Ryan Nagata has worked in Hollywood as a prop builder and model maker as well as a director for television and web series. His latest project, which he co-wrote and directed, is a feature length film that pairs up the unlikely duo of stars, Randall Park and Steve Agee, for a horror-comedy set in a desert called Amigo Undead. I had the opportunity to interview Nagata about Amigo Undead, his film background, and his thoughts on CGI vs. practical effects.
Nelson: You graduated from USC film school and have gone on to direct film, television, and videos for the web, what inspired you to become a director? Was this something you always dreamed about?
Ryan: I was a huge movie nerd growing up. I loved Star Wars, Ghostbusters, The Terminator — all the franchises people of my generation loved. I also made movies with my parents’ camcorder all the time. I read Starlog, Cinefex, and Fangoria. I went through a period where I was really into special effects makeup. So it’s been a lifelong passion of mine. Even in college when I was pursuing a biology degree to maybe go into medicine, I was spending every free minute making movies. I realized I just had to go for it and fortunately I got into USC. It’s funny, I’ve heard Randall talk about how being from an Asian family, he felt there was an expectation to become a doctor or a lawyer, but he just couldn’t let go of the acting thing. It’s a very similar story to my own.
One of your web videos, 1945A from 2010 has garnered over 440,000 views on YouTube. It takes a WWII story and gives a Sci-Fi twist, all on a small budget. How long did that short take you to make? Did you expect the video to be as popular as it has become?
1945A was an idea I had with my creative partner, George Edelman. It probably took about a year to complete because I built all the models myself in my spare time. We made that video as a way to garner interest for a feature. And it worked, sort of. We ended up taking meetings with some really big companies, like Bad Robot and Legendary and maybe a dozen others. But as with so many other things, it just never gained traction. I knew it would be popular and I still think it would make an amazing feature. We had this whole mythology worked out for it.
For 1945A you used 1/6 scale models with forced perspective rather than CGI. What is your take on CGI versus practical effects in movies today?
I did most of the effects with models because that’s what I’m most familiar with. I’m not against CGI necessarily, but I think the best examples of it are in movies that blend it with practical effects, like the first Jurassic Park film. I think a lot of films today have the same kinds of disaster porn shots of crumbling cities with impossible camera movement and it all just looks the same after a while. There’s somewhat of a CGI backlash today that George and I predicted years ago. Stuff like the new Star Wars movie are using a bunch of practical effects and people are just loving it. But back in 2009 when we pitched 1945A as a practical effects-heavy film, I don’t think people really got it back then.
Your latest film, Amigo Undead, is a horror-comedy staring Randall Park (The Interview, Fresh Off the Boat) and Steve Agee (The Sarah Silverman Program) as the unlikeliest brothers. Give us a brief synopsis of the film. How were you able to get Park and Agee to be part of this project?
Amigo Undead is about a group of friends who go camping, one of them dies accidentally and they decide to bury him out in the desert. Unbeknownst to them, they bury him on cursed land and he comes back as this unkillable demon. Most of my professional career has been spent in comedy, so George and I envisioned it as a sort of indie comedy that takes a detour through a horror film. So our characters often comment about how what’s happening to them is straight out of films they’ve seen. There’s a lot of very self-aware, pop culture humor in it. Randall, Steve, and myself all made web series for Channel 101 and we all knew each other from that. Amigo Undead was a very low budget film shot in two weeks. Since we’d all had experience making shoestring budget webisodes, we all knew the drill. It was a very atypical film shoot, but thankfully they were all on board and we had a good time making it.
What was your inspiration for Amigo Undead?
There are a couple of inspirations. George and I have made lots of films out in the desert and we always joked, maybe inappropriately, about if someone had died while we were out there and we buried them, all the horrible sorts of things that would transpire. Another inspiration is that I’ve always had a fondness for the film From Dusk ‘til Dawn and how it starts out as a sort of typical Rodriguez/Tarantino film and then suddenly becomes a vampire movie. I love genre bending. We made this film for the festival circuit, so I wanted to make a movie that starts out very much like an indie comedy you’d see at a festival about two estranged brothers, but suddenly becomes this wacky horror thing.
Was there a conscious effort to talk about race in the film?
I think that was secondary to just making a film we thought was funny, but there was a definite conscious effort to layer that in there and I’m pleased that people have singled it out. I’ve been a big fan of Randall Park for years and I really wanted him to be in the movie. I think it’s pretty atypical in Hollywood to cast an Asian guy as the lead of a film if there is no “reason” to (i.e. he’s a martial artist, or an immigrant, or some other reason for being Asian that’s integral to the plot). Kevin (Randall’s character) is just a successful guy who has a loser brother. We made him adopted just so it was biologically possible for him to be brothers with Steve Agee, and we got a few good jokes out of it, but other than that, it’s the kind of part that maybe Paul Rudd would play in the more expensive version of our movie. But Kevin also makes some very awkward racist remarks about Native Americans in the movie, so nobody is totally innocent.
What was the hardest part about shooting the film? Was there anything during shooting that was unexpected but turned out great on film?
The hardest part for me was that we only had two weeks and were shooting many many pages a day. It didn’t give me a lot of time for more than a couple of takes per shot and then we had to move on. For everyone else it was probably the weather. We tried to shoot late enough in the year for it to be cool, but it was like 110° on some days, then blistering cold at night. There’s this sort of crude-looking western town that’s featured heavily in the movie. The property we were shooting on belongs to a distant relative of mine and he built that town. He’s an older guy and kind of eccentric. So we wrote that town into the film and it adds a great deal of texture to environment. Otherwise it would have just been shots of the desert and I think that would have gotten old.
The film is now available. Where can people watch it online?
The film is available on most digital platforms (iTunes, VUDU, Xbox, Amazon, Google, YouTube, etc.) as well as many Cable VOD platforms. You can go to our website (www.amigoundead.com) for a complete list.
Are there other upcoming projects you are working on? What can we expect to see from you in the future?
George and I have a couple of screenplays in various stages of completion. Hopefully you’ll see another film soon.