"The Danger Element” is pretty much a no-budget short independent film, but the story about how it got made doesn’t exactly start there.
In late 2006 while standing on top of an abandoned missile silo on a cliff overlooking the ocean in San Francisco, I was presented with the question, “what kind of film could you make for 25 thousand dollars. My immediate response was, “I could make a pretty good action adventure film for that amount of money.”
In December I started writing the screenplay for that film. It was my first feature length screenplay and it took me a few months to finish. It was during that time that the idea of a ten minute short first materialized in my mind. I presented this to the rest of the team as an alternative to a feature length project. If we could put the same amount of money into a shorter project, I believed it would be virtually indiscernible from the production values of any film in the theater at that time. The team, for the most part, did not go for the idea and I continued forward on the screenplay on into one of the most interesting, chaotic summers of my life as I traveled and worked with Brooke Brodack, both of us having been hired for peanuts to take on an obscure mission to save the world. . . We failed, by the way, but the experience was mind blowing.
By July of 2007 I believe I had already asked Doug Jones to play the film‘s villain, but when I was finally ready he had already left for Budapest to film “Hellboy 2“ with Guillermo Del Torro (Ask Doug what I wrote to him in a text message the day he left for Budapest). I had met them both the year before during their promotional appearance for “Pan‘s Labyrinth“ at the International Comic Con in San Diego. In the subsequent months to that brief meeting, Doug Jones had become a fan of my work and actually asked me if I would put him in something. I was really honored being as I was already a fan of his work and since I was starting to outline the feature, I decided to write the villain character with him in mind. He had just finished shooting in Canada for “Fantastic Four 2: Rise of the Silver Surfer” when Justin Spurlock and I finally got to have lunch with him for the first time and discuss the project. The 4 hour discussion that ensued was was one of the highlights of the entire year, although Doug would not get to even see a script for the project until he returned from Budapest in 2008.
Now having completed a draft of the script, Justin Spurlock, my unbelievably supportive girlfriend Sonia, and the rest of the Westhavenbrook team and I attended the 2007 International Comic Con in San Diego as we had done every year since the Sockbaby series had premiered there in 2003. Ben Beames, the third founding member of Westhavenbrook, joined us there for one day. As we were driving him back to the Airport for his return flight to Santa Cruz, Ben started talking about how I should come up with a short action film about some dangerous subatomic particle or new artificial elemental substance and call the film “The Danger Element”. It was kind of a joke, but the idea stuck with me instantly. It stayed in the back of my mind for a year.
In November of 2007 we shot four scenes over the course of two production days. We were delayed on into the beginning of 2008, but remained busy making preparations which included transporting a 1935 Auburn Speedster to Hughson which had been donated to the company for the film’s car chase scene by Les Ellis, a friend of Ben‘s family. The car had not run in five years and rats had built a nest that inhabited every corner of the engine compartment. . . In a few days it was running again, but it took months to actually get clean. . . Sort of clean, anyway.
A month or two later, the entire production was scrapped. The problem that had delayed us after our first two successful shoots had become a permanent one. An unrelated situation that basically ended up pulling our budget.
Unwilling to let the project go immediately, we prepared a pitch and made some proposals, but no one was biting at the time. It was right about then that Ben’s “Danger Element” joke popped back into my head. I began to write a short action packed adventure film that I thought might either serve as a really good pitch for a feature or a pilot episode for an internet series.
Right around this time, Doug TenNapel e mailed me the script for Sockbaby Part 4. It was a complete surprise. I think it had been a year since he had even mentioned the thought of making another one and even then it was just kind of a crazy offhanded thought. The script was hilarious, but I really have to be honest in saying that, at the time, I was not extremely enthusiastic about making another Sockbaby film. We had made the original three shorts 5 years earlier and my only attempt at doing something larger had just completely collapsed just a few months before I received this e mail. Even though I loved working on the Sockbaby Series with Doug, there was something about the idea that made me feel that the only thing I’d have done in five years would be another no budget internet short. But I think it was probably Doug TenNapel’s and mostly Justin Spurlock’s unkillable enthusiasm for the prospect of making another Sockbaby film that pulled me out of the slump. Doug TenNapel had also somehow gotten Dan and Jon Heder in his cast, along with Isaac Singleton Jr., Rob Schrab, Kate Freund and Doug Jones, who was now back from filming on Hellboy 2. At that point it was pretty hard not to be excited.
Over the month of April, 2008, Justin and I trucked ourselves, our equipment and our core crew down to Los Angeles every weekend for the entire month. We would film over the weekend and then head home so everybody could work. I was virtually destitute during this time and, as usual, was living off the fumes of no budget film production. This was also the first project that Shaun Finney and I got to work together on. Shaun is a San Francisco based member of a stunt organization known as The Stunt People. On the weekend of our fight scene in Sockbaby 4, he met me in Turlock, California for the very first time, we immediately packed into a car and made the trip to Los Angeles and started working on an action sequence together around eight hours after meeting. He spent the evenings sharing his Tylenol with me (I couldn’t even afford Tylenol) along with some of the greatest kung fu scenes in history which we watched on his laptop on the floor of Doug TenNapel’s old house in Glendale. This was all excellent preparation for our inevitable collaboration on “The Danger Element.”
In July of 2008, production started on “The Danger Element” with the filming of the first half of its hair raising car chase. The second half of the chase was shot at the end of the month after we returned from a very successful screening and panel for Sockbaby 4 at the San Diego Comicon International. The second shoot focused on all the moving vehicle shots in the sequence. One of the misconceptions about the car chase sequence is that parts were shot in a stationary setting and parts with moving vehicles for safety reasons. But the truth is that we shot the scene both ways for an less obvious reason. When we shot our first moving vehicle scene on Ben Beames’ film, “The Tyrants of Nazca”, we discovered that any time we were able to fake a moving shot (with vehicles remaining stationary with the cameras vibrating by hand) the vehicles appeared to be moving much faster and more recklessly than they did when they were actually moving. For that reason, I decided we’d shoot all the actions of the chase once through with the vehicles sitting still in a driveway, then shoot them all over again with the vehicles moving. Safety was most definitely not sacrificed in either case. Safety is one of the most important things to me as I just can’t seem to justify risking my health or anyone else’s on something when there very well could be not only a safer alternative, but usually one that looks better on screen.
Kyle Santos had been a reliable stunt man in many of my fight sequences since before the original 3 Sockbaby films and I had him driving the white truck in this scene (which he had actually borrowed from his boss.) Kyle ended his time on that shoot by giving me more than I was asking for on his last stunt in which Battle J kicks him out the door of the truck. Rather than just giving me a simple fall, he decided to roll over my camera immediately after he hit the ground, which gave the shot a pretty violent and dynamic turn.
Adam Parker played Andross and courageously did battle with me on the back of the truck as it barreled down the dirt roads of Doug Beames’ (That’s Ben’s Dad‘s) rice field in Merced, California for two days. Adam also fabricated his own costume based on some drawings I had done years before and did an amazing job.
At some point after this, I took a visit down to the Los Angeles area to visit Kato. Since she and Doug Jones are virtually neighbors, I called him up and the three of us had lunch together. I used this opportunity to tell him that I was finally ready to shoot with him (I had written the character he was to play in my feature into the short I was making now) Had I been a few weeks earlier, the 6 days it took to shoot “The Danger Element” might have all taken place in the same month, but it had taken me just a bit too long once again. He was scheduled to leave for France soon to start shooting on “SERGE GAINSBOURG: VIE HÉROÏQUE” and would not be returning to the States until May of 2009. I considered rewriting the film for a different character and actor, but after lunch, out in the parking lot, Kato made a case for waiting it out. The truth was, it really wasn’t a very long time to wait when you consider what you’d be throwing away.
Through the colder months we filmed the indoor fight sequence at a large warehouse location in Turlock, California. The location was secured for us By Lee and Dave Miller who were also a part of the stunt team for the sequence. Most of the members of that same stunt team, I am told, were recently all in a spectacular bar fight together. But I cannot officially confirm this. Shaun Finney rejoined me at this point and served as a consultant for the entire scene and finally co-choreographed a one on one sequence between he and myself at the end of the scene. It was a blast and probably went more smoothly than anything I have ever worked on. But the entire fight scene, a three and a half minute action extravaganza, only took two 6 hour nights of shooting to produce and I was left with a long wait until May for the final two days of filming with Doug Jones.
I took the time to make plans for the sets as well as make sure that Doug Jones’ and Ben Page’s Dialogue was actually going to work on the screen and not seem TOO ridiculous. Adam Parker and Justin Spurlock built a Tesla Coil prop in the garage based on yet another one of my scribbly drawings while I edited the scenes of “The Danger Element” that had been shot thus far.
When April of 2009 rolled around Doug Jones had returned from France and Ben Page saw fit to take a break from building sets for television shows long enough to come to the Modesto area for two days and finish making my movie. Justin Spurlock and I moved a bunch of furniture from our house in Ceres over to his mom’s place in Hughson and Justin built a pretty killer set to represent the study of Doctor Elymas in her living room. I shot the reverse angles of myself standing in this room a week later in my bedroom alone at home because of its wonderfully dark colored walls. After we shot Doug and Ben’s scenes over the course of that weekend and had celebrated Doug’s birthday, we contemplated the prospect of actually having the film completely shot. It doesn’t seem like a huge accomplishment, really, but considering the setbacks we had had early on, it was exciting to have anything decent recorded at all. . . And there was a lot of decent stuff recorded. I slept for a few days.
Kyle Santos has been doing music for my projects for a while. As I finished up the editing, he began putting together music for some of the creepier scenes in the film as creepy scenes really seem to be his specialty. I had been a fan of Glen Gabriel’s since probably sometime in 2005? And that’s not an understatement. I’ve played his albums hundreds of times. So I was pretty excited when he agreed to compose a piece of music for the big fight sequence. When it was finished, he sent me another piece he had done for the car chase just for the heck of it. I was excited beyond words. Glen is a perfect match for the kind of music I have always wanted in my action scenes. He did all this from Sweden and I have yet to meet him in person. I really hope that changes soon.
Hal Forsstrom has saved my life, literally and figuratively, a number of times since I first got in contact with him after seeing his animated film “Dandelion” at a film festival in Modesto. He was living in Boston (this had to be back around 2001? Unbelievable.) He moved to LA not long after that and is currently doing a lot of motion graphics work for movies and trailers. When he informed me that he started working on the motion graphics for my film (I don’t remember actually asking him to do it. He just started doing it) he had just done the Star Trek logo that you see at the end of those two epic trailers for J.J. Abrams’ new Star Trek movie. He spent a lot of very late nights creating our new animated Westhavenbrook logo (with music by Glen Gabriel) and the opening credits and title sequence for “The Danger Element” which was also fully animated. These were finished and inserted into the film on its release date. Hal and I had pretty much been up all night, him working on the motion graphics in LA and I working on the finishing touches of the film here in Ceres 300 miles away. I could not have been happier or more grateful for what he contributed.
“The Danger Element” went online on July 17, 2009 almost exactly one year after the first scene was shot. Production took 6 working days.
I wanted to release it directly to the public as some kind of statement about independent cinema and what it could actually be. I have something of a dream to show people what they can do if they have the will power. I don’t know if that actually came across, but its now September 2nd and it would seem that the film is still being received quite well by the world and I hope it continues to entertain a lot of people. I can personally say that I think I did accomplish what I set out to do, but I can see a lot of room for improvements. Luckily, since this film is meant to be the first episode of a series, I should have a lot chances to make those improvements.
I am hoping that everyone who worked on this relatively small, but personally huge, project will work with me on every film I make from now on in one capacity or another.