Behind the Scenes of the Wing Commander Movie - July 17, 2012

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Over the weekend we ran an excerpt from a book called Generation XBox: How Video Games Invaded Hollywood dealing with the 'behind the scenes' story of the 1999 Wing Commander film. The story was told in such a way as to imply that it was series creator Chris Roberts' story. In short, it turns out that's not the case. Chris Roberts saw our post and was kind enough to follow up with his own story about what really happened. What follows is truly fascinating background about how Wing Commander happened the way it did:

The Kilrathi sucked because of the choice of vendor, not because I was insisting on animatronics. We were running over budget and I gave in to Todd Moyer on a couple of areas that in hind sight I wished I hadn't – one of them was the Kilrathi.
I had met and really Like Patrick Tatopoulos, who was the creature designer / production designer for ID4, Godzilla etc. He came up with some awesome designs and wanted to handle the Kilrathi like Ridley Scott did on Alien – putting lithe dancers in a body suit (no stilts) and then shooting in such a way they looked 8 feet tall. But his bid was $500K, which we didn't have in the budget. I just had a big knock down drag out with Todd over Peter Lamont (the Oscar winning production designer on the film) as he thought he was too expensive, but I held my ground to have him hired. But we were over budget so I gave in on Patrick (a big regret of mine) and Todd found a small house in the UK with nowhere near the creature experience of Patrick that said they could do the work for $200K. I never got to see the Kilrathi in action until the day before we shot because the creature people had started late and then ran behind probably because they had signed up to do the work for a lot less than it really needed. Todd had promised me that it would be alright when I was asking on the progress and was concerned about not seeing much at all, yet getting closer to our shooting date.
I knew that I was in trouble the moment they were demoed to me. After shooting for one day and looking at the rushes I knew they were a bust but in film you can't just stop and come back to it later, so we finished out the shooting but I knew something had to been done to fix them or else the movie would be hurt.
I, not Todd, wanted to replace them with digital animation. Todd knew nothing about VFX – I was always the driving force on that front – its why Digital Anvil had its own effects arm that did 80% of the work on the Wing Commander movie. We went to Fox after we finished shooting to ask for more money to re-do the Kilrathi digitally and to shoot the original opening that was in the script but we had to drop for budget reasons and they told us no, we're making money on this film even if its sucks due to the video & TV deals we have. If we give you more money that may not be the case anymore, so tough luck.
As for the script quality – it's a better script than the film ended up being and by Hollywood standards (and I know as I've been making films for a while) especially for this genre it didn't suck. It wasn't Oscar material delving into the inner struggles of pilots in a futuristic war, but next to Starship Troopers or other genre work, I think script wise it stands up. I've certainly read worse scripts that have gone on to earn hundreds of millions at the box office with the right stars, over the top action, lots of VFX and a big marketing budget. But I think the producer of "Barbed Wire" really shouldn't be relied on for good script feedback.
The movie wasn't the film I saw in my head for a few reasons –
I was a first timer and I made some mistakes. Directing live action for the games was one thing, but directing a film is a whole other level of subtly and complexity. If I had a second shot at making Wing Commander I'm confident that I would make a far, far better film. I've learned a lot over the past ten years. Too bad I don't have a time machine!
I took the look of the world too far away from the game look. I had my reasons, partly because I was paranoid of being accused of being too much a Star Wars clone. On the game front that was always good that Wing Commander had a bit of a Star Wars vibe, but when you're making a film that is meant to be released before the next installment from the granddaddy of all sci-fi films you get a little worried. In retrospect considering how Star Wars episode I turned out (and looked) it was the wrong decision, but at the time I was picturing the next Star Wars to have the awesomeness of the first three films not the disappointing mess that Episode I was.
We didn't have a big enough budget (it wasn't $30M like Todd claims – it was originally $20M, that crept up to $24M) to make this type of film properly.
The film was rushed into production as Fox wanted the film delivered by November 1998 so they could release before Star Wars. Consequently I had only 3 months of pre-production. Anyone can tell you that on a complicated movie that involves a lot of set building and VFX you need more than that. 6 months is a normal preproduction time, but it's not uncommon to have 9 months on especially ambitious VFX projects. Issues like the Kilrathi, improving the script could have all been addressed if we had not been put on an accelerated schedule to fit into a "deal". For an experienced director having almost no preproduction time is bad, for a first time director it can be deadly.
Finally it didn't work because while Todd was good at doing deals, as you can see even from the tone in the interview, he didn't give a damn or even know much about the creative process. As a first time director I really could have used the support of a proper creative producer that understood filmmaking and being on the set, rather than an ex-agent who couldn't tell you the difference between a single or a master shot.
All these were lessons I took to heart when I went full time into film making. I set up my own film making company so I would never have to go through what I went through and I like to think with the films I've produced I was a better creative producer for the various directors.