Toy Lines – Hi Polaris, and thank you for agreeing to the interview. It’s a real honor to be able to speak to you about what I feel is one of THE best “fan films” ever made. I was extremely impressed by everything I saw in it and couldn’t wait to interview you. I really hesitate to call it a “fan film”, because I honestly think of it more along the lines of an Independent Short Film that IFC would be showing.
Polaris Banks – Why, thank you! I kind of hate the term “fan film,” sounds amatuer. I prefer “unauthorized,” like those meaty biographies.
TL – So, why Casey Jones? What made you want to make a short film about him? How did the idea come about?
PB – It’s strange, I just concocted a movie based on who was around. At the time, my roommates were Oliver Luke and Chris Frasier. Oliver was a special effects expert I’d known from high school theater, and my even longer friend Chris was a tremendous physical performer and nunchuck master. The idea of a Casey Jones project appeared only after realizing how much my brother resembled the character though. I visualized Hilarion with the long hair and hockey stick, and the entire production instantaneously formed in my head: Hilarion the lead, the Turtle suit made by Oliver, Frasier the perfect Michelangelo, and me filling in wherever I could help. At first I mentioned it to them as a funny “what if,” but then I couldn’t stop fantasizing about how it would turn out. Once an idea gets stuck in my head, no matter how ridiculous, I have to make it. It became an obsession, but I don’t think they actually took me seriously until the first shipment of moldmaking chemicals arrived.
TL – One thing I liked was how this film could really be the origin story of Casey Jones that leads into the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie from 1990. Were you a fan of the film? You captured the feel of that film in yours, as well adding slight nods to the cartoon series like having April O’Niel wearing the yellow jump suit and being a news reporter for Channel 6 news and having Krang in it
PB – Any kid growing up in the early 90s HAD to be a fan of the Ninja Turtles. I practically memorized the live action movies and cartoons, but I really never considered myself more into it than other children. Everyone loved them, much like the inescapable popularity of Star Wars for youths in the late 70s. When adapting a popular property, I try to keep the elements fans already love in tact. It’s important not to fix something that isn’t broken, but to rather add your own stamp to the areas that need improvement. That’s why my movie is so reminiscent of the first 1990 film. I thought they got so much right. I also took many aspects from the 80s cartoon, Mirage comics, and even the new animated series, but the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles live action film is still my favorite interpretation hands down.
TL – How much research went into this film in regards to Casey Jones? Did you reference the Mirage comic books? The addition of the Purple Dragons was great, and then to see the Foot Clan show, you had lots of surprises to keep turtle fans happy.
PB – I got my hands on every single issue or episode that even mentioned Casey. I’d have been mortified to come across something I wanted to include after my movie was finished. So I was beyond thorough, and because of that the movie is riddled with dozens and dozens of references, mostly from the comics. Some are so obscure only a single fan notices. It makes me really happy when someone calls out one of those. I make sure to try not to alienate people who’ve never heard of the Turtles too. I think any movie, even if it’s part of a series, should be fully enjoyable without prior knowledge.
TL – Where you a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fan growing up? A Casey Jones fan? Were you a fan of the Mirage books?
PB – I actually became a much bigger fan as an adult while doing research for the movie. I hadn’t read any of the original Mirage comics before, and those gave me a more intimate love of the material. Those first issues are so special. Unlike so much TMNT content, those comics aren’t affected by popularity. No one pressured them to be more mainstream or kid friendly yet. They’re the only opportunity to see the creators’ vision uncompromised.
TL – Reading the credits I see a lot of the names come up again and again from those that acted in the film to helping out with behind the scenes needs. Are you all friends?
PB – Absolutely, nearly all of the cast and crew were close friends or family. I’m lucky to know so many reliable and talented people. When I was ready to shoot again, I’d call everyone in town to see who was willing to help. It was balancing favors, getting everything I could out of one person, then giving them a break as soon as I sensed they were getting fed up. We had an unbelievably good time though. The hours were long, but what could be more fun than playing Ninja Turtles with your best friends? The crew was always different. Sometimes I’d have plenty of assistants. Sometimes it was just Hilarion and I running everything. My most consistent helpers were those I’d donated my time to in the past. It paid off in the end.
TL – So, Hilarion Banks is your brother, how was it working with him? I must say, he looked and sounded very much like a young Elias Koteas from the 90’s film, and he captured the spirit of Casey perfectly from his comedic timing to his fighting.
PB – You know, it’s funny. Hilarion didn’t intentionally imitate Elias Koteas. He and I wanted to build the character from scratch, and after working the lines and reviewing the source material, the performance we came up with resembled Koteas’s take on Casey quite a bit. That’s natural though. There’s something inherent in the character that Hilarion and Koteas both picked up on, the same way most portrayals of Stanley Kowalski resemble Brando’s. It’s just in the text. Ideally an actor eventually “gets” a character. He comes to an instinctual understanding, like autopilot. Hilarion was slow to take him on in rehearsals. I was even a bit concerned the first day of shooting, but as soon as action was called, something clicked inside Hilarion. He played the part just as I’d hoped, and he barely needed any character guidance after that. Chris similarly “got” Michelangelo. Directing the scenes between the two of them was wonderful.
TL – I really liked the reference to North Hampton in the film. Any turtles fan should recognize that name and know why it makes a great “Easter Egg” as well as some of the lines that were in the first film you quoted in this. What made you add these?
PB – I wanted my movie to exist in a kind of “Ninja Turtles Omniverse,” acknowledging all the greatest contributions from every version. Another example of this would be the Turtles in Time Super Nintendo game. It used characters and designs from the cartoon, movies, comics, and even toy lines. I feel like there’s no single definitive take on the Turtles. They exists in an accessible thoughtform, but no one artist has wholly articulated it. There are several literary creations like this: Batman, Dracula, Bond, Romeo and Juliet. Their identity to us is an amalgamated pop culture icon. So it felt natural to drop in quotes from other sources to tether them together.
TL – Can you tell us a bit about your filmmaking background? What made you get started in films and where did you go to school for it?
PB – I have no formal film education. I took the little college money set aside for me and started shooting. I’ve wanted to be a director as far back as 7 years old. Movies transport people to a different world. What other job do you get to make worlds?
TL – You were heavily involved in the making of this film. Just watching the credits I was amazed to see how many times I saw your name. Do you enjoy being so involved in your films?
PB – I love every step of the process. I only delegate jobs to other people when I have to, and even then I remain very involved. To me a film needs a cohesive vision, and the more people you cut in, the more the vision is confused and diluted. Ideally a finished movie is a diagram of the inside of the filmmaker’s head. After answering every question on a psychological evaluation, the therapist has a portrait of the patient’s psyche. Only a director’s tests are “who to cast?” “what lens to use?” “what color to paint the walls?”.
TL – Everything from the Cinematography in the film to the sets, lighting and props was just excellent. How much time went into scouting locations before you began filming?
PB – I spent weeks looking for the right locations, and once I found the perfect spot, I couldn’t settle for anywhere else. I was willing to pay whatever it took, and if someone refused, I’d break in and film while they were gone. Locations were very important to me, especially when I had so little money for art design. Sure, I came close to getting arrested on several occasions, but the cops were usually pretty reasonable. I mean, I am just trying to make art after all.
TL – How much casting did you need to do?
PB – I didn’t do much casting, mostly the female roles. April O’Neil, Mrs. Jones, and the Mugging Victim were paid actresses. The rest of the parts I selected from who I knew. The Hockey Coach is my dad, Dragon Face my brother in law. The Tagger, Car Jacker, and Pizza Man are my best friends. I happen to come from a family of actors. So that helped. The rest of the cast were volunteers off Craigslist, many just thrilled at the opportunity to play a Foot Ninja from their childhood. The only specialty performer I sought out was a trick martial artist for Michelangelo’s more complicated stunts. The TX Trickers lead me to Victor Zorilla, and that guy was incredible. It was a shame to cover him in that heavy creature suit. He’s three times as fast without it.
TL – Did everyone perform their own stunts? Are you and your brother martial artists?
PB – Yes, we all did our own stunts, and no, Hilarion and I have no martial arts training. We’ve just play fought each other enough growing up to be convincing I guess. We had almost zero safety measures, just a single mattress for the falls. We can be pretty reckless, but very few people got hurt. Mostly just me. I had a similar enough build to pass for Hilarion, and the Foot uniforms were all identical. So I made sure to do the ridiculously stupid stunts myself, the most dangerous being running on a ledge next to a three story drop. My sister was sure I was going to die that day.
TL – Where did you film the short and from start to finish how long did it take you to make?
PB – The first half of the movie is in Dallas, the second half Austin. I’m from Texas, and I much prefer to film there. I’m currently living in New York City, and there is no way I could have shot the movie here. The people just aren’t accommodating enough. We usually filmed during Hilarion’s quarterly breaks from UCLA, which slowed us down, but I paid for the movie myself. So we often waited months for me to save up enough to rent generators and feed the extras. All in all, it took about three years picking at it to complete it. Post production was particularly lengthy. The entire second half of the movie needed to be dubbed and foleyed.
TL – The fight scenes were extremely well choreographed, for instance, in the beginning when Casey spins around and hits Sid in the face with his hockey stick. It was a great shot and looked so real. Since your brother was playing the role of Casey and you played Sid, where you scared at all during that take or was it just trusting in your brother that he knew what he was doing?
PB – I think stunt fighting is kind of like comedy. Kids unintentionally pick it up. I don’t think it can even be taught. Similarly, stunt fighting is based on rhythm and instinct. All the people I know who can pull it off have always had a knack for it. Hilarion, Frasier, and I grew up fake fighting in the backyard. So that particular hockey stick hit wasn’t even rehearsed. We just did it, and with a real stick too. Yes, stunts involve a lot of trust, but it’s mostly about trusting yourself. If you sense something going wrong in the move, pull back. Giving the other person all the responsibility is how accidents happen.
TL – Your short shows the truth about what it would truly be like when a man goes out with his weapons of hockey sticks, baseball bats, golf clubs, a cricket stick and polo mallet (the sledge hammer took me totally by surprise) to take on crime. While there is violence and blood, I don’t feel it was just for violence’s sake, and you were making a point as to the realism of such a situation. What’re your thoughts?
PB – Well if you don’t show the real effects of violence, the audience still thinks about what the consequences would be. How many times have you watched a PG-rated movie where a bowling ball drops on a guy’s head, and all he does is cross his eyes and shake his head. As an audience member, you still immediately think “Uh no, that’s murder.” Unrealistic consequences take you out of the illusion, and that’s the purpose of a movie right, to let the audience lose themselves in the illusion. I sometimes have the same problem with over exaggerated violence. If an otherwise realistic film has a character launch his victim across the room just by shooting him with a handgun, my brain checks out for a moment. That’s why I respect James Cameron’s action direction. Even a motion picture as extreme as Terminator 2 never pushes its violence past what’s physically possible. It’s all about relatability. I’m fine if the whole movie has outlandish action though, as long as it’s consistently cartoonish. A movie has to stick to the world it creates. I’m glad you liked the sledgehammer. Casey actually uses a sledgehammer against one of Krang’s robots in the 80s series. So once I saw there was a precedent for him including a sledge in the golf bag, I had to work it in.
TL – I have to ask, how did you film the scene where Casey shoves the man’s face into the fire? Because that take looked so real, even the second time I watched the movie it made me wonder how you did that.
PB – At the low budget level, the best special effect is guts. If you find yourself thinking “How did they do that without really doing it?”, well chances are they just really did it. The barrel had real fire burning in it suspended at the surface by wire mesh. I cut an area out of the mesh about the size of the actor’s head to make a clear spot, then asking him to plunge his face in as long as he could. It really wasn’t that risky. All I needed was a second for editing. The only barrier was mental. Good thing the actor doing the stunt, Andrew Varenhorst, had guts. Funny thing is, I rarely warn my actors that I might ask them to do something dangerous. I prefer to put them on the spot and see if they go for it. I’ve actually had very few people back out with this method. The adrenaline is released, and the moment takes over. The more time you give someone to consider something, the more time they have to psych themselves out.
TL – The training montage of Casey working out was great, especially in the junk yard. When he is on top of the junk piles and using his bats is a really great and impressive scene. What made you think of the idea of having him train in a junk yard?
PB – To me, junkyards are permanently part of the Ninja Turtles aesthetic. They’ve been featured consistently in the comics and films, most memorably in Secret of the Ooze. We actually didn’t get permission to climb to the top of that scrap pile. So we did that setup last. The owner kicked us out of course, but we had what we needed. I couldn’t have lived without that shot.
TL – Normally in the comics Casey teams up with Raphael. What made you use Michelangelo for this?
PB – Understandably I get this question a lot. There are several reasons, but mainly I wanted to break new ground. There have already been notable pairings between Casey and Raphael, April, Donatello, and Splinter, but never with Michelangelo or Leonardo. Michelangelo is both the most signature Turtle to the general public and also the best foil for Casey, especially in a story from Casey’s point of view. In the original first meeting between Casey and Raphael, Raph was in a gentler mood after a fight with Leonardo about losing control, but my movie wouldn’t include that explanation. So I needed to use a Turtle who was naturally light and fun to contrast Casey’s aggression. I also wanted to utilize Mikey’s nunchucks in the fight choreography. Even in the computer generated feature, Michelangelo never gets to really showcase his weapons in combat.
TL – One of the great things about this film is you got the original film voice of Michelangelo, Robbie Rist, to reprise his role. How did that come about? (You even got him to say, “I love being a turtle!”. That was truly great.)
PB – A voice actor named Josh Yawn heard about my production and, being a huge Ninja Turtles fan, asked if he could voice one of the Turtles. I ended up casting him as Leonardo, and he suggested I get in touch with Rist to return as Michelangelo. I didn’t have to do much begging. I offered him industry standard pay, and he liked what he saw from the trailer. The only hard part was scheduling. Robbie Rist was fantastic to work with though. He’ll always be the quintessential Mikey to me. It was a dream come true.
TL – Let’s talk about the turtle suit. We know that Jim Henson’s Creature Shop made the ones for the first film. Who did you hire to make yours and how did they go about creating it? Did you get to keep it?
PB – As I said earlier, my roommate Oliver Luke was very experienced in practical effects. Without having him onboard, I never would have gone through with the idea. Oliver was responsible for the artistic work and main construction. Hilarion, Frasier, myself, and Oliver’s fellow makeup artist girlfriend Lyn Carver did what we could to take some of the workload. None of us had ever had the chance to make a full creature suit before, including Oliver, and these kinds of projects usually employ a dozen people working in a specialized phacility. We were just a handful of friends scraping a suit together in our livingroom. There were countless failures, but I had an incredible time figuring it all out. By the end of filming though, the suit was completely destroyed. Pieces tore off every night from the martial arts stunts. So there were constant repairs, and after we submerged it in creek water for the sewer scene, it mildewed and fell apart. I just tossed it in a dumpster after that.
TL – Did they also create the Krang puppet?
PB – Oliver coincidentally made that Krang animatronic as a student project while studying at the Tom Savini Special Make-Up Effects School. Since it was ready to go, I couldn’t resist including it, especially since Krang had never appeared in a live action movie before.
TL – Was the sewer shot on a set? Also, what about the scene where Michelangelo swims with the unconscious Casey? How did you film that?
PB – The first sewer location is a real giant storm drain that runs under the city of Austin. I tracked it down using clues I found in Urban Explorers photos. I had to dig up a stranger’s frontyard to open up the manhole, but like I said, people in Texas are very kind and accommodating. The swimming scene was just filmed in a creek. Not only was the suit much too heavy to safely swim in, but we also shot in winter. So I really owe Marty Moreno for enduring that. The outside of the Turtle Lair was shot under a bridge in downtown. That was a particularly disgusting location. The cops later told us that the water under there had Merca.
TL – Zane Effendi’s original score was excellent as was Johnny October’s end credit song “Goongala” (I especially like the part where he clinks the bottles together and says “Purple Dragons come out and play” like the scene from the movie “The Warriors”). How did you go about hiring them to work on the film?
PB – I just put up a post looking to hire a composer, and those two were among the many who contacted me. By then I had some clips cut into a crude trailer. So it was easier to attract professionals. The internet has made connecting like minded artists so much easier. Without craigslist and other job forums, I don’t know how I could’ve ever made this movie happen. Don’t let people discourage you from hiring off the internet. Yes, you often have to sift through a ton of crap, but there are diamonds in the rough. I was lucky enough to snag those two while their careers were in transition. Both have since moved on to bigger and better thing than my little turtle movie, and I’m so grateful to have had the chance to collaborate with such talent. Music is really what creates the magic, what gives you goosebumps in the theater.
TL – I think one iconic moment for me is towards the end when the crooks are eating the pizza around the fire and there in graffiti on the wall is Casey’s hockey mask. It’s very striking visually.
PB – Thanks, it was fun to have a reason to tag an abandoned building. That graffiti is probably still there.
TL – Who drew the art work in the end credits?
PB – You know, I never even met that guy. His name is Berkay Bugdanoglu, and he lives in Istanbul. I saw his porfolio on deviantart.com and asked if I could commission a few pieces. Again, the internet is a marvelous place to connect artists. I never even heard his voice, just emails. Berkay was a great example of hiring someone who’s style perfectly fits your vision. There was no need for direction. Everything he drew I absolutely loved.
TL – Have you entered the short in any film contests?
PB – I don’t have permission from the people who own the rights to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles characters. So I’m not legally allowed to exhibit Casey Jones at any festivals that charge admission, but the Wasteland Film Festival asked to screen a copy last year. I wasn’t able to make it out to the event, but I hear it won the highest award it was eligible for, Best Action Film. Someday I’ll look up some more free festivals that might show the movie.
TL – How has fan reaction been to the film?
PB – Very positive! They mostly just want to say thank you. This is the darker take on the characters they’ve always wanted to see. So they’re grateful someone went out of their way to do what the mainstream releases won’t. A few fans have commented that the creature suit looked fake, the camera was low grade, etc, but those are just budgetary issues. I really only pay attention to critiques on the storytelling. That I can learn from, and I’m always complemented when someone respects the movie enough to evaluate the technique, not just the content.
TL – Casey Jones was released in 2011. What have you worked on since then and do you plan on ever returning to the world of Casey Jones? I’ve got to be honest, when the half hour was over, I was bummed, I really enjoyed the film and wanted to see more.
PB – I actually took a year off to roughneck on an oil rig. With the money I saved, Hilarion and I bought some high end film equipment and started a production business. That financial independence has freed me up to work on my next feature project, an idea I’ve been kicking around for a while about altruistic criminals called Redeemers. I often consider doing another Casey Jones installment, but it’s a bit of a dead end. Someone else would have to pay for it, and I wouldn’t be able to make their money back. So permission from the current owners would be ideal, but Nickelodeon bought the rights. I doubt a child entertainment company would approve of my skull crushing interpretation. So I’m stuck for the moment. I guess the new Platinum Dunes TMNT movie will decide what direction the franchise is headed. Maybe if they sneak a little more violence in, I can take it from there.
TL – Polaris, we here at Toy-lines wish you the best of luck in your film career and would like to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to talk with us. It’s been a great honor to be able to speak to you. Keep up the great work!
For those who haven’t see Casey Jones, please click the link to the official site and watch: http://caseyjonesthemovie.com/
The Toy-lines Crew