Features

From superheroes to ‘Star Trek,’ local filmmakers express their love with slick, self-made movies

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(Left to right) Mark Justice as Michael Myers; Danny Shepherd as Nightwing; Gail Brandys as Commander Sela; Debbie Dumond as Captain Dumond; Jake Bass as Snake Plissken; Byron Smith as Blade.

What do horror icon Michael Myers, Marvel superhero Blade, Batman ally Nightwing, post-apocalyptic antihero Snake Plissken and alien Ferengi Quark have in common? They’re all stars of local Las Vegas productions, part of the burgeoning subculture of fan films, amateur movies and web series featuring big-name pop-culture characters, produced without the permission (or, often, knowledge) of the corporate ownership.

“If you want to make a movie, you’re going to make a movie of the stuff that you love,” says Jake Bass, filmmaker and star of Snake Plissken fan film Escape From Las Vegas. Fan films are an outgrowth of other creative aspects of fan culture, including fan fiction and fan art, which have flourished online and at pop-culture conventions.

All of it exists at the indulgence of copyright holders, though: In 2015, Paramount and CBS sued the makers of the Star Trek fan film Axanar, who had raised more than $1 million on Kickstarter and Indiegogo, and the out-of-court settlement led to a set of guidelines for how fan filmmakers could work with the Star Trek brand without risking litigation.

According to Mary LaFrance, IGT Professor of Intellectual Property Law at UNLV, it’s critical to avoid competing with the big guns: “That’s really the key factor: Is this going to turn out to be competitive, or to dilute the demand for future films from the copyright owner’s franchise?” What that means, in practice, is that fan filmmakers generally can’t make money from their creations, and must immediately shut productions down if studios ask. “Even if you ultimately prevail on fair use,” LaFrance adds, “you may wind up bankrupt.”

Despite the risks, though, fan filmmakers persevere out of sheer love for characters they grew up watching, and the desire to see the stories they envision come to life. “With the studios, they do pretty much what they want to do, and with fan films, I feel like the fan-film filmmakers listen to the fans,” says Markiss McFadden, filmmaker and co-star of Daywalker: Blade Origins. And besides, the filmmakers aren’t the only ones eager to see new adventures from old favorites. “Nobody’s looking for Planet of the Octopods,” Bass says, citing his original short films. “Nobody’s looking for Space Adventure Team. But people look for Batman.”

Nightwing: The Series

Danny Shepherd (left) and Noel Schefflin in Nightwing: The Series. (Courtesy)

Danny Shepherd and Jeremy Le of local production company Ismahawk are sort of the elder statesmen of Vegas fan films, thanks to the success of their 2014 five-episode web series Nightwing: The Series, starring Shepherd as DC Comics superhero Nightwing (aka Dick Grayson, a grown-up former Robin). The most popular episode of that series got more than 6 million views on YouTube, and Shepherd and Le have continued making fan films since then, with more than 500,000 subscribers to the Ismahawk YouTube channel.

Over the past few years, they’ve focused on shorter videos pitting popular superheroes and villains against each other, which they dub Minute Match-Ups. The most popular of those, a fight between Marvel’s Quicksilver and DC’s Flash, has amassed more than 15 million YouTube views, and the six videos in the series also feature appearances from Thor, Wonder Woman, Voltron, the Power Rangers, Green Arrow, Hawkeye and two versions each of Deadpool and the Joker. “They’re fun, and they give us the ability to practice new techniques and learn different ways of shooting action and stuff,” Shepherd says. “And they get crazy amounts of views.”

Shepherd and Le handle most of the production duties (including writing, direction, cinematography and special effects), but they work with collaborators locally and around the world, including a composer in Slovakia. They’re building Ismahawk not as a single fan film or series but as a brand, and when they go to comic-book conventions, they find they now have fans of their own. “It’s still crazy to refer to them as fans,” Shepherd marvels.

With the Match-Up series wrapped up, the Ismahawk creators are looking to get back to more narrative-oriented videos, including new fan films (with characters yet to be announced, because “we try to give [the audience] something that they didn’t know they wanted”) and eventually original projects. “That’s been the No. 1 thing we’ve been striving for,” Shepherd says. The hope is that “we can build an audience, and then that audience would support our own unique creative vision, as well as the fan-made stuff.” They’ve certainly got that first part down. facebook.com/Ismahawk

Quark's Space Station

Behind the scenes of Quark’s Space Station. (Courtesy)

When Bob Brandys retired to Las Vegas from Illinois 12 years ago, he expected to devote a lot of time to his love of Star Trek. He and his wife Gail were excited to spend time at Star Trek: The Experience, the sprawling Trek attraction at what was then the Las Vegas Hilton. But when the Hilton shut down the Experience, Brandys and other local Trek fans lost their hangout spot.

With his background in educational and industrial films, Brandys found himself in charge of a new project initially started by local Trek fan club USS Las Vegas. “This is something I always wanted to do as part of my life,” he says. “So I’m taking my retirement money and spending it on this.”

In the past four years, Brandys and his crew of Trek enthusiasts have produced four episodes of Quark’s Space Station, a fan series featuring characters mainly from Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, including the title character, an alien Ferengi who was also the namesake of Quark’s Bar at the Star Trek Experience. The first episode of Quark’s runs just 18 minutes, while the most recent clocks in at nearly an hour.

It’s a communal effort, with Brandys producing, providing financing and a filming location (the garage of his Spring Valley home has been transformed into a movie set), longtime family friend Radek Skalski handling most of the technical aspects, and multiple members of the local fan community contributing to the writing and playing various parts, both large and small, onscreen.

Brandys is also an amateur DeLorean collector, and he and Skalski made a few short Back to the Future fan films a few years ago. But Quark’s is their labor of love, a project that grows in ambition and production value with each episode, even if online views are still modest. The real satisfaction comes at the annual premiere parties at McMullan’s Irish Pub, where everyone who worked hard on the show can see their efforts onscreen.

“We don’t have a big audience, and we don’t try to get a big audience,” Brandys says. “But the people in the room look at [it like], ‘We did this!’ Where can you get that experience? Nowhere.” facebook.com/quarksspacestation

Daywalker: Blade Origins

Bloodsucking action in Daywalker: Blade Origins. (Courtesy)

To be honest with you, I wasn’t at all interested in doing fan films in the very beginning,” says actor and filmmaker Markiss McFadden. After moving to LA from Las Vegas to pursue his showbiz career, landing a role in Transformers: Dark of the Moon and starting his own production company, McFadden was skeptical when his old Vegas friend and fellow actor Byron Smith suggested that the two should team up for a movie featuring one of their favorite characters, Marvel Comics’ vampire-hunting superhero Blade. But Smith made a case for McFadden broadening his filmmaking horizons, telling him, “We can cover another fan base. You’ve got people who like your work, but this is a whole other genre, a whole other platform that has fans.”

McFadden was already a longtime Blade fan, and had been thinking of ideas since first seeing the 1998 Wesley Snipes movie. “I wanted to do a spin-off story called The Son of Blade,” he remembers. “That was actually the first thing I ever attempted to write.”

Instead of the son of Blade, McFadden’s Daywalker: Blade Origins chronicles the character’s earliest days, with Smith as Blade and McFadden as villain Cyrus Cutter. “What I really wanted to touch on was the heart of Blade, the story behind it,” McFadden says of the 33-minute film. “The action is just a bonus.”

Daywalker is just the beginning for McFadden and his collaborators. It features a cameo from local actor James Lee Hawkins as Wolverine, and McFadden and Smith have launched an Indiegogo campaign for a Wolverine-focused film to star Hawkins, whom they recruited at the gym. “We saw him a few times, like, damn, that dude looks just like Wolverine,” McFadden says. “Not Hugh Jackman, but the dude looks like Wolverine straight out of the comic books.” Luckily, Hawkins had just been waiting for his big Wolverine break, which the filmmakers were more than happy to provide.

They’ve also got a perfect star for their planned Catwoman fan film, which will feature legendary actress Lee Meriwether, who played Catwoman in the 1966 Batman movie, in a supporting role. And of course, there’s a Blade sequel in the works. For someone who once had his doubts about fan films, McFadden is now all in. facebook.com/DaywalkerFanFilm

Escape from Las Vegas

Jake Bass and Isabelle Maily during some Escape From Las Vegas set downtime. (Thanos Panagiotaros Photography/Courtesy)

Some characters and worlds are the subjects of dozens of fan films, but when Jake Bass decided to make a movie about Snake Plissken, the post-apocalyptic badass played by Kurt Russell in John Carpenter’s Escape From New York and Escape From LA, he knew he wouldn’t have much competition.

“I know there’s a subculture out there of people that love Snake Plissken, but are kind of torn because Escape From LA was so bad,” he explains. “That’s not to say that I think that my movie has righted that wrong. But I just felt like that was a good example of a wasted opportunity from a filmmaker.”

So Bass, who has spent his career working in TV sound and editing and had previously made a few original short films, decided to take on his most ambitious project yet, the 18-minute Escape From Las Vegas, stepping into Russell’s shoes as Snake Plissken himself. Shooting in alleys and warehouses to get the post-apocalyptic feel, Bass often worked without permits or permission, but in a way he felt like Snake Plissken was watching over him.

“There’s an underground sort of devotion to that character,” he says. Even when cops or security guards stopped him and could have shut the production down, one name was all it took to keep things going. “I had like a golden pass every time I told them we were making a Snake Plissken movie.”

After a premiere at Eclipse Theaters, Bass is in the process of submitting Escape to film festivals, although he’s keeping his expectations modest. There’s a free showing on January 29 at 8 p.m. at the Millennium Fandom Bar Downtown, and then the movie will be available online.

For Bass, who’s been working behind the scenes on other projects for years, Escape was all about making his filmmaking dreams come true, on his own terms. “If you sit around waiting for someone to hire you, then you’re going to be waiting your whole life,” he says. “You have to go out there and create your own path.” facebook.com/Escape-from-Las-Vegas-1729992767012455

M2

Michael Myers stalks his prey in the teaser for M2. (Courtesy)

As a working actor and model, Mark Justice is used to being in front of the camera, but for his upcoming Halloween fan film M2, he won’t even be showing his face. Justice will take on the role of iconic horror villain Michael Myers in the planned feature, which he’s also writing and directing.

He’s hoping for synergy with the latest official reboot of the Halloween series, directed by David Gordon Green and featuring the return of original star Jamie Lee Curtis, which is set for release this October. A recently shot teaser will serve to launch a crowdfunding campaign for the movie, although Justice already has investors interested in the project.

“I’ve kind of pulled pieces from every Halloween movie that has been put out, and kind of mixed them all in a bowl and put a storyline together,” Justice says about the setup for M2, which will feature the grown-up sons of both Michael Myers and his adversary, Dr. Loomis (originally played by Donald Pleasence), unwittingly meeting in the series’ hometown of Haddonfield.

“There are little things here that I’m going to incorporate to make him a little different than what you’ve seen in the other Halloween films,” Justice says of his approach to playing Michael Myers. “I want to make him a little more badass, but not a completely different character.”

The Vegas-based Justice travels around the country to work as an actor in indie films (with co-stars including Tara Reid and Lorenzo Lamas), and even went to India last year for a part in the Bollywood film Simran. He has appeared in numerous local film productions; those who finds him vaguely recognizable have probably seen his face on giant Slotzilla ads.

He’s still fully devoted to his acting career, even as he preps for directing M2. “My focus is in front of the camera,” he says. “This is just my little side project. This is more for me to get the chance to play Michael Myers.” And even if no one recognizes him under that iconic mask, it’ll be worth it. facebook.com/TheMarkJustice

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Josh Bell

Josh Bell is the film editor for Las Vegas Weekly, where he's been writing movie and TV reviews since 2002. ...

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