If you wanted to elicit huge cheers from the Hall H crowd at this year’s San Diego Comic Con, all you had to do was say “original”. Not “sequel”, not “prequel” and certainly not “remake”. “Original.” As in, “This film is based on an original screenplay.” Oh sure, audiences squealed with delight when presented with footage from the latest studio-backed retreads, but if you walked out onto that Hall H stage and told these folks there was no pre-existing material, that what they were about to see was the product of your imagination, there was a different kind of excitement. Then you had to blow their mind with some cool footage. Following that up with a star-studded panel didn’t hurt either.
As you’ve been reading over the last week or two, director Joe Lynch delivered the original goods with his KNIGHTS OF BADASSDOM presentation. He dazzled the Hall H crowd with Dinklage, Glau, Kwanten, Pudi, Levieva, Simpson, Gladis and a smidgen of carefully selected footage from his LARP-ing (Live Action Role Playing) adventure-comedy. But long before he brought out the eclectic cast, he won over the several thousand in attendance just by being Joe – or, basically, by being one of them. This wasn’t some Hollywood asshole coming out and reciting a bunch of geeky buzzwords he memorized on the half-hour flight down to San Diego; this big, bearded, broadsword-brandishing motherfucker was genuinely honored to be in their presence.
And the Hall H kids were genuinely excited by what they saw: first, the trailer, which is now online…
… and then a scene in which a chainmail-clad Peter Dinklage takes LARP-ing rookie Ryan Kwanten to comba school ala Syrio Forel (red meat for a crowd that probably waited for hours to get into the GAME OF THRONES panel a day earlier). Most people walked into this panel knowing very little about KNIGHTS OF BADASSDOM; nearly everyone walked out of it looking forward to a film about LARP-ers unwittingly summoning a real, from-the-depths-of-hell succubus on the eve of the very make-believe Battle of Evermore.
A week before Comic Con, Lynch hung out with a group of genre reporters and discussed the independently produced picture. “To me, this is an adventure film,” said Lynch. “This is the true epitome of what I remember an adventure film being. Like ROMANCING THE STONE or THE GOONIES or EXCALIBUR, where you have thrills and chills and laughs and drama. Adventure films to me are the ultimate mash-up, because you can get away with doing big bloody battle scenes and scary wizard scenes and comedy scenes and real drama and real catharsis.”
Shooting the film independently allowed Lynch to go all the way with the gore and… well, the gore – which should come as no surprise if you’ve seen his first movie, the enjoyably grisly WRONG TURN 2: DEAD END. But KNIGHTS OF BADASSDOM isn’t just a bloody, play-to-the-base flick for horror fans. The Matt Wall/Kevin Dreyfuss screenplay was well regarded before the film went into production, and Lynch was keen to preserve its tonal integrity. “We have a lot of fun, there are a lot of laughs in the film,” said Lynch. “But when shit gets real, it gets real. We want to make you feel. That, to me, is what an adventure film is all about.”
To give us a sense of this tone, Lynch showed us an unfinished scene in which a terrified Joe (Kwanten), Gwen (Summer Glau) and Eric (Steve Zahn) have their first run-in with “The Succubeth” (Margarita Levieva) – or, basically, Kwanten’s one-time psycho, now-literally-demonic ex-girlfriend. After she survives being run-through and pinned to a tree with a sword (freeing herself by graphically sliding off the side not blocked by her spinal cord), Eric frantically sets about casting a random spell from his leather-bound book of sorcery (with which he is woefully unfamiliar). Whatever he blabbers, it works; the Succubeth flees, and Eric celebrates doing something right for a change.
But their victory is short-lived. Ronnie (Jimmi Simpson), a rival LARP-er, appears and explains to the gang precisely what they’re up against. The Battle of Evermore has suddenly become the very real front line against a demonic invasion. It’s up to these vacationing amateurs – with their fake weapons and seemingly innocuous incantations – to halt evil’s advance and, of course, save the world.
It’s a hook reminiscent of GHOSTBUSTERS, but set in a subculture that has long been the butt of jokes. According to Lynch, he was drawn to the Wall/Dreyfuss screenplay because it treated the LARP-ing community with respect.
“The LARP-ing community is very sacred about the way that they are perceived,” said Lynch. “They don’t want to be considered a joke, and we didn’t want to do that at all. Because the theme of the movie is wish fulfillment; everybody is allowed to have it… whether you are paintballing and you are thinking you are in Iraq, or you are in EXCALIBUR.”
So Lynch got Rick McCoy and Adrianne Grady of the LARP Alliance involved, which in turn gave him access to far more LARP-ing extras than he required. “Lo and behold, all of a sudden we started getting all of these requests,” recalls Lynch. “When we got up [to the set in Spokane, Washington], the casting lady put a notice out: ‘We need LARP-ing extras.’ People from Florida and every walk of life were showing up. It was insane. It was almost like, ‘Okay guys, we are going to need you for the crowd scene this day, and then we are going to need you for The Battle of Evermore.’ [But] they just kept coming back like to the point where it’s like ‘We don’t need you today.’ ‘Doesn’t matter, we are here!’”
This doesn’t mean Lynch and company were completely reverent of the LARP-ing lifestyle. “I mean look you are putting modern guys in medieval clothing,” said Lynch. “It’s like you can’t not have a little fun with it. But at the same time, you completely embrace it by shooting it in a certain way that evokes a real adventure film. Like SHAUN OF THE DEAD or AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, you are taking a serious approach at something that has humor in it. But it’s organic; it’s coming from the characters. One of the examples that I always gave to the actors was ‘If you took AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON and turned the volume off, it’s a gothic horror movie. Turn the volume up, and it’s two guys having a blast talking about ex-girlfriends on the moors.’ That’s kind of the approach that we wanted to take.”
Though Lynch rounded up a cast with some serious improvisational skills, he didn’t want to go the riff-heavy route favored by most modern comedies. “That’s not this type of film,” said Lynch. “We said from the beginning that we are serving a story and the characters are ingrained into that story; [it’s not] about the characters and how they kind of weave themselves into some kind of plot that resolves itself by the end. We are telling a tale - a bard’s tale, if you will - and all of those characters serve that.”
Fortunately, the actors delighted in the half-heightened, half-profane language written by Wall and Dreyfuss. “They were having fun with the fact that they could say like, ‘Verily go fuck yourself!’ Everybody couldn’t stop saying ‘Huzzah!’ and ‘Zounds!’”
LARP-ing and cursing in Old English is all well and good, but for an hard-core horror buff like Lynch, the real fun of directing KNIGHTS OF BADASSDOM was getting to make big, scary, rip-your-head-off monsters. “The [screenplay] starts out very realistic and very grounded,” said Lynch. “It’s a grounded comedy about guys at the crossroads of their life. But you get to page thirty or forty, and… ‘Monsters? Sweet!’”
“Then you sit there and go, ‘Monsters? Shit.” Because you can go either way. You can go practical, which we all kind of grew up in the Rick Baker era of ‘If it’s in camera, it’s awesome!’ And if it’s CG, it’s like ‘How much render time did you have?’ But we wanted to kind of go old-school with this. I shockingly had Guillermo del Toro call Spectral Motion on our behalf and say, ‘These guys are fucking crazy, you have got to work with these fucking guys!’ Lo and behold, they read the script and Mike Elizalde, who obviously has done [creature effects on] all of Del Toro’s HELLBOY movies, and he did X MEN FIRST CLASS and ATTACK THE BLOCK… they read the script and were just like ‘We are so in. Oh my god, we are in!” Once I started talking to them about how amazing it is to see it happen before your eyes, so you’re not just going ‘Alright, we’ll see it in post, nice tennis ball!” The fact that we wanted to let them embrace the artistry of making a monster, they completely ran with it. The fact that they saw how much authenticity and how much passion went into every department, that only fueled their fire as well. Honestly, having Spectral Motion working on this movie - both in the monster realm, but also doing all of the gore effects - was awesome. We were sitting there going, “Look at the blood! Look! It’s going everywhere!” And not just going, “See you in post.”
So KNIGHTS OF BADASSDOM is an old-school, non-sequel, non-prequel, non-remake tribute to the kinds of movies that hooked a legion of young movie fans back in the ‘70s and ‘80s. It is original in that it is reinvigorating a familiar yarn – i.e. a bunch of goofballs save the world from the forces of evil - by immersing audiences in an unfamiliar subculture. If Lynch has done his job, he’ll have recaptured some of the magic of GHOSTBUSTERS, GREMLINS and Tom Holland’s FRIGHT NIGHT, while imbuing the material with his own off-kilter sensibility.
Lynch has been poised to make the leap from indie horror to the big time for years now, and everything I’ve seen from this movie so far suggests he’s nailed the tone. Now he just needs kick our ass with the finished product – which will hopefully hit theaters in the first half of 2012.