Jabbar Raisani – Alien Outpost

February 13, 2015 by  
Filed under Interviews

At the age of 17, Jabbar Raisani had already made up his mind about what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. There was no doubt about it. He wanted to work on the visual effects in big Hollywood movies. It was an ambitious idea, but what 9-year-old kid watched “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” in 1991 and didn’t want to know how the T-1000 shape shifted into liquid metal? Raisani did, but he didn’t just want to know. He wanted to make that same movie magic himself.

During his last two years of high school at Sandra Day O’Connor (his first two were at Marshall High School), Raisani was part of an independent study mentorship program where he was given the opportunity to be a mentee at the San Antonio-based visual effects company GeoMedia. After graduating from O’Connor in 2000, Raisani attended Trinity University and majored in computer science. As an undergraduate, he was hired by San Antonio-based Atomic Pictures, a visual effects and 3D animation company, where he worked until graduating from college in 2004 and moving to Los Angeles to pursue bigger goals in the industry.

Over the last decade, Raisani has made a name for himself at a number of production companies, including the Stan Winston Studio where he worked as the CG supervisor on films such as “Iron Man” and “Fantastic Four.” He later moved back to Texas and teamed up with Robert Rodriguez at his Austin-based Troublemaker Studios where he was the on-set VFX supervisor for two action movies, “Machete” and “Predators.” Three years later, Raisani returned to L.A. where he found himself supervising the digital modeling of Superman’s live-action suit in the 2013 superhero movie “Man of Steel.” That same year, Raisani won an Emmy for his VFX supervision on the hit HBO series “Game of Thrones.”

In his latest venture, Raisani makes his directorial debut with “Alien Outpost,” a sci-fi action film that follows a documentary crew embedded in a military unit during the wake of an alien invasion. Along with his role as director, Raisani also co-wrote the screenplay.

During an interview with me, Raisani discussed the moment he knew he wanted to direct a film, the intimidating interview he had at Stan Winston Studios, and the highlight of his career so far, which involves the wearing of a superhero costume.

“Alien Outpost” makes its San Antonio premiere Friday, February  13 at 8 p.m. at the Alamo Drafthouse Westlakes. Raisani will be in attendance for a Q&A session after the screening.

After working for GeoMedia in high school and Atomic Pictures during college, you moved to Los Angeles right after you graduated from Trinity University in 2004. Was that just the natural next step for someone like you who wanted a career in visual effects?

Yeah, unfortunately there’s not that much film work in Texas, particularly in San Antonio. I was lucky enough to work on “Spy Kids 3” while I was still there in Texas. I really wanted to work on more films, so the best way to do that was to move.

The first job you landed in L.A. was with Stan Winston Studio. How difficult was it to get into a company founded by one of the most iconic special effects and make-up effects people in the business?

It’s really tough. I had a portfolio/demo reel that I got out to companies and was lucky enough to get an interview there. They had the most intimidating conference room I had ever been in. I went in and at the conference room table I was surrounded by all the creatures from every movie they did. They had the queen alien from “Alien,” the dinosaurs from “Jurassic Park,” Edward Scissorhands, the Terminator. All those things were just staring at me during my interview. Luckily, it went well and they brought me on.

I’m assuming Stan Winston was an inspiration for you growing up. Had you seen all the films he had worked on during his 25-year career?

Yeah, I loved everything he did. He made all the movies I loved watching as a kid. It was a dream job for me.

Talk about the work you did at the Stan Winston Studio. What did you do on “Fantastic Four?

I was in charge of the visual effects for Jessica Alba’s character, Sue Storm.

And for “Iron Man?

For “Iron Man,” I supervised the visual sculpt of the suit. I worked on the digital prototypes and printed out visual models. At the time, I don’t think that had been done on any movie before. I even got to put on the Iron Man suit at one point, which was awesome. (Laughs) It’ll probably be the highlight of my career. It’s pretty hard not to look badass in that suit.

Was it exciting to work at a non-Hollywood studio like Robert Rodriguez’s Troublemaker Studios?

Yeah, I mean, I remember seeing the movie “El Mariachi” and thinking, “Holy shit, there is a guy from San Antonio who is making movies!” I remember watching “From Dusk Till Dawn” about a hundred times as a kid. I watched all Robert’s stuff. Austin is a great independent film town. It was fun to work there. If you’re working with Robert at Troublemaker Studios, it’s a big deal.

Is Danny Trejo as big of a teddy bear as everyone says he is?

He’s awesome! I remember the summer we shot “Machete,” there were days that hit over 100 degrees in Austin. Danny would finish up his scene and would walk around passing out water and Gatorade to the crew. (Laughs) I thought, “Who is this guy? He’s the star of the movie and he’s passing out Gatorade!” He was fantastic to work with.

You seem to be on this consistent trajectory in your career. Was directing a film a goal of yours from the very beginning?

Yeah, you know, when I worked on “Iron Man,” I saw how [director] Jon Favreau worked and made a decision then and there that that’s what I wanted to eventually do. I’m just really trying to get onto bigger and better stuff. I’m really looking for bigger budget movies.

What sort of things did you take from the directors you worked with prior to “Alien Outpost” like Favreau, Rodriguez and Zack Snyder? What did you learn from them that you brought into your own film?

You know, one of the things I definitely started appreciating over the years working with these directors is the quality of their work. Being around it for so long, your eye starts to develop and you intrinsically understand what’s good. It all comes down to being smart and learning as much as you can. You have to know what you want when you get on set. You can’t just start shooting something and figure it out as you go along. It’s good to be flexible and not rigid, but you also have to have a sense of what your vision is.

So, tell me what amazing visual effects work you did on “Game of Thrones.” Please tell me you worked on the Red Wedding episode.

(Laughs) You know, I was actually in Morocco during the Red Wedding shooting something else. But there will definitely be some epic sequences coming up in Season 5 that I visual effects supervised and second unit directed on. I can’t say too much about it, but it comes late in the season. I encourage people to watch. They’ll know what the scene is when they see it.

Where did a script like “Alien Outpost” originate from?

My co-writer Blake Clifton and I were working with Robert [Rodriguez] on his films and we sort of figured out how we could break off and do our own thing. Both Blake and I come from a military family. My dad was in the Air Force for 20 years (14 years at Wilford Hall Medical Center) and a lot of Blake’s family was in the Army. While neither of us has served, we both liked the idea of creating a film in the military world. Being the huge sci-fi geeks that we are, we thought, “Well, why don’t we take something military and bring sci-fi elements into it?” That was the initial conversation that sparked “Outpost.” We wrote the script and started shopping it around and now the movie is out in the world.

Besides your father’s background in the military, did you have any other references you turned to for the making of “Alien Outpost?

I spent a lot of time on military bases in Japan and German and Florida and Texas. It was like second nature to me. I also did a lot of research for the film by watching a lot of documentaries and reading a lot of books. I wanted to get my head into what it was like to be a solider; as close as I could without actually experiencing it.

Since you’re coming from a visual effects background, how much does story matter to you? Some people might assume a director like you would put less emphasis on the script and more on what they know best.

First and foremost, Blake and I told each other than sci-fi is cool and fun, but it’s secondary to the story. To me story and character are paramount. The visual effects should serve that story. The movie doesn’t mean anything if you don’t care about the characters and the soldiers. The first thing Blake and I set out to do was to get to know and love the characters. Hopefully by the time all the aliens and the mayhem break loose, you know who the guys are and you care about them as they try to vanquish their enemies.

I’m sure you know who director Gareth Edwards is. He made this very intimate independent sci-fi film called “Monsters” in 2010 that received great reviews, and then all of a sudden he’s directing a big-budget film like “Godzilla” last year and is scheduled to direct one of the new “Star Wars” films. Is that the kind of phone call you want to receive after “Alien Outpost” premieres – a phone call from a studio that just saw your movie and wants to give you a $100 million budget for your next one?

Yeah! I’d love to do something big like that. That’s generally where I’m pushing all my efforts. I think “Outpost” does a great job of saying, “Hey, here’s a guy without a lot of money who can set up a story in an interesting world with characters people care about.”

Which other sci-fi directors do you look up to right now?

There are a lot of guys I look up to and respect. I look up to Christopher Nolan and the work he’s doing with digital effects. There’s Gareth Edwards, obviously. One of the guys I definitely love is Duncan Jones, who is doing the “Warcraft” movie. He’s probably my favorite of those sci-fi guys. I think he’s doing a brilliant job telling stories in a science fiction world and really having them be about people. I’m really excited what he’s going to do with “Warcraft.”

The Oscars are about a week away. Any predictions for Best Visual Effects? I mean, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” has to take it, right?

Yeah, I think so. They are doing stuff that is amazing. Even when I saw the first film (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”), I just kept thinking, “I can’t believe that is not a real creature.” I think they have a good shot to win it.

Michelle Rodriguez – Machete

September 3, 2010 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

It’s been 10 years since actress Michelle Rodriguez broke into the film industry by beating out 350 other young women for the lead role in the independent, award-winning film “Girlfight,” which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2000.

Since that performance, Rodriguez has gone on to earn a number of roles in both independent and mainstream movies including “The Fast and the Furious,” “Blue Crush,” and last year’s history-making blockbuster “Avatar.” She now stars in director Robert Rodriguez’s new exploitation film “Machete.”

In the film, Rodriguez, who is of Puerto Rican and Dominican descent, plays Luz, aka Shé, a taco-truck employee who moonlights as a revolutionary. She helps title character Machete (Danny Trejo) seek revenge on the men who double-cross him and leave him for dead.

What attracted you to the role of Luz other than the fact that she is one of these strong female characters you’re known for playing?

I liked the fact that she’s about the people. There’s just something really beautiful about that – about the idea that you can have somebody that is attracted to innocence and attracted to struggle and peace and justice and will literally dedicate their life to that cause. I admire that in people. I personally feel like there’s a more democratic and efficient way to go about things, but this isn’t reality. (Laughs) This is an exploitation film. I enjoy taking things to an exaggerated fantasy limit.

Speaking of fighting for a cause, you recently joined the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. How did you get involved in that organization and what do you hope to accomplish in a group that is considered by many as very controversial?

I have a love for…anything that can’t defend itself or doesn’t have a voice. I’ve feel an innate connection and empathy towards it ever since I was a little kid. Not to be mushy or anything, but it’s something that rings true with me. I go back to Puerto Rico and I would cry because I would see that they were just destroying all the mountains. I was just always really frustrated at this lack of appreciation for man’s creation over nature. It wasn’t until I shot “Battle in Seattle” where I really started to think that maybe this activism thing isn’t necessarily the way everyone wants to go about it, but they’re doing something about it and I have to respect that. I started getting involved in different organizations and then I landed “Avatar” and [director] James [Cameron] started introducing me to other organizations and people that were seriously involved. There was a whole network. He opened up a gateway. I was like, “OK, this is where I belong. This is where I need to be.” So, I was out at the Cannes Film Festival deejaying some gigs and while I was out there I saw one of the Sea Shepherds. I was partying on a yacht and I saw this Sea Shepherd in Cannes! (Laughs) I was like, “What the hell is a Sea Shepherd doing in Cannes?” I had to go out there and meet him and see what he was all about.

Well, this does sound like a cause that you are definitely willing to fight for, but is it a cause that you’re willing to face danger for? I don’t know if you watch “Whale Wars,” but some members of the Conservation Society were kidnapped during the first season.

What’s that famous scene in “The Lion King?” It goes, “Danger? Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha. I laugh in the face of danger!” I feel like the baby lion. I think they called him Simba.

You’re celebrating your 10-year anniversary as an actress this year. Does it still surprise you when you think back to “Girlfight” a decade ago and realize how far you’ve come?

You know, it doesn’t surprise me because now it feels so right and everything that I’ve gone through and everything that has happened is perfect. Even the hardships and the struggles and all the fights that I’ve had at studios, it’s great to be in a place where you’re like, “Finally, I get it.” I’ve established who I am and it’s just beautiful that I’ve been able to do it and that I’ve had the opportunity to it and that the business has been so open-minded to letting me grown as a person. [When I started] I was a kid, dude. I was 20 years old. I never had money in my life and I get thrust into this game and all of a sudden I’m doing “The Fast and the Furious” and taking mad dough. Next thing you know I’m in Hollywood movies just because Vin Disel liked my character in “Girlfight.” I’m like, “Dude? Do you even know what’s going on?” I’m a girl from Jersey City who knows nothing about cash and nothing about the lifestyle being thrust into it. I had so much education thrust at me so fast, I couldn’t even blink without learning something. It was amazing. I wouldn’t take back a second of it.

Some people are calling Danny Trejo the first big Latino action star…

Wait a minute. I don’t know about all that. People are forgetting Antonio Banderas in “Zorro.” He’s not the first Latin. And you can’t forget “El Chapulin Colorado.” Come on now. You have to give some props where it’s due. Maybe the first Mexican-American superhero. Because Cantinflas, even though he was funny, he was my hero.

Were you able to match Danny’s toughness?

Dude, that guy’s got a heart of gold. All you can do is accent it. It’s like he’s so hardcore but then you look in his eyes and he’s got this pureness about him. You feel like you’re in a good place with Danny…as long as you don’t get on his bad side. That’s one Mexican you don’t want to fuck with.

You’ve done you’re fair share of action movies and have carried a few guns in some of them, but nothing as massive as what you carry in “Machete.” How did making a Robert Rodriguez movie compare to the rest?

I feel like I’ve never really been truly allowed to be sexy before this. I feel like I’ve been able to explore a little bit more of my feminine side.

I guess it’s easier to feel sexy when you have a big gun in your hand.

(Laughs) That and a bra.

Danny Trejo – Machete

September 3, 2010 by  
Filed under Chaléwood, Interviews

Danny Trejo’s never met a movie role he didn’t like. Since breaking into the film industry in 1985, after spending a majority of his adulthood in and out of prison, Trejo’s familiar chiseled-with-a-serrated-edge look has earned him screen time in over 140 movies, including “Bound by Honor,” “Con Air,” and just about every film directed by his cousin Robert Rodriguez. In “Machete,” Trejo, 66, plays the title character, a revenge-seeking, blade-wielding former Mexican Federale with an ax to grind (literally). He spoke to me via phone about starring in the first lead role of his career.

You’ve been in the industry for over 20 years. Did you always think a lead role like this was going to come sooner or later if you were just patient enough?

You know, acting to me is like any other job. It’s like a painter or a plumber. You just keep working. It’s just a job that I love. Everybody’s asking me if I’m just going to take lead roles now. Hell no! Give me a job. Like a housepainter, I’ll paint whatever house you want me to paint.

You must be the hardest working house-painter in the business. Your imdb.com page lists you in 20 movies this year.

(Laughs) Yeah, I’m starting to do everything. I just did a movie in Austin with a young, first-time director. They paid me $100. My son is producing a movie right now called “Skinny Dip.” He better give me a job.

Can you give me an example of a role you might turn down?

If the bad guy wins, I probably wouldn’t do it. They always say, “Oh, you’re always the killer or the robber,” but I always die! Even Al Pacino got killed off in “Scarface.” That’s life.

Yeah, I was a bit disappointed you made an early exit in “Predators.”

(Laughs) Well, they had to kill me off quick because I made everyone else look too soft.

This movie has been a rumor for a long time. How much pestering did it take from you to get Robert to finally do it?

I was calling him every day! There’s a line in the movie that says, “Machete don’t text.” It’s in the movie because Robert kept telling me, “Stop calling me! Just text me! I can’t always answer the phone!” I told him, “Machete don’t text.” So, he put it in the script!

Any dramatic roles in your future?

Well, I did a movie called “Sherrybaby” [in 2006]. But dramatic movies…they bore me, holmes. It’s like, “Wake me up when I gotta be on set!” I love action roles. I love shooting and running over buildings and jumping through windows.

And it’s probably easier to cuddle up with actresses like Jessica Alba and Michelle Rodriguez when you’re playing a badass.

Oh, you watch. The things I do with Jessica in this movie, I’m like, “Thank you, Jesus!” God worked overtime for me on that one.

Machete

September 3, 2010 by  
Filed under Reviews

Starring: Danny Trejo, Michelle Rodriguez, Robert De Niro
Directed by: Robert Rodriguez (“Sin City”) and Ethan Maniquis (debut)
Written by: Robert Rodriguez (“Planet Terror”) and Alvaro Rodriguez (“Shorts”)

Continuing where he left off after teasing audiences with a faux trailer in 2007’s “Grindhouse,” filmmaker Robert Rodriguez (“Sin City”) serves up a dish of entertaining mayhem and timely political satire in the form of “Machete.” It’s a contemporary exploitation flick with all the aesthetics of the hardcore vigilante films of the 70s, but with one discernable difference: This time a Mexican’s in charge.

In “Machete,” veteran actor Danny Trejo (“Con Air”) stars as the title character, a former Mexican Federale out for revenge against the men who set him up during an assassination attempt against racist politician Senator McLaughlin (Robert De Niro). The senator, who spends his free time playing border enforcer and shooting Mexicans who cross into the U.S., is betting that his idea to eradicate all illegal immigrants and erect an electrified border fence will garner enough support to win the upcoming election.

Tied to the senator is Torrez (Steven Segal, who was smart to take this role instead of embarrassing himself in “The Expendables”), a drug cartel kingpin who just happens to be the same man carrying the sword that beheaded Machete’s wife.

On the run, Machete is reeled into “Operation Network,” an underground group of activists fighting for the rights of Mexican immigrants everywhere. Led by a revolutionist known as Shé (an obvious homage to Ché Guevara), “The Network” is a complex system of justice-seekers watching out for their fellow hombres.

Michelle Rodriguez (“Avatar”) plays Luz, a taco-truck owner who may or may not be a major part of “The Network,” but takes care of her own nonetheless. Jessica Alba (“Sin City”) is Sartana, an official with the U.S. Immigration Department who is forced to choose between the law and her empathy for the cause. Precious time is wasted on a topless Lindsay Lohan (“Georgia Rule”) as April, Booth’s meth-head daughter who is on screen long enough for her to flash her breasts and dress like a nun for the final shootout.

Already labeled as a “Mexploitation” film, “Machete” doesn’t disappoint in delivering incredibly campy violence by way of swords, surgical tools, and even a customized weed whacker with a little extra cutting power. No matter what, if any, political stance the film takes, Machete himself is simply a fun character to cheer for despite his lack of real personality.

Nevermind how much disarray immigration reform is across the country, Machete has actually taught us something that can’t be learned from watching Fox News or CNN. He’s taught us about survival. He’s taught us that a man can only be pushed so far before he starts pushing (slicing in this case) back. Most importantly, he’s taught us that whoever coined the first rule of modern warfare – “never bring a knife to a gunfight” – didn’t consider what a vengeful Mexican could actually do with a bad attitude and a blade.