Roger Corman and GJ Echternkamp speak to Jeremy Kay about Sundance Park City At Midnight entry Virtually Heroes.
Roger Corman had all this Vietnam War footage lying around from various productions. What’s a godfather of independent film-making to do? Then a lightbulb went off inside his head and before he knew it he was teaming up with commercials director GJ Echternkamp on Virtually Heroes — the first movie produced by Corman to get accepted by Sundance.
The Park City At Midnight action-comedy follows two characters trapped in a Call of Duty-style video game. Corman and Echternkamp speak to Jeremy Kay about existential angst, the changing distribution landscape and a new Yoda for our times. Paradigm Motion Picture Group represents North American rights.
*Mild spoiler alert*
Roger this is your first time as a film-maker in Park City. How did Virtually Heroes come about?
Roger Corman: How it started was I had made a number of Vietnam War pictures in the Philippines over the years because we had the cooperation of the Philippines Army. We had tremendous battle scenes. I got the idea we could do a new picture utilising several of these scenes.
I knew GJ had done a documentary and was a successful commercials director, so I approached him and said I would back him if he could write a new picture utilising this stock footage. I expected him to come up with a nice little war picture, but the idea he came up with startled and amazed me. It was totally original and that is the reason we are in Sundance.
GJ Echternkamp: I was trying to figure out how to make it relevant. Back in the day Vietnam War movies were more of that time and I wanted to make it more modern and I had all these goofy ideas. It occurred to me we needed to make it about characters inside a war video game.
When we wrote the script a few years ago it was before Wreck-It Ralph and I thought what an interesting lifestyle it would be to constantly die and come back again – who’s in control? We could take some of that stock footage and rather than try to pass it off as footage we would make it part of a video game world. It seemed like a good way to make the most of that footage.
Let’s backpedal a second. How did you know each other?
RC: Weirdly enough GJ’s mother is my assistant. So I was told in advance how good he was.
Ah. Pray continue.
GJ: I wrote the script a few years ago with a friend of mine called Matt Yamashita. I took action scenes from these DVDs and edited them together to try to figure out how to storyboard it. It took quite a while. We looked at what we could use and what we couldn’t use. We shot in October 2011 on a sound stage in Los Angeles and in [Arizona’s] Santa Cruz Valley.
Did it look like the real setting?
GJ: The valley there is dense and kind of looks like Vietnam.
RC: When you start to see the film you don’t know it’s a video game – you think it’s a group of soldiers in the Vietnam War and all of a sudden they fight the same battle again. At that point the audience will realise there’s something wrong with this war picture.
Can you give us a taster of what Virtually Heroes is about?
GJ: The story is about these two characters. Robert Baker’s character is the lead, Books. He starts off fighting and dying and coming back again and a lot of the game is pointless to him and he grows more and more frustrated with the world he’s in. His sidekick Nova is more of a straightforward Marine [played by Brent Chase] and is all gung-ho about things.
There’s a girl on the upper level whom [Books] wants to kiss and every time he’s about to kiss her she gets kidnapped. He says ‘I’m not going to do this any more’ and it becomes a Buddhist meditation on life and meaning. When Roger and I sat down at first he told me I had to have a name [in the movie]. I put Mark Hamill at the top of the list and I got him. He ends up being this Yoda figure.
Who paid for the movie?
RC: We are a small company [New Horizon Picture Corp] but over the years we have had enough successful films, so we put up the cash ourselves.
GJ: It was fantastic because nobody could stick their noses into it.
RC: It’s the first movie I produced that went to Sundance.
Roger, looking back over your career, what have been the big changes?
RC: There are two basic differences: production and distribution. The differences in production are all for the better – equipment has evolved and it’s better, lighter and more portable.
Unfortunately the changes in distribution are primarily minuses. When I first started I made a picture for $12,000 in cash and it got a theatrical release. My peers and I depended upon theatrical distribution and we got it. In those days you could see big ads for low-budget films and they competed with the majors.
In the 1990s we started getting frozen out of theatrical distribution. The majors were getting so big and spending so much money on ads we really could not compete any more. There were upticks from cable and DVD, although DVD is slipping now. I am hoping the internet will be the answer.