ELEMENTAL: An Interview With Actor, Writer, Fight Choreographer And Filmmaker John Soares
Not to be outdone by his talents, anyone within conversational reach of Soares will gather his modesty and humility almost instantly. At the same time, strike up a conversation with him on film and you'll find yourself sitting with one of the most inspired up-and-comers to date. And it certainly shows in his latest effort, The Danger Element, which bears a storied evolution over the past decade or more since its heyday as an idea put on paper.
Soares recently signed a deal for the film's release for which details now remain pending. Needless to say, however, in a film like The Danger Element lies the safety of knowing you're in for something quite worthwhile. It has nearly all the trimmings of a stylish, authentic martial arts action steampunk/dieselpunk fantasy for a lo-fi independent project and you can read more of my thoughts on it in my review of the film by clicking here.
In the meantime, it's all about getting to know Soares and his work, and I couldn't be more prouder to have interviewed him for it. He sure has a story to tell about himself, his career and interests in addition to working with wife, actress Cassie Meder, and ultimately finding himself in the good graces of Doug Jones (Fantastic Four: Rise Of The Silver Surfer, Hellboy, Legion) who brings some of the best and most major life to Soares's vision as the film's main villain.
I think this is one of the best, if not THE best interview I've ever posted for our readership. Incidentally, it's also the longest awaited as its taken me to finish between other tasks and I hope you all enjoy it and share it with friends who love action, science fiction and independent cinema.
Alas, here is my interview with the one and only Jitni himself, John Soares.
John Soares: No problem. The year has been busy. Finally finished my first feature length film and have moved into distributing it. I have to work full time at the same time, so it doesn't leave a lot of time for much else. But I manage.
JS: I grew up on an almond farm. When I get introduced to people in "the business" people love saying, "He grew up on an almond farm." It's funny, but it actually is kind of significant because I couldn't have been more removed from the kind of work I do now. It was like a far off land that literally was magical in my mind. Because I didn't understand it. The earliest thing I can remember is my parents showing me Ghostbusters. It came out a few years after I was born, so I definitely grew up with it. Off and on during that first decade of my life I was at different levels of being obsessed with trying to make a Ghostbusters movie, which I never did. But I definitely caught the bug from there. Of course, at the same time, Mad Max, Indiana Jones, Star Wars, the Star Trek movies and all of that good stuff was influencing me pretty heavily, not to mention the legendary cartoon explosion of that era.
How these things were made was something that really nagged at me. There weren't many ways to learn about it at the time and it was like magic. So I'd just watch them over and over again and try to understand how it was done. I remember looking at a VHS copy of Empire Strikes back once and I could see the matte boxes around the ships in space and I thought, "That has something to do with how they made this!" then trying to reverse engineer it. It was a big mystery.
So, I always kinda knew I wanted to make films. In a lot of ways, I've always seen it as the only way to get what's going on in my mind across to other people.
Once I graduated high school, I started making films and I never looked back. A lot of experimental shorts ranging from 2 to 45 minutes. I did a collaboration with Doug TenNapel on a 3 part internet series called Sockbaby in 2003 and got my first taste of what it was like to actually have people all over the world see and like your work. That made me want to develop something of my own, which eventually became the film I just finished, The Danger Element.
Through all of that I've been having to make a living too. So I did some work with Pearson Publishing for a while and right now I work for Dreamworks Animation as an animatic editor on a TV cartoon.
I can't remember a time when I wasn't drawn to this kind of work. At this point, it's the thing I know best.
JS: In 2006, I was finishing up this 45 minute, no budget experimental flick. Was shot on Hi-8 camcorders. Very simple. Mostly just messing around and experimenting with action. During that project, I was asked at one point what kind of movie I thought I could make for 25 thousand dollars. At the time, that was more money than I'd ever seen at one time, so my imagination kind of ran away with itself. I wrote a script for a feature that eventually became The Danger Element. It was quite different though and I would actually count the fact that I couldn't get financing for it as a blessing because it caused me to revisit the script several times and rewrite it. It's much better now than it would have been. Unable to find any money to put into the project, we made the first 10 pages of it as a short and as a pitch. Still no luck. So we put it on the internet and, with the help of promotion from friends at places like Indy Mogul, we ended up gathering a small, but loyal following. In the ensuing years, we were able to raise about 10,000 dollars and combining that with our own contributions and the generosity of the professionals working with us, continued making small sections of the film and posting them online as we were able until, finally, it was finished this year. During the production, which went on for years in between full time work and long stretches without making any progress at all, I was simultaneously cutting the footage as a feature length movie, which it was always meant to be. And that's where we are now.
As far as where the idea came from, I always had this sort of catch-all experimental character that I used to just try things out. If I wanted to do some kind of effects test or stunt test or fight choreography study, it would end up being a little short featuring this character. Over time, I developed a back story for him and started thinking about what it would look like to actually tell a story about him. He's part of this secret order of Knights that was born out of the failure of the second crusade. They are a secret, underground sort of thing, so all their stuff is older and more worn out and kind of looks like it's from a different world. I had this world behind the world sort of concept for it, basically. That you could turn the wrong corner in our world and discover that there is a whole other world operating behind it. I should say that this movie was kind of where I learned to write. It was a real crash course for me where I fought really hard to make it as interesting as possible, but without a lot of experience, so on this thing, I just kind of went nuts and put everything I thought might look cool into it. Lot's of influences from Indiana Jones and Bond and Batman and so on along with things from my own life and things I believe. Looking back, I'm sure I would have structured it differently. That's the interesting thing about making this stuff is that you can look back and see who you were at another time in your life. I'm pretty happy with how it turned out considering what we were working with. I think it's a really bizarre kind of mashup of punk/no budget film making and big time action that is just kind of weird enough to maybe get people to turn their heads and I'm pretty proud of that.
JS: In the beginning, I only got in front of the camera out of necessity. It started with me kind of being the only guy willing to do a certain stunt or something like that. By the time I got to The Danger Element, I was the most reliable person available to me. I could always count on myself showing up, so it made sense to say that I'll be the lead because I always know I'll show up. And, as weird as that logic might sound, there actually are a couple of shots in the movie in which I was the only person around, that I set up myself and then walked over in front of the camera, did a take and then walked back and reviewed it. Most of the time I had at least three people helping me and, in the last two weeks of production, I had a little tiny army that was amazing, but there were times where I was the only actor available and I could grab Justin and Ben and we could still shoot. That was a life saver.
Practicality aside, I did develop a love for acting in the process. I love acting in someone else's thing. I like the collaboration that happens there and I like being able to create a character with a director and get to focus on my character. The Danger Element was a little different as I had to think about everything, so there were moments in which I found it very difficult to shoulder both the complexity of the project as well as the complexity of the character. In the end, I think he's strait forward enough that it worked. I think Jitni sort of ended up being a slightly grumpier version of me, which I could manage with the weight of everything else I had to think about. I think my favorite thing about it, though, were the scenes between Jitni and Agent Billiard. Joshua Krebs was one of the first actors on board and he took it very seriously. So by the time we got to the point where we were acting together, I felt like he was waking up a dynamic between Jitni and Billiard that I hadn't anticipated. It created a lot of ideas that we didn't have time or room to play with. I have other stories about these characters in which I think the dynamic between those two characters will really take off if we ever get to make another movie. It also kind of helped because the first couple of dialog sequences I shot were scenes between Jitni and Enki. I liked how they came out, but diving into that material at the beginning scared me a little. The two characters and the way they relate to eachother is pretty dark. I kept thinking, even though some of my inspiration comes from the dysfunctional family dynamic (I just think it's interesting) the movie is supposed to be fun, is it getting too 'dysfunctional family' without me realizing it? But I had forgotten how well Billiard diffused that. When he showed up I started feeling really good about the dynamic between all three characters.
FCSyndicate: Of all the actors you might have been able to snag to play the villain, I think Doug Jones was one of the best choices you made for this film. How did you go about casting the roles for this movie? And tell us how you met Jones prior to his attachment.
JS: When I was writing The Danger Element, we went to San Diego for Comic Con International. It was the year that Guillermo Del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth was released and Guillermo and Doug Jones did a panel together. I didn't know what Pan's Labyrinth was, but I was, and still am, a huge fan of Guillermo, so I went. The film looked amazing and they said they were going to be signing posters down on the convention floor, so I went down there and got in line. A lot of my friends were in front of me, so they were giving Guillermo and Doug a lot of our stuff. T Shirts and DVDs and stuff. So by the time I got down to them, they kind of recognized me, which was strange. Guillermo was really nice, signed my poster and I kinda geeked out for a minute, then I got to Doug and he literally stood up and came around the table and starts asking me questions. We are holding up a line of people and he's asking me about what I do and how he can see it and so on. I was really overwhelmed, didn't expect it at all. We exchanged information and later that week, he called me on the phone. We talked some more and I showed him some of the humble little projects I had done and he loved them. Then he told me that he wanted to work with me on something. I know that sounds unbelievable, but he actually asked me to let him be in something I was making. This helped a lot because I was having a lot of trouble figuring out the villain in the script. I didn't know how we would ever find someone who could pull it off, so it was hard to write. But from that moment forward, I just wrote it for Doug and it just sort of came together. I love Doug. We've become good friends. I don't get to see him much because he's so busy making movies, but we keep in touch and we are always talking about what we might do next. He's one of many things that happened on this project that made it possible. Without him, I'm not sure where we would have ended up. And his patience and enthusiasm is unparalleled. He truly is the nicest guy in the business.
|From L to R: John Soares, Justin Spurlock, Doug Jones and Glen Gabriel attend SDCC 2012|
To give you an idea of how great he is, he was only on set for a total of like six days, I think. It was hard to get him scheduled because he was literally going off and filming Hellboy 2 or the Gainsbourg movie and then I'd try to catch him right as he came back before anyone else could scoop him up. He didn't get to meet a lot of the actors he was talking to in the scenes as the schedules just didn't line up. But look how he kind of carries the whole thing anyway. He's modest, but I think he's really amazing.
JS: I always start big in my imagination and then scale back. There are a lot of things I didn't get to do, but I think I did as much as I could under the circumstances.
I have a tendency to think up these big climactic shots for each sequence where you get to the height of the sequence and then you get this one shot that is just a show stopper. But I am often not able to do them because it would really take at least a whole day to set it up and do a few takes, when, in reality, I've never had more than 6 hours on set to should an action sequence. Many times, it's more like 4 hours. The first car chase sequence was shot over the course of two 6 hour days. It's the longest I've ever had to do an action sequence. I'd really love to get more time in the future. Time is everything with that stuff and you just don't have any.
In the end I'm really happy with what we've got. People seem to be pretty surprised by it and that makes me feel pretty good. We aimed for the moon and we landed somewhere pretty satisfying I hope. One thing that has always bugged me is that I've always wanted to do a car crash. I was kind of able to do one in The Danger Element with a miniature, which is pretty cool. And I'm really proud of the fact we were able to do the car mounted machine guns. That was something I just felt was essential from day one and, thanks to Evil Ted Smith, who built the miniature of the hood and the guns that raised up out of it, and Ben Page, who built the full size props, we were actually able to pull it off.
Still, there's always that one thing you want to do that you never get to do.
JS: The idea is that, in our own world, there is this secret war going on behind the scenes. And the people fighting it are just really not a part of our world. They make their own stuff. They have their own culture in which they keep the best of the past and combine it with the best of the present. For instance, Enki and Jitni's father builds this super advanced vehicle that is driven by a technology no one has ever seen. It's like a warp driven car. But he puts all of this behind the facade of a 1935 Auburn Speedster, which he regards as the most beautiful car ever built.
Enki's gun is also an example. The idea is that she's supposed to have made this thing herself and it's sort of familiar, but also different from anything you see out in the world. It's a mixture of old and new and a little bit of something else you can't put your finger on.
I guess all of that comes out of this love that I have for art deco and clunky machinery and all of that. Gives me an excuse to put it in contemporary action film. I am a little bored by just strait forward contemporary imagery. There are more interesting things in the world that still exist. The car for example. I mean it's a real car. I drive it around. It exists in real life.
I remember when I was developing The Danger Element, I used to meet with some friends every once in a while in this club on 2nd street in Downtown LA called The Edison. It's literally an underground deco/diesel club that almost looks like it could be inside of a submarine. I'd get on a train in San Francisco and ride down to Union Station, get there at like 9, walk over to the Edison and we'd hang out and party or whatever until like 1 and I'd get back on the train and be back home by 8 in the morning. It formed my perspective on this subject as this is a real place I could go to and actually sit in and listen to and smell. It was a real thing that existed in the 21st century. It wasn't something I just saw on the internet or that existed in my imagination or in a piece of amateur fiction. So my perspective on all that stuff is different. Something got lost when the whole thing became a costume party I think, but what are you gonna do?
It's hard for me to explain this to people sometimes for some reason because I just don't necessarily see the passage of time as universal. Not everything is effected the same way by time. My Catholic Culture, for example, which also heavily influences my work, is very much embedded in the idea of timelessness. I have a close friend just north of here, a Cistercian monk who's order has been chanting the Psalms non stop for a thousand years... That sort of thing is normal for me. An altar in Tennessee can contain the bones of a 2nd century Pope or, depending on what Church you go to, you might celebrate Mass mere feet away from the burial shroud of Christ or the Holy Grail or the chains that bound Saint Peter. And you'll find us doing and saying and thinking the same things as the people who saw those things when they were brand new. Our buildings seem ancient to people on the outside, but for us, they are just our buildings. They aren't antiques to us. Time just doesn't mean the same thing to us. And I think my work probably expresses some strange aspect of that odd perspective.
I think it's the same with a lot of things. This car, for example, a lot of people told me I need to put a vintage style license plate on it. I have always refused because, to me, that would mean I am pretending. I'm not pretending. It's not a costume. It's my car. And I drive it in the 21st century. It really exists. So why wouldn't it have a brand new California license plate on it? Similarly, I was with a friend in a Catholic Church that was about 800 years old. He commented that it was weird that the place had electric lights installed. Shouldn't they try to make it look like candlelight or something, to fit the time period? My perspective was completely different. To me, trying to fake firelight would be saying that the place was a museum. An artifact of a dead culture. But it's not. It's a living culture and we are still using that building every day. We shouldn't pretend it's for show. It's appropriate that it would be the best of the old and the best of the new. It's not a costume party.
As for where the car came from, it was given to one of my partners, Ben Beames, for the production by a friend of ours called Les Ellis. At the end of the production, I bought the car from Ben and he knocked off the last two payments as a wedding gift. Getting the car for the film was an interesting turn of events because this particular model has some history in my family and I just couldn't believe I was going to get to have one in the film. I knew I wanted something that would kind of evoke an open cockpit airplane, but I didn't realize that we'd get something that had such specific meaning for me.
JS: Thanks a lot. It's interesting to talk about some of this stuff. Makes me look at it in a new way!
Well, I definitely don't regret doing it. We hit that moment that everyone hits early on where we could have made an excuse. We could have said that we just couldn't afford it because we didn't get financing or whatever. But we trudged on and kept trying to adapt. And I don't regret that. From the very beginning I always believed that no one was going to hand us the opportunity. We had to have made something first. So I knew that giving up on it meant that we'd definitely go no further. And I even remember right at the beginning, sitting in my room and telling myself to be prepared for how hard this would be. That there would be times when I couldn't afford to eat dinner and times when I felt I'd totally lost interest in the project, but I'd have to keep going. Maybe even that everyone would hate it, but I had to do it anyway. And I think that I've learned that that's important. Before you jump into something like that you have to be okay with how hard it is going to be on your life and you have to be okay with the possibility that you might not make any money off it or get any towering accolades, you might go hungry, relationships might be stressed to breaking and you'll change as a person before it's over. You'll change into a different person than you were when you started and you'll find yourself a slave to your past self. Mentally it's very hard and if you are prone to depression, it can turn into the hardest thing you've ever done. But if all of that is worth it, then go for it. If you are okay with giving up whatever you'll put into it and never get it back, that's when I would say it's a thing worth doing.
Aronofsky said recently, "You have to make mistakes to succeed. If you’re willing to take the risk to make a movie, that’s probably a mistake. I think making any movie is sort of a mistake."
That statement really sums up the last decade of my life. By all accounts, what I did here was kind of a mistake. I probably lost more than I'll ever get back, but the question is always, "was it a mistake worth making?"
Of course there are all the other things. I really did get better at writing and shooting and planning, of course. I really believe the next script I write will be so much easier to write as a result and will be so much better. But the most important thing I think I could hand over to the next person is to really evaluate what they are getting themselves into. To imagine every little bit of his time, money or resources he puts into it never coming back. And ask themselves, "is it still worth it?" It might be. But you better be sure.
I think what I might do differently in the future is that I'll never take this long to shoot a film again. And it's not because I think I made a mistake. I really didn't have a choice. But since I've done it once, I don't see a need to do it again. I've told myself basically that I'm done with that. The next thing has to be better. Better script, better film, better working conditions and better for my life and my family and my future. If not, then I can turn it down. It's an easy decision because I've done that once already. There's not much need to do it twice.
JS: I've never had any formal training in martial art. I have studied it for about 15 years both in real theory and as a cinematic art form. A lot of it is focused into how to make something look cool on camera. Most of my inspiration for fight choreography comes from the Jet Li era. His films in the 90s were my biggest influence when it comes to martial art films. This might not be something anyone else would admit, but I'm a huge fan of the Matrix franchise and the first time I ever thought it might be possible for me to do something like this was when I was watching the first Matrix film. That was the first time I thought about experimenting and actually trying to do a sequence like that. I was a senior in high school. I've seen so many martial art films, but the fight in the Chateau in The Matrix: Reloaded is still one of the coolest things I've ever seen.
|Danger poses on the set of The Danger Element (2016)|
It should be pointed out that I'm nowhere near as strong in my skills as the guys I worked with on The Danger Element. On the last few days of filming, I shot a fight with Shaun Finney, Fernando Jay Huerto and Devin White. These guys can run circles around me, really. They are in much better shape, their skills are much more honed, they are all very fast and precise and can do moves I could never hope to. My skill resides mostly in choreography and performance. I can be fast and I can hit a target and I understand the rhythm and composition of a fight that I like, where the camera should be, but I'm nothing compared to these guys when it comes to just raw physical skill. They made me look good, I think. As you can imagine, I was exhausted by the time I got to that fight, so it seems to me it made things more believable because, for most of it, they have the upper hand on me.
I would say that you will see more of this sort of thing from me. I've been at it for a long time and, as you know, martial art is a pretty spectacular way to add production value to a film that otherwise is very limited when it comes to physical spectacle. I feel like if you can do a good fight, it's worth about as much as a big explosion or expensive digital effect. So I would say, yes, I'll probably be calling on those skills again, so long as my body holds up. I do still train, but not as hard as if I were going to be doing a movie soon. I just try to stay in shape mostly, so I am somewhat prepared. I actually have written another script that is another martial art/adventure flick. So there is one project, for sure, on my mind in which you'll see more of this kind of action.
JS: Eric Jacobus and I cross paths every few years and talk about doing something together. I think that would be great, even though Eric outpaces me in every way when it comes to martial art. And there is a stunt guy in Sweden by the name of Eos Karlsson that I've been watching for a while that I'd love to have on my team if I ever get to make something there. And, even though I don't really know them, I'd love to meet Brendon Huor and Mickey Facchinello. I think they are just amazing.
JS: I can't say for sure about a released date just yet as I've only signed an agreement with a distribution agent. The film hasn't been sold into distribution anywhere yet, but I am assuming you'll start seeing it pop up somewhere next year.
Yes, I have many stories to tell about these characters. I have a script ready, actually, that I've been developing with my composer and some friends in Sweden to possibly be shot there. I don't know if we'll ever get to do it, but I'm really happy with the script and I've been over there once to scout locations and get to know people there.
I also have other ideas and scripts in various stages. I guess it depends on what comes along first.
JS: Definitely excited to see Rogue One! But who isn't? The Force Awakens brought back my excitement about Star Wars.
And ever since Paramount put up those 5 short teasers for Ghost in the Shell, I've caught myself checking back in to see if they've posted anything else several times. I'm terribly excited about that. Also, Scorsese's Silence, which is about Jesuit priests in 17th century Japan. I heard about that one from the Jesuits before I heard about it from anyone else. They seem pretty excited about it too.
JS: Thanks for the attention, I suppose. If you are a moviegoer, try to enjoy yourself. Try to get your head out of the technicalities and the politics of filmmaking and into the world of whatever you are watching. It's harder and harder to do now, but I promise nobody makes one of these things hoping you will develop your opinions on it based on the reviews or the trades or whatever the budget is listed as on Wikipedia. Apply yourself to the work of watching a movie. And if you are a filmmaker or an actor, just get out there and do it. Make your own opportunities.
JS: Thank you, Lee! This has been a lot of fun.