One could argue that this season's crop of Christmas day films is the most interesting in years. Of course, plenty of people will be flocking to see one of the two new Spielberg movies, or the new Mission: Impossible, or the Dragon Tattoo remake, but as strong as those films are, they're still fairly standard for Hollywood and this time of year. But then there's The Darkest Hour, an alien invasion film unlike all others. Even if you're the type of person who saw the trailer and didn't know how to react to invisible aliens made of energy who turn people into clouds of dust, you have to at least admit it's something you've never seen before.
That's a hard feat for anyone to accomplish in this day and age, it's even harder if you're a director with only one feature under your belt and it was a Sundance hit that takes place almost entirely within the confines of a single house. And that's why we're incredibly excited to see what Right at Your Door director Chris Gorak has managed to pull off with his unique entry to the well-tread alien invasion genre. Talking to him about he importance of an international cast, filming in Moscow, practical 3D, and how Hollywood has a responsibility to help push the experiences we have on the big screen only makes us wish for Christmas to get here all the sooner.
Movies.com: Right at Your Door is the type of film that seems to have lived on on home video thanks to word of mouth. How is that experience for you as a filmmaker?
Chris Gorak: The word of mouth is really cool. It's very satisfying on a film like that where you make it with very few people and on the independent level and it goes on to have a life of its own. It's fun to periodically hear about it or hear people make reference to it so many years later, it's really inspiring to keep doing what I'm doing.
Movies.com: I hope you don't take this the wrong way, but how exactly did you make the jump from the micro-scale of Right at Your Door to the considerably larger scope of The Darkest Hour, especially since it was a five-year gap?
Gorak: Well that's essentially what I was doing for those five years: learning how to make that leap. It's a tricky one to make and I thought those five years were a very long time, but I've been told it usually takes even longer for a filmmaker to come out of Sundance and make a studio-level feature. So I'm happy about that in the end, but it's a whole different game between independent film and the studio system. It's a different machine, different parameters, different price points, more people involved, and in the end it's a different deliverable, if you will. In the end you're trying to reach a broader audience that has more commercial life, so I learned a lot in the years between the two films.
Movies.com: I'm sure you had filmmaker friends that tried to brace you for the difference climate of making a studio movie, so was it as bracing of a change as one would fear? At what point could you find the balance between making the movie Summit needed and making the movie you wanted to make?
Gorak: At the end of the day the story is paramount, and you want to tell a thrilling and compelling story, and I think everyone has that goal in mind, it's only that some people see that from different perspectives. Whether it's the studio side or the financing side or the producing side or the directing or the writing, everyone has a different lens from where they come from and their different training, so we try to bring that all together into one voice. It's tricky at times, but I think we brought it together. What I'm proudest of with The Darkest Hour is that it's definitely an original movie. Yes, it's an alien invasion movie, yes it's a science-fiction thriller, and it can be boxed into those genres, but at the end of the day I think it has a lot of originality to it and a lot of interesting characters and landscapes in it.
Movies.com: This is one of those projects that I've been fascinated with from day one. As soon as I read your name was involved, I was sold. Then the plot and cast descriptions were released, and I grew even more excited. And then the trailer hit and I, like many people, went, "Whoa, what the f**k is this? Transparent energy aliens?" So, I'm curious when it came time to getting the green light, how much of that originality worked in your favor and how much of it didn't?
Gorak: [Laughs] We definitely set forth to try to make something original, so with everyone being on board with that early, we were able to push the limits visually, where we set the story, actually filming in Moscow, and then casting a group of great actors that were not of this genre. They're well-respected actors in their own right that come from all different places, Hollywood, independent and foreign films, they'd each just never done a movie like this, so it came together from all different sides. Throw Timur [Bekmambetov] in the mix as this creative force who can bring in his Russian team, and so all of a sudden we were making this international film at a Hollywood studio with this original conceit to it. At times it was hard to harness all those levels together, but I think we did a great job coming up with a nice thrill ride.
Movies.com: It looks like it. Even beyond the design of the aliens, the Moscow setting alone makes it far more interesting than the Skylines of the world. Having said that, I've talked to several people who aren't genre nuts who just don't know what to make of the film. Is that a problem you guys ran into during the test screening/early marketing phase?
Gorak: No, actually. In our test screening we definitely got strong responses and most of them were positive. And the positive ones were really positive, a lot of "Wow, I haven't seen this "Act of Jesus" before," "Wow, I haven't seen waves of energy attack like this before," even just "Wow, Moscow!" All that stuff adds up and really makes each sequence and each scene different and unique. And a lot of the things we're talking about are what attracted me to the project to begin with.
It's typical, like you said, to see places like Los Angeles or New York get attacked, but, and until someone tells me different, I think we're the first Hollywood production to film entirely in Moscow. There are plenty of movies that go there to shoot sequences in Red Square or a car chase or what not, but top-to-bottom we're one of the first Hollywood films, at least in a very long time, to shoot entirely there-- and definitely for the science fiction genre. It's exciting to know that and let that lead and capture the imagery of Moscow and not have people go, "Oh, I've seen that before."
In the beginning I said, "I don't want to shoot green screen, I want to shoot Moscow. I want to shoot the Statue of Liberty, the Hollywood Sign-- whatever that equivalent is in Moscow, I want to shoot it." And to shoot it in 3D with 3D cameras, I know that hasn't been done before there, either. So it all adds up."
Movies.com: So you guys did film practical 3D?
Gorak: We did. We used 3D rigs and I'd say about 99% of our footage is shot with 3D cameras. There are some helicopter shots – helicopters aren't allowed over Moscow, so we had to use a remote controlled helicopters with film cameras to get those high, wide shots of Moscow. And we knew we were going to augment those digitally to get rid of traffic and people, anyway, so some of those were shot on film and then converted. And then there's some stuff underwater that had to be shot on film as well, but other than those two shots, the 3D was in-camera. It changed the entire attack of the project. To take these 3D cameras into Moscow... we couldn't have been more excited.
Movies.com: I'm sure you guys did heavy research ahead of time, so aside from the Moscow wildfires that shut down production, were there any unexpected benefits of shooting locally?
Gorak: Unexpected, no. I would say we expected the unexpected, I guess. I think something culturally that came into play was having Russian characters in the movie. You know, you read in a script and it just simply says "He's speaking Russian," but then you get on set and your actors are really speaking Russian because they don't even speak English. And that brings in challenges of directing in another language through translators and all that, but there's also some real texture that's added to the filming when you have great Russian actors speaking Russian.
We're talking about great Russian actors who are stars in their own right in Russia. We'd be shooting a scene and they'd have groupies on set screaming their name in Russian. So you definitely don't expect or understand that when you're just in a casting room, so it just adds another layer of authenticity. And then you're shooting with a Russian crew handling Russian actors, so you could ask them questions like, "How does this translate culturally?" or "What's the proper Russian reaction to this?" So once you've gotten that texture, it's a lot of fun.
Movies.com: So what do you have lined up after The Darkest Hour?
Gorak: I wish I could say at the time. I'm definitely entertaining some new projects and I'm always writing on my own all the time. I did write my own first film, so I've got a few of my own scripts I'm kicking around, and there are a few projects around town I'm chasing down. So we'll see. I'm sure we'll find out soon.
Movies.com: Will you be sticking genre?
Gorak: For me it's story first, and usually a lot of the original ideas are in the science fiction or fantasy worlds. The kind where you're just like, "Wow, I haven't seen this before" are what I gravitate toward. I like science fiction, sci-fi thrillers, world creation or world destruction. I like the things you don't see or experience all the time and I think Hollywood has a responsibility to push the cinematic experience. And I think that's pushed on the fringes of creating new worlds for audiences to experience.