Fantastic Fest Interview: Rooster Teeth and Alan Ritchson Talk LAZER TEAM
Texas-based web seriescreators Rooster Teeth launched the most successful Indiegogo campaign of all time in order to make their first feature film, Lazer Team. The story of a group of regular guys who become “Champions of Earth” after a spaceship crash-lands in their back yard, the movie’s $2.48 million fundraiser is a big enough story to mark it as one of the more intriguing titles to enjoy a World Premiere at Fantastic Fest 2015. After churning out web content for eleven years, the jump to the big screen seemed inevitable for the content team, and what better audience on the planet is there to welcome the Red vs. Blue inventors’ initial widescreen feat?
I was privileged enough to sit down with members of Rooster Teeth (co-writer/star Burnie Burns; actors Gavin Free and Michael Jones), as well as co-star Alan Ritchson (The Hunger Games: Catching Fire) following the bow of their film. What ensued was a lively conversation that touched on everything from the campaign, to which pieces of geek cinema they looked to for inspiration when making the movie. Hint: they mainly involve ghosts being busted.
So are you guys tired of talking about Indiegogo? I’m sure it’s a joy to finally be able to switch to talking about the actual film.
Burnie Burns (BB): Well – Indiegogo is a big part of the story. Look, we’re making a two-and-a-half-million-dollar movie, and we’re always looking for more people to discuss it in any way they can. Marketing is a huge part of the filmmaking process, and we’re grateful that not only did the audience help fund the film, but it also became a big talking point in the press. Look, here’s an audience who wants to see an original story be told – so much so that they reached into their own pockets to help make that happen.
Speaking of “the fans”, there’s a very post-Internet Culture style to the picture. It seems as if you’re speaking directly to those who indulge in online interaction every day. Even the way Lazer Team earns their name in the movie is through social media. Was this a conscious decision, or a natural byproduct of existing in the digital ecosystem for so long?
BB: I think we just live and breathe that stuff. I mean – so much of the Rooster Teeth team’s time is spent online, so it just seems natural.
Gavin Free (GF): Almost 100% of our interactions with our fans are through those outlets – community sites like Twitter and stuff.
BB: It’s just such a big part of our vocabulary now as a culture. Every piece of media imaginable is moving online. Everything is going digital.
GF: “Liking” something online isn’t that unique anymore. It literally means that you click “like”. It’s a quantifiable gauge for interest.
BB: Even pseudo-activism is a big thing now. “Oh, I liked something online, so those starving kids will be fed.”
Michael Jones (MJ): I could see how – and I’m not really sure of the age demographics exactly – but older folks who aren’t savvy with social media and stuff like that see the movie and get the idea that the online stuff is intentional. “Oh look, it’s Facebook. They placed that there.” But for us it’s just part of the everyday. We go to work; we make our videos; we make our content. Then we check to see how it did. How’s today? How’s last week? How’s last month? We’ve got stuff coming out tomorrow, so let’s promote it. Then we go home and, even when we’re not working, we can see how we’re doing.
BB: I can see the divide between real life and Internet Culture, especially in terms of the age of someone in the audience. But if a spaceship crashed in your backyard, the reaction to take a selfie with it is natural. However, adults look at “Internet Culture” as brands like Facebook. We see it as reporting our lives.
GF: And that’s totally the way I consume news, too. Any time there’s a massive breaking story – it’s instantly on Twitter. I remember when Michael Jackson died, and it was up in my feed moments later. I would’ve found out hours or even a day later if I saw it anywhere else.
Well that’s what was interesting about the movie – the instantaneous reaction you describe being a part of the plot to Lazer Team.
BB: And that’s what’s cool about it to us. Once something’s out, you can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube.
But beyond media and how we interact with it every day, what were some of the cinematic touchstones you looked to when making the movie? It almost felt like some of the late '90s/early '00s SNL comedies that were tuned in to the times in which they were made and that era-specific pop culture.
BB: The main scene for me in the movie is the moment where [Lazer Team] discover the spaceship and start playing with the alien equipment inside of it. One of the things we wanted to be really careful about was that we didn’t want people to think that we were making a parody of superhero movies. Superheroes are big now. Comic book movies are big now. But we were very inspired by Ghostbusters when we were making it.
Because think about it: nobody is going to watch Ghostbusters and think, “oh, this is a parody of horror movies”. It’s a comedy first, and it has supernatural elements to it. And that’s what we wanted to make: a comedy with sci-fi elements and superhero elements mixed into it.
Sure. But when you’re making a movie like this, how does that go? Is it structure first and jokes second? Are they simultaneously created? Is there a prioritization at all?
BB: Structure comes first. Even though we’re online guys with web series and everything, we’re narrative first. We like big franchises where we tell stories. Storytelling is key to us. We laid out the structure. Then we punched it up and layered in more jokes. Then through editing we tighten it and make the movie funnier and funnier. That’s what helped us get Alan on the project.
Alan Ritchson (AR): Exactly. That was the only thing that worried me about the project when it was presented to me. A company like Rooster Teeth that’s responsible for a ton of content could feel like an inside joke or very specific to a certain community. But this script stood up to anything I read from anybody in Hollywood. It’s self-contained but universal. It can speak to anybody.
MJ: To add on to Alan’s sentiments – it was nice for me and Gavin, having known and worked with Burnie for so long, to find the movie’s style and know when to add in a little improv or know when there’s a great moment for an extra joke. Because the script was so solid and sound, it let us know what we could add along the way. Like extra things that both add humor and humanize the characters for the audience.
GF: Knowing each other for a long time helped with some comfort, but even [co-star Colton Dunn], who comes from writing for Key & Peele, was right at home just tossing jokes out there and pitching more and more ideas to make the movie funnier. And I think that he added more than anyone.
BB: You just plan for things and then, once you get on set, that’s where the serendipity happens. We cast some of the Rooster Teeth faces, but we didn’t want it to just be a ‘Rooster Teeth movie’, you know? We reached out to Alan and Colton and got very fortunate to have [co-star Alexandria DeBerry], because they fit right in and just hit the ground running.
Now – not to spoil anything – but this is very much an origin story. And even though you’re not making a “superhero movie”, per se, do you have further adventures for the Lazer Team in mind when crafting what essentially feels like an initial entry into a potential franchise?
BB: We certainly have other ideas in mind and – like you said, without spoiling anything – we kind of poke fun at everything being a franchise now as well. I personally have a problem with everything being written as a trilogy these days, so we wanted to make sure that when people came and saw this movie that they got a complete story from beginning to end. The characters have a journey, but at the same time, it’s a big galaxy out there and there’s so much more that they can do in it.
And it’s very Texan. Do you see that flavor carrying over?
BB: We love ordinary people in extraordinary situations. Once you take them out of Texas, they’ll rise to the occasion. They certainly do over the course of this movie.
GF: One of my favorite shots in the movie is a shot of the spaceship towards the end, with this giant Texas high school football stadium in the background. No Eiffel Tower or White House. We kept it in Texas and used the state’s iconography.
MJ: And that’s the landmark! That’s Friday night!
BB: I want to know what the people of Milford, Texas say about the movie, because their town is all over it. Maybe we should hold a Milford Premiere Screening?
You mentioned Ghostbusters, but the other movie that came to my mind when watching it was Return of the Living Dead – especially with regard to the military characters featured. There’s almost a cynicism to the way you handle authority figures that feels indebted to Dan O’Bannon.
BB: It’s funny that you mention Dan O’Bannon specifically. Our long-running web series has always counted O’Bannon as an inspiration, because even though it’s loosely based off of the game Halo, we don’t make any jokes about Halo. We learned early on to make references to things that feel like call backs – for instance, in Lazer Team, there’s a bunch of stuff about Rooster Teeth in the background, as a reward for hardcore fans. But we don’t make it an integral part of the foreground.
Red vs. Blue, while it’s a military comedy, it’s also a comedy about bureaucracy. We’re used to telling stories like that and it all came from being huge fans of [O’Bannon’s John Carpenter collaboration] Dark Star. Because while Dark Star is a movie about space, there are so many other things going on in it.
GF: I really like that about the movie – the only references to Rooster Teeth are Easter Eggs. They’re not integral to the plot. You don’t have to be a hardcore fan to enjoy the movie. It’s satisfying for all audiences.
Now the last question I have is about the theme song: was that…Barenaked Ladies?
BB: [Barnaked Ladies singer/songwriter] Ed Robertson’s a huge fan of Red vs. Blue, and even did a voice part for us with Captain Butch Flowers. They played [Rooster Teeth’s annual gaming and Internet convention] RTX this year and we were really lucky to get them involved. They have the Big Bang Theory theme song now, which is iconic. So that’s a great way to send people out of the theater.
GF: Ed told us he didn’t know how to do the dubstep sounds, so he made them with his mouth.
Yeah – I even thought to myself: “a Barenaked Ladies dubstep song? That’s weird.”
BB: But it’s so cool!
Lazer Team plays Fantastic Fest again Wednesday, September 30th at 2:30 PM.