Q&A: Actor (“PIN”) Turned Filmmaker David Hewlett Talks “DEBUG”Fearful Features,Home,Movies/TV,News Trevor Parker
To DEBUG, a sci-fi/horror hybrid (arriving on DVD tomorrow) about a rogue computer tormenting a group of cyber-criminals trapped in deep space, writer/director David Hewlett brings a unique set of credentials. The Canadian actor (PIN, SPLICE) turned filmmaker took some time to discuss his latest venture behind the camera, including guiding his frequent co-star Jason Momoa, with FANGORIA.
Hewlett spent five seasons traipsing across alien planets as the loveably arrogant Dr. Rodney McKay on the popular series STARGATE: ATLANTIS. Prior to that gig, the British-born Hewlett went from shooting amateur backyard cinema epics with childhood friend and acclaimed-director-to-be Vincenzo Natali to starring in an array of genre flicks both excellent (Natali’s CUBE) and excellently awful (SCANNERS 2: THE NEW ORDER). The self-professed Fango fan’s DEBUG (released by Ketchup Entertainment) embraces the bloodier side of its creator’s résumé and also harks back to the downbeat feel of seminal spacefaring shockers from decades past.
“I started off trying to make 2001 from HAL’s perspective—that was the original idea behind the film,” Hewlett says, “but by the time that it actually got made, we were basically doing FINAL DESTINATION in space. That was the transition. But I really wanted DEBUG to be a love letter to those paranoid artificial-intelligence movies like DEMON SEED, and—was it SATURN 7, SATURN 5? The Farrah Fawcett one [laughs]. That kind of stuff. Because I remember seeing 2001 and thinking, ‘I don’t understand why people think that computer is evil.’
“I liken it more to a Western,” he continues, “where if you’ve got Clint Eastwood and his little farmhouse in the middle of nowhere, and a bunch of people come around and want in, he fights them off and he’s the good guy. [In 2001], it’s the same thing. HAL’s got this spaceship, guys want to shut him down and he’s shutting them down instead. I don’t see why that’s evil in any way. So I thought it would be kind of fun to have a movie where I, personally, wanted the humans to die. I assembled a bunch of good-looking 20-year-olds and decided to murder them all to somehow make myself feel better [laughs].”
It’s that entertaining slasher streak that separates Hewlett’s film from the stodgy, talky entries that frequently clutter the orbit of indie sci-fi. Still, Hewlett confesses that the inclusion of action and horror components were not exactly part of his original DEBUG design. “Things get added as you go along. The original complaint about my script when I first submitted it was that it was too artsy, too pretentious. And I buy that; it was navel-gazing, because I was totally obsessed with AI. I just loved this character [Iam, DEBUG’s digital antihero, portrayed by Momoa] and felt I would side with him. I wanted people to see these computer criminals as the scum of the earth.
“But, as is the nature of getting a film distributed and out there,” he notes, “people start getting very concerned with that, and there had to be a reason why they die. They had to have done something wrong. And then, because that was becoming such a requirement for getting the film made, my tendency was to get a little cheeky with that. To say, ‘OK, you want to do that, then we’re going to push it to the limit.’ I wanted it to be, ‘Oh, you had sex? You’re gonna die!’ [Laughs] I wanted it to be Camp Crystal Lake, MY BLOODY VALENTINE—let’s go with the horror clichés, so people know what they’re getting into. And the element there for me was that Jason Momoa’s character was always playing with [the criminals].
“I toyed for a while with the end of the movie basically being Iam starting up again,” Hewlett reveals, “taking digitized versions of people and running them through all these different horrible scenarios—to pull them apart and see how they work. He’s obsessed with how humans operate, and how on earth they manage. It’s like a child playing with an ant and pulling its legs off, that weird childlike wonder at the fragility of these so-called lesser animals. So that makes me even more twisted for siding with him [laughs].”
For a performer who has divided his career between the financial safety of a syndicated television series and the tenuous ground of independent features, Hewlett much prefers modest, more manageable bankrolls. DEBUG stretches its budgetary coin to an admirable length, and Hewlett says he prefers it that way. “It’s funny; DEBUG was originally going to have an even smaller budget. Then we had producers come in from Canada with some more money to play with. And with that, strangely, I would argue came more problems than art. I love tiny, tiny budgets, because they force you to be very smart. Either it works, or it breaks and the whole thing falls apart and you don’t get anything at all.
“You’re forced to make changes with small budgets,” he adds, “and we had that [on DEBUG]. I mean, we had something like 900 visual effects on this movie, which is unheard of for something on this budget level. Always, with money, it just comes down to time. Money buys you more time to get things done. In our case, a film the producers were doing originally fell through, so we got pushed into production very quickly, and we spent the whole movie trying to catch up on that, because prep time is where you really save money. So much gets pushed to the end of the shoot—visual effects and stuff like that—and if you’re not prepared for it, if you haven’t spent that time prepping, everything becomes that much more expensive. So we were definitely fighting budget. There’s never enough money. The sweet spot for me is $1-2 million. You get anything over that, all of a sudden people start to think you’ve got money, and they start spending it on things that don’t end up on film.”
DEBUG’s cachet was upped considerably by Hewlett’s casting coup in securing the participation of Momoa, his old STARGATE co-star. Hewlett was thrilled at the chance to reunite with Momoa, now a bona fide Hollywood heavyweight soon to embody comic-book hero Aquaman in director James Wan’s upcoming screen epic. “We were so lucky,” Hewlett recalls. “We were down to the wire; as I said, we had very little prep time. And whenever you get into casting, everyone’s got ideas. You know, ‘This is the guy who’s going to make the movie!’ and you’re like, ‘Who’s that? I’ve never heard of him!’ There’s always a back-and-forth about it. The producers have an idea, the distributors have an idea… everyone has an idea about who they think should be in the movie.
“They kept throwing names at me, and I thought, ‘No one’s going to see a movie for these people. I guess they’re well-known, and in some cases very good actors, but if you’re basing the sale of the movie on this and want a name, let’s get a name!’ So I literally just called up Jason, because Jason is the biggest star I know. I worked together with him for many years on STARGATE, and he put up with my crap for a lot of years on that, poor guy [laughs]. He had like, 10 lines in five years or something like that, while I just babbled on the whole time. And he was such a supporter of our first film [with Hewlett as director], A DOG’S BREAKFAST; he was one of the few guys who showed up at the screenings and let people know about it. Then when he made his first movie, he said it was because we inspired him.
“So on a prayer, I talked to him and the producer talked to him, and the producer had worked with him on WOLVES as well, but it basically came down to, ‘Jason, look. We’re screwed. Will you come in? I think it will be an interesting part. This is not something you would normally do. And I won’t make you take your clothes off.’ [Laughs] My wife [Jane Loughman], who is one of the executive producers on DEBUG, always says that it was like animal playing mineral. Normally, in that kind of role, you’d see a scrawny-looking, very white, evil, pasty, androgynous type of character. That’s the classic ‘evil computer.’ With Jason, I just thought, ‘If you’re an AI and you could make yourself look like anyone, Jason Momoa is the guy you’d go for.’ I’d like to be Jason, thank you! He’s a manly man. For a computer that is made up of partial organics, has organics at its core and a desire to be human or understand humans, this would be the form it would take. And it made sense, given all the criminals he’d been looking after all this time.
“So it was very fortuitous, and I owe Jason a huge debt of gratitude for coming in and helping us out. There’s no way we could have afforded to get him if he’d wanted to come to this via the normal route. He really did us a favor. He came in for a couple of days and did all of his stuff. He was in a great mood about it; my favorite days on the shoot were working with Jason on the greenscreen and stunt stuff, and I was so surprised at how much I loved doing the stunts. He was a light in the darkness of making this film, and we were just very, very lucky to get him.”
Beyond DEBUG benefitting from Momoa’s profile, Hewlett was also excited for the chance to allow his friend to display dimensions that aren’t often seen in his typical screen roles. “Jason’s an extraordinary actor, and instinctively fantastic. He would do these silly little things, and I’d say, ‘Go for it. Let’s do what you wouldn’t do on GAME OF THRONES, or as Aquaman’—which is smart casting, because he really does look like an ex-king of Atlantis. He’s and artist and a filmmaker as well; he understands the process. He made an extraordinarily beautiful film called ROAD TO PALOMA, which I urge everyone to see. I mean, every shot in that movie is like a painting. He’s a really talented, passionate and smart guy, and not at all how he seems in his films. Like me—everyone thinks I’m a genius, but I’m not. I only play one on TV [laughs]! I’m just a nerd in real life.”