The following interview is sponsored by Fallen, a short film directed by Dan Marcus.
Christopher Nolan’s exceptional take on the Batman franchise has left an indelible impression on moviegoers as well as filmmakers for its realistic, gritty, and back-to-basics approach. It has inspired legions of Batman fanfilms across the Internet to be made in the vein of Nolan’s vision, but here we have something different: We have an original superhero story done in the vein of Christopher Nolan’s inspired vision for The Dark Knight.
With Fallen, a superhero short film co-written, co-produced and directed by Dan Marcus, it strives to take an authentic and believable look at superheroes. Fallen is the story of beloved hero Ephraim (Brian Kavanaugh), who abandons the city he swore to protect. When a mysterious catastrophe rocks the city of Chicago, he must face the scared citizenry that cries out for his return, including a lone police officer (Errol McLendon), a tough vigilante (Andrew Staton), and a terrified boy (Harrison Boxley). Most of all, he must face Bethany (Heather Tyler), who may or may not be the villainness pulling the strings of Ephraim’s heart and the devastation that might annihilate the city.
Shot in some of the same locations Chris Nolan shot The Dark Knight, and using some of the same crew members who had worked on that film, it has a gritty, realistic feel and an emphasis on story and character over flashy visual spectacle. Batman-News.com got a chance to sit down with writer-director Dan Marcus and discuss how he came about making the superheroic world of Fallen.
Batman-News: You have directed this superhero short film, entitled “Fallen”. Tell us how you came up with this idea?
Dan Marcus: Well, I’ve always been a big comic-book aficionado. I grew up on comic-books and I view them as this sort of modern mythology. The great thing about comic-books, and what makes them so unique as an entertainment medium, is that they are so different than film or television. You can really absorb a comic-book unlike anything else, including any sort of normal piece of literature, because you can go back and re-explore a panel or a piece of dialogue in a way you really can’t with film. Certain moments are captured so succinctly and so incredibly with a well-drawn image… it’s like those moments are captured in time. Anyway, my uncle was a big comic-book enthusiast, and he had practically thousands and thousands of comic-books that he collected from when he was a child, and when I was young he sat me down and introduced me to some of the best comic-books out there. You know, the Batman comics of the 70′s, when Denny O’Neil and Neal Adams did things, to the Frank Miller era of comics with The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One, and it really made an impression on me. I remember reading through an old vintage Batman comic- I think it was the September 1939 issue of Detective Comics – that he had somehow obtained, and I was just blown away. I’ll never forget sitting down for the first time and reading through Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s The Long Halloween. I mean, my love for comics even went deeper than my love for Batman, like the first time I read Chris Claremont’s The Dark Phoenix Saga or Alan Moore’s Watchmen. All those stories inspired Fallen to some degree or another. I also grew up watching superhero movies, like Tim Burton’s Batman and Richard Donner’s Superman: The Movie, and when I got up early every Saturday morning, I would watch Batman: The Animated Series. I had done a short film prior to this called Wake, and I knew going into my second short film that I wanted it to be bigger and more epic in scale and scope, and so naturally I decided to do a superhero film. I’m always looking for a challenge, and Wake was a quiet, introspective drama, and even though I love dramas, I have a fond adoration for big action films. I grew up on Star Wars and Indiana Jones and I practically came out of the womb with a love for Burton’s Batman. As a matter of fact, I still have this old Batman VHS that I got probably when I was first born, and I still have an old VHS player, and despite the fact that the video is scratchy and old, sometimes I’ll put on that old VHS tape and watch Batman. I had actually toyed with the idea of doing a Batman fanfilm for the longest time, out of my sheer love for the Batman character, but instead I decided to do something original. I’m a big fan of Christopher Nolan’s take on the Batman universe and so I devised an original superhero that would have the sort of naturalistic feel of Nolan’s Batman. Fallen is basically my homage to Batman, so I guess I can’t really tout this as too original.
Batman-News: You said you are a fan of Christopher Nolan. Is it safe to say his work influenced “Fallen” in any capacity?
Dan Marcus: Absolutely. I mean, I’m a huge fan of his stylistic sensibilities and how he approaches the way he makes his films. What separates Nolan from all of the other autuers out there is that he focuses on story, and he lets the story influence the characters, but he never loses sight of the characters. That’s really what inspired me and how I approach the stories that I do. I strongly feel that he’s very much the Alfred Hitchcock of superhero films, and what made Hitchcock so great, and to an extent what makes Nolan so great, is that Hitchcock always focused on the primal fears of human nature. You know, he always tapped into the psychological identity of his characters- whether it was a girl having suspicions over her uncle in Shadow of a Doubt, or unsuspecting hotel guests fearing Norman Bates in Psycho, he really tapped into the psychology of his characters, and Nolan does the exact same. You know, he really brings you into the mind of his characters, and I feel that’s one of the biggest strengths of his films. Whether it be bringing you into the mindset of Leonard in Memento, or Will Dormer in Insomnia, he really creates this believable psychological setting that forces you to feel what the character is feeling. I mean, it worked so well for Batman Begins, because he brought you into the mind of Bruce Wayne in a way that no one else had done before. So I feel like when he sits down to write the story for his films, he has a very crystallized idea on how he wants the story and the themes to be. So when I sat down to write Fallen, I had a very clear idea on what I wanted this story to be- at first, I wanted to do a post-apocalyptic superhero film that felt very real and grounded. I knew from the onset that this story would be about the tangible humanity of what it means to be a superhero- there would be no costumes or anything, but that was a deliberate choice. I not only drew from Nolan’s sensibilities, but the show Heroes as well, or at least the first season. I liked how that show took these sort of normal people and then propelled them into extraordinary circumstances, and that influenced my take on Fallen to some extent. The main character, Ephraim, he’s someone you can immediately relate to- he’s a normal person but with these extraordinary abilities, he’s extremely strong, but his willpower doesn’t come from his external strengths, it comes from his internal strengths, and that’s what makes the character a hero in that archetypal sense. I wanted to explore the psychological underpinnings of Ephraim, you know, what made him tick. He’s someone that begins to doubt others around him, and that stems from him doubting himself. He’s not sure he can be the superhero he thought he was, and it’s that exploration of a fractured individual, someone who is a bit paranoid and a bit off-kilter, that drove the story of Fallen.
Batman-News: You said that one of Christopher Nolan’s trademarks as a director and storyteller is that he focuses on the story above all. How did you approach constructing the story for “Fallen”?
Dan Marcus: Well, I came up with the concept while talking to my producer. I was in the finishing stages of working on my last film, Wake, and we were discussing ideas for what I would do next. I told him I wanted to do a superhero film, but I wanted to do it slightly different. We talked about opening up the story with the hero having already failed. To me, that seemed like a different sort of approach, because in normal superhero stories, you know the hero is always going to pull through. You have the traditional set-up of the hero, and then the villain that threatens everything, but in the end the hero always saves the day. So, I thought about trying to re-structure that basic approach into something a little different. So, in the story, Ephraim, our hero character, would have faced the villain of the story offscreen, before the story had begun, and when the film starts, the entire city is destroyed and the hero is guilt-ridden because he couldn’t save the city in time. I thought that was a really interesting conduit into telling this type of story, but the more we started to develop the story and then the screenplay, it became evident that the drawback was that the majority of the film was then going to be about these characters reminiscing about something that had already happened, and so there was no immediate conflict. As I was continually developing the script, and I brought on different writers like David Hammond, who co-wrote the Batman fanfilm Patient J, I realized that in order for the story to have any real, legitimate conflict, we had to tell a different part of this grandiose story we wanted to tell. So instead of the hero having already failed, he decides to quit because he crumbles under the immense weight of these responsibilities he has to save the city, but the true conflict of the story is whether or not he has the internal strength to pull through and become the hero he strove to be from the very beginning. We really sort of blur the lines of whether he was just too weak physically to keep going or whether or not he is just fed up with his responsibilities as the hero. I guess the answer kind of becomes obvious as the story progresses, but I wanted the audience to have to determine the real reason why Ephraim just sort of quits. In terms of how it all fits into the grand scheme of things, in reality, I guess you can say it’s similar to how George Lucas approached the whole Star Wars saga- and I don’t mean to draw comparisons, but only in the way he approached telling the story- but he had this grandiose story he wanted to tell, but he realized that it would be better to start in the middle of the story rather than the beginning, and similarly with Fallen, I wrote this 10 page treatment that basically outlines the entire story, but I realized that in order to first introduce these characters to the audience in the best possible way, that it would be better thematically speaking to introduce the story at a different time than I was originally thinking.
Batman-News: Judging by the trailers, it looks like “Fallen” was shot in some of the very same locations that Christopher Nolan shot “The Dark Knight”. Can you talk more about how you came to shooting “Fallen” in downtown Chicago?
Dan Marcus: When I was developing the script, it was going to be entirely set in this gritty, devastated, post-apocalyptic setting, and it was all going to be in this one dilapidated location that we had found in Gary, Indiana. For those who don’t know, there was a giant fire that eviscerated sections of downtown Gary, Indiana a long time ago, and all that are left are sort of burnt out, hollow shells of what used to be these great big buildings and structures. We did some location scouting and found this one dilapidated postal office in Gary, and it seemed perfect for what we wanted to do. Since this devastation was recent, whatever location we found had to feel devastated but still contemporary and somewhat modern, and this location made it feel like the devastation had happened recently, verses years and years ago. However, when we decided to change the story to make it more of a pre-apocalyptic film, we knew we had to get a real sense of the immediacy of what was happening. So we knew we couldn’t do the story in one location anymore. We had to branch out and really expand the locations so we could see the great lengths of the devastation and what it was doing to the city. In the story, Chicago is going through something very similar to the 1992 Los Angeles riots, where there’s complete chaos caused by Ephraim’s absence and the battle he had with the villain of the story, Bethany, before the film begins. When you’re developing any story, especially one on this grand and epic scale, you want to be faithful to that as much as possible, and I knew if we were going to do this right, we had to have the biggest and grandest locations possible. I live in Chicago, and so naturally shooting on LaSalle Street by the Board of Trade seemed like the right place to set the majority of this story- it’s literally the epicenter of Chicago. In my humble opinion, Chicago is the greatest city on Earth, and the architecture is so incredibly beautiful and stunning. It’s one of the only modern cities on the planet that gives you this incredible subterranean feel. Those reasons alone made it the obvious place to shoot portions of the film. The location we shot, you know, it’s the Financial District, and you can understand why Nolan made it the “unofficial center of Gotham” in Batman Begins- it’s literally the center of Chicago itself! You know, it’s the center of commerce and where business happens in Chicago. We shot literally where they flipped the Joker semi-truck in The Dark Knight, and it was just an amazing location that gave us just the right canvas in order to tell the story in the best and largest possible way.
Batman-News: It must have been very exciting shooting in some of the same locations as “The Dark Knight”.
Dan Marcus: It was! We worked very closely with the Chicago Film Office and they were really wonderful. They had some experience filming in that location because they had just worked with Chris Nolan and The Dark Knight team just months before, so they were very helpful and knowledgeable. It was a really incredible experience for myself and for my producers, because it was almost this surreal experience working with them, but they were professionals and had done this many times before. It was really a test for myself, because this was the biggest film I had ever done before, and to this date the biggest film I have ever done, and it was just incredibly expansive in terms of what we had to do in order to prepare for the film. Fortunately my producers had experience doing films on this scale, so they were also very helpful in guiding me in this giant production. As a matter of fact, several of the people that worked on this film had positions on The Dark Knight, so a lot of these guys knew exactly what they were doing. Still, it was a really massive experience. We cordoned off streets, we had to re-route buses, and we utilized the wonderful city of Chicago’s police force, and it was a really wonderfully collaborative effort working with the city. You know, you don’t really realize the majesty of LaSalle Street and the Board of Trade until you are literally right there, but it was a fantastic location that really helped us create this authentic, believable scenario for which the story relies on. Fallen is, if anything, a story that strives on authenticism and believability- I wanted to tell a superhero story on the utmost believable scale, and in order to achieve that you have to convince the audience that what they’re seeing is real. I feel like it’s my job as the filmmaker to really create this authentic environment for the characters to co-exist. The regular audience member is really intelligent and sharp, and they know when something is a special effect or when it’s done on a sound stage, and so we really strived for authenticism to tell this story as realistically as possible by not filming on sets but real locations.
Batman-News: You mentioned that an original superhero named Ephraim is the hero of your story. Can you tell us a little bit about what kind of superhero he is?
Dan Marcus: When I actually sat down and started writing the screenplay, I had actually pictured him as more of a Thor type, because I was drawing from the grigori, and in The Bible they were fallen angels, and I conceived Ephraim as this young, handsome, fallen angel. However, my lead actor, Brian Kavanaugh, came in for auditions one day and he absolutely blew everyone away. He brought this dangerous, almost cavalier quality to the character that I absolutely loved, and as we went about revising the screenplay, his audition fed directly into Ephraim’s characterization. It was literally a case of an actor coming in, shattering expectations, and making a character their own. Before Brian had come in, I had seen Ephraim one way, but after his audition, I saw him a completely different way. I began to re-envision Ephraim as someone with a dash of Indiana Jones, Wolverine, and the Batman. He’s not a clean-cut, conservative, Clark Kent type of person- he’s more like Chuck Yeager or Han Solo. He’s rough around the edges and he doesn’t care about being polite. I always said when we were developing the script that just because he’s a superhero and he saves you doesn’t mean he has to necessarily like you. It actually worked out very well, because the cavalier Ephraim would not fit into our previous version of the story, but by making this story more current and more about Ephraim’s struggle to either be a hero or not, it allowed me to really play with Ephraim’s personality. The way he treats people and the way he responds to things can sometimes be a little shocking. You know, he’s not a conventional superhero in the traditional sense- he’s not charming like Superman and he’s not even driven by rules like Batman. He has a bit of an attitude and he’s not exactly a people’s person. He’s not the person who would automatically be assumed to be a dashing hero. He’s someone who was unwittingly and unexpectedly propelled into the position of being this savor to the city, and like anyone, after a while of doing this, he begins to question whether or not he even has the desire to be this hero anymore. Everyone looks to him to be their savior, and he realizes it’s a responsibility he’s not sure that he can handle anymore.
Batman-News: Why doesn’t he wear a costume?
Dan Marcus: That’s a question I often get asked to be honest with you. For some strange reason, when I first envisioned Ephraim, I never saw him in a costume. It’s weird, I know. We actually talked about putting him in a costume for the longest time, but it just didn’t seem right to me. Ephraim seems like the type of person that would reject a costume because he would consider it too patronizing. In earlier versions of the story we did touch on that issue, but unfortunately those moments had to be cut out due to length and time. Still, though, Ephraim doesn’t want to be this idolized figure. He’s a very humble sort of person who doesn’t bask in the light of being a “superhero” in that sense. At the same time, though, because of our limited budget and resources, had we put Ephraim in a costume it would have looked ridiculous. I didn’t want Ephraim running around in spandex tights. Since Ephraim’s powers are strength, putting him in an armor costume didn’t make any sense either. Plus, how many times do you see in superhero movies where the hero’s mask gets ripped off? I mean, at the rate that Spider-Man takes off his mask in those movies, the entire city should know his real identity by now! So I really wanted to avoid a traditional costume and mask, and instead, I wanted to mirror Ephraim off of someone like Indiana Jones. I’m a big fan of Indiana Jones, and that famous leather jacket aesthetic, so I thought it would be a cool look for a superhero, while still retaining that realistic sensibility. However, we do have a character that wears a costume in the story, and he’s called The Vigilante. He’s a response to the absence of Ephraim- since he’s not out there fighting, normal people start taking matters into their own hands, and Ephraim has to deal with that. My production designer essentially created a very basic, homemade costume for The Vigilante- it’s actually made up of paintball gear. I wanted him to look like he went into his garage and came up with the costume himself with the tools and clothing he had at his disposal. I’ve heard from a lot of people who have seen the footage and think he’s a SWAT member or something, but he’s not. He’s a vigilante type of character with no powers who basically decides to go out there and start doing Ephraim’s job since he’s not doing it.
Batman-News: You mentioned that Christopher Nolan always focuses on the story and themes for his films. What are the themes for “Fallen”?
Dan Marcus: I drew from a very personal background. With Wake, which was my first short film, I made a film about a young teenager dealing with the unexpected death of his mother and having to reconcile with his estranged father. That was a topic very personal to me, and I feel like when you tell any story, it needs to feel personal so that you have a conduit into telling something that can feel tangible and palpable to a regular audience. I think the best superhero stories have this emotional epicenter and the superheroics are sort of surrounded by that. For example, the heart of Batman Begins comes from Bruce Wayne’s struggle to overcome his parent’s death. However it’s not just about his parents death, it’s about the struggle to fight for Gotham City. It was something Bruce’s father, Thomas Wayne, believed in, and it’s a struggle that Bruce is now continuing to tackle, but in his own way. I felt like with Fallen, I had to make the story personal for me, and find a way to make the story feel real so that an audience could relate and connect with it. I remember when my father left me, and how devastated I felt as a child. I looked up to him, and I saw him as my own personal hero, as corny and cliche as that sounds. So I related that to a superhero essentially telling a city that he can no longer be their hero- very much like how my father told me he couldn’t be my father anymore. I know this is something that’s been dealt with before, like in Superman II and in Spider-Man 2 and even to a lesser extent The Dark Knight- but what I tried to do differently is show the city’s reaction to that. The film is mostly about Ephraim interacting and dealing with the scared citizenry of the city- the people that he let down. A lot of times superhero films focus on the interpersonal dynamics of the superhero, which is perfectly fine, but Fallen deals with at its core what it means to be a superhero and what it means to actually save someone- being a hero is something very difficult because normally you have to sacrifice something in order to be one. It deals with a hero and his relationship to the city, very similar to a father and his relationship to his son. I hope that people can relate to that on some basic, fundamental level and that it feels real for them emotionally speaking. I always thought to myself that the greatest thing you can do as a storyteller is get some kind of reaction out of your audience- whether that be positive or negative. I love watching movies and hearing the reactions from the audience- whether that be laughing, or crying, or cheering, or clapping. It’s what makes going to the theater such an incredible experience because it’s that sense of immersion where you feel like you’re experiencing something rather than just watching it. I hope that when people watch Fallen, they can enjoy the visuals and they can enjoy the story, but also that they can emotionally resonate with the material. That’s always my greatest wish as a storyteller and my biggest satisfaction when people come up to me and say, “Your film emotionally affected me”. It doesn’t happen much, and I don’t mean to sound egotistical or anything, but that’s what I hope people get out of when they watch Fallen is if anything some type of emotional response.
Batman-News: That does sound very personal, and it sounds like you put a lot of yourself into “Fallen”. It almost sounds like a cathartic experience.
Dan Marcus: It was, in a way. The good thing, though, is that my relationship with my father has improved a lot since the time I had initially developed Fallen over three years ago. That’s the brilliance of doing anything, whether it be writing, or acting, or directing, or what not- it’s that sense of emotional release you get when you put a part of yourself into something and sometimes, you know, hopefully you get something back. I feel like I’m on Dr. Phil, so I don’t want to get carried away or anything, but you know, I see things from a different perspective now. I had this very judgmental perspective about my father, but after doing the film, and seeing things from the perspective of Ephraim, and especially being Ephraim while I was doing the film in the sense of imagining myself as the character while navigating through the trials of the story, it made me re-think some things and it made me realize how difficult it is to be someone like that. It’s the beauty of storytelling in the sense that for a little while, you can be someone else and have these fantastic adventures that you know aren’t real, but for a little while you can convince yourself that they are. For a little while, I was Ephraim, and if anything it helped create the story because I made decisions and perceived things how I thought Ephraim would perceive things. I don’t want to be pretentious and say that this film will change anybody’s perspective on certain things, because I doubt it will and I’m in no way Mother Teresa, but my hope is that you will be able to see Fallen on a purely visual and story level and be able to enjoy it, but on top of that, when you explore the film a bit more if you so choose, you can find hidden layers that have deeper meanings. It’s something I get from Nolan’s films all the time- they are like onions and the more you peel back, the deeper you get into the core of what it is that you are trying to understand.
Batman-News: What are your plans in terms of releasing “Fallen”? Also, care to elaborate on any future plans beyond the film?
Dan Marcus: Fallen will be available online starting July 15th, 2011. It was always my firm belief that Fallen is very much an action film as much as it is a superhero film and a character-driven film, and the summer to me is always the best time to release a big, fun, superhero action film. I’m in the middle of finding a website to exclusively release the film, but either way it will be available on my website. I’m also nearing a deal with a very prolific composer that everyone will be very excited about if it happens, and our discussions have yielded some really cool, fascinating results, and I’m confident he’ll deliver something musically that will absolutely surprise and excite people. Also, lastly, I’m manufacturing DVDs of the film which will also be available shortly after the initial release. In terms of future plans, I still have a very strong desire to do a Batman fanfilm, and maybe one day I’ll get to scratch that itch. I’m also developing more short films and in particular a feature-length film that I’m in the process of writing that I hope to take into production very soon.
Batman-News: What about a feature-length version of “Fallen”?
Dan Marcus: We’ll see. It all depends on what people think of this short film. I always envisioned this story as feature-length, and I have written a treatment that is incredibly expansive. You’re only seeing a fraction of what could be a much larger story. However, you know, if people like what they see, and there’s enough interest out there, we’ll see. Who knows. Anything is possible.
Fallen was directed by Dan Marcus and stars Brian Kavanaugh, Errol McLendon, Andrew Staton, and Heather Tyler. It will be online July 15th, 2011 and DVDs of the film will be available shortly thereafter. You can follow the film on Twitter, and can become a fan on Facebook.