Arrow Video Frightfest Interview: Chuck Steel director Mike Mort Matthew Hammond August 27, 2018 Editor's Choice, Film4 Frightfest, Interviews, London, London Interviews 353 Movie Ramblings were lucky enough to sit down and chat with Chuck Steel: Night of the Trampires director Mike Mort about his sensational stop motion ode to the best of 80s action, horror and irreverence; talking about the process of getting a feature like this off the ground, the cinematic inspirations behind it and the future for the character’s universe to expand in the future… MR: I’ve been doing Frightfest for a number of years now and I still remember you bringing the trailer for this film to the festival five years ago, and just the reaction of the whole audience lifting and wanting to be involved was an experience I remember well. So to finally see the completed production on the big screen, it was remarkable to feel that sensation again as the audience was utterly rapt throughout. Mike Mort: That was the challenge really, to not let anyone down after the short film and trailer, because getting that to work in an hour and half was a huge challenge. It’s quite an exhausting film to watch, as it is just so relentless. MR: For me personally the sheer scale of the film was phenomenal. After watching the short film, seeing it open up into a full cityscape with the quantity of expanded locations just showed the ambition on display. MM: We really wanted to make it feel big. I still look at some of the exterior scenes and I know we struggled budget wise and actually space wise in the studio to create what I originally envisioned which was to build a lot of actual LA street spaces. I wanted to build the Sunset Strip, but I think we succeeded in using what we had to create the sense of a larger cityscape. MR: In terms of the transition from the original short film, Raging Balls of Steel Fire, to the feature length production, were there any particular challenges on the short that changed the way you approached Night of the Trampires? MM: I’m not sure really. On the short film, I knew what I wanted to do, but there was a chance for experimenting with ideas, which we then led through into the feature film. For example we added handheld camera wobbles and lens flares in post production to make the film feel like had been shot back in the Eighties. Getting that right level of exposure on certain shots, particularly on the city scenes at night where we kept everything purposefully dark, which is something we experimented with on the opening scene of the short film where the city is reduced to just an array of twinkling lights. It was such a simple shot that it feels like you’ve got a greater expanse before you. It was about making the film feel big but embrace the darkness, shadows and all the pinpoints of light you get in those older films where they were exposing on film, and you wouldn’t see everything that you currently see in films. You see everything now, and it’s almost too much; so luckily that style of filmmaking helped us create something that gave the impression of large scale…when there actually wasn’t much there. MR: As a fan of 80s cinema, it’s a treat to see the sheer love and attentive reference to the action films of that era. It’s just so inviting; was that feeling something you always wanted create immediately for the audience? MM: Yeah, it was very important to do that. We knew we had to start the film with a bang, so after sowing the seeds of the Trampires in the very first scene, we wanted to introduce Chuck to the world again and show just how ludicrous his world is. Action films have become so huge now, and everything has been done; but there is something about seeing this stuff in stop motion, there is an innocence and a charm to it that makes you smile. Even when you go violent and crazy with it…it’s puppets. One of the things I really wanted to do with the film was retain a bit of that innocence, and though there are some crude jokes in there which may offend some people, I didn’t want to go in make it as shocking and nasty as possible. I wanted the tone to be silly. MR: Yeah, what I really enjoyed about the humour was the fact it never felt cruel or to the expense of anyone; rather, it poked fun at the perspective of that time and the characters within that, like Chuck. MM: Exactly, every character in the film is a fool, and there is no one person that is picked on, so everyone is fair game. You’re laughing at liberal agendas, you’re laughing at macho behaviour. I wasn’t doing to wind anyone up, I just wanted to take things less seriously. MR: Were there any particular films that inspired the creation of Chuck? MM: A lot of Stallone films. Cobra was a big influence in particular. When I made the short film, I went back and revisited a lot of those Stallone films and Steven Seagal films, and looked at how they were shot, how they were lit, and tried to mirror that. Watching them again so long after they were first released, it was like they were a different film; they have become comedies because they are so out there in terms of their macho behaviour, which you don’t quite get now. So I wanted to make Chuck even more macho and ridiculous, then totally undercut it at some point and find out why he’s so angry, which hopefully makes you understand him a little more so you’re on his side when all the crap comes his way. MR: Was the production very concurrent over the five years, or was it more stop start depending on time and funding? MM: No, once it started it was pretty much continuous. The shooting was about three years, setting up the studio and building was about a year, and it was almost a year of post production after. So it’s taken longer than it should have, but we did it in a way different to other stop motion productions. Other productions often have more money, more crew and more management structures to get the footage out. We had a smaller crew and less money, so we shot for longer. It ended up that we spent less but we shot for longer, which I have no idea how we managed, and ultimately we ended up with about a 1000 more shots than most stop motion films. I wanted it to feel like an action movie with a lot of quick cuts, which crucial to establishing the style and I didn’t want to comprise that feel in the film. MR: In terms of the stop motion itself, taking that time was perfect as the result is so incredibly smooth that you almost go “oh my god, this is stop motion?!” MM: Yeah, we wanted to make it feel like you were watching a live action film. People have said they forgot they were watching stop motion, and I think that’s because of how it’s shot, animated and the fact it cuts like a live action film. We shot at 24 frames per second to get that slickness, but we also then added a post production motion blur to every shot, which worked really well in selling that live action motion. MR: Was there a lot of improvisation of ideas during production, or was it quite strict to the original set up and ideas? MM: When I look back to the original script, we did change things a little bit but not massively. I quite like winging it sometimes, which is not the way to make a stop motion feature, but it was a more live action approach, which worked with the action scenes where you’ve got the things in front of you but you come up with an idea that’s better than what you’ve got on the storyboard, so you do change and add things. The storyboard never tells the full picture; for example, with the battle scenes at the conclusion, you’ve got the storyboard of two characters fighting or running around, but the reality is there are two characters fighting in the foreground…and 50 characters fighting in the background. We did a couple of repeat backgrounds to save time on animation, but generally, with the changing angles and action we wanted to present, we pretty moved all the characters uniquely and distinctly on every one of the shots. MR: Do you have a personal favourite moment within the film? MM: The karate fight with the clowns I really like. When the action kicks off at the end and Chuck says something like “We’re going to the Circus, fudge suckers”, from that point on it’s all ramping up to the big finale and that’s my favourite bit, when it’s just heading towards that craziness. MR: And that finale really brings the action and horror colliding in such a tremendously fun way, with so many influences on display, from Hammer Horror to The Thing, and characters like Van Rental really stealing the show. MM: I love Fright Night as a film, so Van Rental is a cross between Roddy McDowell and Peter Cushing from At The Earth’s Core; those are the two things I melded for that. He’s a fun character, and it would be nice to do a spin off with him. MR: Speaking of spin offs, I loved the unfortunate rookie partners of Chuck and absolutely want an Officer Cheese plant prequel! MM: To be honest, that was one of the absurd jokes in the film that I thought will anyone get it and is it just too silly? There was an earlier draft where Chuck really does his best to keep his partner alive, but it just milked too much and went on for too long. So that was just an absurdist thing I liked and I’m really glad we kept it in. MR: Is there any scope for more Chuck Steel? MM: I’d love to do some more. I have ideas for more, but it depends on how the film goes down with the general public. It’s an independent film, but it’s neither a tiny low budget film or a massive film, it’s in that tricky middle area so we really need it to do well distribution wise to do another one. It’s easy for something like this to become a cult film, but hopefully it will find an audience quickly, both in the UK and overseas. It is a genre film, it is stop motion, and it is a bit out there, but I hope enough people enjoy it so we can add another adventure with a sequel. MR: Do you have any other projects on the horizon? MM: We’re working on about six other concepts currently, but they are at very early stages and everything is dependant on where this leads. If we get good distribution on it, we’re in a good place; If we don’t, we will still move forward on them, but it will be a tougher ride. MR: I personally think it’s a film that deserves to succeed and find an audience, because it’s a real crowdpleaser and just a fantastically well made film that captures the spirit of that particular time. It’s not pushing an agenda, it’s just having a blast. MM: I just wanted it to be a fun ride. It’s my first feature film that I’ve directed, my first feature script that’s got made. This is a learning curve for me to see what works, what the audience likes with this character, and I haven’t set out to offend anyone, particularly in this current climate. I do think it’s a film that if you take in the right spirit is a lot of fun. I’ve got an idea for sequel which is probably going to have a few more problems, but again, it’s everyone that’s gonna be a fool in it. That’s kinda my view on the world: we’re all just a bunch of bumbling fools, trying to get through stuff, achieve things, get somewhere, and then f**k it up and try again. That’s what I wanted to imbue in the characters; they are just idiots trying to get by. MR: Thank you so much for your time, Mike. I hope the film receives the acclaim and popularity it deserves, and I wish you the best of luck ahead in the future. I can’t wait to watch the film all over again.