I had a chance to speak with Zach Lipovsky, director of the upcoming film Dead Rising: Watchtower.
Zach Lipovsky began his career in film as a child actor before fostering his talent for VFX and post-production. His journey, split between his native Vancouver and L.A., has led to his current position as director of Dead Rising: Watchtower, to be released March 27th on Crackle by Legendary Pictures.
Lipovsky was first marked out as a talent to watch by his short film, Crazy Late. You can watch it below, but in case you don’t, it follows the harried adventures of a groom late for his own wedding after what appears to be an epic bachelor party. It unfolds over the course of a single, nine and a half minute take. His early interest in the possibilities of computers, and the technical side of movie making, show in the tightly choreographed set of entanglements in the film, which must have been nearly as difficult for the cameraman as for the actor playing the groom.
This attention helped push him onto the reality competition show On The Lot, produced by Steven Spielberg. He made a strong enough showing to gain himself some L.A. representation, and even had one of his shorts chosen as best of the pack by one of the final three competitors. Despite his obvious skills, he was dumped, young and inexperienced, into an industry beset by a writer’s strike and an economic crash.
As many have pointed out, reality shows do very little to provide much of a leg-up in the real world. “It was a huge break that kind of came at the worst possible time,” said Mr. Lipovsky regarding the experience. Despite any difficulties faced in L.A., his IMDB page is as, or more, accomplished than any of the final three contestants on the show. Aside from directing a SyFy Original and rebooting the Leprechaun series for the WWE, he’s handled special effects for nineteen movies featuring his signature of sophisticated and surprising gore effects. Even when a movie as a whole might fare poorly in the eyes of an audience, praise for his effects and his pacing are unanimous.
This grasp of pacing is evident in his previous works. Crazy Late is a masterpiece of pacing, bringing in new visual and story elements at precisely the right moment. Tasmanian Devils crashes forward through commercial breaks in a way that many listless SyFy Originals could stand to learn from. In interviews about Leprechaun: Origins he offers a keen sense of the differences between TV movie and feature pacing, taking full advantage of the chance to draw out the leprechaun’s reveal.
Positive elements aside, one can hardly call Leprechaun’s critical response anything less than savage though. Charges of a cliche story so bog standard that one couldn’t even claim genre as an excuse can clearly be laid at the feet of the WWE and what Lipovsky terms their devotion to their “dedicated fanbase.” And while the WWE certainly knows their fanbase, they are more than occasionally guilty of smothering the personalities at their mercy. Leprechaun clearly suffered from studio interference in the worst way, and perhaps wasn’t served by Lipovsky’s gritty reboot approach that destroyed the humor and magic present in the original movies. Lipovsky had nothing bad to say about working with the WWE, but it’s clear that working with writer Tim Carter and Capcom was a much freer and more creatively fulfilling experience.
This creative fulfilment can be ascribed to two circumstances frequently missing from video game adaptations. First, Dead Rising: Watchtower is canon storytelling that happens between the second and third games. This is no Uwe Boll cash-in or vehicle for Angelina Jolie’s T&A. It’s clear that he was given a chance to make the movie he wanted while working with a group of people happy to welcome him into the universe they’ve been creating for years. Second, as Mr. Lipovsky pointed out, the movie industry often doesn’t understand video games. Video game movies tend to be reboots or vaguely shaped re-imaginings with only a loose connection to the world and gameplay that spawned them. Capcom, based in Vancouver, has been involved and enthusiastic throughout the process of bringing DR:W to life. Having Tim Carter and Capcom working together from the beginning provided the well-integrated story and strong working relationship that allowed him to build the movie he wanted to build.
Tim Carter’s experience writing video games (Sleeping Dogs) and Capcom’s openness clearly fostered a fruitful working environment on all sides of the production. Mr. Lipovsky audibly beams when speaking about the soundtrack, created by the same composer who worked on the video games. He’s clearly excited about it as a musical collection as much as a score for his movie. Sonic atmosphere is as important to making different works feel a part of a cohesive world as visuals or familiar characters. Having the same composer should help reinforce the games and the movie as part of the same narrative universe and invite viewers to feel about the movie the way they felt about the games.
Mr. Lipovsky’s career encompasses both Los Angeles and Vancouver, but it’s clear that he loves working in his hometown, with people he knows and likes, in a city with greater architectural texture than the LA basin can offer. He even stayed with his mom for the filming. “The funny thing was, when I was a child my mum really wouldn’t let me have a console. But then I stayed with her when we were shooting the film and I got to bring an XBOX in and sort of say ‘There’s nothing you can say now, Mom! I can play this as much as I want!’” And what games did he play for hours and hours in his mother’s living room but the ultraviolent zombie games she never let him play as a kid!
In discussing the direction he took with the tone of the movie Mr. Lipovsky references classic adventures like the Indiana Jones movies as well as Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead series. His goal, he said, is to build movies with moments that move you forward in the story–whether these moments are driven by action or character or humor, they drive the action of the film, creating a sense of adventure and possibility.
One thing I’ve been looking forward to happening in this particular universe is seeing some of the over the top combo weapons from the game make it onto the screen. The sledgesaw is featured in the trailer, and I hope for a long sequence of duct tape and hardware store porn in the film. It sounds like I won’t be disappointed. Mr. Lipovsky’s favorite weapon is a pole with a saw on one end and a weed whacker head on the other. He referenced Ash building weapons throughout the Evil Dead series, especially Army Of Darkness, as well as a trip with the production team to a hardware store when discussing the huge weapons sequence. What a hardware store employee thinks of a group of men wandering through the power tools talking about the gore potential of weed whackers is left to our collective imaginations, but “they were probably disappointed we didn’t buy anything.”
Lipovsky’s special effects skills are unlikely to be wasted in any zombie flick. There’s never any shortage of dripping, spewing, drooling blood, but it’s the big, novelty gore moments that stick in our memories, like the head splitting, tongue ripping scene from Zombie Strippers. When I asked him about how he approached these big moments of gore he talked about choosing five or six no rules, over the top moments and making these really pop, including a huge moment ripped from the game where a zombie is raised above the head and chopped in half, discarding gore drenched zombie halves to either side of our hero.
The technical camera and choreography skills on display in Crazy Late won’t be left by the wayside either. There’s a one take, video game-style power fantasy of zombie horde destruction that progresses into a slow, overwhelming pile-up of the undead that mirrors an ill-conceived charge into a horde of game zombies. The horror genre, for me, has always hinged on moments, and this sounds like a moment that will speak to me. We’ll have to wait and see, of course.
The zombie apocalypse is rarely a simple matter of the mindless undead hungering for the flesh of the living though. There’s an element of conspiracy to Dead Rising: Watchtower and an exploration of the marginalization and dehumanization that happens to the victims of a new and frightening plague. In the Dead Rising universe there is a vaccine to keep those who’ve been infected from turning into zombies. “It might keep you human, but it takes your life.” Your friends will abandon you, you’ll lose your job, and eventually be herded into a ghetto of the infected. You might not be a zombie, but you’re also no longer fully human.
We saw this exact thing happen with survivors of the Ebola outbreak. People returned to their homes to find them gutted by neighbors and themselves marked as untouchables. Family and friends refused to interact in any meaningful way. Survivors were completely cut off from the community and the support system they had previously relied on. They might be alive, but they had no way to live. The first wave of HIV/AIDS infected faced similar reactions of fear and alienation: people wouldn’t touch them and were afraid to allow them in the workplace or even to come out in public.
In DR:W, this take on marginalization and dehumanization of the infected is further complicated because these zombies retain shreds of their humanity. When I asked how Mr. Lipovsky approached his zombies I got an answer that I didn’t expect at all. “We tried to treat every zombie as a character zombie. They still have little pieces of the person that they used to be.” Certain pieces of muscle memory make the transition from life, through death, to undeath to resemble some mocking mechanical approximation of a soul. Which is much deeper and more terrifying than pondering whether they’re fast zombies or slow zombies or if they represent some allegorical construct, and I’m frankly that much more excited to see the movie now.
I’d like to thank Mr. Lipovsky for taking the time to speak with me, and I’ll leave you readers with some wisdom Zach Lipovsky had about receiving awards like “Young Canadian Star on the Rise in LA” and “Top 5 to Watch”: “Things like that are really nice to send home to Mom, but I don’t know how much they do to get movies made.” Kudos might look nice on the mantlepiece, but it’s movies that count.