Behind the Scenes of the Wing Commander Movie (July 17, 2012)

Bandit LOAF

Long Live the Confederation!

Over the weekend we ran an excerpt from a book called Generation XBox: How Video Games Invaded Hollywood dealing with the 'behind the scenes' story of the 1999 Wing Commander film. The story was told in such a way as to imply that it was series creator Chris Roberts' story. In short, it turns out that's not the case. Chris Roberts saw our post and was kind enough to follow up with his own story about what really happened. What follows is truly fascinating background about how Wing Commander happened the way it did:
The Kilrathi sucked because of the choice of vendor, not because I was insisting on animatronics. We were running over budget and I gave in to Todd Moyer on a couple of areas that in hind sight I wished I hadn't ? one of them was the Kilrathi.

I had met and really Like Patrick Tatopoulos, who was the creature designer / production designer for ID4, Godzilla etc. He came up with some awesome designs and wanted to handle the Kilrathi like Ridley Scott did on Alien ? putting lithe dancers in a body suit (no stilts) and then shooting in such a way they looked 8 feet tall. But his bid was $500K, which we didn't have in the budget. I just had a big knock down drag out with Todd over Peter Lamont (the Oscar winning production designer on the film) as he thought he was too expensive, but I held my ground to have him hired. But we were over budget so I gave in on Patrick (a big regret of mine) and Todd found a small house in the UK with nowhere near the creature experience of Patrick that said they could do the work for $200K. I never got to see the Kilrathi in action until the day before we shot because the creature people had started late and then ran behind probably because they had signed up to do the work for a lot less than it really needed. Todd had promised me that it would be alright when I was asking on the progress and was concerned about not seeing much at all, yet getting closer to our shooting date.

I knew that I was in trouble the moment they were demoed to me. After shooting for one day and looking at the rushes I knew they were a bust but in film you can't just stop and come back to it later, so we finished out the shooting but I knew something had to been done to fix them or else the movie would be hurt.

I, not Todd, wanted to replace them with digital animation. Todd knew nothing about VFX ? I was always the driving force on that front ? its why Digital Anvil had its own effects arm that did 80% of the work on the Wing Commander movie. We went to Fox after we finished shooting to ask for more money to re-do the Kilrathi digitally and to shoot the original opening that was in the script but we had to drop for budget reasons and they told us no, we're making money on this film even if its sucks due to the video & TV deals we have. If we give you more money that may not be the case anymore, so tough luck.

As for the script quality ? it's a better script than the film ended up being and by Hollywood standards (and I know as I've been making films for a while) especially for this genre it didn't suck. It wasn't Oscar material delving into the inner struggles of pilots in a futuristic war, but next to Starship Troopers or other genre work, I think script wise it stands up. I've certainly read worse scripts that have gone on to earn hundreds of millions at the box office with the right stars, over the top action, lots of VFX and a big marketing budget. But I think the producer of "Barbed Wire" really shouldn't be relied on for good script feedback.

The movie wasn't the film I saw in my head for a few reasons ?

I was a first timer and I made some mistakes. Directing live action for the games was one thing, but directing a film is a whole other level of subtly and complexity. If I had a second shot at making Wing Commander I'm confident that I would make a far, far better film. I've learned a lot over the past ten years. Too bad I don't have a time machine!

I took the look of the world too far away from the game look. I had my reasons, partly because I was paranoid of being accused of being too much a Star Wars clone. On the game front that was always good that Wing Commander had a bit of a Star Wars vibe, but when you're making a film that is meant to be released before the next installment from the granddaddy of all sci-fi films you get a little worried. In retrospect considering how Star Wars episode I turned out (and looked) it was the wrong decision, but at the time I was picturing the next Star Wars to have the awesomeness of the first three films not the disappointing mess that Episode I was.

We didn't have a big enough budget (it wasn't $30M like Todd claims ? it was originally $20M, that crept up to $24M) to make this type of film properly.

The film was rushed into production as Fox wanted the film delivered by November 1998 so they could release before Star Wars. Consequently I had only 3 months of pre-production. Anyone can tell you that on a complicated movie that involves a lot of set building and VFX you need more than that. 6 months is a normal preproduction time, but it's not uncommon to have 9 months on especially ambitious VFX projects. Issues like the Kilrathi, improving the script could have all been addressed if we had not been put on an accelerated schedule to fit into a "deal". For an experienced director having almost no preproduction time is bad, for a first time director it can be deadly.

Finally it didn't work because while Todd was good at doing deals, as you can see even from the tone in the interview, he didn't give a damn or even know much about the creative process. As a first time director I really could have used the support of a proper creative producer that understood filmmaking and being on the set, rather than an ex-agent who couldn't tell you the difference between a single or a master shot.

All these were lessons I took to heart when I went full time into film making. I set up my own film making company so I would never have to go through what I went through and I like to think with the films I've produced I was a better creative producer for the various directors.

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Original update published on July 17, 2012
 
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NinjaLA

Alex Von T.
Nobody who is here should miss out on reading this article.. It really is an interesting bit of behind the scenes awesome.
 

J "Phantom" D

2nd Lieutenant
VERY interesting read!

Now it begs the question, does Chris have the rights to go ahead and do a Wing Commander II Movie?

If he does, he most certainly can use the lessons learned from the first movie (I really think the biggest one (from my point of view) was removal of the movie too far from the games) to make the kind of movie we have all been looking for.

He's been building movie cred for a while now, and I wonder if he'll cash in on it sometime soon.
 

TCS-Concordia

Rear Admiral
Perhaps in 15-20 years Chris can reboot his reboot. Well, a man can dream can't he? I am very please to know Chris feels he could have made a better movie. I personally enjoyed Wing Commander as a stand alone product and felt it was worth the ticket price. I was disappointed in how far it broke from the game universe and the reason I am pleased is because Chris too regrets that decision.
 
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Aaron

Guest
First I love this universe that Chris has created and was very happy when gog.com put wing commander 1-4 and I got to enjoy them. I believe this universe would be better portrayed through tv rather than a movie format to really bring the characters more to life maybe with a battlestar remake feel to the show more dark just an option. Chris should put a remake idea on kickstart see who throws in lol. Anyways thanks for the universe you created
 

capi3101

Rear Admiral
Kickstarter is rapidly approaching the same general celebrity status as Paradigms and cat-sniffing on these boards...
 
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Aaron

Guest
Normally I'd agree I thought kickstarter was a waste of time till I read that Chris jones one of the creates of the tex Murphy games which are also amazing games got funding to make a new adventure game. So anything Is possible
 

Quarto

Unknown Enemy
Normally I'd agree I thought kickstarter was a waste of time till I read that Chris jones one of the creates of the tex Murphy games which are also amazing games got funding to make a new adventure game. So anything Is possible
Anything that costs under $1 million dollars, yes. A film that would cost probably at least $20 million? Not so much.
 

Darkmage

Vice Admiral
I always wanted to see WC2 made into a film, I always felt that it had the best story/drama of the series beating out WC 3/4 for that. It's really REALLY nice to see that Chris realizes that he shifted the look of the movie too far from the games. Everyone I've ever spoken to who wasn't a total fanboy of Wing Commander has shared that opinion, especially after the Academy Cartoon was executed so well. The article also gives a great insight into the Kilrathi and what happened there. Nice to get candid frank answers from people who are ready to admit they did screw a project up, but also that there was not just a "Chris Roberts sucks at movies" answer but a much more detailed explanation showing how the studio's incompetence at arranging the deal, and fears of being inferior to Star Wars took a project with so much potential and brought it down to being a film which while deeply flawed, still had some real depth to it.

As someone involved in large projects, there is never a simple answer to why things don't work out as planned, I have a LOT of respect for Chris Roberts for coming clean on everything rather than trying to just white wash everything, It takes a lot of character to admit your mistakes rather than trying to cover them up.
 

Wedge009

Rogue Leader
I could tell the first article was mostly from Moyer's point-of-view. Thanks to Chris for taking the time to share his side of the story.

Although, this only compounds the 'what-if' feeling I got from yesterday's article!
 
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Veritas1325

Guest
I'd love to see Chris Roberts reboot Wing Commander. Go back to the game visuals that were so great, get rid of the silly Pilgrim story and reboot the franchise as a feature film (or a SyFy channel series even). I think he could easily take WCII, WCIII, or WCIV stories and make a fine feature film or series just from that material. Give us some actors who aren't Freddie Printz, Jr. and Matthew Lillard and use some of the experience he's gained over his years in the industry and this could easily be a series that could work either as a movie or series. I hope he does it. I'd love to go back to the Wing Commander universe again!
 

AD

Finder of things, Doer of stuff
I'd love to see Chris Roberts reboot Wing Commander. Go back to the game visuals that were so great, get rid of the silly Pilgrim story and reboot the franchise as a feature film (or a SyFy channel series even). I think he could easily take WCII, WCIII, or WCIV stories and make a fine feature film or series just from that material. Give us some actors who aren't Freddie Printz, Jr. and Matthew Lillard and use some of the experience he's gained over his years in the industry and this could easily be a series that could work either as a movie or series. I hope he does it. I'd love to go back to the Wing Commander universe again!

While I don't care for some of the movie designs, I think some people are reading too much into these comments too. As much as the kilrathi didn't work, and some of the ship designs could have stuck more closely to the games, I think those elements are really secondary to the fact that over all, the movie as-is doesn't represent what Chris Roberts envisioned. The look of the kilrathi wouldn't have been much different really, but the design would have worked much different... less broad and hulking and more like the Avatar aliens in the way they move.

The story wouldn't have been much different. The actors may not have been much different. Though I guess there may have pressure to use Prinze and Lillard. I'd be game to see what Chris would do with a second chance to start from scratch on a film, but I'd also like to see the existing film re-worked into something at least somewhat closer to what Chris set out to make. Give him the money to re-edit it and redo the kilrathi. Put out a special edition DVD...

If anything though, I hope these discussions get us at least a little closer to everyone getting to see the deleted scenes one of these days.
 

SpaceDrake

Rear Admiral
What I find interesting is how clear this makes the issue that the elephant in the room was SW Phantom Menace. The movie's fundamental problem was that nobody had faith in it because Star Wars was going to do better anyway, so why even try?

You could say a lot about the cynicism in such a position, but it's clear that the greatest problem the movie faced during production was that Star Wars made "the bigwigs" consider it irrelevant. One does have to wonder what the movie might have been like if SW hadn't been announced during its development.

Also god I'd love to see Tatopoulos Kilrathi based on that sketch. That looks fantastic.
 

AD

Finder of things, Doer of stuff
Also god I'd love to see Tatopoulos Kilrathi based on that sketch. That looks fantastic.

I do like alot of Tatopoulos' work (like Outlander's Moorwen...) but that particular sketch I find a little to "Egyptian Pharaoh" especially as this sketch was likely not long after he came off of doing stargate designs. I think he could have worked out a pretty great concept though.
 

Worf

Vice Admiral
Interesting - no comment on the SOny deal that was basically killed just before they signed on the dotted line. There it was to delay the release for a year or so so Star Wars would've been a distant memory...
 
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