Chris Folino is not Christopher Nolan. In fact, most people have likely never even heard his name before, but that may soon change. Folino is the writer and co-director of “Sparks,” a noirish indie superhero film that might just be the kind of David you want to root for against Goliath.
The co-creator (along with actor and former “Greatest American Hero” star William Katt) of the eponymous comic book — and motion comic — upon which “Sparks” is based, Folino knows the amount of blood, ambition and dollars it takes to make a superhero film that garners respect.
A commercial director, Folino mortgaged his house to finance the film, taking side work when the money ran out to turn the lights back on, all while eschewing crowdfunding. “Sometimes in life, you know, your dreams are your dreams,” says Folino, who amazingly pulled together a cast of both familiar character actors and up and comers and pulled off believable CG effects, including a sizable train crash.
CBR News spoke with Folino, Katt and co-star Jake Busey about fighting the big boys, staying away from comic book cliches, the struggle to get the film made and the luck they experienced in casting Clancy Brown, Ashley Bell and current indie sensation Chase Williamson.
CBR News: Apart from the obvious budgetary and resource constraints, what’s the biggest challenge for an indie film that dares to tell a costumed hero story?
Chris Folino: I think the biggest challenge of making an indie film that has anything to do with costumed characters — besides the fact that there is a fine balance of trying to not have someone in a super hero outfit look too corny on screen — comes from what the expectations are when you see a lot of blockbuster movies. Trying with a budget that’s indie, what can you get across and how you can tell that story just to make it interesting and compelling and still have a certain amount of action in there without making it look cheesy?
If I had to sum it up, I think it was just trying to make sure that it was done as realistically as possible. Then, you have to be fully aware. You have to treat it in a serious tone.
Do you feel like David in a battle against the Goliath of other comic book movies and the notion that these films have to cost a ton to be good?
Folino: We have to demand better superhero movies from studios. Let the creators create because shiny graphics and big time movie stars don’t guarantee a good superhero movie. A good story with a limited budget can compete against a blockbuster flick with no heart or originality. I feel fortunate to have people like Clancy Brown, William Katt, Ashley Bell and our entire cast and crew believe in the project and to be a part of it. We shall see if “Sparks” can find a loyal audience who likes their heroes flawed and a storyline a little darker than Batman.
By the way, “Sparks” and “Man of Steel” are both mixed by the same audio engineer, Daniel Kresko. “Sparks” was composed and mixed at Hans Zimmer’s Remote Control Productions company. Our movie was being worked on right next door to “Man of Steel.” I would love to have Sparks and Superman have a play date!
We snuck in the back door and begged our way to get our music scored and movie mixed there. The only difference is that “Sparks'” entire budget was exactly what it costs for two weeks of craft services for “”Man of Steel.”
Jake, Chris talks about the challenge of not looking corny and the search for authenticity. In your performance, how did you address that challenge and was that a concern of yours going into this?
Jake Busey: I don’t ever judge the character. Seeing the reality through the character’s eyes only, and not concerning myself with the protagonists plight keeps me authentic and the lack of corny-ness comes from commitment to the role. Being in the moment of what is happening, and knowing what I am fighting for. Staying true to these distinctions, I feel, keeps me from getting the wrong kind of laughs.
You’re obviously very invested in the movie. What drew you to the role in the first place?
Busey: Billy Katt is like an Uncle to me, and his involvement drew me to it. The overall concept of the film, and the underdog aspect of “Sparks'” journey sounded intriguing to me. The fact that Chris was putting his family’s’ savings up for the budget was enough balls [for me] to not be able to turn it down. That kind of commitment shows me that a project is beyond legit. Not just some piped out genre pic. It’s a quality piece of art from someone’s life passion.
William, how did you know that Metanza was the role that you wanted to play and what did it allow you to do that you haven’t been able to do before onscreen?
William Katt: When we were working on the comic book — and mainly, this was Chris’ idea — originally, when the character of Archer was drawn, I was playing that character and was going to play that character in the motion comics. But then when we got very, very fortunate and brought Clancy Brown on board, we all decided that he was much better suited to play the character of Archer. So we all agreed on that. It was an easy decision. It’s a great role and the fit was well suited to Clancy Brown. For a lot of the other roles, we brought in great character actorss like Clint Howard and Ashley Bell and Chase Williamson, to play the lead.
Basically, Metanza was something — I played some bad guys periodically in my life, but this guy was just ruthless. He was somebody who was just kind of soulless. He has no moral compass. I thought that was something I could do. I’ve experienced those times in my life that were very dark, and I thought that this was an opportunity to show that on my color palette and in my bag of tricks.
Chris, with their heightened profiles due to their roles in “The Last Exorcism Part 2 and “John Dies at the End,” do you feel like you caught a little bit of lightning in a bottle with Ashley Bell and Chase Williamson?
Folino: I do feel very fortunate to have a cast that could never be afforded again. I was on the fence about moving forward with making “Sparks.” It was like jumping off a building with no parachute. But when we got confirmation that Ashley was all in, I just felt like I’d find something to land on. She was going to shoot “Last Exorcism 2” directly after “Sparks.” She had six days on our movie, and we had one shot at getting everything right, then and there. And good luck getting her again — she had something like five movies booked.
With Chase, I cast him solely on the trailer for “John Dies at the End.” I love his voiceover and Chase is theater trained, so he’s just got a great presence. I met with Chase and just really liked the kid, offered him the job and asked to him to lose weight. Chase lost 35 pounds in five weeks. “John Dies at the End” goes on to get into Sundance and get critical praise.
Was “Sparks” always supposed to be something that became a movie? Was that the plan from the start?
Folino: No, the goal was just to make it into a comic book. We got about four issues done with artist JM Ringuet, and then what happened was, when the fifth issue was going to come out, we had a little snafu with Diamond. They forgot to put us in [the Previews catalogue] and it kind of killed us. We never got through issue five or six.
That was back in 2007. In 2009, we spent a good deal of time and money to make “Sparks” the first motion comic ever for the iPhone. We revisited two issues and we used real voice actors and music and cut up all the comic book pictures. We brought it to life, had mouths moving and we released those two things.
About a year and a half ago, I had just gotten into doing some kids commercials, like “Power Rangers.” It was one of those things where I had been saving up some money — just a little bit — and had a good bank loan and just decided that I really wanted to make this into a film and give it a shot.
It’s sort of one of those things where it was always our intention to make it into comic, and then once we finished the film, we went back to the comic book. Since we spent so much time working on a movie script, we went back and plugged in all the things we liked about the movie and fixed the comic book to make it a more linear story. They still differ in a lot of areas and plot points, but it’s a nice companionship, now, and it also just helps make both stories the best they could be.
It’s been very fortunate that we’ve had “Sparks” in three different iterations, from the comic book to the movie to the motion comic book and then finally the fourth iteration, the graphic novel that we’ve been able to rework with the story.
Why did you decide to self-finance instead of utilizing something like Kickstarter?
Folino: I can honestly say that we didn’t have a fan base. Sometimes in life, you know, your dreams are your dreams. Maybe if we’re fortunate or lucky we can go to Kickstarter in the future with a project. But at the particular time that we took it, it was just one of those things where — I don’t know anybody in Hollywood. I just don’t. I know Bill [Katt] and he’s great, but it’s a particularly tough time, economically.
You know, what’s happening with”Veronica Mars”is amazing, and I’m so excited about them being able to continue things. “The Goon” [was successful on Kickstarter] as well, but “Sparks” has never gotten that particular comic book that was a huge successful hit.
It was just one of those things where it’s been very personal and we had a rough go at it, with the comic book series when it first came out came and then the motion comic came out and it didn’t quite catch on. We really always felt that the story needed to be told and it was sorta like, if we can control it too, financially… even though we really struggled to make this thing work. We had to stop filming after our initial time in January for 12 days to go raise more money by working and taking any job possible to do it — and getting more credit cards!
So, it was just one of those struggles where it was sorta like, even when we got offered distribution from lower-level companies, it was kinda like, “No, we’re not gonna do it. We’re going to see this thing all the way through.” Because if you take anyone’s money at this particular point, we’re not going to have a final cut and that was always the important thing. Kind of like, “We may never get a shot again.” It’s better do it the way you want to do it — that way, you can live without any sort of regret.
The struggles that you guys went through to finance this, the 12-day break from work and just getting any money you could to get the film made — ultimately, do you think that’s going to be something that makes the nectar a little more sweet?
Katt: Well, I think inevitably that’s the case every time. When you step up to the craps table, you put your money down and you roll the dice, it feels real good when you win when it’s your money.
Folino: Honestly, if we have some success with it, that would be amazing. This was a gamble. If we’re fortunate enough to have any success, it’ll be amazing and unexpected.
It was just one of those things where [we] just so wanted, very much in life, to make it happen and try it. We had the very best [luck] in the sense of getting an amazing crew and cast together. You know, most indie films couldn’t get [that]. So we’re like, “If you’re going to get a shot in life, we’re taking that shot”
I didn’t want to be one of those guys who said, “Hey, in the back of my head, if I had this amount of money, I could make a good movie.” We just put our money where our heart was and we tried it. If it’s successful, that would be amazing. I would have loved to have done it without putting my house up on the block or my own money, but sometimes no one is going to invest in you other than yourself. That’s the God’s honest truth.
Katt: I just want to add that this was Chris’s brainchild and he saw it through from beginning to end. If any accolades are to be given, they are to be given to Chris for the fact that he got it done. Lots of people talk about doing something and don’t do it, but Chris got it done. And it’s pretty darn good.
“Sparks” is presently on the festival circuit and in the process of securing a distribution deal. The “Sparks” graphic novel is available in print and digitally through Amazon.