I caught up with film-maker Zak Knutson who has down work for big names like Kevin Smith, to chat film-making, the world of conventions and cosplay, Stan Lee, and his latest film, a comedic take on a heist at comic book convention that has the status of urban legend, Supercon, out now in select theaters, and on VOD and Digital HD. Catch it June 5 on DVD.
As I came up totally dry source wise on the true to life status of the heist that Knutson and the film describe, I contacted the Atlanta Police Department to see what they could tell me about it as the urban legend says it occurred in Atlanta. My query to them has so far gone unanswered — if that changes, I will re-update this interview with an addition in the form of a correction.
Another weekend, another comic convention for former TV actor Keith Mahar (Russell Peters). Most people don’t recognize Keith. His only claim to fame was as a child star in an 80’s television show. Keith reluctantly joins his close friends, cartoon voice-over actor Matt (Ryan Kwanten), comic book artist Allison (Maggie Grace), and 80’s TV star Brock (Brooks Braselman),who are also working the convention, but things take a turn for the worst when Keith’s former co-star and Supercon’s big ticket draw for the weekend — Adam King (a psychotically electric Clancy Brown) — decides to have this group fired and banned from the convention with the help of the convention promoter. This launches the friends on a crusade to bring down King and the promoter (Mike Epps) in the most epic way imaginable.
Hello Zak and welcome to The 405! I thought we’d start with a general but very important question: favorite films and directors? I’m curious there which and who you would consider most influential on you as an artist and storyteller?
Favorite films, obviously the holy trinity, the Star Wars films, the first three.
Really, the directors who’ve influenced me more than anybody would be Tony Scott and Sam Peckinpah, even though you hardly see any of it in Supercon, except I did steal a couple of shots from Sam Peckinpah.
Those are the two guys who I have to watch a movie, I will go to, or if I were on a desert island, those are the ones who I’d take their movies with me.
Getting into Supercon, I’m really curious about your inspiration behind. As I hadn’t seen any notes on it yet, I thought I might ask: what did the true-to-life material for the film look like? [Laughs]
Yeah [Laughs] no worries. It’s actually the story that Maggie [Grace] tells in the movie, it’s pretty much an urban legend. I haven’t seen too much about it other than people who have gone to Dragon Con or kinda talked about this little thing.
Essentially the story was, as I heard it, 4 or 5 guys dressed as storm troopers went into the cash room at Dragon Con, swiped about $100,000.00 in cash. The way they escaped, was during the big parade that takes over downtown Atlanta during the Con.
They then hooked up with the 501st — for those who don’t know, the 501st is a group that does charitable work, kid’s hospitals, things like that, and they all dress up like storm troopers. So, the robbers were able to basically sweep right in with them and then get away.
That’s the legend. That’s the story I liked. [Laughs]
[Laughs] I can see why.
[Laughs] and that’s the story we originally started to run with. But then Lucasfilm was bought by Disney, and we just thought, “why not make up our own world?” and try to encompass that story into it.
So, that’s what we did.
Fascinating. I’m going to have to do some digging on that urban legend and see what I can find.
If you find it, let me know because I would love to see it as this point. [Laughs]
[Laughs] I will definitely do that.
I also found the location of just outside New Orleans (an area I’m very familiar with) an interesting choice for the film. What was the research like for it?
We would go down there once a year and Dana a couple times a year and we would always go to that con or we would go to a couple different cons, and it’s just one of those things where you look at it (or at least I did) going, “how come this hasn’t ever been used in a movie before?” like really well, because at this point there were really only documentaries.
It’s such a rich world, everybody’s dressing up, everybody’s here literally just to have fun. That’s the only reason people go to cons, it’s to have fun. There’s no games, there’s no competition, there’s nothing like professional sports.
So, that’s kinda where we got into it. Plus, we kind of know that world, because either Dana was going off to it every weekend, or we were going off to it every month or whatever. But you just kind of fall in love with it, and the people, and the whole thing.
It was like, if you’re gonna do a comedy, this would be the place to do it. It’s an oil well that hasn’t really been tapped yet.
Absolutely. [Laughs] I apologize in advance if any of the questions I ask relative to that world sound… stupid. It’s not something that I’m greatly familiar with.
[Laughs] Now, you’ve seen the movie, so there are obviously no stupid questions… [Laughs]
[Laughs] at any rate… yeah.
I’m wondering if we could get some insight into the creative process when the characters were written. There’s really a decent amount that goes beyond just comedic devices into Supercon: for instance, the psychology of the child star archetype in Hollywood (through “Ball Cancer Boy” played as an adult by Russell Peters)…
…and also what fame can do to people — thinking especially there of Adam King’s Norma Desmond meltdown towards the end. Said a lot about Hollywood, I thought.
Yeah, I agree and I think that’s what we tried to do at a certain level. The characters really came out of Andy, Dana and me sitting in my little office just kind of going, “who would populate this world?” or “who would we want to see?”
So we came up with those characters and when we came up with Keith (Russell Peters), it was like ok he’s a former child star. But the problem was, you go former child star and you instantly go Gary Coleman. We didn’t want a real person’s baggage to be taken along with it but we knew there was no way we could get around that in certain places. We just didn’t want it to be so dead on the nose.
So what we started doing was we started thinking of friends of ours. There was a Indian friend of ours named Keith who the character’s based on, who essentially at the time was the world’s angriest person because he was an actor, he was trying to get jobs.
He’s married now and he has a kid and he’s all happy, but at the time he would go “goddammit! I got called for another 7–11 or I got called for another call center, this is bullshit! I never get the cop! I never get the bad guy!” We just kind of felt his pain because we knew he was a really good actor, you know?
The problem was, Hollywood wanted him to play something else.
Can be difficult to get them to move against that kind of type casting.
Yeah. We kind of wrote the role of Keith based around him.
As far as the role of Adam King, and the part of Brock, who’s played by Brooks Braselman, the idea there was that we just wanted to torture Brooks, or Dana did really, we just wanted to torture Brooks for the entire shoot. That’s why he’s in 20 different cosplay outfits, that’s why he’s in the toilet and falls right out of the ceiling, it was like, what can we do to Brooks that would just beat him up?
And then Adam King really, everything Adam King does, or at least the majority of it, is really things that came out of people that we’ve seen do that. Like Adam King ripping the picture after he signed it for a fan and asking for $75.00, I witnessed that happen with somebody.
I saw that myself and I was just floored.
I imagine. Damn.
I was to the point where I would walk around and tell these guys, “that sounds like it’s in a movie.”
In the movie, we kind of decided to pull not so much from real people but the public personas of real people. Like everybody’s gonna go to Shatner, it’s not Shatner at all. In fact, Andy used to work for Shatner and loves him to death. It’s not him. Its public personas of other people that we’ve kind of grabbed on to and seen real things go down with these people.
That was our hope, that by putting it in the movie like we did, that maybe, just maybe if they saw the movie they’d recognize themselves in Adam King and think, “Maybe that’s not such a good idea. Maybe I shouldn’t be such a douche bag.”
That’s kinda where that character came from. Plus, look, what adds to it is when you put Clancy Brown and just kind of let him go. Clancy brought his own stuff to it. The hair is all Clancy, the orange is all Clancy: just his style all came from Clancy and just really made the character pop.
That was probably a long answer to your question…
Oh not at all. That’s a perfect answer. I was just thinking too, Clancy does have that swagger about him.
He’s got a real confidence. He has a super confidence when he wants to project it.
Clancy’s six foot four, he’s a big dude like me, plus I think Clancy’s hilarious no matter what movie role he’s done, no matter how serious. Whether it be Shawshank or anything else, there’s always been a bit of a smile in there.
I knew he could be funny and dammit he is. I was so pleased with his performance.
I agree. He was spectacular in the film. Recently saw him as Robert McNamara in Chappaquiddick (the picture about the true incident of Senator Ted Kennedy leaving the scene of an accident where a young Kennedy staffer died) too — having interviewed the writers and director of that one. Clancy has one hell of a versatility as an actor about him.
Of course, can’t go wrong with John Malkovich here either.
[Laughs] what can you say bad about John Malkovich? You can’t.
[Laughs absolutely agreed.
John came in, the hair idea was his, the bowtie was his. Originally the part was written for a guy who was around 95 years-old, kind of a Stan Lee character. But when John read the script I thought he’d look at Adam King or he’d look at the Gil part (Mike Epps), but he really responded to Sid.
I said, “Really? Sid?” and the only thing he replied was, “Yes. But I’d really like to wear a toupee.”
So we added the bowtie to young the character down, kind of modeling him after Jim Starlin, the creator of Thanos and all that. I kind of modeled Sid after him a bit. John brought the rest and John showed up to play. It was fun.
Cool. Absolutely. What do you think Hollywood is doing right in its superhero movies and what do you think could be done better?
[Laughs] Let’s see…
If you want to see what they’re getting right, I hate to say it but, look at Marvel.
Marvel’s doing it right, in my opinion. They’re making movies that people want to see and they’re making really good movies.
I think prior to anything that’s what you gotta do is make a good movie.
I don’t think anyone legitimately thought that once Iron Man hit that we were going to get an actual Avengers’ movie. There’s no way. I was like, something’s gonna happen, the story’s not gonna be that good, or this movie’s not gonna be that good, or it’s gonna fall apart, something’s not gonna happen.
But in order for them to get to that level, to be able to make these movies, it’s kind of amazing in the first place. And then you see everyone else kind of jump on. I hate to be the guy to beat the hell out of Zack Snyder’s Marvel MCU but I’d like to see a breakout, but it’s kinda like they wanted all the accolades by doing the Justice League movie first, instead of building this massive world and all these characters that can fill it out.
I think that’s most important, especially for fans, because that’s what you want to see. You want the build-up — as much as you don’t think you do. You want the build-up. You want the anticipation. That’s something that I think is lacking, but it’s also something I think is changing, or at least it appears to be.
The other thing I’d like to see is just everybody calm down a little bit and not make so many. Like every single month a superhero movie. That’s gonna saturate the market even more.
Indeed. One would think basic economics would take over a bit there, that they’d smartly gauge the demand.
Yeah, I just think calm down a bit, put out a little more… I need a little more… what’s the word I’m looking for… I need a little more variety.
That’s me personally. Now you have a lot of variety: there’s Netflix, there’s streaming, there’s regular TV, there’s cable, there’s everything.
I get it. I think Marvel’s doing it the right way. I think they’re taking their time with it, and I think they’re hiring writers and directors who are good for the projects, they’re not getting projects and trying to shoehorn other people into them, you know?
Yeah. Just thinking about that suit with Stan Lee when you brought up Marvel, where Lee accused his ex-business manager in a law suit of elder abuse, fraud, and trying to sell vials of his blood as collectibles in Las Vegas. A sad story.
It’s so unfortunate. I’ve been lucky enough to interview Stan a bunch of times for the documentaries and what not over the years and he’s been nothing but exactly what you want that guy to be.
I remember waking up every Saturday morning, running downstairs and watching Stan Lee do the introduction to the Spiderman cartoon. That’s how I started every Saturday morning, Stan Lee was in my room talking to me.
It was great. And getting to meet that guy and see how awesome he was — he didn’t let me down. It breaks my heart to see the situation he’s in now.
He always seemed like a class act whenever I would see him speak.
Yeah. Totally. Total class act.
Getting into our last question Zak, what’s next for you?
I am currently pitching a documentary around town that I really want to do. I’m working with a really super awesome guy on it. Hopefully I can announce it soon. I wish I could here but I don’t want anyone to steal it, especially before the contracts are done…
…because I really love this idea.
Then hopefully this summer, I just turned in a script that I got hired to write. Hopefully sometime this summer or early fall we’re going to start shooting it. We’re gonna go cast it pretty soon.
Hopefully it’ll be a very busy year for me.
Wess A. Haubrich is the contributing editor of the film section of The Nu Romantics and London’s award-winning culture website The 405. He is also a “top writer in movies” on Medium.com. He can be reached on Twitter or via email: email@example.com as he is always looking for cutting edge cinema especially and innovative forms of all kinds of art to bring to his readers by probing the minds of their creators.