Director Stephen Amis on making The 25th Reich and The BBQ

Melbourne director Stephen Amis has been making movies since he was a child. He went to film school on the strength of his Super 8 movies and one of his first features was paid by credit card. His low-budget sci-fi/war genre movie The 25th Reich (2012) is an instant classic which features time travel and Nazi robot spiders – all out in the bush. More recently, his film The BBQ (2018), was savaged by Aussie critics. Amis, who is fond of hoaxes, tells us the story behind The 25th Reich, as well as The BBQ. His new film is an award-winning documentary about the evils of Japanese whalers.

The 25th Reich (2013) trailer

The 25th Reich is based on a novella by J.J. Solomon. Who is J.J. Solomon and Why is he Saying those Terrible Things about Me?

The 25th Reich was made as though it were a real, long forgotten, out of the vault, 1950s WW2, sci-fi B-movie. A celebration of all that was good and bad with those genres. Likewise, J.J. Solomon is a fiction. His history and influence totally fabricated. I still get a kick out of reading a review or article somewhere in the world that starts off by saying, “based on the classic novella 50,000 Years Until Tomorrow by J.J. Solomon.” I think that’s hilarious. It’s part of the dark humour of the movie.

Amis at work

You’re fond of hoaxes.

I’m a huge fan of Edgar Allan Poe. Not many people know he wrote the first proto science fiction story, The Unparalleled Adventures of Hans Phall – originally a newspaper hoax story about a man who sails to the moon in a balloon. Verne and Welles were huge admirers of Poe and this story in particular, and you see it in the work they subsequently produced… of course, Orson Welles did a similar thing with War of the Worlds. I liked the idea of a hoax and tried to pull that off on more of a global level. I also riffed off the old Cinerama film format (Cinerama was shot with 3 cameras and projected side by side to create a super wide screen presentation). So I created Megarama for The 25th Reich, which was supposedly shot with 4 cameras. We ‘leaked’ the idea that the movie had been attempted previously in the 1960’s by Vincente Minnelli, but when he had asked Fox to shoot in 3D Megarama that amounted to 8 cameras, he was fired from the project! 

This is Cinerama (1952) trailer

Your film See Jack Run is based on Gillian M Wadds’ play Who Cares? The IMDb and Wikipedia list it. What can you tell me?

See Jack Run was a 1980s Melbourne play about a boy who is illiterate and reenrols himself into school where an English teacher takes him under her wing. I had just graduated from film school, figured no one would give me a directing job, and so I bought the rights to the play, gathered my fellow ex-students and together made what is considered Australia’s first credit card feature. The Nine Network ended up buying the film for twice the budget.

I read your 1997 Cinema Papers interview. A lot has changed in the business since The Alive Tribe. As a Lions supporter I’d like to see it… The cost for a print blown up to 35mm was astounding…

The Alive Tribe

I love film, I grew up with it and shot with it extensively. But I’m not wedded to it like other filmmakers or cinematographers. Digital is so much more efficient and technically ticks all that same boxes. I wouldn’t go back to film. Some filmmakers have, but they’re usually helming multimillion dollar productions whose budgets can afford it – and even those films generally end up becoming digital intermediates. So it all ends up binary anyway.

What inspired you and Serge de Nardo to write the script for The 25th Reich? And what came first the chicken or the egg? The ideas for the special effects, or the story itself? You and Serge must share a love for the war/sci-fi genres…

The 25th Reich poster

I’ll usually come up with a concept, then get David Richardson in to “spit-ball” the project with me. David and I are very much from the same planet and he understands genre intimately. For the 25th Reich, I wrote the outline with David then brought Angelo Salamanca and Serge DeNardo in to also cowrite the script. I loved the idea of creating a writers’ room, where hundreds of ideas can fly back and forth and anything is possible… I also like the idea of the writers having dual roles – in this case David also shot the film, while Serge and Angelo acted in it. In terms of inspiration, some of it was based on my time travel super 8 film, Burning Daylight. That film won every major super-8 contest back in the day and was the film that got me into film school. With The 25th Reich I was reaching for something… I’m not sure exactly what, but it went beyond parody and pastiche to try and create something new. I’m not sure how successful that was, but at least we had ambition.

Time travel movies tend to be ingenious, which yours is…

Thank you. It was a low budget film. But ideas are cheap, right? You just need the right chutzpah and experience to translate those ideas to the screen. And that’s a challenge when you’re on a low budget.

Serge does a good Fuller in The 25th Reich. I watched The Crimson Kimono the other week. As a teenager it was The Big Red One on VHS that first impressed and affected me…

We watched and mined all those films. Serge’s gravel voice comes from George C. Scott in Patton. There’s hundreds of little pieces of dialogue and ideas in The Reich that we dug out of 1950s B-movies. Sam Fuller films were also a big inspiration – likewise Sam Peckinpah.

George C. Scott in Patton (1970) trailer

As a kid playing war, were you the German or the Yank? Many of the kids today don’t even know who Adolf Hitler is, but it was integral folklore as we grew up… And who was your target audience?

I never really played war as a kid. I was always the observer with a camera. I started making films when I was ten, so I usually scripted and staged war scenes for my friends to act out while I filmed them. Typically, they’d be little super-8 sci-fi battles. I’d make all the costumes and props and robots, and shoot these little films down near the river where we lived. Fireworks were legal in those days so I loaded every film with pyrotechnics. I used crude foreground miniatures, puppetry, armature stop-motion and cell drawings to stitch it all together. In terms of the audience for The 25th Reich, in the first instance I made it for myself, knowing that there would be an audience out there of film geeks who loved the same movies as I did.

What was the budget for The 25th Reich? Was it easy to raise the money? And did you see a return? I don’t really need to guess everyone got paid up front this time…

The 25th Reich was made for around 500k. That adds up to a lot of deferments and reinvestments. At the time, there wasn’t really any other way to do it. Genre films are seen by distributors as being soft in Australia, certainly the funding bodies (at the time) weren’t supportive of those kinds of films. And in Australia, more often than not, genre is generally half embraced. So, I figured if we were going to make it, then I’d do it with complete autonomy and go all the way with any crazy idea or plot device we could conceive.

Director Sam Peckinpah

Jim Knobeloch is perfect as the “leading man”. He had a bit in The BBQ. How did he end up in Melbourne and how did you get acquainted?

Jim Knobeloch

We drew from Errol Flynn and Lee Marvin for the central character of Kindermann, and Jim managed to pull that role off with amazing enthusiasm and intent – walking a fine line between parody and keeping the whole thing real… Jim’s a sensational actor with an amazing career that stretches all the way back to Heaven’s Gate.  I specifically wrote the role of Texas Jim in THE BBQ for him.

Donald O’Brien/Brian is a well-known actor who appears in a lot of spaghetti movies, including Zombie Holocaust and many westerns. A homage? Kinderman too. The Exorcist?

Nietzsche’s seminal book

The name Kindermann was riffed from Nietzsche’s Also sprach Zarathustra. The idea being that Kinderman starts off as a child – and then transforms through the film into a superman of sorts who is channelling the E.T.s from the crashed spacecraft. Kinderman becomes a sort of God.

I don’t mean to sound inappropriate, but not John Garfield?! Why?!

He had the right initials! 🙂

Garfield ‘Hello Sailor…’

One of the strengths of the film is to have a gay character who is one of the guys… it doesn’t seem to matter after all they’ve gone through in the end… Don’t ask, don’t tell?

O’Brian represents everything Weaver hates. The 25th Reich explores in subtext out of control ideology, seen through the lens of the Nazi regime, homophobia and xenophobia. But the film also takes a massive swipe at American ideological imperialism.

I could go into the symbolism of Ouroboros in alchemy and Jungian individuation both in terms of the robot spiders and O’Brien/Kinderman’s character… he’s pretty ballsy and has it all together for “a Jew faggot”…

We had a lot of fun with Jung, Nietzsche and Freud throughout the film. The Ouroboros also works as a metaphor for out of control ideology – which always devours itself.

The effects are cheap, and I don’t mean nasty, in fact they’re very effective, except maybe for the cats… Are Nik Doring and Sheldon Whittaker friends or part of a core group which made The 25th Reich? Was it just a matter of buying the software? Forgive my ignorance.

As an ‘out of the vault’ movie, the effects were meant to look artful yet ancient. Originally, I wanted them to look like a Ray Harryhausen stop motion, but for various reasons I wasn’t able to effectively pull that off. Sheldon Whittaker was our VFX supervisor and produced the VFX to my animatics. Years before I had shot Australia’s first moving camera CGI in “Oz Encounters, UFOs in Australia” so I had a good understanding of the visual effects process and pipeline. I’d come to the conclusion VFX had fallen to a domestic level and that it was more about finding the right people to put in front of the relatively cheap computers. So we setup 8 small teams around the world and we worked around the clock for 18 months to accomplish 360 visual effects. I bought 20 computers and we linked them together to make a render farm – which kind of looked like a fridge on steroids. We set the farm up at one of the actor’s houses in Sydney – it chugged away 24 hours a day for 12 months – with Sheldon logging in and uploading remotely… The ‘fridge’ burned so hot it kept the actor’s house warm over winter. A good thing as they were working on deferment.

Ray Harryhausen’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad (1958) trailer

Where was The 25th Reich filmed? And how long was the shoot?

It was a 5 week shoot with a crew of about 30. Because it was ambitious on a tiny budget, I built in a small hiatus over Christmas so we could regroup and have a second pre-production of sorts. Later we had an additional 2 weeks of visual effects pickups using a crew of three who were shooting background plates, etc. We shot the bulk of the film just out of Melbourne at a 100-acre rural property that had some extremely unique geographical features, then I shot the wider, more epic shots at the Grampian ranges 4 hours out of Melbourne.

And Ricky Edwards’ music is epic. That was obviously part of the big picture in your head…

Composer Ricky Edwards

Music is an important driver in all my films and one of my great loves. We were so poor when I was young that I could really only see a film once. I’d then save up to buy the soundtrack where I could relive the film on a daily basis. I ended up with a massive soundtrack collection. Ricky and I had a real meeting of the minds. He was an extraordinary world class composer and orchestrator and he just breathed energy into the 25th Reich and made it come alive. We riffed a little off Bernard Hermann and John Williams and of course drew from the Theremin driven scores of the 1950s. Ricky’s last score before he passed away was the equally ambitious, THE BBQ.

Whose idea was the Nazi robot spider? It’s a great sequence! Along with the insects! Fancy getting buggered by that thing! It adds a new dimension to the horrors of war, the entire movie does…

The Spiders originally were flying spider drones (to make it easy on the VFX team)… kind of like the advanced communication robot seen at the start of the Empire Strikes Back. It soon became clear though that we could in fact put ‘feet to the earth’ in a convincing way, although 8 legs were deemed too difficult to animate and we’d have to cut them down to 6.

Nazi robot spider

The Spiders were also a great symbol of the Reich and a nice representation of our themes. The mosquitoes were of course depicted as megafauna and were meant to be an Australian themed joke on our relationship with mozzies. Screen Australia tried hard to have me cut the Spider/GI rape scene out of the film. Rape they said is not funny. And of course it’s not funny. But they missed the metaphor about how ideology rapes its victims, and of course this became our water cooler scene and the most talked about scene in the entire movie.

Iron Sky (2012), Nazis at the Centre of the Earth (2012) and The 25th Reich all got released around the same time. Pure coincidence? Yours may have been in production longest… Did Dead Snow (2009) trigger all this?

We were planning The 25th Reich before all the above-mentioned films. I think it was just a case of the idea being out there in the zeitgeist and the collective unconscious. Genre films in particular are incredible little sociological time capsules… it’s no coincidence these Nazi themed films emerged from the neo-conservative George W. Bush era where America was (and still is) warring with so many nations. This is one of the reasons why genre films are potent little snap shots of history. A great example of this is the UFO themed films of the fifties that represented fears of the cold war.

Nazis at the Center of the Earth (2012) trailer

The 25th Reich is an instant classic and I knew it the first time I saw it. But I didn’t even know about it until I stumbled across a second hand DVD.  Was it direct to DVD? Then having seen it, I thought this guy’s destined for Hollywood… What was the aftermath? Any nibbles?

We had a small theatrical release, but it wasn’t huge. At that time the bottom had fallen out of the Australian feature film industry. There were other major Aussie films at the time that were struggling to find a handful of cinemas (EG the remake of Patrick). It didn’t help that The 25th Reich was seen as a weird little duck. Some people were expecting a James Cameron film, and that was exactly what it was not. My experience on The 25th Reich led me to partner with one of Australia’s top distributor’s, Tait Brady, and together we established a new distribution company, LABEL. Label now releases all my films, including THE BBQ and my upcoming Dan Aykroyd narrated documentary DEFEND CONSERVE PROTECT.

In terms of Hollywood calling… I really have never had a compulsion to go there. I’m not that competitive either. I can write, finance, produce and distribute my own films… so a great part of me is very happy here making my little boutique genre movies.

Patrick (2013) remake trailer

The opening credits, as they end, go into hyper-drive like in Star Wars. And at the beginning of the end credits we have the Dr Who credit sequence effect also used during the film. You loved making this movie! …

Saul Bass credits

We riffed off the old classic Saul Bass style credit sequences – EG – Vertigo. Our opening and closing titles were extremely fun to make but also incredibly complicated and time consuming – there was a lot of screen time. If you look closely at that sequence, you’ll even find Sputnik and the Jupiter Two in there. It took over a year to animate the credits and they were running concurrent to our visual effects. The final hyperspace jump, and in fact my directing credit, was jokingly riffed off those 1950s Anthony Mann films, etc, where the director’s credit is embarrassingly emblazoned across the screen… In fact, I had to reduce my credit size as it looked more egotistical than being a joke to that era of filmmaking.

The BBQ. The backlash from the arsehole critics was abhorrent and I hadn’t even seen the picture and got the feeling it was one to avoid. At best the critics said its heart’s in the right place, I’m guilty of that too. But having watched it a few times now, it gets better with each viewing. Did you enjoy making this one as much as The 25th Reich?

THE BBQ was a completely different beast. I have to say, I’m complexly flummoxed by some critic’s responses. We had the best Australian comedic talent lining up to be in it, and it polled super well with our test audiences. So, we were really confident going into a 300+ cinemas release. I’d made the film squarely for middle Australia and called it a ‘mid-brow’ film… not low or high but mid-brow! It was fairly well made, good acting, and was not a comedy as much as a really lovely feel good family movie.

But we make so few films in this country that upon release it just had so much heat and attention on it – with some people expecting Shakespeare! It was all quite insane. As it ended up, audiences loved the film, and at this point, 18 months after release, it’s made its entire production budget back, along with recouping its entire P&A spend – which is practically unheard of in Australian cinema. But there’s more to the story too… we had one mainstream reviewer, who I won’t name, call us up and say he didn’t want to come to the press screening, he wanted us to book him a private cinema, so he can review our film. When our publicists declined, he flew into a rage and the result was his extremely unkind review. So sometimes these things can be quite political. I recently returned from setting up a project in the U.S., and they were very aware of just how toxic some elements of the Australian media can be.

The BBQ (2017) trailer

I couldn’t believe the critics who said the production was threadbare. I didn’t think that at all. What was the budget and how does it compare to the average Aussie feature?

I think there’s a deeper agenda going on in Australia. We don’t have a theatrical quota system here, as they do in other countries, and consequently we are at the mercy of the flood of American content which rely heavily on glowing Australian reviews. In fact, most American films now need to recoup more from international sales rather than domestic sales… so having a U.S. studio picture recoup in Australia is vitally important to them. There’s some mainstream Australian critics who consistently dismiss Australian films while applauding really bad American movies… and so, without being conspiratorial, I’m led to the conclusion that there’s some weird kickback going on.

The BBQ poster

Will you ever do another feature after that experience?

I seriously thought about bowing out. But I’ve been doing this obsessively since I was ten years old, and next to my daughter, filmmaking is the great love of my life. Film is beauty and truth. It’s like mathematics – it gives us a fundamental understanding about our place into the world.

The BBQ is about the importance of family, where you stand in your family and knowing its history… It has a number of cooks in terms of writers and Serge is there… Again what was the inspiration? Or am I asking the obvious?

THE BBQ is about the importance of community and family, and is based on my brother-in-law, the real ‘Dazza’ and my early suburban family life. Again, I ran a writer’s room to develop the project. Some critics shamed the movie for having too many writers… but this is Australia… it’s practically a cottage industry here in terms of feature filmmaking – I wouldn’t even call it an ‘industry’ as such. Consequently, all us writers worked on spec on the script, and when someone was working on another paid gig, I’d bring in another writer to keep THE BBQ moving along. Thankfully we all got paid when production came around – but truthfully, if we didn’t have so many writers willing to come aboard, then the film would never have been made. Also, in the U.S. many films have the same number of writers and script doctors – it’s just that they don’t credit them, whereas I do.

The Aussie BBQ song should be a national anthem, everyone around the barbie no matter who you are… When was that written?

It was written by Shane Jacobson during production. I suggested we do a song and Shane ran with that idea and wrote and composed it during breaks in production. He did an excellent job. It’s such a catchy, irresistible song.

In 20 years you are going to be asked to do a commentary for the 25th anniversary of The 25th Reich. Surely you’ll do a proud Scorsese?

Blu-ray cover

Hah, I’m not sure about that! I made a commentary for the Blu-ray release, with all us writers… but I ended up leaving it off the DVD. I felt it didn’t align with the whole J.J. Solomon hoax idea.

Your new project is a documentary about saving the Minke whales. Wayne Groom told me recently he was having difficulties getting his docos mainstream distribution here… What’s the reaction been so far?

We just won top prize at the American Documentary Film Festival, the largest documentary film festival in North America. We’re releasing the movie in June across Australia via Label. We’ve been getting some really wonderful feedback as the film plays almost like a cat and mouse thriller… It’s a really important film about a group of young people going out into the world to make fundamental environmental change… who knows, dare I say it might even be critic proof!

DEFEND CONSERVE PROTECT (2019) trailer

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