Jesse O’Brien tackles sci-fi on a dime in Coober Pedy-shot debut Arrowhead
Jesse O'Brien and shuttle on-set.
The seeds of Jesse O'Brien's first feature Arrowhead, releasing VOD June 9, were sown when the director was just eighteen.
O'Brien and Arrowhead DoP Samuel Baulch, the filmmaker's best friend since high school, flew together to Grand Rapids, Michigan, where they spent a semester studying film at Compass Academy.
"We flew over there and had the time of our lives making connections", said O'Brien.
"Then a decade later when we made Arrowhead, some of those contacts became producers and flew over and brought their gear because we'd maintained those friendships in the years since".
After Grand Rapids, O'Brien went on to study multimedia at Swinburne, before getting a job at Creswick Creative in South Melbourne.
"They do all the TV spots and ad campaigns for Disney. So I got thrown in the deep end in my first job after uni, learning motion graphics, which is essentially text-flying screens, which is very similar to the very simple visual effects we ended up using in the movie".
The director made a short film, Arrowhead: Signal, in 2012, as a proof-of-concept for a feature.
"Arrowhead: Signal was the result of writing my first feature script and not knowing how to go about producing it, so we made a short version of it. My career started as a motion graphics artist and editor, so I had a couple of tools in my belt that gave me some confidence in writing a sci-fi movie".
The filmmakers then turned to crowdfunding.
"We thought we could make the feature for $40,000, so we put it on Pozible and tried to crowdfund the feature using the short film, and it only raised $21,000 so we didn't get any money", O'Brien said.
"But it did give us a lot of awareness, so all of a sudden websites like Cnet and io9 and Geektyrant started posting about this little Aussie sci-fi movie. And so we learned very quickly that crowdfunding doesn't always work financially but is a great platform for awareness".
"A week after our campaign was unsuccessful, TV1, the Foxtel channel, called up and said they loved the short and wanted to help turn it into a feature. They offered $140,000, because they didn't have much faith we could do it for $40,000".
Another $40,000 came from Gorilla Pictures, the company owned by O'Brien's old pals in Grand Rapids.
"Then we had $180,000 to spend, and that's all we had. To this day that's all we spent".
The director calculates that seventy percent of the crew were his friends.
"They were attracted to the idea of going out into the desert and having an adventure. Then there was a small portion of Americans who were more experienced than the rest of us" (laughs).
"We didn't really know how to go about any of this. We were given this money to make a movie and we just had to go do it. We didn't have a casting director. We just had Google".
The director eventually found his leading man in Dan Mor, whom he describes as "a very different guy from the one we were looking for. Dan often plays bad guys, but we were really impressed by his tape".
The shoot was 22 days, with the first half in Melbourne doing interiors and the last eleven days in Coober Pedy.
"It took sixteen hours to drive up there", O'Brien said.
"We dragged a big spaceship that we'd built up there on a trailer, we put it into an empty field in the desert and just got through it one day at a time. It was really difficult. 42 degrees every day, 12 hour days at least. We had to wear flynets on our heads. The flies were way worse than the heat".
O'Brien singles out for praise gaffer Wilson Huang, who was nineteen years old at the time of the shoot.
"He was the entire lighting department. He lit the whole film with only five lights. It's pretty unheard of to have a sci-fi feature that hinges on its visuals to be shot in such an efficient way. Wilson was a real swiss army knife and was a huge part of why the movie's production value looks a lot higher than it is".
After the shoot, O'Brien and DoP-editor Baulch set about completing the film's extensive VFX.
"We sat there for five months at his house with two computers doing the majority of the visual effects. There were about five shots that we outsourced to professionals but about 300 were done by us".
StudioCanal is releasing Arrowhead June 9 on blu-ray, DVD and VOD.
"We were commissioned as a TV movie so we didn't sign the actors for theatrical rights, so it basically can't be cinema movie", O'Brien said. "But we're fine with that. I just want people to be able to see it".
The director is currently developing two projects: Heir to the Earth, a creature feature set on a tropical island about the last kids in the world that he's aiming to shoot at the end of this year, and Switchblade Electric, a "future crime story".
"It's about a female detective hunting down modified criminals. I'm working on setting it up as an international co-production".
Watch the Arrowhead trailer here.