411mania.com Interviews: Rubicon: The Beginning Director Christian Johnston
Posted by Jeffrey Harris on 03.14.2014
411mania.com checks in with filmmaker Christian Johnston, director of the new Machinima live-action pilot Rubicon: The Beginning, for an exclusive interview. The new show is part of a transmedia property created by Mark Long and Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie. Johnston discusses how the new wave of digital content is changing the face of media.
I recently got the chance to speak with filmmaker Christian Johnston, the director behind the new Machinima webseries pilot Rubicon: The Beginning. Rubicon: The Beginning is being formatted as a digital live-action series based on the graphic novel, Rubicon, a comic created by Mark Long (creator of the hit mech shooter game HAWKEN) from a concept by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects, Jack Reacher, Mission Impossible 5). The graphic novel is a re-envisioning of Akira Kurosawa's classic film The Seven Samurai, but set in Afghanistan and featuring NAVY SEALs protecting a remote mountain farm village. The new prequel series follows two of the graphic novel's main characters, Mike and Smash, before the events of the main story. Here's what Christian had to say on the new project:
Jeffrey Harris: Here we have an exciting, new web series pilot based on a graphic novel created by Mark Long and Chris McQuarrie. How did you get involved?
Christian Johnston: I actually got brought in a little bit late in the game. Mark Long and Dan Capel, who was one of the founders of SEAL Team 6, got into talking to Chris McQuarrie and Chris' brother, who is a SEAL, and they were envisioning the potential for a "Seven Samurai in Afghanistan" [story]. I did my first movie, Septem8er Tapes, on location in Afghanistan in 2002 during the war. I had a lot of experience working with Tier 1 Operators in areas of conflict, and I wanted to be able to work with them on Rubicon: The Beginning, which is kind of a prequel exploring the two characters from the graphic novel, Mike and Smash, being Tier 1 Operators who start joint command operations with CIA and getting in the mix with what inevitably happens in joint command scenarios where they all step on each other's toes trying to take down the bad guy.
Jeffrey Harris: What can you tell me about the two leads in this show, Mike and Smash, and who plays them?
Christian Johnston: Mike and Smash are played by Mike Bushell for Mike and Ken Lally who plays Smash. Matt Bushell was in Behind Enemy Lines 2, and Ken Lally does a lot of videogames and those sorts of things. Both them fit the bill as SEAL team operators, especially with Matt's experience doing movies similar to this and Ken Lally as well. We wanted to be able to get this authenticity of Mike's character being this brash, Machiavellian type where it's all about results, regardless of the amount of casualties they might incur along the way. We wanted to have the Smash character, who basically plays the straight man, and keeps Mike's ass out of the brig. I think it's an interesting combo of characters, which is sort of a foretelling of where the story will go with the conflict in the stories.
Jeffrey Harris: Did you shoot this pilot in Afghanistan?
Christian Johnston: No, we didn't. I would've liked to, but we shot about two days in Las Vegas. We worked with a place called Battlefield Vegas, and they gave us access humvees and some actual Army Ranger personnel. And Dan Capel, our SEAL Team consultant, sort of helped us walk through Matt Bushell's character and what would happen in an actual meet where a SEAL is working with the CIA and trying to basically find the opportunity find the meet where bad guys are trying to exchange goods. And the story is about the CIA exploring how potential WMD's might make their way into US soil through illegal border tunnels. And we shot a couple of days in Vegas, and we shot about three days here in Los Angeles, in Long Beach. And basically tracing the alliance of the Mexican cartels with the Japanese yakuza who are brokering high-level war ordinance coming out of North Korea. It's some people's idea of an eventuality of you're only as strong as your weakest link, especially when it comes to Homeland Security.
Jeffrey Harris: If this does get picked up as a series, do you know where you want to take this story? Would it continue focusing on Mike and Smash in their deep cover operation? Or would it introduce into other characters from the graphic novel?
Christian Johnston: In this one, we explore future episodes to follow Mike and Smash as they follow these leads that they uncover in the first episodes with the alliance of the Mexican cartels and the Japanese mafia and potentially be in Japan getting to the bottom of it. We've built something in as like an Easter egg at the end of the first episode where Smash is our sort of straight character that talks the brass out of throwing Mike into the can to be able to potentially have some skeletons in his closet where Smash, who is normally the straight man, might have something even worse following him. So a lot of this would unfold under the supervision of an FBI agent who has to kind watch them from a distance and make sure they don't create any more damage than they've already done.
Jeffrey Harris: How long is the pilot and how long are you envisioning future webisodes to be?
Christian Johnston: The pilot is 12 minutes. It's a little harder to tell an eight-minute story, so we've kind of pushed the minute mark as much as we can for the internet. The goal would be to do 8-10 episodes at about the same length of about 8-12 minute length. I wanted to be able to create a production value that you don't normally get from digital series and be able to shoot on locations and be able to have more than one or two locations and a handful of characters. I like to shoot the small teams to be able to create a lot more production value than normally you can get from these digital series.
Jeffrey Harris: As a filmmaker, what do you think of this movie toward this digital and VOD on demand movement where you have places like Machinima are producing content. Amazon Prime is producing content. Netflix. But one of the benefits of all this is that it gives the content directly to viewers and then they decide what's going to continue. What do you think this movement does in creating opportunities for filmmakers such as yourself and how it's changing the face of media?
Christian Johnston: Yeah, coming out of doing feature films, the digital marketplace with Machinima and a few others have opened up product and it's a more interesting. It can be a bit edgier than some of the networks do. As a filmmaker, it allows me a bit more creative control and access to an audience that will hopefully find what we're doing interesting. And I think wanted to create something that was gritty and realistic and had some production value. And on these smaller budgets we have to work with, you have to call in more favors, but I think hopefully it will give an opportunity to not see the same sort of plasticy TV model that most of the networks have been doing. And that's where I think the cablers and digital areas are finding success is that they can take bigger risks. And the audience, especially the young male demographic, find that a lot more interesting than a traditional network.
Jeffrey Harris: What did you shoot the pilot with?
Christian Johnston: We shot with EPIC. And we did some small GoPros. We used Occulus, which is our version of theoretically how they can control drones. A lot of the Special Forces now will use drone technology, small radio controlled choppers, to be able to do forward reconnaissance and also mission support. So we used a handful of the higher tech stuff that these guys will actually use in some places to give a wider visibility of what they are getting into.
Jeffrey Harris: So what do you want viewers to get out of this pilot and what do you hope to accomplish if this show goes to series?
Christian Johnston: Mostly, we wanted to have an audience to be able to see something where some of the network shows and some of the smaller digital series can't go and be able to create the authenticity of a joint military operation with a small team and be able to see what kind of feels like a real-life event and really just the adrenaline of the full battle rattle of support teams coming in to try to take down a situation. And hopefully the audience can follow some fun characters who "shoot first and ask questions later" sometimes and really just land themselves into further trouble but seem to be succeeding along the way. And hopefully a fun little adrenaline-filled, action-packed jaunt.
Jeffrey Harris: Since the graphic novel is inspired by Seven Samurai and Akira Kurosawa, is there anything in the pilot that's also inspired by classic Akira Kurosawa storytelling?
Christian Johnston: Yeah. Mark Long had an envisioning of how we could feather sort of a Yojimbo [narrative], where it's sort of a – it will eventually play off of the rival members inside of the yakuza and the structure and order of who's in charge. And not only the yakuza, but a lot of those things Kurosawa kind of built have an application with a joint command issue between the CIA and the FBI and the Navy SEAL operators all kind of vying for control.
Jeffrey Harris: Thanks for your time. Good luck with the show. Hopefully it does well and you can do something else with it. I enjoy transmedia events such as this where you can have a story told through multiple forms of media. You can have the comics, the live-action formats, and sometimes also games. I think it's great.
Christian Johnston: That's our plan. We're hopefully going to be picked up for a series and be able to allow a lot more involvement for people to be able to go deeper into the story beyond just the episodes.
Jeffrey Harris: And hey, maybe a movie. Why not?
Christian Johnston: That's the idea.
You can watch the pilot for Rubicon: The Beginning in the above player.