Sunday, July 6, 2014

Interview with GODZILLA: BATTLE ROYALE writer/director Billy Dubose!!

We’ve seen Godzilla fever sweeping the world in the wake of the 2014 Legendary Pictures effort, but for some, that burning love for oversized irradiated lizards and their ilk has been a lifelong passion.  Case in point: Billy Dubose, who has taken his fandom to a skyscraper-stomping new level. The 31-year-old native of Elmhurst, IL, is the writer, director, producer, editor, star, and driving force behind what has to be one of the most ambitious kaiju fan films of the 21st century, Godzilla: Battle Royale.
Dubose tracks the source of his fascination for guys tussling in rubber suits and crushing miniature landscapes to a random encounter with 1965’s Godzilla vs. Monster Zero (aka Invasion of Astro-Monster) on TNT’s MonsterVision. The six-year-old was understandably fascinated by the spectacle, “but then I was forced to go to dinner before the final climactic battle!” laughs Dubose. “But then one day I was in Toys ‘R’ Us with my mother and she bought me King Kong vs. Godzilla (I think I’d gotten a good grade or something), which was my first VHS."

From there, the die was cast; the young fan immersed himself in the world of atomic breath-spewing creatures, but it was a casual internet word search in 2005 that ultimately set him on the path of suit-mation glory. “Godzilla convention” led him to G-Fest, the world’s largest annual gathering of Japanese giant monster fans, which happened to be taking place in Rosemont, IL, just outside Chicago. The brainchild of Canadian schoolteacher J.D. Lees, also the editor of G-Fan magazine, the convention features Q&A sessions with Japanese kaiju filmmakers, discussions on various films and subgenres, art and costume contests, screenings of new and classic kaiju movies, and kaiju-oriented dealers room.

Dubose was especially impressed by the art of constructing these monster suits firsthand, specifically that of Paul Gavins’ Kiryu costume, based on 2002’s Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla. Further inspiration later came in the form of fellow aficionado Chris Elchesyn’s short film Godzilla X: TheKaiju Killer (available on YouTube HERE), which ultimately had Dubose scouring the internet for research materials and how-to tips for making his own Showa-era Godzilla suit. Untold dollars and “a LOT of trial and error” later, the completed costume was unveiled at G-Fest XVI in 2009.

Impressed, Gavins (now heading the convention’s costume and Dojo Studios activities) asked Dubose to participate in a fan film commercial the following year, complete with a miniature city, props, and other monsters. Specifically, Dubose would square off against Lees in his own self-built G-Fantis (G-Fest’s official mascot) costume for a brief tussle. That experience, fulfilling a long-held dream for both participants, was a turning point for Dubose, who became increasingly involved with Gavins and the annual Dojo projects.

Meanwhile, the idea was cultivating for a fan film of his own, a project that ended up consuming Dubose’s every spare moment for the next three years. The highly entertaining fruits of said labors, Godzilla: Battle Royale, will be unveiled in a sneak preview at G-Fest XXI on Friday July 11, at 5:00pm, followed by an online YouTube release concurrent with the 60th anniversary of Gojira’s Japanese premiere on November 3. (There are also plans to hold a free screening at Park Ridge’s Pickwick Theater on Thursday, November 6, 2014.) Featuring an array of homegrown visual effects and an astounding 21 kaiju suits and puppets, the old-school charm and energy simply explodes off the screen, eliciting a smile from even the most casual Toho admirer.

Dubose was kind enough to take time out of his busy pre-G-Fest schedule to answer a few questions about filmmaking, fandom, and the pros and cons of the big smelly suit he occasionally calls home.

AC: How many of the monsters do you personally play in Battle Royale?

Billy Dubose: Well, I play the “first” Godzilla, representing the Showa era, and I also played/filled in for Ebirah, Hedorah, and Zombie Kong [which I had built the costumes for] unless, of course, the shot called for me to be inside Godzilla. In those cases, other actors played those monsters, so we kinda switched off with suits here and there. I also helped puppeteer our Mothra and Gezora props as well as our “mystery monster.”

AC: Talk about what G-FEST means to you.

BD: It is such a joy to engage and work with so many devoted fans, regardless of our respective levels of talent. In the end, it’s all about including and getting fans involved with doing something they’ve always been fascinated by. From my first G-Fest in 2005, having the blast of my life shopping in the dealers room, catching film viewings of Godzilla vs Hedorah and Godzilla Final Wars (which was the Chicago premiere), witnessing the costume contest . . . I was enthralled by the experience and the knowledge that there were indeed a lot of fans out there just like me, from all over.

AC: What is your filmmaking background?

BD: I’ve always been a pretty big fan of film, but I honestly started learning on my own (and from others more experienced than me) working on this project. I knew practically nothing about cameras, editing software, angle perspectives, etc. I just started doing it, learned things through trial and error as I went, and saw it through to the end. That said, I do have a B.A. in Theatre Arts, so that definitely helped with the characters I portrayed.

AC: What are your feelings on suit-mation vs. CGI?

BD: They’re obviously two totally different methods of storytelling, but as long as it comes off as “believable,” that’s really all that matters in the end. Personally, I favor suit-mation as I grew up with it, but I wouldn’t count CGI out as a valuable method either. Would I have used more CGI if I could’ve? Sure, though sparingly, like morphing shots, for example. My main problem with CGI is its “over usage,” but if its detailed, shown in moderation, and above all believable, then it’s all good. Like it or not, CGI is the preferred technological method to visually tell stories these days. I do hope some films (like the new Star Wars trilogy from J.J. Abrams) will revisit some older techniques here and there. But if not, we always have the fan filmmakers who will hopefully keep the old-school techniques alive on their own like I tried to do.

AC: You also make quite a few live appearances in your Godzilla suit. What are the best and worst parts about those experiences?

BD: The worst parts are the heat and stench of being in that suit. Like Haruo Nakajima-san [the original Toho Godzilla suit performer] himself experienced, it’s no easy task wearing a foam suit with barely any air circulation and latex painted all over it. And he had it far worse than I did, as his suits were much heavier. Mine is only around 90 lbs. I installed a fan in the head, but it doesn’t help as much as you’d think. Plus cleaning the foam on the inside is risky; if you get foam wet with spray cleaner, the foam acts like a sponge and eventually the water retained will rot it away. Then again, I’m constantly sweating in that thing so that doesn’t help either. That’s why there were so many different Godzilla suits used in the Toho films. 

The fact that my suit has (barely) made it through five years is amazing. It gets really hot inside, it can get hard to breathe, and walking around in a 90-lb suit will definitely give you a workout. Plus there have been times where people have acted “inappropriately” at events around my suit, but even in those instances I’ve always done my best to act professionally.

Regardless, there are a lot of rewards as well. Personally, my favorite experiences are making kids, who are sometimes scared of my costume at first, happy after their parents convinced them to get photos with me. They end up wanting to touch the costume or play with the tail. It’s moments like that, where you can provide a few smiles on people’s faces, where I know I’ve done my job and some good. I’ve also done quite a few charity events, which is more what I’m doing now.

Another advantage to wearing a huge costume is the attention it can sometimes draw. I’ve met quite a few celebrities in costume including Yaya Han (Heroes of Cosplay), Zulay Henao (Boy Wonder), Tia Carrerre (Wayne’s World), Robert Picardo (Star Trek: Voyager), Danielle Harris (Halloween), Jason David Frank (Power Rangers) and even Haruo Nakajima-san himself. (He was very happy to see my suit there and posed for a while with me.) As a costumer/cosplayer, I’ll admit that yes, we make these costumes because we love doing it and love getting attention for our hard work, photos taken, and what-not. Whether people want to call it attention-seeking or seeking validation, we’re all pretty much guilty of it in our own ways when we do something that makes us happy and get recognized for it.

Unfortunately, since it’s on the verge of looking like the Godzilla vs Gigan suit (if you get my joke), this G-Fest, the very place I debuted him five years ago, will be its last convention appearance. Once I retire him, he’s getting propped up in my living room where he will stay for good memories to look back on.

AC: Where did you build the expansive miniature city stages?

BD: We built the city sets at G-Fest each year, constructed in one (very full) day. We made the buildings mostly out of boxes and cheap materials from Home Depot or Menards. In 2010, we shot in the Stephens Convention Center Hall in Rosemont, IL, which had blue walls. We didn’t have a lot of lighting equipment then, but the lack of light actually helped simulate a dark blue/late evening backdrop, which definitely gave it a nice, dark look. From then on, we shot our stuff in the rooms at the Crowne Plaza Hotel; they had wallpaper, but we draped up black bed sheets to keep our night background going.

Paul Gavins, his daughter Alaena Gavins, Krys Baioa, Richard St. Andrews, Nick Cloutier, Tristan Domay (and their families) were all very helpful in setting up the layouts, building the buildings, and doing everything they could to make the shots as believable as possible. In 2011, Rich even constructed a homemade crane apparatus to have our Rhian monster appear as if he were flying and fighting G-fantis in real time. We had some good years working on those sets, and they were all great people to work with.

AC: What was the approximate budget for Godzilla: Battle Royale?

BD: If I had to guess, with what I put into my costumes, my camera/lighting/green screen equipment, computer software, actors food compensation, and gas travels to film my other friends costumes, I’d say somewhere around the $5000 mark over a six-year period. However, I did it over time, similar to how a mechanic acquires his tools. I had to pace myself, since I’ve got a job, a house, taxes, and a family to devote time and money to as well. It took a lot of time, but it was worth doing it that way for me. I’m proud of the fact that I never tried to fund this thing with a Kickstarter or Fundraiser; I personally don’t feel comfortable taking other people’s money to fund my projects. I pretty much went with the attitude of “If you want something done, you pretty much gotta do it yourself.” I knew it would be a challenge, but any decently made film is always going to cost some money. 

AC: How did you land your impressive Toho guest stars, Akira Takarada and Robert Scott Field?

BD: Robert Scott Field comes to G-Fest pretty much every year, so I’ve always enjoyed talking with him and hearing his stories of working with Toho. I asked him in 2012 if he wanted to have a cameo in our film where he’d get to blast Ebirah down for the count and he gladly accepted. When I found out Akira Takarada-san would also be attending that year, I asked Robert, who often helps out as a translator for the Japanese celebrities, if he could put in a good word for me. He said that while he couldn’t make any promises, he’d see what he could do. When G-Fest came around, I asked again and Robert said, “Yeah, I think he might be up for it."

Later, as I was doing a panel on the film, Akira walked into the room ready to go. I explained to my group, “I’ll be right back,” and set straight to work. We shot one scene with him and Bin Furuya [the original Ultraman] acting as authority figures who look down upon MechaGFantis, which we used in our Dojo project, “MechaGFantis Backfires.” Then he did a one-line cameo for my film, where he reveals a flash drive with a crucial soundwave file so the Americans can restore control to the alien-hacked MechaGodzilla. When I called “action” and “cut” for him, it was not only a memorable experience for me but for everyone in that room. In a way, we pulled something off very rare for fan films, and the way Akira can still work a scene was both nostalgic and flawless. It was a true honor getting that shot of him and I hope that if he ever sees our film, he and his family will enjoy it.

Robert also handled his role very well and had a lot of fun making a return to the camera. His line is one I hope will never be forgotten in G-fandom or at G-Fest.

AC: What are some of your influences, both as a filmmaker and as a G-Fan?

BD: Steven Spielberg and Robert Rodriguez would be my main inspirations as far as filmmaking. Though I would also consider the likes of Ishiro Honda-san, Jun Fukuda-san, Yoshimimitsu Banno-san, and Eji Tsuberaya-san as influences for the old-school Godzilla series. And for suit acting, obviously Haruo Nakajima-san. This film is very much a celebration of the Showa era. Yes, it might have been considered campy or cheesy, but to many, it’s still the fun way we remember Godzilla (regardless of how he was first intended in the 1954 film as a metaphor against atomic warfare). I love and respect the original, but as a kid, I grew up with the Godzilla-as-hero aspect and was inspired by that and still am today. My hope is that I can pay tribute to that era to the best of my ability.

AC: Talk about your technical team – how did you get to know all of these amazing artists?

BD: Paul Gavins, Alaena Gavins, Nicolas Cloutier, Richard St. Andrews, Patrick McGee, Riley McGee, and Joe Flores would all be included in this realm. I also got to work with the Lobsterdance Crew (responsible for the “Ultraman Sorta” videos) in Atlanta, GA, and some of their set footage is in GBR towards the beginning. I basically got to know most of them all through G-Fest and our common desire to make something fun and exciting. There were even times Paul Gavins came down from Wisconsin to help me with certain shoots that involved his props or puppets, and Joe Flores was also a great help to me when G-Fest was not happening and I was filming on my own. I feel very lucky to have worked with so many talented tech individuals who were willing to help out and advise me when I was stuck on things.

AC: How did you go about casting for the live action scenes?

BD: Mostly through talented acting friends of mine. Sarah Breidenbach (who plays Lex) and I have acted in college theatre together and she is by far one of the most talented actresses and versatile singers I’ve ever met in my life. She was more a musical theatre/opera actress though I feel she transitioned to film acting exceptionally well. As a result of GBR, she’s auditioning for more professional film gigs so I’m very proud of her. 

Other friends included Jonathon Goldyn (Sargyle) Olivia Howlett (Kumi), James Sayson (Yuki), Jeanette Acquino (Mothra Fairies), Aaron & Jessi Hemminger (Braddock/Madison), Joe Flores (Sgt. Daimajin), Rosa Mendez (Professor 9mm), Mike Prost, Jenni Whipple, JD Won, and Lenell Bridges (Machine Gunners). For the alien queen Xaxious, I actually made a post on Craigslist, which is how we landed Vicka Xaika. She and her boyfriend Nick were also very helpful in completing a vital piece of villain character.

AC: Eight credited cinematographers? Discuss.

BD: As I couldn’t be two places at once, most were friends who were filming me once I got into costume. Joe Flores helped me out a great deal in this respect. Another friend of mine, Brian Sosin, not only helped shoot, but gave me a lot of pointers on working with the film editing programs. There’s also the G-Fest crew, which included Nick Cloutier who has some mad cinematography and perspective skills. Paul Gavins also offered up his camera skills at (and even sometimes before or after) G-Fest when I was in need. Tristan Domay was also there to assist when Paul and/or Nick were preoccupied. Chris Elchesyn also filmed a great deal of prop and puppet footage against green/blue screens at his home. Then there was my friend Kevin Pollack who filmed and directed me in my “Razor Shark” character shots.

AC: What kind of direction did he give you?

BD: In reality, I’m pretty much the complete opposite of the character; I’m a pretty understanding and caring person whereas Razor Shark is self-centered, dangerous hotshot out to prove himself, like Maverick from Top Gun. Kevin is an exceptional theater actor, and was very strict with his criticism but also very constructive. There were times he had me do 20 takes of a certain line until I got it to his liking. I used to do theater in college, but since I hadn’t acted for nearly eight years, it was definitely a crash course back into it. Kevin did a phenomenal job whipping me back into shape.

AC: What are the biggest challenges to suit acting? Do you have a specific style?

BD: Suit acting is really a huge undertaking. It’s nowhere near as easy as it looks, and it can prove to be quite dangerous if not handled knowledgeably. With tons of foam and latex wrapped around you, it can get over 100 degrees in there sometimes; I can only keep the thing on a good hour at a time sometimes. You constantly have to be aware of heat exhaustion as that can take its toll no matter how much endurance an individual may have. You collapse in that thing, you better hope someone is nearby to pull you out.

Moving and acting is another huge challenge. It’s very hard to see through mesh or tiny holes and it’s hard to breathe with all that stifling air. One trick I wish I learned earlier was that it’s far more effective to move at fast speeds; the more “oomph” you put into your actions on set, the better it looks in the finished edit. In post-production, when we slow those actions down about 70-80%, it really looks like you’re watching a giant monster move or fight. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite grasp that until near the end of shooting.

Suit acting is the same thing as an actor on screen or on stage. You have to make your movements believable as an actor would make his movements or intentions believable. If you don’t, it comes off as unconvincing. I tried to pay homage to Haruo Nakajima-san, Ken Satsuma-san, and Tsutomu Kitagawa-san's past performances in their respective Godzilla films as best I could.

AC: At what point did you switch from “This will be a fun weekend shoot of monster mashing in the backyard” to “Holy crap, we’re going to make this the biggest, best Godzilla fan film we can, even if it takes four years!”

BD: Probably around 2011, after I showed our video I was just “messing around with” at the Pickwick Theater during G-Fest. The crowd response there was all the inspiration I needed to to take this project and go “all the way” with it. In 2012, we had more monsters to film, more character/story elements, and two guest appearances from Robert Scott Field and Akira Takarada himself. It was then I thought, “There’s no way we can lose with this.” 

AC: Is there a specific G-film that you were aiming to emulate? Destroy All Monsters is explicitly referenced – any others?

BD: Definitely the Showa era with tidbits of the Millennium Era as well for the human story. There were also a few Heisei references thrown in for good measure too. In terms of the writing, I’ll admit that I (and Josh Oshkosh B’Gosh who advised me through the script writing process) went with a campier tone, adding some outrageous comedic elements to keep the audience’s attention during the non-monster scenes. On the other hand, I wouldn’t consider my actors’ performances campy, as they did their part and delivered their lines to the best of their abilities. 

AC: Of the 21 monsters featured onscreen, is it safe to assume that most of the time, the actor inside the suit was also the person who designed it?

BD: Well, to be clear, not all of them were suits. Quite a few were actually small props/toys filmed with a green screen and blown up to look imposing to our costumes. However, for the costumed characters, most (but not all) of those playing the monsters made their own suits. For instance Hyper Godzilla, Varan, Maguma, and the Slugs were played and created by Jacob Baker with assistance from his father, Rick Baker. Jeff Magnussen played one hell of a MechaGodzilla (and that is indeed the same costume you saw in the 30 Rock episode). 

My good buddy Scott Whipple played Zombie Kong (when I was in Godzilla) as he is a body builder and had the strength to lift me up while in my suit. Ian Jones also helped with Zombie Kong when we filmed at G-Fest and his knowledge in karate definitely helped. 

For Hedorah and Ebirah, we had quite a few people in there; me, Paul Gavins, Rich St. Andrews, Tristan Domay, Tommy Haire, and Riley McGee. J.D. Lees, who played and created G-Fantis, showed some really mad suit-acting skills, putting to good use all the knowledge he had read or researched beforehand. Nick Huber played Zigra, which was funny considering he was a Gamera villain. He actually came to me and asked if we could possibly film him for GBR; I took one look at that suit and I was like, “What the hell, why not?” And Riley McGee played Orga, though the costume was made by Rich St. Andrews.

AC: For those unfamiliar with G-Fan or J.D. Lees, can you give our readers a quick background on G-Fantis?

BD: G-Fantis is a character of Daikaiju Enterprises through G-Fan Magazine and was created by J.D. who also heads the G-Fest convention. Essentially G-Fantis is the mascot monster of G-Fest. We’ve done many fan film projects around his character, so having him as a part of our film was definitely a pleasure as I always found this monster fascinating. His overall look is pretty Titanosaurus-inspired, which is why we gave him the Titanosaurus roar in my film. His origins in GBR depict him as an inter-stellar guardian monster that helps to keep peace among the Universe by battling evil monster threats and is an ancient ally to Mothra from Infant Island.

AC: Some might be surprised at the colorful language for what is otherwise a family-friendly film. Thoughts?

BD: It’s kinda funny because at first, I knew I was pushing a language line there. When it came time to show the rough cut at G-Fest last year, I was so excited about getting my film up there that I forgot to mention that it could be considered PG-13 due to minor language and some intense kaiju violence. (It gets a bit 1974 Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla bloody at times.)  Surprisingly, the parents in the audience didn’t seem to mind. If anything, they found it funny. However, this year I will be announcing that it is PG-13 material and parental discretion might be encouraged. I tried my best to keep the swearing and blood to a minimum. However, if you think about it, most of the later Showa films, as well as some of the Heisei and Millennium films, all said the same bad words I used. Some even took the Lord’s name in vain (which I especially try to avoid, being Catholic). 

AC: Nice work on the Mothra twins effects and songs! Any fun stories to share in creating them?

BD: Thank you! Jeanette Acquino, an old friend of mine from my wrestling days, was extremely helpful in portraying the Shobijin Mothra fairies. I wanted the fairies to not only have old-school look of Tokyo SOS and Final Wars, but also have voices similar to how they sounded in the old-school Titra Dubs. However instead of red, I wanted to make their outfits white as I always felt that color better expressed their characters. Fifi’s Tayloring did a nice job modifying the garments to resemble the look.

For the voices, Sarah Breidenbach pulled double duty by giving the fairies their nostalgic voices. Funny story: I had Sarah watch the dubbed version of Ghidorah: The Three Headed Monster with me, and she commented, “These voices sound very theatrical, so that shouldn’t be a problem.” Sarah also sang the Mothra Song. She’s had experience singing German and Italian pieces, but it was definitely an interesting challenge for her to sing in Japanese. After a few practice runthroughs, she nailed it in both octaves. Samson West made up the keyboard rendition of the Mothra Song, as well as several of Akira Ifukube-san’s themes, and did an amazing job.

AC: Here’s the big question: When and how can people see the finished film?

BD: It will be posted on YouTube for public viewing on Godzilla’s actual 60th Anniversary, November 3, 2014. I also plan on showing it for a FREE “One Time Only Big Screen Event” at the Pickwick Theater in Park Ridge, IL, on Thursday, November 6. Godzilla Battle Royale is purely non-profit, and I intend to keep it that way considering the characters I’m working with here. Here are the links to find our various videos and information:

Also here’s our final trailer, featuring Akira Takarada-san himself:

AC: Any final thoughts, comments, announcements?

BD: If anything, I hope GBR inspires other beginner filmmakers, like me, to take whatever ideas that set off sparks in them and see their projects through to the end despite the odds. Never give up. Sure, I would like (for my cast and crew, as well as myself) to have our efforts on this project noticed. However, while finishing the film, I realized that, with this project, I had helped others realize their passions and ambitions in the process. As I filmed him, Jacob Baker said, “Thank you for giving me the chance to live out my dream.” Knowing that I was able to help him and others like him is a feeling of accomplishment far more uplifting and meaningful than any amount of views/likes on YouTube. Don’t get me wrong, I want this film to succeed. But collaborating, working together with a common goal, and having one hell of a fun time doing it, that’s good enough for me. Whether the fans (or non-fans) like or hate our film, I hope our efforts will be remembered for a long time.

Finally, I seriously cannot thank enough all my cast, monster cast, crew, collaborators, supporters, reviewers, and those who have allowed us to showcase our talents with this film. It’s all because of you guys that this happened and everything I’ve done up to now, I owe it to all of you. Thanks a million and arigato!!!

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