neil johnson

Chilling Out

Tracey Birdsall


Chilling Out is where TrunkSpace talks all things horror and genre with those who work in the projects that give us the thrills and chills to keep coming back for more. This time out we’re talking with Tracey Birdsall whose latest film “Rogue Warrior: Robot Fighter” is taking the science fiction world by post apocalyptic storm.

We sat down with Birdsall to talk about the art of problem solving, pouring ice into her costume, and how the science fiction genre is one that is extremely near and dear to her heart.

TrunkSpace: You didn’t just star in “Rogue Warrior: Robot Fighter,” you also produced it. We’re curious if you enjoy the process of wearing multiple hats on a single project?
Birdsall: Well, you know, I was one of two producers and I can’t do both and be the only producer because as soon as I get on set, I have to be able to kind of switch my brain off and just be the talent because there’s so much that is involved in that. But I love putting a project together and I love seeing it come to fruition. I kind of like all of the problems and missteps along the way too. (Laughter) So, basically yes, I love also being a producer, but I do have to put that hat down when we’re shooting.

TrunkSpace: You mentioned loving the problem solving aspect of producing. We would imagine that shooting this film in the desert and working opposite so many special effects forced you to have to work a lot of things through that you didn’t anticipate. Lots of zigging when you expected to zag.
Birdsall: Exactly, but that’s one of the fun things about science fiction. Director Neil Johnson really likes to make things as practical as possible. He did a couple of films that were mostly green screens many years ago and so he really tries to do as much “real” as he can. Any time that you’re doing something real, you’re going out and you’re shooting and you have your days, but as you said, the weather and the elements… and even what you’re dealing with… that sand is really deep when you’re shooting in those sand dunes. And then you get wind storms. And then you get heat waves out in the middle of the desert that you weren’t planning on so you have to go get bags of ice and shove it in your costuming. (Laughter) Because you have to do the shot.

But it’s amazing… some of the things that happened. We’re shooting “The Time War” now and we were shooting out in England for awhile, but the costuming was determined in California. So, those are the things that you run into along the way and it’s just that when that camera rolls, you just have to not think about anything except for who you are.

TrunkSpace: That’s so true… where a costume is designed is not necessarily going to fall in line with where it is worn.
Birdsall: Exactly. There’s a lot of too hot and too cold going on in any science fiction film when you’re out in the elements.

TrunkSpace: “Rogue Warrior” is a film that has taken a lot of people, especially fans of the genre, by surprise. Why do you think that is?
Birdsall: Because when you go in to see “Rogue Warrior” it… even the rest of the cast was kind of dumbfounded when they went to the premiere… because with the film you’re expecting great effects and you’re expecting a great storyline but what you’re not expecting is the huge character journey. There’s a lot of drama in “Rogue Warrior” that I think didn’t really occur to people to expect in a science fiction film.

TrunkSpace: Which is often an element that is left out of science fiction films… that fulfilling character arc.
Birdsall: It really is. And as an actress, I like to really delve into characters. Some scenes that were written on the page, they didn’t have as much of a journey, but as they came out… it was funny, there would be scenes where she was supposed to be brought to tears and stuff like that, but we had already done that in other scenes and not expected it. So, it’s just one of those things where the journey kind of took on a life of its own. And then so much of the film was shot in post production. Neil would be like, “This needs to be more epic and now we need to tie this in.” So we probably shot 80 days all together on it.

TrunkSpace: Wow! So, hearing what you put into the film, was it something that you envisioned to be a franchise out of the gates or was it meant to be just a standalone movie?
Birdsall: It was actually just going to be one of Neil’s quick, knock ‘em out the door films. (Laughter) It was just going to be a small film. And then, we’re both workaholics, so we both just really focused on making it better and better and better. I’ve spent hundreds of hours on my character and then the casting all had to be perfect. We probably interviewed 3,000 people before we hired Tony Gibbons on as the voice of the robot, Hoagland, because it’s such an integral part of the movie.

I guess we just don’t know how to do it small when we’re working together. (Laughter) It just got bigger and bigger and bigger and then the press took off with it and we were like, “Oh shoot, now we have to make it even bigger!” (Laughter) But, it’s been a fantastic journey.

TrunkSpace: What was it that brought the film so much attention and made it feel like the fuse was lit?
Birdsall: You know, it was while we were still in production. Now, when I say production I mean post production, which is when Neil Johnson goes all Peter Jackson on us and just keeps reshooting things. (Laughter) That was when it occurred to us that the press was… everything we put out there was going to larger and larger outlets and people were getting really excited about it. And that was when we just really started pouring on the heat and just making it better and better and better.

TrunkSpace: The film really is a testament to the fact that you don’t need a blank check to make a great science fiction movie.
Birdsall: What it takes besides money if you’re going to make a great sci-fi though is blood, sweat, and tears… and basically the lives of two people. (Laughter) I don’t know that most people would be willing to sacrifice what we put into this film. The only other place to replace it is to get more people and more money. So yes, it can be done. Would most people want to put in that kind of effort? I don’t think so. And I don’t know many directors who could do what he did with this. I really don’t.

TrunkSpace: So with having such a personal connection to the project and given the nature of the shoot, did it make it feel like going into the next film you shot was a bit of a breeze by comparison?
Birdsall: Not at all. (Laughter) Actually, “The Time War” principal photography was done before “Rogue Warrior” and we’ve shot three times as much on that since as when we shot in principal photography. So what it did was, we had this larger budget film that we knocked out the door first, and then “Rogue Warrior” was going to be the smaller one just to put out there and make some profit for him. And then “Rogue Warrior” got to be so big, that we had to rework “The Time War” and make it bigger. So, these things have years into them. Both of them. It’s just kind of funny how you raise the bar and then you’re like, “Oh shoot, now we have to make the last one even bigger.” (Laughter)

TrunkSpace: And what’s interesting about the science fiction genre is that it seems to have an extended shelf life in comparison to other genres.
Birdsall: It does. As a matter of fact, I rewatch sci-fi movies that are two and three decades old. We’ve been going through “Dr. Who” from the very beginning. You’re almost kind of immortalized in sci-fi, which is really, really cool because if people haven’t seen it, they want to see it because they’re sci-fi fans. They don’t just want to see it because it’s the next movie coming out. They do get watched by all sci-fi fans eventually, so they kind of have legs over and over and over again. You get into a conversation with somebody about a film like “Logan’s Run” and they’re like, “Oh shoot, I haven’t watched that in a few years. I have to go watch that again.” That’s what’s so cool about sci-fi.

TrunkSpace: And the key to transcending beyond JUST that sci-fi fanbase is giving it layers and making it just as much a character journey as a piece of special effects eye candy.
Birdsall: Yes. And that’s what this one hit on. Until the audience saw it, and I was sitting in the room with the audience for the first time, you kind of see people… we even saw a couple of press who had little tears in their eyes. People definitely go on the journey and that’s what’s so cool about it because they really aren’t expecting it. Of course, now people have heard to expect it so that will change, but it was really enjoyable to see as the performer, to see that people really got it and went along on the journey. Very rewarding.

TrunkSpace: So as you look over your career, where does “Rogue Warrior” fit in for you in terms of being a career/life changing experience?
Birdsall: Well, I’m a sci-fi geek. I grew up on sci-fi, so doing sci-fi for me is the pinnacle in itself. I still love doing comedy just because that’s like a dance, but science fiction, if I could just engulf myself in it forever I would just because it’s what I like to watch and it’s what I grew up with. My dad was really big into sci-fi and we’d sit there and eat rocky road ice cream and watch “Star Trek” when I was a kid. (Laughter) So, yeah, for me, “Rogue Warrior” is the most fun I’ve ever had, but it’s also the hardest thing I’ve ever done because there’s so many other stages to doing a huge sci-fi film and being a lead in it than there is to just knowing your lines and creating a character. There’s reacting to things that aren’t even there. There’s having relationships with robots. It’s very, very trying.

“Rogue Warrior: Robot Fighter” is due in theaters June 2nd.

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