RISE AND RISE AGAIN
Dead Rising: Watchtower director Zach Lipovsky chats exclusively with F***
By Jedd Jong
The zombie invasion is far from over. Thankfully, said invasion is confined to the realm of pop culture – for now. Dead Rising: Watchtower, the film adaptation of Capcom’s Dead Rising videogame series, offers up another helping of the undead, served with a side of the twisted humour found in the games. The movie, which is being released online via Crackle, is the first digital film from Legendary Digital Media, a division of Legendary Pictures. Dead Rising: Watchtower stars Jesse Metcalfe, Meghan Ory, Virginia Madsen, Dennis Haysbert and Rob Riggle and is directed by Zach Lipovsky.
Hailing from Vancouver, Canada, Lipovsky is a former child actor who appeared in TV shows such as Goosebumps and films like the Disney Channel’s Zenon: Girl of the 21stCentury. Lipovsky developed a passion for being behind the camera, eventually becoming a visual effects specialist and director. He caught his big break as a finalist on the filmmaking reality TV show On The Lot in 2007 at age 23. The show was co-produced by Steven Spielberg and the short films Lipovsky made as a contestant include Danger Zone, consisting of a single 360 degree shot depicting the mishaps that befall a science lab, and Sunshine Girl, about a little girl who plucks the sun out of the sky.
Lipovsky went on to direct the horror movie Tasmanian Devils for Syfy and the reboot of the Leprechaunfranchise Leprechaun: Origins for WWE films. He is also developing Dogs of War, a stylised historical action film set during the War of 1812. In his spare time, Lipovsky runs the software company Reel Apps. He came up with the shot listing app Shot Lister, which helps filmmakers use their smartphones to plan what they have to film for the day.
Speaking exclusively to F*** over Skype, Lipovsky explains how Dead Rising: Watchtower sets itself apart from the other zombie movies and TV shows, discusses making movies on a limited budget, shares how he approaches visual effects and reveals what it was like working with the cast of the film.
Are you a fan of the Dead Rising videogame series and how did you land the directing job on this film?
Of course, yeah. I got to know the game very, very well and absolutely became a huge fan of it. The way that everything started was Tim Carter, who wrote the film, also the producer, he’s a big videogame writer and does lots of big videogames and writes their stories and got to know the people at Capcom very well. And so [he] pitched them an idea for what the film could be and was able to get them on board, and then Legendary on board and then I came on board.
Video game movies have not generally had a very successful track record. Why do you feel that’s the case and how is Dead Rising: Watchtower different?
I think it’s a bunch of reasons, I think the first one being a lot of the time, the people making the movies weren’t big fans of the games. They just kind of took a property and ignored everything that was good about it and just tried to turn it into a film. I think also, sometimes it’s tough with videogames because the main character is not that interesting because you’re kinda supposed to put yourself into it, they’re like a cipher for yourself.
Like the comic book movies, they used to be really bad and then now, people who grew up with the comic books are making the comic book movies and they’re turning out to be really good. I think it’s the same thing with videogames, the generation that’s starting to make movies now are the generation that grew up loving videogames. I think that’s really going to make a big difference because it’s really starting to be made by people who love the heritage and all those cool things that make those games awesome.
A desire to do it justice.
Yeah, it’s being made by fans now whereas before, it was being made by people who didn’t really get what videogames were.
Frank West is a beloved character for many gamers. What was it like trying to find the ideal actor to play him?
Frank West is kind of the character of the franchise. I was super-excited when we were able to get Rob Riggle to play him because he has all of the elements that Frank West needs. He’s obviously hilarious and has a great wit to him which is one of the funniest parts of the whole movie, but also he has…from his stuff on The Daily Show, and even before that he was a soldier. So he has that ability to be a newscaster and kind of a celebrity and journalist, but also what I love about Frank West is he also has this dark side to him because he’s seen some pretty terrible things [chuckles] and he kind of covers that up with humour. But he’s also lived through killing hundreds and hundreds of people. It was really cool being able to bring that to life and I think Rob Riggle ended up being the perfect Frank West, I think people are gonna totally love him and want to see more of him.
You were a contestant on the filmmaking reality TV series On The Lot several years back; I particularly enjoyed the short film Danger Zone that you made as part of that. What was the experience being a part of that show like?
Well, it was my first big break and it was my first time being able to make a whole bunch of movies, it was kind of like the ultimate film camp. I got to come to L.A., I’m from Canada, and make a new movie and a new genre every week. It was pretty exceptional. It ended up being the thing that got me all my agents and all the things that you kind of need when you’re starting out on a film career in Hollywood. It also happened to be at the worst possible time because after the show was the writers’ strike and then after that was the recession [laughs]. The entire film industry decided to stop making movies for a few years; it was pretty tough. But, I’ve been kind of working my way back up and making a few films and this one, I think, is really gonna be my next big thing because I think it’s the best thing I’ve made and I’m really proud of it.
Zombies have become a really big part of popular culture in recent years, especially with The Walking Dead. Do you think audiences are burned out on zombies and if so, what sets Dead Rising: Watchtower apart from the undead pack?
Yeah, I mean there’s a lot of zombie stuff. That’s why I was really excited about Dead Rising, because it’s quite different. Not only is the tone different, it’s very fun and adventurous and silly at times, but also just the setting of what they do with zombies and the zombie world is very different. Zombies are a regular thing that happens and it happens a lot. It’s not like people are going “what are those things over there?” They know what a zombie is but also the whole idea that the rest of the world is watching the zombie outbreak on television. In The Walking Dead, the rest of the planet is gone, basically, whereas in this, people are in the newsroom talking about what’s going on. It has this kind of very surreal feeling to it.
And also, we really went far with the concepts that Dead Rising 3 had, as far as the zombies still having a bit of their life still in their memory, like their muscle memory, so they’re still kind of able to use guns and use objects and do the things they were doing all the time in their past life, which gives it this very cool, haunting feeling. It makes it quite original.
The last thing is the whole idea of Zombrex, it’s really the core of the film. That is a really unique idea that Dead Rising has, the idea that there’s a drug that if you take it every day, can keep you from turning into a zombie. Obviously that’s a game mechanic in the game, but what we really explore is what does that mean for the people that have to use it every day? What does that do for their lives? They don’t turn into a monster, but any day they could if they run out of drugs. And then also, everyone around them, how do they treat them, do they treat them differently knowing they’re infected with this virus? Almost like HIV or Ebola or something like that. They’re kinda treated in a different way. They stay human but can’t have the life they had.
There’s that metaphor which could be a somewhat heavy topic. At the same time, it’s in a light-hearted film with surreal comedy elements. How did you balance that?
That’s something I was worried about because you need both, I think. You need to have total adventure, silly, awesome action, then you need to have a story and characters that really engage people. And we kind of went for it, we made the action the best it could be, we made the drama as meaningful as it could be, and the characters, there are some really dramatic moments and then there are some crazy action moments and it just kind of all worked [laughs]. I didn’t really worry about it because I knew that was what we had to do and it the end it all kind of balances out.
You are known for using visual effects in your short films. What are your views on practical vs. computer-generated effects?
My background is in compositing, it’s the art of combining real elements in the computer. So rather than generating from scratch, you’re photographing lots of different elements and then putting those real elements together. I find that that’s where I like my visual effects work to happen, because it’s a lot easier and it looks a lot more realistic when you’re using real elements and compositing them together. I try to do as much as I can practically, and usually the visual effects are something that extend what we couldn’t do practically. So, we would still have someone die and we would have a whole bunch of blood, but in the computer, we’d add more blood, things like that, where we could cut bodies in half – we would cut an actual [prosthetic] body in half and we would add more gore and stuff to it. I find that that’s what looks the most real.
I think the best examples of effects use is in films like Jurassic Park or Terminator 2 where you can’t tell what’s been done practically and what’s been done in the computer.
Jurassic Park…Jurassic Park is probably my favourite movie of all time. It’s kind of the movie that made me want to make movies and there’s only 60 visual effects shots in that whole movie. All the rest of the stuff is animatronics and if you look at the visual effects today, they still look just as good and the reason is because they were cutting between something real and something CGI, they could tell if it didn’t look real because they had an example of what it should look like on set. And then, almost right after that movie, everyone stopped doing that, they were like “great, now I don’t have to build anything” and it all started looking fake. So having real elements on set is kind of the key.
What were some of the technical challenges you faced in the making of this film?
Well, it’s a web film, we’re distributing online which means it’s a huge film but we didn’t have a huge budget [laughs] so we wanted to make it feel big and make it feel like it fit the franchise but it was a very tiny movie and so we didn’t have a lot of time and we didn’t have a lot of resources, but everyone brought extra effort to make sure everything was as good as it could be. Everyone loves being in a zombie movie so we had hundreds and hundreds of zombies that just came out and volunteered. Everyone wanted to make it as big as it could be. The biggest challenge was that it’s a small movie but we tried to make it feel as big as we could.
Robert Rodriguez has his “Mariachi-style”, one man film crew philosophy of low-budget filmmaking. What is your approach to making films on a limited budget?
I always try and think of how we can make a few things that look incredible and then kind of cheat around them, rather than try and do a whole bunch of stuff that kind of looks medium. I think the audience remembers only a handful of shots from the movie, maybe 10. Let’s identify what those 10 things are and make them as good as in any movie, the most iconic visuals you can think of. And then around them, let’s use movie magic to kind of surround it with things so that it still feels part of the film but we don’t have to do huge, big-budget things in every shot. Just make sure you get a few things right and the rest of the film should kind of fit around it [laughs].
Can you speak a little about the cast in this film, which includes Jesse Metcalfe, Meghan Ory and Dennis Haysbert?
And Virginia Madsen as well, who’s an amazing actress, she was nominated for an Academy Award. The whole cast was kind of great, they all have very unique characters. The thing I like about Dead Rising is that each videogame takes place in a new city with a new set of characters and a new situation. So, we were able to do the same thing for this film. It takes place inside of the story world, so it takes place between Dead Rising 2 and Dead Rising 3. This tells the story of what took place between those videogames.
We have our own new characters; Jesse Metcalfe plays the lead character and he’s an online reporter…something like Vice [News]. He’s trying to get the scoop from the ground and he’s almost like a vlogger. He’s trying to be the next Frank West. Frank West was a character who went in behind enemy lines, back in the day when you had a still character, and Jesse Metcalfe’s character is trying to do that with his cell phone [laughs] and hopefully not dying because of it.
Meghan Ory plays a character who has a lot of hidden things about her, so I don’t want to say too much because it’ll ruin the movie. She basically plays a very tough, very cool chick…she was in the Fortune City outbreak from Dead Rising 2, so she’s been through it all before and Jesse has to basically follow her around to make sure that he doesn’t die [laughs].
And then Virginia Madsen plays a mother who has lost her daughter in the outbreak and is really kind of losing it mentally because of all the craziness that’s going on and kind of has to learn how to fight her way out. She plays a really fun character because she basically goes bananas.
And then Dennis Haysbert plays the general in the film, General Lyons. All the Dead Risingvideogames, they all have an element of conspiracy, the government taking over, the corporation taking over, there’s always kind of like the feeling that “the man”, the governments and the corporations, are against the people stuck inside, and that’s kind of what Dennis Haysbert represents.
The Soska sisters have a cameo in the film. What was it like working with them?
Jen and Sylvia [Soska] are good friends of mine because we are both filmmakers in Vancouver, where I’m from. And they are huge films and we got to know each other well because we both made films for WWE. It just seemed like the obvious thing [chuckles], Dead Rising is known for having all these iconic zombies, like these character-specific zombies, and so it seemed like identical twin zombies had to be in the movie. We named them “massage parlour zombies” so they’re like stripper zombies. They just had a crazy time on set. They’re part of one of the action scenes in the middle of the movie, where we did a five-minute one-take action scenes where Jesse basically has a sledge saw and goes on a killing spree for five minutes [laugh which I created to be like playing the game, where you get an awesome weapon and you charge into the zombies. We had cameos with them all the way through. I think they’re in the trailer as well. They just were awesome, great energy on set. They just have such an excited love of film and horror and that day, we have over 100 zombies and they were just kind of like the “zombie cheerleaders” that just kept everyone excited and working all day.
With Leprechaun: Origins, what was your history with the film series, were you a fan of the Leprechaun movies and how did you come to do that film for WWE Studios?
I wasn’t a big fan, I hadn’t seen a lot of the Leprechaun movies, I became familiar with them a lot but that in the end was kind of okay because the studio really wanted to try and do something new and something fresh. The past Leprechaun movies did such a good job at being kind of that campy, funny version, and that’s not what they wanted to do at all, they wanted to do kind of a new, grittier, darker version. So I became familiar with them but the idea was trying to find a new way, seeing if there was a way of making a film that had legitimate scares in it and made you actually scared rather than something that was more of a comedy.
Tell us a little bit about Dogs of War.
Yeah, Dogs of Waris a very cool film that I’ve been working on for a few years that is kind of like an action movie set in the 1800s, almost like The Avengers but in 1814. It takes place in the War of 1812, which was a war between Canada and the United States, and not a lot of people know that story. It’s a story where basically America wanted to take over Canada so they outnumbered the Canadians trying to defend the country and the Americans burnt down the capital of Canada. With eventually the British defeating Napoleon, the Canadians and the British invaded Washington and burnt the White House to the ground. And so it’s that story, but it’s done in a very action-adventure, superhero way. There are characters that are basically superheroes that are born out of the burning of York, which was the capital of Canada of the time. It’s a fun, crazy movie [chuckles].
When might we expect to see that released?
We’re still working on it so it’s still a few years away, we don’t have an exact date yet.
Finally, you acted in Goosebumps when you were a kid. Are you looking forward to the upcoming film with Jack Black?
It’s funny, you’re the second person to ask me about that today!
And here I thought I was being original!
[Laughs] That was my first time in an acting job and I think I was 10 years old when I did that. Anyway, it was right at the time where everybody was reading those books. I remember in my school, every single kid was reading Goosebumps. So then to get a job as an actor on a TV show was like the biggest job you could ever imagine, it was so cool. It was very cool to go to a big film set and be chased around by vampires for a few weeks. Very interested to see what they do, because I remember those books being very good. Cliffhanger every chapter. The thing with those books is there’s so many books and so many stories, so I’m curious to see do they pick one story or how do they put them into one movie, because there are so many books?
I think the idea is Jack Black is playing R. L. Stine himself and all the monsters are contained in a book and they escape
[Laughs] Well, there you go. Maybe I can get a role in the film.
Dead Rising: Watchtower is available via Crackle from March 27.