Director BenDavid Grabinski on Bringing ENORMOUS to Life for Machinima
By Dan Casey on March 20, 2014
It’s no small secret that we have a persisting cultural obsession with the post-apocalypse. From Godzilla to The Walking Dead to The Hunger Games and beyond, we find something uniquely compelling about dystopian environments populated by strange monsters and fragments of society as we once knew it. So, it seemed natural that Machinima would look to Tim Daniel and Medhi Cheggour’s excellent comic book series Enormous for its latest live-action endeavor. Set in the wake of an ecological apocalypse, mankind must scrounge together a meager living for themselves, evading vicious kaiju-like monsters in the process.
The pilot, directed by BenDavid Grabinski, follows Ellen Grace (Ceren Lee) and the North American Search & Recovery Team as they search for survivors in the monster-laden wastes of Phoenix. Well-written, beautifully shot, and with production value oozing out of every pore, Enormous is raising the bar for what we expect from web series. To take you deeper inside the production process, I caught up with BenDavid Grabinski over the phone to talk with him about adapting the comic book to live-action, putting his own stamp on this brave new world, and the challenges of condensing a sprawling story for a web series model.
Nerdist: Hey, BenDavid! How are you doing today?
BenDavid Grabinski: I’m doing really good, man. How are you doing?
N: I’m doing well! Thank you for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.
BDG: Are you kidding me? I love Nerdist, and if there was a Nerdist podcast weekly with Tom Hanks and those guys, I would just listen to that for that rest of my life.
N: Yeah! I think I would probably do the same.
BDG: I really loved it. I’m just a big fan of all that stuff, so I was excited that you guys are covering Enormous.
N: Yeah, well, I’ve got to say this pilot was fantastic! It’s definitely one of the best web series pilots that I’ve seen, so job well done! I really enjoyed it. I was like, “Why is there only this one episode? I want more right now!”
BDG: Yeah, partially because I just finished it. [chuckles]
BDG: No, I agree. I’m very proud of it. I’m hoping other people like it, considering that there was no time or money, and I was only on this from November until the end of January. You never know how people will respond to things. I’m pretty proud of the work, and a lot of people worked really hard on it.
N: You would never guess it was such a tight turnaround, based on the production value. I wanted to talk to you a little bit about the show’s aesthetic. Obviously you guys were inspired by Mehdi Cheggour’s artwork, but what other post-apocalyptic design elements inspired you?
BDG: Yeah, I really was trying to do my own thing with it. It was really awesome with Tim Daniel. He’s the nicest guy in the entire world. He was on set for every second of it. If you looked in my Gmail, you’d probably find that he e-mailed me 500 times. We were just talking this morning. He’s been very supportive of me just making it my own thing, and letting it – the comic and the series – be completely different things.
There’s different ways of adapting stuff. You can do 300 or Scott Pilgrim, which are not similar movies, but they are in terms of (that) you’re trying to bring the comic to life via your POV. And that’s what makes it have its own unique aesthetic. For me, I just wanted to make something that felt like, within reason, a 10 minute movie, and then also, just within my own personal aesthetic, you know. I really love classic, anamorphically-shot movies. I love, like, ’70s and ’80s Spielberg, I love Jurassic Park, you know.
And I was trying, also at the same time, to not have a generic view of the apocalypse. Like, you know, Road Warrior – I don’t think anyone wanted to make a better movie, but I didn’t want to do that. And at the same time, I didn’t want them to feel like The Walking Dead, because you feel like the first thing anyone is going to say was “Oh, this is The Walking Dead meets Godzilla.” Which I guess it is, in a very broad sense, if you get further away from it, but I just wanted it to feel like its own thing. And basically – in terms of trying to achieve that production value in time, we just – I’m extremely sensitive to every aspect of it, and I’m a big fan, and a big believer, in hiring the right people.
So a lot of the work really just came from me trying, in a very short amount of time, to find people for every key position who were really smart and had really good taste, or really understood what I wanted to do. And then to not micromanage them. And I think half of – 90% of the job in anything is if you cast something right, your job is a lot easier, but that goes the same for crew, too. So if you have a really strong vision for what you want, people can come in with great taste and great ideas, and it just becomes this really cohesive thing.
And also, at the same time, you can talk about intent until the cows run home, but you don’t really know until something is really done what it ends up being as a whole. But I’d say that it’s 94% of what I expected it to be. [laughs]
BDG: If that math makes any sense at all.
N: Hey, man – that’s still an A by most test-taking standards!
BDG: I don’t know, man. I’ve forgotten a lot of test-taking stuff, just because I have a very traumatic memory of a lot of it! I still have nightmares finding out that I didn’t remember that I signed up for a class in college, and because I didn’t attend it, I can’t graduate. I feel like that will go forever. It’s probably a metaphor for stress and anxiety, but, you know….
N: So the nature of a web pilot like this means you have less time to get the point across to the audience – you have to condense everything. Do you find that model to be restrictive, or do you sort of relish that challenge?
BDG: You know, every part of this was me trying to embrace a challenge, because I’m not – you know, I wasn’t looking – this might sound messed up, but I wasn’t looking for a web series pilot to direct. I wasn’t actually working with BDI. I was working on a couple of features that I’ve developed (that) were coming together (and) that I was going to direct, and this thing fell in my lap. I just found it so exciting – just the idea of tackling it and looking at these books, and the logistics in terms of time and the duration of the piece and the time to make it, and budget and all these things, and it was exciting to me to try to make something that felt different than any other web series pilot, but also satisfied anything that a viewer would want from one.
It was really that jumping in the deep end, and getting what I thought the best interpretation of it was. I came in with a script that already existed, but it kind of evolved based on casting, and you know, just ideas on the day. I’m very much – I’m a big believer in making stuff up as you go along, as long as it’s within the parameters of the story you want to tell, or the tone of what you’re working on. So there are a lot of things that sort of changed in ways that end up being really exciting. And I’m also going to want to spoil, because my favorite element in it is things that kind of changed. There was a character who was not a sniper – he never left the back of her truck, and he’s now my favorite thing in the pilot. Yeah, I don’t even know if this answer has anything to do with your question! [laughs]
N: No, I think it’s good, and also, that is one of my favorite moments in the pilot, as well, because it’s so unexpected.
BDG: Yeah, I love Charles [Melton] so much! Charles is another actor that before we started reading, he just – whenever we were doing a sniper shot, he was just so-he was like a kid on Christmas. He was like, “We’re going to do a sniper shot?” All these questions, and he ran around with so much energy, and he’d want to look at things, and I’d show him, and his reaction was just like…I had a feeling – I’m a firm believer in casting people who want to be there. Filmmaking is very hard, but if you have a lot of people who are excited to work on something, it doesn’t feel like work.
N: Yeah, I have to imagine that makes your job easier, as well.
BDG: Oh, I mean, absolutely it does. I mean really, that selfishly, yeah. And everyone across the board was just – they had the best attitude imaginable. And I’m basically spoiled by it, because on one hand, it’s probably one of the most difficult productions I’ll ever have, but it was the most fun, because I had a whole group of people that were just so excited to do it. There’s 11 actors, and some have a hundred credits, and some have none. It’s just a really interesting cross section of – and I cast everyone that I thought was best for the part, and there are some people who are brand new, and all the bad guys are filmmakers who I cast because I had a weird idea about doing that. But I’m really happy with the ensemble across the board.
N: Do you have a favorite moment, either scripted or unscripted from the whole filmmaking process, or either on-camera or off? Just your favorite moment from the whole production?
BDG: I really enjoyed working with Joe Swanberg. He’s a friend of mine, and also he directed Drinking Buddies, and he’s been in You’re Next, and a lot of others, you know – the mumblecore movies. So it was really fun. We improvised a lot of stuff at different times, and he ended up being in that. So it was really fun working with all the marauders, because – Simon Barrett who wrote the features You’re Next, and The Guest, and Todd Farmer, who wrote My Bloody Valentine and Jason X, and Nathan Moore, who’s a great actor, and he does a bunch of these really popular YouTube things. It was interesting directing film makers, because they understood my-basically what I had to do, and they understood my job, and they’re also trying to help me while being professionals, and that ended up being a really fun experience, because they worked really, really hard, and they were the last people there at the end of the day. And it ended up being an accidental support system, which I hadn’t even had in mind.
But you know, I have to say the sniper thing was really fun, but overall, working with Ceren [Lee], who plays Ellen – I literally never worked with anybody who was so gung-ho. She probably would have done the whole thing standing on her head, she was so excited. The second unit team, which is a director and a camera operator, and it was just them-nobody else-and they shot MOS, and I was just coming up with ideas for them, like, “Hey, can you go to the second floor art department and put a thing there, and walk in with a flashlight,” and she would just run off with them, and they would come back with footage.
The whole time I was shooting, I would just keep getting brought back this beautiful footage, they would do exactly what I wanted, and then make it even better. You know, I don’t think there was a time – if she wasn’t shooting, she didn’t just go and take a break. If she wasn’t doing something, if she wasn’t in a scene, I would just send her off to go get insert shots, and it was a very fun, fluid process. If you’re on a feature film, maybe you need to be a little more regimented than that, but in this case, it was fun, because I had a lot of free reign to do shit like that.
N: I have one more question for you – where does this series exist in relation to the graphic novel, and do you recommend reading that beforehand?
BDG: It really doesn’t matter the order you read them. I think that the way that this series would exist and the comic would exist, you can sort of read whichever one you want before, because Ellen is in both of them, but this is sort of my interpretation of the comic, and what I would do with that world, and what I want to attempt, even though we’re working kind of in unison with each other. You know, Adrian Askarieh, the producer, has found the comic and he did all this way before me, and did a lot of the leg work, and was really his idea to turn this into a separate web series, and do a movie and a lot of things, and I basically just came in after a lot of smart people had really thought through a lot of that stuff.
Luckily, I came in where people had made some good decisions, so I could kind of tee up and go do my own thing. But I think, basically, I view them as two separate but complementary entities. Hopefully someone might watch the whole season and then they’ll go to Amazon and buy a trade and then read it and then they’ll find that these things kind of complement each other. Luckily, I think the comic takes place in a different period of the apocalypse, so they can sort of exist on their own.
In a way, this is sort of like the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern version of his universe, where we’re just with these separate characters, doing their own thing, away from some of these bigger conflicts.
N: I like that, that neither is a prerequisite for the other. They exist in tandem and you can enjoy them both, either separately or together.
BDG: Making stuff is hard. If you had to really worry about that at the same time, it’s just too much.
N: Yeah, exactly. It’s kind of a crippling pressure, I’d imagine. Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. I really enjoyed the pilot, and I can’t wait to share this with our readers.
BDG: Thanks, man! It was really fun! I hope my answers weren’t too long.
N: No, they were perfect. You get a 94%.
You can watch the pilot of Enormous, now on Machinima. What do you think? Want to see more? Let us know in the comments below.