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DID YOU READ

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]

IFC_Portlandia-S8_best-of-skits_subaru-blog

The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at IFC.com

IFC_Portlandia-S8_pick-a-lane_subaru-blog

Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

Uncle-Buck

Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

It’s the final countdown to Christmas and thanks to IFC’s movie marathon all Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, you can revel in classic ’80s films AND find inspiration for your last-minute gifts. Here are our recommendations, if you need a head start:

Musical Instrument

Great analog entertainment substitute when you refuse to give your kid the Nintendo Switch they’ve been drooling over.

Breakfast In Bed

Any significant other or child would appreciate these Uncle Buck-approved flapjacks. Just make sure you’re not stuck on clean up duty.

Cocktail Supplies

You’ll need them to get through the holidays.

Dance Lessons

So you can learn to shake-shake-shake (unless you know ghosts willing to lend a hand).

Comfy Clothes

With all the holiday meals, there may be some…embigenning.



Get even more great inspiration all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC, and remember…