Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Exclusive interview with Drew Maxwell, writer/director of Guardians

No question, I grew up on "Star Wars", it was definitely the film (or films) that had the most impact on me. Ever since I watched that massive star destroyer fly over my head, I've been a changed person. (granted, I was around 4 at the time) From there, it got worse (or some would say, better) There was "Clash of the Titans", "Krull", "The Thing", "Dreamscape", before "Terminator", "They Live", "Aliens" and on and on... it's what got me where I am today. I've always been checking out every obscure horror and sci-fi film I could and I've always had a huge soft spot for special effects. In fact, the first film I EVER made was a stop-motion battle scene using all my Star Wars figures using my Dad's old school video camera (had a porta-pack seperate from the camera) Anyhow, with the advent of CGI, special effects have been taken to a whole new level and, as we all know, "T2" changed film forever. However, you very rarely see lots of CGI effects in low-budget horror, as it's kinda costly. That's particularily why I was excited to get the effects-heavy film, "Guardians" into my DVD player. It was written and directed by Drew Maxwell, who's also one of the founders and visual effects artists at Lightning Rod Studios, the company that made "Guardians". The film is about a bunch of mercenaries who come to a small town to kill off a bunch of creatures that have been summoned into our dimension by a group of occultists. If you were raised on the same films as I, you're going to get a big kick out of this... it's a guaranteed good time. Dead Harvey had the chance to discuss the film with Maxwell and, as usual, he offers a lot of good advice and insight, but if special effects are your thing... this is a must read.

Tell us a bit about yourself. What are your influences, where did you get started and what brought you to filmmaking?

I work as an artist in both traditional and digital art (Photoshop, Painter, ZBrush 3D etc.) I started out in comic books and in animated television development. I worked to develop cartoon series and game concepts for Warner Bros. Animation. If you are interested in my artwork you can visit I always loved film and was obsessed with comic books as a kid. I decided to start a production company with my business partner Dan Kattman; I had written a few screenplays and wanted to direct and Dan is an entertainment attorney and visual effects artist. We make a great team. Our company is called Lightning Rod Studios and rounding out our administrative staff are film producer Amy Dowd and VFX supervisor / artist Chris Gruber, two extremely talented artists and leaders in our company. We have a great team of employees, contractors and interns including 3D modelers / animators, After Effects artists, Shake artists, cinematographers, sound engineers, etc. We produce about 2-3 feature films a year and provide VFX and production services to numerous producers for their films as well. We specialize in organic visual effects.

As far as my influences, I love the basic filmmaker stuff that everyone else does. Stanley Kubrick, John Carpenter, Akira Kurosawa, good 70's horror, arthouse films, animation, comic books and graphic novels. I love old kung-fu and samurai films as well.

Film School: Yes or No?

I went to art school and studied film there.

Where did the idea for “Guardians” come from and what made you actually get off your ass and go out and make it?

The idea for Guardians is heavily inspired by H.P. Lovecraft and horror comic books. What got us off our ass was simple - stop talking and just make a film at all costs. It was very hard work, and in hindsight, maybe too ambitious for the budget.

How did you go about securing financing and what was the approx budget?

Our first film was picked up by Shoreline Entertainment out of LA. We formed a great relationship with them, and then entered into a two picture deal. I am not at liberty to discuss the budget.

What did you shoot on and how long was the shoot?

We shot the movie on HD using a PS Technic 35mm lens adaptor and a set of various 35mm lenses. We shot for four weeks.

Obviously, it was a CG heavy film, which is so rare to see for an indie horror. Tell us about the process of setting out and making a CG heavy film on a low budget.

Well, the difficulties we went through making Guardians taught us that we needed to do the CGI work in house. So looking back, it is kind of hard to watch the CGI in the film because we have come so far since making Guardians. The CGI we are producing now is light-years better - our company specializes in visual effects, major CGI work, digital back-lot techniques, etc. You have to start somewhere.

Talk about the CG process on an indie film. You guys happen to specialize in this, but is it something that’s impossible for other indie filmmakers to do?

It is possible if you have people with talents in animation, modeling, texturing, lighting, compositing, motion tracking, etc. We had to learn all of this stuff ourselves. Luckily I could draw and Dan could composite. That helped tremendously. Guardians was like being thrown into the deep-end of a pool and quickly learning how to swim. Not easy! But nothing is. Also, you MUST be willing to work on a shot for two weeks and if it's not the best, hit delete and start again. This can be very difficult for most artists, but you have to work like this. OR you should hire Lightning Rod Studios, sit back and not reinvent the wheel. SHAMELESS PLUG!

Further to that, the film is very big in idea. I thought you did a great job in creating a believable universe for your story to take place in. Talk about creating that universe on a low-budget. What would you pass on to other indie filmmakers who don’t have a lot of budget, but have “big” ideas.

Thank you for the kind words. This is big for me. I am all about the look and feel of what is on screen. I spend a lot of time doing concept artwork and designing props, etc. As far as budgeting goes, you have to make a little go a long, long way. Spray paint is your best friend! We went through about 50 cans of paint on this film. Making things look old and worn helps. Distress everything. Props and people. Get rid of any logos and go for that "timeless look" as far as hair styles and clothing. Lighting is key here as well. Do not over light.

Tell us about some of the hurdles you overcame to get the film done. Any advice you can pass on to other indie filmmakers who might be just setting out to make a film.

Ok, most people think "let's make a movie! It will be fun!" This is true if you are making a student film that doesn't need to be sold. Making low-budget feature length films for a studio is hard, thankless work. In the trenches. In the mud. If you don't love it and you're unwilling to work non-stop with no time off for 12 months, then do not make a real film. Just have fun with your friends. You will NEVER sleep. NEVER!!! There will be one hurdle after another. Filmmaking is combat. Make sure you have a great team that works well together. My wife is the most supporting, patient, hardest working person on Earth! Without her, I never could have done this. Let people drive their respective cars (jobs). If everyone tries to steer the car at the same time, it crashes. Be flexible! We worked hard for Shoreline to give us an opportunity, and we made the most of it.

After it was all said and done, what would you have done differently?

Well, hindsight is 20/20. I would have fought harder for what I wanted to do with the story and shots. You feel so much pressure from the clock and all of the little issues that arise on set. Now, I try very hard not to let those things distract me while filming. You learn so much by doing. If I were to talk about what I've learned to do differently, it would fill this whole page. Just make a lot of films. Be hard on yourself. Keep honing your skills. You will get better every time you do it.
Talk about the festival circuit, how did that go? What did you learn? And what can you pass on to other filmmakers who’ve finished an indie horror and want to enter it into festivals?

Because Guardians was made for Shoreline Entertainment, we had distribution in place before we made the film. So we did not enter into many fests. Guardians was an "Official Selection" at a few fests and the film was nominated for "Best Science Fiction Feature Film" at the Shockerfest International Film Festival. That was very cool.

What about distribution? How’s that going? Are there any lessons that you would pass on to other indie filmmakers who’ve just finished a film?

Like I said, we had distribution in place when we made the film so that was great. Shoreline sold the film in foreign markets first. Our films do very well in Japan. I think it must be the animation / comic book influenced side in me that they respond to. Shoreline secured a deal for US domestic and Canada with Warner Bros.! We were very happy about WB and now you can buy the DVD almost anywhere.

Where can people find out more about “Guardians” or, better yet, buy a copy?

For more information about Guardians and the other films that we have produced and are working on:, is the easiest place to buy the DVD, but it is available at any major online retailer.

What’s next? Do you have any projects in the works? “Guardians” does set itself up for a sequel… you guys working on that?

Yes, we are extremely busy with our films and VFX work for various clients and producers. I have written and directed three films since we made Guardians and we have improved so much in that time. One of my films is called CARNIVOROUS and it was shot almost completely in front of a green screen. The film has over 2000 visual effects shots and it is currently a finalists for "Best Fantasy Feature Film" at Shockerfest. Carnivorous is not out yet on DVD until after the fests, but it should be soon. We are shooting our biggest film yet this fall. It is called SHADOWLANDS. It is a post-apocalyptic samurai monster movie. Should be really fun stuff. We are developing a TV series as well but I can't talk about that yet.

Drew continued on via email and I wanted to share some of his further thoughts...
When you make low-budget high concept films, it can be discouraging at times because when your modest film is on the shelves next to the 200 million dollar films, people expect the same outcome. People who don't like indie films can be unforgiving and quite harsh. I am proud of what we've accomplished on a budget that's probably less than a lunch budget for one of those 200 million dollar films. Guardians was a learning and growing experience for us. I want to encourage filmmakers to go for it. Don't let anyone or anything stop you if you love it. You will get better and better. It's not easy but nothing of value is.

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