The Bridgend animator who gave prehistoric 90s S4C animation Gogs its BAFTA-scooping look has made his latest protagonist, ass-kicking OTT action cop Chuck Steel, into a full-length stop-motion movie. Mike Mort discusses the making of Chuck Steel: Night Of The Trampires with Carl Marsh.
The original idea for Chuck Steel? It goes right back! He’s a character I came up with aged 15 in school. I used to draw him in my English books. I made a couple of short films with that character, experimenting with automation in college in Newport – 16-year-old Super 8 films. Then I left college and studied, went into the industry, did Gogs and things like that. A bunch of commercials. But in about 2010 my commercial career started to just disappear – directing commercials is a short-lived thing. They always want the new guys coming up.
I thought I’d have one more go at getting Chuck off the ground as a proper thing and do a short film in my basement – people like Seth MacFarlane have done it. I built these models from the armatures I already had and did all the voices – I didn’t have any funding when it started, or any partners. It turned out OK – and then I got introduced to my business partner in Animortal Studio, Rupert, who invests in a lot of businesses and is a big animation fan. And he loved Chuck – so I lucked out meeting him. He founded this company for the short film, which took us 18 months to shoot in my basement with a crew of about six people, and that played a bunch of festivals.
Because it turned out well, I wanted to go straight into making a film – I’d written a script for a feature film back in 2001! I think we set up the studio in 2014, and while we were shooting it Trump became president… there was something changing, something happening. And I was like, how is this film going to be received? It’s such a long process making stop-motion, and it’s not like you can suddenly change direction when you’re doing it: you can’t reshoot scenes very easily.
So we carried on, and I’m glad we did – I’m proud of the film. In 2018 we took it around festivals for six months and it did really well. Some people don’t like it: we started to see an 80/20 split on people who love it or hate it. When they don’t like it they really don’t – but people need to be not scared of saying what they think.
I made the film I wanted to make and I had no creative interference whatsoever. So if it succeeds, great; if it doesn’t it’s my fault. Even though it wasn’t cheap to make, we didn’t have a normal movie budget – nowhere near. At the start, we discussed getting some famous people in to do the voices, and we were like, well, what’s it going to cost because all the money’s got to go on the screen. In order to get a proper big star involved, you’re talking $3 million – we haven’t got that money. I said that if we change Chuck to someone like that we’d have to change Jack too – you can’t leave me in that as a Welsh guy doing an American accent against a proper American actor! So I would love to have had Sylvester Stallone and Carl Weathers, but it just didn’t come together in the end.
We tried to keep the production values really high on it: I wanted it to feel like a big feature film, and we achieved that goal. But the entire budget, all the money we had, is on the screen. It’s not the sort of film that anyone got rich off. We were there for four years slogging and struggling through.
There was a bit in the middle where the financing looked a bit shaky. We lost half the crew and then people were leaving to go on to Aardman movies and Wes Anderson stop-motion. We were always struggling to retain people. I’m quite hands-on with stuff anyway – I do a lot of sculpting the models and things, so that was useful. I’ve always done my own camera stuff, and to step away from it all and be in an office approving things were just not going to work. I was on the floor every day, setting up shots with the team. But we had about 300 people at maximum, then were down to more like 90 for the smaller period, and then it sort of trickled off as we finished it, which was in 2018. Well, I say that, but I was never happy with the initial sound mix, so we’ve been rescuing that over time.
Over that period of time, after the festival run, we were also talking to big studios in America: there was a potential big-name coming on board to revoice the intro. Each one of these potential deals to sell it to a studio would take at least six months to go nowhere. People ask us, why isn’t the film released yet? Because we’ve been dealing with the industry, trying to sell a film these studios like, but they’re all scared of the humour, and eventually back out of it. We were told by one big studio who were really keen on it, “oh sorry, we can’t have white cop heroes anymore because of the George Floyd [killing].”
We reached the point where we went, right we’re just going to release it ourselves. We showed it to the four cinema chains – obviously, we spoke to smaller distributors as well, but the problem with smaller distributors is they’ve got no money, and you have to just hope you get your money back, which my backers can’t risk – and they all loved it and agreed to book it in a number of cinemas.
At least people can go and see it. Hopefully, they find it funny. I’m sure some people will be upset by some jokes. Times change and social media have changed a lot of things. And people have gone a bit mad. But this film is, to me, a bit of fun – 86 minutes of lunacy. But there was a point where I was thinking, have I made something offensive – is that what I’ve done? Some people look at the film and think Chuck’s a Republican, on the right. I’ve never attached anything like that to it; he’s a character who’s, you know, just insane.
When I first wrote the script, the psychologist [Dr Alex Cular, voiced by Jennifer Saunders] wasn’t a woman, it was a man. I talked to a colleague at the film agency who said, well you need a strong female character. This introduced a whole battle-of-the-sexes element: she’s very feminist, and trying to emasculate the police – there’s pushback, a clash. If I left that character as a man, it wouldn’t have stood out as much, so I’m glad we did that.
Chuck Steel: Night Of The Trampires is out now in cinemas. Info: www.chucksteelthemovie.co.uk
words MIKE MORT in conversation with CARL MARSH
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