Craig J. Clark talks with Michael Davis on how he turned his Shoot 'Em Up script into a directing gig with animatics.
It's not every day that a major Hollywood studio greenlights a film by a virtual unknown, particularly one who's in his mid-40s, but writer-director Michael Davis had a secret weapon up his sleeve: he knows how to draw. While writing the screenplay for Shoot 'Em Up, which opens Sept. 7 through New Line, Davis drew storyboards for all of the action sequences, which he then turned into animations. When the time came to shop the script around, he had a ready-made visual aid to go along with it. New Line bit: Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti and Monica Bellucci got interested, and Davis -- a veteran of several low-budget independent features -- got to make his first studio film.
Davis, who studied at Parsons School of Design and USC's School of Cinema-Television, began his directing career in television, working on shows ranging from The Amazing Live Sea Monkeys to the Cheers: Last Call special. He also picked up work as a storyboard artist for feature films and commercials, but he always had his eye on the director's chair. He spoke to VFXWorld about his experiences.
Craig J. Clark: Could you tell us how you got started doing storyboarding?
Michael Davis: I had graduated USC film school and I'd gone to art school as an illustration major, so I decided I'd try to combine both disciplines into one job. My first job was storyboarding the Chuck Norris movie Missing in Action 3. It was the first time I got to board out action ideas for the director that weren't in the script. Probably about the same time I got a job storyboarding on the television show Pee-Wee's Playhouse.
In between art school and film school I had worked for this company called Broadcast Arts. They had done a lot of the stop-motion animation for the early MTV logos, and they had done the first season of Pee-Wee's Playhouse when they moved out to L.A. A lot of the people that I knew from Broadcast Arts were on the show and they invited me to come along and that was actually a blast because I got to work side-by-side with Paul Reubens. The show was so innovative and fun. It was really the first time that I looked at television and movies and saw that it's actually better to break the rules than doing something that just fits the formula.
CJC: What sort of things would you storyboard for a show like Pee-Wee's Playhouse?
MD: I was actually storyboarding what Paul Reubens was going to do in the show. He had this sequence where he jumped into a magic drawing board and he would throw out these dots and make funny things out of them, so I would draw Paul -- and it was fun to draw Paul because I didn't have to be super-realistic. I also had big overheads of the actual sets and I would try to come up with odd framings that would seem cartoony. We would look for inspired angles to take advantage of the great design of the Pee-Wee set.
CJC: And what other sorts of films did you do? Did you mainly do action films?
MD: I did all sorts of things. I ended up doing Flubber, the Robin Williams movie, I did Blue Streak for director Les Mayfield, who liked the fact that I could give him ideas. He hired me a number of times. I did the Sean Connery-John McTiernan movie Medicine Man, and the best thing about that job was in the movie Sean Connery's character has a sketchbook and the producer hired this artist out of Mexico who was fabulous and classically trained and did these beautiful renderings of Lorraine Bracco and the Indians of the rain forests. But McTiernan kind of felt they didn't fit the character -- the character of Connery was a lot rougher, so he had me sit with these rain forest Indians and sketch them on leaves and corn paper and it was sort of like an all-day life drawing class in the jungle in which I was the only artist and instead of one model I had 20 of them. And later on in the movie I was very gratified that there's this big fire and you're supposed to see the Sean Connery sketchbook has been burned to pieces and you only see these little images. They took hundreds of my drawings and put them up on the set and did these dolly moves across them. It was more than I had been hired on to do and I found that very exciting.
Probably the most precise director I worked with was a guy named Ron Underwood [on the movie Tremors]. Before Ron got the job with Gale Anne Hurd, he ended up storyboarding the whole movie out. He gave me these 3x5 cards of stick figures from every angle and it was my job to translate the whole movie and actually this bible of drawings was what sold Gale Ann Hurd on Ron Underwood directing. That was sort of the inspiration for me using my animated storyboards to get a studio directing gig.
I storyboarded Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II, which was probably one of the most fun jobs because the director Michael Pressman would let me draw all day making up funny gag ideas. I literally didn't have to follow the script. I had to follow the locations where the Turtles would be and come up with ideas. There was a great scene where the Turtles were fighting in a toy store, so you had all these things you could use: dollies that squirted in bad guys' eyes or a mini-trampoline that the Turtles could jump on and do their acrobatic flips. It was a great three or four weeks where I was like this machine, drawing the Ninja Turtles. And that was fun because all my life I had looked at these preproduction art books, especially the Disney stuff, The Art of Walt Disney, and I always remember the Disney studios having what they called gag men, who were these storyboard artists who didn't necessarily have to plot out the story as scripted, but they added all this extra visual material which I think is actually the heart of those animated films. So I kind of felt like in a small way, with the Turtles or Pee-Wee's Playhouse, that I was like one of these classic Disney gag men.
Certainly when I came to Shoot 'Em Up, the premise was all the things you could do with a gunfight and I would thumbnail literally thousands and thousands of ideas, trying to come up with the best ideas. Certainly I threw out a lot, but I feel like drawing is the foundation of Shoot 'Em Up. If I couldn't see it on the page, I wouldn't have been able to write it, let alone sell myself as the director on it. I've been drawing since I was a kid, so it's really gratifying to get a studio film because I learned to draw.
CJC: How important is storyboarding to your process as you're developing a script?
MD: When I write I have a stack of 8-1/2x11 paper right next to me and a pen or pencil. I kind of go into this zone when I'm writing, I call it conscious dreaming. I can't tell you how often, but it's a lot, that my hands will be doodling, doodling, doodling and then I'll write something. Often before I write an action sequence I will storyboard it out -- not in a form that other people can interpret because the drawings are so rudimentary -- but it will be dozens of sketches of what action the hero is going through. And I'm always trying to distill it down to what is the cleanest way to describe it. The studio people reading the script don't like details, so let's just give them the big money ideas that'll get them excited about the concept for the scene.
In Shoot 'Em Up, there's a scene where Clive jumps out of an airplane and it's a skydiving gunfight, everybody's free falling. That in itself is a big idea, so that lets me be more abstract in my writing even though probably in my set of papers next to me I've come up with all the visual gags that go along with it. It's hard to describe. I'm sketching at the same time as I'm typing.
CJC: Is this the first time you've turned a storyboard into an animation?
MD: It sort of started as a hobby. I did the animation for my own pleasure, not knowing that this was going to be a tool that would eventually get the studio to buy the screenplay, to greenlight it, to get an actor. I think that's what's helpful because I did it as a joyful thing. I enjoy the sketching process, but all along as I'm sketching I'm going, “Oh, this is going to look so cool," and once I play each shot I'm mesmerized. I just play it over and over and over again.
So I started out with the skydiving scene. I wanted to see whether or not I could animate using my Mac computer, and I started animating out a few shots and I was scratching my director's itch. It was like I could direct the movie and create these great action sequences without the pressure of the expense of making this big movie with a crew of hundreds of people and thousands of dollars ticking off every minute. I could literally make a movie in the void, just whatever I wanted it to be. I was trying to create what would be the most exciting, delightful action sequences I could for myself. And the fact that I did it as a passion, I think it made the work better than if it were a job, and after I did the first sequence I went, "This is a rush." I've kind of always wanted to be a professional animator. I ended up going into live action, but there was always a part of me that wanted to be a 2D classic character animator, and this was some way I could fulfill that wish.
CJC: Did you ever find that you were referring to the animation while you were shooting or editing the actual scenes?
MD: The animation was always with me on set and I did several things to the animation. I ended up taking keyframes from the animation and cutting and pasting them into regular storyboards on paper that I could refer to, but oftentimes the still frames don't conjure up the sort of balletic motion that I was looking for. Eight weeks before we started shooting the movie we did this thing where everybody involved in production, whether it was the D.P., the cameraman, the production designer, the A.D., the special effects and visual effects people, we would go through each sequence and rather than just talking about it or even having storyboards we could play the animation over and over and over again so people would go, "This is exactly what I want to shoot." We would use the animation to decide how many bad guys would be shot in each scene. We would literally count in the animation how many guys our hero blew away. Every department could refer to the animation because they were basically seeing a shot-for-shot fusion of what I wanted to get on the screen. We didn't have a huge budget on this movie. I think because we were so prepared, we knew exactly what would work on screen from the animation I think we saved tens of millions of dollars. Every penny we had we put on the screen.
A lot of these guys have done action movies where the action part is often an afterthought. They're so busy trying to get the character right to get the big actor to get the greenlight and they often pass off the action scenes to a second unit director, who that's all he's been doing. They've done so many movies they're either tired of coming up with new ideas or they've used up their bag of tricks. Everybody was excited that these were action sequences that were coming from the creator of the project, and throughout the process I kept saying whatever we do we need to service the action. If we need to change the car chase from nighttime to daytime so I can get twice as many shots so it will be as kinetic as I want it to be, I'd rather make that decision to shoot during the day than have the noir feeling of night.
When you see the movie, there are sequences that are literally shot for shot right down to the frame that the live action and the animation are exactly the same.
In the movie, Clive Owen is always chomping on these carrots because my Mom always told me that carrots were good for your eyes. And if you're going to be a good gunfighter, you have to have good eyesight. And so the movie took on a new tone of sort of a gunfight Looney Tune. Clive Owen, even in the movie, says, "What's up, doc?" And Paul Giamatti's kind of like the Elmer Fudd. Paul Giamatti has this cell phone that he's always calling or getting calls from his wife because I liked the idea that you have this villain and you know that he has this personal life beyond being a killer. And whenever the phone rings, we used that "kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit" ringtone from Wagner. I don't think this sort of Looney Tunes quality would have emerged from the movie if I hadn't been an animation nut. All my life I've been in love with animation and if it wasn't for this love I wouldn't have been able to do this movie.
CJC: How did you begin writing and directing for films?
MD: All along I knew that writing was the way into directing. If you had a great piece of property, you could leverage it into your opportunity. I also found that my favorite directors were writer-directors. I loved Bob Zemeckis' Back to the Future. Even Coppola started out as a writer. I think it's important to be a writer-director because then there's no doubt that it's entirely yours from the start to finish. From a work ethic standpoint I always wanted to be the creator. I could only get to direct if I wrote, so I wrote 35 screenplays before Shoot 'Em Up happened and I had a number of writing assignments, but it was hard to turn that into a directing gig.
My writing had led me to the company of Charlie Band, who is known for doing all of these horror films, but he had this company called Moonbeam that was doing these kids straight-to-video movies, and they ended up hiring me to write the live-action, modern "Jack and the Beanstalk" [1994's Beanstalk], sort of with a Spielbergian tone. I showed them my drawing abilities, my student film, and they ended up letting me direct. And that was my first shot at doing a feature-length film, but it didn't really move my career forward because nobody takes you seriously if you're just doing a straight-to-video movie, and the only way you can make a mark in super-low-budget movies is if you are really out there or do something twisted or something fresh and original.
I ended up making some money on a screenplay, so I decided to take that money and direct a super low-budget indie movie and I wrote a screenplay called Eight Days a Week and it starred Keri Russell. That movie put me on the map a little bit. It won Slamdance in 1997, it was Roger Ebert's favorite movie at Park City, but again I couldn't really parlay that into a studio directing gig. Fortunately or maybe unfortunately, it led me to the opportunity to write and direct more teen-oriented straight-to-video movies. I directed a picture called 100 Girls with Katherine Heigl in it, now she's big from Knocked Up. I did a thing called 100 Women and then I did a horror film called Monster Man and these low-budget movies sort of prepared me for Shoot 'Em Up because I knew how to move a crew quickly. It was a very, very slow process and in many ways this is a business where they like the young guys out of film school or the young, hot video directors or commercial directors and give them a shot at directing. It's sort of been a real Cinderella story. I'm very, very lucky. It's like winning the lottery, the odds of it.
CJC: How long has Shoot 'Em Up been in the works?
MD: I wrote Shoot 'Em Up seven years ago and I didn't really have an agent or a manager that was pushing me, so it was sort of this pipe dream that I kept on my stack. And these guys that I'd done these low-budget teen movies for said, "Hey, why don't you do this low-budget movie? We've already sold the title, we're calling it Monster Man." I thought it was a cheesy, terrible title and I wanted to come up with a story that captured the spirit of that cheesy title, so it's about a monster that drives a monster truck. But the one thing I did for these guys to help sell the movie was I ended up doing a one-minute animated trailer. When they went to sell the movie at these film markets, they showed the animation. Seeing the animation made it a little easier for these guys to raise the money and for this silly horror film to get made. Shoot 'Em Up has really been around for seven years. I tried very hard for seven years to get this movie made.
CJC: Do you have anything that you're working on for the future?
MD: I'm reading screenplays from other people, but I am writing something that is very much like Shoot 'Em Up, in the hard R, action category. It would be a dream come true to do another action-adventure piece that I've written and directed, but I think everybody's going to wait to see how Shoot 'Em Up does first.
Craig J. Clark is a freelance writer whose works include plays, short stories (which can be seen at www.unloosen.com) and an online comic called Dada (dada.warped.com), which he does not draw.