Running the Asylum: Part I
From monsters to mockbusters: the art of the D.I.Y. moviemaker.
By Holly Grigg-Spall.
Although previously relying on DVD rentals via Blockbuster or RedBox and marketing off the back of their fantastic titles, B-movie style art work, and cult following, the company now concentrates on VOD, a partnership with the SciFi channel, and making movies to the specifications of their buyers. So, if a Japanese buyer wants a movie with a giant squid, and SciFi wants a movie with a submarine – they’ll make a movie that has a submarine being attacked by a giant squid. That’s good business sense.
The Asylum began as solely a horror movie-making company but now they turn out everything from the disaster “mockbuster,” as they’re affectionately known, to the western. You may have come across Titanic II, Snakes on a Train, Mega Piranha, Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus, or 2-Headed Shark Attack whilst scrolling through the VOD offerings – The Asylum made them all and made them fast. In an industry where millions get lost from a bad weekend opening, here’s a formula that ensures no one loses a dime.
David Latt, one of the founders of the company and hands-on head of production explains, “We don’t make movies for more than we sell them. We’re a cash flow company so if we don’t make sales that month we go out of business. The money we make goes into the next movie.”
Who better then to offer up advice on how to be a DIY moviemaker? In the following series of interviews the inmates will offer their expertise in the form of their top tips for turning around a feature, be it a sci-fi horror like 2013’s Sharknado or a romantic comedy.
Micho Rutare, Development Director
1) Every writer has a different story as to how they came to work for The Asylum. Some have had a relationship with the company for years prior to me joining as Development Director or are friends of friends of friends; but some I’ve met at various pitch events around Los Angeles that I attend to gather new writers and new ideas and one or two have come from cold emails even.
2) With new writers that approach me, I have to be taken in by their writing samples. They don’t need to blow me away, but the first ten pages should have something distinctive and interesting.
3) I’m a stickler for structure, and I’m anal about grammar, mechanics, formatting, etc. All of these things contribute to the general flow of the writing, what I call “page feel.” You could have the best ideas in the world, but if your script is laborious to read, I tend to not read it. We make two movies a month (at least), so I can’t slave away over spec scripts.
4) A lot of writers tend to be pricks. I’ll put up with a little bit of this as I see it’s a byproduct of creative introversion, especially among males, but these days I don’t have as much tolerance as I used to. I treasure people who are easygoing, who listen, and who take criticism well.
5) Often the initial idea and title for a movie will come from the film markets. The partners at The Asylum will pre-sell an idea, then come back to me and say, “Okay. We’re making 2-Headed Shark Attack. Now let’s figure out what the story is.” That’s when I’ll turn to my pool of writers to come up with the best screenplay. For our TV movies, often the writers will pitch the ideas themselves. Sometimes I’ll come up with a logline or treatment then hand it off to a writer.
6) What we pay the writers depends on our budget for the movie and that does vary. However the writer typically makes four to five figures for a script.
Devin Ward, Line Producer
1. You can never do enough pre-production. At some point you have to commit and shoot the film but production gets expensive when you have to react to the unknown on set. Sourcing a 1000 gallon dump tank on a Sunday is possible, it’s just going to be very expensive. Better to know what’s coming down the pipe and prepare for it efficiently.
2. A good 1st AD is crucial. An AD that understands the production will be able to save the production time and money by adapting to the day-by-day production challenges. Missing big elements as scheduled and having to push them to other days in the schedule always costs money.
3. This is probably said a lot, but good communication is absolutely essentially. There really is no such thing as a stupid question on set and I’d much rather be redundant in passing along information then assume that a particular person knows what’s going on.
4. Having a good script supervisor on your team will save you time and money. It’s incredibly frustrating having to carve time out of a packed schedule to reshoot something because of continuity errors that shouldn’t have happened.
5. The most difficult part of line producing is knowing when to okay going over budget in certain areas and that’s really something you just learn from doing it. A good line producer can tell when it’s okay to go into OT to get a particular shot versus wrapping and picking it up the next day or later in the schedule. The best way to do that is to know the script like the back of your hand. There’s a huge distinction between running a show into overtime to get a crucial story beat or big FX sequence and going long to get some inserts of something that can really be done without. On Sharknado there were several days we had to go long because we were mid-way through a big stunt sequence. It’s much cheaper to take a little OT and finish the scene then try and come back to it the next day.
Alexander Yellen, DOP
1) Take advantage of current technology and don’t be afraid to steal. I’m not really advocating theft but today’s cameras are smaller and more light sensitive than ever, which allows you to call less attention to yourself than ever. This helps immensely with addressing both grand locations and extras. Only the most savvy observer will know that you’re shooting a movie and not vacation photos, especially if you can swing a couple of lav mics for you actors. You can take a small group and a DSLR (or stripped-down Epic, or Black Magic, etc.) to all kinds of places without really being noticed. I’ve done public beaches, public transit, sporting events, national parks and monuments, all places that look expensive and have crowds of people. Once you’ve established your actors in that expensive location you can shoot the close-ups almost anywhere and the mind connects the two spaces. Just don’t call attention to yourself with boom poles and bounce boards or other lighting. If you can afford to pay for permits and location fees you should, and you should always have a Plan B as getting kicked out definitely happens, but taking some chances often yields footage that looks like it cost a fortune.
2) Move the camera. Any movement in any direction (lateral, in-and-out, up and down) adds huge production value. And while smooth is nice, it’s not absolutely necessary. Look at the Bourne movies. That camera is very shaky and it still feels big budget. So you can hand hold if you want. If you can’t afford a dolly you can build one with some PVC pipe, some skateboard wheels and some hardware. I’ve seen one made from an extension ladder. Or use a skateboard, or a car, or a wheel chair, or a sand bag on a smooth surface – just move the camera. If you can afford a jib, even the cheapest model, it’s worth it to add some vertical movement. You can use ropes and pulleys but it’s a much harder and more delicate process and keeping the camera pointed in the right direction can be tricky.
3) Elevate. Getting the camera up high and looking down gives a very high value feel to something as it’s something people really only get to see if they spend money, except people in New York. The so-called “epic wide” is usually from a high angle. So get up in a tall building, the roof of a parking garage, an exterior hotel glass elevator, a upstairs window, a tall ladder, whatever, just get up there and tie in your principal subjects whenever possible.
4) The art department is your best friend. A blown-out window dominating your frame can look low-budget. Blown out sheer curtains look romantic and whimsical. Blank white walls giving you problems? A picture or a painting make all the difference. Putting a patterned object in front of your light like a milk crate, or some lace, or a couple of class bottles throws shadows to create an interesting pattern. Space feeling small and flat? Add interesting objects in the foreground of the shot. Anything that adds texture, depth, or makes the space feel less like an empty room or 3-walled set is a good thing and creative use of set dressing is an invaluable tool in that fight.
5) Make it a style, whatever ‘it’ is. If you don’t have enough light to challenge the sun or light a big space, embrace darkness and contrast. If you have dull sets, use interesting angles and staging, or center-punch everything, or short-side everybody. If you do something in one scene or shot, people will think it was an accident or an experiment. If you do it consistently throughout a film, now it’s a conscious choice and therefore a style. People will think it was bold and respect that choice, whether or not they actually like it. This is obviously something that the director should weigh in on, but remember that the story should dictate the cinematography, not the other way around. If your shots distract from the story rather than enhance the experience of it, you’re not doing your job. But there are an infinite number of options when making a movie so explore them, use what’s around you, get creative, and most importantly have fun.
Continue to Part II, including interviews with Kalie Acheson (Production Designer), Robert Stuvland (Post-Production), Joseph Lawson (VFX Supervisor), and Gerald Webb (Casting Director).