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Five Rules For Making an Indie Superhero Movie

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11212008_special1.jpgBy Matt Singer

The figure of the superhero does not lend itself to independent movies easily or readily. While three of the top five grossing movies of 2008 center on the escapades of eccentrically dressed and extravagantly empowered individuals, there’s a distinct lack of caped crusaders or men of steel for the arthouse crowd. Indie filmmakers may be the most qualified to tackle the spandex set in terms of imagination — which may be the reason so many former members of their ranks, from Christopher Nolan to Guillermo Del Toro, have produced some of the genre’s most memorable entries — yet they have a special brand of kryptonite to contend with: low budgets.

With that in mind, I’ve watched as many indie superhero movies as I could find and assembled this easy-to-use list of five rules guaranteed to make yours a massive success. You can thank me later with some points on the gross.

11212008_sharkboyandlavagirl.jpg1. Children are an invaluable source of unpaid labor.

Robert Rodriguez claimed he used his seven-year-old son Racer’s ideas for the basis of his “Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl in 3-D” because he wanted to encourage his children to harness their creativity in productive ways. (“Sharkboy and Lavagirl”‘s narrative is, not coincidentally, about that exact same thing.) But let’s face it: Rodriguez was also employing his kids as free menial labor, and on the “Sharkboy” DVD, we see how their doodles quickly became conceptual drawings and how pool parties turned into carefully structured brainstorming sessions. (Though Racer was only given a story credit onscreen, the DVD extras suggest he had a significant hand in the dialogue as well.) If audiences don’t ultimately take to your film, as was the unfortunate fate of “Sharkboy and Lavagirl,” the kids provide a convenient scapegoat too. You can just imagine that conversation between Robert and Racer: “Sorry Racer, no more dreaming. The box office was a little tepid. Go play some more Xbox.”

11212008_zebraman.jpg2. In the 1970s, special effects were supposed to look bad.

The hero of Takashi Miike’s “Zebraman” is a schoolteacher and family man named Shinichi (Sho Aikawa) who has never gotten over his childhood obsession with a 1970s kids television series called “Zebraman,” about a hero fighting villains with crabs on their heads in the year 2010. (Think “Power Rangers” without the high caliber of acting.) Now it really is the year 2010, and Shinichi’s only escape from his life of tedium involves dressing in his homemade Zebraman costume. When a guy with a crab on his head starts terrorizing his hometown, Shinichi must stop play-acting and accept his role as a hero. Miike’s warm-hearted homage has some big visuals in its final act, but rooted as it is in the aesthetics of cheesy ’70s television, it’s obligated to look a little low-rent. And even when Shinichi begins to manifest some superhuman abilities (mostly of the “kicking people in the neck” variety), he still frets over flying, a clever cost-cutting measure to keep the character from doing so until the climax.

11212008_sidekick.jpg3. Give your character powers that don’t require special effects.

Granted, most of the brand name superheroes have really showy superpowers: Superman can fly, Spider-Man can stick to walls, Wolverine’s got blades that pop out of his arms. But the reality is your new hero can’t compete with the big guns, and if he did, you’d probably just be accused of copying other characters anyway. Better to choose less popular powers, and better still, choose less popular powers that require you to spend little to none of your visual effects budget. Case in point: the low-budget Canadian indie “Sidekick,” where a nerdy IT specialist named Norman (Perry Mucci) believes a co-worker named Victor (David Ingram) is hiding the fact that he’s got superpowers. Though Norman’s suspicions are based on some truly flimsy evidence — since when does hitting a home run in softball make you a superhero? Is Artie Lange a superhero? — he’s eventually proven correct, and he begins to train Victor to use his gift for the benefit of mankind. That gift is the power of telekinesis, the ability to move things with the mind. Some of Victor’s tricks do require low-level CGI, but most of the time, it simply requires the rest of the cast to stand rigid when he freezes them or to grimace and grab their necks when he chokes them. Norman promises Victor that with practice he should be able to lift a car someday. Note: He does not, so perhaps he should have said with practice AND a few more wealthy investors.

11212008_thespecials.jpg4. Remember that even superheroes take days off.

Studio movies showcase the more glamorous side of heroism, but they tend to ignore the more tedious aspects of the job — paperwork, answering phones, super-team membership drives, and so forth — which makes such things a perfect subject for your indie superhero film. The approach already worked in writer James Gunn’s “The Specials,” a particularly uneventful day in the life of the “6th or 7th best superhero team in the world.” In fact, save for a couple flashy poses in the final montage, none of the members of The Specials do anything even remotely superhuman in the entire film. The team discusses some truly remarkable things — one guy recalls a former member with a prehensile scrotum — but director Craig Mazin, working with a budget under a million dollars and a preproduction schedule of less than a month, leaves them all to our imagination. The superpeople-are-just-like-us angle can be particularly fruitful; Gunn himself plays perhaps a neurotic Special named Minute Man who feels understandably insecure about his ability to shrink down and the way everyone mispronounces his name (“It’s Mi-noot Man. Do I look like a soldier from the Revolutionary War? Am I wearing a three-cornered hat?”). Mazin and Gunn’s film feels like the interesting character scenes that have been cut from a big budget movie to make room for more chase sequences, and in the way it focuses on the small but hugely important everyday problems of real people (who just happen to be able to emit lasers from their arms), it is very much in the tradition of so many American independent movies.

11212008_special2.jpg5. You don’t have to worry about things looking real if they’re not.

You’d have to be pretty crazy to put on some tights and run around solving crime. So take it one step further and create a hero who is crazy, like the just-released “Special” starring Michael Rapaport. Rapaport’s Les takes part in an experimental drug trial that he believes gives him the ability to fly, read people’s minds and walk through walls, but all it’s really done is drive him batshit insane. In his mind, Les is patrolling the Southland and stopping any petty thefts he encounters. In reality, he’s wandering around town in his old beater and tackling innocent people in convenience stores (The media dubs him “The Mad Tackler”). Since Les is emphatically not a superhero, nothing he does needs to look superheroic, from his costume (which looks like something a schizophrenic homeless person would wear to protect him from the CIA’s secret radio transmissions) to his powers (even when he thinks he’s flying, he’s never floating more than a few inches off the ground). This approach has an additional upside: you can save up your money for one or two really special visuals — like walking through a wall or an absolutely brutal stunt fall by a guy getting run over by a car — and the impact is exponentially increased because the audience believes everything is a figment of the character’s imagination. When something suddenly isn’t, you’ll wow them.

[Photos: “Special,” Magnolia Pictures, 2006; “The Adventures of Sharkboy and Lavagirl,” Dimension Films, 2005; “Zebraman,” Media Blasters, 2004; “Sidekick,” Lightyear Entertainment, 2005; “The Specials,” Fluid Entertainment, 2000]

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…


IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.


IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).


IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.


IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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GIFs via Giphy

Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.


IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.



IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….


IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.


IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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