Now on release, Sparks is the superhero genre’s dirty little secret. The titular hero has no powers to speak of, just the ability to take, not to mention dish out, one hell of a beating. When he loses all that he has, Ian Sparks must fight to regain what truly matters, with twists, turns and sleek, stylish action aplenty. We were lucky enough to grab some time with some of the cast and crew of this low-budget, high-entertainment feature, and we'll be posting several interviews over the next few days to tie-in with Sparks' release. First up are co-directors Chris Folino and Todd Burrows. The man behind the Sparks graphic novel, Folino (below centre) followed his 2006 Gamers by fulfilling his itch to turn Sparks into a full-blown movie.
Starburst: Firstly, Sparks is a massively enjoyable film.
Chris Folino: When we originally set out to make it, it was just one of those things where you wanted to go ahead and try and do it. It just sort of got bigger as it progressed. Originally we were going to get some friends together and try to make it happen. Michael Bell was somebody we met many years ago, and his daughter Ashley. Before she was famous she actually helped us with the motion comic book, and it was one of those things where she did the voicing and then got famous with The Last Exorcism movie. She said she’d do the movie, and it kinda snowballed from there. Before we knew it, Clancy Brown was interested in it. It was a great opportunity and self-financed without any Kickstarter fund or anything like that. It was one of those things where we just saved up for a long time and we just shot for 12 days with two different crews. What we ended up doing was, once we had saved up enough funds, 6 months later we asked Clancy to come back and shoot another day. We shot it with RED MX cameras, we shot it in 4K, then we edited it in 2K. When we found it the American distributors were mainly sending out DVDs, it was heartbreaking.
So Sparks was all self-funded then?
Yeah. We have day jobs – what we do for day jobs, we’re fortunate to work on some kids’ commercials shooting Power Rangers and some Tinkerbell stuff – so it’s pretty funny. When you’re doing a kids’ commercial, you have to work with children, you have to work with animals - you’re dealing with a lot of durables. I kept looking round, looking at the crew, and thinking we could totally make a movie, I bet we could make a movie. I don’t have enough money for it, but Todd was my A.D. and I’d do commercials with him. I said, “I know we can do this, Todd,” and he’d look at me like I was the dumbest idiot in the world for trying to do a two-crew thing, but that’s honestly all we could afford. When it happened, it was like, “OK, what do you have to do to make it work.” It was one of those things where, honestly, we didn’t know how we were going to handle distribution or whatever. When you have an opportunity to have Ashley Bell and Clancy Brown, it was one of those things that I said, “I’ll talk to my wife.” And she was really supportive of it. If you have a dream, it’s better to try than sit 30 years from now saying I could’ve done or I could’ve done that. Just jump of the roof! We had enough talented people lining up that it was like, “Man, if we don’t take this chance we’ll never gonna get this going.” It was just sort of a wonderful group that assembled kind of by accident. Ashley Bell’s agent suggested two actors; one of the actors was a kid who looked like a rip-off of Jonah Hill, and the other one was Chase Williamson. It was before John Dies at the End was finished and it was only a trailer, but I heard his voice. I had no idea, but I thought it would be really cool if we could get somebody who was actually 23 years old, or 21, who could actually play Sparks. Most of the superhero movies, they’re much older. We just loved his zeal, invited him to Thanksgiving to have lunch, we met, and I just liked the kid a lot. I said, “Hey, if you can lose 30 lbs in 5 weeks…” and he did. He trained real hard. He had a tough, tough time on the film because we were shooting days and nights, and he’s in 85% of the movie. The poor kid got hammered, but it’s to his testament that he did a great job and he was always prepared for each scene.
Until Sparks, we’d only seen Chase Williamson in Don Coscarelli’s John Dies at the End.
You show me another film, the first 15 minutes, any film better than that one and I will give you a million dollars. Sparks is a much less budget than what Don had, but I give him all the credit in the world, he’s a friggin’ genius. There’s been talk about making it into a series, and I hope they get the opportunity to do that, I really do. You’ve gotta give the guy some more budget and you’ve gotta give him another opportunity, and the whole cast that he got together. You wanna see more of that. The guy who wrote that is a very talented guy. It was a perfect mix for that.
Co-helming the movie with Folino was Todd Burrows (above). A long time cohort of Folino’s, Burrows moved away from the world of commercials in order to break his feature film cherry by co-directing Sparks.
Starburst: Sparks was your first feature film, right?
Todd Burrows: That’s right. Chris and I both came from the commercial world of advertising, working together for a few years. Chris had done a small independent before. As we were working on some projects, he invited me in on this. We just basically tried to figure out how to accomplish this with the amount of time that we have and our resources – what would be the best plan. He is the writer, but he had a lot of scenes that he wanted me to take care of, a lot of the action scenes, with my experience. So we kind of divied-up the movie and we had a team of DPs. It went two full units, but we shot the bulk of it in a series of 12 nights.
With the two of you splitting the directing duties, was there any particular plan of attack as to who dealt with what?
There were some pivotal scenes, as far as dialogue, that he wanted to explore and take care of. Then there were the action sequences that I’m probably better suited for. It was a case of the actors and talents availability and trying to get it all done. Sometimes I would come back and finish up a scene he’d started or move on to something else because of the actors’ availability. So we just tag-teamed the movie.
Giving your work in commercials with the Power Rangers and Tinkerbell, how did it feel to be doing something so far removed from that?
In advertising, we usually work by committee; there’s the ad agency, the client. This was, for us, just completely freeing – we could go with our gut, work on storytelling and what worked the best. To that point, it was liberating for us. Chris had been down this path before, but for me, I’d been used to working by committee, so this gives huge freedom. It was sink or swim.
Were superheroes and comic books something that had been in your life before?
Not for me. I worked on a lot of dynamic commercials, more stylised stuff. But Chris, when I met him and he showed me some of the comic book novels that he had and what he was thinking and visualising, once we thought it out and started talking about it and embellishing it, we used his comics as a blueprint on what to go with. It was great to have those images and to get in his mind quickly to see where he was at.
In terms of panel to screen, Sparks, similar to Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller’s Sin City, is one of the most faithful movies we’ve seen.
I’d agree. I didn’t see any point when we were shooting it that it didn’t hold up. The funny thing is, after studying it and having a pre-visual, basically shooting the comic book and bringing it to life, it really helped us. The location, by luck or whatever, we found everything, even the outfits, we had everything we needed, which was really incredible.
And it comes across brilliantly; it’s almost like a moving comic. How difficult was it to shoot the film? It looks as if there was a lot of post-production work involved.
That was the big thing. The good news is, a lot of the commercials and things we’d done required a lot of CG. Now it’s becoming more commonplace – actors have become more accustomed to it and have had experience with it. It’s easier for actors to imagine what’s going to be put in or sticking to eye lines. People can easily imagine it now, so it really wasn’t a difficult path. But we know a lot of the scale, we’d have to rely on that. Fortunately we had 2 or 3 guys that did all of the post-production effects, and I think it’s just amazing what they managed to pull off, especially on this scale and this level. There weren’t legions of special effects artists from across the world – this was just 3 guys sat around a computer. It’s really remarkable, and I don’t think it could have happened 5 years ago.
In a non-derogatory way, Sparks is a low-budget film, but it makes the most of what it has available to it. The SFX work by no means looks like a Warner Brothers’ multi-million pound effect, but the low-budget effects work really well with the feel of the film.
I think because of the comic book, just the way it was drawn and how it’s dynamic, it has its own style to it. That was our style and our inspiration.
Sparks is available on DVD and Blu-ray now. You can find our review here.
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