|

Joseph Lawson, Genre Filmmaker: An Interview


JosephJLawsonDirecting_TheGlobalAsylum

By Wheeler Winston Dixon.

Joseph Lawson is an American filmmaker who is an unabashed special effects fan, action movie enthusiast, and utterly pragmatic about how films get made today in a rapaciously competitive environment. He’s a commercial filmmaker, working in Hollywood, making films as entertainment. Along the way, he’s getting more and more of his own vision into his work, even as he struggles against tight deadlines and tighter budgets. We first made contact when I wrote an article for Film International that was sharply critical of The Asylum, the company Lawson works for. Lawson responded in the comments section without the slightest bit of rancor, and suggested that we correspond about the production of his latest film, just wrapped a few days ago, Ardennes Fury. It’s his fifth film as a director.

Yes, Ardennes Fury is indebted to David Ayers’ big budget film Fury coming out later this Fall from Columbia Pictures; yes, you could call this another “tie-in” film from The Asylum, but at the same time, Lawson is absolutely sincere about what he’s doing, and all that the films really share is a similar title; they’re really two absolutely different projects. Like American International Pictures in the 1950s and 60s, The Asylum makes commercial films for a price, and as Lawson makes clear, they don’t use interns or students – they just can’t stand the pace at the studio. Like it or not, The Asylum has a vision all its own. So what’s it like to make films in the Hollywood trenches today? Here’s a chance to find out, first hand.

Wheeler Winston Dixon:Where and when were you born?

Joseph Lawson: I was born in Oak Park, Illinois in 1962.

What can you tell me about your formative influences during these years?

With my Air Force sergeant dad, mom and sister we travelled to various military bases, so that by the time I was eighteen I’d lived in 22 different houses. It was an eclectic upbringing, and part of it was living in Okinawa for several years as a kid, where I developed a strong interest in World War 2. I remember visiting various sites around and just off the island, including the place where esteemed WW2 journalist Ernie Pyle was killed.

I read a lot of science fiction, The Hardy Boys, the old Ballantine World War 2 photo books, and even got to page through the photo book of A Clockwork Orange while waiting for my folks at the base exchange. That was both an eye opener for a young filmmaker and amazing to see movies for the first time as an art form in black and white.

What was it like being uprooted so many times as a young adult?

HalftrackFromArdennesFury_TheGlobalAsylumIt made for an interesting life, and while I wasn’t friendless, it wasn’t always easy to make friends at the time, and I tended to be much more reclusive. The few friends I did make usually shared an interest in science fiction or filmmaking. Then, after six months to a year, we’d uproot and off to another school far, far away.

I think it made me tremendously flexible with life and something of a chameleon. I’m pretty okay with most folks and situations. My social openness as a person really didn’t come till my late 20’s and even now it’s not always easy to be hugely social.

I was very lucky. My Dad and Mom didn’t keep us cloistered on base. In fact, we often lived off base and got to experience the local culture, visiting local attractions, eating local foods. It was a great way to grow up and learn so much, including what it’s like to be the minority in a country.

Growing up, when did you first realize that you were interested in film, and more specifically in special effects?

There’s no doubt the original Star Trek series was the biggest influence on my nascent filmmaking. My folks also took us to base theaters to watch movies and we saw everything. Planet of the Apes, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, The Abominable Doctor Phibes, The Legend of Boggy Creek, The Blob, a whole ton of films. I even was taken to 2001: A Space Odyssey at a drive in theatre, but my folks said I fell asleep in the back seat.

Another film that really piqued my interest was Douglas Trumbull’s Silent Running. That film more than any other jump started my interest in visual effects. Eventually films like Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards, the television series Space 1999 and other films made me want to do this as a business, and be part of creating those kinds of worlds both as a director and a visual effects artist (though at the time it was all called “special effects”).

I also loved Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits and Brazil. My sense of humor definitely runs to the Pythonesque from Holy Grail onward. Other favorites include Ridley Scott for Alien and Blade Runner; James Cameron for Terminator and Aliens and The Abyss; Simon Wincer for Lonesome Dove and Quigley Down Under; Francis Ford Coppola for The Godfather 1 and 2 and Apocalypse Now; and Richard Attenborough for Gandhi. And, of course, I read Famous Monsters of Filmland, or FM as it was known, religiously.

Did you admire the work of special effects stop motion artists like Willis O’Brien, Ray Harryhausen, or is that too old school for you? Are you more of a Phil Tippett fan?

AnaliesAndersonAsMotherMary_TheGlobalAsylumI was definitely a Ray Harryhausen fan. One of the first Super 8mm reels I owned was the battle between the Cyclops and the Dragon from The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad. I never saw the complete film until much, much later, but I played that reel over and over again.

I became aware of Willis O’Brien through FM as well, and Phil Tippett hit the radar when I watched the television special about Star Wars. I’ve become much more aware of specific artist contributions over time, but I’d have to say Harryhausen is the biggest early one. I was also hugely into makeup and the work of Lon Chaney Sr., John Chambers, Rick Baker, and Dick Smith.

Growing up, what specific directors, specific films, and specific genres did you admire or feel drawn to?

David Lean, definitely. Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago – I’m a fool for epics, especially big wide screen ones. What led me to direct Clash of the Empires and the shoot in Cambodia was the desire to “old school it” and shoot in a fundamentally-unexplored-by-western-eyes area with the weather and ground challenges to make something epic in feel.

Jaws is still my favorite “movie” movie; it hits all the marks; a tremendous visual influence. Stanley Kubrick for 2001, Dr. Strangelove and eventually, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. Robert Wise’s Andromeda Strain was huge for me – a straight on science fiction action story that relied on brains as much as special effects. Michael Crichton’s Westworld was another film that really worked for me.

I was also a huge fan of late night movies on television – Valley of The Gwangi, Night of the Lepus, Killdozer, Duel – I devoured them all, which may be why working at The Asylum is such a natural fit. I don’t scoff at those films; I relish the looniness of some of them, and appreciate the hard work of making them, especially having done it now a few times.

There are many directors I didn’t realize influenced me until much later when I started associating names with films: John Ford, John Huston, many of the older filmmakers who were both auteurs and journeymen. Of course, as I got older, I appreciated the work of John Carpenter, John Landis, George Lucas and eventually Peter Jackson, Sam Raimi and currently J.J. Abrams and Joss Whedon.

For genres I’m definitely all over the map. I think what’s allowed me to jump between so many different types of movies already is that I’m pretty steeped in all of them. Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, War Films, Dramas, Thrillers, Westerns, Comedies, Love Films, Disaster Films, B-Movies, Noir, Gangster Films – I’m immersed in all of it and love it all.

My wife and I once watched two movies a night of every single variety from classics to modern, every single night for a year, then discussed the positives and negatives of each film afterwards, what worked, what didn’t and why. It was a fantastic learning experience.

Your bio says that your career started at a ten-watt student radio station in Neah Bay, Washington, and then led to a job as news feature reporter and television commercial director/production department director for almost 20 years between 1981 and 1996 for KRTV-3 in Great Falls, Montana. What can you tell me about these years?

Getting involved in radio saved my life, I think, because I was well on my way to becoming an introverted recluse whose world was wrapped around my drawings. My late friend Bill Rosche actually got me into the student radio station because he didn’t like reading the news so I assisted. At the end of my first news reading this big burly biker-looking guy came in – beard, boots, the works – and said “who was that on the air?” Everyone pointed at me.

CinematographerRichardVialet_TheGlobalAsylumTurns out you had to have a 3rd Class Radio Operator License to do “on air” work and I didn’t. So this intimidating fellow walks up, and says “Hi, I’m Nick Nichols, General Manager of KRNB. How would you like a job reading news here for the summer?” And boom, I was in the “radio biz.” And it went from there.

KRNB was great for a 15 year old kid. New friends, lots of technical training, and even some journalism, including the opportunity to interview Frank Herbert, author of Dune, because he was living over in Port Townsend at the other end of the peninsula from Neah Bay, Washington where the 10 watt station was. Talk about a film I’d love to direct, it would be a new version of Dune.

One of the things I learned there was an abiding appreciation for the Makah people, their lives, their culture and their home. There’s still a part of my soul sitting on a rock out there near Cape Flattery watching the Pacific waves hit the sea cliffs. There’s an epic adventure film I have in mind for that area. Some day! But after a couple years of that we moved from the Makah Reservation, which was my dad’s last Air Force post, to Great Falls, Montana.

You were also an on-air weatherman during this time for KRTV; how did that come about?

I did illustrations for a class on science fiction literature with a fellow named Con Foley, who also did a broadcast course at KRTV-3. The production manager saw my art, and offered me a weekend job running the news camera. From there, I went to weekday news camera, Monday through Friday at 5:30 and 10pm. Then weekend news switcher, then weekday news switcher, then directing weekend news, and eventually I was promoted to being the director of the newscast that fed the Montana Television Network statewide.

Eventually I moved over to the commercial production department, and at age 23 they gave me the job of Production Director, which I did for many years. We were a small department and I did everything: write, light, shoot, direct, edit, sound, music, act, visual effects, documentaries – it was a fantastic education for a filmmaker because there were short deadlines, and we pushed ourselves to the limit with each production.

In 1999, you moved to Hollywood – what made it possible to make the jump, and how did you get the jobs on Roughnecks: The Starship Trooper Chronicles and Max Steel at Foundation Imaging?

I met my wife Kelly in 1997 in Montana – we met in September, I proposed in December, and we married in July of ’98. I was running the business and also teaching graphics and computer studies at the local a local vocational school.

In late 1997 two things happened within two days – my Grandma Genevieve Lawson passed away, and my niece Sarah was born. I had a sense of time passing, and felt it was time to make a move. Kelly and I had settled into a routine with our jobs in Great Falls when I saw an ad for animators to join Foundation Imaging for Roughnecks: The Starship Trooper Chronicles.

I quickly cobbled together a demo reel and sent it off. And waited. And waited. And for two weeks I worked on some specific shots I thought would be “Starship Troopers-like,” recut my reel, and then sent it again. That weekend I got a call from asking if I wanted to come down to join their team.

Kelly and I had set an “offer number” which we were willing to come down for, so when Jeff told me their number – which was much higher – we said yes.

TinoStruckmannAsMajorHestonZellerB__TheGlobalAsylumEventually they promoted me from animating to technical directing (lighting, effects, etc.) and then had me CGI direct an episode of the show, Funeral for A Friend, which was an adventure story with a very strong emotional core. Then they let me be the supervisor for the second season of Max Steel and from there Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future.

Again, I got to be involved in determining the look and direction of the show, hire teams, motivate and work beside them on shots. It was fantastic until 2001, when a combination of factors including the economic downturn after 9/11 helped kill what was one of the greatest artist-centric studios ever.

Then the jump to Rhythm and Hues in 2002 for music videos and commercials; what specific projects did you work on?

When Foundation Imaging went dark, it was a very dark time for a lot of very good and very capable artists. I was fortunate enough to get a gig with some friends on some commercials at the Rhythm & Hues commercial division, but it was freelance, the projects ran out. and I had to move on for awhile.

During this period you also worked for Digital Domain, Eden FX, and did matte painting, animation, lighting, texturing, modeling, compositing on a number of films. Could you mention a few titles, and what you did on them?

This was my “vagabond” period where I freelanced for about a year on a number of projects – modeling, lighting and animation for a Celine Dion music video for Stuart Little 2 at Digital Domain, where they kept me on week to week afterward, then Steve Pugh hired me to work on a couple of episodes of Enterprise for Eden FX. It was a great time creatively, but not so much fun for stability, until I was hired back as a “permalancer” for Rhythm & Hues. For the better part of three years I worked on more commercials than I can count with several great friends. Yeah, it really can be a nomad’s life in VFX!

How did you get involved with The Asylum, and who brought you into the company? What work of yours did they see that impressed them?

LaurenVeraAsClaudetteAndJennaKlugAsAmelie_TheGlobalAsylumMark Kochinski and I have known each other since Rhythm & Hues days, though he was at Foundation Imaging before I arrived there. He’s truly one of the grand pioneers of Lightwave visual effects, having been part of it since the early days.

We got on well and were impressed with each other’s work, so he brought me on at Radical 3D. When he went to start up the department at The Asylum we had lunch chatting about possibilities. I’d never heard of them and hadn’t seen any of their films, or so I thought. Except that a few months before I’d rented Pirates of Treasure Island because it looked like fun.

I don’t know what specifically impressed the guys about me here. They may have seen my reel – I’m not certain – but I’m sure Mark lobbied on my behalf and I was glad for it. Maybe they all had aneurisms on the same day and I slipped in accidentally! No matter what, I’ll be forever grateful to Mark and them for having the faith to allow me to land here.

How closely do you work with the producers David Michael Latt, Paul Bales, Lauren Elizabeth Hood and David Rimawi on these projects?

I work with the big three – Latt, Rimawi and Bales – almost every day. If it’s not notes for a particular show, it’s preparing for upcoming films, dealing with deliveries, approving designs, watching review sessions of delivering films, etc. There probably hasn’t been much I haven’t at one time or another had an opportunity to be part of here.

All that said, I probably work with Latt the most, because first he’s my immediate supervisor and second he’s also a compositor and knows a ton about making shots come together. He’s been a director/writer and more, he’s been in the trenches, so he’s able to effectively communicate the needs of each show. Plus, these guys are all a blast to work with. They love making films.

The Asylum’s directors seem to come out of nowhere, so to speak; how are the directors for the various films brought into each project?

It varies. Some are directors who have done other things the partners saw and were impressed by. Some are the old guard they have been friends with awhile. Some are recommendations, some are name drops, some are friends, and once in awhile they take a chance on one of us inside the halls to see what happens. I got lucky the first time. So far somehow I’ve fooled them into letting me do it four more times!

Does The Asylum recruit heavily out of film schools?

Not that I’m aware of. I’m not honestly sure they have to recruit for anything – there’s usually more than enough folks pounding the doors wanting a chance especially at writing or directing. I know it’s a challenge to get good crew and VFX folks at times. The Asylum really is boot camp and it’s not always an easy one. It’s not for everyone; certainly not for the faint of heart.

TheReenactors__TheGlobalAsylumDo you believe that The Asylum is the model for the future of commercial filmmaking?

I think it’s probable there are many good lessons to be learned from the Asylum model. Not everyone can replicate it. Latt is the production person and keeps tabs, motivates, etc. from production through post. RImawi handles selling and promoting our films, but he also handles post production issues to ensure what the buyers get is the best product they can. Bales handles the finance and business affairs, and is the glue that keeps it all together. We may not always agree but there is a definite mutual respect and it shows.

Would you say that the company is comparable to Roger Corman’s New World and Concorde operations in cost-consciousness and commercial appeal for each film?

Cost consciousness almost definitely, maybe even more so compared to the Corman studios of today. If the distributors come to Asylum and say “I want a 3 Headed Shark move,” the Asylum says “how much have you got, when do you want it, write the check and we’ll have the movie there.” And the schedule is relentless to make it happen; in some years, up to 26 total films. I don’t know of any studio or production entity that does that much.

Do you use interns on your films?

I know I’ve seen interns in other departments but we’ve rarely had them in VFX. Not saying we wouldn’t but it’s not easy to coordinate or do. Our schedules are just too hectic. The timelines are so compressed that we end up doing what’s best to get the project finished rather than be lock step into a particular thing. And while we do have the occasional “forced march” to delivery we’re trying to spread the workloads and get even more organized to not have to panic. My goal would be to have every delivery never having to work the weekend before or long hours to get done. We’ve done that a few times, but I’d like to get it to every time.

How much prep time do you get for a project?

That truly depends. We’ve had as long as a year in VFX if you count how long we’ve known about something but, realistically with so many shows atop one another we often don’t really get to start until about six weeks before delivery. As far as directing I’ve had anywhere from one month to, in the case of Alone for Christmas, just two days.

How long does shooting take on the average Asylum project?

An average Asylum project has 12 to 15 days. We’ve had as little as 4 for some “found footage” horror films and as long as 21 days on network funded projects. Ardennes Fury had 12 days.

And how long in post-production?

4 to 6 weeks. Sometimes changes in the delivery dates can give a show an advantage by having more time to polish (though we’re usually hard at work on another project already) and sometimes the delivery dates get pushed up leaving us much less time (Sharknado 2, for example, went from 8 weeks to 3 weeks which definitely made for a team challenge).

Is everything the Asylum makes pre-sold?

I believe so, yes. The way it works is Distributor A says “my market /network has a screaming need for an invisible bat movie.” So, Asylum says “how much do you want to spend and when do you need it?” Distributor A says “December, and we’re willing to commit $150,000 to the cause” or maybe a combination of distributors gets to that number. Asylum says “Okay, write the check and on December 15th we’ll deliver Invisible Bat!” So, the production costs are paid for up front.

Then The Asylum reserves other market rights to sell around the world that movie. It’s a win-win. The distributors get the shows they want from a reliable source on schedule, and Asylum doesn’t lose money creating content. There’s no real secret to it, they’ve certainly ballyhooed this method for years. They’ve been the masters of predicting and staying ahead of production and distribution trends, a flexible process that continues to this day.

What can you tell about what it’s like to work for The Asylum on a day-to-day basis? Do you never have any idea of what’s coming next?

Every day tends to be an adventure, actually, except for the days where it’s nose to the grindstone getting VFX out the door. Even then we have a great bunch of humor flying around this place, so gallows humor, sardonic humor, silly humor, all of it lubricates the wheels of progress in a speedy fashion. We usually have a pretty good idea of what’s coming up and the scope of the work because I tend to stay pretty organized and communicative. And there are always curve balls to liven things up.

You’ve worked on as astonishing number of films for The Asylum as visual effects supervisor since 2010, averaging by my count some ten a year, including Mercenaries, Hercules Reborn, the wildly successful Sharknado 2: The Second One, Attila, the original Sharknado, Atlantic Rim, and Jack the Giant Killer. How long do you spend on each film?

Each film gets from four to six weeks of VFX time. While we may sometimes get the model and design process going earlier, the amount of time our 9 to 14 person team(s) gets to turn out 100 to 200 shots on a 90 minute film is four weeks. Rarely less, occasionally more. Again, it’s not for the faint of heart, which is why I’m proud of what these folks accomplish with the time they do have.

What were the shooting schedules, number of set-ups per day, and prost-production schedules like on these films?

AtopTheTank__TheGlobalAsylumThe shooting schedules are relentless – 12 days to get 110 pages, so days average from 8 to 11 pages depending. We bust through a huge number of set ups per show, some directors more than others. My method? While I’d love to give master shots their due and do it ten times to get it right but for efficiency – and acknowledging the reality that on an Asylum film we’re likely going to get fairly cutty sometimes in the editing bay anyway – I’ll give it one, maybe two goes, then the rest is coverage, which is where I’d rather try to hone the performance anyway. It helps us keep to the schedules.

On post we usually have about a month to 6 weeks. The films are always being edited while we’re shooting so there’s a rough assembly not long after wrap. So, from there it’s often more about fine-tuning than anything. I’m also very big on temp music being enough to sell the feel to the producers.

Anyway, in about three to four weeks we’re usually looking at the “lock” – the final cut – and from there it’s all about VFX and sound post. It’s a lot to do in a short amount of time, especially compared to the extended delivery times of most films. It’s really more a television schedule applied to a movie paradigm and The Asylum makes it work.

In 2012 you directed your first feature, Nazis at the Center of the Earth. What was it like calling the shots on that film? Why did you pick this project?

Sooner or later you have to take a chance on yourself. There’s the saying “luck is where preparation and opportunity meet.” Lawson’s corollary to that is “…for those willing to grab the brass ring.” So, I had to do it. I have no regrets and though it’s full of flaws – it was way too overloaded with undoable visual effects for the time we had, and it has things I’d love to go back and rework – it turned out pretty well.

Did you have any misgivings about directing such a resolutely sensationalistic project as you debut?

None whatsoever. Latt told me – as a warning, maybe even to scare me off the picture – “you know you’ll always be remembered for your first film. You sure you want to do this?” And the answer, of course, was “yes.” You have to take that first step.

TomStedhamAsSgtLanceDawson_TheGlobalAsylumI assume that everything is shot digitally – do you use Reds (a brand of digital cameras) to shoot your features?

We shoot on a variety of cameras but primarily Reds. We’ve always had great experiences with them – a few glitches here and there, but overall the DPs I’ve worked with seem pretty happy with them, as do the post folks. Yes, The Asylum is exclusively digital now. It’s cost effective. The only drawback is that it doesn’t enforce the discipline that film does, so you end up spooling off more footage than you probably should sometimes.

What can you tell me about Clash of the Empires – how did that come about, and how tough was it to make such an eye-popping film on a very tight budget?

I originally planned to sit that one out. It just was not of interest for several reasons. One day Latt called me in to the office. He slid a piece of paper across the desk; he didn’t say a thing. On it was written “You. Direct. Cambodia,” and the title of the film. I asked him for time to think about it, because I’d always wanted to visit Angkor Wat.

It was my wife who actually finally said “look, it’s been your life long dream. You have to do this.” So, a month and multiple expensive immunizations later I was on a plane overseas director polishing a great Eric Forsberg script and the roller coaster ride began.

The good thing is the budget goes a lot further in Cambodia and the locations themselves are visually spectacular. The people are astoundingly friendly. We didn’t shoot at Angkor – just too expensive – but we got some great locations down south, and even an actual crane to use – the DP, Richard Vialet, loved that!

And you’ve moved up to Ardennes Fury, which you wrote the story for, and which, it seems to me, you feel is a distinct departure from your other work for The Asylum. What led you to this project?

Growing up my Dad and I watched almost all of the classic war films. They had a tremendous impact on both my sensibilities as a filmmaker and my notions of the portrayal of war in the cinema. Since then, of course, I’ve been exposed to a wider range of war films. We have a much more sensible worldview today, even if it’s often much more cynical.

For Ardennes Fury what I tried to keep in mind is that the people of the era were very much dedicated to what they were doing. To be true, a film portraying that time period should be as devoid of the Vietnam era cynicism as possible. They call it “The Last Great War,” and while I don’t think any war is “great,” there’s no doubt that as a country most of the people were invested in winning over what we saw as true evil.

I think that sense of moral compass is something we’ve lost over time. We should still be realistic about the costs of war – but, unfortunately, we also need to be mindful that sometimes you just don’t have a choice – as in a war against Hitler.

You’re releasing this in color and a B&W version as well. What do you B&W brings to the story, and why are you doing this?

ArdennesFury_TheGlobalAsylumI’ve always enjoyed black and white films, I think they add another dimension to storytelling that captures the flavor, especially for Ardennes Fury, of the era that this film is about. When conceived and shot for black and white, the cinematographer’s art can shine in ways color can take away from for composition, light and dark, those sorts of things.

Our cinematographer Richard Vialet – this is our third film together – probably would have shot the film differently if he knew we were planning to release it in monochromatic format as well as color, but it’s a testament to his skills that most of the film actually works just as well as in color.

The opportunity to make it happen started as an offhand “hey, how easy would it be to do…” to my 5 time editor Rob Pallatina. From that point on, he made it a regular thing over the course of the edit to generate the widescreen black and white version for me to the point I actually liked it better than the color version.

So now I like both the color and the monochrome versions. What I hope is that people will watch to their own tastes, perhaps both for a comparison of how choosing different formats affects them as film viewers. Do those film making creative choices have more or less impact? Here’s an opportunity to test that.

Could you tell me a bit about the plot of the film, and why it interested you?

The basic story is about a group of tank soldiers caught behind enemy lines who elect to help rescue orphans from the path of an upcoming Allied bombing mission while being pursued by a vengeful German officer. My other goal with this film was to, for the first time, try to let it be as completely my voice as possible.

Now, there will inevitably be comparisons, there are influences that probably get some play and, despite my best instincts, there are a couple of very subtle homage moments but, for the most part, I didn’t try to emulate any other director. It may have still happened but it wasn’t by design.

How long was the shoot?

12 all-too-fast-days with a hard stop. The day after we finished, most folks were in cars or on planes heading back home. It got very quiet very fast, and there was no room to miss anything. What we didn’t get isn’t in the film, except for a few pickup shots I got in my front yard with my kids at home and some close-ups in the parking lot at The Asylum. Otherwise it’s all Florala, Alabama doubling for North Wastern France against the edge of the Ardennes Forest in late summer of 1944.

How did you work as both director and vfx supervisor; this would seem like mostly a “location” picture, or was there a lot of green-screen?

There was no on-set green screen, which was great! Almost everything you see is practical except for some of the tanks and other sequences. Chris Olen Ray, the producer, was fantastic about getting us authentic uniforms, the location, actors, everything. He really went over and above. The one thing we weren’t able to secure was a German tank and so we had to have a Russian tank stand-in. We’ve augmented with Tiger tanks back at the studio and stock footage.

Where do you think The Asylum is headed in the future? You can’t just keep making tie-ins, and the studio’s biggest success was with Sharknado, which though off the wall, was an entirely original concept. What’s next?

I think people are largely unaware that the Asylum also makes movies for Lifetime and other venues, thrillers which are not mockbusters, sex comedies, horror films that are wholly “original” as much as anything in Hollywood is – but the reputation of the studio is linked to these films, which fly largely under the radar. I do believe The Asylum has been going through a period of growth, and while a number of movies do “key off” others, they also occasionally make something no one else would make or do.

It’s an interesting time to be here, as I do feel they’re on that cusp of going from being perceived one way to achieving visibility in another light. Sharknado put them enough on the radar to make the leap that most of the indie studios with a purpose have had in the past. Witness New Line, Lionsgate – all of the little studios that eventually committed to something bigger and better. I believe Asylum is at that turning point.

Wheeler Winston Dixon writes regularly for Film International.

9 Comments for “Joseph Lawson, Genre Filmmaker: An Interview”

  1. So great to see you did a talk with the Asylum filmmaker, Wheeler! This is a valuable in-depth treatment of a topic that needs more attention. Lawson’s doing
    something far more interesting than people credit him for. The films work as unsuspecting commentary on tent pole production. Asylum’s conventions and narrative shape create a dialog with budget studio style of the past, while showing the vacuity of the present, and hopefully this interview will lead to more commentary.

  2. Matthew: Thanks so much for the kind words. Speaking for myself as a director we have many more freedoms than a larger budget production because not as much is riding on it. We have some room to take creative risks and have actually been given the lattitude to do so. In fact, one of the critical moments of Ardennes Fury came about as a producer suggestion from David Latt that wouldn’t be so popular in mainstream storytelling but was absolutely right for this film. My movies have been accused of being “like a film of the 70s/80s” which while slung as an put-down I take as a badge of honor. Some of the best true movies came out from the 50s to the 80s in my book. I look forward to being able to chat more about the undercurrents and conscious story beats of Ardennes once it’s released because I believe there’s a LOT more going on than meets the eye in what is at first blush an action war film. Hope you’ll be here for the discussion! JJL

  3. Annie Marie Peters

    Very interesting interview with Joseph Lawson. I’ve been following The Asylum since the early 2000’s. It’s a unique company, and it’s fascinating to read about Mr. Lawson’s experiences on set and with the group in general. The Asylum certainly does present it’s own model for filmmaking, and as you said, it is possibly one that others will attempt to duplicate in the future. On a personal note, I’m very interested to see the Ardennes Fury release. From the synopsis, it really seems like a film that will capture my imagination. I also have to admit, I think releasing a black and white version alongside the color version is a very bold choice. I’m intrigued to see both! Wheeler, I think another interesting article would be a side-by-side analysis of both. What a great (and rare) opportunity for a modern film. I’ll be keeping my eye out for that one. Best of luck to Mr. Lawson and The Asylum crew!

  4. My pleasure, Joseph, and nice to hear from you. I agree that “a film of the 70s/80s” is an accolade. I look forward to your thoughts after the film’s release (I hope Wheeler will host you again!), and the discussion that will come — especially judging from Annie’s interesting comments.

  5. I really didn’t know much about the Asylum until now, but I am extremely intrigued by the concept. Ardennes Fury sounds wonderful, and I’m glad to see that it is also being produced in black and white, as well as in color. I feel as if black and white movies capture more than movies in color. Just has that old style way about it.

    Joseph Lawson seems like someone who has worked extremely hard over the years, and isn’t afraid to take risks. I truly believe he will go far in his career. I also hope and believe that the Asylum will become something of the future. I’m extremely tired of the same old Hollywood directed movies, as are many other people. I like seeing new visions popping up.

    Great article overall, and excellent interview. I am definitely going to be checking out the Asylum to learn more.

  6. Great post, I had read a little about the Asylum model and it was intriguing to me. I had always seen the mockbusters but didn’t know there was a industry or strategy behind it. I twas one of those things you thought was stupid until you understood it and what it was actually doing to change an industry.

    As far as the post I love the way it always draws me in. It is also encouraging to hear the stories of how people moved through their career because you realize it just isn’t the straight line that most people think. Sharing!

  7. Veronica… thanks for the kind thoughts. From your mouth to someone’s ears. 😉 Do be aware that Asylum films can be an acquired taste for some… and that there is a definite wide range of subjects and quality over the years. It’s Hollywood’s typical output condensed from five years to one so there’s going to be some films that hit the mark and a number that are… different. Your mileage (and evaluation) may vary. I hope you’ll find a few that are in your quality and interest zone!

  8. Ross: Interestingly, The Asylum is really not doing anything that some studio or another hasn’t already done for a long, long time. A survey of newspapers from the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s will show many theatre pages filled with not only the latest blockbusters but the sideboard industry of “mockbusters”, if you will, and B-movies that have some also become classics in their own right. I would say Hollywood itself mockbusts (A Bugs Life, Ants/Dante’s Peak, Volcano/Armageddon,Deep Impact and many more) as well as rips itself off with many, many movies just rehashes of what has come before with the serial numbers filed off. So, is Asylum off base for doing it or just being reviled because they’re cheeky enough to do it and not hide or care? (I’m going to leave discussions of quality for another interview because, honestly, compare the real budgets of Asylum films to their Hollywood counterparts then see where the “entertainment value” dollar has been better spent by the studio, even if the end result was a drinking game.

  9. PS> I would like to add that while the Asylum business model is straightforward and dedicated to their cause, as a studio they give individual film makers a fair amount of latitude at the director level to define the final film. I’ve been fortunate to be given a great deal of trust… which I’ve done my best to justify… so that when it came to Ardennes Fury I probably had a LOT more input than most in defining a film that, I hope, stands a bit outside the standard fare. That’s how a studio grows and redefines itself. For a time after NATCOTE was made it was shown to other directors as “THIS is how an Asylum film should be made”. I do believe that the studio and many of the people making the films HAVE upped their game in the last four years. Compare the films now to almost anything done by Asylum before 2009 and I think you’ll see they’ve made great strides on a number of fronts. A lot of that is due to having a great cohesive team within the walls, the deliberate striving to hire better crews in production, technology allowing for more to be done with less and a conscious effort on the part of the producers, development, sound, VFX, production, distribution… almost everyone to WANT to be better. And surely (if possibly slowly) we’re getting there for the next step.

Leave a Reply