Interview with Marc Price, director of Dune Drifter
By James Whittington, Saturday 24th October 2020
Marc Price

Marc Price, the guy who once made a movie for £50 (remember Colin?) is back and this time he's delivered a far-out sumptuous sci-fi flick, Dune Drifter. Here he chats about this amazing movie.

HC: Where did the idea for Dune Drifter come from as its very different to what you've done before?

MP: I'm a big sci-fi fan. It's a genre I've always felt quite close to. The storytelling tropes appeal to the way I enjoy structuring films. World building and character all in one explosion of information and behaviour is something I tried to do in Colin and it's something I've always found myself flirting with. Even in Nightshooters there was a degree of world building when getting across the Film Making world and the Gangster world so that both collide in a way that's tense and exciting for the audience. Dune Drifter's premise was one where I could do the same thing AND scratch that sci-fi itch. I'm interested and terrified at the notion of technology being all that keeps you safe from an agonising exterior. Whether that tech is a rickety Starfighter or a space suit or a plane here on Earth in present day. I tried to put a little of that fear into the atmosphere and use it as the backdrop of this of someone coming to terms with their situation.

HC: Was it a difficult movie to cast?

MP: It ended up being more difficult than it started. I had written Adler for an actor we'd worked with previously, but something cropped up that would have made shooting quite tricky. So we decided "Let's skip this film and we'll do the next one". We started looking for someone who would fit the role of Adler. Phoebe had sent a great self tape for a different role. It didn't take long to think of her as a perfect candidate. After checking she wasn't claustrophobic, in regards to playing someone in a helmet for a few weeks, I offered her the part about 8 minutes into catching up over a coffee. The rest of the cast has done a lot with us before. The pilots on the monitors during the battle are all actors who have appeared in other films going as far back as Colin.

HC: This is a very ambitious movie with some incredible SFX sequences, how long did it take from pre-production to locked picture?

MP: Pre-production was mainly organising costume and shooting plates of pilots for the opening space battle sequence. We started the main shoot a few weeks later in September 2019. The first block was 7 days in Iceland whilst Nicky Evans (actor from TV's Shameless) was at my flat building the Starfighter set. Aside from a couple of days shooting in a tent, the rest of the film was shot in my living room. This whole time David Ross was building miniatures and creating animatics based on compositions I made using Star Wars toys on broom handles. We finished the film at the end of August this year. It was meant to have been delivered last April. But we shot the film in a specific way to reduce the amount of postproduction visual effects. Projection was used instead of green screen and we needed to shoot a few elements involving the actors last. Lockdown meant we had to rethink a few bits and pieces it wouldn't have been responsible to shoot. By that stage we only had pick ups and inserts to shoot.

It also allowed the VFX team a lot longer to tinker with shots. David is a perfectionist and poured his heart and soul into the space battle sequence. Phil Wray and Ollie Pajtra repaired, enhanced and created a lot of VFX shots for the planet sequences. We could have finished it in April, as planned. But the post team were as excited about the end result as I was and we leaned into the opportunity to spend more time on it. George Davies came up with some spectacular sound design which was mixed and enhanced by the incredible Ben Baird at Aquarium Studios and really added some depth to the atmosphere.

HC: The battle scenes seen in the first half hour of the movie are incredibly intense and populated by some jaw-dropping SFX, how difficult is it to direct such intricate and compelling moments?

MP: This was some of the most fun. The first stage was scripting and sending it to David Ross (Miniature Effects Supervisor) to see what was feasible based on the parameters we were working within. Then David encouraged me to put together visual references to cut into the sequence. Footage from existing films or animatics. I hit up the toy shop and bought an A-Wing and Cylon Raider then gaffer taped them to a broom handle and shot some bits in front of green card. It was a blast! David was so receptive to those shots. From there we worked on David's laptop at the BFI bar and plotted out more precisely timed animatics. The days started with coffee and ended with beers!

Then David worked through what could be a miniature and what could be CG and shot them using a motion control rig. But all of that is only held together with the emotional beats of the story. If you don't know or care about the characters flying and shooting, then it's just some VFX and tech-speak. The biggest worry was how much the human eye needs in order to recognise other people. Our helmets only showed the face. No hair or ears! I cast actors to play pilots who looked distinctly different so the audience could figure out who was who fairly quickly once the action kicked off. To help with that geography we designed a different engine hum for each Starfighter and gave each character their own "signature camera angle". Ben also mixed the sound to pan and reposition to help keep positions as clear as possible. We also kept the action travelling left to right, so cutting to a gunner sat in the back, wouldn't feel jarring.

HC: Did Phoebe Sparrow who plays Adler have to train for the film as she has an incredibly physical role?

MP: Phoebe was physically fit to start with. She does triathlons and runs up mountains before breakfast! Pitting her against Si Dwyer (who played all the Drekk Villains) was something that ended up working out because there is such a contrast in their height. It helped make the bad guys seem more imposing and enhanced the notion that Adler had to be tactical in her confrontations. That all came from Si's body language and Phoebe's performance.

HC: Where were the exterior scenes shot and where did the space craft designs come from?

MP: The exteriors were shot in Iceland for the most part. A few other bits were shot in our front garden in Streatham. We had a backdrop of the Black Sands in Vik and the rest were done using a few sneaky angles and a reflector. David Ross worked on the Starfighter design along with Nicky Evans, who was constructing the cockpit section. Those guys needed to match a few things and tried avoiding complex curves for ease. In fact, during Lockdown Nicky was bored and tried his hand at some 3D modelling. He sent me a few attempts, for shits and giggles, but he'd created something pretty awesome. I asked if we could use it as the massive Earth battleship and he said "Sure thing!" David added some texture to it and it helped lend a sense of scale to that opening battle.

Of all the designs, our Drekk Cruiser was a lot of fun! David knew how much I love the 80s Roger Corman stuff. So he worked on an imposing kit-bashed look. I remember asking for some sort of low-hanging face for the front of the cruiser and loved what he came up with. The most pleasant surprise was when I sent him a rough assembly of the 18-minute space battle sequence and temp scored it with sections from Battle Beyond the Stars. David called me excitedly and said "I've been listening to the same score whilst building the miniatures!" I remember thinking "We're definitely on the same wavelength!"

HC: The film is all about endurance, the trauma of war and the fight for survival, bleak tones indeed, so what was the atmosphere like on set?

MP: Not as bleak! Iceland was a tough shoot. The weather conditions changed every 15 minutes and slowed things down. The last day was done during what we initially thought was mist, but it turned out to be teeny droplets of water that were so light that instead of dropping to the ground, they swirled in the air and soaked up to our bones! Through waterproofs! I remember saying to the crew that if we could get through that shoot, every film after would feel easy. Our sound recordist and all round fix it genius (Danyaal Shah) worked on a project where he had to record sound underwater and told me "it was a piece of p**s" compared to Iceland. Despite the brutal weather conditions we had a tight shoot that was only made possible thanks to the organisational skills of our producer Michelle Parkyn. She kept everyone fed and looked after. The end of our days involved planning for the next over gin!

I like to laugh a lot on set and think the most fun was had shooting the pilots in the space battle. It felt so goofy sitting in my living room pretending there was a space battle out the window when it was a freshly boiled kettle and mountain of biscuits! That section was where a lot of actor friends came in and played various pilots and gunners. Marcus Shakesheff (fight coordinator for Dune Drifter as well as Wonder Woman, Krypton and Hanna) cameoed as our cowardly pilot Melyn, which is welsh for the colour yellow. Daisy Aitkens got to fly a Starfighter, which was a blast to direct. And thanks to Lea James and Nicky Evans we had some safe, in-camera practical explosions.

HC: What, in your opinion is the greatest sci-fi movie made?

MP: That's a rough one. I love such a range of sci-fi from massive blockbusters like Star Wars, Star Trek, 2001 and Spielberg sci-fi to low budget strokes of genius like Moon and Cube. There are also fun movies like Arena and Corman sci-fi. Battle Beyond the Stars was a direct influence. I like a lot of sci-fi!

HC: So, what are you up to at the moment?

MP: I'm writing mainly. Michelle has managed to line up a few projects for us. So my job is to write them and whichever one she says we make is the script I'll tidy into a shooting draft and we'll get started. But after a year working on Dune Drifter I have to admit that my days involve a lot of catching up with some film and TV.

HC: Marc Price, thank you very much.

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