Interview: Steven Kostanski Builds A Better Manborg
Manborg is, simply speaking, one of the most bonkers cult flicks to come along in years. In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, a soldier is killed in battle with the evil Count Draculon and his hordes of Hell. He is then reborn as Manborg — half man, half machine, all confused badass.
Manborg teams up with a band of ’80s and ’90s Road Warrior-esque science fiction and kung fu archetypes to put an end to Count Draculon’s reign of terror once and for all. Manborg functions as both a love letter to those cheesy, pre-CGI, post-apocalyptic movies like the aforementioned Mel Gibson classic and Italian exploitation gems like 1990: The Bronx Warriors…and as something totally unique and refreshing. It suceeds as more than just a tribute or spoof, it’s a genuinely funny and sweet-natured tale wrapped in a bizarre, stop-motion-animated, green screened, gloriously over-the-top package. I had the opportunity to chat with Manborg writer, director, editor, make up artist, and special effects creator Steven Kostanski about the production of this low budget wonder. We spoke about the movies that inspired it, casting his parents as hobos, and much more.
Eddie Wright: I watched Manborg yesterday and I really liked it. It was great.
Steven Kostanski: Well, I’m glad.
EW: It was really funny. One of the things that surprised me most about it was on the surface level it could appear to be just a silly mash-up movie that’s just a concept, but it actually works as a movie. It’s funny and it’s well-constructed. Was that a conscious decision on your part?
SK: Yeah, I think, ’cause I’m part of the film collective Astron-6, like when we make our movies together like they all have elements of homage and parody to them, but we’re all really just into wanting to make decent movies. Stuff that’s actually watchable and can stand on its own. We’re in this age of nostalgia where everybody’s obsessed with stuff from the ’80s and whatever. We’re totally guilty of that, but it seems like most things, like I said, they’re just like kind of a surface interpretation, like, “Oh, goofy sci-fi b movies! Let’s make something like that!” But a lot of people don’t actually want to craft a story or have likable characters, and those are the things that actually make you revisit stuff. I didn’t want to make things that people would laugh at once and then forget about. I wanted to make something people actually wanted to go back to. That’s actually what works with these “culty” movies. Even though a lot of them from the ’80s and whatever were kind of s&!**y…a lot of the charm was in the character and the performances and the unique narrative. I wanted to try and craft something like that on my own and see how it would work out.
EW: What kind of cult movies were you looking at when you decided to create Manborg? What were you paying tribute to?
SK: I was actually watching The Eliminators, the ’80s Empire Pictures Production, with my friend Jeremy, who’s also a member of Astron-6, and while we’re watching it, he just out of the blue said, ‘Oh, you should make a movie called Manborg.’ I got really attached to that name and became obsessed, so I decided I was going to devote three years of my life to making this thing. So, it was stuff like that that really influenced me. Like obviously bigger movies as well were an influence, like stuff like Robocop and Terminator. But I felt for Manborg, I wanted to be inspired by lower-budgeted things that were trying to ape those movies. So, yeah, like any Charles Band production. Something like Trancers, the Puppet Master movies, Dr. Mordrid. I’m a huge fan of Robot Jocks. That movie’s a big influence. And also Italian movies as well, like The New Barbarians was a good one. Fulci’s New Gladiators was also an influence. Those kind of post-apocalyptic movies.
EW: There seems to be a lot of video game influence too. Some Mortal Kombat, Street Fighter…
SK: Definitely. Mortal Kombat and Doom were pretty much the two games that I would play constantly as a kid, so those all manage to weave a way into any kind of movie I’m making. It definitely has that side-scrolling Mortal Kombat element, but I also wanted to visually have the aesthetic of a Doom-level against the blocks of combinations of circuit boards and that kind of stuff, but also some weird architecture. So, yeah, video games were a big influence. Also Castlevania games were an influence as well cause it definitely has that “building up to fight Dracula as the last boss” kind of feel to it.
EW: Take me through the production a little. I was really surprised when I was looking at the behind the scenes on the DVD how small this was.
SK: Oh yeah, well, I’d say we shot half of it in my parents garage, and the other half was in the basement of a store. We shot the whole thing back in Winnipeg, Manitoba. That’s where I’m from. I’m in Toronto now. But yeah, all the cast and crew just lived out there and everybody helped out for free. We didn’t pay anybody. It was basically just doing it for fun. I had no idea the movie would make it this far. I just wanted to make it just for the heck of it. I needed an outlet for my sci-fi, and action, B-movie fantasies, so I made this movie and somehow it’s out on DVD. We shot for about a year, mostly on green-screen. There were a few practical locations, but I’d say it amounts to maybe like five minutes of the movie, tops. And then it was two years of post-production where I was basically working in After Effects: compositing, adding in backgrounds. I built all the miniatures myself and filmed them and then would animate them at a computer screen and stuff. And add the stop motion characters to it. So, most of the movie was slapped together in post-production.
EW: You did the makeup and everything too, right?
SK: Yeah, all the prosthetics I did as well, like all the creature masks and stuff. It was a taxing experience because I had to wear all the hats to get it done. It was fun sculpting all those characters cause when you’re making the movie yourself – like, I work in effects and it’s a different experience when you work for somebody else. You have to realize someone else’s vision. But for Manborg I could basically just make it up as I went along and do what I wanted and just have a stream-of-consciousness approach to it. Characters, they would just come to me randomly and I’d sculpt it and then they’d end up in the movie.
EW: When you were in production on it, how much are you making up on the spot? Was there a lot of improv going into this, or did you have it all planned?
SK: There was a script with storyboard sequences because it was all in green-screen. When you’re just shooting at a generic green backdrop it’s hard to frame your shots and do blocking without prepping the idea of how everything’s supposed to go. A lot of it was just in my head and the actors had to trust me, which they complained about a lot because I’d be moving them around and basically puppeteering them, showing them what they were supposed to do. They’d do a full-day of filming and have no idea what they just filmed. There was a script, but the actors did a lot of improv on set. That was kind of the intention of the movie. I wrote it pretty much as like a straight B-movie, like sci-fi actioner, and the actors were what brought the humor to it by making fun of the character that they were playing and adding these weird quirks to them.
EW: There are some really funny bits like when Justice sees all the people living in houses made of garbage.
SK: Yeah, that was made up on the spot! [Actor] Conor [Sweeney] made that up – this weird phobia that Justice has of homeless people.
He has garbage on his head. Those two hobos actually were played by my parents; that was my way of getting them. Putting garbage on my dad’s head.
EW: What led to the decision to have them – all their lines are dubbed. Did they dub over themselves?
SK: I wouldn’t say all the dialogue’s dubbed. A good chunk of it is cause when we shot it we didn’t have the best audio equipment. The earlier cuts of the movie had the original audio, which wasn’t very good, but actually the DVD, I think, is the first time people will hear it with the redone audio that’s a little cleaner. All the actors dubbed themselves except for the Sarge, Manborg’s brother who dies at the beginning. He was actually dubbed by Adam, who plays Draculon and Doctor Scorpius, and # 1 man was dubbed by Kyle Eber, who, he’s actually an anime voice actor. He did stuff for Dragonball Z and I think he does a character on Street Fighter. So I contacted him and got him to do that voice cause I really wanted him to sound like a character pulled out of an old Kung Fu movie that was just dropped into this sci-fi movie.
EW: You’re part of Astron-6. For people who don’t know exactly what that is…
SK: It’s just a collective of filmmakers, so basically just five guys who like to make movies. We all share the same passion for 80s and early 90s VHS era stuff and have similar genre sensibilities. It consists of: Adam Brooks, Matt Kennedy, Conor Sweeney, Jeremy Gillispie, and myself. We all take turns making movies and everybody helps each other out filming different roles. Matt, Conor, and Adam are mainly actors, and then Jeremy does a lot of music and graphic design. He does all our title cards and stuff. I mostly do special effects. Everybody kind of pitches in a different thing.
EW: And what’s next? I know Father’s Day just came out on DVD as well.
SK: Yes. That was a production we did through Troma. It had a slightly larger budget than Manborg, but not by much and actually we shot it the same time that I was doing the post on Manborg. So I finished filming Manborg and then the following year we shot Father’s Day. But they both technically came out at the same time because Manborg took way longer to do the post for.
EW: And what’s next?
SK: Well, I’ve got a few projects on the go, but can’t actually make any official announcements yet. It’s just a lot of writing and building and helping other people out with their movies. And right now I’m working at Mind War Production in Toronto. We’re doing a hospital drama, Saving Hope, so I’m doing effects on that. And, yeah, doing some short films and stuff, so, yeah, there’s a bunch of stuff coming soon.
EW: Manborg 2?
SK: [Laughs] I’d like to do it, but I’d like to have a little bit more money than $1000 to make it.
I would certainly like to see one. It seems to be the interest, so hopefully someday somebody will be like, ‘Here’s a little bit of money. Go make it!’ Cause, yeah, I’d do it in a heartbeat, if I could afford it.
EW: Thanks, Steven!
Manborg is out on DVD April 30 from Dark Sky Films. Watch the trailer here:
Eddie Wright likes monsters, and movies, and movies about monsters. He also writes for MTV Geek, MTV Splash Page, and MTV Movies Blog and is the author of Broken Bulbs and Tyranny of the Muse. Find him on Twitter at @eddiewright86.