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SEARCH/DESTROY: A Strontium Dog Fan Film Interview

After the failing of Sylvester Stallone’s film in 1995, the idea of a Judge Dredd film being done right was a huge undertaking for studios, and with 2012’s Dredd, that wish came true in the form of a gritty and more to-the-core reboot we all know and love today. With enough of a cult following and our countless articles praising the film, our 5 year fight into giving Judge Dredd another shot into the world of media took storm one faithful day with the announcement of a television series entitled Judge Dredd: Mega-City One. What felt like an impossible fight for us was finally where we wanted to go.

But there was a point even before Karl Urban’s Dredd that determination of a proper project on the Lawman was made, and we look no further than the original fan film Judge Minty, a short film being worked on earlier following a smaller story outside the realms of Judge Dredd and its bigger enemies and protagonists. Showing a wide but still rich variety of stories and characters to showcase the possibilities of what the comics can be adapted to, we cannot simply ignore the amount of love the filmmakers and fans made of this that helped evolve the media’s early appreciation of The Law.

The film went above and beyond the norm of fan films and, with its astonishing quality, vividly portraying the futuristic dystopia of Dredd’s universe with a simple story carried by the powerful acting of Edmund Dehn as the titular Minty. The journey to the Cursed Earth and the philosophy of Minty and the lawless made this haunting reality of a toxic environment something truly realistic. It even went as far as taking the number two spot in our list of best comic-based fan films.

Just recently, the same minds behind the ambitious Judge Minty have returned to bring out another story from the pages of 2000 AD to life, this time in the form of Strontium Dog. Taking another shot at the world of fan film, Search/Destroy: A Strontium Dog Fan Film takes place in the far future of mutants, despised by the “norms” and given the dirtiest job – bounty hunting. We follow the work of one such mutant Johnny Alpha and his trusty Viking sidekick Wulf Sternhammer as they hunt down criminals for the Galactic Crime Commission. Needless to say the same passion and care went into the film, and the quality speaks for itself.

In addition to viewing the movie, I spoke with many perspectives of the film project and their insight of both the on-screen and behind-the-scenes. We are joined closer to this world with writers/directors Steven Sterlacchini and Steve Green, actors Matthew Simpson, Kevin Horsham and Edmun Dehn, composer Michael Savage and prop maker Daniel Carey-George.


 

TO STEVEN STERLACCHINI & STEVE GREEN (WRITING):

SCREENGEEK: Especially in the age of comic book films being more relevant with their own universes, many individuals going into these films are not usually readers of the comic. With such an underground following, much of the mainstream audiences (at least here in North America) really only know about Judge Dredd being the main poster boy for 2000 AD and Rebellion. Strontium Dog and the Johnny Alpha storylines are much more obscure for others. Did translating a source that has been mostly unknown to film audiences create more opportunities or liabilities in your writing?

STEVEN STERLACCHINI: It’s fair to say that a Strontium Dog project is likely to get less ‘passing trade’ than a Dredd based one, but I don’t think we were worried about the liabilities of producing a fan film based on a less well-known storyline. We mainly saw it as an opportunity, to try our best, to bring the characters we loved to the screen. Having said that, we’ve received a great deal of interest and support for the project. I think a lot of people, especially in the creative industries of the UK, have a great deal of love for the characters and have their fingers crossed that we can capture, even a little, of Johnny and Wulf.

Regardless of familiarity, hopefully some of the more traditional themes of Strontium Dog will resonate with the audience. For instance, Judge Minty could be regarded as a simple ‘reluctant gunslinger’ story and so perhaps in turn Johnny Alpha is the ‘rugged warrior with a heart’… who has a Viking as a side sidekick.

One possible advantage of making fan films is that you don’t have to worry quite so much about being niche, or adapting material to be more inclusive for a general audience. Obviously we didn’t go out of our way to make them deliberately impenetrable, but because fan films are aimed ‘mainly’ at the existing audience, they can often avoid using a lot of exposition about the characters, their worlds and origins, because the viewer is already up to speed.

STEVE GREEN: Well, we didn’t translate the story so much as cherry pick elements – there probably aren’t that many SD stories that would be particularly doable on a micro-budget, plus you know how it’s going to play out. We had someone ask if we were doing ‘The Killing’, which has a cast of hundreds – that’s not going to happen in a fan film.

The main hurdles really were trying to get across how some things work, like the time-bomb. In the comic it’s easy enough to have a panel, in a short for people unfamiliar with how it works it could be a bit trickier. We’re primarily doing it for fans, and if people unfamiliar with it like it enough to look at the trades, that’s great.

The other slight hurdle is Johnny is a bit all-powerful, combine his mind reading abilities with time bombs and all the other stuff, and it can be a problem – a longer story might have space to put these things out of reach, but we didn’t really have the space to ditch them and wanted to show them on screen. I guess we aimed for a Strontium Dog essentials in 15-20 minutes.

TO STEVEN STERLACCHINI & STEVE GREEN(DIRECTING):

SCREENGEEK: The last project you worked on, Judge Minty, had very minimal reference material that allowed a lot of creative freedom in how to make the most of such a simple story. The characterization, the journey, even the more in-depth changes that came across as he made his way through the story, something you guys really made your own that people really associate strongly to that lore. With Johnny Alpha, he’s had a much more expanded history in the comics and much more concrete development and interactions through his long presence in said comics. Did such a different density of source material show any challenges to making Search/Destroy and interpreting the richer characters in comparison to Judge Minty?

STEVEN STERLACCHINI: On Judge Minty, I’m not sure that we ‘made it our own’ as much as we plundered four decades of Dredd stories. We wanted to use as much source material as possible and any ‘original’ elements to the story were heavily inspired by reading 2000 AD. Most notably, we used another existing Dredd story called “Last of the Bad Guys” as the backdrop for the ‘Cursed Earth’ element of the plot. We also had an invaluable re-write by 2000 AD writer Michael Carroll, which after we’d trimmed it back to something we could do with our budget, ended up being pretty much the finished script.

The original Judge Minty story is a short and poignant one, in which Dredd plays a more important a role. However we wanted to focus more on Minty, a stern lawman coming to terms with doubts about his life’s work. I think we made further minor changes during filming, when we realise that Edmund’s performance was one of our strongest assets and the thing which would carry people through the film.

If producing Minty was about expanding and exploring, then Strontium dog was about abridgement. With Strontium Dog, we wanted to give an overview of the potential of the characters. A few people have commented that it feels a little like a ‘taster’ which I think is fair. The main challenge was to integrate the Strontium Dog story elements we wanted, without it feeling too shoehorned in.

STEVE GREEN: I guess Strontium Dog, like Dredd can tell a number of stories – it could be a War Story, a weird road trip like Journey into Hell, a time travel caper, but it’s mostly categorised as a sci-fi western, so we wanted to get some of that in there – like Steve says it was really to aim for almost a pitch (not that we’re pitching anything ourselves), but just to get the essence of SD stories over in 20 minutes.

Well, it was a split between known characters, Johnny, Wulf, Harvey etc who had the most screen-time, and the others who were new to the film, although you can see elements of other comic characters being used here and there.

It rattles along quite quickly, so there wasn’t really much space for developing characters outside of the leads – we had a few cameos in the doghouse but they were really just to set the scene. The comic managed without the doghouse for a good while, but it is a useful aspect to state what Johnny’s position is, the mutants relationship to the norms etc.

TO MATTHEW SIMPSON (JOHNNY ALPHA) & KEVIN HORSHAM (WULF STERNHAMMER):

SCREENGEEK: Playing the iconic Johnny Alpha and partner Wulf Sternhammer, two characters from different time gaps and yet form a very symbiotic partnership with their own differences in brawn, technique and strategy, especially in the fight scenes. There was some good chemistry shown between the history of the characters, even with the non-verbal genuine moments in the cabin room. How much of the original comic source influenced your roles and how do you feel the interactions between the two benefited your strengths in performing?

MATTHEW SIMPSON: The original comics were a huge influence, combined with both Steve & Steve’s vision, I had so much character detail to work from, giving me a fantastic base to build Johnny’s physicality and personality traits.

As for Me and Kev, we have a great off screen friendship anyway, so emulating this onscreen and into Johnny and Wolf wasn’t so much a challenge but more of a happy transition. They’ve been a great yingyang relationship to explore, me and Kev naturally play off one another very instinctively, and are more than comfortable pushing the boundaries (cabin room outtakes).

You mentioned the fight scene which was particularly cool, giving us the opportunity to show their differences in physicality; Wulf using more offensive brute strength and Johnny defensive martial arts.

Overall it’s been a great collaborative filming process; Kev’s been a true companion, and the Steve’s great visionaries and friends to work with on an immensely fun and satisfying shoot.

KEVIN HORSHAM: To be honest I had not read any 2000AD comics until I was made aware of the role of Wulf, however when I did read a few I was hooked and excited by the potential of two very cool characters.

I believe we picked up on the chemistry written into the story lines and drawn into the illustrations.

I have worked with Matt in the past and we get along great, as an actor I must be given the scope for humour in any role I take on and Steve and Steve allowed that.

Matt and I had a great laugh filming and that humour crept into our performances I believe, Johnny is meant to be all business and Wulf is relaxed and unflustered, which I think amuses Wulf even more.

Johnny and Wulf without a doubt would lay down their lives for each other, so in addition to the humour, I hope that this selflessness of each of our heroes comes through in the way Matt and I played Johnny and Wulf.

TO EDMUND DEHN (ACTOR):

SCREENGEEK: You play The Colonel antagonist, which is a huge contrast with your previous character as the titular Minty, showing a versatility in tone and ability to play someone more cold and sophisticated. What attracted you to the role in particular and what was it that invoked you to return to the world of 2000AD?

EDMUND DEHN: To be honest, I was more returning to working with my friends, the two Steves, than returning to the world of 2000AD. I had a wonderful time playing Judge Minty. I enjoyed every minute of it & made many good friends in the process. It is a memory I treasure.

I loved playing a wonderful leading role, with interesting depths to get to grips with too. I was also well paid & well treated! Given all that it was no brainer to say yes when I was asked to play the Colonel. However I was very pleased to get a chance to play a really contrasting part; what most actors most enjoy (aside from the obvious, money publicity & praise!) is a challenge & the Colonel, coming after Minty, certainly was one. I have had a wonderful time on both films & have come to respect & enjoy 2000AD, its characters & its fans, quite a number of whom I am proud to call friends!

TO MICHAEL SAVAGE (COMPOSER):

SCREENGEEK: As the composer, your score made an active package for the audience, mixing the harshness of the wastelands, the science fiction, and especially during the more tense moments of the film. What sort of attributes to your style did you feel really made Search/Destroy the picture it was needed to be painted and what goals did you make of this? In addition, were there any influences to the style as a first-time composer? Comics of Strontium Dog or other composers?

MICHAEL SAVAGE: I grew up with 2000AD so I’ve had many years as a kid imagining what kind of soundtrack Strontium Dog would have as a film. When I heard about the project, I approached Steve and Steven with two albums worth of material i’d composed for my band The Fauns which I have always felt has a sci-fi soundtrack feel. I’m untrained musically and I’ve never tried anything like this before, so i’m incredibly grateful to Steve and Steven for being given the opportunity. I’m a fan who got lucky!

Influence wise, I took The Fauns sound (a lot of My Bloody Valentine type feedback and Tangerine Dream-esque synths) and incorporated industrial and Morricone style elements. The idea being to create something that would fit a Western in space, grungy and dirty sounding but with a definite futuristic feel. I also ended up putting together the sound effects which was a very enjoyable challenge. It really is an exercise in imagining what something would sound like and then finding and blending the elements to make it a real sound. My favorite layer is a recording of howling wolves put through a guitar amp and then blended into the wind sound effects.

TO DANIEL CAREY-GEORGE (PROP AND COSTUME CREATOR)

SCREENGEEK: You part is recognized in creating the props and costumes for the set. There is a versatile series of characters and tone reflected upon what you have designed to further flesh them and the world to the eye of the viewers. As well, we see a balance of realistic practicality to the film world and an authentic care that comes straight from the world of Alpha and Sternhammer in the comic pages. What was the aim and journey to balance the both in this? Is there a certain prop you find yourself being the most proud of?

DANIEL CAREY-GEORGE: I think with the costumes and props we all chatted about modernizing it to begin with, but quickly agreed the comic look was the only look we’d all be happy with. We looked at military garb and Dredd 2012 but it just didn’t feel right.

With this in mind, some prelim mood board work was done by the Steves and then Steve G and I worked on the Alpha costume together. Steve G knew there would be a lot of digital elements in shooting so he worked up a lot of the pouch and belt kit for it as he would have had to model them anyway later. He also worked up a digital helmet while I began work on a more traditional sculpt. 

The practicality of the costume was quickly apparent with the way the helmet fitted- it enclosed the head so much that a rigid helmet wouldn’t work, so I moulded the helmet Steve G sculpted after I’d 3D printed it. I made up a custom resin mix to give a rigid helmet but allow enough flex for the cheek area to be pulled open to get the helmet on – it was unwearable otherwise. I also made the silver neck piece separate and this slid inside the helmet and was pulled down after the helmet was on his head. Designers understandably forget proportions and the way things interact, Johnny’s helmet is probably the best example of this I’ve come across yet!

We also knew his shoulder pads might be an issue, but making the Judge Minty costumes was enough experience to work out a nice proportion to the pads that still worked. Johnny’s pads do change quite often so thankfully we weren’t held to a design that might have been more cumbersome. 

The green under suit was made by Victoria [Wilder of The Ultimate Leather] to Matthew’s sizes. We knew we’d never source anything off the shelf that would work and still be skin tight. We did have a few disasters early on with the leather being so tight to the skin but after a few very late night repairs, we found a way to keep the tension off the leathers during the fights, which worked a treat, and we never had a problem afterwards! 

Colour-wise, I know Steve G would have liked to have had more options on the shade of green, but we were limited to what was possible in the fabrics and leathers we had available, and of course the budget. 

Wulf’s costume was entirely by Steve S, who did a great job sourcing the parts. I think Wulfs costume was probably the hardest to wear as all the leather and (fake) fur must have made it very cumbersome to wear. I just had to finish it off with making the shoulder pad and straps, and put a bit of weathering on.

I made Johnny’s holsters, belt and strappings too, as well as the Westinghouse and the hero Happy Stick. I think the Westinghouse came out really nice, and that’s my favourite prop from the set I think! It’s a hybrid mix of the early and late models Carlos drew. I guess it’s quite easy to make something look cool when it’s from the imagination of Carlos.

I don’t know why, but the metallic colours seem to photograph really well together. What’s also quite cool is that the gun you see throughout is both the 3D printed master and a rubber copy I made, but the 3D print never broke, which was very fortunate considering!

SCREENGEEK: And to the traditional question of “what’s next?”. I understand both Judge Minty and Search/Destroy are the only film credits you have, and even for both films, they focus greatly in executing the faith of the comic and characters in addition to being great independent films in general. Do you see yourself creating these films, in addition to future films, as a comic fan or film maker first? As well, will you ever consider branching out to other films outside fan content?

STEVEN STERLACCHINI: Even though both films are definitely fan films, I think we approached them initially as ‘filmmakers’, such as we are. It could be said that they require a certain amount of existing interesting in the characters to get them most out of them, but we did try to follow a traditional narrative style, as best we could, which should hopefully make them a little more accessible.

They’re attempts to create short films which adapt material from one media to another, i.e. comics to film. They’re definitely unofficial, micro budget and made by fans… for fun, or as much fun as you can have on your third day in the freezing rain, filming in a quarry, up a mountain in North Wales.

Regarding more Fan Films? Not surprisingly I think I’ve thoroughly scratched that itch. As much as I enjoyed being involved with them, I would be more interested to see if I could be part of a project that an audience might consider paying to see. Not so much for the money, but as a more accurate test.

Creating a Dredd based fan film was what brought myself, Steve Green and Daniel Carey-George together in the first place. We all have experience in the creative industries, which we tried to adapt to film making. I personally was very happy with Judge Minty, but the process identified a number of short comings and naivety on my part, regarding film production. When Steve Green started the ball rolling with the Strontium Dog fan film, for me it was an opportunity to see if I could put some of the lessons learnt into practice. Although I think we achieved this in general, it did further emphasise the limits of working on a not for profit project.

We have begun very initial work on a new project, which is an original piece, but its more comic book based, with perhaps a little animation. It’s still very early days.

SCREENGEEK: Final question would be the general impact of fan films out there as well as the vast industry of the comic book film industry in Hollywood. You made a great contribution to the 2000AD community to be taken seriously as well as a very positive light to what these stories mean to you and the rest of the team, thus a stronger cult following. There is a huge saturated market with cinematic universes and iconic character crossovers in the silver screen, it’s easily to get lost in the commercial image than appreciating the core of what the comic world can be through the eyes of fans, which have resulted in some people making some ambitious projects of their own. What do you think makes your films stand out the most independently for your genre? As well, what do you feel of the direction of fan films and Hollywood’s films in the future?

STEVE GREEN: I guess we’ve been working in an area that’s pretty untapped – prior to Minty the only Dredd fan film I can think of is the Body Shop from the early 90s, there was a great Slaine trailer as well.

Also, we’re not trying to replicate something that’s already a film or TV show, Minty wasn’t in the Stallone universe, or the 2012 Dredd universe – there is a lot of Trek, Star Wars etc fan films out there and the 2000AD side of things has been been overlooked in comparison.

We totally understand why, it’s a lot of work creating costumes from scratch, finding suitable locations, producing VFX etc.

With regards to fan films – I think there’s a limit to what you can do – it’s such a grey area legally. Rebellion have been great, but need to keep their distance as they’re likely to be actively trying to negotiate deals with their properties with studios that do this for a living. But there comes a point where you hit a wall with what you can do self-funding, and it’s not sustainable.
Projects like Axanar pushed their luck and it hasn’t gone well.

Personally the thought have having a million+ dollars to spend on a fan film is terrifying, with our projects, they’ve just been a manageable bit of fun for strips that we have a lot of love for, and are pretty much under the radar for a lot of people – if it makes other fans happy, or inspires someone to pick up a trade, I’ll call it a win.

Within Hollywood – I’m a bit worn out keeping up, I haven’t seen the bulk of the recent Marvel/DC output. But I grew up with British comics, so don’t really have the nostalgia for the Marvel/DC stuff. And just haven’t had the time.

My main worry is the comic book movie bubble bursting, although 2000AD doesn’t have the problem of a lot of superheroes to worry about – they’re just good concepts and cool characters – it’s more that a lot of them need a fair amount of money to do it justice. Strontium Dog and Rogue Trooper seem to be a better option than Dredd if you want to get closer to the comic and not break the bank.


Search/Destroy: A Strontium Dog Film is available to watch now!

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