Awhile back B-D reporter Chris Eggertsen had the chance to visit the set of Kyle Rankin’s Nuclear Family, a post-apocalyptic thriller set in the aftermath of a nuclear disaster. While there Chris not only had the opportunity to speak with Rankin and stars Corin Nemec and Ray Wise, he also took on the background role of one of the “Berserkers”, a group of murderous scoundrels terrorizing the lead character and his family. Read on for the full set report.“We’re not giving the actors any marks, they don’t have to like hit tape, and say their lines correctly. It’s just like we run the whole scene and they get a chance to just move around and be in the space and get into the moment. And Mike [Mayers] and whoever’s running the other camera, they’re more like snipers…kind of ‘catch-as-catch-can’. I think it’s a really neat way to work.” – Director Kyle Rankin
“I kinda grew up loving ‘Road Warrior’, and ‘Mad Max’, and those post-apocalyptic stories with the lone hero, you know maybe with a mongrel dog with him”, Rankin told me later on. “But I thought there’d be even more pressure on a guy if he had a wife and a daughter with him.”
Therein lies the main premise of Nuclear Family, an experimental production Rankin put together on a shoestring budget with a skeleton crew and actors willing to work for very little money. If you’re wondering what I mean by “experimental production”, it’s a term I coined (?) after becoming privy to the open-ended nature of the project. See, even the director isn’t sure what it’s going to end up as. “It’s kind of three things”, said Rankin. “It could be a web series…[or] a TV series…or we might just keep going and end up with a feature. So I don’t really know what we’re doing.”
It’s a statement that might strike fear into the heart of any investor, but on set it’s apparent why someone would take a risk on a guy like Rankin. Where many directors I’ve encountered have been prone to unsettling bouts of neurosis and barked orders at their cast and crew, Rankin is a Zen-like sea of calm while orchestrating the intensely physical, frenzied scene in the Berserkers’ camp. In other words, the guy’s a pro. The low-budget production was filming this day in the wilds of Los Angeles’ Topanga Canyon, on a 12-acre plot of land owned by director of photography Michael Mayers (an in-demand television D.P. who also shot Troma’s nuclear-themed Class of Nuke ‘Em High back in the ‘80s).
Today the scene is this: John (Corin Nemec), along with his wife Lynn (who he was in the process of divorcing when the nuclear disaster happened), their young daughter and another man known as The African (Kinsey Packard, Pauline Cohn, and Michael Phillip Edwards, respectively) are captured by the Berserkers in the midst of searching for a lost family member (John and Lynne’s son) and brought back to their camp. After a brutal fight between two of the backwoods rogues, John (played by Corin Nemec of Parker Lewis Can’t Lose and Stargate SG-1 fame) is thrown into the ring to do battle, first with a dwarf Berserker (yep) and then a much larger muscled character who ends up knocking him around pretty badly (props to Nemec the actor for literally taking a beating in the scene – he doubtless went home with a good amount of cuts and bruises).
Through it all, D.P. Mayer and a second camera operator (Patrick Rousseau, who also worked on Sam Raimi’s Drag Me To Hell) record the scene in haphazard, “faux-documentary” style, weaving about and capturing every bone-crushing moment in the ring. Nemec emerges victorious after dispatching his two foes, but then is egged on to engage in a fight to the death with fellow prisoner “The African”. What follows is a tense scene as the men hatch an escape plan while tossing each other about; a whispered moment during a choke-hold seals the deal, and a daring break for freedom follows.
About this “devil-may-care” shooting style, Rankin told me it was a refreshing change from the more structured approach typical of bigger-budget productions. “I’ve enjoyed [it]”, he said. “We’re not giving the actors any marks, they don’t have to like hit tape, and say their lines correctly. It’s just like we run the whole scene and they get a chance to just move around and be in the space and get into the moment. And Mike and whoever’s running the other camera, they’re more like snipers…kind of ‘catch-as-catch-can’. I think it’s a really neat way to work…when I’ve worked it’s always been much slower, like on a feature film. So it’s nice, sometimes with a low budget you just have the freedom to break all the rules.”
Playing the leader of the Berserkers (known only as “The Man”) is Ray Wise, the beloved character actor who was super-awesome to me as he took a few minutes to answer my questions during lunch. “I’m probably the most civilized member of the group [of Berserkers]”, he told me. “I’m somewhat educated, I’m very articulate, sometimes eloquent. I know how to keep these men in check, and they listen to me faithfully. I’m more dangerous than I appear to be.”
It was not only a pleasure to speak with Wise but to watch him perform; dressed in a suit and tie, from outside appearances his character seemed a fish out of water in the grimy scene but clearly exhibited a hold over the other rough characters. The actor’s style during filming was decidedly improvisational: he never failed to change things up in every take, whether through an alternate turn of phrase, a new gesture, or an expertly placed maniacal cackle. Low-budget production or not, the seasoned actor never failed to give his all.
It was doubtless also a credit to his performance that Wise, who has worked with Rankin since the mid-‘90s when he starred in his short film Pennywise, is highly attuned to the director’s sensibilities. “He and I have kind of a shorthand”, said Wise. “We jived a long time ago and we have ever since. He doesn’t even have to say anything to me for me to know what he has in mind or what his idea is. We finish each other’s sentences, and we have basically the same sense of humor.”
I still had to wonder, though, how the actors themselves felt about the undecided trajectory of Rankin’s creation: T.V. show? Web series? Feature film?
“I’m totally down with where entertainment is going with respect to the Internet”, said Nemec when I asked him about the possibility of the show ending up on the Web. “I’m excited about the medium, and I can see how you can take it further. Obviously there’s no money really yet in the Internet with respect to these kind[s] of projects, but that could potentially change. And the notoriety that we can generate with this project could land us a network deal and get us on network television.”
Television seems to be the way Rankin and his producer, Clay Keeley, are leaning at this point – both mentioning the show could appeal to a cable network like Spike TV or Syfy, which peddle in testosterone-laden genre fare. “I’m having so much fun with the cast and crew that the idea of a TV series might be my number one”, Rankin told me to my question of what he felt the ideal format would be. But then: “Also just cause I’m a filmmaker, I love the idea of having a feature film that we could enter into Sundance or whatever.”
“Kyle, I think, would like to make it a feature”, said producer Clay Keeler. “Maybe it could be made a feature…[but] I kind of feel like it oughta be some sort of series…I see it on cable.”
According to Rankin, 12 minutes of the project have already been shot and edited, so if it were to end up as a web series (at five to six minutes per episode), the first two are essentially already finished. Said the director: “I would think two months from now I’ll definitely have a lot to show, if not the whole thing.” Right now, the budget only allows for the filming of six “webisodes”, so by “the whole thing” Rankin means somewhere around 30 minutes of footage that could potentially serve as the basis of a pitch to a T.V. network. If that’s they way they end up going.
Nevertheless, if the project ends up making its home on the Web, it wouldn’t be a new thing for Rankin – he dabbled in the format once before for previous project Hellholes, a horror/comedy about a man who buys a trailer for only one dollar, only to discover it’s a portal to Hell. The series, comprised of four episodes at four minutes each, originally “aired” on Atom Films in 2006 and racked up an impressive number of views. Wise also appeared in that project, and after being recognized by a couple of the series’ fans he began to realize the potential of the format.
“I was down shooting a movie in Louisiana, and some of the extras said, ‘oh my god, you’re that guy from ‘Hellholes!’”, said veteran actor Wise, who has a list of over 130 acting credits on IMDB. “And I thought, ‘wow, of all the things they could’ve remembered me for, they remembered me for ‘Hellholes’.’ So I was surprised, and it felt good that they recognized that.”
Unlike that web series, however, Nuclear Family plays things straight, in a departure for a director who has always blended genre elements with comedy. “I wanted to write something that was just straight-up serious”, Rankin told me. “Sometimes when I was watching something that was straight-up serious, I would feel like…’ugh, I don’t wanna live in this world.’ That’s why I started writing humorous things. But I don’t know, it’s been really fun to just do a straight-up, badass dramatic thing and have lots of tension in it.” In a comparison made by the director himself, just think The Road on steroids.
Lunch ended shortly after my conversation with Rankin, and then it was back to the heat and the grime of the day’s shoot. It was full-steam ahead from there on out, the production racing against time as the sunlight slowly began to dwindle in the hollows of the canyon. For me, the cooling temperatures and lengthening shadows came as a relief from the heat of the day. After a few more hours of shooting, Rankin declared a “wrap” on the Berserkers (I was there for about eight hours total), but I wasn’t ready to remove my cool “facial scars” just yet. Stopping for gas on the way home, I walked inside the station to pay just to see how many looks I’d get. I shouldn’t have been surprised when no one said a word – we were in L.A., after all.