Exclusive: Bringing Virtual Reality to the Big Screen: A Conversation with Producer John Giwa-Amu
The debut feature film from director Charles Barker. His previous credits include award-winning campaigns for international brands such as Vodafone, Nokia and Wella as well as FX short, (Indecision), which was accepted into more than 60 film festivals all over the world.
He is also an award-winning genre screenwriter, specialising in action, science fiction and horror. The Call Up, topped the Brit List (British Black List) in 2011 as the best unproduced screenplay of that year, as voted for by industry peers. As a writer in the gaming industry, he recently had the opportunity of developing a new game for the Playstation 4.
When a group of elite online gamers each receive a mysterious invitation to trial a state-of-the-art virtual reality video game, it’s a dream come true and impossible to resist.
Arriving at the test site, the group step into hi-tech gear and prepare for a revolutionary, next-level gaming experience that brings modern warfare to life with frightening realism.
At first it’s a unique and exhilarating experience. But what starts out like a dream encounter with cutting edge technology quickly takes a turn for the sinister.
The Fan Carpet’s Marc Jason Ali had the pleasure of speaking to Producer John Giwa-Amu about assembling the fantastic cast, being open to Directing again, his working relationship with Caradog James and the future of The Machine…
The Call Up is the feature film debut of Charles Barker, what was it about Charles that made him the right person to bring this to the big screen?
Charles is a big kid (laughs), Charles is a hardcore gamer, so he thinks about this stuff certainly more than I have and his fantasy was the game and this idea that he could get transported inside a television set potentially and get to do things that the spies get to do. You know as a person Charles is someone who’s full of boundless enthusiasm and his personality really suited what he was writing really and that’s what made him the right person, you know he’s got that kind of youthful energy about him and that he’s got a genuine fascination with technology and what you could do in a virtual world.
Do you see yourself as a gamer?
I used to be, unfortunately I became a producer and my life got a bit busier, but in film school certainly, when I was doing film school I used to play like Golden Eye till 4 in the morning, night after night after night and just never really got bored of it, the multiplayer version of that game was something that sucked a lot of my time away, but weirdly I don’t regret it at all it was a good time (laughs).
Yeah why regret it, they’re fun (laughs)
(laughs) Yeah it was brilliant actually, that was the one that really kind of got me, you know really got me, so I’ve always had, while I don’t play them anymore, there’s so many games I’d like to play, like Minecraft for example, that’s something I would really like to just have time to sit down and have a play, but I just don’t get time to carve it out now to do it, you know you have real life adult stuff going on and it’s just kind of, (laughs) people complain if you sit down playing games for too long, so sadly not anymore but I’m very much an ex-junkie of games certainly.
Brilliant, The Call Up landed on the Brit list, what was it about the story that made you want to bring it to the big screen?
Well you know we did The Machine, that was a film which started off with about 150 vfx shots and ended up with about just under 500, so when I saw this and I knew we weren’t making it on 10 million dollars you know we were making a much modest budget, I knew that I could add a lot of value to the film in terms of having fought a lot of these battles, to coin a phrase, we fought them just a year ago, so I brought in a lot of the team who I used on The Machine to do this film, so the wonderful visual effects sequences which Bait VFX did, the wonderful sound design which Bang did whose an Emmy winning sound studio based in Wales, I migrated all the most talented elements over to this film. So was attracted me was the hook to be honest, I didn’t think I’d seen it done before, you know it was the kind of thing I thought I should have seen done before and the idea that you put this helmet on and step inside this world and (a few bits?) of that, Charles had quite a sensible perspective on it in that what worried me when I first read it was “how are you going to do this”, because when you read it on the page, you put this helmet on and you’re transported into this virtual world, now I know what that costs and I know the resources you need to do that and when I read it I was like “well how the hell are we going to do this?” you can’t make a virtual reality film with what would have probably been 2,000 visual effects shots maybe more. But then Charles explained that actually the game is so real that it looks real and actually what we’ll be doing is remaking the environment and dirtying down the same environment so it’ll actually be a real environment, but dress it in two different ways, then suddenly it kind of became real for me.
Great OK, seems to be an interesting way to go about it cool. You assembled a fantastic cast from Morfydd Clark to Max Deacon to Ali Cook to name a few. Can you talk about that process?
So casting, we had a wonderful casting director called Colin Jones, Colin’s done quite a lot of big movies and we, let me just get up some of his credits to name a few, he worked on Zero Dark Thirty for example, let’s have look, Ghost Rider, Dredd, you know some kind of quite big movies, so he brought a lot of contacts to this and he’s just got a great idea, a great eye for spotting talent, so he put quite a lot of different people in front of us and it was by and large an audition process you know of just finding the right people and through that we ran into Max and of course he had just done Into the Storm, which did like 50 million dollars or maybe more in the box office I forget, you know Morfydd was from much more of a theatrical and a period background, doing period classic and drama films, so she was quite an exciting prospect because it sort of had that suppose element of class to an actor whose essentially in a gaming movie, I thought it was a really interesting dynamic because she’s much more known for being in large girdled frocks and we were sticking here in army fatigues and sticking a big gun in her hand and telling her to go out there and be the only person left standing at the end, so it was quite an interesting counter casting for her type so that was fun. Chris Obi was awesome, Chris was in Snow White and the Huntsman and he played the Mirror Man, he played the voice inside the mirror, and it was his voice that really……hearing that voice, quite brave, he kind of played this casting quite straight, when actors normally play Americans, normally they play New York or they play LA and what Chris does is much more Southern, but quite a unique southern sounding voice, he can do the voice anyway but a unique accent and (stake or state) on that voice, he didn’t just go for the safe option of LA or New York, you know bravery can go catastrophically wrong but he put himself out there and we thought it was fantastic and that was quite a big part of why we cast him. You know Ali Cook had been in The Anomaly of course, and he’s kind of done these kind of movies, we needed someone with a stillness really, because we needed someone who wasn’t going to stand out and people hopefully wouldn’t guess he was the person you know you perhaps should be keeping your eye on in the film, so he brought that to the part and he was perfect, because no-one’s really guessed what he is.
Brilliant, speaking of your career, you’re listed as a director too having directed a few episodes of Doctors in the past, do you have a desire to go back behind the camera?
I’ve done a couple of short films which I’ve won awards for, I won the 48 Hour Film challenge as a director was my first one, then I won a BBC Talent award for director for a film called Barry the Barber, which I won for Bristol Brief Encounters and the I won a BAFTA Cymru for my next film, a BAFTA win in Wales, you know it’s something that, I really enjoy having a perspective to give to a director, you know I know what they want, I know what they actually need because I’ve done it, so it gives me a very holistic perspective of directing because I can see it from a lot of angles perhaps that some people without that experience can’t and I really enjoyed engaging in that and also I suppose my creative side will be able to feed into a directors side, feeds and nourishes that side of me as well. To answer your question about going back, maybe in a couple of year it might happen, I might find a script where it sparks that inside of me, but you’ve got to find the right material and I wouldn’t direct unless I was sure I was the right director for it, I’m quite objective about that because I get quite a lot of scripts through my door, you know I’ve got an assistant now and we get a lot of scripts every week and I’ve got to meet a lot of talent, lot’s of directors and I’m quite objective about what directors going to do what script in order to get this made really well and crucially get the finance put together and perhaps my harshest critic is me you know, so until I’m the right guy I won’t take that step till then.
Right OK, but you are open to it?
Yeah I’m definitely open to it.
Nice OK. We touched on this briefly before but you work a lot with Caradog James, how has that relationship developed over the years?
We made a short film together, it was Barry the Barber which I directed and Caradog was my line producer on that, so switched roles completely and then Caradog brought me this script Little White Lies and we made that together and it all came together very easy to be honest and by the way that’s where that easiness ended (laughs), I got that script, I raised the money in 3 months, we were on set, I got the script in May, we on set July shooting and it’s never been that easy since, Caradog had done a lot of development work on the script already and I raised the money very quickly, but it was only £90,000 for a very small film. So like a lot of producers and directors, getting that second film off the ground was the real challenge, because people expect more from you and on the budget that we dealt with you can’t get paid or anything, you have to sustain yourself. So that journey of growing together, writing more scripts, I’ve had scripts optioned, well I’ve had scripts supported by funding bodies and what have you that I’ve written, and our story grew together so we used to co-write together, so we very much come creatively together, how our relationship was nurtured and of course we made The Machine and that opened a lot of doors and as you may know Universal announced at Comic Con it was becoming a TV series which I’ll be executive producing and Caradog will be writing and maybe directing so it’s really been a massive launch pad for us both.
Yeah that’s going to be brilliant to see that, because I spoke to him about a possible sequel, but TV is probably a good way to go.
That’s in development as well actually; we’ve got a sequel in development also.
Awesome more Machine! (laughs)
Will Caity be coming back for that do you think?
We’re in touch quite a lot actually, you know Caity has done amazingly well, The Machine did well for everyone, if you notice Toby got his own TV series after that Black Sails which he’s the lead in, Katy was in….
Legends of Tomorrow…
She’s in that now, but before that she was a character in Arrow, was Arrow’s girlfriend I think.
Yeah that’s right, Black Canary.
Black Canary that’s it, well done.
I’m not just a fan of that show; I’m a fan of hers (laughs)
Then that got spun off, so now she’s got her own show, so we’ve got two actors we worked with got their own TV shows (laughs) which is pretty incredible really you know, it was a brilliant launch pad. So since then we’ve been really busy, Caradog has got a Warner Bros job, he’s been hired by Skydance to write a big major motion picture with Skydance the Terminator guys and they do Mission Impossible and then for me I did a movie with Barbra Brocolli from the James Bond franchise, obviously The Call Up and Don’t Knock Twice to market, and I’m just closing another film now which will shoot in June.
Cool brilliant. That leads nicely into my last question; you’ve got a few films ready for release with The Silent Storm, Don’t Knock Twice which you mentioned and London Recruits, what can you tell us about those?
Silent Storm is really a beautiful story that I was fortunate enough to meet the producer of, and I was able to provide some financing in the film and help out a little bit putting it together. I then met Barbra and Michael Wilson who you know for me as a producer as you can imagine are legends for everyone in the film industry (can’t make out next few words) I don’t get star struck very much, but I was star struck by them (laughs) I couldn’t believe I’d actually get to work with them so that was a really big deal, so that film comes out just this month actually.
20th I believe…
Yeah that’s right, and that was sold by Sony Pictures so that was a big deal, it opened at the London Times Film Festival, we had a nice 4 star review in The Times and I’m looking forward to that finally getting out there and working with Damien Lewis and Andrea Risebourgh you know that was a big cast (step up?) for me as well. So that’s being released theatrically alongside The Call Up same week, (laughs) so really bizarre.
Same day I think…
Same day is right. In the meantime Don’t Knock Twice we’ve just delivered and literally I had my assistant on a plane last week on Friday to take the film out to be delivered to festivals, so it premiered for the market on Wednesday and then we’ve got another screening on Saturday, you know me, Caradog, core team who sold The Machine so we’ve got a good core team.
And the other project I have to keep under wraps, but it’s a director whose films have been Oscar nominated and we’ll be shooting that in June which I’ll also be executive producing.
Nice one, we’ll keep our eye on that.
As soon as we close it will go up soon, when it formally closes. But we’ve got some quite big hefty names in that, it’s another step up again in the calibre of talent I’m working with and the director is incredible.
THE CALL UP IS OUT IN CINEMAS ON MAY 20 AND DVD AND DIGITAL MAY 23