David Michael Latt, man of multiple hyphens—as in director-producer-writer-editor—is one of the heads of the Corman-esque company, The Asylum, which has, over the past few months, brought us undead gunfighters (“Death Valley: The Legend of Bloody Bill”), ghost stories (Intermedio), and zombie pirates (Jolly Roger). But he’s most proud of a movie that is based on a story that is over a hundred years old: H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds.
The Asylum’s version premiered on video two days before the giant Dreamworks Spielbergian blow-out, and less than a month after the version produced by Pendragon Films and directed by Timothy Hines, which is set in period Victorian times. But for Latt, neither pose daunting competition.
“I’m not worried about these productions, and they shouldn’t be worried about us,” Latt says, with what may be trademark humility. “We’re not even on the radar-scope of Dreamworks, and Pendragon is a period film, a very by-the-book account of what Wells wanted to do and so that’s going to be very exciting. With Spielberg, they’re going to get a massive spectacle and a beautiful film. Everything is going to work pretty perfectly. I’m very excited; I cannot wait to see that movie. The Pendragon as well. I’m going to watch these movies. [But] I hope that people could approach these films with different attitudes towards what they’re going to get. Obviously, the general public is going to draw the comparisons. I’m not so naïve as to think that we’re not going to be compared to a quarter-billion dollar juggernaut like Dreamworks and come up short in a lot of areas. But it wasn’t necessarily our intent to go toe-to-toe with those filmmakers and those projects. It was our intent to make a really cool sci-fi that we had planned to make for a couple of years and finally got the green light to make this year.”
While the original buzz about the film is that it will be closer to Wells’ source novel than the Dreamworks model (though, not quite as close, obviously, as the Pendragon offering), in truth, The Asylum wasn’t “officially” making “War of the Worlds” at all. “This is a film that was originally called ‘Invasion’. The task was to write an epic sci-fi picture. I drew from ‘War of the Worlds’, but I also drew from other sources as well. I don’t know that [it’s] necessarily the case to say that it will be closer to the source material than the Dreamworks movie. Especially because of some of the things we moved around to fit the story that we wanted to tell, rather than the story that H.G. Wells wanted to tell.”
On the other hand, The Asylum saw fit to credit the novelist—something Spielberg and company have taken heat—from Harlan Ellison, no less, among others—for failing to do. So the implication holds water.
In Latt’s “War of the Worlds”, the Earth is attacked by very aggressive visitors from Mars, who emerge from smoking craters around the world in multi-limbed walking warships that fire heat rays that dissolve flesh and bone. Yes, they added legs to Wells’ tripods, but the rest is sounding good, right? And once the invasion has started, the Earth begins to suffer. And a lone astronomer named George Herbert (played with pitch-perfection by C. Thomas Howell) slowly makes his way to devastated Washington D.C. in the hopes of reuniting with his family.
Along the way, he gains the company of the lone survivor of a military unit (Andrew Lauer) and, later, Pastor Victor (Rhett Giles), who struggles to maintain his faith while surrounded by the decimation of his Lord’s flock. The inclusion of Pastor Victor is particularly inspiring to fans of the novel, who note that the question of faith and the survival of man in the face of global catastrophe was central to Wells’ story.
“You could go any way with this material,” Latt insists, with stubborn diplomacy. “You could make a quarter-of-a-billion dollar epic adventure film, which is what I think Dreamworks is going to bring to the table. Or you could follow Wells’ journey, which is more personal reflection and drama, in a lot of ways. Just as ‘Frankenstein’ is more of a drama, unless you want to exploit more of the horror aspects of it. We tried to do a little bit of both. We kept it closer to the human story, obviously, because of the money. If we had had more of a budget I may have gone bigger, which may have ruined the film in a lot of ways. We played with what we had. We didn’t have the tools to make a huge sci-fi movie, but I think at the end of the day, at least for me as the filmmaker—I can’t speak for the audience—but I think we made [a great] movie. It’s a more interesting story. We had to explore some really heavy duty themes of mortality and religion and life and family and everything else. It was a more satisfying film at the end of the day.”
As Herbert, Howell’s (“The Outsiders”) performance is central to the story. He’s the lynchpin for the audience, who experience the titular war through his eyes. “I’ve said it before, and it’s a little pretentious, but look, this is ‘The Pianist’, except that instead of Nazis it’s aliens. What it’s really about is a man surviving. And if we don’t follow this guy, if we don’t trust this guy and believe in him and love him, and go through this and emote with him, it’s all going to fall apart. And for me, C. Thomas Howell makes you go on this journey willingly, and he takes you on a lot of emotional roller coasters, and you follow him and you believe him. I’m so thrilled that he wanted to do this film. I think his performance is outstanding.”
And at this moment, we depart from a director promoting his new film, and reach the artist proud of his creation, giving tribute to the immense collaboration that allowed him to bring his movie to life. Howell, it cannot be over-stressed, is perfect in the role. He brings Herbert to utter three-dimensional life, allowing the audience to feel his fear, his panic, and the belief that his family has survived the onslaught—this belief and faith that is the soul strength to keep him moving on, even after being trapped for days in a collapsed house. He is the focus of the film. “I don’t know if [Howell’s performance] is a testament to me as a director or a testament to him growing and finding his voice, because quite frankly, I just showed up to the set,” Latt says, laughing. “At least that’s the way it felt to me. He just brought so much to it. It’s a very difficult character and he played is beautifully.”
While traveling with Herbert, Pastor Victor comes across a distraught member of his flock. Rebecca, wife and mother, has just lost her entire family in the attack. She’s in agony over the loss, and she rails at the cleric, who advises her to have faith in the Lord’s plan. “How did my four-year-old offend God?” she demands. “What did he do to deserve dying?” And her demands plant the seed for Victor’s own crisis of faith.
Playing Rebecca is Kim Little, best known to the world as the ‘sick and twisted’ “Jane White”. In “real life”, she and David are married, but don’t cry “nepotism” just yet. And in the role, she is phenomenal. Throughout her brief scene, the audience completely shares in her grief.
“That role was specifically written by my co-writer, Carlos De Los Rios,” says Latt. “The reason I brought him in was specifically for scenes like that. I couldn’t get into the heads of these characters and as I’ve said before, this is a film about this journey that they go through emotionally. And without getting into their heads, I really felt that this was a film that would fall flat on its face. The whole Pastor’s arc is that he loses his faith. And we needed one moment that kicks him in the balls and wakes him up, even though he’s surrounded by this devastation, we needed something that would really make it personal for him. That changes his perspective a little bit. And that scene was written by Carlos, at least conceptually. We kind of both went back and forth to it. And when that was happening, I knew it was really a no-brainer to give it to Kim because I knew that she could get there really quickly.”
However confident he was in her abilities, Latt was still terrified about directing his wife the scene. “We just had a child, so… as I threatened her, I said, ‘Look, if you can’t get there, I know what buttons to push to get you there.’ She’s like, ‘Don’t you dare. I’ll get there.’ Kim, like C. Tommy… they come to the set, they hit the home runs and they leave. They don’t take it with them; it’s not a big method process for them. So it’s just really surprising when you get there and she’s laughing and smiling and ten minutes later she’s crying her eyes out and devastated at the loss of her family. And then ‘Cut! Okay, move on.’ So it wasn’t as difficult as you might think. I was dreading it, personally. I was more scared than she was because I didn’t want to get where we needed to go if she couldn’t get there. I should have just trusted her that it was going to happen.”
Latt’s new daughter also appears in the film, suggesting that this truly was a personal project for him. “Oh that always happens,” he says, laughing. “It’s very Coppolla-esque.”
When Wells wrote the original novel, it was out of concern for the globalized threat he saw in the newly-industrial world, particularly recent-uber-nation Germany. For the George Pal ‘50s classic, it was the communist hiding under every bed. And folks in the Dreamworks camp have gone on the record as saying that their “War of the Worlds” concerns itself with aliens that are allegorical terrorists, monsters for a post-9/11 world. And who are the metaphorical nightmares built into the text that appealed to Latt? “Uh, it had really cool monsters? Again, for me, this was a personal thing. I could kind of put it into a bigger context and say ‘Yes, we’re under a terrorist threats, and unseen enemies, and I think people can relate to that…’ But really, what appealed to me with this script was really just the journey of the main character and how you deal with this kind of devastation. These questions of faith that are approached are really—it’s really my voice. So it was really kind of cathartic. It was a very personal journey for me to kind of go through these things. So, on a personal level, it was more the humanness of what it was, rather than thematically of terrorists and aliens and whatnot. So when you’re watching the movie, I think you’re going to more experience that journey rather than the global subtext of terrorism and threats and that stuff.”
For most people familiar with Latt’s past work—ranging from the fun but unsatisfying “Scarecrow Slayer” to the sublime and hilarious satire “Jane White is Sick and Twisted”—his direction on “War of the Worlds” will be a revelation as well. There is very little in “War” that does not belong on a theater screen. It stands out as Latt’s most mature work to date. And the director, who also produced, edited and co-wrote the screenplay with Carlos De Los Rios, agrees.
“I felt that while filming it, writing it, doing the post work on it, that I grew as a filmmaker. We’ll see if it sticks, but… It was a very satisfying and emotional process that I went through personally on this film. I don’t know how it’s going to apply when I do ‘Killers 10’ and ‘Scarecrow Slayer Revisited’… it’s very difficult to describe. To recognize that you grew, without sounding too pretentious, is exciting. I drew from this because, quite frankly, my whole world changed when the studio, the Asylum, opened its doors. I’ve been making—between ‘Scarecrow Slayer’, which was my last film, and this film, I’ve made ten movies as a producer. I see other directors’ work and you learn from them, and you pull from them, and you feed from their energy and you just can’t help it. And applying all that was just a great experience. It was a great education for me. I do believe that this film graduates me to a new level of filmmaker—at least for myself.”
The Asylum, the studio, opened its doors for business in 1997—with Latt and his partner, David Rimawi joining the company in 1998—and quickly began a campaign to produce enthusiastic horror movies for the DVD market. The results, as with anything, have been hit or miss in terms of success (both commercial and artistic), but regardless, horror fans have responded with near equal enthusiasm. And the powers-that-be within the Asylum, which include Latt, Sherri Strain, Rick Walker and David Rimawi, have further responded to that response, to the point that they are committed to producing one movie per month. And while that schedule went on hold briefly, to allow for the completion of “War”, the studio is back on track, with future movies coming complete with mummies, werewolves and zombies. Leading to the very favorable comparison amongst fans that The Asylum is on its way to becoming the new millennium’s Corman/AIP studio.
“Certainly the comparison is valid,” Latt says, thoughtfully. “I don’t disagree. We approach every film, I hope, with optimism that it’s going to be a great little film. And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. And now we’re incorporating these tent-pole films like ‘War of the Worlds’ into our own studio, and putting a little bit more TLC into it as far as a little bit more development, a little bit more money, a little bit more everything to it. And hopefully, they’ll all just as satisfying. But even the two-dollar films we make as well could also fit the bill. Maybe people will watch this one and go to rent ‘Bloody Bill’ again. I can only hope that model works for our company as we grow. You know, we get the occasional ‘Hope you die’ letter… but for the most part everyone seems to be enjoying this little experiment from this little studio. But really, it’s hit or miss. Films we felt didn’t work get really good reviews, and vice versa. Things we think are so good—you can’t touch this, they’re so good—have been not as well-received as we would have thought. But for the most part the films have been performing very well. It’s working, whatever it is we’re doing and however we’re destroying the process. It’s working despite ourselves.”
To keep up with this sort of pace, typical Asylum movies are shot within nine days. The entire production from start to finish…over the course of nine very long days. Even the heartiest of director feels the stress from that kind of production.
“We shot principal [on “War”] for fourteen days and we had two days for pick-ups. Well, they were more half-days. I guess, in theory that it was a sixteen-day schedule,” Latt says. “So, for me, this was the longest production I’ve ever had. My approach was very much ‘Heeeyyy! Let’s take it easy, let’s set up the shot.’ I definitely didn’t have the opposite reaction that a lot of directors might have had, which is ‘How the hell do I do this?’ We were doing six-to-ten pages a day, which is practically nothing for one of our shows! I had a lot more of a relaxed attitude towards it because I was actually getting the shots I had boarded on my storyboards. You know? And that was really cool to get that stuff. Could we have shot for another week? Yeah. [Because] we went all over the place. We couldn’t make it look like Southern California, that was the first thing. It all takes place back East. We had some consultants from back East who would tell us, ‘No, this street wouldn’t be there, that wouldn’t be there.’ Okay, so let’s change the angle. Also, to get the devastation, we had to find very specific locations, some of them took us three and four hundred miles outside of Los Angeles as well. Thank God we had a cast and crew who were willing to do it.”
And the commitment was total. By the end of principal photography, coming on the heels of several other productions on which he had served as producer, Latt found himself in need of a long vacation. He had become unfamiliar to his new family. But “War” was still in need of completion, so he settled for a short one. A cruise. And while on that cruise, “War” was still calling him. He found himself approving finished special effects shots in between “relaxing” buffets and the calming waves.
But in the end, was it all worth it? What is Mr. Latt’s opinion of the finished product? “It’s never really finished,” he says. “Someone said that films are abandoned, not finished. On one hand, it was for me very intense, in terms of all the hats I had to put on—like the other movies, but still this was a bigger show in a lot of ways for us. There was a lot more responsibility, and a lot tighter deadlines, and pressure etcetera, etcetera. I’m sure my partners thought that I had wigged out and the pressure had gotten to me. It was still all in fun and getting the finished project to the table on time. But you look at it and say ‘Aw, if I’d just had more time, and added something here, and did this and put a stinger here’… you know? So I look at it and think, ‘Give me another week. A week-and-a-half! Give me another hour. I’ll take an hour. Ten more minutes—it’ll be a better film!’ But you just kinda gotta say okay, we’re done, and move on. And hopefully there’ll be an audience for it. As it is with every film.”
Latt continues, “’War of the Worlds’ took over. We kind of have a mandate to do a movie a month, but War kind of sucked up the budget for those, and took over our focus in general. But once we took the film into post, then we immediately had to start ramping up the schedule again. So, starting right when we were finished, we put “Frankenstein” into pre-production and started putting that together. Since ‘War of the Worlds’ we’ve made ‘The Beast of Bray Road’, and we have a mummy movie called ‘Legion of the Dead’ that’s finishing up post. We’re doing two films back-to-back in a couple of weeks [that are] both very exciting, getting back to more of a template of what makes the Asylum work so well, which is just non-stop action and less character-driven, more monsters. Popcorn films. We’re just plugging away. We’re actually talking about increasing the production schedule to two films a month.”
I think he heard my jaw drop over the phone. Two films per month? Latt confirms that I heard him correctly. One huge one on 35mm, one slightly smaller on HD.
“I think the reason we increased the schedule to two films per month is because if we slowed down and tried to figure out what we were doing, our heads would explode. So we’re just doing it and letting the process take over. It helps that my partners are just so competent in marketing and distribution and sales. It makes the studio run so smoothly in that regard. Yeah, there’s always a market and a home for these projects because our partners make sure of it. I get to spend the money and go and play on the set, and they have to do all the work. Poor them.”
And despite all the never-ending pressure of the multiple productions, and the stress of his first big, personally-directed movie in four years, Latt looks back at the past few months—not to mention the last two decades—and seems quite satisfied with his life.
“You know, I have been directing short films since I was seven years old, so I always knew I wanted to direct. Actually, that started when I was twelve when I found out you got paid for it. I thought that was really cool. We just had our 20th reunion in high school, and nobody there was surprised that I was making movies. What came as a surprise to me is that I run a studio. So it’s a ‘be careful what you wish for’ kind of thing, because I have a lot more responsibility now as a filmmaker. But I find that I actually introduce myself as a filmmaker, rather than as a director, because of all the hats I have to wear day-to-day on production after production.
”But ‘War’ was such a rich experience for me. And I’m so proud of this movie. I really wish I could enter it in some festivals. It’s coming out next month, though, and it’ll be out and on the shelves before any of the next big festivals run. We are doing a theatrical screening, and I can’t wait to see it on the big screen. There are some things in it I wish we could have done differently—as I’ve already said—but at the end of the day, I pretty much got the movie I wanted to make, production-wise. And that’s very exciting.”
Check out the rest of the Asylum slate at their website.