A lone Nazi tank crew encounters a monster, in the upcoming movie Panzer 88. Check out our exclusive interview with director Peter Briggs, with all the gory details. Plus new concept art of the "Balrog in Battle Troll armor" monster.
What are the challenges with combining the monster genre and a period piece war movie?
For me, none whatsoever. They're less challenges, than bonuses. With the exception of The Keep, I'm not sure anybody's attempted to do what we're attempting, at least not in terms of a quality production. When I found Aaron (Mason) and Jim (Cowan), and read their initial script, all kinds of bells went off. I already had a project I was plotting — which, co-incidentally [producer] Gary Kurtz also wanted — set in the same era, but Panzer was already some way further along. So, we just switched priorities and started developing this with the boys instead. Gary got excited about the project in exactly the same way, as did Richard Taylor at Weta Workshop.
You make an interesting point about the distinction between the genres. For the WW2 armor nuts, they're hopefully going to be very happy with this movie. We're showcasing all kinds of esoteric German machinery, all real, never seen on the screen before. Military modelers are going to spend many happy hours recreating dioramas from this film! We've two tank battle scenes that are fairly adrenalin-fuelled, that haven't really been done in this specific way. It's like the difference between Run Silent, Run Deep and Hunt For Red October. So, it stands on its own feet within the admittedly-slim tank genre. And the monster guys are going to be exceptionally happy, also.
Gary Kurtz said that Panzer 88 is a "visceral, reality-based story with horror overtones." What sort of rating are you guys aiming for?
We're not. At least, not intentionally. The cut will come in, at whatever the cut comes in at. The market will inevitably dictate what it needs to be, because that's the business reality. I don't profess to understand it. It seems a bit arbitrary and mad. I find the whole censorship thing, in both Britain and America, very curious. How is it Steven Spielberg achieves lower [age] ratings for things like "Jaws"; "Temple Of Doom", "Jurassic Park"; or "War Of The Worlds", where others don't? Each of those movies have sequences that are amazingly intense… So who knows what we'll be.
Yes, there's gore in this movie. No getting around that. But you can be subtle, or you can be blatant. In your contract, you're required to deliver an alternate and more palatable cut of the movie anyway that can play, say, on an inflight movie. But there are the guys out in the audience who obviously like the Grand Guignol. So, we'll play the various deaths on each end of the spectrum, and see what fits right. I personally would like to deliver an Unrated DVD Cut, or a seamless branching version for those people, regardless of whatever happens along the way. But, by its nature, there'll not be the level of violence in this film that there is in my other movie, Mortis Rex That one's got two very intense sequences where a number of people are pummeled, sliced, flattened, and squished.
Let's just say that, in Panzer 88, the lead characters who meet their doom all do so solely at the hands of the creature regardless of how graphic it ultimately is, and I think the audience is going to respond accordingly.
On a violence level how do you think Panzer 88 will rank with films such as Saving Private Ryan or the HBO series The Pacific?
There's certainly nothing approaching that moment in The Pacific where Snafu Shelton is dropping stones into the sliced cranium of a Japanese corpse, but there's a couple of Private Ryan moments were characters are vaporized or... well, let's not go into all the details! Let's save a few surprises.
How is this film "reality based"? What kind of WW2 research are you doing? What sort of historical facts will you be dropping into the film?
Well, the backdrop is set against the German Army retreat through Russia. My belief is, if you nail the reality, the fantastic elements of the story get thrown into sharper focus.
Originally, we looked to set Panzer after the Battle of Kursk. And at that point, the tank in Aaron and Jim's script was the iconic Tiger 1. Well, we needed a little more interior room, and a more formidable machine, because I wanted the audience to believe our protagonists could maybe — maybe — stand a chance against our creature, when others in the story have encountered it and perished. So we decided on a King Tiger which came later, with its improved armor. Although they both shared an 88 millimeter gun, hence the movie title. Based on the choice of the King, we had to logistically move the story back to 1944, to explain its presence in the Russian retreat. When we worked around the various troop movements and other dictating events in the story, we fell into the month of October. Some real world events from that time then made it back into the script. It was serendipity everything historically fitted.
One fun thing I want to throw out: I've seen people comment that our pre-production art doesn't depict a King Tiger. Well, it does! It's simply our King Tiger has a turret curtain, and tread skirt armor. That's more common on Tiger Ones and Panzer Fours, both of which we also have in the movie. I haven't seen any pictures to suggest that supplementary armor was installed this way on a King Tiger, but conversely I've seen nothing to suggest it wasn't. And we needed our tank to be distinctive and unique: [since it's basically] the Seventh Lead Character in the movie, as we want fans to go out and want a model of it. I hope you're going to feel for our baby as she gets shot at, battered, and ripped apart.
Weta Workshop are going to be constructing everything for the movie, and obviously if you've ever seen any of their "Making Of" documentaries, Richard and his crew take enormous pride in detail and historical verisimilitude. Anything they come back to me and query, I know I'd better have a damned good rationale for it if it's not accurate!
You mentioned that you charted actual troop movements for this film, is Panzer 88 loosely based on something mysterious that actually happened during WW2?
Um, yes and no. If by that, you mean is it based off a singular specific odd incident like the "Mary Celeste" or the "Angel Of Mons", then I'm afraid not. But there is a side element of mystery surrounding the Schwerer Gustav, which appears in the movie. The Gustav was one of a pair of the largest cannons ever built, and its remains were discovered in pieces in a forest after the war. Well, the Gustav and its possible fate plays a role in this movie. You'll see. It's fun!
People have been speculating on io9 that Panzer 88 might be dabbling with the alleged relationship the Nazi party had with the occult. Is there any truth to this?
I'd already done that for other projects. The Ahnenerbe and the whole occult myth thing was something I studied in great depth for Hellboy over ten years ago, and it's something I've kept up with for other projects I've been noodling around with since. But in this case, no: everyone's barking up the wrong tree. There's no Nazi occult stuff in this movie. This is about real soldiering.
You've blended the supernatural and this time period before in Hellboy, how will this film be different?
The Nazis in Hellboy and Raiders are comic book characters: in this movie, the Reich's portrayed with absolute realism, as they would be in Das Boot. There's one line, about a Special Order coming down from on-high in Berlin, but it's not elaborated on.
Did working on Hellboy inspire this picture, how so?
Not for me. Not this time. Sorry! I love Hellboy. It was genuinely my favorite comic book when I was hired on the movie back in '96, a couple of years before Del Toro came onboard. Mike Mignola is a genius, and I loved every moment I worked with him. But that movie and this one exist in different realities. This is grittier. There's no slapstick. It's the real deal.
How much does ancient European mythology [ancient Russian, German folklore and Slavic mythology] play into this film?
A little bit. People who have seen the creature assume it's based somehow based on a Golem, but it's not specifically. There's a little Jewish mythology in our creation, but it's not grounded in any one actual story. One of the German characters refers to it as a Golem at one point, but he's just taking a shot in the dark. Let's just say it hails from a missing chapter of a story from a small Russian province.
Our creature isn't like the monster from Mortis Rex, which is a terrifying leviathan of nature. This one's being created for a reason, with its own focus and rationale. What I like about Panzer, what we all liked about Aaron and Jim's original notion, is that you root for the German protagonists, because they're just innocent pawns who stumble across the result of a chain of events. They're like Dennis Weaver in Spielberg's Duel. Initially, they don't quite know why this thing is obsessing on them, but it's all they can do to roll with the punches and survive as it comes after them, time and again. At the same moment, you sympathize with the creature, and completely understand its aims. If there's ever a videogame of this, you'll be able to play both sides without fearing your morality is being compromised!
Since the plot will follow the 5-man German crew how will you portray Nazis as a sympathetic protagonist? Are you even attempting to make them sympathetic characters?
At no point do we ever want to portray Nazis as sympathetic characters. National Socialism in Hitler's Germany was an efficient and designed government, that rallied together a crushed nation. One of its drives was based on a despicable and evil program of genocide. That's unconscionable. And in this story, it comes back around to bite the Reich firmly where it hurts.
Our five leads are really a microcosm of Germany at that time. And it's very important to stress the distinction between "Germans" and "Nazis". The captain is a member of the Party because he has to be, not because he wants to be. He doesn't care for the Reich's hidden agenda. The young loader is the pretty Aryan poster boy, but he has no real notion of what that means: if anything, he's an innocent. The gunner's brother is in the SS...that character represents the average person who is swayed to do wrong, because the Reich manipulates him into it. For me, he's the most interesting. The driver is the grizzled old timer who would just rather not be involved. And the radio op, the new kid...well. If this were Moby Dick, he's definitely Ishmael. We see the whole story unfold through him.
When they pick up Gottfried, the junior SS officer who was partially responsible for the extermination of a small Russian village, he wedges gaps between them all. Gottfried's character was the one who changed the most through the various drafts. In the original, he was very stereotypical and sneering. Aaron and I altered him to be a charming sociopath with a sadistic bent. Gary Kurtz then had us remove one major sequence with him, which I was sad to see go. He also demoted him! But Gary's changes now give him an interesting moral compass. Or, I should say, immoral compass. Gottfried's definitely to blame for everything in the story. And he's the one actual dedicated Nazi in the piece.
[Flying Wing On The Depot Approach]
How will the Panzer 88 entity compare to the latest collection of Hollywood movie monster like the aliens from District 9, Cloverfield, and even the Hellboy creations from the second film?
Well, we have the incomparable Richard Taylor and his fabulous Weta Workshop onboard our movie, so the District 9 analogy is obviously there! In terms of its look, if you've seen our initial concept art, you're getting there. Some wags have said Weta better not have thrown their Balrog database away, which gave me a smile, and that's not a million miles distant from our original intent. Visually, he's somewhat of a cross between a Fellowship Balrog, hunkered in Return Of The King Battle Troll armor, so getting Weta Workshop excited about this movie is really a sweet victory for us, and definitely endorses the kind of quality we'll hopefully have at the end of the day.
In this story, it's less important what the creature looks like, than what it does and the set-pieces along the way it's involved in, unlike our creature in Mortis Rex, which is much more Cloverfield, and which I have no intention of revealing. That one is the ultimate pincered and tentacled monstrosity. Del Toro didn't really pull off the "Lovecraftian" thing in Hellboy, unfortunately...if he manages it in Mountains Of Madness, he's got his work cut out. Our monster in Mortis is pretty damned special, and it's going to take some beating.
How much of the Panzer monster will be in CG?
Our Panzer guy is hulked-up to twice the size of a human being, so even if we realize him as a physical creation, like Sauron and the Witch King, by necessity he'll be a greenscreen digital comp for a good proportion of the time. Otherwise, we're looking at forced perspective and other old-school practical solutions. Richard Taylor and myself are in the same mind of achieving an end physically, where possible. We're exploring whether we can do a creature in a suit, with facial and other CG replacement and augmentation. It's a process. At the end of the day, we go with whatever works. There are several taxing creature shots that will absolutely need to be 100% CG because of what the creature does, but at this stage we plan to keep those to a minimum... He's a fairly fiery badass: he's most definitely not indestructible, but you need to pour an awful lot at him to make a dent. Like the Terminator, he takes a licking, but keeps on ticking.
What stage is the monster in right now? Is the design set in stone or is it still getting developed and tweaked? [The concept art looks pretty amazing!].
Thanks! Yeah, Paul Mendoza and myself thrashed out the initial creature artwork, prior to Weta Workshop being involved. I carry a Moleskine notebook with me, and tend to sketch the compositions for my concept guys. I'm a bit tyrannical in that regard. Paul's an even better sculptor than he is an artist: he's done busts for Sideshow and Wayne Barlowe, and creatures for Todd McFarlane in the past. We're hoping he'll be involved in the manufacturing process. I came up with the initial overall design, based on a variety of influences from Mongol to Roman, through to Samurai and Medieval, and we tinkered around with it to infuse that base form with both overt and abstract Jewish design motifs. Now Richard Taylor's behind it, those designs will, I'm sure, mutate into something even cooler.
[Ilsa Stops At The Half Church]
What sort of things will you be adding to make it feel like it's from the 40s, will you be experimenting with the film, using old cameras or hand-held camera, will you be using a King Tiger tank for filming?
[Laughs] Actually, I'm hoping that the movie more readily resembles something from the 1970s, in terms of visual aesthetic. First part of the question first, we're shooting film and I really want to do this anamorphic if possible. I admired the intensive research that Paul Thomas Anderson and Bob Elswit did for their cameras on There Will Be Blood; and the way that Nolan and Wally Pfister found specific "flawed" lenses for Batman Begins. I aim for that kind of grit...I want the frame to look "chewy", like Vanlint and Ridley Scott pulled off for Alien. There's a degree of organic immediacy and reality in there that sets them eons apart from the machined-and-clinical look of movies like Resident Evil. Really, it's like the action of Aliens, inside the reality of Alien. If that makes sense.
Saying that, movie technique isn't frozen in a vacuum. I'm not a fan of slow motion for its own sake, generally, and we're not going to stop the movie dead to give you a bullet-time shot. There's one specific gag in the second tank-on-tank battle that's giving us pause for thought right now, and we need to work that out. And there'll be some shutter-jitter occasionally, and a fair bit of hand-held when we're in the thick of the tank battles. But when we're outside of the action sequences, I'm really hearkening back to the kind of mannered compositions and lighting Ridley was doing back in the days of The Duellists. There's going to be a lot of atmosphere: a lot of smoke, fog, and snow. It's a very, very ambitious film, with all the headaches that entails. Our budget just came in, and we need to rein it in a little. I'm hopefully flying down to New Zealand shortly to work on that, and do some location scouting. I think we're using as much, if not more, fake snow than 30 Days Of Night did.
On the second part of the question, for our King Tiger exterior, our initial idea was to use very large miniatures, Batman Begins-style. Now that Weta Workshop are building us a full-size King Tiger, we're scaling that notion back and shooting much of it for real. The construction is going to take time because they've got their hands full right now, and we have to accommodate their schedule as much as they accommodate ours. Because we're putting our tank through some rigorous paces, there's two shots I can think of that will have to be digital. Our tank is called "Ilsa". Yes, that's my little Hellboy in-joke.
Elsewhere, we have some very interesting practical miniature work. When I say "miniature", we have one model that's going to be enormous. Richard Taylor originally suggested we build this particular thing for real, one-to-one scale and I'm not sure if he was joking or not! I think I detected a twinkle in his eye. The thing with Richard is, he'll never tell you something can't be done. He'll just figure out a way to do it! I love him.
How are you going to film the inside of the King Tiger tank? Are you in the process of constructing a set that is the innards of the tank? And if yes, how is that process going?
Simply, we'll make the tank interior. We're currently looking to build three interiors from three different models of tank, so we're chewing over that also. Our main "Ilsa" set will have "wild", or removable, sections. Even if we'd contemplated using digital cameras, like the new small Canons, I wonder if there'd be enough room inside the tank even for an additional cameraman. At one point in the story, the tank gets pretty crowded. It's just not practical to shoot any other way than with removable sections.
But, you know: that's the main set for the bulk of the movie, and it occupies a space smaller than your living room! We've a bunch more sets in the movie that are far larger. We've a village exterior; a frozen tank graveyard, some other stuff. I'm really looking forward to shooting on the deck of the Gustav...that's going to be fun. But the one that'll make you go "How did they manage that?!" is our refueling depot sequence. That's the largest sequence in the movie, in terms of the amount of hardware and actors.
How much of this film will deal with the claustrophobia that comes with working and living in such a tight environment?
That's a massive component of it. The terror and adrenalin of battle, on top of that close-quarters pressure. At its core, this is a story of five fellows in a tin can, and the clock is ticking and they keep getting hit by curveballs that reduce their chances of survival. The set-pieces and events that happen outside their tank are epic in scope, but I really liken this to Das Boot when we're with those guys, seeing them working as a team. At one point in our story, the Russians turn up with a SU-100, which was one of their big rolling tank killers, and that gives our crew one of several serious real-world problems they need to deal with. And ultimately there's a cuckoo in the nest... an SS officer they pick up along the way, who causes that harmony to fall apart. There's some nice character nuance to the piece.
Now that Weta has joined up with Panzer 88, what has changed? Are you able to do more than you previously thought you could on this film? What sort of doors have opened?
Yes. Weta Workshop, and the people at Park Road, Peter Jackson and Jamie Selkirk's post-production company, are simply unbelievable. The level and caliber of research, organization, and skill there is unparalleled. As most people know, Peter is an enormous military buff, and we're the beneficiaries of Weta Workshop's consequent expertise in that area. They're enabling us to find a cost-effective and top-notch solution for everything in the movie. Richard and Peter have been marvelous in enabling this production to happen, and the New Zealand Film Commission are pulling out the stops to help us. They've been fantastic. The line producer of the first two Narnia movies is driving this forward, and we're about to start working with Victoria Burrows and Scot Boland, who've been casting agents Spielberg and Zemeckis have used for a long time now. I feel very lucky to have them. Coincidentally, they're also Peter Jackson's guys...but this was a facet that oddly enough didn't come through him!
Although this is a self-financed indie, the blood's definitely in the water now. It's interesting. People just respond to the story. We've solid interest in a pickup from a couple of the major Studios, although we've barely begun to go there yet. We've just been focused on getting the movie up and running swiftly.
Moving the production to New Zealand has a few practical problems, but nothing major. I'm probably going to go to the arctic, or at least somewhere like Finland, to shoot some greenscreen plate....
I've been a gun-for-hire, getting ground-down in the Studio System for a long time now, and after the Writers Guild strike I was frustrated enough to go outside that System in order to realize Panzer and Mortis. It's been a haul, with a variety of compromises and not a bit of hardship along the way, but it's been worth it. Star Wars was the reason I wanted to be involved in movies to begin with, and here we are now making a movie with Gary Kurtz. I mean, come on...he's a legend. From the producer of Star Wars, and the guys who made Lord Of The Rings and Kong. It really doesn't get any better than that.