Director Thunder Levin helmed the latest Asylum Mockbuster, AMERICAN WARSHIPS, which did battle with it’s big budget inspiration!
While audiences ran to familiar titles like THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN and ALIEN prequel PROMETHEUS, they chose to avoid some titles based on older properties, like Disney’s JOHN CARTER (*No longer “OF MARS” when Disney felt MARS NEEDS MOMS showed audiences had no interest in The Red Planet) and Universal Studios’ fun but neglected $200 million dollar BATTLESHIP, based on the board game. Unfortunately, the lovable mad geniuses at The Asylum debuted AMERICAN WARSHIPS on The SyFy Channel.
While both films deal with the Navy battling an alien invasion on the high seas, only one features JAWS THE REVENGE star Mario Van Peebles! It also has Carl Weathers facing his first extraterrestrial threat in the 25 years since he was killed by Predator.
“I put Carl Weathers up against his first alien since PREDATOR. I doubt it was much fun for the aliens! this time around.”
It also became the first Asylum Mockbuster actually sued by a studio. Universal Studios filed the suit, but ironically owns The SyFy Channel, which ran AMERICAN WARSHIPS without incident.
An Asylum spokesperson (*who requested anonymity) summed up how their Mockbusters work: “When the movie we’re compared to doesn’t work or find an audience, our film doesn’t find that audience either!”
Handsome, likable Thunder Levin directed the fun MUTANT VAMPIRE ZOMBIES FROM THE ‘HOOD! before he went into The Asylum. The filmmaker was excited to tackle a big movie on a “B”-Budget.
“AMERICAN WARSHIPS is a $200 million military action film made on a tenth of a percent of the budget,” he declares. “It’s the story of the last American battleship, the USS IOWA, whose final voyage on the way to becoming a museum, is interupted by the need to save the world. And what the crew learns along the way is that the enemy is not always who you think. After the shoot, I visited the real ship (when it was in LA on 4th of July weekend),
“You know, even a low budget film like this still takes six months out of your life from start to finish. It’s not like we shot it and the next day it’s on national television. But yes, it’s certainly exciting to know that the film reached a large audience. We premiered the film a few weeks ago at the Cape Fear Independent Film Festival in Wilmington, NC, where we shot it. That audience seemed to really love it, so I hope the national audience did, just as well.”
As with any Asylum production, there’s always recognizable names. “The cast is led by Mario Van Peebles, who plays Capt. James Winston. It was a pleasure to work with Mario; he’s a really nice guy. He was very supportive of my efforts to make the film as good as possible and try to raise it above typical ‘mockbuster’ fare. As a very experienced director himself, he was always providing invaluable input. I’d say we had a true collaboration on set.
“One of the interesting aspects of our work together was that I found Mario frequently suggesting things that I had wanted to do, but put aside because I was afraid they’d be too comlicated or take too long. With Mario’s support, I felt more comfortable going ahead and taking the risk to try to do them, and just trusting that somehow we’d still stay on schedule. And it all worked out! On top of that, he was great fun both on the set and off. I really enjoyed working with him.”
“Carl Weathers was quite simply a gentleman. Growing up with Apollo Creed and then his character in PREDATOR, I had a certain image of him going into this project. But meeting him in person, you discover that he’s not the least bit intimidating, just the nicest, most professional guy imaginable. He immediately put everyone in cast and crew at ease, and he was a joy to work with.”
Female lead Johanna Watts “was the lead in my previous film MUTANT VAMPIRE ZOMBIES FROM THE ‘HOOD! and now I’m starting to feel like I couldn’t make a movie without her! Johanna brings an extraordinary humanity to her performance, in a role that could have become a very sterile military character, or at the other extreme, an out-of-place ditz, in the hands of a lesser actor. But Johanna found the human essence of Lt. Caroline Bradley and brought her to life in truly wonderous ways. There was one moment on set where she literally brought me to tears as I watched her perform.”
“Nikki McCauley as Dr. Flynn was, in a lot of ways, the soul of the story. Her character is a mirror image of the very reserved, controlled Capt. Winston, yet they both share the same love, for the USS Iowa. Nikki brought a special light to the set each day which, I think, made everyone around her happy to be there.”
“The local North Carolina actors cast in supporting roles were quite good. This was a great group of acting professionals working far from the Hollywood or Broadway limelight. In particular Elijah Chester, playing Secretary of Defense Alter, went toe to toe with Carl Weathers and never blinked. So many of the others, Sean Patrick Smith as the First Officer, Devin McGee as the SEAL Team Leader, April Ezell Wilson as the ship’s doctor, and many others. They really helped establish the reality of the film in very satisfying ways.”
Levin enjoyed working for The Asylum. “There’s a reason they call it the Asylum,” he grins, “because it’s a truly insane place to work! AMERICAN WARSHIPS was one of their ‘bigger’ productions, in that we had three whole weeks to shoot it on a budget that probably wouldn’t even cover the catering on a big studio film. They churn out at least a movie a month, sometimes twice that many, so as a director, you have to accept that you’re just one cog in their filmmaking machine. But despite that, and despite the fact that everyone there is overworked and underpaid, the company is made up of a truly great bunch of guys from partners Rimawi, Latt, and Bales, on down.
“While there are obvious constraints on what you can do on one of their films due to time and budget limitations, they still encourage you to do everything you can to make the best film possible under the circumstances. And it seems that the more passionate the director is, the more passionately they will support you.”
Would Levin come back for a sequel? “Oh yeah,” he says confidently, “I’ve already suggested to Asylum that we do AMERICAN WARSHIPS VS MEGA SHARK. . The tag line would be ‘This time they won’t need a bigger boat!’ Yes. The big guns could take down the big fish! The Asylum generally doesn’t do sequels, other than their MegaShark franchise, but we’ll see…
“Also, I’m in the early stages of putting together a $5 – $10 million action-thriller, with producer Greg Alpert, called SHADOWS OF THE JUNGLE. It’s sort of a twist on a classic werewolf story, but takes place in the jungles of Guatemala and involves Mayan mythology and an ex-Navy SEAL. I’m also trying to make my sci-fi epic ‘2176’ happen. That’s really my dream project, but since it would be an epic trilogy that would make Lord Of The Rings look small in comparison, it’s going to take just the right producer to make it happen. At the same time as all this, I’m also developing a couple of new projects for the Asylum. We’ll see which one happens first!”
Was he excited to be the first Mockbuster ever sued by a major studio? “I can’t really comment on the lawsuit, but I suppose it is sort of a backhanded compliment…”
“We changed the title from AMERICAN BATTLESHIP to AMERICAN WARSHIPS. ” At the viewing party for his movie as it premiered on Sy Fy, the editor’s daughter brought a cake reading “Congratulatiosn, AMERICAN BATTLESHIP”–which was crossed out with a giant icing X.
If he could say anything to BATTLESHIP director Peter Berg, what would it be? “Just one thing,” Thunder Levin says, pausing for full comedic effect. “You’re not going to sink my battleship! Sorry, that was just too easy!”
AMERICAN WARSHIPS is now on dvd and Netflix.
Photos: Thunder Levin and cast of AMERICAN WARSHIPS! (*Courtesy of Thunder Levin)