Remakes of much-beloved horror movies from the 80’s are rarely a reason for joyful anticipation. Not so in this case. With „The Gate“ an almost forgotten classic of creature cinema will hit theatres next year in a contemporary and three-dimensional new version that aimes at younger audiences and genre-fans alike. Surprisingly the production takes place in Cologne. Filmmaker Alex Winter was so kind to sit down with us to talk about his love for the original movie, the nature of 3D, a haunted house, kettle drums and why his storyboard artist is almost a phantom.
screen/read: Alex, great thing having you and your movie here in Germany. How did it come about? What brought you to Europe?
Alex Winter: I did a lot of tv commercials for the the UK market and the European market. We shot in Germany, Spain, all over Europe. All over the world actually. South Africa, Morocco, everywhere. I shot some really funny Pringles commercials in Frankfurt as Procter & Gamble have their own sound stages over there. We had a lot of fun. It was CG and live action with dogs doing crazy stuff.
„The Gate“ being centered in Germany is a different story though. My producer Andras Hamori recently made the Stephen Frears movie „Chéri“ here, and he’s done a lot of productions in Europe in general. Some of them with the MMC, our partner here. So there was that relationship but apart from that we are largely a German based production anyway.
There’s outside elements of course. I have a team of special effects people I work with on all of my movies and many of them are coming on board as well, but they`re all working with the German companies. One of our main effects partners for instance is Pixomondo who are based over in Frankurt. They are doing the majority of my character animation. They worked on „2012“ and „Ninja Assassin“, and they`re doing work on „Sucker Punch” now.
So there’s a very big German participation in the movie beyond just showing up and shooting here in Cologne. And there’s investments of course. We´re even getting development funds from the German government.
screen/read: Filmstiftung NRW is involved there.
Alex Winter: Yeah, and we’re really happy about that. I think we’re considered the first 3D-movie that’s being hatched out of Germany. And there’s a lot of enthusiasm for us about this.
But as far as getting press is concerned you’re actually the first interview I’m doing on the whole thing. I’ve just been waiting for us to get further along. We’ve been doing a lot of 3D-effects and a lot of visual effects over the last 2 years to get up to this point. Design work, concept design work, 3D testings, stuff like that. So now we’re really just getting started and doing press work.
screen/read: Will this movie be your first step into 3D or did you work with this technology before?
Alex Winter: I’ve done testings, but apart from that „The Gate“ will be the first long part narrative I’ll be doing in 3D. I do a lot of effects work, I’ve been doing them for many, many, many years since CG really first started. In my movie named „Freaked“ which I made in 1993 I did that with some computer effects, which I used PDI for who went on to do „Shrek“ and all kinds of stuff. In those days they had a room like this big (about 10 square ft). And now they could buy all of us, make us work in the salt mines for them.
So it’s come a long way. But I’ve been involved in effects for about 20 years, so I like working in that medium and 3D for me is really just another aspects of the visual effects. And that is what it is, really.
screen/read: Often 3D gets accused of being nothing but a visual eyewash that is only good for hurling stuff at the audience all the time. How annoying is that, having people from the outside trying to tell you what’s right and what’s wrong?
Alex Winter: Why is anything wrong at all? There’s a lot of ignorance all the way around visual effects. And what happens when people are ignorant of something is, labels get attached, and they just follow them. And there’s two major labels that have been attached to 3D since its recent resurgence that are completely inaccurate. One of them is this notion that things can’t protrude. But they have to, because that`s what makes it 3D. The other is this notion that post-conversion is just bad and you can’t do it. Which makes no sense at all. I had a meeting with someone this morning, who was like: you are not gonna post-convert, are you? Of course we will. It’s a myth that I just constantly have to expose. Everybody post-converts, James Cameron post-converts, you know what I mean?
screen/read: Quite a cliché then.
Alex Winter: It’s just ignorance, but I get it. There’s a lot of crummy 3D, because 3D is a very, very specific and tricky effect. And when you don’t have the conversions right, it hurts your eyes, it makes you sick in your stomach, it’s ugly. So it just takes a lot of work to make it look good. That’s really what it all comes down to. I don’t care if there’s something coming at me, or not, or post-converted or whatever as long as it looks good.
The real problems that the audiences are having with 3D doesn’t work is that audiences are smart, and if the story doesn’t need it, if you´re looking at it and you go, I didn’t need this, I don’t need the glasses, I don’t need this thing to be 3D, then you’re gonna repell against it. It’s as simple as that. You know, it’s not rocket science.
But from the genre, from the tone, from the style, from the audience that we`re going after, our movie is perfectly aimed for 3D and that takes the brakes out of us because it fits the material.
screen/read: Your early storyboards already have basic three-dimensional ideas involved, like creatures bursting out of frames and other stuff. Were going for 3D from the very start?
Alex Winter: Yeah, because it’s totally different then. When Andras, who made the original „Gate“, first approached me about doing the remake the very first thing I said to him was: we have to make this movie in 3D. Because if there´s any movie that is perfect for 3D, with all the bells and whistles that come with 3D, it´s this one. 3D just has this association with driving movies from the 70´s and „The Gate“ is the perfect driving movie. We’re a pulp genre movie at heart. So from the very beginning we wrote the script from the ground up with 3D in mind.
screen/read: Which elements would you say make it so perfect for 3D?
Alex Winter: There’s two things about it that work for 3D. There’s the big grand stuff, like Minions coming out, breaking frames and all that kind of stuff, just like in the storyboards. And then there’s this thing that I haven’t seen a movie in 3D yet, that just uses sort of the environment in a suspenseful way.
screen/read: How are you going to do that?
Alex Winter: The whole movie takes place in a house, and my biggest influence for „The Gate“ is the Robert Wise version of „The Haunting“, being one of my all-time favorites. That one would have made a great 3D movie. Imagine a shot having the camera at the bottom of the stairs with the stairs kind of in-your-face a little and nothing else happening. That would be very scary. And 3D is good for that too. It’s good for environments. Our movie is gonna have quiet moments like that and and then of course it’s gonna have shit flying everywhere as well.
screen/read: Today it is very much a standard to go for franchise options whenever a new movie gets done, especially when aiming at a genre related audience. Are there any plans on your side for trying something like that?
Alex Winter: I think that often times with a story like this which isn’t around a super hero or an iconic central character, the idea of a franchise is really almost an afterthought, if it just breaks out and hits the zeitgeist and really has a major audience response. So if you’re asking, would we turn this into a franchise if it really is a breakout hit? Absolutely.
screen/read: There was actually a sequel to the original, but I think it remained rather unnoticed.
Alex Winter: I`ve never seen it. But you can find a way to extend these things in a way that doesn’t have to ruin them. Take „Poltergeist“, like they ran with that. And I think „Poltergeist 2“ is actually a really cool movie. So if the potential is there, yeah sure, we’d try this. But we certainly haven’t gotten that far and are not looking beyond this movie yet.
Right now we’re really just focused on trying to make the best movie we can. And it`s a very complicated thing to shoot. It’s not just the CG but this whole house that comes almost like a mousetrap. Stuff is going on everywhere and it`s all gonna be done practically. So we have many challenges right in front of us.
screen/read: So the house is a set building all over?
Alex Winter: Yeah. The thing is that our set work is so detailed and high end that it really does look like a house and it also feels that way. However, it does give you the capability to twist things a little bit. When needed, walls can be shifted around in ways to make things odd. The whole finale is like a battle scene for instance. So there´s a lot of physical effects involved in the house. And for 3D it gives me the ability to create the depth that I want, and just to design the house perfectly to work the most effectively in a 3D environment.
screen/read: With CG today there’s so much more you can do than back in the mid-80’s when „The Gate“ was shot. With the current technology given, will you go for rather modest contemporary adaptions of the original creature design or will the overall look be totally different?
Alex Winter: Randall Cook did the effects of the first „Gate“, and he`s a legend. He went on to work on „The Lord of the Ring“ and a bunch of stuff like that. What Randy did with foreground/background miniatures and stop-motion was a type of work you hadn’t seen in a movie since the 40’s or 50’s. And he really brought those effects up to date. Being a young film student back then these amazing innovations impressed me a lot.
But every element of a design gets made because of the parameters of how it’s gonna be done practically. So the Minions for instance in the original „Gate“ are largely designed in order to be made into suits that can be worn by human beings. But today I don’t need to put a guy in a suit anymore, so it doesn’t need to be so anthropomorphic. I can come at the Minions in a completely different way. Which is very liberating.
So with the creature design we’re really kind of taking a step back and make something that I think is specific to our needs and also something that you haven’t seen before. Which is I think very important. Nevertheless it will all be done with very much the spirit of the original in mind.
screen/read: How are you going to approach the Minions then? Will they be CG animations? How many of the effects will be digital anyway?
Alex Winter: The Minions will be a combination of armature puppetery and CG scale models all. And there’s a lot of physical effects. A lot of the stuff that we’re going to see happening to the house, happening to the kids, is gonna be real. It’s good to mix up the effects departments to make it look as real as it can be. We won’t be having actors in front of a green screen. I’m not against it in every movie, I mean, if it’s „Avatar“ then I get it cause a world like Pandora doesn’t exist. It’s all about how you feel whether the characters are really there or not.
screen/read: It’s all a question of balance that will add up to the experience, I guess. Opposed to most of the horror movies today operating a lot with CG, like the current remake of „A Nightmare on Elm Street“. It is just not very scary.
Alex Winter: It’s not scary and there’s a reason for that. I mean, the thing is, when someone scares you, whether in a movie or in real life, your mind will subconsciously always be looking for a way out. And what happens with these CG horror movies is, they give your mind a way out. You’re not scared by what’s happening on the screen, cause your subconscious mind is going: it’s an animation. It’s not real, they’re not really there, that’s not really happening to them. Your brain just shots off, and you have no visceral reactions.
Being scared is like being a rat cornered in a maze. If that rat has got a way out it’s gonna take that way out. So you have to use CG sparingly and it has to look very photo-real, and it has to be organic. And when it isn’t, audiences don’t care. Especially kids. With them, when the effects get too cartoony or artificial, they’re quickly on to the next thing.
screen/read: You’ve worked a lot with kids before and „The Gate“ will not be different there. For a movie like this there are certainly many advantages in doing so.
Alex Winter: There are. The fact is that kids are often better working with effects than grown-ups, because they’re used to imagine things and just play. They´re used to being in their backyard and going like, I’m not really here, this is not really happening. And adults often have a harder time, if they`re in an environment looking at a green ping-pong ball and pretend that it`s a monster chasing them. It takes a little more work for them to figure that out. I love working with kids, and if you get good talent, then they’re just amazing.
But what I also want to do with „The Gate“ is going back to the spirit of some of the movies from my own childhood, without all the guts and gore. Cause our movie is definitely aimed at today’s PG-oriented audience. But it’s gonna have edge on it the way that „Poltergeist“did and even some of the scarier stuff in „The Goonies“ or whatever. The whole notion of this film will be, that all of this could really happen, this could be your house, this could be your family, this could be happening to you right now.
screen/read: To some degree a real home invasion movie.
Alex Winter: Exactly, that’s what it is. I keep telling everybody this is like „The Birds“. These kids are being descended upon by these creatures. But it could be birds, it could be anything.
screen/read: And then it’s also a horror movie that especially aims at a younger audience. That type got quite rare in recent years and there’s a good reason to wonder why.
Alex Winter: I think the reason that I had the confidence to jump into this project is that I’ve got 3 boys. And they love those movies. They watch them and don’t ever get bored of being scared, they love „The Goonies“, they love „Gremlins“, they love „Poltergeist“.
And the industry just hasn’t been serving them that material for a long time. But I think Hollywood is kind of waking up to the fact that you can make those storys. Look what „Coraline“ did, that´s that kind of story. With a kid in a very dark world, very dark things happening to it. And it did really well, kids did really embrace it.
And that is kind of what we’re trying to do with „The Gate“. We’re not gonna have anyone get butchered, it’s not gonna be as gory as the original, but it’s about kids in terror. And it’s an adventure. I think to some degree and on a grander scale „Harry Potter“ has a comparable approach when you wonder like, is this kid gonna get killed? Are his friends gonna be killed? In a way though the stakes are higher than ours. Because this is the kind of adventure movie where in the back of their minds the audience knows none of the major characters is suddenly gonna get whacked. It’s kind of like „The Goonies“. But still we’re totally playing it straight. Cause it’s meant to be thrilling. No-one’s gonna get killed but to some degree they’re put through hell.
screen/read: Just like in a nightmare or a weird dream.
Alex Winter: Yeah, in a way it’s a dream, it’s a fantasia, really. What I like about the original movie is a tonal thing that I really wanna keep, and which I think is very very unique. I always thought „The Gate“ played like a dream. It isn’t suggested, but you look at it and you go like, there’s no real adults around. You don’t see the parents return in the end. And during all the stuff happening in the house, no-one´s really alerting the cops. It toys like the dream of the primary boy and I really took that, changed the story quite a bit, adapted it and modernized it.
I really want to go farther with that, through an emotional level, like what’s going on with Miles (the main character), what´s happening in his life, how does he feel about his family, how does he feel about himself? And then the psychology of that will almost create everything that happens to him and his friends. And it’s almost like this kid’s dream.
screen/read: A scary version of „Where the Wild Things are“ in a way.
Alex Winter: Or „E.T.“ – I don’t wanna give the story away, but it’s about a child that’s going through some hardships and we discover, that Miles is dealing with major loss he has not reconciled himself to. And how that impacts his head and how that brings on this darkness in a way is kind of like a boy’s subconscious dream.
screen/read: The original movie to a certain degree is quite timeless and stays away from too many typical 80’s ingredients. It rather seems to deal with archetypic fears of kids and how they handle them.
Alex Winter: I agree. It’s very primordial about it. I read an interview with Michael Nankin who wrote the original „Gate“ and he said that when he wrote that script he really pulled from a lot of his own fears as a child. And I really think that is what I respond to about this movie too. What I really wanna do embrace with „The Gate“ is going back to my own chíldhood. Going back to my own feelings of like when I was left home alone at a certain age. And what things scared me and how I felt about what might happen to me.
I grew up in a very old house in the mid west, that I was convinced was haunted. Even during the day this house was scary. And I’ve a lot of memories of being in that house really scared and of me and my friends manufacturing fantasies about what had been going on in that house in the past. What do kids of that age think about their fantasies, what about their fears to manifest in the world? I’ll be bringing a lot of that psychology into the movie.
screen/read: And that makes it interesting for grown-ups as well. Elements like the monster under your bed are fears that everyone can relate to. Because you remember them from your own childhood.
Alex Winter: Oh yeah. There’s a special reminiscence effect about it. Reminding you of the world being kind of a rather scary place for you when you’re a kid.
screen/read: Would you say that a horror movie for kids is in a way more universal?
Alex Winter: Very much. Because the fears are more exaggerated. And also kids have more stakes in their mind because they have the real world and they have their imagination. And they´re not in an age yet, where they know rationally that their imagination is impossible. I remember when I was a kid, even as old as 12, I still believed there´s a possibility that the scariest things to me could actually manifest. I hadn´t hit full adolescence yet, where you go like, this can’t be, there´s no boogie man, there can´t be anything under my bed, nothing’s gonna pop out of my closet. As long as kids feel like that, you can make it work in a movie. It doesn’t need to be hyper disturbing. But it can be really fun.
screen/read: But the Demon Lord will appear in your version too, right?
Alex Winter: Possibly (laughs)
screen/read: And scarier than in the original?
Alex Winter: Probably.
screen/read: Isn’t it quite frustrating these days that you put a lot of effort in the design of a creature and then can’t prevent it from being spilled all over the web somehow? Same problem with story elements.
Alex Winter: I think you actually can avoid that. But I also think that frankly it´s a bigger problem for the grown-ups. For this movie we have two core audieces, or even three. We have the kids that we’re going for and they´re not like: Hey, did you see the design of the Demon Lord that I found on some website? And then we have the adults who remember the original and are going to see our version with their kids. So there’s no reason for being worried about them either.
But also there’s the hardcore people more like myself and yourself, who are big fans of genre. Those guys, they´re so sophisticated, they’ve seen stuff that’s really badass, so it´s not gonna ruin the movie for them. They know the Demon Lord is gonna show up, and our designs will be very very cool, but how big a surprise is that really?
Generally, our movie is less about spoilers and surprises than it is about the suspense of being in the theatre and watching. It’s an experiencial movie. „The Gate“ is not the type of movie to deliver some big shock or twist at the end. I think you kind of know what to expect, but the uniqueness of that, and the emotional ride, that is what´s really important. So it´s more about the ride that you take, that it’s a living nightmare and that you really got to take this ride with the main character. So it’s more like a Hitchcock movie and less like „The Sixth Sense“.
screen/read: For a movie with lots of creatures and effects work it’s remarkable that you put the main focus on story and characters, which today is rather an exception.
Alex Winter: I think that storytelling in the industry is catching up now. What happened for the last ten years is that the rendering and the technology got so good and so fast that everyone sort of surrendered to this collective human Wow-factor, where we’re always like: Wow, holy shit, look what we can do! We had this long phase where they just throw the kitchen sink at you. But at some point you go like, Ok, I get it, you can destroy everything, you got the technology, but do you have to?
CG is a tool to be used in the telling of stories. It’s not an end onto itself. It´s like seeing the guy in the symphony. The guy who´s got the big giant kettle drums. For 99% of the piece of music he just stands there. Every once in a while he hits the drum. And it´s got a good effect. The equivalent in CG is the guy banging the thing for two hours without stopping and you get a headache!
„The Gate“ is really about people and environment where some creepy things are going on. Just showing CG characters from beginning to end would be boring.
screen/read: If the kettle drum player in Hitchcock’s „The Man who knew too much“ had behaved like CG gone mad the whole finale wouldn’t have worked.
Alex Winter: (laughs) Yeah, exactly. I think we get used to the technology and things will get more balanced again. That’s when kids will start seeing movies that are not so huge and don’t need to have an airplane being hurled at the screen every five seconds. Because that just loses the thrill after a while.
screen/read: Especially since everyone knows by now how these things are done.
Alex Winter: And that’s good. It helps to de-mystify things. I got into this industry when I was very young and one of the first things I discovered was like, Wow, pretty much anyone could do this. Today I like bringing schools to come see how the effects are done, getting the stuff out into the world. I like to say, let’s show you how we built something, let’s show you how we designed something. It´s really less about spoilers and more about the process. And the people. It´s interesting to see who works on all the different elements of a movie. At least when they’re around. As you know, in modern times you don’t have to be at a certain place to do certain things.
screen/read: Because the ways and devices of communication have changed so profoundly.
Alex Winter: It´s everyday business now. My storyboad artist for instance, Robb Bihun, a very established comic book artist, who I´ve been working with for ten years and who is like my right arm – I know him for over a decade and I´ve actually never met him. That´s the modern times (laughs).
screen/read: Modern times indeed. – So you’re in pre-production right now. Are there any casting decisions yet?
Alex Winter: With kids there’s no bankable movie star that’s 12 years old. So I’m gonna be casting the best possible actors that I can find. And then we’ll see who gets the role of the dad, we might find a cool actor to play the father, but we’re just getting started on casting.
screen/read: When do you think the movie will have its premiere?
Alex Winter: We are hoping to be done somewhere in probably the fall of 2011, about over a year from now. The post-production will be very time-consuming. We just have a lot of effects work to do.
screen/read: I keep my fingers crossed for that. Alex, thanks for taking the time.
Alex Winter: Absolutely.
Alex Winter, born 1965 in London and grown up in Missouri, is an actor, filmmaker, author and producer. His breakthrough was the 1989 time-travelling comedy „Bill & Ted’s excellent Adventure“ where he starred as leading actor alongside Keanu Reeves. As a filmmaker he is well known for having made the sci-fi comedy „Freaked“ (1993) and the Hitchcockian Thriller „Fever“ (1999). Alex is also a successful director of tv commercials for Google, Peugeot and Pringles among others and music videos (e.g. for the Red Hot Chili Peppers). His TV-movie „Ben 10: Alien Swarm“ for Cartoon Network received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Visual Effects shortly after our interview had taken place. „The Gate“ is Alex Winter’s first 3D-production.
Recommended LINKS for further reading:
- Trouper Productions: ALEX WINTER’s Homepage
- ALEX WINTER on Twitter
- THE GATE @ H2 Motion Pictures
- ROBB BIHUN, Storyboard & Comic Artist