tea-party-two-point-zerro-english.

this time we push the tea in the global oceans ( understand it? hm.. you need only 2 braincells)

September 20, 2013

0
Reply
hardbonemac