Because the Future is Fun

Sparks Week: A Conversation with Chris Folino

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Sparks is released today! If you’ve read our review you’ll realise that this is the most exciting new movie that has crept up on us for quite some time, and we plan to celebrate it throughout the week. Our dedication to Sparks is nothing compared to that of Chris Folino however; author of the original graphic novel, and writer/co-director of the movie adaptation, Folino has been living and breathing the world of Ian Sparks for almost a decade now.

“Yeah, we first started work on the comic book back in 2006. That was also around the time that we made our first movie, a comedy called Gamers. It was a lot of fun, and went down well with critics, but it didn’t really go anywhere commercially. Unfortunately the gaming community thought we were being a little too sarcastic, which is pretty much the story of my life!” chuckles the amiable Folino. “At the same time we were working on a new graphic novel project called Mythology Wars, but we were having some challenges getting that off the ground due to creative differences with our artist. I was also working a job with a video game company at the time which wasn’t looking likely to show any advancement, so I hit upon the idea of Sparks – I wanted to tell the story of a superhero who was a regular guy, not a billionaire. I also really liked the idea of contrasting that against the 40s background as that seemed like a comparative age of innocence; we thought that maybe the police would turn a blind eye to these guys putting on costumes and being vigilantes back then.”

Sparks is such an eminently cinematic concept that it seems hard to believe that it was never originally intended for the screen, but Folino is adamant that the project was conceived for the printed page alone. “There was definitely no initial intention of making Sparks a movie but it’s funny, right from the start the comic script was criticised for reading more like a movie screenplay. There are so many references in it to where I grew up though, so many real people’s names, all kinds of references to Gamers – especially the name of the character Jason Driver, who was a superfan that became a friend of mine. I always joked with him that I’d write him a part in my next project. There is a lot of my family history in the book too, like the ‘Rochester 13’ – that’s a reference to how, when my Dad’s family arrived in the States from Italy back in the day, they settled in Rochester. I genuinely thought nobody other than about six people would know about this project.”

That was almost the case with the comic book, thanks to some issues with the circulation. “Sparks was the first ever motion comic on the iPhone, but we had some challenges with the print issues along the way. We got to issue #5 and Diamond [America’s direct market comic book distributor] accidentally left us off the shipping run, which meant readers couldn’t hold of it. That meant we never actually printed issues 5 or 6 as monthly books, but I went back and revisited them for the graphic novel before we started work on the movie to align the story a little more – it’s great to have the opportunity to go back and tighten something up that you’ve been working on for five or six years. There are differences between the book and the movie though, especially the visual style.”

Folino also faced thematic competition from an unexpected source. “The first issue of the original Kick-Ass came out maybe two months before the first issue of Sparks, so it was really interesting to see how they handled a similar concept – a guy with no powers who decided to put on a costume and become a superhero – but spun it off in a completely different direction, with a completely different tone. When the thing with Diamond happened we thought we’d have a go at making a genuine digital comic. We finished two issues and we were totally stoked with the results, but the whole motion comic thing didn’t really catch on. When the idea of making Sparks into a movie was first mooted we were all kinda “hmm, will third time be a charm?” What had happened with Diamond and iOS made us a little cautious. But I was determined that I wasn’t going to sit around for twenty years and wait and see. The motion comic came in real handy for the movie, as they were basically moving storyboards that we could go back and reference.”

Of course, Ian Sparks’ journey to the screen faced a foe even more deadly than any supervillian – financing. “It was entirely self-funded. I remember saying to my wife “I’m gonna go ahead and make this movie. I don’t want to saying to you ten years from now “I wish I had just gone ahead and made that myself, rather than waiting around and hoping someone else would give me money to do it”. I’d rather have a shot at it and live with myself afterward than never try. Fortunately what was going to be this little personal project became much bigger piece by piece, like when Ashley [Bell] came aboard, and when Bill was able to reach out to guys like Jake [Busey] and Clint [Howard] – and even Ashley’s Dad [legendary voiceover artist Michael Bell] got involved, putting us in touch with Clancy Brown. It was terrifying, but exhilarating – like hanging off a building and not knowing where you’d land. Thankfully we had nothing but great people waiting to catch us the whole way.”

“I have to be honest though, it was very challenging financially. We saved up, worked, worked some more, then shot. We sold the movie last year and went back to tweak 55 effects shots – which we asked to do ourselves – and we saw some people made some comments …  all I can say is, hand on heart, we did the absolute best that we could in the schedule that we had. If I had more money what would I have done differently? Well, you know what, I didn’t have more money so it’s a moot point – if anyone really wants to know what we’d do, please go and buy the DVD so we can have the opportunity to make a sequel with bigger budget and more time! I said to Clancy at one stage that I wish I had more money to get a scene exactly how I envisioned it, and he told me that the most important thing on a movie set is to be hungry and to be inventive with what you have. It was so cool to hear that from somebody who had enjoyed as such success in their career as Clancy has, while we were unescapably a low-budget film, he never treated us like that. It was the same with all the guys – Bill, Jake, Clint, Ashley … they were all determined to do their best work. When you’re working with that kind of enthusiasm there’s a certain synergy, and we hope that shows on-screen.”

This all-star cast help to really bring the world of Sparks to life. “We were working with Michael Bell for the motion comic, and he said his daughter Ashley was doing voiceover now. She sent an audition tape and absolutely nailed it. Michael Bell though … talk about working with a legend! You name a piece of voiceover work from your childhood and you can bet he was a part of it. Working with Michael and Bill meant that we could attract the kind of cast a motion comic would never ordinarily get – even Spark’s grandmother was the great Lynn Stuart from Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. So when the time came to make the movie, out of respect to Michael, we showed him the script – immediately Ashley said “I want in”. She had just finished Last Exorcism, it had made $70m, she was about to shoot the sequel – it was a huge deal for us, so we had to take the window of opportunity. It was the same for all the actors really – Maria, who played Dawn, was on the hit show Chicago P.D., Clancy was on a tight timetable, it was a perfect storm of schedules.” Meanwhile, Chase Williamson simply owns the title role. “I was determined to have Ian Sparks played by a young actor – I didn’t want a thirtysomething pretending to be 23. I met Chase and really liked him. I didn’t even have him audition – I just told him if he could lose a little weight for the part it was his. He went out and lost it in like five weeks.”

Filming largely took place on location in LA. “One of our producers found Lacy Street, an amazing studio in LA where they shot Saw II and Cagney and Lacey back in the day. We could only afford 12 days on-set, so we had two crews running concurrently, directed by myself and Todd Burrows, and if any of the actors weren’t in front of the camera they were rehearsing their next scene. Fortunately we’ve worked with our camera crews for years on commercials, producing ads for the Power Rangers and Tinkerbell – they knew how to make things look beautiful, and they did an amazing job of ensuring things looked the same between Unit A and Unit B. One of the movies that had the earliest influences on the graphic novel was The Third Man at one point I was so obsessed that I wanted to relocate the movie to Vienna and shoot in the sewers, as there are no sewers in Los Angeles! People also ask about Sin City and how much influence that was, but honestly, if I could have afforded to shoot the whole movie without any CG I would have.”

The movie certainly wears the influence of Carol Reed’s masterpiece on its sleeve – despite some misleading marketing promoting Sparks as a day-glo superhero romp.  “Once you sell your movie you have no control over the distribution, the box art, anything like that, but I always felt Sparks was basically a film noir with a superhero element – he’s just a regular guy. I love Marvel and they’ve been amazing successful, but they’re never going to really push the darker elements. They can’t kill off one of The Avengers, there’s too much potential for sequels. We get to play around with this world, as audiences don’t know the hero and don’t know how far we can push things, how dark we can go. When we wrote the book the US economy was crumbling, there was a real sense of despair. I had a different ending to Sparks in mind, but it was so dark that it didn’t seem appropriate by the time we made the movie. We’d already put this guy through hell, let’s not make things any worse for him and end his story with a sense of hopefulness! That’s why we thought the story should definitely be set in the 40s, where there was a palpable sense of optimism but a real sense of darkness on the other side of town. The biggest problem Ian Sparks faces, and the thing that really sends him on a downward spiral, is that he couldn’t protect the woman he loved. I think we’ve all been through extreme break-ups in our past, and it’s one of those themes that seemed dark enough for the project – genuinely, what would a guy in his situation do? Spoiler! I also loved the idea of having a shape-shifter for a lover … if she could morph into the woman that you truly love, that’s like the ultimate jack-up.” End Spoiler.

This creative freedom is one advantage of low-budget filmmaking; no studio interference ensured that Sparks unfolds its narrative in a non-linear fashion. “It’s funny, we just had a screening the other day where someone arrived late and stepped out to get some popcorn just before the movie started so he missed the first minute or two. I just sighed and thought “well, he’s screwed!” I always knew this film wouldn’t be for everyone – some people seem to like it, others don’t, but we tried our hardest to tell a fun story.” Evidently Folino was successful – Sparks found a distributor. “We shopped the movie around, and in reality Image Entertainment gave us a very nice offer which was the best on the table at the time. It would have been nice to distribute the film through 20th Century Fox, sure, but they weren’t knocking on the door.”

Alas, the risk-averse nature of modern Hollywood seems to seep all the way down the financial food chain. “We were determined to make Sparks look better than most low-budget films, and after we’d finished filming we talked to a number of people and studios about it. Most people told us we were too ambitious, and should stick to horror or a romantic comedy with our budget. One director actually said to me “you should never have attempted this. You’ll never make it work”. Not many people are prepared to tackle a 1940s superhero piece! At the end of the day you don’t know what you don’t know, and maybe the movie business isn’t as romantic as we would all like to think when we’re younger. I don’t make movies for a living though, so I sure as hell wanted to give it a try and I was determined to take my shot.”

Sparks has also taught Folino a handful of hard lessons about the film industry. “I wish that distribution was a little fairer and less like a used car sales mentality, but hopefully that’ll change in time. People are increasingly aware of how things are, and how deals are made; I used to think making a movie was the hard part, but it’s nothing compared to what comes afterward. Distribution deals are often skewed and don’t benefit the creators, but we learned a lot from this experience and our frustrations. Increasingly people are asking “why the hell would anyone wanna make a movie”? Well, Sparks was personal – we made it for ourselves not a studio, and any further opportunities that come out of it are just the icing on the cake. The fact that it’s being seen in the UK, in Japan, in the Middle East, that’s amazing to us! I hope it connects with an audience and people judge it for what it is, but either way it’s been a dream to get it made. I could tell you thirty stories that could make you laugh and cry – we certainly did on set! – but we made this film because we had a story to tell, and we wanted to get that story out there.”

Amen to that – the world of low-budget cinema could benefit from more storytellers with the drive, vision and deft hand of Christopher Folino. We’re pretty sure this isn’t the last we’ve heard of this unique voice, but that wraps up this particular insight. Sparks Week will continue with some alternative contributors, however – starting tomorrow with Folino’s business partner and all-round genre hero, William Katt.

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