Girls, Massacres, Murder and Tarnation: An Interview with Daniel Armstrong

David Armstrong

An interview with the diabolical Daniel Armstrong by David Black

Daniel Armstrong you are the leader in producing Ozploitation movies today.  You’re best known for Fight Like A Girl and Murderdrome, and more recently the Sheborg Massacre.   In post production, you also have Tarnation.  Can I ask you what possess someone to make such insane movies?  Afterall, many of the earlier Ozploitation movies of the 1980’s, such as Turkey Shoot and Dead End Drive in, had budgets of a few million and barely scraped in 50k at the box office.  It isn’t for the money, is it?

Hahaha thanks for that introduction! DIY film making is definitely not about making money, there is none to be had at this end of the gene pool. Back in the day low budget/guerrilla films had legs on VHS and then DVD. You could reasonably expect to make money back on the right kind of guerrilla flick in the 80s. I can’t tell you how many distributors have told me that 20-30 years ago the films I’ve made could make some money. Actually I can, it’s just one, but the point resonated with me. I’m stuck in the 80s.

Guerrilla film is what people used to call “indie” films by the way, although I prefer the term DIY film myself.

So what motivates me? I guess there are two main things, one is a love and passion for cinematic story telling, and the other is a desire to get better at it. Experience is the best teacher, so to get better at anything I usually just do it, end to end, as many times as possible.

Why “crazy”, “quirky”, or “ozploitation” style subject matter? There are a couple of simple reasons. I’m stuck in the 80s, in particular I’m stuck in the “10 movies for 10 dollars” aisle of the video library. I have a real love for the schlock sci-fi and horror flicks of the 80s. Another reason is market related. Most films are sold on cast. The first question a distributor will ask about your film is “who’s in it?” – that’s the reality. Without celebrities attached you need a sharp angle to get any interest. So I decided that working in a niche telling quirky/crazy/call-it-what-you-will stories in horror and schlock sci-fi genres could help with that.

 

I’d like to cover each of your features in order.  Can you tell us about Fight Like a Girl? 

This was the first feature I attempted. It’s actually called FROM PARTS UNKNOWN and the tagline is FIGHT LIKE A GIRL, but the UK changed the name to FIGHT LIKE A GIRL, in the US and Canada they named it FROM PARTS UNKNOWN FIGHT LIKE A GIRL. So it’s the movie with two titles rolled into one, and no tag line.

This was a really ambitious film, I was attempting to write a character arc for a feature for the first time, I failed to achieve what I envisioned on that count. The positive of the experience however is what I learned about how to approach writing the protagonist’s character arc. That aside I love this film more than any of the others. It was an amazingly positive shoot, and I learnt so much from it, and the end result has plenty to be proud of. It’s certainly imbued with passion and a positive spirit that I think comes through. I also shot way too much coverage, and absolutely fracked up the post production process in so many ways I can’t even contemplate listing them here. We do, and we learn, and we progress from our experience.

 

And now for Murderdrome.  I can see a bit of a theme here in that you go for a lot of female heroines.  Is that why you chose female roller derby?

When I wrote MURDERDROME I wasn’t writing a feature. It was a series of 5 minute episodes I was planning to launch online. I wrote this after FROM PARTS UNKNOWN and didn’t feel ready to attempt another feature. I wanted to write something short and focus on characterisation. So I aimed for an ensemble cast of big, cartoony characters to work with. The objective was to write something brash, feisty, and fast paced with these characters carrying everything.

Putting roller derby in a film had been an idea kicking about in my head for a while. Initially I envisaged them as a gang, like the gangs from THE WARRIORS, roaming around a neon future city with some other themed gangs after them. When I started to focus on actually writing something someone suggested making a slasher. I immediately slammed the two ideas together and came up with MURDERDROME.

Re female protagonists, obviously that comes with roller derby. As an aside I always default to “she” instead of “he” when creating a character, unless there’s a reason for a character to be male.

Oh, on a final note, I shot the film in the episodic format mentioned above. It would have had a total run time of about 45 minutes. It only became a feature after I met with a distributor who assumed I had a feature. I nodded, then went home and added a heap of montages to see if I could get the thing to resemble a feature film. Did it and got away with it, just like OJ.

 

And now my favourite Ozploitation movie of all time – Sheborg Massacre.  It’s way over the top, blood drenched and has my favourite actress, Whitney Duff in it.  Give us all the inside gossip on this one.

To stick with my theme of learning from experience, in writing SHEBORG MASSACRE I wanted to create the sort of protagonist character arc I envisioned for FROM PARTS UNKNOWN and include the brash, feisty and fun characterisations from MURDERDROME in the script. I also wanted to make a schlocko sci-fi with a cyborg.

The first draft was called SHEBORG PRISON MASSACRE. After some effort I failed to find a suitable location to use as a prison. I redrafted and renamed the script SHEBORG PUPPY FARM MASSACRE and set it almost entirely at a puppy farm, because we had access to a suitable location. The “PUPPY FARM MASSACRE” got dropped at some point because it freaked too many people out and it became SHEBORG MASSACRE. In the rest of the world it will be known as SHEBORG, because our sales agent felt that made it, and I quote, “more cool”.

We shot on weekends from July through to October in 2015. From memory we rolled out about 30ish days shooting.  The shoot went pretty smoothly overall, although it was a huge grind and we were all getting burned out towards the end. DIY is hard on the mind, body and emotions – it’s definitely not a game for the feint of heart. We got through all of that and held a premiere at the Lido Cinema in Hawthorn sometime in July 2016, and the film releases on DVD and Bluray across Australia this April through MONSTER PICTURES.

You note that SHEBORG MASSACRE is  “blood drenched” so I will make special mention of our Art Director/Set Builder/Special Effects Engineer/All Rounder Anthony Hatfield who is the man responsible for the blood and the drenching. Knowing I wanted blood spraying I asked Anthony to prepare some means to easily splash blood around that was portable, easy to reset, and had some velocity. He built a device we came to call the “blood flecker”. Essentially a wooden bucket with a power drill driven paddle that blood could be poured into at one end and propelled out the other. Sheer genius.

If I had to point to one thing I did absolutely right in SHEBORG MASSACRE it was casting Whitney Duff and Daisy Masterman in the dual lead roles of Dylan and Eddie. I wrote Eddie with Daisy in mind, she played a small role in MURDERDROME and I felt she was underutilised in that film. We auditioned for Dylan by having applicants read with Daisy. Whitney was the final actor to audition, and she and Daisy seemed to fall in love at first sight. Their chemistry on camera was immediate. No one else who auditioned for us had that immediate repartee, and totally believable sense of comradeship, comfort and fun that Whitney and Daisy had. It’s their performance and relationship on screen that makes the film.

 

Daniel Armstrong, I am going to save Tarnation for last.  I first want to know about two earlier movies that you have on your imdb.  Both are shorts and I haven’t seen them, but after seeing a few of your movies, I am curious.  What can you tell me about Z3d52 and Snake Eyes.

From memory Z3D5 was a photo shoot concept we had planned and for some reason we decided to do it on video instead. It’s a silent zombie apocalypse flick, made probably back in 2006? I was really into zombie movies back then. It also features a beautiful car I owned at that time, a 1975 Triumph Stag, long since written off sad to say.

SNAKE EYES was a short I wrote in order to work with Brendan O’Shea as DOP for the first time – Brendan has since shot MURDERDROME, SHEBORG MASSACRE, TARNATION and a shirt load of music videos with me. It also features Jenna Dwyer (FROM PARTS UNKNOWN), Josh Futcher (also in FROM PARTS UNKNOWN) and TOMMY HELLFIRE (MURDERDROME, SHEBORG MASSACRE). I think it may also have been the first time we shot with a Cannon 5D, back when they first appeared and DIY film makers went all nuts over them.

Is there anywhere we can see these two shorts?

I’m pretty sure they are both on my Youtube page, along with other short films I’ve made or been involved with.

And now for the upcoming movie – Tarnation.  It’s got Satan, demonic unicorns and goo.  At least, so far, that is all I’ve been able to glean from it, aside from the zombie kangaroo and facehugger thingy.  This one has me curious as it looks to be more over the top and crazy than the rest.  Tell us about it.  Now!!!

It was about this time last year we shot TARNATION. So we dove into this one while SHEBORG MASSACRE was still in post production. I had a few objectives in writing it. One was to focus the story on a sole protagonist and move at a slower, more reflective pace than my previous films. SHEBORG MASSACRE hits you like a manic Gorilla throwing neon paint at your face for 90 minutes  – I wanted to have a crack at slowing that down and give the audience more opportunity to get inside the head of the protagonist.

The central conceit is about battling the good and evil within yourself, it’s both literally a figuratively a battle between Heaven and Hell within the psyche of the protagonist. To this end we have included a demon unicorn, zombie kangaroo, a flying, unicorn headed, demon, Satan, a rap battle in Hell, and a bunch of other pretty weird concepts. The conceit is that these beasts and incidents spring from the unconscious mind of someone trapped in Hell, and they are inspired by a fairy tale that’s fallen into a horror movie.

I wrote the part of Oscar (the protagonist) with Daisy in mind. She’s one of the most expressive, and versatile actors I’ve had the pleasure of working with and I was keen to give her the responsibility of carrying a story on her shoulders. I also asked Emma Louise Wilson (who was The Sheborg) to come back in a supporting role and flex her comedic muscles – she didn’t have a great opportunity to do that in SHEBORG MASSACRE so again, I wanted to get the benefit of her doing her thing on screen for TARNATION.

I can’t give much more away about the film at this stage, except to say we’re still in post production and hope to host a premiere in Melbourne around the middle of the year.

And final question Daniel Armstrong,  what are your plans for future movies?  Are you still going to be making Ozploitation movies or are you going to try something different.

We’ll see what comes. More sci fi I would hope but it will depend on the opportunities (mainly financial) that life offers over the coming year.

And here is the part where I chuck in all the relevant links to your sites.

Me Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/StrongManStudio/

 

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About David Black

David Black is an Australian actor, director and writer. He is best known for being the singer and bass player in the horror rock band, Darkness Visible.