Visiting The House Of The Dead

An interview with producer Mark A. Altman

On Wednesday of this week, the long announced film version of The House of the Dead began shooting in Vancouver. Directed by German filmmaker Uwe Boll, and based, of course, on the popular series of videogames from Sega, stars a cast of relative unknowns alongside genre favorites Clint Howard and Jurgen Prochnow.

In conjunction with principal photography, the website launched this week, as well. Buried amidst the film information is a zombie shooter game. Consider it a primer for the real thing. The videogame, I mean, not actually shooting zombies. They’re not real, right? Right?

When the project was first announced a year and a half ago, I called producer/writer Mark A. Altman to get his take on this project so near and dear to his heart. The interview originally ran on the late Daily Radar, and, obviously, some things have changed in the interim. According to information sent to our office by Mindfire Entertainment, the film now “tells the story of a band of college students that arrive on a mysterious island for a rave and must confront horrifying zombies and terrifying creatures intent on feasting on the flesh of the living.” (I hate it when that happens.) And, obviously, the film version of Resident Evil has come and gone.

Still, Mark offers some interesting insight into the thinking behind adapting a videogame to the big screen, and just makes a good interview:

Fanboy Planet: Who approached who on this project?

Mark Altman: It was a little over a year ago, when we wanted to do some genre projects. We were approached by another individual, Dan Kletzky (president of Entertainment Licensing Associates), who was a big fan of what we were doing at Mindfire and had this idea about doing movies based on videogames and comic books. He really convinced us that there was a certain brand awareness to certain videogames.

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My first thing was cynicism, saying yeah, but the track record for videogame movies is so bad in terms of quality. If we’re going to do this we’re going to have to take a different approach. Have a little more faithfulness to the games and also really raise the bar for this kind of stuff because so much of it is crap.

But I definitely was aware of the fact that if you could really capture the magic of a popular videogame, then you’d have something because there was clearly an audience. We (Mindfire Entertainment) started off with low budget, quirky and interesting movies, but you’d have a tough time in the marketplace. Not to bore you, but the marketplace for independent films is really changing. Unless you have a huge star, or you win Sundance, the market is eroding for these smaller quirky interesting independent films.

The idea for us was to expand into something like what Dimension is to Miramax, have a genre division. Of course, that appealed to me in particular being a sci-fi and horror movie fan and my history with Sci Fi Universe and everything else.

One of the first titles we knew we were interested in, because I’m such a big fan of it, was The House Of The Dead. What I liked about it is that people my age, in their late twenties, love that game. Even if you don’t have a Dreamcast, it’s the one game that you’ll go to the arcade and end up spending hundreds and hundreds of quarters playing. You can’t stop. There’s awareness beyond the die-hard videogame people.

FB: This was the game that sparked controversy in America a few months ago, right? Because the Dreamcast version was supposed to have a gun? It’s a first-person shooter?

MA: My first comment would be, you know, you’re killing zombies. Get over it. Everybody’s focusing on this violence in the media thing, and you know what? This is not a movie for eight-year-olds.

FB: And you promise not to market it to eight-year-olds.

MA: Yeah. To people like me, and people who are die-hard horror fans, it’s just ridiculous. I think that Vince McMahon had the greatest comment last week, really taking Hollywood to task. He said, “Stand up to this hypocrisy. Defend this thing.” This kind of violence existed a hundred years ago, before there was TV and before there were movies. It existed a thousand years ago.

There’s a wonderful documentary called Wisconsin Death Trip and it shows the counterpoint between Black River Falls, Wisconsin in the 1800’s and now. It shows the same kind of things – people killing themselves, people getting shot, eight-year-olds rampaging and killing people with guns, and you know what? They weren’t watching television. They weren’t playing videogames.

The fact of the matter is that it all comes down to the way people are raised and the values they are raised with, the love they get from their parents and the concern they get from their parents. This really has nothing to do with The House Of The Dead, but it’s an issue that gets me really crazy.

FB: It gets us crazy, too.

MA: Well, obviously, because a lot of your readers are videogame fans. There’s nothing wrong with it. There’s another school of thought that this kind of thing is cathartic, that when you’re killing people in videogames you’re relieving stress and anxiety that you would have. Under other circumstances, maybe someone would do something fairly horrible. I mean, there’s always going to be f***ed-up people in the world and unfortunately we can’t change that. And we certainly can’t legislate that.

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FB: Back to the original question, you sought Sega out on this?

MA: Yeah, we sought Sega out with other companies, other games. Obviously, The House Of The Dead is the first thing that we’re making the announcement on. It’s one of our biggest and best games. I’m really excited about it because it’s the chance to do a zombie movie with a marquee value. It’s just a kick. We’re going to do something that’s respectful to the genre.

FB: Wasn’t someone else interested in it a couple of years ago?

MA: Yeah, I think Dreamworks had it for a while. (ed. Note: Dreamworks had hired Bob Dylan’s son, Jesse Dylan, to direct.) In fact, one of the things that got me excited, when I heard that Dreamworks no longer had the rights, I was the one who suggested to my partners at Mindfire that this would be a great game to get. Everyone immediately agreed. Fortunately, Sega was really excited about the kinds of films we’re making, and our approach to material. It was a marriage made in heaven.

FB: What’s the basic premise as you know it right now?

MA: The premise of the game is different from the premise of the movie. In the premise of the game, you’re an AMF agent, you’re part of this mysterious government organization, that is investigating this manifestation of zombies in this experimental research laboratory. You go in and basically shoot zombies. There’s not a whole hell of a lot of story. But it’s really cool graphically and uses a lot of horror icons, creatures and monsters that you’re able to confront until you come to face to face with the man behind the menace, Dr. Kyrian.

What struck me about it (and the sequel, The House Of The Dead 2) is that it’s a very cinematic game, in terms of camera angles and mise en scene. I think that’s why I responded to it. I also respond to games that are not too complicated. I really like it. It had great music, it was really ominous, and it was fun.

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I admit that I’m a big zombie fan. I’m a big fan of the Romero Trilogy, and even Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead and (Italian horror director Dario) Argento and stuff. We could do something interesting with it. I wanted to combine the sensibility of those kinds of films, like Evil Dead, with a more classical sensibility, like Val Lewton with I Walked With A Zombie, and a Hitchcock-like suspense.

Everyone tends to use Scream as short-hand now, which doesn’t necessarily mean, oh, we have a bunch of young college kids who joke about movies the whole movie. I think what Scream means is that you actually care about the characters, which was a novel concept. When you look back at Friday the 13th or a lot of those movies, the characters had no personality. Jason was just killing slabs of meat.

You never knew who these people were. You knew they were having sex and they were going to die. What was good about Scream is that they had discernible personalities. So that’s what we mean when we use Scream as our short-hand. The bottom line is we want it to be a scary movie, and if you have a lot of people talking about other movies, which is what also happened in Day of the Dead, you’re not going to have a very scary movie.

FB: So what’s going to make your zombie movie different from every other zombie movie? Particularly up against Romero, who has been attached to Resident Evil on and off.

MA: He’s not doing it. Paul Anderson is doing Resident Evil, and (laughs) I think I’ll let that speak for itself. I’m not going to comment on that.

But I think that the difference with our movie is that it’s by people who love zombie movies and horror movies. We really understand what fans want. At the same time, we’ve got Dave Parker, who did The Dead Hate The Living, which is a wonderful low-budget zombie movie, and myself, writing the script. I sort of bring strong characters and humor, and Dave brings zombie action to the party.

It’s going to be great. We’re taking a lot of characters from the game, these creatures, so we’re going to have cool hybrids, and interesting kinds of characters. We’re also going to have a character who’s not in the game, that hopefully will become like a Pinhead or Freddy, a real iconic horror character, at the center of everything. That’s what’s so liberating about this game. Because it’s a first-person shooter and there’s not this huge narrative we have to follow, it lets use elements like the AMF, like the creatures, without having to be completely faithful to the original narrative. Plus, Sega will be doing a The House Of The Dead game based on the movie, so obviously we didn’t want to follow the exact plot of an existing game.

It’s an exciting thing in terms of cross-promotion, in terms of reaching the largest possible audience. For me, it’s just a kick, because I’ve written for comics, I’ve written for magazines, movies, even a little for TV. To have a videogame, it’s pretty cool, like hitting for the cycle.

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I feel like the Mets. The House Of The Dead is going to be the first of many films that Mindfire will be doing in this area, adapting videogames and bringing hopefully something new and fresh to it.

We’re also doing comic books. We’ve already announced that we’re doing Alley Kat. (Alley Kat is a comic book “starring” Playboy model Alley Baggett.) That’s going to be a really creepy cool thing, taking comics to another level. It’s not just a lot of T & A, there’s going to be a real supernatural horror element to it. And some of these other games that we’ll be adapting, I’ve gotten a couple of scripts in, they’re terrific.

We’re not talking Street Fighter, where it’s just “let’s cash in on the name.” Good movies first, good stories first.

FB: So you don’t feel any particular race with Paul Anderson and Resident Evil?

MA: No. They’re two completely different movies. I think we have the better franchise, but I wish them well. I’ll go see Resident Evil. It’s really more about genetic research gone awry. Our movie is going to be a lot different from that, it’s more about confronting zombies, and you’ll see the Val Lewton influence.

At the end of the day, well, I used to be a film critic, and I see what Rod Lurie is going through right now with The Contender, everybody complaining about the film critic turned director. Having been somebody who’s so outspoken, particularly in the sci-fi and horror genre, I really have to make sure this stuff delivers. Otherwise I’m going to get roasted, skewered, and eaten for breakfast. I have to make sure we’re doing stuff that people really respond to. And I think with Free Enterprise, it was a case where the majority of the people really dig that film, it had a profound effect on them. Some people enjoy it, and some hate it. But that’s good.

I want to elicit a reaction, love or hate. I just don’t want people to be apathetic. It’s the same thing with The Specials and with a lot of the movies we’re going to be doing. We’re ramping up to the point of 4 to 6 movies a year. If the strike won’t sidetrack us too much.

FB: Are you stockpiling scripts like the major studios?

MA: We’re trying to get a lot before the camera by early next year. We’ll see what happens. There’s a lot of stuff that’s been coming in, but it’s not an easy task. You can’t just set a deadline and say here, turn in a brilliant script by November 1st and have a brilliant script. Sometimes you’ve got to go back and forth to really get it right.

FB: How is The Specials doing? What’s going on with it right now?

MA: It did okay. Everybody was relatively happy, but not blown away, in its first screenings in New York and L.A. It’s going to get rolled out to twenty major cities in the next month or two, and then the video will be out, I believe, from Pioneer in March of next year, in a special edition DVD. I think that’s how most people will get their first exposure to The Specials. But I’m pleased. We always had modest expectations given the nature of the release and the kind of film it is in the post-Mystery Men environment.

Everybody’s pleased, proud of it, and we think it will have quite a long life on cable and video. That’s really where Free Enterprise came alive. It did some business in the theaters, but it really came into its own in the ancillaries, with the special edition DVD and the video and cable, to the point where we’re talking about a sequel and possibly even a TV series.

It’s a whole new ballgame. It’s almost as though theatrical is the commercial, advertising the video release. Fortunately, for these videogame movies, we’re looking at major 800-2,000 theater releases. It’s all because it’s a brand awareness that people know how to glom onto and market, and it’s a much bigger budget than what we’ve done.

FB: You promise it’s no Super Mario Brothers?

MA: Absolutely not. We shall deliver no script before its time. There are obviously videogames that just have no movie potential. Like Super Mario Brothers, wonderful game that should not have been a movie.

Then there are things like Resident Evil, The House Of The Dead, Tomb Raider and a lot of those games do have potential as movies. But you can’t just get the rights to something just because it’s popular. You have to make a choice.

I’m really excited to be working with the people from Sega. They came in from Japan, and they’re like filmmakers in their own realm. They gave us some great ideas, and really a lot of support. They’re all huge movie fans. We had a guy in from one of the creative houses, we spent a couple of days discussing the creative end, and then we spent another day shopping for Star Wars toys, so these guys are our kinds of people.

FB: That’s great. It’s been good talking to you.

MA: Always a pleasure. We’re in the process of getting new titles, and I’ll let you know as soon as I can.

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About Derek McCaw
In addition to running Fanboy Planet, Derek has written for ActionAce, Daily Radar, Once Upon A Dime, and The Wave. He has contributed stories to Arcana Comics (The Greatest American Hero) and Monsterverse Comics (Bela Lugosi's Tales from the Grave). He performs with ComedySportz San Jose and ShakesBEERience, in addition to occasional screenwriting and acting jobs. If you ever played Eric's Ultimate Solitaire on the Macintosh, it was Derek's voice as The Weasel that urged you to play longer. Email him at editor@fanboyplanet.com.