Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): The Hero We Didn't Know We Needed: a conversation with Jared Drake, director of Visioneers & the upcoming Mack Luster

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Hero We Didn't Know We Needed: a conversation with Jared Drake, director of Visioneers & the upcoming Mack Luster


For a brief moment in the dystopian comedy Visioneers (2007), disgruntled office worker George Washington Winsterhammerman (Zach Galifianakis) plunks himself down in front of the television, hoping to smother his ever-growing anxiety with a soothing escape. Instead, he's confronted with the televised antics of a deranged action hero, Mack Luster (Ryan McCann), valiant and violent opponent of "Chayos" (the film's name for the free-floating unease destabilizing this placid world and causing people to literally explode). Assaulting rather than protecting the innocent (the "villains" include a terrified old lady and a little girl with ice cream), Luster provides an amusing subversion of 80s action hero cliches. He's a grinning, muscled-up do-gooder who clearly believes his antisocial actions represent some glorious triumph over evil.

This scene (which you can watch on YouTube) was tangential to the rest of the film, yet Luster's over-the-top antics proved popular with viewers and stuck with the film's director Jared Drake. Drake decided to spin the character off into his own story, Mack Luster, but with a twist. No longer simply the symbol of a world gone crazy, the Mack Luster of this new project will be the only sane person onscreen, a reminder of what was valuable and lovable about 80s action heroes. He's a throwback to an age of older, less self-conscious American icons and his sincerity make him a fish out of water in the present - albeit one we sympathize with. Drake plans to turn the Visioneers version of Luster on its head, preserving the "awesome cheese" quotient while encouraging us to laugh with, rather than at, our hero by the end of the movie.

I was contacted by Jared as he prepared to launch his Kickstarter campaign; while I haven't been doing many interviews lately, this concept - and Drake's intentions behind it - piqued my curiosity (plus Jared grew up in the Twin Peaks hometown, a bit of synchronicity given my slew of upcoming Peaks and Lynch). Via a 90-minute Google chat, we discussed his film Visioneers, his decision to place an 80s icon in the present and the philosophy behind that, and why he's chosen crowdfunding and sees it as the future of filmmaking (this was one of the most fascinating parts of the discussion for me - I believe that when it comes, the next Easy Rider or Star Wars-type game-changer will drop online, not in theaters). If you'd like to support the Mack Luster campaign, or just find out more, it launched today:


Obviously, in Visioneers Mack Luster is a quick cameo, basically a jokey aside. When did you realize he'd taken a life of his own - at what point did you decide you wanted to spin off this character into an independent film?

Since the first test screenings of Visioneers, we knew Mack was a crowd pleaser, so we've always known there was something more to explore there. The actor that plays Mack is one of my best friends and throughout the years we've just continued to flush out the character and concept as we've had time. At first we thought a webseries, then a TV show, then a feature...but the challenge has always been to take this bit part from Visioneers and flush him out into a three dimensional character. One you can relate to and sympathize with. It honestly took years to come up with an angle that we believe really works and once we had that, we decided to pull the trigger and give it everything we got. Which was about six months ago.

Can you tell what the angle is, or will that be a surprise?

By the way...I should clarify, that my brother, Brandon, the writer of Visioneers, is writing the script and has been involved throughout. Without going into too many specifics, our approach to the character hinges on few things:
1. Giving him a flaw that we can all relate to. In the story, Mack is just a man, but is expected to be a hero, and has an identity crisis halfway through the story that forces him to reinvent himself, a struggle I think we can all relate to at some point in life.
And 2. Skew the world so that Mack is the normal person in the land of crazies. The thing that bugs me about MacGruber or Austin Powers is that the hero is a goof. The hero is the crazy person in the land of normal people. Our approach to Mack, for the most part, is the exact opposite.

Do you see your and Brandon's sensibilities as pretty convergent, or more yin/yang complementary?

Haha...yin/yang complementary for sure. Brandon is a writer in every sense of the word. So extremely bright and talented. I'm not nearly as smart as he is. I like picture books. I think his cerebral approach to storytelling, with my sense of filmmaking, is what, I think, makes our films unique, but familiar. Plus, we get each other on such a fundamental level. To have someone who knows you inside and out pushing you at every step is so valuable.

Is the difference mostly aesthetic and temperamental? Do you feel you're trying to say the same things through different means? (Different, complementary means?)

Yeah...for sure. We're absolutely on the same page with what we want to say. That is critical. And is why choosing what story to tell and how to tell it (from a writing perspective) is so crucial to the process. If I'm not 100% invested, emotionally and personally, with the direction Brandon wants to go, then we gotta change course. And vice versa. Everyone needs to be making the same movie and saying the same thing.

In your descriptions of Mack Luster you talk about treating the character with affectionate respect, and of your love for the conventional 80s action hero. Yet in Visioneers, he's very much set up as a complete (and hilarious) subversion of that type of hero - someone who applies the same chest-thumping righteousness to torturing old ladies and shooting tennis players that Schwarzenegger and Stallone brought to blowing up baddies. This is a character who snipes a little girl eating an ice cream cone, after all! Is the feature version of Mack Luster in essence a different character, and if so what aspects will remain?

It's hard to have a character you root for who interrogates old grandmas. In the film, Chayos is an infection that has made certain parts of society evil - the elderly, girl scouts, etc. Mack's job is to contain the infection, and stop the villain behind it all. So part of Luster's job is to infiltrate an old folks community and those pockets of society you wouldn't expect to see Rambo in, which is where a lot of the comedy plays. BUT...Mack is doing so to protect them from Chayos, not knock them off. The last thing we want is to make a movie that glorifies violence. Instead, the film becomes more about glorifying heroes from the 80s, and what some of those heroes meant to us as kids. To have an idol that is larger than life, who stands for something that is clearly good, who fights villains that are clearly bad, who is humble, respectful, doesn't pull any punches when it comes to standing up for himself or political correctness...who isn't afraid to do the right thing even if it's unpopular. In a way, the 80s American hero is something we've apologized for as a society over the last few decades, and in some ways those apologies are valid, and in other they aren't. This movie glorifies the ways in which they aren't.

Hm, that's an interesting point. I'd like to possibly return to it in a few questions if there's time, but first I had a few other topics I wanted to delve into. First, tone - Visioneers, while rather broad in its satirical targets, is often very subtle and subdued in its direction and performance (particularly that of Zach Galifianakis). From its description, Mack Luster sounds like a more lighthearted, over-the-top film. Do you foresee any consistencies in the tone and style of the two films, or do you very much want it to be a different animal?

It's definitely a different animal, but I suppose there are a few similarities. Both Luster and Visioneers are set in a skewed alternate reality. And the look at present day is definitely satirical in nature with Luster, as it was with Visioneers. The President even makes an appearance. Plus a main character who goes on a journey of self-discovery is at the core. With Luster, however, the volume is just cranked at every corner. Visioneers is quiet. Luster is loud.

In Visioneers you set what is essentially a futuristic dystopian tale in a present-day environment. Likewise, Mack Luster takes an 80s hero and plunks him into 2014. I realize some of these decisions might be budgetary, but what else draws you toward mixing different time periods?

That's a really good question.

Well, it's something I personally am fascinated with. I love history, and one of the most interesting ways to explore history is to detach historical markers from their usual framework. Re-contextualizing what it feels like or means to live in different eras. But not that many movies seem to do this. (David Lynch would be a good example of someone who does.) And when it's a dystopian tale, setting it in a version of the present always fascinates me. At heart, I think most dystopias are more about the present than the future anyway.

I suppose from a storytelling angle, it widens the boundaries of what is possible. By redefining the rules of your world and how things operate, the creative freedom of what you can do and say is exponential. Essentially, you have free reign to do anything, so long as it falls within whatever rules you set. [As for dystopias...] YES! Exactly what you said!!!!!! And I don't think you see it much because the SECOND you mention dystopian or alternate reality or parallel universe in any pitch, you're shown the door. Unless based on a pre-existing novel or a comic, these types of films are impossible to get made.

Great point about the creative freedom offered by unmooring the story from "reality." Can easily be used as a crutch but I think if a writer is serious about the story they want to tell, it really liberates them. There's no inherent reason a movie has to correspond to reality. But if you take it to that more mythological level, people assume it has to be for kids or, as you say, be based on existing story. Or within the conventions of a specific genre, like sci-fi.

Back to what you said, the choice to set a film in an alternate past or dystopian future really has nothing to do with wanting to comment on that time. It is absolutely a means to reflect on who we are today and where we are going. The key is to have clear rules about how the world operates. Without rules, you run the risk of becoming whacky. And whacky isn't good.

To bring it back a little to the action hero thing - what do you feel are the things we should & shouldn't "apologize" for? What parts of enjoying a blow 'em up actioner falls under "guilty pleasure" and what are we guilty for?

Not apologize: In my description of the film, I refer to the 80s as "awesome cheese." Awesome cheese is the confidence to roll down your window and blare loud music rolling up to putt-putt golf. Drawing smiles along the way...not glares. It is dancing to a song that isn’t even playing on the radio but it’s playing in your head so screw it I’m going to dance hard. It is a thorough lack of political correctness because it doesn’t know what political correctness is. It is big business, when big business was not a sign of corruption, but a sign of success. When success was positive. When success meant being bigger, stronger, better than you are now. Being a part of America. The most awesome country in the world. Where a single man can rise up out of nowhere and become a hero who wears his heart on his sleeve, laughs loud, cries long, strives to be the best he can be, and makes this world a radder place to live. I many ways, I think heroes of the 80s represent all of this, but have only been criticized over the years for promoting violence and sexism. When I was a kid, I don't think I was influenced by any of the violence or sexism. They inspired me, to be bigger and better and stronger and faster. All good stuff, doncha think?

I think a lot of the criticism came from people of an older generation. They had grown up with their own heroes, so rather than noticing what connected these heroes to their own, they noticed the differences. One of the big differences of the 80s from, say, the 50s was the volume and level of violence so they picked up on that. Whereas someone younger probably would have adjusted/tuned out that aspect the same way a 50s kid would have tuned out the violence of a cowboy film which might have seemed shocking to their own parent. If that makes sense. I think the critics of the time (and of later time) saw the films as more self-conscious than you or I would at first glance because they were coming out of the 60s & 70s - so an 80s action film didn't seem innocent, but purposefully trying to go back to an earlier time. Whereas for us the 80s was our childhood and hence we don't see the innocence as ironic. Kinda off-topic, but interesting to me...

Would you feel compelled to make a pretty straight action film or do you think at this point it's necessary to use a sort of ironic take in order to defend them at the same time?

I don't think a straight up action movie flies today. You gotta follow the conventions of today and I think audiences demand a bit more. But I don't think you have to be ironic, either. The objective with Luster is take an 80s character and plot and tell it with today's conventions and tools. Straight up. No winks.

Do you view the film as having a political message? You use the term "political correctness" - this is one of those words that has come to mean a lot of different things to different people. How do you see it, what is the harm, and how will you have Luster specifically target it? (Also, related to that, noting that you see him as normal in a world of crazy vs. the Austin Powers approach is very interesting & you're right that it hasn't been done that often - unless the "world of crazy" is set in another time, not our own. How will you convince audiences to side with the 80s anachronism, rather than the people and world that look/act probably more like the audience does?)

Totally agreed. We're definitely not using Luster to get political. That would be a mistake. Instead I'm referring to a sort of honesty that think the 80s had with regards to saying what you feel when you feel them. Today everyone is so careful not to offend. Luster, as a character, doesn't monitor what he says, and I think we can all learn from that. Perhaps I'm glorifying what the 80s were...but that's why it's a movie...in an alternate reality. By making the characters living in present day less relatable than Luster. That is where the justification of skewing our present day world comes in. By throwing it out of whack - their dialogue, how they interact, even location/design choices - Luster suddenly becomes something to hang onto

You mentioned Luster infiltrating an old folks' home but will he be doing things as extreme as in the Visioneers commercial? I'm still not entirely sure how consistent you want to make him with that portrayal. Spying on people to save them from "Chayos" is one thing, ripping out fingernails, something else!

He won't be doing things as extreme as in the Visioneers commercials. He needs to stop and contain certain civilians, but not pluck out grandmas' fingers and assassinate girls eating ice cream.

In your description of the project, you mentioned, related to crowdfunding your film, "fulfilling our continued fantasy to completely bypass the Hollywood system." I could go on for another hour digging into that, but more briefly why is that desirable to you, and how do you see it coming about?

A few reasons why we really, really, really love Kickstarter as an option: 1. Creative control is with the fans. They decide what goes and what they want to see. This is how it should be. And 2. It completely bypasses a system based on presales that often times doesn't work. All the middlemen in Hollywood - sales agents, producers reps, film markets, international buyers, etc - they all claim to know what the audience wants and how to get a film to them. With crowdfunding, their entire operation is obliterated with one simply question: Do you want to see this movie? If yes, buy a reward. Bam. Done. Also, I don't see crowndfunding as "donation" based. It's a marketplace. We are selling DVDs, behind the scenes extras, merchandise...all the same items a traditional distributor does...before the film is shot, one presale at a time. To those who matter most: the fans.

I love the idea of eliminating gatekeepers. And it seems like something so many different groups, so many different types of people could get on board with.

Yeah, a lot of people don't want to hear it though.

The way the film industry works seems so anachronistic to me. But people take it for granted, like it's the Big Sky-God that can't be questioned. And they all line up waiting for their drops of manna. Which will most likely never come.

The biggest arguments I hear against crowdfunding include:
1. You'll have to make a micro budget movie. Sure, okay. But at least I'll be making a movie.
2. You can't get cast. Not necessarily true, but even it is, it doesn't matter because those crowdfunding the project decide if/when it goes regardless of being able to sell territories based on attachments.
3. You still need distribution. Yes, and there are millions of ways to distribute digitally if nobody picks up a theatrical. Best part - by the time the movie is finished, we will have broke even because those who purchased a reward will be been fulfilled.
Re: manna...I have six projects set up with various production companies. Some with cast. Some with financing. And I've been doing rewrites on each for years waiting for them to drop and they haven't. And this past year it feels like they're all getting further away, not closer, to production. The film business is kind of on its ear right now, and everyone is starting to panic. Crowdfunding is the light at the end of the tunnel for those of us who just want to be making movies.

Finally, I have to mention that you were born and raised in Snoqualmie, WA, which most Twin Peaks fans will recognize as the place where the TV pilot and prequel feature film were shot. Do you remember the production of the show and film, do you have any good stories about those times, and do you see any impact from that series or Lynch in general on your own filmmaking sensibilities?

Twin Peaks was always this thing in the periphery growing up. Every year the local theater has a Twin Peaks showing where they run the first season and fans come out of the woodwork from all over the country to watch it. Oddly enough, it wasn't until 5-6 years ago that I watch the first season and it totally blew me away. That series as so far ahead of its time. I can't believe it was primetime ... ! I wouldn't say Lynch has influenced me, though I love him as a filmmaker. Each of his characters are all so flushed out and rich...even smaller roles. The few anecdotes is that Snoqualmie is just like it is in the series. Dark, moody, heavy moss on trees, wet...but so beautiful and full of unique characters and good people just trying to live. Also, the Twin Peaks diner still exists. Still serving cherry pie.

Well, that is where pies go when they die.

Hahaha...

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