By Ali Moosavi.
Politics is a dirty game, no matter which side of the table you’re on.” –Brian Skiba
There is a certain genre of film which, perhaps unkindly, can be called “Budget Action”. These are not the big budget action movies starring Keanu Reeves or Tom Cruise; or even having budgets of a Jason Statham movie. There are certain actors, who are identified with this genre, examples include Steve Austin, Michael Jai White, Tony Jaa and Casper Van Dien. The bulk of these movies are made for foreign markets or direct to video and, increasingly, streaming media outlets. Fans of this genre are not looking for philosophical subtexts or meaningful dramas. They come to see unadulterated action, kicking and shooting with clear and unmistakable good guys and bad guys. The audience for these flicks may on occasions include true cinephiles who just want to give their brains a break in between watching artistic films.
One of the truly prolific directors working in this genre is Brian Skiba. In the last ten years he has made 25 films, both for cinema and TV. Though the bulk of his output are action films, he does turn out, about one every two years, a family film with a Christmas theme!
Skiba’s latest film is The 2nd, the title referring to the 2nd Amendment in the US Constitution; i.e. the individual right to keep and bear arms. In the film, large widespread demonstrations for gun control are putting pressure on the US Supreme Court Justices to make changes to this amendment. The chief baddie in the film is the director of the CIA, who arranges the kidnapping of the daughter of the Chief Justice as a bargaining chip to make sure the Supreme Court does not alter the 2nd Amendment. As it happens, the daughter attends the same school as Ryan Phillippe’s son. And the Ryan Phillippe character happens to be a secret service agent with a resume which would make James Bond look like a primary school teacher. What we have then is a Die Hard set in a school with Phillippe outfoxing the baddies in every turn. It also helps that his son is a karate expert and the Justice’s daughter is a master swordswoman. Casper Van Dien is the ultra cool baddie (distinguishable by wearing shades), supervising his troops from outside the school.
Film International talked with Brian Skiba about this film and film making in general.
Looking at your filmography, you are the definition of prolific! How do you not only direct twenty-five films in a decade, but also but also produce, co-write and edit some of them?!
I don’t sleep much (laughs). I love the craft; filmmaking is my passion. Doing those jobs is not work at all; it’s something I look forward to every morning when I wake up, I feel blessed.
Does it get any easier the more you do it?
For sure, you learn more “ins and outs,” and with practice everything gets easier, but you always have to face the challenges of filmmaking.
How early do you get involved in the process: i.e., are you there as soon as they’re raising budget and casting, or later on?
Depends on the film. I’ve done some films “from script to screen”; other films I come on just to direct, then hand over my cut to the TV execs who have final say. But they’re all equally rewarding in their own way; it’s all about the process for me.
This film’s theme is quite topical; whose decision was it to add a political spin on it?
The script had already been written by Eric [Bromberg] and Paul [Taegel], and then Ryan [Philippe] and the other producers decided they wanted to add a political element. I brought my feelings to the table, which are that politics is a dirty game, no matter which side of the table you’re on. When you have a country of 340 million people, there are always going to be trade-offs; there’s not gonna be one “solution” for everyone. With the example of gun control, you have many gun-owners who are responsible, but then there are those who aren’t. What I was trying to show is that there isn’t necessarily “right” or “wrong”, but it’s more “grey”.
My kids were involved in a school shooting; they were shot at, so the topic is very personal to me and was something I wanted to discuss. I didn’t want to put a definite “ban guns” or “don’t ban guns” opinion, but to show that the extremes won’t work.
Casper Van Dien is already an established action star, but this doesn’t seem like a typical role or film for Ryan Philippe.
Ryan had already done The Shooter, and after that he really wanted to do more action movies… and I think he should! He’s athletic and tough, runs with a lot of military guys, so he knows what he’s doing when it comes to handling guns and fighting. I would compare it to Bruce Willis coming off Moonlighting: no one saw him as an action guy until he got stuck in an elevator in Die Hard.
Watching the film, it seems you prefer stuntwork over CGI.
Yeah, I love stuntwork. CGI’s fun, but at the start of production for this film I went to the producers and brought in a good friend of mine, stunt coordinator Josh Tessier, and we said we wanted to be as much practical as possible. We also brought in the special effects guy from American Horror Story [Frank Ceglia] to help with explosions, etc., and we all said “let’s harken back to the Nineties”. There’s something to be said for a real muzzle flash and real explosions. Stuntwork is an art, I love it.
The end of the film seems to set up a sequel.
Yeah, Paul [Taegel] and Eric [Bromberg] have already written it! We’re just waiting to see how this one does.
So how has lockdown affected your career so far?
I was supposed to shoot an action film with Casper Van Dien and Thomas Jane in May/June, but that production got shut down for the time being. There was about three months where no one in the film industry knew how to deal with the situation, but that was three very rewarding months I got to spend with my family. Then I got the call to work on a thriller in Texas, and it was rewarding to go back to work even though we’re all wearing masks and getting tested every other day.
I noticed that between your action flicks you’ve made a lot of Christmas movies. Is that to atone for your sins?
Hah, sure. It’s probably because I’ve got four kids, from age 5 to 17, and I’ve always wanted to make films that they can watch as well. And they’re a great way to stay employed as a director, every year there’s a demand for Christmas movies. It’s stable work and I have another one coming out this year.
You’ve worked in both cinema and TV, what would you say are the differences between the two?
I would say that with cinema that the producers allow me to be more creative. I can go to them and say “I want this crazy look” or “I want this crazy scene”, and it can be more edgy. For example, with my film Rottentail, that was based on a very gritty graphic novel, and I was allowed to make this over-the-top Seventies-style grindhouse film with bright colours, and be creatively free. Whereas with television there is a box: it has to be filmed a certain way, coloured a certain way, even the acting is a little bit different… Those are the shows that once I deliver my cut and collect my check, the producers and executives then take it from there and I see it when it comes out. I call TV my day job. It’s still doing what I love, but it’s more of a 9 to 5 than cinema.
Who is your favourite filmmaker?
Scorsese: he’s prolific, still making films, and good ones, too, and that’s something I hope to achieve.
What are you working on now?
I’ve got the Casper Van Dien/Thomas Jane action film that was put on hold ready to go. I’ve also got a couple of action films in development at Voltage Pictures who produced The Hurt Locker. As far as TV goes, I’ve got a couple of TV movies coming out this Fall. My first sequel, Deadly Excursion 2, comes out October 1st on Lifetime, along with a Christmas movie and a thriller at later dates. I’m always doing something!
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).