Aliens, monsters, and natural disasters have been leveling great cities on the big screen for decades, their depredations to some of our best-known landmarks a testament to filmgoers' continuous interest in spectacular destruction as well as to the ongoing development of special effects. A place called Greenside City that looks suspiciously like Madison gets this special treatment in the new movie Zero Trooper-F. Directed by Eric Lim, this action comedy tells the story of a self-doubting genius scientist responsible for the city's defenses in the midst of a massive monster attack.
The fun starts immediately with the action sequence that begins the film, an attack by a squadron of jet fighters upon a fuzzy white kaiju that's leveling the city. From the opening call-sign roll call by the pilots through their final destruction by the marauding monster, the sequence is an impressive execution in and homage to the pre-CGI special effects era of tokusatsu action films. This approach and attitude persists throughout the course of the story.
The certified genius Dr. Abrams (played by Rob O'Brien) is a scientist who has achieved tremendous celebrity in the city due to his work for its defense forces. His latest invention is an appliance that will help the military's Zero Troopers -- a unit of body-suited soldiers evocative of Super Sentai, known in the U.S. as Power Rangers -- take on the monster on equal terms. He is down on himself, though, and quits his service with the force just as the monster's attack reaches an even more destructive level.
The good doctor proceeds on an odyssey around the city, while battle is joined between the monster and the now building-sized Zero Trooper-F. As the two fight throughout the city, crashing and smashing into buildings amidst explosions and more aerial attacks, Abrams goes on a hunt for his ex-girlfriend, a Zero Trooper psychologist, eventually finding his love and her current beau at an opera house as the battle rages with increasingly destructive force. The downtown cityscape of Madison is itself a star, with both the monster and its Zero Trooper combatant stepping over, around, and through many of the newer apartment high-rises sprouting along the periphery of the UW campus.
Zero Trooper-F premiered at the 2008 Wisconsin Film Festival earlier this month, screening before a sold-out audience at UW Cinematheque as part of a shorts collection. Running 39 minutes, the film was produced and directed by Lim, and featured extensive special effects direction by Niko Pueringer, both of whom are graduates of the Communication Arts filmmaking program at UW-Madison. It was shot over the course of the last three years, and cost about $800, not counting the volunteer efforts of the cast and crew.
These contributors to include many of the same people who worked both behind and in front of the camera on Loose Cannons, a feature-length action comedy that also made its debut at the Wisconsin Film Festival before a sold-out audience. Directed by Andy Schlachtenhaufen, another recent UW-Madison film graduate, this movie features Lim as both choreographer of its many fight sequences, and as one of the main characters. Schlachtenhaufen returns the favor with his appearance in Zero Trooper-F. The two are frequent collaborators, indeed, so it makes sense that their new films will be screening together in a special double feature at the Orpheum Theatre this weekend.
Lim talks with The Daily Page in an email interview about his new film, discussing the development of its story, special effects, the Zero Trooper universe, and his upcoming projects.
How did you come up with the story for Zero Trooper-F?
Lim: I was taking two classes in my sophomore year of school at the UW that introduced me to a lot of the subject matter that inspired Zero Trooper-F. One was a Japanese fiction literature class and the other was a Japanese cinema class, both taught by Steve Ridgely. I got into a lot of Haruki Murakami and other literature dealing with characters feeling this kind of unclassifiable existential crisis in their lives. At the other end of the spectrum, I was introduced to things like Ultraman and Mothra that I really enjoyed aesthetically. So I think Zero Trooper-F is mainly a combination of those two realms of influence.
How long did it take to make the film?
I'd say almost three years. I wouldn't say it was a problematic three years though.
I think it just took a long time because the project demanded a certain amount of growth from the creative team. I think everybody did a super awesome job, but we were all kind of experiencing this trial by fire for the first time. I spent the better part of 2006 just trying to work things out with a lot of the contributing members of the creative team in preproduction. We spent 2007 shooting all the principle photography when I had time outside of Loose Cannons, and 2008 was spent on the post production.
Sometimes it was tough to get the participation I needed from the team because of their various jobs and school work. I think at the end of the day though, it just gave things more time to cultivate.
What kind of work went into creating the kaiju effects for the action sequences?
The special effects stuff was one of the most interesting aspects of production for me. Stuff like the dogfight scene and the monster battle scenes weren't really about me creating by myself, but just seeking out and trusting the right people. So from my perspective, creating something like the dogfight was sitting down with the production designer, Marty Sweeney, explaining the type of aesthetic I wanted in the designs of the soldiers, jets, monsters, etc., and hen going to the second unit director, Niko Pueringer, and telling him to make a dogfight with these pieces.
How did setting the film in Madison affect the presentation of these sequences?
In the narrative of the film I didn't want to explicitly set the story in Madison, but just in an urban city environment. Madison might not be the biggest city, but it had more than enough locations to get the right feeling in practically shot city scenes.
Can you explain your collaborative relationship with Andy Schlachtenhaufen and the connection between this film and Loose Cannons in terms of cast and crew?
I was fortunate enough to randomly meet Andy, and the star of Zero Trooper, Rob O'Brien, when Andy was working on a martial arts fight scene in Library Mall during my freshman year. At the time, I was working on a fight scene of my own with Niko Pueringer.
I was just happy to realize that Madison had like-minded people, but Andy and I really hit it off because we really dug the same types of movies. I remember going over to his place freshman year and watching just the fight scenes of Hong Kong movies So since then, I guess the best way to explain it is, Andy's become kind of like a film brother-in-arms in film to me. We end up sharing a lot of ideas and resources together. He introduced me to a good deal of actors in Zero Trooper-F -- Rob, Matt Sloan, his cousin Dave, and his parents. On the flipside it's never a chore for me to get in front of the camera for Andy or lend some expertise on martial arts for fight scenes in his movies.
Is Zero Trooper-F part of a larger series or universe that you are working in?
Yeah, about three-quarters of the way through the production of Loose Cannons and Zero Trooper-F, I decided to bite off even more and I started producing another film called Greenside. This one takes place in the same location as Zero Trooper-F but fifty years in the future; Zero Troopers are mass produced and there's this giant biodome.
It's actually really, really, really different. It's a dark sci-fi action movie as opposed to a dramady, and revolves around a character that is like if Jet Li and Rambo fathered a child together. But there's definitely a connection there. Andy has put in a lot of work on the screenplay, and Niko is directing the whole thing this time. There should be a trailer for it at our screening.
For me, Zero Trooper is just a really open and funny universe. It's really fun and funny to me to attach these faux-Power Rangers to other genres and styles of movies I love. I'm hoping Andy and I can get the next one going before too long.
What kind of response did you get following the screening at the Wisconsin Film Festival?
My parents told me they were very proud of me. My girlfriend said she loved me, and my friends all gave me high fives. Pretty normal response to anything I do.
What are your plans for a DVD release?
I'm not sure. I'd like to pair it up with Greenside on a DVD when that gets done, or I might just offer it for free online. There are some logistics to be ironed out for sure.
What are you working on now?
I've got two scores to settle in Madison. One, I have to finish production on Greenside. Because I started it right in the thick of Zero Trooper-F and Loose Cannons, it never really got the nourishment it needed until now. We're giving it a really interesting new direction, and starting up principle photography again in June.
The other thing I'm doing is choreographing for Andy's Batman movie. It's going to be brutally beautiful.
Zero Trooper-F will be screening as part of a special double feature with Loose Cannons at the Orpheum Theatre Stage Door on Friday, April 25. Tickets are $3, and the show starts at 7 p.m. A trailer for the former is available here for viewing, while more information about the latter is detailed in an interview with Andy Schlachtenhaufen. Both he and Eric Lim will be present for a question-and-answer session after the screening, which will be followed by a party celebrating their release.