To many Marvel Comics fans, the name Greg Pak is synonymous with Bruce Banner and his alter ego the Hulk. Pak is the author of the epic storylines "Planet Hulk" and "World War Hulk," and is the current scribe of the "Incredible Hulk" series. This month, Pak wants to introduce his fans to another green-themed story, "Mister Green", a short science fiction film that he wrote and directed. CBR News spoke with Pak about the film, which debuted Monday at www.futurestates.tv and makes it festival premiere next week at the South by Southwest Film Festival.
"Mister Green" isn't Pak's first foray into film. He actually comes from a filmmaking background before he began his career in comics. "I'm probably best known in the film world for directing a feature film called 'Robot Stories,' which is a feature length film made up of four interconnected short stories. The stories all basically deal with love, death, family and robots. They're stories about families and couples struggling with the kinds of things families and couples struggle with, but with a crazy robot twist. We hit festivals in 2002 and 2003 and it came out theatrically in 2004. And actually it was the screenplay for 'Robot Stories' that was the writing sample that my agent sent into Marvel," Pak told CBR News. "In the end, the film won around 35 awards and played at 75 film festivals around the world. It's out on DVD, so if you're interested, feel free to check out the links at Robotstories.net."
"Robot Stories" and Pak's several other short films like "Fighting Grandpa" and "Mouse" were part of the reason ITVS, an organization that primarily funds documentaries, called him. That phone call was the starting point for "Mister Green."
"They have a new initiative right now to fund a series of short science fiction films that envision the near future from different angles. I think they approached me because they knew I had done similar stuff with 'Robot Stories.' For some reason, I'd been doing a lot of reading about both plants and global warming right around the time they approached me. So I ended up pitching this crazy story and they went for it," Pak said. "When you're doing science fiction on a non-blockbuster budget the challenge is to always find a fun and smart way to convey a changed world and to make the best use possible of the special effects budget you may have for maximum impact. Another part of the challenge was to come up with a story that worked given the budget, and this was also a story that worked on that level."
The story Pak came up with that became "Mister Green" is a tale of a disconnected man in a dystopian near-future world. "The premise of this film, and I don't think this gives too much away because you'll find it out in the first ten seconds of the film, is that catastrophic climate change has happened. We blew it. We didn't stop it. Venice has flooded. New York City's Canal Street has become a canal again. It's 87 degrees in December and our main character is the Undersecretary for the Department of Global Warming," Pak explained. "He blew it and as far as he's concerned everybody blew it because folks didn't get out there and push the government hard enough. Nobody pushed hard enough, so he's this jaded and almost self-hating guy as the story begins. The character's name is Mason Park and he's played by Tim Kang, aka Agent Cho on 'The Mentalist.'
"Fairly quickly, Mason meets an old colleague of his who's now a scientist whose grants have just been cut by Mason's agency because it's just too late," Pak continued. "They kind of flirt a little bit, because they have some vibe going from the past, but fairly quickly this mysterious scientist enmeshes our hero in a crazy plot to save the world in a totally unexpected way. If I say any more it'll ruin the story."
Since global catastrophic climate change has become irreversible in "Mister Green," the film does have a pro-environment message, but for Pak the message of the film came second. "I think it's better to let the audience decide what they think. If it inspires folks to think about things, that's great [Laughs]. I hope it would lead to folks thinking about where we are and where we're going. At the same time, these stories only work if you care about the characters. If you make a film only for the sake of pushing a message, no one is going to want to see it. That's not what people go to the movies for," Pak explained. "To be transported somewhere emotionally is the payoff of going to the movies. That's why we keep going back. So if you're telling a good story you're going to pull people in on that level. That's always aim number one, to tell a story that matters on an emotional level."
When Pak was writing "Mister Green" he wrote the titular role with Tim Kang in mind, whom he had worked with before on "Robot Stories." "Tim was always the guy to play this character because he's a great dramatic actor and he's a great comedic actor. He understands where comedy and tragedy come from, and how sometimes they come from the same place. I knew he was going to be able to carry off all the subtle little comic bits as well as the kind of soul-baring dramatic stuff that unfolds at a certain point, " Pak remarked. "Since we made 'Robot Stories' Tim has become incredibly successful. He's one of the regulars on the CBS television series 'The Mentalist' and he's also well known for some funny commercials that he's done for AT&T.
"We shot the film in the New York area and he was shooting 'The Mentalist' at the time," Pak continued. " So he was just awesome for coming out two weekends in a row to shoot this little short film with us, while working full time on 'The Mentalist'. He was taking these crazy red eye flights to do our film. It was just amazing. And he did a phenomenal job."
Pak found his female lead in "Mister Green", Betty Gilpin, by working with casting agents Susan Shopmaker and Randi Glass. "Susan and Randi pulled in a whole bunch of folks for us to look at; a lot of great actresses. It was a tough choice, and then when Betty walked in it just became very clear that she was the one. She was able to project this great combination of awkwardness and total confidence. That's very strange and compelling all at once. In many ways her character is nervous and awkward, but at the same time she knows exactly what she's doing. She's really compelling, on point, sharp, and going straight for it. I think that's very exciting to see in a character and the dynamic she and Tim have was immediately exciting. The way they parry and surprise each other was a lot of fun to see on set and I think it came through in the images."
"Mister Green" also features several small supporting characters, including one played by Pak. "I did improv comedy for years and years. I started in college and did it for awhile in New York with a group called the Pollyannas. I actually acted in 'Robot Stories' as well. I played an office worker android named Archie," Pak stated. "So there was a certain point where we were looking at the casting for this film and there was a this little role of a guy at the bar. I said, 'Maybe I'll play that.' My producer Karin Chien was like, 'Yeah, you should go for it!' So I did. I guess at a certain point I realized I had the look. The beard works with this particular role in a pretty good way [Laughs]. It was visually the right match."
Pak credits his crew and the great locations they found for giving "Mister Green" the look and feel of a world that's experienced catastrophic climate change. "My cinematographer Sam Chase is just amazing. We hit it off right away. We talked about a very hot world and the ways in which we could show that," Pak said. "In the end, our big trick was to work the flares like crazy. We were always shooting light directly into the lens, which causes flares in the final image. If that's done wrong or without the right touch it can look like a mistake. But Sam has just the right eye and did it beautifully and as a result you get this sense of heat, atmosphere and depth, which was just gold. I was literally jumping up and down while I was on set looking at the monitors because it just looked beautiful."
"And of course another part of that is the great locations. There's a scene with a marsh that kind of blew my mind, because it's such a specific environment and I had a feeling that I was probably not going to get that in New York City. We were probably going to have to compromise and shoot it a meadow or something, but our associate producer Derek Nguyen found this amazing marsh that looked exactly like what the script described. And it ended up being another one of these cases where the location just sells the scene," Pak continued. "Another one of the locations I loved was the rooftop of a parking garage overlooking parts of Jersey and Manhattan. On the day we were shooting we ended up running late because of crazy travel issues that were beyond anybody's control, but it ended up working beautifully, because we were shooting right as the sun was going down and the sky was just gorgeous and there was this great breeze going, which threw our lead actress Betty Gilpin's hair around in this perfect, cinematic way. Because you know we couldn't afford wind machines."
Pak is very eager for next week's South by Southwest Film Festival in Austin, Texas, where audiences will get their first look at "Mister Green." "'Kick Ass' is not the only comic creator movie that is going to be screening at South by Southwest [Laughs]. 'Mister Green' will be showing as part of ITVS's 'Future States' program there. They're showing a few other films from the series as well. That will be on March 14th and I will be there for the screening," Pak stated. "The film will then show in San Francisco at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival on the 17th and 18th. From there it will go to a number of other cities, including the Atlanta Film Festival in April and the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival in May."
"If you can't make it to any of the festivals, the film is also online even as we speak. All of these 'Future States' short films are screening at futurestates.tv in a pretty gorgeous, high resolution format," Pak continued. "I really have to give it up for the folks at ITVS for funding this kind of thing because it's fairly rare for independent filmmakers to get a chance to do science fiction in this kind of way. I work in the superhero business so I get to play with fantasy and sci-fi all day long on the printed page. But to actually make independent sci fi movies is something near and dear to my heart and I'm very happy that this initiative has allowed for all these films to be made."
"Mister Green" is only a fifteen minute film, but in that time Pak introduces a lot of ideas and would love to revisit and expand on them in any of the media he's known for. "It would be a lot of fun to do a comic book series that picks up at the end of this short film. There's a whole world of possibilities that open up as this film plays out. Of course I'd love to do a feature film with these characters and this world as well," Pak said. "But I think a comic series could really swing. We'll see. I've got a pretty full slate right now. So time will tell, but if folks really like it and it's well received who knows what'll be possible."