One of the biggest draws to anime conventions is always the chance to meet American voice actors, whose panels and events draw huge crowds and whose adoring fans come in droves to be regaled with insights, behind-the-scenes stories and voice acting tips. But despite their popularity, one place we don’t often see western voice actors is on the big screen.
Enter Stephen Weese. A voice actor himself (Hellsing, Sengoku Basara 3), Stephen is the writer and producer of Broken Spirits, a live-action fantasy-action film in which Weese cast his fellow anime actors in the lead roles. The film, which was produced in partnership with Anime Expo, is expected to be released this year.
We got a chance to chat with Weese about putting together the world’s first live-action anime voice actor film.
What was the genesis of the project? What came first – the idea to have a voice actor cast, or the story, or…? How do you go about putting something like this together?
In about 2010, I had somehow developed chronic fatigue syndrome, and I was in bed for almost a year. I had really lost most of the momentum in terms of my acting career. When I got better, I realized I might not have so much time left in Hollywood, so I at least wanted to make my mark out here before I left. I got together with my roommate, Joseph Medina, who’d gone to screenwriting school, and I said, let’s make a full-length feature film.
I already had some ideas. I’d been working with another producer who had managed a desert location, so we started with the desert idea, and we didn’t have a huge budget, so we had to keep it short on special effects. I wanted to write a kind of psychological thriller-type thing.
I always had it in mind to cast my voice actor co-workers and friends, because I didn’t personally know actors on the big screen, but I did know these voice actors, who do have name recognition, and they’re my friends, so I wanted to do something with them.
So we had our actors, our location, our script, and then we needed some money. For the starting funds, we did do some Indie GoGo, but I had a Mustang GT convertible, and so I sold it to get the starting money. I was pretty serious about this thing, obviously.
There’s a whole other thing that happened with the camera, too. I had an entire crew of filmmakers with two RED cameras that were willing to work for free, because they just wanted to make a movie. So that was one of the catalysts, too: I had this crew! It was destiny.
But as soon as I had the movie ready, the two guys with the cameras just flaked out on me. I’d already told people I was ready to go, and now I wasn’t. Through a networking group called The Table, I’d posted that I was looking for a cinematographer, and I got an answer from this guy named Peter Bohush. Basically, this guy really had the experience and knowledge that I didn’t have. He knew cameras, he knew people, he brought in producers, he took our script and made it ever better than it was. All the sudden it was like, “hey, we’re doing a real movie!” It went from just me doing this thing with some friends to a professional thing. When we first got on set, we’ve got 20 or 30 crew people, and I don’t even know who these people are, but I’ve got a crew and I’m the producer, so I’m in charge!
Vic Mignona, the voice of Fullmetal Alchemist‘s Edward Elric
The film stars a whole stable of well-known anime ADR actors. How hard was it to convince them to star in a live-action film?
There’s a few voice actors who are just voice actors, but most started as – I don’t know what to call it… “regular actors”? (laughs). We were theater actors, film actors, TV actors… we grew up trained to be in theater or on the stage. So almost all of them were experienced already, especially Richard Epcar, who’s been in a bunch of movies. Vic Mignogna had been on camera before… Cristina Vee had done theater in college. Most of these actors, they love to act, and they don’t care if it’s in the booth or in front of the camera or on stage or whatever.
I’m really happy with the people I got. Spike Spencer: great as the bad guy, the main villain in the movie. Cristina Vee, the female lead, is wonderful, and a very pretty girl, which you need to have (laughs). Richard Epcar is really perfectly cast. Interestingly, Richard was originally cast as my dad in the movie (I play the lead… it’s my movie, after all). It was kind of a small part, probably one or two days of shooting. The reason I did that is because he’s kind of a big name, and I wasn’t sure how long I could get him. It turns out he had more time, and so we said, “well, let’s give you a bigger part!” The part we gave him, the sweat lodge guru, is perfect for him. He just nailed it. He steals the movie!
Vic was great. I really wish Vic could’ve been in it more, but he was really busy. He plays my brother, and I don’t know, I think we even look kinda similar. I mean, Vic’s a good looking guy, so maybe that’s vanity (laughs). We have a good car accident scene together, and he loved it. Our makeup artist Jyll King got Vic all bloodied up for the car accident, and we had a great time.
Can you compare ADR acting to live-action? What’s different, aside from the obvious?
I remember when Chris Rock went to an award show and said something like, “voice acting is so easy, you just go into a booth and they pay you a million bucks!” All my friends on Facebook just exploded: “It’s not easy! you have to do this and this…”
I sort of see where they’re coming from. To be hired as a voice actor you have to have the training for ADR and the equipment and everything. If you do this for a living – and there aren’t many who do – it’s very difficult just to get in the booth and get a job, or an audition, even.
Richard Epcar, voice of Batou in Ghost in the Shell
Having said that, there’s quite a difference. When you’re doing voice acting, you’re never in there for 12 hours, but sometimes you’re on set for 12 hours. You’re not in an air-conditioned booth, you’re out doing long days in the elements. We shot in the desert. The thing about the desert is that it’s very cold in the morning, then very hot in the afternoon, then very cold when the sun goes down again. Not to mention we had a lot of wind, sand in our eyes, looking into the sun while acting.
Almost all of us had fight scenes. We had to do a lot of physical stuff. That’s a lot harder than being in the booth. Cristina Vee and Axelle Castro were champions, because we asked them to do their fight scene in a river, and they did. That was really gutsy and awesome. It was grueling. There’s a scene in the trailer where I’m running to save Valerie (Cristina Vee), and I’m running about a hundred yards at full speed, which I had to do about five times in five minutes. You don’t do that in the booth (laughs). You don’t get sunburned, you don’t get sand in your hair and eyes, you don’t get frozen. The booth is hard on your voice, but acting outdoors is hard on everything.
How did Anime Expo get involved?
I realized that the film starred a bunch of anime voice actors, and we wanted to partner with someone in the anime industry. Anime Expo was really the first group I thought of. They’re right here in LA, and they’re very large. I emailed them about the movie and asked if they wanted to partner with us, and they said yes. It was like, “well, that was easy.”
They’re still working with us now. We’re working on putting together a screening at the next Expo, so there should be a screening with a red carpet, and we’ll get as many of the actors as we can, so this is going to be a a big deal.
What films influenced you? Is it just me, or is Richard giving off a serious Bruce Campbell/Evil Dead vibe…
I read the Bruce Campbell autobiography, If Chins Could Kill. Campbell and Sam Riami really inspired me with the whole Evil Dead thing. It’s very similar in a way, what I did, making their own movie like that. They just threw it all out there and did what they could without a big budget. Hollywood is tough: there are a million lead actor types like me, and there’s amazing competition for lead roles, so I decided to give myself a lead.
Stephen with Cristina Vee, who voiced Nagisa Saito in Squid Girl
Producing and acting at the same time was very difficult. I remember Cristina Vee was very diligent in preparing for the role: she always had notes, and was reading books and researching. I was watching her and thinking, “I wish I had time to do that.” But I was running around dealing with crises. Producing a film was really the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I think I aged like ten years doing this. It took all my will and stamina, and now I’m just hanging on through the post-production part. So I think I’ve gone through the Evil Dead initiation ritual, you know.
But yeah, people have mentioned before that Richard looks like Bruce Campbell, and he did grow those sideburns for the role!
What are some of the challenges (and rewards) of making a relatively low-budget, independent film?
As far as challenges: In writing the script, we weren’t able to do with wherever our imagination took us. We had to think of every scene in terms of budget as well, so writing it was difficult as well.
Scheduling was tough. We only had the location on the weekends, and that’s when everyone goes to conventions, so had to schedule everyone around it. It was like solving a calculus equation to figure out when to shoot what scenes.
I remember one day where our lead villain actress, Axelle, couldn’t make it for a day, but she was about the same size as Cristina, and they both had long black hair, so we dressed up Cristina Vee in the same costume and shot from behind or put her hair in her face so you couldn’t tell (laughs).
Being independent meant I didn’t have a studio to answer to. It was pretty much my money that was I either using for good or wasting, depending on how you looked at it! It was really all on my shoulders. The good and the bad is that I’m in charge, so I get what I want, within what’s possible, but it all comes down to me on whether the film is any good.
A lot of the time you’ll see films where the technical aspects are good: effects, video, audio. There are a lot of movies that meet those requirements, but the acting or writing is just horrible, and it’s just unbearable to watch. I don’t want it to be another movie like that, with my name on it, so I did the best I could in terms of casting, revising the script six or seven times… I hope this a movie where people can come enjoy it and have a good time.
This is a story of some young people who go into the desert and have a supernatural experience. They have to fight evil spirits, and confront the evil in their past. These spirits make them relive it, and I think there is something in there for people to think about. They can think about their life, the next life, overcoming their past… there are things in there for people to think about as they journey through the movie.
Trey (Gregory Crafts) takes aim at a rival gang member.
What’s the reaction to the trailers, etc. been like so far?
Reaction has been really good. There’s a great part in the trailer where Cristina Vee is running away from one of the characters from her past, and he takes her face and smashes it into a cactus. I’ve shown the trailer at a few anime conventions, and whenever I show it, I don’t even have to be looking: I hear the audience go “ooooh,” and I know it’s the cactus part (laughs).
What’s the current status of the film? Do you have an expected release date?
The movie should be done sometime within the next six months. We’ve got about 200 effects shots, and we’ve got about half of those done. We need to get those in there, and do some color correction and things, and then we’re done!
The finished product is going to be as good as anything you see in TV or in the movie theaters. In fact, we’re looking for a distributor who will set us up with some theatrical screenings somewhere, because it’s that good. We shot it on the RED camera, which is what David Fincher used to shoot [The Social Network]. Peter brought in some special effects people, and I met another guy, Michael Struck, and he’s helping do our effects. It’s going to be quite amazing when it’s done.