Sandy Collora is known as the auteur of fan filmmaking because his dark short film Batman: Dead End took 2003 Comic-Con by storm, and its comparatively lavish production values changed the whole fan filmmaking game. Though Collora had some setbacks, including having his films shoved off the bill by lawsuit-shy Comic-Con, he's back with his first original feature film, Hunter Prey. We've got an exclusive first peek at this war film set on a alien world. Plus Collora told us all about the movie, the grueling Mexican shoot on a shoestring budget, and the awesome armored costumes. We talked to Collora via email last week, while he was in the middle of post-production. io9: Give us a taste of what Hunter Prey is about. Sandy Collora: At its core, this is a picture about survival. Being able to adapt to your surroundings and persevere, to survive at all costs and prevail against incredible odds to complete an objective. That's something that I've had some experience dealing with in my own life and career, so there were a lot of personal feelings and emotions to draw from. The film centers around a crew of special forces commandos who must recapture an alien prisoner that has escaped after the military transport ship carrying it crashes on a desolate and hostile planet. There are subtle political and environmental overtones that I certainly don't hit anyone over the head with at all, but that will hopefully make you think about things like war, politics and current events, by presenting them in situations cinematically from a uniquely different perspective. That's one of the great things about Science Fiction; You can tell the audience something in a very unique way by using the guise of a futuristic world or society that can reflect our own. The film, very much like the approach Jim Cameron took with "The Terminator", is a very small piece of a much larger picture. It concentrates on how the bigger situation (which in this case, is interplanetary war) is affecting the two main characters, who are now separated from it, and how they relate and react to their situation and each other as a result of it. As the story unfolds and more things are revealed about the characters and what their relationship is, we had to create in a sense, what we could not show. This was a very interesting challenge not only for co-writer Nick Damon and myself, but for the actors as well because through their performances and the dialogue, they had to build in the audience's imagination, what we couldn't afford to actually build on screen. I really can't say or reveal much more than that, because It's got a few things that audiences will definitely not see coming and some twists and turns that I don't want to spoil. You'll just have to go see it to find out what those are. This is your first feature-length movie, and it's your first outside the world of superheroes. What was it like to do something that was entirely your creation, instead of playing with Batman or other well-known fan faves? Actually, "Hunter Prey" is not entirely my creation at all. Though it is an entirely original concept and universe, aside from taking my entire cast and crew to help bring it to life, it was the brainchild of myself and Nick Damon. We developed the concept and wrote the screenplay together, from an idea that was originally Nick's. It changed a lot, like any idea does as it goes through the throes of development, but Nick was the one who brought it to me as something we'd write and produce together with my longtime collaborators and producing partners, Simon Tams and Daren Hicks, for me to direct as my first feature. I've written several scripts based on original ideas over the years... However for my last two short films to work the way I wanted them to, and generate the amount of buzz and publicity that they did, they needed to involve known characters that already had a huge fanbase. In my opinion, I feel that if instead of doing "Batman Dead End" and "World's Finest", I did more short films that were original, that no matter how good or well done they were, they simply would not have gained as much attention or praise from the fans. Case in point; "Solomon Bernstein's Bathroom" and "Archangel". Two short films I wrote and directed before I did my superhero fan films, and although both were professionally produced and shot on 35mm, even with "Archangel" winning some awards at festivals, not too many people are even aware they exist. Sometimes you need to look very pragmatically at the results of what you're doing and what your work and career is yielding or not yielding, and make decisions based on those assessments. We're all essentially throwing darts at board to a degree. Taking a chance on what will hit, because there really is no way to tell. "Hunter Prey", just like any other original film that isn't a sequel or based on a comic book, toy line or what have you; is an educated guess, my opinion on what the fans and the moviegoing public will find cool and interesting, because I find it cool and interesting. You do the best you can do with what you've got and make the decisions regarding your picture with your heart, trusting your gut instincts, and hope it finds an audience. That being said, this film isn't going to be for everybody, because I think if you set out to make a film that will please everybody, you're only going be frustrated with the results. I love the Science Fiction and Fantasy films of the seventies and eighties. They were all very inspirational to me when I was a kid, and responsible to a large degree, for influencing the creative person and the filmmaker that I am today, especially "Star Wars". This picture is basically a love letter to those films that expresses my true passion for the genre and for making movies.
Tell us about your process with this movie. How did you first get the idea, and then how did you plan the production from there? Well, after years of trying to figure out the almost impossible task of how to make something unique, where we could create original characters and a Science Fiction based universe of our own, that was achievable on a very modest budget, and failing miserably, LOL... Nick walked into my studio one day late last Summer, looked at me and said, "I got it...". That afternoon, we hammered out what eventually became "Hunter Prey". The name came from a unrelated script I had previously written that Nick always liked, so we just used it and it stuck. That other script is now in the "Untitled Sandy Collora Project" pile. LOL. Once we had a outline I liked, Nick began working on the first draft and I started drawing, cranking out sketches of the characters, costumes, landscapes, props, and vehicles. As the script was constantly changing and evolving, mostly due to budgetary limitations, we were both getting a little frustrated, so after Nick got most of the heavy lifting done, breaking the back of the story, and I had designed a lot of the character stuff and costumes, we switched! Nick did some drawings of the things he really wanted to take a crack at designing and I finished the script. We had tons of artwork to get costume designer: Mike Macfarlane, prop builder and armorer: Scott Paige, and the special effects make-up artist: Patrick Magee, started on building all the stuff that would populate and inhabit this universe. While everything was being built, in between overseeing all that and storyboarding the first act of the picture, I took Simon to Mexico, to meet our location manager and supervisor, Dale Pearson. He and I took Simon to all the locations, which I had scouted months before, on a spear fishing trip to the Sea of Cortez with Dale. Simon was blown away by the place and immediately got to work with Daren, SAG and the Mexican consulate on figuring out how we could make shooting down there work within our budget, which was no easy task. After that was all worked out, cinematographer Ed Gutentag and first assistant director Mark Mathis were brought on board. I got really busy with them making shot lists and the schedule, so I brought in my friend Mark Pacella to help storyboard the rest of the film.
My studio walls now plastered with all the storyboards, each department head was brought in and I went over in explicit detail how we were going to keep up with the almost impossible 18 day shooting schedule. During this time, most of my days were spent with Ed, dissecting and breaking down every day, shot by shot. Camera angles, lens choices, frame speeds, filters and focal length, were all downloaded to him and explained in painstaking detail. Since I would be operating one of the three cameras that were used on the shoot, I wanted us to be completely in sync regarding how I was going to cover each scene. During that period as well, I also spent a lot of time with the two main actors, Clark Bartram and Damion Poitier. Not only rehearsing, but just hanging out and talking about the movie. I gave them both a lot of background regarding who their respective characters were and what was expected of them. Damion was just coming off his stint on JJ Abrhams "Star Trek" and Clark had just returned from working in China on a project, so the timing was good for both of those guys to rehearse fight stuff as well and get the physicality of their roles dialed in with stunt coordinator Simon Potter. We left for Mexico in late April and shot through the end of May. When we got back, all the footage was given to my editor, Toby Divine. We did a few pick up days here in Los Angeles as well as an extensive miniature shoot... The cut is pretty much locked at this point and now I'm working with Semerad, an award winning visual effects house in NY, on enhancing the visual aspects of the film. The stuff they've done so far is absolutely stunning, so I'm looking forward to finalizing all the elements over the next 6-8 weeks. I just actually got back this afternoon from screening the film for Erin Gray, who as of this morning signed on to do the voice of CLEA, a central computer who controls all the functions of the armored suits the commandos wear and actually becomes a pivotal character in the film, very similar to HAL from 2001. She absolutely loved the film and totally got the character. Her voice-over is one of the last elements to completing the film, so it's a very exciting time right now.
You were shooting on location in Mexico. On-location shoots are notorious for creating weird and surprising difficulties. What was the most unexpected thing that happened to you in Mexico? This question is a whole interview in itself. The terrain in the areas where we were shooting is very rough. Factor in the heat, the bugs, the snakes, the sandstorms, and how far away from civilization we were, and you've got one very, very challenging shoot. What really didn't help the situation either, was the fact that for most of the days we were down there, we all stayed in one house! It was a good size place and it was right on the beach, but it was really cramped in there, people slept on the floor, out on the beach, in the kitchen, and there was only one bathroom for the entire cast and crew. Several people also got very ill. Our set medic Chris Snow, in between doing everything from digging production vehicles out of the soft sand to pulling focus, had his hands full with several cases of dehydration, exhaustion, all kinds of stomach issues, cuts, bruises, and one case of heat stroke that was so bad, the guy had to be sent home. I even got sick one day with some weird stomach thing. By mid morning on that day, I didn't care who knew. If I had to puke, I'd just turn around and puke, wipe my mouth and then get back to work. The heat at times was almost unbearable, with temperatures reaching over 100 degrees daily, the amount of water that was consumed was absolutely unbelievable. We had one production van that was just constantly running back and forth to the locations with water. It was super important to stay hydrated, Chris and Clark were always on everyone about that, constantly handing out bottles of water. Food was also a huge problem. The chef that was supposed to travel with us and prepare all the meals, for whatever reason didn't work out and when alternative solutions to the food situation were put into effect, let's just say it was unsatisfactory to the cast and crew. I personally couldn't have cared less about the food, myself. I lived on protein bars, Sabritas and red bull, but when you're asking people to come with you to another country and work in miserable conditions for far below their normal pay rate, you have to feed them well. So eventually, Daren came to the rescue and sent someone from the states to cook for us. I remember the first day Carlos got there very well, because it was definitely one of the better days we had down there. I wrapped the crew early, he cooked up all this great food and the morale picked up immediately. You're known for creating really detailed, amazing concept designs for your characters. What's the concept design like in "Hunter Prey"? The designs of pretty much everything in the movie were inspired by the concept design trends of the late sixties and seventies. I wanted the picture to basically look like it could have been made during that era. Everything is very non linear, almost clunky. There's nothing in the movie that's shiny or sleek. Everything has a very lived in and dirty quality to it. It's banged up. Dented. Imperfect. Simplicity was a big factor as well, especially regarding the fabrics, textures and colors of the costumes. Nothing is too complicated looking, or over designed. I absolutely adore the purity and simplicity of the costumes in the original "Star Trek" series and films like "Logan's Run" and the original Star Wars trilogy. The picture has a very old school, "Star Wars" look and feel to it. That's actually one of the comments I've gotten from several people who I've shown the movie to, including Guillermo Del Toro, who liked it so much, he's shepherding the film through the last stages of post production, giving me advice regarding the cut and contributing his thoughts about where and how the film and my career will be best served. Another thing that I did, specifically when I was designing the commando suits, was look at a lot of World War I and II field combat uniform reference. The final designs of those suits actually incorporate authentic leather ammunition pouches and other vintage military items that I bought from on line antique dealers and surplus shops. They brought a tangible reality to the characters that was very organic... Those costumes have a super cool, very retro look to them, especially the helmet, which was heavily influenced by ancient Roman and Greek warrior helmets, that makes them really menacing. Like all my other projects, I was very hands on with the props, make-up, costumes, etc... I'll always be into that stuff because that's my background, where I started in this business. But what I was most excited about with "Hunter Prey" was the opportunity to finally tell a complete story in a longer format. Making the transition from artist to the director's chair, over the last ten years has been an interesting journey... Like you said, people already know I can make stuff look really cool and shoot pretty pictures, but the real question on everyone's mind with this film, was; "Can he tell a story and work with actors to make a cohesive full length movie?" I'm confident in how I answered that question, but the reaction of the audience and the fans, will be the definitive answer. That's actually the part I'm looking forward to the most at this point, watching the movie with an audience. That's when you really know what you've got.
How did you raise funding for the film? Very carefully. I had to find investors that were interested in making the movie I wanted to make. I was open to hearing ideas or taking notes on the script, but whomever was going to invest in this picture, needed to be on the same page as me regarding the tone for the piece, the characters, how I wanted to tell the story, and of course, the overall design and look of the film. I was fortunate to find a small group of angel investors who believed in my vision for the picture, and more importantly, believed in me as well. Of course, there were questions and concerns about how I was going to deliver the ambitious movie I promised on the money that they were giving me, but once they saw the amount and the quality of all the pre-production stuff; the storyboards, the extensive shot lists and meticulously planned out shooting schedule, I think they really latched on to the whole underdog vibe we had going, a small group of really motivated people who believed in their hearts that they were taking on something very daunting, but also very special. They had a lot of confidence in me and my very small, but very talented cast and crew. With filmmaking software and hardware becoming more cheap and accessible, it seems like this should be a golden age for indie genre movies like "Hunter Prey." Is it really a golden age, in your experience, or is that a myth? I don't necessarily think the fact that we could be on the brink of another golden age for these kinds of films, is a myth at all. What is a myth however, is that the advent of all this affordable technology you're talking about, is going to be responsible for it. A camera is still a camera, whether it's 35mm film or digital. You still need to point it at something to capture the dramatic images that will tell your story. That's an innate ability or talent that simply is there in an individual, or it isn't. The kind of camera that person is using may be inexpensive or simple to use, but you still need to know what to put in front of it... Of course, I think it's great that all this stuff is becoming more available to filmmakers, especially the younger guys, but it's my personal belief that it's not the tools or the technology that make good movies, it's the people using those tools. This business is so unpredictable and fickle. It guess it depends on what your definition of the term is, really...To Nick and I, our golden age was the late sixties to the mid eighties. We have endless hours of conversation, reminiscing about it all the time. To us at least, it's kind of a no brainer. You look at successful genre films like "Planet of the Apes", the original "Star Wars" trilogy, "Logan's Run", "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", "Alien", "Blade Runner", "The Thing", and "The Terminator", and you figure out what it is about each one of those movies that makes them so damn good, and try to infuse a little of that magic into what you're doing. You stand on the shoulders of giants and learn from what they've done before you. When will we be able to see the movie? Soon!