Deep Fried Interview: WolfCop writer/director Lowell Dean
When David Cronenberg’s 1975 horror film They Came From Within hit screens – partially funded with taxpayer dollars by the Canadian Film Development Corporation – a Canadian national magazine famously featured the headline, “You Should Know How Bad This movie Is – You Paid For It.”
No such disclaimer was necessary when WolfCop howled its way into theaters last year. Canadian audiences knew exactly what kind of romp they were in for. After all, they helped get it made.
Both WolfCop’s $1 million budget and Canadian theatrical release in select Cineplex Odeon theaters came via the paradigm-disrupting CineCoup Film Accelerator, a 12-week contest in which nearly 100 potential feature films battled for fan votes and social media engagements to determine which received a greenlight.
WolfCop writer/director Lowell Dean spoke to Deep Fried Movies about that unique preproduction process, the benefits of using action figures to create storyboards and breaking every rule in the Coors Light product placement playbook.
The Plot: A black magic ritual transforms a hard-drinking small town cop (Leo Fafard) into a hard-drinking small town werewolf cop.
The Tools: Shot with Red Epic and Red One cameras over 17 days in the fall of 2013 in the towns of Regina and Moose Jaw in Saskatchewan.
I understand that you were one of those kids who grew up making backyard movies.
Lowell Dean (LD): I started at age seven with my best friend. He had a home video camera and we would run around every weekend shooting, mostly action movies. We grew up on Star Wars and things like that so we were shooting lots of sword fights and trying to do weird special effects that sometimes didn’t work. As I became a teenager, it started to become mostly horror movies – lots of fake blood and severed limbs.
Did you ever get to the point where you tried the old double-VHS system to edit?
LD: Not only did I do that, I remember feeling like I had invented it. (laughs) I just remember having this moment where I had two VCRs in my house and the video camera had the RCA inputs – the red, yellow and white (inputs) in the back – and I was like, “Wait a minute, if I plug this into there…” I did feature-length things even when I was a teenager. I would commit a whole summer with my friends to shooting an action movie and we’d just do it every weekend between our day jobs. I did a lot of short films, but I did at least four or five feature-length things that I will never show anyone. (laughs)
In the pre-internet days, did you have any outlet to get the films in front of an audience?
LD: I actually worked at a cable access station in Saskatchewan where I lived so I would air them. I made sure it played all the time. Usually they’d let it run at like midnight. At the time I was super proud of them, but when I was done working there I took them all with me. I thought, “These will haunt me forever.” (laughs)
The process behind winning CineCoup sounds pretty intensive – 12 weeks with a different video challenge every week. How did going through that process change the way WolfCop turned out?
LD: I think there’s a bit more humor than I would’ve originally put in it because of the feedback I got over those three months. People were always responsive and I thought, “It’s called WolfCop, people will know that there’s humor in it,” but there were a lot of people who found the humor too subtle in our initial concept trailer. So there was a lot of emphasis on making sure the humor was at the forefront.
What did you learn about marketing through that process that you’ll carry forward with you into future projects?
LD: I think marketing has become our strength. We were so small and grassroots, like many horror films. You have to basically yell from the rooftops who you are and that was probably the best part of CineCoup was that it was fight or flight. You had to promote your film or you’d fail so we had to really get behind telling everybody who we were and what we were before there was even a movie. I feel like I’ll take that into any film I ever do. My first film, 13 Eerie, I didn’t really promote it that much because I assumed naively, “Oh, that’s what the film company does.” For the rest of my life, any other movie I make as long as I’m halfway proud of it, I’ll be shouting it from the rooftops.
How was the experience of the theatrical release that came with winning the CineCoup project?
LD: It was the best ever, because that’s why you make a movie – to see it in a theater. You really learn what works and what doesn’t from watching audiences in the theater. You can do all the test screenings you want and you can discuss it with producers and friends and hear what they think works or what they laugh at, but when you have sometimes as many as 800 people in a room and they do or don’t laugh, it’s pretty clear what’s working. That’s the best litmus test for what you’re doing and I really learned a lot about what kinds of things I want to do going forward and where to put my energy.
Who came up with the tagline “Dirty Harry…Only Harrier”?
LD: The person who came up with that was one of my childhood friends who is actually a cop. I don’t know if cops are just plugged into all the good cop jokes, but I was going for coffee with him and said, “I need a cool line,” and right away he just spit that out.
I love your description of the film as Teen Wolf meets Bad Lieutenant. The premise is certainly over-the-top, but you don’t treat the material, the characters or the craft of filmmaking as a camp joke the way a movie like Sharknado does.
LD: I knew that half the people wouldn’t see WolfCop just because of the title, but my goal was, regardless of our budget, to take it really seriously. I wanted to take the comic book approach where it can be funny, sexy and violent but with characters you might actually give a shit about and there might be a little bit more story than just him ripping people apart. But I did see some reviews that were like, “I just wish he was ripping people apart more.” (laughs) Maybe we have to have a little bit more of that in the sequel.
How did you create the look for WolfCop’s final showdown, which takes place during a solar eclipse that allows WolfCop to transform in the day?
LD: That was scary. We didn’t know if it was going to work. We did a couple tests and you just have to embrace the cartoony aesthetic, but it was really challenging. We were shooting in winter during the day so we had to try to avoid as much direct sunlight as possible and sometimes we couldn’t wait and we just had to shoot it. Luckily we had a great colorist at Urban Post named Mila Patriki. The second I met her I told her, “This movie is going to be fun and we’ll try to give it a comic book-like look and pump up the contrast and the colors, but 50 percent of your energy and concern should focus on the eclipse because if it fails the whole movie will fail.” We just had to embrace a little bit of a cartoony, orange glow. I think for what we had to work with and what we were up against, it looks pretty good.
A make-or-break scene for most werewolf films is the transformation scene. WolfCop boasts a pretty fantastic one inside a jail cell. You have a background as an editor and this scene is sold not only by the solid practical prosthetics but also by the way it’s cut.
LD: We could only afford to do like seven (effects) shots so every shot we did is in the movie except for one shot, which was going to be a piece of his leg ripping open and on the day it didn’t work. It was a half-an-hour to reset (to do another take) so we said, “Okay, we’re not getting that shot.” Each (effects) shots took 45 minutes to an hour to set up and while (effects artist) Emersen Ziffle was prepping those, we turned the camera around and shot reaction shots of (the character of Willie Higgins, the town crackpot who discovers WolfCop’s secret). We knew his reactions were probably going to be 80 percent of the scene so went overboard in shooting (coverage of that). We couldn’t afford to do a full body suit so Emersen built an inflated back piece that would rip through and that would only cover 3/4 of (Leo’s) back so we would frame the camera literally just to the edges of what the piece would cover.
You created your storyboards by setting up and photographing scenes with action figures. How did you come up with that process?
LD: Roger Christian, who designed the lightsaber in Star Wars and worked on Alien and later became known more as a director for things like Battlefield Earth, he mentored me on my first film 13 Eerie and he told me when you’re starting out you have to storyboard everything or no one will have confidence in you. I didn’t have time to do it by hand. I do draw, but I was basically given two weeks to storyboard the movie and I couldn’t think of any legitimate way to do it in that amount of time and (Roger) said, “You should use toys.” So I took a Canon 5D, got a rudimentary cardboard backdrop and drew things on it with a sharpie (for the set) and went to Toys “R” Us and bought a lot of action figures. It was actually a remarkable tool and I’m surprised more people don’t do it. I would do it on anything moving forward.
Though they often times play in the background, there are some great art department gags in the film.
LD: They took it above and beyond. The (production designer) is a guy named Justin Ludwig who I’ve been working with for awhile. He’s really clever and creative and he worked a lot of really hilarious things in all over the place and not all of them are visible in the frame. Sometimes that was one of the biggest heartbreaks – running out of room and having to pick (which of his pieces to use). We had no plan to put his Officer of the Month (plaque) in the movie, but as soon as we saw it we said, “We’ve got to steal a shot of that.”
I initially assumed Mus Knuckle beer was a figment of the art department’s imagination, but turns out it’s an actual Canadian lager.
LD: I foolishly thought it would be a no-brainer to get sponsorship for this movie for alcohol, but beer companies wanted nothing to do with it. I really wanted to get Coors Light because of their Silver Bullet (branding). I wanted Coors Light to be all over the place because I thought that would be a really organic sell-out. You have to send the script to Coors Light and discuss it with them and they sent us a letter that basically said, “Thanks for asking, but we will not be able to support your movie because you break literally every rule we have about drinking in film.” And they listed them. I really want to frame that letter – Drinking While Driving; Drinking While Shooting a Gun; Drinking While Killing People. So we couldn’t really get liquor sponsorship because of the way we showed the liquor, but Mus Knuckle was kind enough to let us use some of their product because it wasn’t directly (used by the characters during the film).
Thanks to Lowell Dean for chatting with Deep Fried Movies. WolfCop is now out on home video in the states as well as Canada. Continue onward for some behind the scenes pics courtesy of Dean (and taken by Sean Fulton) and a few frame grabs from the film.
Behind the Scenes of WolfCop