Peter Briggs (Hellboy co-writer, and the forthcoming Mortis Rex) is gearing up for Panzer 88, a supernatural thriller that’s basically a character piece set in a German King Tiger tank in Russia in World War 2. It’s five guys in a tin can, and something’s trying to stop them making it home. WETA is working on the special FX, all while Briggs is releasing some early concept art. We got our hands on some incredible new concept art inside, along with a brand new in depth interview with Briggs! We’re getting close!
BD: So how far along are you with “Panzer”, now? You yourself just shifted from Los Angeles to New Zealand.
Hey, Brad. Well, yes. Honestly I’m staggered how swiftly things have moved. From the Variety announcement; the Comic Con panel on San Diego; through the L.A Times Hero Complex announcement that Weta Workshop were involved; and now with us physically working out of Weta, it’s been a whirlwind. If you peek at our IMDB, we’re accruing people here at an almost daily rate. And that caliber of crew, essentially for what’s a modestly-budgeted indie movie, is blowing me away. We’ve a slew of Academy Award nominees and winners onboard, in our various departments. Kim Sinclair, for example, picked up the last Art Director Oscar for “Avatar”. The storyline seems to be clicking strongly with people. It’s a highly commercial and easy selI, and certainly nothing, I think, that’s been done at this level of quality before. I’d hate to jinx things, but I’m pleased how well it’s going at the moment.
BD: Are you looking at actors yet?
Um, yes. At a basic level. Gary (Kurtz, producer of “Star Wars”) has been preoccupied with other matters, so we’d a short delay in our main Stateside casting. Unlike “Mortis Rex”, which is very much lead actor-driven, “Panzer” is being viewed at the moment as having an ensemble, much like “Alien” or “The Thing”. I’ve a wishlist we’ll be working through, so fingers-crossed.
Aside from our main tank-crew actors, I met with Shane Rangi in Auckland last Saturday. The guys at Weta Workshop strongly suggested I talk to him. Hopefully, he’ll be providing the motion for our creature. He’s a lovely bloke, incredibly gung-ho. Done creature work, both suit and mo-cap, for just about every major production going through New Zealand. I think he’s the minotaur in the new “Narnia” movie. There’s a nice iTunes podcast for Weta he did, stressing the importance of inhabiting a character when you’re wearing a creature suit. You should give it a listen.
BD: So, casting for the leads begins when?
We start casting with Victoria Burrows and Scot Boland in Los Angeles on the 12th (October). My co-producer in L.A., Priscilla Ross, called the other day to say the major agencies have been tracking the project, and have us right up on their radar, pushing their talent. I would have liked to be back over there right now for that, but we’re living in an age of videoconferencing, so these things are easier than a decade ago. We’ve been talking local casting here in New Zealand, also.
Casting’s a strange juggling act. Of late, the way movie financing works has changed drastically, and in certain cases — especially ours — casting is the paramount linchpin to moving ahead. On something like “District 9”, if you’re a first time director, and you’ve an unknown actor like Sharlto Copley involved, it’s a coin-toss. But then you have a heavy hitter like Peter Jackson attached, it all balances out. Elsewhere in the real world, you’re answerable to financiers. There are market forces and distributors…a multitude of factors to account for. Being entrenched in the production on both this and my other movie, “Mortis Rex”, has been an interesting learning curve. Some actors make good business sense in one country’s market. Others don’t. There are no tangible rules, and the goalposts change all the time, depending on whether actors’ reputations rise and fall when their films flop or hit. It’s dizzying. Victoria and Gary will compare lists, and run them past the financiers. Hopefully, the alchemy will bear gold, and we’re off to the races.
BD: Are you looking at specific names?
With the exception of one of the seven main characters, the gunner Heinz, I’ve a very definite and hopefully bankable and established cast in mind from the outset. We found this great, young upcoming actor in Los Angeles, Luke Bakker, that we’re bringing in to read for Heinz. Luke has that “young Paul Newman/Ryan Reynolds” vibe going for him. If he works out, I think he’d be terrific. Other than that, our wishlist’s all household names. We’re anxious to get the right people for the job: if we get who I want, and it makes good business sense, I think genre fans will be extremely pleased.
At one point, Aaron (Mason, co-writer) and I were writing the character of Max, the tank’s driver. A kind of older, grizzled, likable salt. And we’d been writing Max’s dialogue in a very specific way. I said to Aaron, “I know exactly who this actor is.” And Aaron looked at me, and said, “So do I!” And so I wrote the name on a napkin and put it on the table, face-down. I asked him who he thought it was, and he told me. He turned over the napkin…and there was the name! So, from the outset, the characters have been very specifically defined.
BD: Are you shooting this wholly there in New Zealand? The country’s been mentioned in worldwide entertainment news a lot this past week, for obvious reasons.
Fingers crossed. My production supervisor, Philip Sharpe, and myself have been doing scouting around Wellington, and we’re heading over to South Island in a few days for one specific location recce. The Film Commission here have been extremely generous. Unfortunately, this has all been tempered with the unexpected Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance situation you just alluded to, unfairly targeting “The Hobbit”. There’s a great deal of understandable anger with the crews here, at having a foreign union with no legitimate claim to the country poke around where it’s unhelpful and disrupting their livelihoods. And let me state: I’m generally very pro-Union. If you remember, I was broadcasting on the BBC on both television and radio in Britain at the time of the last Writers’ Guild strike, advocating we stay struck. I was horribly upset with SAG in the U.S. for not striking themselves right after that.
BD: Is the MEAA fracas having any effect on you?
At the moment, not directly. Their case is bafflingly nihilistic, though. You fight from a position of strength, not try to destroy your own cause. The other actors’ unions here ought to be concentrating on building-up the infrastructure of this country and making it attractive to the world to bring their productions here. Not tossing their toys out of the pram before that bedrock’s solidified.
Months ago, Peter Jackson wrote a lengthy and really detailed paper to the New Zealand Government about the potential for restructuring their industry to facilitate expansionism. I haven’t heard one media outlet reference it during this whole thing, despite it sitting there on the ‘net for anyone to look at. You should Google the pdf, and download it. Peter’s clearly got the interests of the advancement of New Zealand as a hub of filmmaking for everybody right there, front-and-center. It ought to be required reading.
BD: So, no plans to shoot in Eastern Europe, as you originally announced in Variety?
Well, prior to Weta’s involvement, our original plan with “Panzer” was to shoot maybe in Norway or Finland. Depending on what happens here…well, I would hope that doesn’t become an option for us, because New Zealand has on paper everything we need. Regardless of whatever goes down, Weta Workshop will be our vendors. And having our production being stuck for 6 weeks in a shipping container to Prague isn’t something I’d relish. The sooner — and let’s hope it *is* sooner — that it dawns on the actors’ unions here this could almost certainly lead to a long-term downturn of the New Zealand Industry, then hopefully sober heads will prevail. The craftsmanship and “can-do” attitude down here is phenomenal, and it really should be supported.
BD: You’re working directly with Weta Workshop at this point?
Yep. And the plan is Park Road, just down the road, will be doing our post-production. You’ve maybe seen Park Road’s quite formidable setup in the “Kong” post-production diaries online a few years ago. Their facilities are, at the very least, the equal of anything in Los Angeles. Probably better. It’s just a beautiful filmmaking environment. I can’t wait to be hunkered-down editing here.
BD: So what’s your daily routine like there?
Well, every morning, I get up, drive to work, zip my security pass, and sit in my office at Weta right across from Richard Taylor’s. On the desk in front of me are miniature World War 2 vehicles. During the day, I have to pinch myself that friendly faces, sculptors and artists I’ve spent a decade admiring in “Rings” and “Kong” documentaries, drop by to chat about the movie. I have to admit, I’ve twice chickened-out at introducing myself to (“Hobbit” concept artist) Alan Lee, sitting on the cafeteria table next to me at lunchtime. The stuff I’ve seen here is incredible…and there’s an awful lot I’m even not allowed to see, because of the Workshop’s incredibly strict confidentially clauses. And that’s after I’ve signed an NDA!
I was due to fly back to Los Angeles yesterday, but I’m extending out — at least initially — into November. We’re just getting into storyboarding. We’d a Friday soiree at the Workshop the other week, and Richard introduced me enthusiastically to everyone. I think I blushed. It’s great fun being here…there’s a palpable camaraderie throughout all the departments.
We’d several outside concept artists on “Panzer” previously, but Greg Broadmore (“District 9″/”Dr Grordbort’s”) just did our first official piece of Weta artwork. Having that little Weta Bug on the bottom of the pictures certainly makes me happy!
BD: Can you talk about that piece?
This comes during one of several intense creature encounters in the movie. Our King Tiger crew need spare parts due to something that’s happened, and the creature catches up with them when they’ve made a u-turn. A fraught creature/motorcycle/tank chase across a perilous frozen lake follows. That was one of the sequences Peter Jackson got very animated about when we were talking about the plot. I’ve been out for a pint with Greg Broadmore while I’ve been here…he’s a lovely bloke. You can see a closeup painting of that scene here in one more painting on “B.D.”, that A.J. Trahan, another of our artists, depicted. A.J. has a wonderfully fluid style. You’ll be seeing a lot more from him.
BD: So, we obviously have to ask. With you working there out of Weta Workshop, what’s Peter Jackson and Richard Taylor’s involvement with “Panzer 88”?
Um. Well, Peter’s time is understandably very precious right now, both with his huge investment in “The Hobbit”, and having to cope with this MEAA situation that’s potentially creating problems for us all. He’s been very, very generous and supportive of “Panzer”. I was going over our latest artwork with him, only hours before the Union thing blew up. Peter and Richard have both been incredible. Richard’s like a force of nature. He’s perhaps the most hard-working, kindest, most phenomenally intelligent person I’ve ever met. Richard’s played a very pivotal role in getting us to this point.
BD: And so what kind of level of horror might we see?
Aside from the Union situation? [Laughs] Well, war *is*, by its nature, horror, isn’t it? So there’s that. But I think, beyond the pure fast-paced WW2 action drive — which is quite considerable, and war-buff purists are going to be happy with that alone — if we’re talking about the genre/supernatural side of it, then we have a couple of different facets. There’s the creepy “Ghost Story” portion, which is the “don’t look behind you!” element. Then there’s the “Jurassic Park” sort of thing, of some titanic beast wanting to tear open a tin-can to get at you. And the relentless “Terminator” drive of something that just absolutely won’t stop coming to get you. Actually, I liken it to Spielberg’s “Duel”, or “Southern Comfort”. These guys have crossed the line. Innocent or not, now they have to pay.
BD: There’s some very interesting stuff in the production art you’ve showed so far.
Well, if you’ve been paying attention to that, I think you’ll see the tip of the iceberg of what we’re hoping to achieve with “Panzer 88”. We’ll be pulling back on revealing too much more artwork shortly, because there’s things we just want to keep as a surprise, and to show much more would blow it. It seems grandiose to say, but I don’t think anyone’s a true notion of the scale of what we’re attempting, especially for such a modest budget. We’re getting massive bang for our buck. To-date, the big set pieces have only really been hinted at. In the same way “District 9” surprised a lot of people, we hope “Panzer 88” is going to knock their socks off. I’m almost more excited at anticipating the military fans’ reactions to the film, than the horror guys. There’s stuff in “Panzer” you’ve simply not seen on film before.
BD: So, how bloodily and/or violently do your characters “pay for it”?
We touched on this a little in another interview. This is the gore part of the equation, or what I call the “Fangoria Effect”. Back as a kid in England, I saved my pocket money to mail-order that first “Fangoria” issue from the States, with Godzilla on the cover, and “Dawn Of The Dead” inside, so I get it. There’s a certain level of expectation, but part of the thing of independent moviemaking is choosing your audience and making a healthy (financial) return through a more accessible rating. We want to stress that this is a quality production, and consequently we’re going to be more in the camp of “Aliens” than “Saw”. But that’s not to say we won’t ultimately serve the needs of those who want the splatter.
BD: So maybe a tougher version later on DVD?
I think it’s fair that from the outset we’ll be angling for a slightly different, more visceral version of the movie on disc, maybe seamless branched. And there’s definitely scenes in this movie that support extending that harder edge. The gorehounds will get more bang for their buck on that score with “Mortis Rex”, though. But there’ll certainly be moments in “Panzer” that’ll send them home from the theater happy.
BD: With that thought, the usual question everyone wants to know: what’s happening with “Mortis Rex”? It’s been a while since we saw an update.
[Laughs] I know! That’s the question that keeps on giving, right? The thing with that project, is there’s developments weekly. It seems I’ve been saying this a while, but there’s very, very good things happening with “Mortis”. Some aspects, it’s actually now trundling faster than “Panzer”. I want to talk about this more in depth, but agonizingly the time’s not quite right. “Panzer” just happened very quickly and overtook it. We’re all more than pleased “Mortis” will be coming up second now, because as a physical production it’s more complicated than “Panzer”, and we really need that extra investment of time in pre-production. We’ve had some very tricky legal stuff with “Mortis” happening since Cannes, and some hard decisions to make on the business end. We started pre-production, but slowed down because of those business hurdles. But, it seems to be all forward momentum now, happily. Expect detailed updates very soon.
BD: So with those two projects on your plate, is there room for anything else on the horizon for you?
Strangely enough, aside from “Mortis”, there’s the possibility of a third, very cool project that serendipitously just came my way. I’d kind of taken myself out of the “writing-to-order” game for a while to concentrate on directing, but this is something I’m just keen to try fit-in and be involved with in that capacity, so stay tuned if that happens.
BD: Sounds intriguing…
It is! It’s way too premature to talk about, but it’s one of those pieces that just make you giggle at how fun it is. Regardless of that, right now, “Panzer 88” is our primary focus,and it’s powering along. People seem to be looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be pretty good.