Mike Mort (INTERVIEW)
Mike Mort is the writer, director and star of stop motion animation, CHUCK STEEL: NIGHT OF THE TRAMPIRES release October 29th in cinemas nationwide. We stopped to chat with Mike about how the 80s inspired horror-comedy is both controversial and welcome.
BGUK: Thanks for speaking to us.
Mike Mort: That's okay. Thanks for the good review.
Hey, no problem. Thanks for the awesome film. To be honest with you, it defied any level of expectation that may have come before it and certainly blew our minds.
Oh, that's good. Yeah. It's definitely a film that some people absolutely love and then other people are like, "What the hell?"
I think "what the hell" pretty much sums up the whole concept of the film, to say the least.
So, the film itself, CHUCK STEEL: NIGHT OF THE TRAMPIRES. Do you want to just tell us a little bit about that, and how it came about?
Well, the feature film we started in 2014, we sort of built a studio from the ground up, which was taken over as a COVID hospital when COVID hit. So it's kind of like we're mothballed at the moment. But we set that up in 2014 and finished it in 2018. And then we sort of showed it around festivals and we're talking to lots of distributors, and it's taking a while to get out, because it's not a very politically correct film. And obviously everything is politically correct now. So everyone is very risk averse of these types of films.
But just to go back a bit on how it started, the character I came up with when I was about 15 years old, in 1986, and I was doodling him in school, making [inaudible 00:01:59] movies with it and stuff like that as I learned animation. And I did a college film with the character. And it was always stuck with me through my career, so I was trying get a film off the ground for years, and sometimes moving forward with it, and then two steps back.
In 2011 then, I decided, well, I need to do something to get Chuck Steel out of my system and rejuvenate my commercials career a little, because things were a little bit quiet. So I started work on the short film on my own. I had a basement studio here. And using old stuff that I collected over the years, I sort of made models and built the set. And then I met my backers who came board at that point and funded the short with a crew of about six people. It took 18 months. So, that played at FrightFest. And then pretty much straight after that, my backers wanted to make a feature film, and I'd already written the script back in 2001. So we kind of just dived straight into it. And that's the brief history of it, really.
Wow. A lot in there. So, obviously he's been around for quite some time, and obviously this is the first we're seeing of him. Yeah, it certainly, as you mentioned, is an edgy comedy, it is borderline politically incorrect, but isn't that how most of the best comedies get off the ground? It's easy to give comparisons to the stop-motion animation, to the puppets of TEAM AMERICA. But we look today at the fanbase that film has got, and similarly, over the time, Chuck Steel will pretty much reach that too. I think the one thing for me, for the nature of the film, I think, yeah, it certainly gives great context of how brilliant it is by the fact that it has got a nationwide cinema release. So how do you feel about that?
Well, it's been a long time coming, but obviously what we are doing with the cinema release, it's being self-released, we are doing it ourselves, because, like I said, the distributors that we've talked to throughout the process of trying to get it out there, the big ones with the decent spread is they're all very risk averse. And even though a lot of them loved the film and we almost got there with a couple of them over the last couple of years, something in terms of the public, the PC environment that we're in now always sort of tripped it up at the last hurdle. So we, decided, "Well, we've just got to do it ourselves."
So we ended up approaching the cinemas in the UK and the four big chains really liked it. So they are giving us a number of screens to put it out over this weekend. Obviously there's a lot riding on this, because we're not a very big wide release. We have a number of cinemas across the chains, but we're not one of the blockbusters being pushed heavily. So we're doing all of the promotion ourself, and stuff like that. So, like I say, a lot riding on it this weekend.
Fingers crossed that the film does really well. In terms of the film itself, obviously, you've got a huge cast involved, yourself taking a huge chunk of that, but you've got the likes of, of Paul Whitehouse and Jennifer Saunders also joining in. So it's a very British film, to say the least, despite the American setting of the film. How did the casting process go? Because to grab Paul and Jennifer on that release is no mean feat.
Well, we've not done anything the normal way on this project. It's always just been very organic how things have happened. And when I did the short film back in 2012 or whatever it was, when I didn't have any funding at the beginning of that, I decided to try and do the voices myself, which I did on that film. And it worked out fine. So when we started the feature film, we were like, "Well, are we going to be getting famous names on board, or are we just going to do what we did on the short film?" And that question basically followed us right through production, and we never wrapped it up. The idea was, well, if we get a distributor on board, they can pay for some big names to come in and revoice, because our budget wouldn't allow for megastars to come on board, it just wasn't there.
So, we always had that option of getting to the end of the film and revoicing the main cast, because as far as I was concerned, I just wanted it to work. So, my view was, if we could get Stallone and [inaudible 00:06:40] as the two main characters that would have been great, but that costs a lot of money. So, we actually came fairly close to one of those, but it just didn't come off in the end, and we stuck with the same process we had on the short film, because our budget on the film is... I can't give you an exact figure, but it was... We're a quarter of what a Laika movie might cost, or an Aardman film.
So, all the money is on the screen on our film. We spent four years making it. Most of these film get done in 18 months. So we had a longer shoot time, and all the money is on the screen. But the voices, in terms of Jennifer and Paul, they weren't involved at the beginning. We had the voice artist doing those roles and an opportunity arose by a third party that knew their agents. And we just thought this was at the point where we were trying to talk to distributors and we thought, "Well, maybe they can't help, but they can't hinder us if we got them." So we spent a couple of days with them re-recording those roles. It's not the right way around to do things, because they've got a match lip sync and try and do a performance as well. So it's quite tricky, but it paid off. So it worked out in the end.
Oh absolutely. One of the strangest things to ever see in cinema history is Jennifer Saunders voicing a soon to be demonic creature. It's a unique experience to say the least.
She did say when she was in the recording booth and she saw Jennifer doing the screams of the melting scene and she said, "Oh, this is a funny little film, isn't it?"
I think it certainly is the only horror film to her resume to say the least. That's the thing. And you said, obviously all the budget was put onto the screen and that really does come across. There is no doubt on the painstaking hours it took to create such a unique film in stop motion. We've seen the likes of Aardman, but those films have huge, massive crews and they are decades in the making at studios, whereas, as you say, Chuck Steel is pretty much your baby, and it really does show. A lot of the screenwriting alone would make a fantastic blockbuster live-action film. And to see that done scene for scene in stop-motion is actually a unique experience.
Well that's what I was trying to aim for. Some of the criticism of the film in terms of the jokes or the script, is that it's a bit old fashioned or un-PC, but obviously I did write this in 2001. We didn't change a lot other than, there were tweaks going through the film, through the process of shooting it, but the bare bones of it was there.
And the weird thing is this, one of the things that people are saying, "Oh, Chuck is a misogynist, he's too much toxic masculinity" and all this. But at the beginning, when I first wrote the script, the psychologist was a male character. And then I was talking to a colleague, a female colleague friend of mine who works at the film agency, who was giving me notes on the script of those was going just what you thought, that you need a strong female character. And I thought, "Well, yeah, I do, but I don't want to shoehorn in a love interest, or where do I put one in?" And she suggested making the psychologist a woman. And I thought, "Oh, okay." So I did that. And it changed the whole dynamic of the script. It became very much the male versus female type scenario, this battle of the sexes thing almost, there's a subtext in there, which I think added something to the film, even though it has probably caused some of the offense that some people have taken.
And that's just the thing, isn't it? Yeah, it's about equal opportunity here. And I think the reality of it is, Chuck as the film itself really does come across as a real homage to those films. And it's hard to homage an era of time without taking that humour with it. If you modernized it to a very 2021 message, I think it would lose that value.
It wouldn't work. No. You can't do this film and make it politically correct. You're just better off not doing it. So yeah, you're right there.
That's just the thing, isn't it? I think a lot of the jokes, they do work so well, because it's taken in jest. There's nothing too serious within the film that makes you go, "Oh no, Chuck is a misogynist." He shouldn't be a lovable character, but at times it's the characters around him that are more lovable that kind of bringing back around full circle, that it really does work. So, I take the criticism, but on the other hand, it probably wouldn't work and get the fan base it deserves if it did go down that path, because you'd lose a lot of the humour.
Yeah. I think that basically Chuck is kind of the only, in his mind, he's the only sane man in an insane world, and he is surrounded by fools, but he's a fool as well. He's not coming across particularly well. They're all fools in this situation. And I just like the idea of them having to work together to defeat the villain, who I was determined to keep them straight and a genuine threat to this ridiculous world. Because if you go too silly on everything, then there's no jeopardy. So the threat, although it's absurd, vampire tramps, it's a genuine threat to the human world.
Absolutely. And this is something I wanted to of touch on. I think when the film takes that dynamic shift from that element, those just humorous elements and those action '80s throwbacks, when you actually go into that realm of the horror, it doesn't stop. And I think as a result of that, I think you really capture what made the '80s such a fantastic era for horror, primarily because the effects of practical, and we're talking about stop-motion animation, but the effects mirror those from films, such as Evil Dead, Ghostbusters, the real classics of the era were all done via that stop-motion technique. So to see them on screen, it does bring back that sense of horror that made the video nasty era.
I miss those films, because they all had their own unique identity, because all the effects were by different people, different creatives, and CGI seems to all feel the same now, or attempting to look the same, whereas the old stuff, the limitations they had back then sometimes ended up making more creative films in the end.
And one of the things I wanted to do with this film was to mimic the techniques they used. So we had transformation effects in the film where you have stretching heads, like in American Werewolf in London. We had animation mechanisms within the silicone heads that would wind the heads up and stretch them for the transformation scenes. And there was always a line, a stylistic line that I said was, any character that's human has got a plasticine phase. Once they become a tramper, they become latex or silicone, that was the line in the design. Because some people said, "Well, why didn't you do some transformation effects with plasticine change in shape?" And I was like, "Well, that's going to look pretty morphed, then I don't want it to feel like that, I want it to feel like these clay characters are human beings and the effects around them are rubber monster effects." That was in my mind from day one, really.
It's a real unique beast. If the film was released in the '80s, you could happily dump it in the middle of Big Trouble in Little China, or The Thing, and even Die Hard. You'd have a wide variety of cinematic classics and this would easily fit amongst it.
2021 is a challenging time to get that, but the reality of it is, there's still an audience for it. And I think, certainly there's a lot of lessons to be learned from that, but on the other hand, there's also an element of poking fun and having people go to the cinema to have entertainment. CHUCK STEEL is a film that's there to entertain and to have humour at the expense of those films and those characters. To speak frankly, it ticks all the boxes. So, I really do wish the film well. And as we said in our review this is a five-star film. This is a unique beast that you will not see anywhere else. Going back to some of the points you made earlier, this really is a laboured effort and one that really deserves the benefit off the back of it.
Thanks. I hope we get somewhere with it, because like I said, it's been a long ride and a lot of work has gone into it. We're just in a very strange period of time now with movies and TV in general. I'm struggling to find anything that I connect with because they're all so joyless. There's no happiness, there's no comedy, there's no silliness in things. And I think Jerry Zucker only yesterday said that he doesn't think AIRPLANE! could get made. Now, to me, that's worrying. If you can't make AIRPLANE! there's something seriously wrong.
It really is. It's a tragic time when that is the case. By coincidence, I literally watched the film about a week ago and this is where there's a time and a place for things, and I think comedy itself is really timeless. And I think if you start putting restrictions on comedy to a degree that take the... Obviously if it is offensive, blatantly out there to offend, then that's a different story altogether, but if it's there to enjoy and entertain and make fun with, then quite frankly, more than more for it. And I think, blending that with the sheer horror...
Watching this within an hour, I was so absorbed into watching it, I forgot it was stop-motion. I genuinely... It becomes a huge creature feature. That scene at the end with, all we're going to say is, clowns, and lizards, and demons, that's all I'm going to mention, but that scene alone is a scene to behold. I could literally watch that on repeat again, and again, and again. There's just so much humour, so much references to all the films in there that bring back good memories. But on the other hand, it a beast of its own, I think as a whole, you can pay homage to the history, you can make a film your own, but what you've done here is meld the two and actually created your own beast that does pay homage, but the same time has got its own identity.
That's exactly what I was trying to do because some people, they use the word spoof or parody, and I'm like, "Well, I don't see it like that. I see it as a movie that was made in the '80s, in my head."
That is it. That needs to be the tagline. I'm sure read somewhere it wasn't made in 1985, it was made in 1986.
Yeah. Well, I did come up with the character in 1985, '86, so it's a nice circle back.
That's brilliant. I really do wish to film the best. I certainly can't want to see it again. And it really does deserve to be seen by everybody, certainly those people who've got a funny bone in them. It does magically blend the wonderful worlds of comedy and horror in a way that hasn't been seen for a very, very long time. So I wish to film the best. And Mike, thank you very much for your time.
No problem. Thanks a lot.
CHUCK STEEL: NIGHT OF THE TRAMPIRES is in Cinemas from 29th October.