Mike Mort’s infectiously fun mash-up of 80s action clichés and horror tropes has been a pet-project years in the making. Chuck Steel himself (imagine Dirty Harry without the sensitivity training) has been percolating with the writer/director since his teens.
The 14-minute short Chuck Steel: Raging Balls of Steel Justice played the festival circuit in 2013 and set the template for Steel’s feature debut. Lovingly detailed Claymation style stop-motion animation, violent splatter, unabashedly un-PC jokes broad enough that no-one should take to Twitter…!
We sat down with Mort to discuss the making of his glorious mash-up of Wallace and Gromit and Stallone’s Cobra.
Rob Daniel: I had a blast with Chuck Steel: Night of the Trampires. I wondered if it could sustain the plot and energy for 85 minutes and it genuinely did.
Mike Mort: That was one of the challenges in this film. You always have that difficult middle act where you need to keep things going. There are a couple of lulls, but I thought they were needed to give the audience breathing room. But, it’s a fast-paced film that doesn’t let up, so for 88 minutes you get a lot of bang for your buck!
RD: This film ties in nicely with the current trend for 80s nostalgia. But the character of Chuck Steel has been with you for a long time?
MM: Yeah, since I was about 15, so around 1986. I came up with the character of Chuck Steel as a doodle in my schoolbooks. I kept drawing him in different film scenarios over the years, did concept art and a few scripts ideas. Later I made some short films with him; there’s a Super 8 Chuck Steel film and I did a college film with the character.
I tried to resuscitate the Chuck Steel idea in 2001 and get funding, but it didn’t work out then for various reasons so Chuck went back on the shelf.
I had one more crack at it with the short film that is online at the moment. That was done in my basement. I really needed to get Chuck out of my system; it was something I really wanted to make, but finding funding was proving impossible. In the end I thought to hell with it, I’ll make it on my own in my basement the way I used to make those Super 8s.
Luckily, at that point I met my current business partner who financed that short and then the feature, so it all worked out.
RD: That short was 2013’s Chuck Steel: Raging Balls of Steel Justice, which played at FrightFest 2013?
MM: Yeah, that’s right. In the beginning it was just me, so I cannibalised some old armatures from other jobs, built puppets, and built the basic structure of the set. My business partners came in at that point, looked at the models and what I was up to and decided to finance the short film.
Raging Balls took about 18 months to do with a crew of myself and about 6 others all in the house here, so it was kind of intense. A feature film normally takes eighteen months, but you’ve got hundreds of people on those.
RD: Did the character of Chuck Steel change from those original drawings, or was he always a blond-haired Arnie type?
MM: The original drawing is pretty close. He’s got a slightly smaller chin in the first drawing, but as he progressed his chin got a bit bigger along with his quiff. Then about 10 years after that Johnny Bravo turned up, so I was a bit pissed off.
Some people have said he looks like Johnny Bravo, but my conscience is clear because I came up with Chuck a decade earlier! I’ve still got the old models from college film, including the original Chuck model. He’s a bit of a mess and falling apart, but he’s basically the same.
I always had the iconic hero figure in my mind, although back then he was just the more straightforward good-guy hero. I didn’t get irony and self-referential stuff until later.
RD: But, one of the funniest aspects of the film is that Chuck himself is irony free, while absurd things happen around him. That reminded me of Stallone’s Cobra, which unintentionally does the same thing.
MM: Cobra was one of the films I watched just before making the short films. I’d seen it in my youth when it was played as a gritty thriller, but rewatching it spurred me on to do the short because it’s so hilarious.
There are a lot of spoof films that don’t know when to play things straight and turn it all up to 11. You need someone like Chuck to be the clueless guy in the middle of it all saying what the hell is going on.
It was also important to keep the villain straight, so they could be a tangible threat to this ridiculous world we’d created.
RD: Chuck Steel: Night of the Trampires is a mixture of 80s action and 80s horror. Why did you decide to mix the two?
MM: I’m just a fan of monster movies, like Ray Harryhausen films and all those rubber monster movies of the 80s. I wanted to get as many of my influences in this film as possible: action movies, monster movies, horror movies, comedies, a mix of it all.
I did think for a while should I play this as straight action, but thought it needed to go crazy and into unexpected places. You watch films now and it’s too easy to see where they’re going to go, so I made something that went a bit nuts.
RD: Was this animated in the 24-frames-a-second stop motion method?
MM: Yeah, we did it in the 24 movements a second. A lot of animation is done on 12 frames a second, so you take two photographs a second. It’s quicker but gives the image that jerkier feel. Stylistically some people like that look of stop motion, but I wanted to make Chuck Steel very smooth. It had to feel like a live action film, so we did 24-frames-per-second, then added motion blur software afterwards which interpolates between frames and provides a natural looking movement.
RD: The action scenes are genuinely well-executed. Is it hard to achieve the pace of an action scene when animating 24-frames and juggling so many different moving elements?
MM: Well, you tie it all down in a storyboard first and then put an animatic together which gives you a visual read of what shots are running too slow or too fast.
I wanted to create a bit of chaos in the action scenes, so there are some shots that last less than half a second and you get a flash of what is going on. That would take a day to set up and a day to shoot it, giving you only 8 frames. But, it gave me the feel of action that was filmed with multiple cameras, where you get a flash of action that you can cut in.
Admittedly, that is a strange approach and a lot of stop motion doesn’t do that. Traditionally you stay on the shot as long as possible because it makes it easier. But, I was determined to make it fast-paced, fast-cutting.
I’ve noticed since CGI has come in there is a lot less cutting in action films and I think they’ve lost something. Everyone stays on a shot for too long because they can show everything, but in your mind you’re saying I don’t believe this now. I’d rather be fooled by good editing rather than good CGI.
RD: How big was your crew this time? More then 6 people I imagine!
MM: Yeah, at maximum we had 60 people on the film. We then reduced the scale as the film was winding down.
RD: What is the role of the director in that situation. Were you overseeing the work and watching what teams were doing? Or also doing some of the animation yourself?
MM: I animated a handful of shots, but didn’t get much time to do that on this one because I was directing. But, that was fine because I was definitely hands-on on the floor. A lot of feature films are made where the director is a little more remote from the process, approving things in an office. But, you need a huge budget to have those tiers of management to do that.
We wanted all our money to be on screen, so we had to find a way to shoot as economically as possible. This meant me on the floor, setting up shots with the team and approving the shots on the floor. Soon as shots were finished I’d see them and usually they can be approved on the first take, but sometimes we did need reshoots.
We didn’t have budget to spend time in meetings and on approvals, so we had to run it from the floor.
RD: Interesting. I read Wes Anderson directed The Fantastic Mr Fox from America or Paris, Skyping and emailing the animators who were based in London.
MM: Yeah, some live action directors want to dabble in stop motion, but none of them want to stay there and set the shots up because it’s too boring for them. So, Tim Burton’s not on set all the time and neither is Wes Anderson, they’ll do it remotely, normally alongside shooting a live action film. They have more tiers of management and more animation directors to get what they want. But, they’ll always run it more top down rather than being on the floor.
RD: One thing I like in animation, be it cell animation or stop motion, are the incidental touches that take time but add something extra. There’s a moment in your film where the Chief falls into a filing cabinet and knocks everything over. There is then a beat and a plant pot falls off too. Why did you choose to make it more difficult for yourself to include those moments?
MM: I wanted to get the comedy timing in to those moments. Someone falling over, followed by a clatter of something else if funnier because it’s clumsier. I was determined we could laugh at all the characters in the film, poking fun at macho behaviour, liberal behaviour, feminists, I don’t think we missed too many out.
Not to say I set out to offend people, but I thought if I’m going to laugh at someone then I’ll laugh at everyone!
RD: I was going to ask that point. I didn’t find the broad humour offensive, but were you worried some audiences might not get the joke?
MM: There’s always that risk. Comedy is always going to be subjective. Chuck Steel does reference an era that’s long gone, so youngsters may watch the film having never seen Cobra and say, what the hell is this about?!
But, screenings we’ve had in packed rooms have gone down really well, so I was happy some of those gags have hit.
RD: The tone is also so deliberately exaggerated that is difficult to take the film seriously.
MM: I’m glad you said you didn’t think it was offensive. I was going for adult humour, but didn’t want it be nasty and gross-out. It was important the film kept a touch of innocent charm to it. When I see full-on gross-out films I just switch off. I’d rather see something that holds back a little so you can still like the characters.
RD: You have Jennifer Saunders and Paul Whitehouse providing voices for the film. How did they get involved and did they have any input into the comedy?
MM: We did a lot of things in a strange way on this film. When we started we were trying to make a stop-motion film on a lower budget than virtually any other stop-motion film. We looked into getting famous voices before shooting, but it was all so expensive we decided to do what we did on the short film which was me providing a bunch of voices and we had voice actors brought into the feature film as well.
But, as we got further into production certain doors opened up to us. We were given a chance to meet Jennifer and Paul through Roger Taylor from Queen and his wife. They came to the studio because they knew one of the investors indirectly and a bunch of people came down with them. Simon West, the director Con Air and Expendables 2, and Michael Grade, so it was a bit of strange meeting!
This provided us this link to Roger Taylor’s wife, Serina, and through her Jennifer and Paul, it’s all to do with agents or something. But, we thought we had to do something with that opportunity. We’d already voice recorded and animated their characters, so we had to do a post-synching session for a couple of days.
It was hard for Paul and Jennifer to directly inject new elements into it because the animation had been completed, but in a weird way they did because they changed the ways the lines were delivered while also hitting their lip-synch marks. Tricky, but they made a really nice job of it.
RD: I was going to ask, is that the Simon West of Con-Air fame thanked in the end credits. Con-Air is one of the finest action films of the last 25 years… in my humble opinion.
MM: I just love that film, it’s so insane. Simon signed my Con-Air poster writing, “Stop ripping off my films, Mike!”
RD: When you were doing multiple voices in one scene, did you do a Harry Shearer in The Simpsons and have a live conversation with yourself or do different passes for the each character?
MM: I tended to separate them out. I’m still not that confident with the situation we’re in and at this point there’s a potential that characters could still be re-voiced. We’re talking to distributors at the moment, so whether I’m doing voices in the final version I don’t know. But, I’m honestly okay with that as long as we good names if we change them and the voices work for the characters.
Speaking to my funding partners and others who have viewed the films, my view is if they thinks it working we can keep it, but I’m not married to it and if we need to change it for distribution reasons then we will.
I did enjoy the process though. The short was the first time I’d ever done and I had to do it then because I had no funds in the beginning. I was looking to Seth MacFarlane on Family Guy at the tiem, who does a bunch of voices and thought I had nothing to lose following his lead, other than the embarrassment factor. So I just went for it and it was quite cathartic!
RD: Having watched the film I was impressed at the range of voices you provided, none of which sound like your voice now. So, a second career in voicework might beckon.
MM (laughs): Well, you never know, I might need it!
RD: Were the Trampires also based on sketches from your youth or where they more recent?
MM: The Trampires were all designed for the film, but I’ve drawn monsters for years and love sculpting creatures. So, I kept my hand in on the character designs for the film. They’re caricatured faces with fangs and excessive hair, and sculpting is the same.
If I had to choose a second career it would be sculpting monsters; I could just sit and do that all day.
But, on this film I did keep my hand it, because I had to but also because I enjoy it. If we had the chance to do another one, I’d probably do it the same way again.
RD: Again, the film works because you know action cinema, but also horror cinema. Those creature designs look like the monsters of Rob Bottin and Rick Baker.
MM: I really wanted to achieve a 80s look of prosthetics on actors, albeit slightly more cartoony. We also did a bunch of effects in there with stretching heads using mechanisms which I think they would have used in The Thing if that was stop motion. It was a proper love letter to those effects and creatures.
RD: The film has started playing the festival circuit?
MM: We’ve played two so far, Anisee Aniamtion Festival and Fantasia. So far the reaction has been great, with the audience laughing and cheering in all the right parts, and other parts I didn’t expect to get laughs. We’re also meeting distributors while doing the festival circuit, which is good, and we’ll have to see about getting that all-important American distribution deal.
RD: It’s also fitting that Chuck Steel’s feature debut is playing at FrightFest 2018 after the short being there so many years ago. What are you hoping from the experience this time around?
MM: I just hope people laugh at it, and don’t get too serious about it. We live in sensitive times at the moment and since making this film the world has become even more sensitive it feels. Politically incorrect films and jokes are sometimes hard to get by audiences now, so I hope they realise there is no deep message here and just have a laugh at silly entertainment for 88 minutes.
RD: Well, it did make me laugh when Osama Bin Laden briefly appears in a climactic action scene!
MM: It’s not actually meant to be Osama Bin Laden, just an Arabic baddy as another 80s tie-in. But, it’s one of the moments in the film where everyone laughs out loud. I’m happy it gets the laugh, but I was making no single point about that.
RD: I’ll take your word for it…!
MM (laughs): You’re the first person to say it looks like Osama Bin Laden, but if you read it like that, that’s fine as well.
RD: The scene gets so crazy and there are so many monsters appearing, that I read it as, “And here’s this monster as well” in a really funny throwaway moment.
MM: I’m going to say it was intended from now on after you’ve said that!
RD: Like the real 80s action stars who then spent decades trying to reinvent themselves, I thought there was scope for Chuck Steel to evolve in other films. Are you thinking of a sequel?
MM: I’ve got a couple of ideas for sequels, but I’ve not really written anything yet. The film needs to make a fair bit of money back to justify doing an sequel, and it’s a bit out there so I don’t want to jinx it by exploring those new ideas yet.
RD: Final question. Could merchandising Chuck Steel dolls be another revenue stream? I’d like to have those characters on my shelf.
MM: We’d love to get into that realm, but it’s one step at a time right now. We’re going to get the film out and see what the reaction is. Getting merchandise going off the back of a film is not as easy as you think, it has to do really well to be justified. As an independent film we’re slightly in the lap of the gods; we have to get public opinion on the film, gauge the response and see where that takes us.
So, I’ve got my fingers crossed for the next few months as we do the festival run and talk to distributors…