FAN FILM FRIDAY: An Interview With Michael Cox

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A couple of weeks back, I ran "Star Wars Downunder" as a Fan Film friday offering. Well, instead of a new film, I have the pleasure of presenting to you an interview we 'bots conducted with that film's creator, Michael Cox. We are much obliged to him for taking the time from his busy schedule to reply to some questions we put to him about how he made the film.

Welcome to Republibot, Mr. Cox, we're delighted to be able to interview you about your film "Star Wars Downunder." As part of my job here at the site, I've watched a *lot* of fan films, and yours is far and away the most amazing thing I've seen. It's really high quality and it's got a coherent and funny plot, which is quite a hat trick to pull off. And you managed to pack a lot of film into thirty minutes.

Now, according to your Web page, you've pretty much made this film in you spare time, when you weren't working doing VFX for international clients such as The Discovery Channel, as well as a number of Australian production companies. How did you come up with the concept for "Star Wars Downunder," and how did you go about pulling it all together? You've got some really impressive cinamatography in there. What inspired you to make this film?

Michael Cox: The original inspiration for the film goes way back to seeing “Troops” for the first time, which was for me at least, the birth of the Star Wars fan film. So my friend Bryan Meakin and I decided, if people were doing this, why couldn’t we. We originally had an idea for something much larger in scope, that we had started working on, when the announcement to make Episode 2 in Australia was made. We were initially very concerned at this news, fearing that the whole movie would be full of broad Australian accents, thus bringing the Galaxy far far away, too close to home. So based on that fear, we pondered what it would be like if things went way too far, and the entire thing was “Australianised”. Thus Star Wars Downunder was born. So we set about researching every Australian cliche known to man, and crammed them into a script.

The other inspiration for doing the film was to try and up the ante from other fan films, in terms of production values. So we decided to shot on 35mm film, (shooting left over short ends donated to us from local production companies) and feature certain types of visual effects that other fan films weren't doing, like motion captured character animation. As far as I know, this is still pretty rare for a fan film.

Republibot 4: And it's one of the main reasons your film is so outstanding. Most fan films are "labors of love," and look it. But yours looks very professional. I have to ask--what was your budget on this film, and how did you go about securing it?

MC: The budget for the film was virtually non existent. The only real cost was getting film processed and transferred to video tape. That probably totalled about $8000, which we split between myself, Bryan(co-writer, Director of Photography) and my brother Matt (Editor, Camera Operator). Everything else was just peoples' time. No-one was paid. We found actors looking for some experience. Stuntmen who were between jobs. Film students who were keen to assist with setting up lights and pushing dollies. And the list goes on. When it came to post-production, that also just came down to time. A *lot* of time. I basically taught myself the appropriate software, to get it done.

As far as a professional looking film goes. Bryan, Matt and myself, are equal parts budding film makers as we are Star Wars fans, So we tried to make the thing as professional looking as possible.

R4: It looks like your actors had an absolute blast making this. Was it fun to make?

MC: The shoot was a lot of fun. It was spread out over 6 months. Mainly on weekends, as everyone had jobs to go to. So while we worked hard when we were shooting there was always a week or 2 off in between in shoots. So there wasn’t a huge amount of pressure on anyone. David and Steve the lead actors seemed to enjoy themselves. However by the time you would get to 2am in the morning, some of the extras would start to grumble, and rightly so really.

R4: The sound design is just fall-down gorgeous. How much of the music was canned, and how much of it was original? (And if original, how the heck did you put it together?)

MC: Sadly, the music is one area that wasn’t original. I did have hopes of getting an original score (I contemplated doing myself at one point, before I realised I wasn't talented enough) so I settled on Music library material for the music. I still think it works though. The funny thing is, I’ll be watching a David Attenborough documentary about the Galapagos Islands or a special feature on a Doctor Who DVD, and I’ll hear Merve's theme playing away in the background. Obviously the BBC are using the same library!

The rest of the sound design comes from researching pretty much what Ben Burtt did. We made our own versions of the lightsabers and lasers, rather than just take them from a Lucasfilm sound fx library.

R4: That's another hallmark of your film--you used a LOT of originality in your designs, you weren't just grabbing other people's models off the shelf here. And even though the story is set in the Star Wars universe, and is a parody film, it really stands on its own as a story. The designs of your ships, characters, structures--everything--looks vaguely familiar, but it's completely your own. Except for the word "Jedi" it really doesn't borrow much from the other films at all. Is there a reason you went so impressively original? And what did you draw on for inspiration?

MC: I wondered if making it original in terms of design would be a good or a bad thing. Would fan film viewers still be interested if it didn’t have Star Destroyers or Stormtroopers in it? My thinking on the matter is, even though it is a parody film of sorts, I still wanted the film to have it’s own reality and that it could conceivably happen in some corner of the Star Wars universe. So why not have new vehicles and concepts, that are still in keeping with the greater Star Wars look. And it was a lot of fun designing new vehicles, and would look better on my showreel than using the same old X-Wings and stuff.

Also when we started out, the legal standpoint of fan films was still in question, so if we ran into trouble, we could bleep out the use of the word Jedi, and redesign X4-VBs head, and we would be in the clear!

I drew inspiration primarily from the Star Wars look obviously, but there are a few other easter eggs in terms of design inspiration. Nugget is based heavily on the look of a cane toad, a nasty pest in this part of Australia. The ute speeders paint job is based on the yellow interceptor from Mad Max. The stormtroopers are based around a famous Australian outlaw: Ned Kelly.

R4: Really? And here I'd thought they were supposed to look like walking beer cans! (laughs) I really love the sight gags. Some of the stuff you did with X4 had me laughing out loud. The "lightboomerangs" were just brilliant. I cracked up when Merv stepped over the dead guy to mourn the empty can of beer. I must confess, I didn't get *all* of the jokes, but that didn't take away from my enjoyment of the film.

Would you say that this film comes from a uniquely Australian sensibility?

MC: The film treads a fine between being a parody of Australian culture, but also being quite genuine in it’s portrayal of Australians. For example, there is a laid back nature to the central characters, Merve, Burko, Bluey, and Nugget (except when it comes to their love of beer) that captures the Australian spirit fairly genuinely.

On the other hand, some of the over the top clichéd language used in the film, isn’t really spoken by anyone anymore and is where the film starts to tread more into the realms of parody. This comes back to the original idea of the film, which is what the international cliched view of Australia is. For example, the episode of "The Simpsons" that was set in Australia is so far from the reality of Australia and based on some antiquated notions of what goes on here. So the film is also playing with that idea as well.

R4: Are you a big science fiction fan? If so, what are some of your favorites?

MC: Yes I am. Star Wars (obviously), Doctor Who, BSG (old and new) are probably my main loves, but one look at my DVD collection and you’ll see plenty more. Star Trek, Red Dwarf, Space 1999, Blakes 7, Buck Rogers and the rest.

R4: If you had a time machine, and could get them to make ONE MORE SEASON of any classic SF show, following its cancellation - like, say Star Trek:TOS Season 4, for instance - what would it be?

MC: Galactica: 1980 series 2? Just kidding. I’m not sure if this is eligible, but I would have loved to have seen more Paul McGann Doctor Who in the mid 90’s.

R4: I knew I liked you for a reason...! (grins) Do you have any opinion why some franchises become so rife with fanfilms, while others don't? I mean, Star Wars and Star Trek and Dr. Who I get -- they're HUGELY popular, and who wouldn't really give their eyeteeth to play in that garden, but why no Stargate fan films, or Babylon 5 fan films? And believe me, I've tried to find some for the site. Why do some very-nearly-equally-popular franchises gain this kind of attention, while others don't? Just curious...

MC: Perhaps the simple answer is that the bigger franchises get more attention and touch a broader part of the community which may include budding filmmakers. Also it may come down to what’s achievable. Take Star Wars for example, if you want an army of Stormtroopers in your film, just call your local 501st. If I wanted costumes for a Stargate epic, I’m pretty sure there’s no one in my local area who could help me out.

R4: Yeah, I kinda figured it had something to do with the availability of props. Hey, while we're on the subject--what are *your* favorite fan films? Are there any fan films - or simply youtube-based indie filmmakers - in Australia that we should be paying attention to? Who do you recommend?

MC: My favorites? A boring answer for this one. Troops and Hardware Wars. As far as Australian fan films go, there certainly have been plenty going back over the last decade or more. Bounty Trail and Dark Redemption come to mind.

R4: So what's next for you? Any more Merve Bushwhacker stories in the works?

MC: Well, I have no plans for a sequel at this point. I think at this point in my life I need to make something entirely original, so I can get paid! Having said that, seeing David Nicoll suit up as Merve Bushwacker again, would be a lot of fun. But maybe something a bit more low key this time that takes less than ten years to make.

R4: When you do, make sure you give us a heads-up! Thanks so much for talking with us today, and best of luck on all your future endeavors--and may the farce be with you!