At the tail end of 2012 I was lucky enough to chat with newcomer director Jordan Galland. It was an exciting time for him, he’d just put the finishing touches on his new movie Alter Egos, a down-to-earth tale following a group of not-so-super superheroes struggling with the pressures of everyday life. He’d also just secured distribution by Red State director Kevin Smith’s brand new company, SModcast Pictures.
The chat was due to appear in a 2013 issue of SFX, however due to the complex timing that sometimes comes with long-lead print deadlines and the film’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it UK premier and cinema run, the piece sadly fell through the cracks. I had a great time talking to Jordan however and always hated the fact that the piece never saw the light of day. After contacting Jordan’s PR people I was recently given the go-ahead to publish the Q&A in full right here on my blog. By now the film has been available on various streaming outlets and DVD for a while, so some of you should have had a chance to see it. If not, go check it out!
Did you watch it? Are you back? Great stuff, right?
In the meantime, here’s my full interview with Jordan Galland where we discuss filming super powers on a budget, composing a score with his buddy Sean Lennon, working with indie-movie king Kevin Smith and talk of an Alter Egos TV show…Enjoy!
Hey Jordan! So how would you describe Alter Egos?
It’s an independent comedy slash mystery about Superheroes. It takes place in a world where Superheroes are real but have lost all government funding and public support and it follows one superhero who can shoot ice out his hands, in the course of the day. At the beginning we think that he’s dead and then it cuts back twelve hours and we see he’s having these emotional problems with his civilian identity and his girlfriend is cheating on him with his Superhero alter ego. That’s been my pitch…
In your movie the heroes are governed by the Superhero Corps. Can you give us a brief overview of this company?
It seemed to me like at the time I was writing it, all these documentaries had just come out, movies about the financial crisis and the deception there and it really felt like there was going to be no justice for anyone who was a victim and I guess thinking about Superheroes and how they represent almost political figures and the way Obama was definitely portrayed as a Superhero – literally with a Superman cape and stuff – that all sort of came together and I imagined a scenario like the one in the film, where the Super Corps is actually corrupt and has lost their funding for various reasons and now all they care about is getting that back.
I was watching this documentary about New York and how they tore down Penn Station and it ended up talking about how the tearing down of Penn Station represented what was a shift towards caring about the great achievements of old times and placing a value on something new and how it was a shift into modernity. There’s a scene in Alter Egos at the very beginning where Fridge is walking through Penn Station and I was thinking about the significance of that for the Superhero who’s literally at the same point in the Superhero timeline – at this place where they’ve lost their grandeur and their elegance and their status and they’re just reduced to these average people who need to scheme and lie to get what they want. They’ve lost the valour of their former glory,
Did the story go through many iterations from page to screen?
It actually happened quickly. I thought of the idea in July 2010, I had written the script two months later and we were filming it by April 2011 so really, within a year, I was already editing the film I had only begun to imagine a year earlier. It was very quick but I knew the actors that I wanted to write the parts for and I knew the story I wanted to tell. There were a bunch of drafts and I kicked around a lot of ideas with the actors because I knew I wanted to work with those specific people and they had a lot of input. The development process was actually very quick as well, because I had the producers and the actors and we were just going over the script a lot to get it into shape. There were certain places where our producers wanted there to be bigger action sequences and I my answer was ‘that’s great…if you can raise the money so we can film those, if not…’ The premise of this film, why it works, to me, is about this smaller story that’s happening while Batman and Superman are off. While The Avengers are fighting bigger battles this is happening on the sideline. So that’s why it worked to me and that’s why we explain why were not seeing big battles and the fun superhero visuals.
The fact that it’s grounded in reality is definitely a cool aspect. Was that fun to play around with?
Yeah, the main reason why I decided to go for a hand-held, cinema verité camera style was because I felt like it would ground it and also mainly because of the effects, those were simulated. When we put the effects on the shots, the few that we had, we had to do that with a locked off camera shot but in those scenes where you have a static frame and there’s an effect in it, it feels really cheap but we would mimic the handheld shot so it would edit seamlessly into the other footage, which I felt would be a fun way of grounding these throw-away effects. So like when Fridge walks into this inn and asks to use the internet and to try and prove that he’s worthy of getting a favor he throws ice at the wall. The whole idea was: that’s how you see superheroes in everyday life, they’re like ‘look I can do this!’ and they throw it around until obviously at the end there’s this climax and they use their powers in the classic way that they normally would.
Did this grounding approach affect the look of Superheroes? Today’s superheroes are quite gritty…
Yeah, they’re like body armour and all military grade. I thought that was really fun when I watched Batman Returns ten years ago or longer, to see this classic legendary Superheroes be put together in a way that you would imagine if it was real. Like they’re using designs that haven’t been released yet, they’re creating this super warrior almost. I wanted to do something that was like if you applied that same strategy to the old 1960’s Marvel comic books, where they had those costumes that were really the fashion of the time in a sense. Those colours and tight outfits didn’t seem as silly in the 60s. The name The Fantastic Four – that seems kind of silly now, you’d never say something was ‘Fantastic’ to try to make it sound like it was a force to be reckoned with but in the 60’s that word had a different feel to it. So that was all part this ‘Superheroes and their decaying status and the crumbling of their power and social status’, it’s all these ideas that are left over from the past. So I wanted to apply that in a real way as much as possible. Here are these Superheroes, they dress like they did in the 60’s so they seem a little outdated but we’re in the comic book with a camera filming them. Not really taking them into our world, more like going into their world and exploring our picture.
Not only do Superhero movies have big budgets – they have the biggest budgets these days. Did shooting on a small budget effect how the finished thing came out?
Well the answer would be yes, especially if I had written it to be bigger but I designed it to be filmed for very cheap, all of those things came together at the same time. I knew I could get that location where we filmed most of the movie because it was an an off-seasons resort, it was closed the rest of the year and I consulted my friend about the effects before writing the script so I knew it would be low budget from the beginning, so that never effected really how the movie changed. My first movie was definitely low budget, working in the indie style, things changed constantly and I was re-writing the script constantly but this I really wasn’t changing it that much in the course of filming.
Some of the heroes powers are pretty funny. Were these dictated by the budget?
They were dictated by the budget but it was also fun to think about it. I would say that probably any film maker or musician would agree that your imagination is limited by what you can achieve in the boundaries of what you’re doing. It isn’t just writing something and having that be the finished project; you’re always picturing how it’s going to be accomplished and how it’s going to be executed but it was really fun thinking of powers and Superhero names and just slightly re-imagining it. There’s a vast universe of superhero mythology and all of it intersected, actually, oddly it can be very contradictory and I did a lot of research online to make sure I wasn’t copying anything that already existed. Like Fridge – I didn’t know this but it’s also the name of a G I Joe character, luckily there’s no similarity but if he wore a blue suit then that would have been problematic.
Which movies would you say heavily influenced Alter Egos?
I really like combining things that are very different but when I was a kid I was really into Batman, especially Tim Burton’s Batman and I liked X Men, the first movie they made. I was jealous of the little kids that were watching it because I was already an adult and I knew if I was a kid when I watched it I would have been totally enthralled. I loved comic books when I was young. I didn’t hold on to them, I don’t still go to comic stores, I’m not as much of a fan as a lot of other people but the movies that influenced Alter Egos were not Superhero movies at all, which is what I mean when I say I like to combine things that are different.
I was more influenced by In Bruges and Reservoir Dogs and movies that were plays that had been made into films like Linklater’s Tape and movies that I felt worked as movies even though they were contained and small and adaptations of plays. So those were the big influences and some Woody Allen movies – those are influences in everything I write.
Your friend Sean Lennon composed the soundtrack. How happy were you with the finished score?
I’m so happy with it and it was really fun to work with him. We use to have a band together when we were young and you kind of take it for granted that you’re hanging out with your friend but you’re also working together. Then we stopped working together on music in that same way, you just become so busy on different projects, it’s really nice to have a project where you can come together and work on because you end up hanging out with your friend and you can spend that time together. So that was fun. The music was really interesting because that was the one element of the film that changed a lot. When I was first writing the movie I really imagined it to be such an anti-Superhero movie that I thought there would be very little score; it would just be the sound of the waves and the trees, but that just didn’t work at all. The movie was too funny to hold that realism in place and make it flow. The other thing that I was doing with Sean was for him to write music and record music that appropriately fit the budget of the film. One of the first things I told him was let’s not do any big string stuff, let’s just keep it keyboard. We thought Napoleon Dynamite was interesting – what if we went in that direction, because the Superheroes are dorky and we tried that and it did not work at all.
Sean had a limited amount of time, we had four days left and it was undeniably not working so when something’s not working you can’t just let it sit, you’re compelled to re-do it. So we spent four days where we went in the direction that I originally said I didn’t want to go in. We went for strings and we went for that Batman-type of a feeling because the audience knows what that means when they hear that type of music and I think on a deeper level it’s a movie about what’s behind the mask and is what’s behind the mask even darker than what’s in front of it? Is Bruce Wayne crazier than Batman because he invented him? So that was the story of the soundtrack, it was actually quite a lot of work and we tried a lot of different things but at the end of the day, I was really happy and it still has those funny, surf rocky, pulp songs in there,
Kevin Smith’s SModcast Pictures distributed the film. Are you glad to be in partnership with his company?
The truth is, the film was definitely written with Kevin Smith in mind. I think there are two schools of low-budget indie film making. One is like Robert Rodriguez/El Mariachi and one is Kevin Smith/Clerks and the Rodriguez Mariachi approach is so hard because you really need a town that you can take over and do whatever you want with – I mean he had that for free, he didn’t own it but he just had the run of the place in Mexico and it was the early nineties, not that it’s any easier but Kevin Smith’s approach is ‘talk is cheap’, I can write dialogue and let’s go with it – so more and more people use that approach. I was trying to do a hybrid so that we could have some special effects in there as well and have a little eye candy and not make just conversational, so when Kevin Smith’s name came up it seemed like a perfect fit in a way. I didn’t know he was even doing it (distributing movies). I hadn’t heard about SModcast so that’s how that happened and I think it worked well.
It’s almost the Kevin Smith of Superhero movies…
Yeah, it’s cool. It’s an odd thing because obviously it couldn’t have been made without Clerks having being made. Clerks was a movie I saw when I was 13 and I fell in love with it and I’ve seen it so many times since, so definitely he’s kind of the Godfather of that kind of humour and it was cool to be welcomed into his club so to speak,
Like Clerks, there could be a TV show in the works for Alter Egos. Has there been any more news on that?
I think it will be very exciting. There’s no more news on it, it’s all under lock and key. I’m not even allowed to discuss it with myself but I think one of the comments that I see and that I get about the movie is that there does seem to be all these ideas which maybe aren’t explored and people get really into the idea of the Super Villains in this movie and the Super Corps which is funny because the movie is meant to imply that there’s all this action going on that we’re never going to know about. And the chemistry…I feel like you can watch them in any situation just because of the way they handle each other, whether they’re in a diner or their debating their funding, whatever they’re talking about I think it’s fun to watch them which I think is the criteria for a TV show. I think it almost comes across like a potential pilot of something but we shall see, I hope that it happens obviously…
So fingers crossed we could see more?
Yeah. I mean I think Superheroes need an outlet that’s not just action packed with a few witty remarks. Avengers is great and Joss Wheadon is very funny but ultimately it’s still a blockbuster that has some funny quirky moments. I think it’s really fun for that genre, just the way Vampires got it – they get to exist in every possible incarnation of post-modern Vampire myth. If Superheroes can do the same kind of thing I think a TV version of Alter Egos would be like that,
And finally…what would your super power be?
I want be able to hail a taxi in New York City no matter what, without having to wait too long or fight anybody. I’ve thought about it a lot and most of the powers that Superheroes have wind up causing more problems than good and I just think a super power that had to do with convenient life would be cool.
Want to hear more from Jordan Galland? Why not listen to him chat up Alter Egos with Kevin Smith on SModcast #268, click here to play.
Words and interview by Simon Bland.
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