Sci-fi Teen - March '99 -When Dreams Take Wing
When Dreams Take Wing
Creator Chris Roberts realized his goal of bringing the popular computer game to the big screen.
By Anne Moore
Basically, I think every kid wants to be Luke Skywalker," reveals writer/director Chris Roberts, answering the oft-asked question: What inspired him to create Wing Commander, one of the most successful interactive video games in history, and now a movie scheduled to open this winter/spring?
"I grew up like every other kid," he recalls, "loving movies like Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica on TV and science fiction in general. I originally created Wing Commander to give me the same experience and feeling I got when watching those films and TV shows, but while playing a game instead."
And he set out to make it different from all the similarly themed products in the marketplace. "Before Wing Commander, most games were just high scores." Roberts explains in his light English accent. "The one thing that makes Wing Commander work in gaming is the characters and the story. There is a reason behind it, and the story gives the action a context.
The worldwide success of Wing Commander inspired five different subsequent versions of the versatile game, which feature some of the most complex interactive storylines available. Form there, it was only natural for Roberts to want to turn his vision into a movie. "A film was actuallly something I've wanted to do for a long time." he says. "Even back during the first [game], I was developing a movie script."
In 1994 Roberts directed the live-action segments for the game Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger. This project involved several hours of interactive video, shot on 38 sets, and starred Mark Hamill, John Rhys-Davies and Malcolm McDowell. This assignment gave Roberts the perfect opportunity to pursue his dreams of moving from computer games to feature films as a writer and director, and he admits that directing the live action on the third and fourth games was "the best training experience. It allowed me to get familiar with using a camera and dealing with all of the technical aspects of it. On the last one, we spent $8 million and shot for 42 days in Los Angeles. It was pretty significant, and I was a little more confident when I came to do the movie."
Wing Commander, the film, is set in the year 2624 [Ed: 2654], when Earth, now known as the Confederation, is fighting the Kilrathi, a feline-humanoid species trying to conquer all of space. Using a stolen navigation device, the Kilrathi plan to directly attack Earth. All that stands between the Confederation and annihilation is the space carrier Tiger Claw and its squadron of fighter pilots. Their job is to retrieve the navigation device and protect Earth from the Kilrathi invasion.
Roberts cast Freddie Prinze Jr. (of the I Know What You Did Last Summer films) as Lt. Chris Blair, the newest pilot on the Tiger Claw's crew. Matthew (Scream) Lillard took on the role of Todd "Maniac" Marshall, a hotshot pilot and Blair's best friend, while Saffron Burrows (see sidebar) is their Wing Commander, "Angel" Devereaux. Tcheky Karyo, David Warner, Jurgen Prohcnow and David Suchet are also part of the international cast in what is hoped to be the first of a series of Wing Commander movies.
The budget for Wing Commander was reportedly a little over $27 million, a small sum for a modern space adventure. The limited finances were a key reason the movie wound up being shot in Europe, specifically Luxembourg. While filming there, the cast and crew had to contend with language problems: The production team was multinational, speaking in either English, French or German and sometimes having to communicate in all three. Although this was frustrating for Roberts, he also believes it gives the movie a special flavor.
"When you have that many languages, it's a bid difficult," he says. "I had to admit, I got frustrated sometimes when our extras didn't necessarily speak English, but it was fun. The movie itself tried to be multinational, because its idea of the future is that there is no America or Europe. There is just one big Earth. I wanted the film to reflect the idea of a national Confederation. That aspect was kind of cool. "It was also a lot of fun to have a really young cast." He continues. "Especially with people like Freddie Prinze. He comes from some of the same places I came from in terms of loving science fiction. It was something a lot of people were really into. You want people to feel that they got more out of the shoot, and being involved in it, than just collecting their paycheck."
Roberts encouraged his cast to participate in fine-tuning their roles during extensive rehearsals. "When I got to Luxembourg, I sat down with my key actors and we did some read throughs, scene by scene. Right there on the spot, I would work the scene out with them, and if there was dialogue that didn't work for them, we'd change it. Or we'd drop a line or add one here or there. The process was very important to the film, and next time I' d do even more of it, because that gets all the actors comfortable with their parts."
Roberts, in fact, encouraged collaboration from everyone on the Wing Commander team. "The way I look at it is that a movie is a huge team effort - actually, the way games are made. You're kind of foolish if you don't borrow and lean on everyone around you. If you have good people around you, you're just going to look better."
Yet even with good actors and a good script, Wing Commander will live or die on how good the computerized special FX are. Most of the 300 digital FX shots were done by Roberts' own production company, Digital Anvil in Austin, Texas. "We built actual models of the spaceships we were going to use," Roberts reveals. "In the case of the Rapier [the smaller fighter], we had a full-size one built. Then we measured it and put that in the computer. We photographed them in a lot of detail and then used that for the texture. The look on the computer is a much more solid and realistic feel than some of the early digital stuff. I'm really happy with it.
"The nice thing about digital work," he adds, "is that it allows you to do effects shots, or action and choreography, that you could never do with miniatures, because you are limited in where you can move your motion control, your rig and everything like that."
For the tall, feline Kilrathi race, Roberts used the more traditional methods of animatronics. "I originally wanted to do digital aliens, but that came down to a time and budget issue. We were kind of constrained with the number of effects we were doing in space. Character animation is the most time-consuming and expensive kind of digital work, so I went with an old fashioned approach on the aliens. Obviously, if I do the sequel, I'd love to have more money and time so I could do digital aliens as well as digital spaceships."
And he hopes to pursue his twin passions for years to come. "I love movies and I love games," Roberts concludes. "Those are my two passions, and I happen to be lucky enough to do both. The games have been successful, and hopefully in movies down the road, I'll manage to do some pretty decent stuff."
An Angel Gets Her Wings
Actress Saffron Burrows is probably better known in Europe, where she has made movies like Circle of Friends, In the Name of the Father and The Matchmaker, than in the United States. But the Wing Commander movie should dramatically change that for the young English actress. Burrows has the enviable role of "Angel" Devereaux, a resourceful and talented fighter pilot on the spaceship Tiger Claw. Under her command, two new pilots, Lt. Chris Blair (Freddie Prinze Jr.) and his best friend, Todd "Maniac" Marshall (Matthew Lillard), attempt to protect Earth from invasion by the alien Kilrathi.
In Wing Commander, writer/director Chris Roberts developed a world where men and women fight equally alongside each other, and Burrows was enthusiastic about the chance to take on the type of action usually reserved for men. "I am the Wing Commander of a group of fighter pilots in space," she explains. "I get to fly in an RAF cockpit that has basically been converted into a spaceship of the future, but there is this wonderful old feel to it.
"There is a whole World War II element to the movie which I really like," she continues. "It's a feeling of things being beaten up and lived in, and I love that. Wing Commander was inspired by Das Boot, and has that feeling - and in fact Jurgen Prohcnow, the captain in Das Boot is in Wing Commander."
The actress also enjoyed the camaraderie that developed while filming the movie in Luxembourg. The international cast and crew, Burrows says, "were all being put together in an environment that was sort of a hot house. There were a few of us, and we get to know each other very well."
Even though the movie is full of dogfights in space there is an underlying emotional core to Wing Commander that Burrows responded to. She explains that the movie asks, "What do you do before you go to war? What do you do with those last few hours? Do you reveal certain things, or do you shut everything down? Or do you choose to live life to the fullest?"
Bet on the latter where Angel's concerned. And with both Wing Commander and a starring role in the big-budget killer-shark thriller Deep Blue Sea this year, Burrows is clearly pursuing her career to the fullest as well.