Tuesday, November 24, 2009

#65. A Conversation with the Cast & Crew of "GODKILLER"

A Conversation with Writer-Director Matt Pizzolo & Actresses Danielle Harris, Tiffany Shepis, Katie Nisa, and Nicki Clyne about the creation of new illustrated film from Halo 8.

Jason Anders: So let's start with the creation of Godkiller- where did the idea first originate, and also, what were the first drafts of the graphic novel like? Were there any major changes made?

Matt Pizzolo: I first started tooling around with the world of Godkiller when I was on tour in Europe for my first film Threat. While visiting churches and museums, I was really struck by the juxtaposition of pagan art and Christian art. Especially in Italy and France, there's this enduring legacy of holy war in the art itself... I was fascinated by how religions and mythologies and cultures compete for disciples through art. And I was also struck by the similarities between Vatican City and Disneyland.

So I thought it would be fun to design a new mythology for f**k-ups and misfits. I called it Godkiller, because it seemed like each new mythology was trying to kill off the gods of previous mythologies... and so my story would begin with a character who was literally killing off the gods of previous mythologies.

I originally wanted to do it as an interactive movie built through a videogame engine, but I didn't know how to do that so it sort of languished.

Then a few years later I had the idea to make a comic book glamorizing organ stealing. I'd always wanted to make a tough crime movie, but the good ones are always about drug dealers (and I didn't want to make the gazillionth movie glamorizing drug dealers) or hitmen (yawn). So I settled on organ stealing, which I think is a particularly compelling concept beyond the shock value that gets play in CSI-type shows because it's such a visceral invasion of the body... it's so weirdly sexual and works as a metaphor on so many levels. Also it's ridiculously gross, which makes it a lot of fun to write about and nice and splattery for a comic book.

At some point, I integrated my duo of organ-stealing hookers Halfpipe and Angelf**k into the mythological world I'd previously mapped out for Godkiller. So I split Godkiller out into the graphic novel Godkiller: Walk Among Us (which is the part with the organ stealers, although organ stealing eventually took on a smaller role in the story) and the prequel novel Godkiller: Silent War (which covers the original mythology).

So to make a long story short (too late), it's all gone through a ton of changes... although fewer actual written drafts than any of my other projects. It's just been morphing around in the back of my head for a really long time.

My goal with it is to present heroes that don't behave heroically because it's their job to maintain the status quo or because they're bored and want to rescue a princess, they act heroically because they're regular misfits who are trying to do the best they can for each other in an unjust, f**ked up world.

JA: How did you become associated with Anna Muckcracker, and what was it like working with her to bring your story to life?

MP: Anna is fantastic. I met her online through Deviant Art. She hadn't done a lot when I saw her work and it was a huge leap of faith to bring her on the project, but I just saw something really unique and magical in her illustrations. Still, I couldn't possibly have predicted she would do such an incredible job bringing the world and the characters to life. At first I really wanted to micromanage her choices, but I didn't let myself and I'm really glad because she came up with a visual language for the story that's far beyond me. She's breathtakingly talented and she's super young so she's just getting started, I can't wait to see what she does next.

JA: An interesting concept in the illustrated film is the element of a radio drama- it's a wonderful combination of ideas that bring the story to life, but so unique that I am wondering how much difficulty you had in convincing people to go along with it. What sort of challenges did you face in bringing this project to the table?

MP: Well I've actually wanted to do a straight radio drama for a long time and I did a bunch of research on the format, but I could never convince anybody to go for it. I guess nobody dreams of being a radio drama star these days. So that research later informed the production decisions I made while designing the illustrated-film format. The only person I really had to convince of the viability of illustrated-films as a format was my partner Brian Giberson, because we were the ones who'd be making it up as we went. Everyone else just knew we were doing some weirdo style of animation. I mean, we didn't know from the get-go how much radio drama would influence the style... we were just juggling a bunch of stylistic influences and seeing what worked. I think the biggest challenges were to be flexible and adaptable and try different approaches until finding a successful solution for each obstacle. Also, I have a habit of making projects however I feel like making them... I'm constantly hearing "that's not how we do things in the business," so my projects can draw some quick criticism from industry professionals and critics. It's always a challenge to try something different and separate the constructive criticism from the snark to keep experimenting and honing it and making it work better.

JA: Tell me about the casting of voice actors, and what it was like to work with talents such as Danielle Harris, Nicki Clyne, Katie Nisa, and Tiffany Shepis.
MP: It was amazing and absolutely unexpected. I'd built a hilariously cheap recording studio in my office by filling a box with foam and placing a microphone inside it... the plan was to have our friends record the various voices and piece it together that way. Totally DIY. But we couldn't think of a friend who had the right voice for Mulciber. Partly as a joke, Brian and I decided to email Lance Henriksen's agent for the f**k of it. I think getting the thumbs-up from Lance might have been the most surprising experience of my life. So we just went with it, we made a list of our favorite actors for each character and we pretty much got our top picks for every role. I still don't know how it happened.
I think Danielle might have been one of our luckiest casting decisions, because Halfpipe really drives the heart of the story and it demanded a very dynamic voice performance. Danielle is a seasoned actress but she also has a lot of animated voiceover experience, so her performance took the whole thing to another level. And she was awesome to work with, totally down to earth and into doing something crazy.

Danielle Harris: Matt's great! You know, I got the script and read the title and went "umm, I don't know if I should do a movie called Godkiller... that might be pushing it a little bit". I actually played an organ stealing prostitute from the future. The artwork is absolutely amazing and the story is really different. Also being involved with Lance Henriksen, Bill Moseley, Nicki Clyne, and Tiffany Shepis was cool. I just thought it was really original, and I'm trying to kinda do different stuff now since I've done so many slasher movies.

MP: Nicki was another surprise. I'm a total Battlestar geek, and I always appreciated the range she brought to the Cally character. For Soledad, I wanted to do a twist on the convention of the battle-hardened bounty hunter, and part of that was casting Nicki who's super sweet but also has a real sharp intensity. Her performance is really fresh and crisp and naturalistic, exactly what I was hoping for the character- but even better since Nicki's so rad.
JA: So how did you become involved in and cast as Soledad for the film?

Nicki Clyne: It was one of those rare occasions where I actually got offered the role without auditioning. My agent received an email, asked me if I was interested, and that was that. Initially it was to play the role of Halfpipe, but by the time we responded, Danielle Harris had already been cast and recorded her part. She did a wonderful job. I think the casting worked out perfectly. I also think Soledad suits me better – you can’t let her youthful and innocent appearance fool you.

JA: What was it like working with Matt Pizzolo, and also, were you familiar with the graphic novel before getting involved in this project?

Nicki Clyne: The whole graphic novel scene is fairly new to me, but I’m finding it extremely cool and compelling. I may actually be working on some more motion comics in the coming months. And working with Matt was awesome. He’s an incredibly talented writer and director, and a super down-to-earth person. It was kind of an interesting scenario, though, because we spent a bunch of time together at Comic Con, promoting Godkiller and getting to know each other, before we went into the studio to record. So, I think I was little more self-conscious than I would have been otherwise; like, what if I suck and I’ve already signed a bunch of posters with my name on it? But once we got in the studio and I realized Matt and I were on the same page, it was breezy and fun.

JA: Was this your first time doing voice work? And how does it compare live action?

Nicki Clyne: Yes and no. I used to work on a live radio show and I’ve done my fair share of ADR, which is similar to voice work, but specifically creating a character and recording only the voice was definitely new territory. I realized during the process how dependent I am on gestures and physical nuances to express myself. It took some effort to focus all that energy into only my voice. It was also really hard to know whether I was doing a good job because there was no one to react to and no one reacting to me. It was like acting in a vacuum; the only affirmation I got was Matt saying, “okay cool, now do the next scene.” It did get a little awkward doing the fight scenes because I was flailing around fake fighting with myself trying to get the most accurate sounding grunts and heavy breathing. Eventually I told the guys to turn around and I just went for it. That worked much better. I’m really excited to see the finished product. It’s such a cool collaborative process – the art, the story, the voice, the effects, all have to be in harmony – and I like that complexity.

MP: Tiffany is fantastic to work with, she's so cool and she's a really good actress. She does more movies in a year than most stars do in their careers, so she's managed to get the acting chops of an elder actress while she's still young. And on top of that she's just a blast as a person, so she's totally one of my favorite people to work with.

Tiffany Shepis: I remember exactly where I was when I got the call from Matt to be involved with Godkiller. I was shopping in a grocery store and he called and was like..." hey I'm doing a animated thing...it's real weird...and we dont have any money, would you do a voice?" I was about to pretend we had a really bad connection, then he said it was called Godkiller and he was trying to get Danielle and Bill involved. I was like "cool, I'm in." It was as simple as that.

I was out of state, so my "working" with Matt basically was a phone conversation while I did the voiceover. I was not familiar with thte graphic novel... but am a fan now!

JA: Was this your first time doing voice work?

Tiffany Shepis: No, I did a character's voice in the Darrin Scott animated project The Night Driver. That was me and Jeffrey Combs... so far my voice-over co-stars have been top notch. How does it compare to live-action? Well for me the voice stuff is so new that it's really fun and easy! I mean I can wear sweat pants and no make-up and show up to work... this is awesome!

Katie Nisa: It was the first time doing narrative voice work - although I had done a small amount of commercial voice overs.
I tend to be a very physical person - and so my "live action" jobs tend to be pretty physical-so doing Godkiller was quite different! It was really fun to be able to pop in the studio and play. I must have been quite a sight in that booth, flailing around with my then pregnant belly!

MP: The funny thing about some of the voice performers you point out is that we wound up casting these really beautiful actresses in voice roles. It's almost counter-intuitive, because so many good-looking actors and actresses rely on their looks, so I think what's really unique about Danielle, Nicki, and Tiffany is that even though they're gorgeous- they're really skilled actors. It takes a lot of skill to channel character choices into a voice performance, especially one where the illustrations don't even move. This whole project lives and dies based on the acting performances, so it's a real testament to their acting abilities that this crazy thing works at all.

Katie Nisa: Matt and I have worked together for many years, since we made Threat together in New York. I met Brian through Matt several years ago. They are both so talented and crazy- I was beyond flattered when they asked me to participate in their latest project, and when I saw the amazing cast that I got to work with I felt like the luckiest girl in the world!

Tiffany Shepis: My character's name is Angelf**k... she's a crazy, mohawk wearing, prostitute, organ thief. She's pretty bad a**! I had no involvement in developing her, with the exception of my raspy morning voice- the rest was all Matt.

I have actually yet to see the final finished version of the film, but I've been hearing amazing things. Just look at the talent that they got involved with this: Mosley, Danielle, Nicki, Lance? That's genre gold right there... so I think Godkiller would have done fine if it was animated with stick figures.

Katie Nisa: Matt has always been an amazing ringmaster-so adept at assembling a hodge podge of vastly different people and managing to get them to work together-and he brings the best out in everyone. Founding Kings Mob was so organic-it just grew from Matt and my mutual respect and our desire to tell a story. He is a diplomat and has a genuine respect for the people he works with... so working with him is always inspiring!

JA: What are a few of your fondest memories during the production of the film?

MP: Every time I see a new page from Anna it blows my mind, especially when she makes a choice that surprises me, because she does a better job physicalizing my ideas than my own imagination can. Some of my favorites are her character designs for Halfpipe and the stuff she does with Dragos in Episode 3.

Also, it was really cool when Tim Seeley offered to do an alternate cover for Episode 1. I'm a big fan of Hack/Slash, so it was just awesome to begin with... and then it was wild to see Halfpipe and Angelf**k through his eyes. It's such a strange process... I created the characters with certain ideas in mind, then Anna designed them in a way that built upon some of my ideas and totally replaced others, then Danielle and Tiffany breathed life into the characters while I directed them in the studio, and then Tim re-envisioned them in his own style, but based on all these choices from me and Anna, Danielle, and Tiffany. I don't use the term "trippy" much but that's the only word I can think of to describe it... it's just really trippy and awesome.

It's also fun to see things develop... like Anna illustrated Issue 1 before Davey Havok was cast as Dragos, but he was already cast by the time she illustrated him in the final issue. Anna's character design for Dragos was nothing like what I originally imagined, it's probably the farthest from my original idea of any character. And when I looked at her character design it made me think of Davey. You can probably see pretty obviously in Issue 1 how the illustration would influence me to think of Davey, but it doesn't actually look like him. Then if you look at the last issue, you'll see that Anna totally had Davey in mind as Dragos when illustrating it. I think that's a cool example of what a fluid, collaborative process this is.

Tiffany Shepis: Fondest memory? (Laughs) Probably walking in to a Tucson Arizona sound studio and having to say "pussy" fifteen times. Mind you, this is in front of an older gentleman that usually does the VO's for the state fair. Pretty priceless.
Nicki Clyne: It’s a funny question considering the process of recording took all of about two hours. However, I had a really good time working with the Halo 8 crew and helping promote the film at Comic Con. It was a welcome and nice change to be working on a smaller, independent project where it takes effort and persistence to get the word out. You really have to be enrolled in an idea if you’re going to enroll others, so by the end, I was super enrolled; and I think so were a handful of Battlestar fans.

Katie Nisa: I was lucky enough to read off of a lot of the other actors in the film. Lance Henriksen and Bill Moseley both played their scenes with me through the glass instead of just reading lines- and it was a creepy, disturbing, absolute blast!

JA: The retail demand of the Godkiller DVD exceeded expectations so greatly that the street date had to be delayed; tell me about your thoughts on the final project and the public's reaction to the film.

MP: I'm completely astonished by the reaction to the film. It's already broken sales records for the company, and these episodic DVDs weren't even supposed to have a traditional commercial release... we just wanted to do them as limited editions for Comic Con and horror cons. The rough thing is we produce everything so under the gun that when a good problem like unexpectedly high retail orders happens, it can screw up our whole workflow. I mean, not only did we start adapting the comic into illustrated film before the comic was done, but each DVD gets set up at retail while we're still producing the episodes. In fact, we're finishing up the Episode 2 DVD and the comic pages for Episode 3 aren't even done yet. We make these things in realtime, so the production itself is really heavily affected by the public reaction. It's hard not to psyche yourself out when there is a public reaction to Episode 1 while you're working on Episode 2.

Overall, though, the reaction has really been a positive surprise. We wanted to do something different for a small niche audience, and it's always a dicey proposition to do something different... but it's being embraced, which is exciting--and on top of that it's being embraced by a larger audience than we expected. It's really cool but mostly it's really really surprising.

JA: Share your thoughts on the film project as a whole, from your initial first impressions of the idea for the film to your views of the final project.
Nicki Clyne: Well, when I initially got the offer, I looked over the concept and the art and thought it was really cool idea, so I said yes. Then a few days later, I read the script and was slightly horrified by all the violence and savagery, so much so that I decided to say no. But, for some reason, I had this lingering feeling that I hadn’t given it proper consideration, so I revisited the script and found a rather moving and socially relevant story underneath it all. I realized I had been superficial and reactive to the content, instead of looking at the overall process and moral principles it was trying to express. It was an interesting lesson: you can’t judge a comic by its organ-stealing prostitutes.

So, reluctantly, my poor agent called them back to find out if the offer was still there. Thankfully, it was. After that, Matt and I had a long conversation about the project (I think he was just making sure I wasn’t crazy and going to change my mind again) and I felt assured I was working with someone who shared a value of provoking people out of their comfort zones and exploring questions of humanity and prejudice. The verdict’s still out on whether he thinks I’m crazy or not.
Katie Nisa: Godkiller is an amazing story - lush, dark, and so well told. And I say well told becuase the illustrated film format really serves the story- the art is mind blowing. I mean, have you seen the comic book? And Matt has created this world that is so layered it manages to be fantastic and somehow stay true, you know?

JA: Did you have any backlash from religious groups based on the film's title?

NP: Not from actual religious organizations, but I've gotten an earful from a few religious individuals. We were also warned over and over again by distributors and sales reps that retailers won't carry something called Godkiller and we would have to change the name. We didn't ignore the advice so much as we decided that any retailer who'd pass based on the name would probably pass based on the content anyway, so why hide the fact that it's a transgressive film? And once again, we were surprised when the retailers proved everyone wrong by ordering it in numbers way higher than we expected in our most optimistic projections.
JA: Did you get to know any of your co-stars while working on the film?

Tiffany Shepis: No, I didn't get to meet or hang out with anybody. That's the one thing that sucks about the voice-over world is that you usually are locked in a room all alone... so sad. I have worked with Bill and Lance before, and have met Danielle many times, but have never had any scenes with her. Maybe next time.

JA: Tell me a little bit about your character, and any involvement you may have had in developing Soledad.

Nicki Clyne: I didn’t have much involvement in developing Soledad beyond what I brought to her voice. Everyone else had recorded their parts by the time I got in the recording studio, so I think Matt had a pretty clear idea of what he wanted and how it would fit with the rest of the picture. In the end, because most of the characters are a little extreme, we wanted to keep Soledad grounded and natural. Besides, she’s already so badass, trying to make her more so would have been trite. I just tried not to over-think it and paid close attention to the direction so I could be as precise as possible.

JA: And how about Rose?

Katie Nisa: Ah Rose. She's just got a job to do, you know? And she's burnt out and over it. Matt and Brian had me experiment with different takes on her, which is different than how I have approached characters in the past. There is one version of her where she sounds like Marge Simpson's chain smoking sister! I can't imagine why they didn't choose that version!

JA: What do you like most about making movies?

MP: I really love the collaborative process and the opportunity to work with artists who are brilliant and far more talented than I am... I get to be the conductor of an orchestra that's filled with my favorite creators, artists, and performers. Movies are a really unique artform in that way, despite marketing attempts to pedestalize stars or auteurs, no single person can take credit for a movie... it's always a team collaboration with a whole that transcends its parts. It can be pretty magical sometimes.

JA: What is next for the Godkiller series?

MP: The 3-part "Walk Among Us" story arc will be done in spring 2010, with a collected DVD of the whole movie. It ends in a cliffhanger, and we're going directly into production on the next story arc... we're also putting together some spinoff projects to bridge the gap. The "Silent War" early chapters are being previewed on the "Walk Among Us" DVDs, but the complete novel will be released in mid 2010. And since we all love the characters and the world so much, I'm sure we'll cook up more fun stuff. Our creative director, Aubrie Davis, has extended the Godkiller iconography into a fashion line and even convinced the voice performers to model it, which just totally blows my mind. I guess the next step would be building Godkiller churches or something... and then burning them down ourselves.



JA: If you had to sum up the Godkiller experience with one word, what would it be?

MP: Surprising.

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