Interview with Director Judd Tilyard For Frame 137

A few weeks ago, Bloody Disgusting did a story on the teaser trailer for a short film by the name of Frame 137. Upon watching it, I was immediately struck with an interest in the project, being that it was made on no budget but looks like a million bucks. Mix that with the fact that it's based on a short story written by James O'Barr (creator / artist / writer of The Crow), it features a ten-year old beating the crap out of post-apocalyptic punks, and did I mention it's sci-fi and based on a comic? Of course I'm interested. Shortly after watching the teaser, I tracked down Australian Director Judd L.Tilyard to have a chat with him about his "little" project that seems to be generating quite a bit of buzz. So much buzz, that it is being featured at SXSW Film Festival. See what Judd has to say below.

Movie Geek Feed (MGF): First, can you give me a little insight into you? Maybe a brief biography about yourself and what you've done.

Judd L. Tilyard (JT): I've always wanted to create worlds. That (was) really my driving ambition behind becoming a filmmaker and I was fortunate to realize it early on, so from my youth a lot of what I did was focused on that. I'm 31 now, so I grew up at a time were video cameras were around but very few people had them. Particularly in small country towns which is where I did most of my schooling. Around the time I was 15, one of my friends bought a video camera (and) I fell in love with the power of the medium. Shortly after that, our high school got one, (and) I made lots of films that I hope will never see the light of day. (I) also spent about a year working for local network television, assisting with lots of things and actually doing some editing on TVC's, etc. It was a really grounded technical knowledge and that’s always been one of my strong points, I think.

I've always been able to think both technically and creatively, and so as I developed as a filmmaker I've balanced my ambitions and desires of what I want to do the stories I want to tell with what I practically know I can accomplish, sometimes its held me back, when I should have just "gone for something" but its also given me a reputation at least amongst Brisbane filmmakers as someone who delivers if I say I'm going to make a feature film for $50K and its going to have explosions and gun fights and action and a name etc then threes a lot of people by now that will sign on for that because they know somehow I'm going to deliver.

MGF: There are countless original comic books out there that could be adapted into a movie. Why Frame 137 - a short story that was published in 1992 in a Dark Horse Presents comic?

JT: Frame 137 was a short I discovered while still at high school, already an O'Barr fan introduced to his work from The Crow. It had an instant appeal and the world of the comic came to life in my head. It was several years later that it occurred to me how perfect the actual story would suit a short film. It was at that point about 8 years ago, I believe, that I first contacted O'Barr about bringing his short story to life. What really impressed me about Frame 137 was the power of the story in the short comic strip. In four pages it conjures a world of emotion that is engaging and challenging, PLUS it does it using language that really invests the page with atmosphere - lines like, "The gin tasted like petrol and urine in equal amounts" coupled with James’ art really evoked the world for me and I felt a passion to bring that to the screen and to others.

MGF: How long did it take you to shoot the teaser trailer and give us a little insight into what it took to put it together?

JT: We actually shot a 14-minute short film which the teaser was cut from. The short film was shot over three days - one day for the drama and two days for the action. I also spent several days during preproduction working with Sam, helping him find what is arguably a very adult character. He also spent about six weeks training three to four days a week for several hours each day to learn the martial arts and choreography within the film.

Pre-Production wise we also built the set which is documented fairly well in the behind-the-scenes video posted on vimeo (by Sam Hawley) and the Facebook page. It’s notable that while I went in with some sketches and a specific vision for things in bringing the set together, Sam and I spent a lot of time just going through rubbish and seeing WHAT felt right. Since there were a few things I knew I wanted, mostly what I was after was a bar that looked like it was from a post apocalyptic city. I wanted it to look and feel like it had been banged together from junk that had been scrounged, and pretty much everything you see on screen in the bar is exactly that - it was rubbish reclaimed by us and transformed into a bar. I think that gave a sense of realism to things. The grit and rawness of the space felt like it could be a bar in another time - it didn’t feel like a "set."

Tiffany, who made all the costumes (over 40 in total), also spent about a month sourcing and hand-making everything - giving each piece a particular practical authenticity so that it wasn’t about “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if they had gloves?”, etc. It was about “Hmm, this guy is the type of guy that will punch you in the face and take your wallet, so he needs gloves for his hands and somewhere to put your wallet after he grabs it.”

Likewise, the make up took several weeks of Pre and Verity (who had been one of the first people I'd spoken to about Frame years before it was made) had come on board with an assortment of great designs and references she’d found. Again, my prime directive was authenticity. I didn’t want "futuristic" makeups. I wanted tattoos, scarification, body modification - to me if there’s an apocalypse gone down and people are fighting for survival, 99% of (them) aren't going to be worrying about having some mean-looking eye shadow. The 17 that do, well that says something VERY important about them, and so I really wanted to use that. Of course, we also had a lot of wounds and FX, as well as the character makeup and a hell of a lot of dirt. Nothing annoys me more then a "clean Apocalypse", to which I (have) to say - The Road did a fantastic job.

There was similarly a lot of discussion with the other heads of departments (most notably my DP) covering the look and style. (This) ultimately lead us to shoot almost the entire film on Steadicam. Essentially, I was hoping to really create a subjective point of view to the action and I wanted the audience to feel (like) a part of the film and the world. So some of the subtle moves a Steadicam can give you that add personality to a shot became so important. The exception being the final sequence where Jonny confronts Leo - that was very specifically locked off, since that’s the moment of the "job" for Jonny. When he passes the curtains to confront Leo, he does so stone cold and ready to kill. I think having the camera locked off for that really gave a weight to that scene that mirrored the weight on Jonny’s shoulders.

MGF: You got James O'Barr's permission to shoot the teaser. Has he seen it, and if he has what does he think?

JT: I'd been keeping James up to speed with the film’s progress - particularly when I got serious about making it and started locking in dates and looking at casting. He’s been very supportive throughout and should be attending the launch in Austin.

That said he's really not much of an "e-mail guy.” He had noted in his last email prior to me uploading the trailer that he was about to start work on an author’s edition of The Crow graphic novel and was going to be quite busy. We had been discussing him drawing a few sketches that could be used in the opening sequence for the film. So, no, unfortunately I haven’t personally heard back from him on what he thinks. Though Michael, who runs all of James’ online sites, has been kind enough to post the link worth some kind words.

(UPDATE: A couple of days after the initial interview, Judd sent me this – “Hey, just to let you know - James just got back to me. Said the trailer was great…”)

MGF: When I originally contacted you about doing this interview, you said that you were in post. I take that as meaning post-production. What are you working on right now?

JT: Yes. I’m currently in post-production (on Frame 137). I have a couple of people helping with the visual FX and another on sound design, as well as a couple of people doing the music. It’s pretty hectic. They’re all located in different parts of the world - from Ireland, Germany, Canada, The U.S. and Australia. I'm needing to get them all various sections of the film in various formats, while battling through the inevitable technical difficulties. Things will literally be coming in right before the screening, I suspect.

MGF: Have you had anyone contact you about helping to fund a full length Frame 137 movie?

JT: I have a meeting next week with someone who is interested in the prospect of a feature, but of course its early days right now. The time does seem to be right and there’s been a great fan response so far, but of course a project like this is a big endeavour. I think until the short is actually out, a lot of people will sit on the sidelines to really see how things come together.

Personally, I know James would love to see the film made without a studio involvement, so I'm trying to pursue private options as my first point of contact. (I’m) trying to look at how we can insure the project is feasible at a business level, which is tough when your dealing with an undisputedly R-rated action film that stars a 10-year old kid. But again, I think the time is right and Jonny is a character that (be he 10 or 20) is going to win people over with his attitude. Despite the "negatives" that Hollywood likes to throw up, I do think we're in a position where we can deliver on less then $20 million a film that has the potential to out-do a lot of Hollywood Blockbusters. Particularly if I can create the film I want and have it engage and resonate with those people disenfranchised with where a lot of Science fiction has gone - being relegated to "Movie of the Week" B-grade fair. I want Frame 137 to be epic. It’s a lot to ask, but I think the world behind it is there. It just needs the vision and the resources to bring it to life and I do think people will respond.

No matter what happens, I know I'm going to get this film (done). I knew that the first time I wrote the short based on the comic. It may have taken over eight years for it to come to pass, but it was always there growing. Developing this world is a part of me now and I need to share it.

MGF: To some, seeing a 10-year old slicing people up and blowing people away with a gun could be offensive. Not to mention the drinking and drug-taking he's doing in the teaser. What would you have to say to people who might take offense to some of the imagery you put forward?

JT: Honestly this is a challenging film. The subject matter of the comic was challenging and I think we've only increased that in the short. But for me, THAT is exactly what makes something like Frame (137) important. It’s a film that does challenge your expectations, but its not doing it empty handed. Frame is very much centered on a real world for me. In the comic, there’s a line - "I dry sucked four or five percs and half a dozen white crosses; let the barbiturates and amphetamines fight it out in my system. Leave me pumped and calm." It was written nearly 20 years ago, but people are still struggling to find peace within themselves through the use of drugs. In my opinion while society will change, the peace we seek will change, the drugs will change, and what’s acceptable will change, what won’t change is the fact that people will still be looking to chemicals to provide answers to their problems.

I think we need to really face these issues and what’s at the root of them. In some cases its politics; in some cases economics; in some cases religion - all of which play major roles in the world of Frame. For me, that is one thing science fiction can do better than most any other genre. It can take what’s topical and controversial and present it in such a way that people are not just entertained, but their experiences and the way they perceive their everyday life can be broadened. I mean Blade Runner, the quintessential Cyberpunk film for my mind, manages to weave together both a great and compelling atmospheric story as well as raising several huge philosophical questions. So yes, when I have a ten year old drinking, smoking, doing drugs, and killing people I'm doing it because its part of his world. In some way, its part of our world right now and I want to challenge people to deal with that rather then simply look the other way or change the channel and pretend it doesn’t happen.

For me, it boils down to if something is gratuitous. I've seen films full of gore and violence. Its unmotivated (and) its there to shock or cause scandal. Personally, that’s not my thing and I choose not to watch it. But if you took the violence and bloodshed out of a film like Platoon, you'd be doing the film a disservice because it serves as a function in that film. For me, the drug use and violence in Frame isn’t about shock. It’s about "survival" in a world that is harsh and unforgiving. Jonny does what he needs to do, and for me it poses a lot of important questions about the world he lives in and by contrast the world we live in. As such, my answer to someone who doesn’t want to see violence or drugs or such in films like Frame is simple - “Work hard to change the world you live in so such things are unnecessary." The reality is, that simply wanting the world to be a better place isn’t going to make it one. While wanting peace from the quiet of your own home is not a bad thing, openly declaring you want it is very different and much more powerful. For me ignoring the problem or banning and censoring films that remind you there is a problem – that’s just making things worse.

That said, I really don’t feel films should be preachy and I think any subtext and messages that are within the world of Frame 137 are universal concepts that flow within and support the story.

MGF: Tell us a bit about Sam Ransom? How did you find him? Why did you pick him for the part of Jonny Z?

JT: Sam Ransom is a prodigy, pure and simple. Casting the role of Jonny was one of the hardest parts of the production. I've worked with several kids in my previous films and I've often found if you can talk to them so they understand what you want, they can deliver exceptionally strong performances because they have less inhibitions than a lot of adults. It allows them to really become a character rather then "acting" a role.

That said, the physicality of Jonny’s role was extremely demanding and so I started my search at the physical level. I looked at gymnasts, dancers, martial artists - well over a hundred kids - over several weeks. But when I saw Sam - he was the one. He had these huge innocent blue eyes that, for me, perfectly contrasted the killer that Jonny Z was. He was easily the strongest Gymnast I'd seen - trained by his father, a former member of the Great Moscow Circus, since the time he was 1 and a half. Sam regularly trained 30 hours a week on top of his school. (He) was preparing for the Nationals in a few weeks. Despite being younger than I'd originally anticipated casting, once I spoke to Sam I knew he was mature enough to handle the role. While it meant moving some of the dates around, we pretty much started working with Sam the next week. We ended up training Sam for about 6 weeks as noted. Because his training had covered both martial arts form as well as our specific routine, we were able to tweak sections on the day when working in the set to insure everything would work on camera.

In all honesty, I’m really excited to have found Sam. Throughout the whole process, he’s surprised me at every level - both in front of and behind the camera. Sam is a young man with a VERY bright future ahead of him.

MGF: What do you want to accomplish with Frame 137?

JT: My goal for Frame 137 is simple. I hope to create a world that others can share. The short film for me is the first step to that a taste of things to come, hopefully, I already have several stories in mind chronicling Jonny's adventures and it would be my greatest pleasure to see them brought to the screen for others to experience and enjoy.

MGF: Is there anything else you would like to share in closing?

JT: A couple things I'd like to note. First, that a film like Frame 137 while it started as my passion, it simply wouldn’t have happened if not for nearly hundreds of others in our cast and crew who took on that passion for themselves. It really was the best set I've worked on, with everyone just so enthused to be there. Even after our ridiculously long days, people were still giving it there all and you could honestly see the smiles on their faces to be a part of it. I will always be incredibly grateful to them for that. They not only made my day; they made my film and when the feature does get made it will undoubtedly be due in large part to the work and passion they put into it

I'd also really like to thank the people who've taken the time to write after seeing the trailer. It’s really incredibly inspiring, I mean, it’s only a trailer and I honestly wasn’t expecting anyone outside of the people who worked on the film and a few people I was talking to regarding post-production to really see it. It’s kind of amazing to me that I'm getting emails and messages from people around the world so passionate and excited about it. Honestly, more than anything THAT drives me to get the feature made and to get it made, right.

Check out Frame 137 on Facebook, Vimeo, and IMDb.