I don't think it's possible to do a quick bio of Alec Gillis. His Twiiter (@alec_gillis) jokingly refers to him being an "Oscar losing make up and creature designer", however his work is the sort of stuff that will live on forever since he worked on films such as PREDATOR, TREMORS, DEATH BECOMES HER, ALIEN 3, STARSHIP TROOPERS, THE THING, ZOOKEEPER and X MEN FIST CLASS. He is a writer, director, producer and actor who seems to be so busy that one wonders when he sleeps. How he is finding the time to do interviews, let alone direct movies boggles my mind.
I love Mr. Gillis’s HARBINGER DOWN. I think it’s one of the coolest horror science fiction films of the last few years..( My review is here). The film is the story of what happens when a crabbing boat finds the remains of a Soviet space craft frozen in some ice. It isn’t giving anything away to say that there is a monster in mix and it soon is doing damage to everyone on board the ship.
When I finished the film I immediately emailed the PR people to beg and plead for a chance to talk to the director.
The chance to do so came about rather suddenly a couple of nights ago when I was told that Mr. Gillis would be available that day and next week for interviews, did I want a slot? I did, the trouble was that my schedule was such that I had no real availability- a couple of really cool things had popped up for the same time and I had turned those down. Cursing under my breath at my misfortune, but still wanting to talk to Mr. Gillis I took a shot in the dark and asked if he would be interested in answering a bunch of email questions. The answer came back was "yes".
What follows are my questions and Mr. Gillis’s answers. The turnaround time was rather fast with my sending out the questions not long before I went to bed and the replies coming soon after. Reading his replies I’m both happy that I got to cover a variety of subjects and a little sad because it’s clear that Mr. Gillis is the sort of guy I want to hold up with in some dark corner of a bar or diner and talk monsters and horror movies all night. Reading his answers it’s clear that had we spoken in person the interview would have almost instantly gone off the subject of his film and covered other subjects. Maybe somewhere down the line when Mr. Gillis and myself are in the same place at the same time we can sit and talk and see where it goes.
Before I turn you over to the questions I’d like to thank David Roberson for setting this up and for Mr. Gillis for taking the time to answer a lot of questions.
STEVE: HARBINGER DOWN is being heavily promoted as a return to all practical effects films. Why was it so important for you to do it that way? I recently spoke with director John Wildman about the use of practical effects in his film LADIES OF THE HOUSE and he said it was partly budgetary and partly the feat that he couldn't know what the computer people were going to do until later and he might not be able to fix it. Did any of that enter into your choice?
ALEC: PFX are always my first choice. True, they are less costly to create, but they also often look more real. They give you a result that looks organic because a certain amount of what happens when you puppeteer is out of your control, and that gives you an unexpected edge over the synthetic feel of some CGI.
STEVE: What, in your opinion, is so wrong with computer generated effects?
ALEC:There's nothing 'wrong' with CGI per se. Much artistry goes into digital imagery. It's the over saturation of CGI in movies that I'm pushing back against. Why should a director be limited to only one tool in his tool box? I support the use of CGI, but I'm against the suppression of PFX. Most digital artists I know favor a mix of techniques. I think that's where the best results lie.
STEVE: Were there any places where you had to use CG effects?
ALEC: We kept our promise to our Kickstarter pledgers : There are NO CGI MONSTERS in the film. We used CG as a support tool. Wire/rod removal, compositing, lensflares. The other aspect of PFX were the miniature ships, ice scapes and ship interiors.
STEVE: I've read a couple of comments in reviews and talk back sections (mostly there) where some people moaned that the effects would have been better if computers had been used. Do you think that some audiences or at least audience members can't cope with movie reality when not focused through a computer?
ALEC:I'd challenge anyone to take our budget and get as realistic a look out of the computer as we did with PFX. But for sure, there are folks who would rather watch CGI just as there are those who adore PFX. HARBINGER DOWN is for fans of analog!
STEVE:One of the downsides to using practical effects is that you have to be very careful with lighting or else you reveal too much. HARBINGER seems to have been shot with no real manipulation of lighting, everything seems to be lit with light from the location. Was there any temptation to (or did you) manipulate the lighting to hide any flaws or did you feel it was important to keep the lighting as close to "real" as possible?
ALEC: Along with DP Benjamin Brown, I wanted the ship interiors to be lit with intrinsic, practical lights, just like a real ship would have. Sometimes the scenes are lit with nothing much more than a flashlight. I'm of the philosophy that what you don't see is as scary as what you do see. I like slimy highlights popping against deep shadowy blacks. We used light and shadow to shroud the shape and let you see just enough of what lurks in the dark.
STEVE With the success of the use of practical effects in the film, do think that other filmmakers will move back to using them?
ALEC: There are plenty of directors who love PFX, but on the big studio movies they tend to get steam rolled by studios who prefer the digital approach (to hear why, watch this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qdDwrY5KpvI). HARBINGER DOWN is a tiny film, that is but a small part of the PFX renaissance. It'll take big guns like JJ Abrams and Guillermo Del Toro to make the studios listen to the fans. Until that happens I hope to keep making PFX heavy low bujjers.
STEVE You used a found footage-esque style in the pre-credits sequence and then you dispense with it. Why did did you do the switch? (What are you feelings if any, on the growing found footage "genre?")
ALEC:The 'first person' footage at the beginning was an economical way to get the story started, establish characters and move on. I used it sporadically. It's picked up again when Stephen (Matt Winston) gives his pompous report on the discovery of the frozen wreckage. We see it again when Sadie looks at the whales underwater, and after Capt. Graff (Lance Henriksen) trumps Stephen by awarding Sadie salvage rights. Straight up found footage films have gotten a tad tiresome in my opinion, but I do like mixing POVs and image sources.
STEVE: The film seems to echo and riff on any number of earlier horror films but the film then plays off them to send the story into unexpected directions. How much of the references was intentional and how much was unintentional?
ALEC: Being a love letter to '80's sci-fi horror, it is all intentional. Not only are there easter egg references to ALIEN and THE THING, but lines of dialogue are borrowed ('Voodoo bullshit!' for example). The characters are all '80's archetypes, and I tried to add some quirk to them that you don't see in big studio films. Hopefully the astute viewer sees that this is a fond homage to a time period many of us miss. If you don't miss '80's sci fi horror, you'll probably think the film is a blatant rip off.
STEVE: While the situations in the script can be seen as riffs on other films, one of the strongest parts of the films is that the characters are not typical horror movie fodder. You can't chart the arcs of the characters two seconds after meeting them and everyone steps up in someway to do something atypical for the genre. How important was that to you have happen in the film? Did you have to fight the urge to go cliche?
ALEC: I'm glad you see this aspect. There are detractors who take the opposite stance. Every single character is an archetype, but given that, my intent was to show an aspect of them that played against type. 'Bad guys' are not completely bad and 'good guys' have flaws. In fact, if you made the movie from Svet and Stephens POV, Sadie and Graff are the bad guys! But there's a Hollywood rule that your main character can't be the one who causes the problem. That's a rule I was dying to break. Sadie is actually to blame for all the misery. She opened Pandora's box. By the end I wanted her drifting alone on an ice floe, shattered by what she caused. I really respect Frank Darabont for sticking to his guns on THE MIST. The main character makes mistake after mistake until his ultimate misjudgement at the end.
STEVE: The casting of the film is among the most solid I've seen in a genre film over the past couple of years. How did you go about casting the film? Did you have actors in mind as you put it together or did it all just fall into place?
ALEC:I knew most of the actors and had wanted to work with them. Lance, of course, is a friend and I've been wanting to direct him for a long time. We've worked together on about 11 movies starting with ALIENS and he's always encouraged my directing efforts. His part as well as the roles played by Camille Balsamo, Reid Collums, Milla Bjorn, and Matt Winston were written specifically for those actors. The rest of the cast we found through the casting process. Jason Speer and Kraig Sturtz were Kickstarter pledgers, who did a great job in their roles.
STEVE Was there anything you wanted to do in the film but couldn't? What was it and why didn't it end up in the film?
ALEC: Too many things to list! Our budget was so tight we had to run from set up to set up. The fight between Big G and the Svet creature was about 3 pages long and I had about 4 hours to shoot it. I had to truncate it terribly. Also wanted to build a Rob Bottin style animatronic puppet of Stephen and Dock for their transformations and deaths, but I just couldn't afford it. I'm just getting to the point where I accept the films flaws and can focus on what works well.
STEVE: Will you look to make a sequel or are you going to go in a completely new direction with the next film?
ALEC: This was a blast and I loved every aspect, but I think the next film will be forward looking rather than a fond look back.
STEVE: You did this film on your "own" with help from Kickstarter. Do you think that gave you greater freedom than if you went the conventional financing route?
ALEC: Absolutely. The pledgers made this happen. No investor looking to simply make a buck would get behind this niche film. And we were very lucky to find Sultan Saeed Al Darmaki of Dark Dunes to bring more funds to the project. He really put us over the top in terms of production value.
STEVE: Several big filmmakers such as Spike Lee have used Kickstarter or similar sites to finance their movies. Do you think that their arrival at the pool limits money for smaller filmmakers such as yourself?
ALEC: No, I think their presence raised awareness about crowdfunding which helped this project.
STEVE: The film was released to theaters and on VOD a very short time before the film was released to DVD. What do you think of this new way to release smaller films? Do you think it makes things harder or easier to get your film in front of the public and turn a profit?
ALEC: Honestly, the theatrical release is for bragging rights to help increase the sales on VOD. I think the movie looks and sounds great in a big theater, but this kind of film is just right for VOD and DVD. 'm a believer in knowing exactly who you are. We're a cool, old school B movie and as a Roger Corman alum, I'm proud of that!
STEVE: Horror films today are almost assumed to to be R rated out of the box. When you were making HARBINGER did you worry about what the the rating would be or did you just make the film you wanted to make? Also do you pay attention to a film's rating when you see it or do you just see what interests you?
ALEC: I didn't worry too much about ratings. In tone I was thinking more about ALIENS. That film is more fun than THE THING and ALIEN, but perhaps less scary. It also isn't excessively gory. But as I said, if I had the budget for more human carnage I would have used it.
STEVE: Do you feel that horror needs to be graphic to work (blood and guts) or do you want less graphic horror? I like high impact splatter and gore.
ALEC: Prolonged torture doesn't do it for me. It never seems to sustain itself in horror. Drawn out gore works in war films like SAVING PRIVATE RYAN, but I never quite believe it in horror. I don't really know why.
STEVE: What are your favorite horror movies?
ALEC: Old: HUSH HUSH SWEET CHARLOTTE, FRANKENSTEIN, ALIEN, THE THING Newer: both RING movies, both LET THE RIGHT ONE IN movies
STEVE: What are your favorite movie monsters?
ALEC: THE BLOB (both), MONOLITH MONSTERS, 20 MILLION MILES TO EARTH, TREMORS, FRANKENSTEIN, ALIEN, THING, where do I stop?
STEVE: What are your favorite films and directors?
ALEC:Scorsese, the Coens, Nolan, Fincher
STEVE: What do you watch just to relax?
ALEC: I could probably watch the original PLANET OF THE APES 3 times a week.
STEVE: Whats your favorite moment in a horror film? Whats the one shot, scene, ect that you think is the coolest or scariest?
ALEC: Those are mostly childhood memories. There's some friggin' Fellini movie with a little girl on pier who has her back to camera and she turns around and her face is horrific in some way. Probably silly tissue and latex but it melted my brain when I was 6. I sometimes confuse it with scenes from Roeg's DON'T LOOK KNOW. There were also some very creepy moments in THE OUTER LIMITS. Donald Pleasance with a cloud of negative energy roiling over his head, or Robert Culp seeing a Venutian outside his spaceship. TWILIGHT ZONE had that damn gremlin at the window of the plane. These are the childhood horror moments we seek to recreate.
STEVE: Do you expect or hope to see HARBINGER DOWN action figures and tie in down the road?
ALEC: Never! But if we can earn a spot in the hearts of monster fans I'll be happy.