Making the worst movie ever isn't easy - way harder than making a bad movie. A bad movie is a just mediocre movie with a few problems that make it boring, uninteresting, or annoying - a bad cast, a stupid script, deliberate shittiness, or whatever. The worst movie ever, though, is not a mediocre movie at it's core. The worst movie ever will convince you that it was actually made by a crazy man with either a lot of money or no money at all.
I thought nothing would top Tommy Wiseau's The Room, but from Wiseau's "own" San Francisco emerges James Nguyen's Birdemic. The Room is a completely insane vanity project, but it's at least competently technically executed. Birdemic is a completely insane morality tale made by a director who has yet to wrap his head around Mario Paint.
I've seen the film, I've interviewed Mr. Nguyen, and I'm still not sure this isn't some elaborate joke. God knows the internet's been rife with deceit lately. But if this is a joke, it's the Kennedy assassination of jokes, and more power to it.
James Nguyen is a director who preempted lazy criticisms by never quitting his day job. When he doesn't work as a salesman in Silicon Valley, he is the president of Moviehead Pictures, whose website has to be seen to be believed. As the story goes, he funded Birdemic out of pocket, its original release tanked, but after driving around the Sundance Film Festival in a van covered in dead birds, he found a distributor in Severin Films.
It's getting a proper, Tim & Eric-hosted premiere in LA on Feb. 27th - Vice got a screener copy, it's the worst-film-ever experience of the season, and you need to see it. Seriously though, it's such a visual disaster that after seeing it you'll probably want to throw a benefit concert for your eyes. The interview that follows is full of spoilers, but who cares - read it anyways.
VICE: Could you give our readers a short description of the film?
James Nguyen: Birdemic: Shock and Terror is my third film, and it's a romantic thriller. It's a 90-minute film, and the first 30 minutes are just romance between the protagonists, Rod and Nathalie, but there are hints, a foreboding that hints that things are not right. If you watch it, if you're careful, you'll see that it's there. About halfway through the movie becomes a thriller, and suddenly eagles and vultures are attacking a small town.
How'd you first get the idea to make Birdemic?
That's a good question. I'm a huge Hitchcock fan - I went to the film school of Hitchcock cinema. Actually, I never went to film studies… one of my favourite Hitchcock films is The Birds, and actually, in my first movie I directed Miss Tippi Hedren, and she actually does a little cameo in Birdemic [NOTE: read: she's in a clip of The Birds that plays in one scene - ed.]. So I really like The Birds, even though it's not my favourite Hitchcock movie - Vertigo is my favourite Hitchcock movie. But The Birds was always there in my mind, and… sales is very stressful. That's my day job, and that's how I pay my bills, and that's how I finance my movies. I would drive down to Half Moon Bay, and look at the sea, and relax, and think, "wow, what if I made a movie like Birdemic, and pay homage to Hitchcock, but make it original, in Half Moon Bay." It's a city you need to see, about forty miles south of San Francisco. I wanted it a little more shocking and terrifying - it's eagles and vultures, it's more shocking with birds of prey instead of the seagulls and crows in the original The Birds. So that was the idea of it, and I don't want to give away the story, but that's how this movie got started.
How was making the film?
We had a lot of fun making the movie. It was low-budget - I was actually financing the movie through my paychecks. We had fun shooting it on location. As for actor-director relations, I'm a very "actors' director." You know, 60% of the success of a movie is in the casting. You get the casting right, you practically have guaranteed that 60% of this movie is going to be good. The rest is actual production. We had some tension over the small budget, and it took some seven or eight months to shoot it in 2008, even though I started writing the script, with two or three false starts, back in 2006. But I got lucky with the cast, and mostly, because it was low budget, it caused stress. Part of your motivation is to work week to week - and it takes a lot of work to make a movie. A lot of people get attracted to the movies by the glitz and all that, but most will break very quickly and go away once they see what it takes to make it in the movie business. So it's stressful when you're under-resourced, under-everything - animations, money… it's tough. But I think I got lucky, and we stuck together, and we finished the movie.
I have to ask about the special effects in Birdemic. What's the story?
That's a good question. Like I said, I'm paying for this movie with my paycheck, and you work with what you have, so I bought a 3D model of these eagles and vultures for a few hundred bucks, and I hired all these animators, practically out of college. You know, from a distance, the eagles and vultures look pretty real, but if you get in too close… I don't want to say much, but I can say that if you get too close, it's art! It becomes art. You know, if I was director of Avatar, for hundreds of dollars, or even a million dollars, I could hire a staff of animators, add on textures, make it so realistic that you couldn't tell a 3D eagle and vulture from a fake one. It takes hundreds of thousands of dollars to create that kind of animation, and I don't have that. What I have is some money from my paycheck, so I used that. Some of the film, it looks whatever, but I didn't have a choice - I put it in because it makes the movie. But now, it's become kind of entertaining. I want to change it, I want to make it more perfect, but Severin Films say "leave it out there, leave it like that."
Did you ever think of using real birds?
Oh yes - I investigated that, but it was out of my budget. It costs fifty thousand dollars to train them to fly a certain way, and also you have to deal with the Humane Society. In fact, I got a letter from them - they saw the trailer, and they asked me "are you using real eagles?" I was shocked by that. I said no, it's all animated, I was abiding by the rules. But I'm working on a sequel to Birdemic, called Birdemic: The Resurrection, and it takes place in Hollywood - what if the eagles and vultures attacked Hollywood? And maybe, if Birdemic does great, maybe I'll get lucky and get twenty million dollars for the sequel. I could get those nice fancy animated eagles that would look like Avatar, you know?
Like Independence Day with birds! Is there any significance to the species of birds in the movie? I mean, eagles are normally a very patriotic bird.
Yes, I specifically limited it to eagles and vultures because they're birds of prey - they attack. It's a metaphor. It's not a metaphor for the specific species. If we keep living the way we are, driving cars - if we change, it would be better for the world. There's worse that can come than a hurricane.
Like a birdacane?
You were a software salesman before you started making movies?
Yes, I'm still in software - I'm out in the parking lot of the company right now. [proceeds to describe in depth what his company does] It's like in Birdemic, and you saw Rod, he worked for a startup, and they got bought out by Oracle and all these guys become very rich very quickly. The Silicon Valley dream! This happens all the time. I haven't done it yet, though. Most startups will fail, nine out of ten. But many get bought out by Google, Yahoo, or whatever. Google is six blocks away - maybe they'd buy us out, and hopefully I'd have a few more dollars.
So how much of the film is autobiographical?
Everything is probably about 60% autobiographical. The character Rod, what he does is like what I do in real life. But the other 40% is fictional.
Birdemic isn't just a Hitchcock homage - it's also a topical film. It addresses things like global warming, bird flu, and maybe even the Iraq war.
Yes, it pays homage to Hitchcock's The Birds, but it's contemporary, modern, for our times. I don't want to give away the story, but, the theme of the movie is the environment. Why do the eagles and vultures attack? That's the crux of the film, and one of the things is that if you watch it carefully for the first thirty minutes, it's there - but only if you watch it carefully. Then, after Rod and Nathalie make love, the eagles and vultures attack. And yes, I can say that there are some political things in it too. I immigrated from Vietnam in 1975, after the Vietnam war, and every time I see people making war, I get angry. In our time, we don't need all that. We don't need to shoot. We should make peace. Talk. Mediation. That kind of thing. There's a lot of lies from both sides.
Imaginepeace.com appears repeatedly throughout the film, on posters and t-shirts. Why is that? Did Yoko Ono have a hand in making the film, or do you just agree with imagining peace?
Yes, I agree with that. I'm a big John Lennon fan, and my favourite song by John Lennon is "Imagine". I love that song. And that's part of the message of this movie. You know, the poster is up there when Mai and Rick are lying in bed, making love. That's kind of a reference to the bed-in, when John Lennon and Yoko Ono did the bed-in for peace in the hotel.
Yeah, it's basically a reference to it. And when you see them dead, or when they were killed, the music is inspired by the song "Imagine".
Sort of a motif running through the movie, then.
What I can say is that eagles and vultures attack a small town, they attack Rod and Nathalie, they attack people, but why not peace? Why not peace between eagles and vultures and man?
Are you actually legally trademarked as the "Master of the Romantic Thriller"?
Yes. Definitely. That's what I do. That's what all my films are - romantic thrillers. I became obsessed with romantic thrillers by watching Hitchcock cinema. The greatest romantic thriller of Hitchcock cinema is Vertigo, in my opinion. There's others like Rear Window, The Birds, To Catch A Thief, even Rebecca. Those are examples of Hitchcock's romantic thrillers. Mr. Hitchcock never formalized it and called them romantic thrillers, but I had the sense to call them romantic thrillers and make it a genre. I'm, in a sense, creating my own genre.
So then, if you're the master, could you tell us about the essential elements of romantic thrillers?
There's a romance between the two lead protagonists, but there's something that's wrong - either with the romance or with some other events. And the mystery about it rises to the end. In Birdemic, the two protagonists meet, they fall in love, they date, they go to the small town, they have a good day. So there's romance, but in between that, there's something wrong - there's foreboding. That's when the eagles and vultures attack. But near the end, when the eagles and vultures are killing lots of people in this small town, why do they stop? Why don't they kill Rod and Nathalie? When you buy the DVD, there will be a director's commentary where I say how originally, when Rod and Nathallie are in the van and the bird does the kamikaze dive and boom! The van exploded! That was in the original script, but I changed it, and instead, the eagles and vultures suddenly stop attacking and fly away into the sea. Now why do you think they stopped?
I really have no idea.
What I can say is that part of the answer is in the previous question that you asked, the ImaginePeace.com question.
Yes. In a way, it was by accident. You know, I met… yes, it's part of that, and we talked, and we're in talks, so I'm going to make this thing called Hitchcock and Romance. It's a 90-minute documentary. I ask two questions: number one, is Vertigo Mr. Alfred Hitchcock's greatest movie? And the second question I ask is, is Vertigo Hitchcock's greatest romantic thriller? I'm in talks right now to get Mr. Peter Bogdanovich, a close friend of Mr. Hitchcock. He's aging, that's why I've got to do it now, before it's too late. Also Mr. David Lynch, Mr. Martin Scorcese - every director who I respect and admire, but you who pay homage to Hitchcock cinema in their movies. But I won't be directing it. Someone else will be directing it.
What upcoming projects do you have? Your website has a bunch of things listed, including a little teaser for Space Tourists.
Yes, all those things, Space Tourists, all that stuff, it's in development. I'm writing the script right now. But the one that's currently almost in production is The Fire. A series of arsons, car fires, took place in the streets of San Francisco - this actually happened. Will the car arsonist be caught before he strikes again? The protagonist is a detective who goes in to investigate, and there's romance, and eventually you learn why the car arsonist is burning all these cars, and that's the crux of the whole movie. Romance and suspense and all that.