Demons walk among us, but we cannot see them. That’s the premise of Fire City: King of Miseries, a short film directed by Academy Award-winner Tom Woodruff Jr. that premiered on DreadCentral in 2013. Though self-contained, King of Miseries set the scene for the feature-length movie Fire City: End of Days (originally titled Fire City: The Interpreter of Signs), funded through Kickstarter and released on multiple streaming services in October 2015.
In the world of Fire City, demons live alongside humans. What’s unusual is that the stories are told primarily from the demons’ point of view. For the most part, humans are unaware that the demons (who as a species have a unique culture and complex history) even exist. “In our world, we call this ‘disperception,'” said writer/producer Michael Hayes, “the humans’ inability to perceive the plane of reality in which demons operate. It’s science, not religion. A kind of strange physics.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Tom Woodruff Jr., together with Michael Hayes and his co-writer/producer Brian Lubocki, in July 2013, just after the release of King of Miseries, and during the run-up to the Interpreter of Signs crowdfunding campaign launch. I’m delighted to republish the full interview here, presented for the first time alongside my 2015 review of the full feature Fire City: End of Days.
Interview — Fire City: King of Miseries
GRAHAM EDWARDS: Early publicity for Fire City describes it as having “a unique mythology” and “a world origin never seen before”. Can you explain briefly what’s unique about the story concept?
TOM WOODRUFF JR: Because most demon movies explore the very traditional Judeo-Christian mythology – Heaven versus Hell, demons fighting angels for the souls of humans – Michael and Brian wanted to take their exploration elsewhere. When the guys forged the path to stay away from traditional demons, it really made the conceptual world so much more interesting and, in a way, more pure in that we don’t have to be representative of any specific archetypes. The demons and their world will be designed to be cohesive and be of the same world, but not a world we’ve necessarily seen before.
MICHAEL HAYES: We started with the concept: “What if demons lived among us but we couldn’t see them for what they were, not because of any mystical property, or wilful cloaking, but because our perception didn’t allow us to?” The way we only see a narrow band of the light spectrum. That’s interesting to us in a broader sense and we don’t think it’s been done before in quite this way. Demons don’t reveal themselves at will. They can’t, at least not in any supernatural sense. There is a mechanism but it is physical, not spiritual, for lack of a better term. So, with this core concept, we built the world out, and created not only a rule for the world we think is unique but a demon origin we haven’t seen before. Since the latter is a reveal in our franchise, we’re going to take the 5th on that answer.
BRIAN LUBOCKI: But for the most part, unlike all the narratives we’ve seen involving demons, we follow the demons, not the humans. Without getting too esoteric, they are a kind of hidden underclass, kept in check by superstition, voracious appetite, and frankly a lack of imagination. They’re a lot like us. They get up, go to work, come home. They just happen to be evil incarnate, feeding off of human misery and living in a fragile balance with humankind. We begin the feature film franchise when this balance is broken, in Fire City: The Interpreter of Signs.
GRAHAM EDWARDS: Fire City is a “multi-platform franchise” that includes films, games and comic books. Was this always the intention, or was there a single idea that sparked it all off?
BRIAN LUBOCKI: Almost three years ago now, we were having lunch, talking about an idea for a web series. We were hell-bent, as it were, on making something ourselves. We come from writing backgrounds. Usually the way it works is you write something and sell it, or get paid to write something, and then it goes into a machine of sorts that requires financially-driven casting, negotiations, partnerships and ultimately a very long road that often leads to either nothing getting made or something made that only vaguely resembles the original script. And maybe it’s garbage.
MICHAEL HAYES: But maybe it’s great. The studios are full of very smart folks, many of whom try desperately to make great movies. That’s what a lot of people outside of this town don’t know. They only see the terrible movies that come out week after week and think Hollywood is full of a bunch of idiots. Nothing could be further from the truth. The problem is all these super smart people work inside of that machine. They don’t run the machine. We don’t know who runs it. It runs itself. A kind of AI. SkyNet begins in Hollywood.
BRIAN LUBOCKI: You heard it here first.
MICHAEL HAYES: The point is the studios have their risk equation and we have ours. We couldn’t risk selling Fire City off because the possibility of it being ruined was too great.
BRIAN LUBOCKI: Our original intention was to only come up with an idea and make it ourselves. The “multi-platform franchise” came out of the idea itself after we realized its scope, not before. We just wanted to make a web series at first. We brought together what we loved most from our respective genres: horror/fantasy and thriller/action/noir. By the end of the lunch, we had the core concept, a main character, and a title: Fire City. Only as we began to build the world out, create our demon clades (species), assign attributes, develop histories and connect our strange physics to the physics we all know and love did we realize this world was a lot bigger than a web series and could support quite a lot of content: films, video games, comic books and graphic novels, demon detective stories, TV series, web apps, a 91-card demon tarot deck, and on and on.
GRAHAM EDWARDS: What’s your ultimate ambition for the franchise? Or are you content simply to see where the journey takes you?
MICHAEL HAYES: Contentedness is not in our vocabulary. They way we built the world really necessitated that we figure a lot of stuff out before we put pen to paper, or as much as our sanity would allow us. It’s a tremendous amount of content. We started with a trilogy, which has a definitive ending, and then wrote the prequel, which is Fire City: The Interpreter of Signs, the movie we are going to launch a Kickstarter campaign for in mid-July.
BRIAN LUBOCKI: We have enough to take us and the fans through the next ten years, should we be so lucky to continue to progress with this process. But for sure, though we’ve cobbled together enough money for a few introductory bits of content, the world lives or dies with the film franchise, beginning with Fire City: The Interpreter of Signs. Our ambition for that is that it secures our ability to continue to make Fire City, in all its forms and permutations, for the foreseeable future.
GRAHAM EDWARDS: Why did you choose Kickstarter as a way to finance the first Fire City feature film?
BRIAN LUBOCKI: Because none of the offers we’ve received allow us to make the movie we want to make. It’s easy to bash the studios and say they don’t know what they’re doing. But they do. They’re more profitable than ever. We simply don’t fit that model. We’re too unknown. Our story world is too big. They understand what we have, and they want it. But there is simply no scenario in which they trust us to make what we envision, despite the fact that we made the footage that got us in the door and got them so excited in the first place!
MICHAEL HAYES: That said, it has turned out to be a blessing, because now fans actually get to come along for the ride and help shape our world. Some of our Kickstarter prizes include creative input on a demon, visiting the Amalgamated Dynamics creature shop, having your likeness on one of the tarot cards, even being in the film. And the social media campaign around this has really helped us find our communities and them to find us. There’s been some negative press around Kickstarter recently with some high profile actors using it to finance films they could easily finance out of their own pockets. The studios are finding this model and we’ll just have to see what they do with it. But cynicism aside, Kickstarter is still a great way for people with dreams like us but without the ability to jump in the fire to come along for the ride.
BRIAN LUBOCKI: The people who donate to this campaign will be Fire City VIPs for life, and will get not just the rewards from the campaign but will get every exclusive benefit the future of this franchise can afford to give them. This is a critical time for us and, yes, we are keeping track of who’s who. Donate, follow, Like, blog, support, and the keys to Fire City are yours from now till the end of time. It’s not a gimmick. That just seems fair to us. It’s easy to champion a project a million other people have already found. It takes guts and passion to champion something like Fire City now. That will be rewarded.
TOM WOODRUFF JR: And Kickstarter is a community where you can reach others who share a particular passion whether it’s movies, or music, or business, or gaming. And that passion gets shared and sometime the passion can be a general disinterest in the current state of things out there, like movie choices. But it offers a place to be able to take some initiative through support and make steps forward in satisfying a desire for what others want.
GRAHAM EDWARDS: How are you planning to distribute the finished film? Will you target online channels like Distrify, or are you planning a theatrical release?
MICHAEL HAYES: Our goal is to get a decent foreign sales agent to sell the foreign territories, but to do a domestic theatrical release in North America that does NOT require us to give away our story world and all the rights associated with it. Domestic theatrical is still meaningful as an overall model. Harder and harder to do because of the marketing involved, but there are ways to focus and target releases, whether a kind of platform (limited then wider) release, or a total bootstrap release where we hit the road, drum up local awareness, and rent the theaters ourselves. We’d prefer to be here making the sequel, but we’ll do whatever it takes to get the movie out and in theaters at least for a limited time.
BRIAN LUBOCKI: One possibility is to go directly to exhibitors. For instance, AMC Theaters has an independent division designed to work directly with filmmakers. Some of this will involve our ability to demonstrate to distribution partners that we know where our audience is. But, at least a limited theatrical domestic release is what we’re going for. Our entertainment attorney shopped our footage at Cannes a year ago and made a big splash. So the foreign sales agents are aware of us.
MICHAEL HAYES: Just waiting for us to make a wrong move!
BRIAN LUBOCKI: That, too. Honestly, we’ve met some really decent foreign sales agents and have one in mind we’d like to work with. We are going to go against conventional industry “wisdom” and NOT check to see who’s hot in the Ukraine before we cast. That’s a real trap the low budget market falls into. When you reduce a movie to numbers, you might make a few pennies, but the chances of making anything worth watching are slim to none, and a franchise like this can be easily destroyed by those choices.
MICHAEL HAYES: We’re going to cast the best actors Tom likes and we can afford. Maybe someone he’s worked with before. We’ll make something people want to see, but it won’t be the paint by numbers fare that gets bought and sold at the markets. It will be something special. We are also interested in online that can fit into the overall traditional model. I think Distrify has that capability. So maybe we’ll look into that as well.
TOM WOODRUFF JR: That’s a very daring stance for these guys to take in not trying to fit a statistical model of what sells but rather create the right “thing” and let it find the audience. Models like that create repetition and repetition breeds tired, formulaic cookie-cutter output.
GRAHAM EDWARDS: Recently, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg hit the headlines by predicting the imminent collapse of traditional filmmaking business models. Do you think crowdfunding is the way forward?
MICHAEL HAYES: Those hacks? Spielberg owes me ten bucks.
BRIAN LUBOCKI: There is a very small window in which crowdfunding in its current form will work. Studios and, as we know, actors, are already circling and/or exploiting sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. That’s not what those sites are about; it was supposed to be about supporting independent artists and giving them resources, ie people like us, who otherwise have no choice but to sell out to the studios or die in obscurity.
MICHAEL HAYES: It’s a great question because what Spielberg and Lucas are talking about involves more than just the fracturing of audience engagement, but is also about how much films cost and how they are financed. It takes a lot of money to make feature films, and the source of this money is the most frequently overlooked factor. I don’t think crowdfunding is the way forward for the studios, unless they intend to make smaller films, which is the problem Lucas and Spielberg are seeing: studios are making bigger bets, not smaller ones. That doesn’t mean studios won’t try to adapt crowdfunding to their model and might ruin it for the people crowdfunding was designed for in the first place. But until this happens, crowdfunding is absolutely the best way forward for independent projects like ours. It is the kind of partnership the industry lacks: we’ve made this small thing to show you what the project is and what we can do; give us the resources to make more and you’ll get a reward as well as the satisfaction of being a part of this project form the beginning. The financing of films should be that simple.
TOM WOODRUFF JR: And the worst part of that was the way the news chose to sensationalize what they were saying with the banner, “Spielberg and Lucas Predict Industry Implosion” and we, as a culture, love to take our understanding from the headlines alone. I had friends and family calling to ask what I was going to be doing now because Spielberg and Lucas just said, “game over” like we were all shutting off the lights and walking away. Like many times facing the movie industry before (bad economic times, television competition, morality of subject matter, etc), the industry has to evolve to grow. But I wouldn’t mind you titling this piece, “Michael, Brian, and Tom Make a Movie That People Want To See”
GRAHAM EDWARDS: Will Fire City place the same emphasis on animatronics and make-up effects as Harbinger Down, the Kickstarter movie Tom’s producing with his business partner Alec Gillis?
BRIAN LUBOCKI: We’re in love with practical effects, Amalgamated Dynamics, and Tom and Alec. Harbinger was a project we not only supported in principle but in dollars. We’re waiting for our rewards as we speak. No, seriously, Tom, where are our prizes?
MICHAEL HAYES: We believe the future of special effects generally, both digital and practical, lies in a balance between the two. It won’t work for every movie or franchise, especially at the studio level, where expectations run incredibly high to deliver something x percent “better” than the last thing: the special effects in Avatar 2 must be 20% better than Avatar, etc.
BRIAN LUBOCKI: A balance might not work for studios, but it will work for us. We are independent and intend to cut our own path, which relies heavily on practical effects accented by digital. We won’t have the exact same emphasis on practical as Harbinger Down, but we bear the torch just the same. Practical or death.
TOM WOODRUFF JR: It doesn’t work for the current “production line” of movie making in Hollywood because what is lacking is the commitment to an approach and a trust that a well-thought-out plan will succeed. It used to be customary to begin productions with a big one or two-day meeting in which the script is gone through, page by page, while every department was represented in a big room with questions and answers and plans. They were boring as hell when you weren’t discussing your part of the puzzle, but they were effective. I haven’t been in a production meeting for years. On a recent film, we were brought in to create a talking animatronic character. We brought our talking gorilla from Zookeeper to the studio, twice, and were told it was the approach to follow. I think that as soon as we walked out of the room, everyone got together and worried, what if it wasn’t going to work? So they saved their funding for a digital solution for what might be a failure of our build, and cut our budget and our build time and never put our version on screen except for a couple of reference shots. They basically created an atmosphere which supported our failure rather than success.
GRAHAM EDWARDS: So, Tom, will you be able to resist getting into one of the Fire City monster suits yourself?!
TOM WOODRUFF JR: I still love the work of playing creatures but my hands are going to be full, so that’s better left to someone else this time.
GRAHAM EDWARDS: Do you think there’s a trend towards visual/special effects facilities championing their own productions? Amalgamated Dynamics is clearly an important part of the Fire City team, but I’m also thinking about the key creative role ILM played in the award-winning Rango.
TOM WOODRUFF JR: Absolutely. It’s another one of those elements of evolution in which you have to move forward and grow or you stagnate and die. As ADI, Alec Gillis and I have a number of other properties, some set up and others in different pipelines. But they all are built around the content and the IP that we create through our art. Bring your money to the table – we have everything else covered.
GRAHAM EDWARDS: Finally, you’re all obviously fans of the horror genre. But what really scares you?
BRIAN LUBOCKI: Honestly, my loved ones being hurt. You’ll really see that focused in the sequel, Fire City: A Demon In The Darkness.
MICHAEL HAYES: Ordinary humans scare me. Their insecurity, grandiosity, violence. We were 20 blocks away the other day, having lunch at that same place Fire City was born, when some crazy person went on a shooting rampage that ended in a shootout in the Santa Monica College Library. The darkest parts of human nature terrify me.
TOM WOODRUFF JR: I feel disappointments more than I feel scared. Oh, and rattlesnakes.
Review — Fire City: End of Days
Demons walk among us, feeding off our misery. But we cannot see them. To us, they are ordinary human beings. To them, we are their next square meal. That’s the premise of Fire City: End of Days, the feature directorial debut of Tom Woodruff Jr, an Academy Award-winning creature-maker whose track record includes films like Aliens, Predator and Tremors. Co-written and produced by Brian Lubocki and Michael Hayes.
Fire City: End of Days introduces us to Atum Vine, a drug-dealing demon who prowls the shabby corridors of a city apartment block inhabited by down-at-heel humans … and by the demons who prey on them. The status quo of this secret food chain has endured for years, but proves itself fragile when Cornelia, the Interpreter of Signs – the blue-skinned wise woman who oversees demonic life in this closed community – senses change on the way. Strange behaviour among the humans throws the demons for a loop, and Vine finds himself at the centre of a paradigm shift that will challenge his perceptions of who he is … and what it is to be a demon.
Now, this is a difficult film to categorise. It’s part-horror, part-detective thriller, part-urban fantasy. It contains echoes of Clive Barker, and hints at literary influences ranging from Neil Gaiman and China Miéville to Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. Such genre slipperiness may make it hard to market, but it does mean the film projects a pleasing aura of considered artistic intent. For that alone, it deserves success.
One of the movie’s great strengths is its engaging ensemble cast, many of whom play dual roles both in and out of demon make-up. Tobias Jelinek, as the tortured, gravel-voiced Vine, is compelling; he anchors the whole affair with calm assurance, and communicates a subtext that hints constantly at the wider reality lying beyond the confines of his claustrophobic surroundings. Also strong are Danielle Chuchran as the demon Cornelia, and Keely Aloña as Sara, the young girl about whom the shadowy plot pivots.
The fanbase (and therefore fund-base) of Fire City: End of Days is characterised by folk with a shared enthusiasm for special make-up and practical creature effects. So it’s no surprise this movie is full of performers wearing prosthetics and foam-latex suits, courtesy of Woodruff’s effects company Amalgamated Dynamics, Incorporated (ADI). For the most part, these look great, especially Vine, Cornelia and sad, seductive Amber. The warthog-like Ford fails in the lip-sync department, but when you consider how much screen time and dialogue the demons get – despite the low budget – their execution overall is impressive.
Even more important is their presentation not as monsters, but as characters. The demons – particularly Vine – often move through scenes in both their human and demon forms, with artful cuts revealing their opposing aspects with casual ease. Danny Grunes’s cinematography nicely complements these constantly-shifting sands, with chiaroscuro lighting effects that both acknowledge the film’s noir roots, and sculpt the masks and make-up with flattering back-light.
Despite the generally dark and brooding tone of Fire City: End of Days, there’s a refreshing thread of laconic humour running through the script, most notably in the hilariously raunchy scene where the provocative Amber (Kimberly Leemans) gatecrashes the mealtime of young lovers Frank and Lisa (Harry Shum Jr and Jen Oda). These comedic touches are deftly handled by Woodruff and his game-for-anything cast, and deliver an unexpected extra dimension.
Despite the horrors (and there are horrors – this is fundamentally adult material) there’s beauty here too. Through the innocent eyes of Sara, Vine is forced to confront the reality of his own demon existence. Their scenes together are unexpectedly tender and, when their relationship proves to be deeper and more complex than it seemed, the film’s sustained mood of shadows and subtext reaches fruition with a bewitching hint of further wonders to come.
That there are other wonders waiting is a promise the filmmakers have already given. According to the writer/producer team of Lubocki and Hayes, Fire City: End of Days is a mere prologue to a trilogy of films set to explore and expand on a unique mythology only hinted at in this opening salvo. Okay, promises can be cheap, but in this case there’s real sense that, as well as being a gripping drama in its own right, Fire City: End of Days is an intelligently-crafted, solidly-built foundation stone from which a much grander structure might soon rise.
I hope it does rise. I have a feeling the view from the top could be magnificent.
Interview and review first published in slightly different form at graham-edwards.com. All images used with permission from Okay By Me Productions