Interview: Drew Walkup (Filmmaker)
Updated: 2 days ago
It is my pleasure to present the first ever interview here at GelNerd's World. I'm delighted to say it is with a man of many talents; director, producer, writer, developer... the list is endless!
GelNerd: Drew Walkup! Thank you for agreeing to be the first victim of my new blog, and giving me your time for this interview. Firstly, I just want to make sure you are safe, well and surviving this crazy COVID-19 world we now find ourselves in; how are you holding up?
Drew: It's my pleasure Chris, I'm honored to be the first on GelNerds World! And thank you for checking in on my well-being, 2020 has been quite a tough year for many, many people. I spent March through July quarantined in Florida, which was quickly becoming a hotspot for Covid-19.
Thankfully, I've not tested positive for the virus, and have been wearing a mask and practicing social distancing as best I can. However, the virus has still taken the life of a friend. Life is precious and it is tragic losing a loved one, and people have been struck by this virus in much more substantial ways than I have. There is hope in the knowledge that we can learn from this experience and come together to fight for each other. It's going to take every one of us to overcome this pandemic, and I believe we can, together. I hope you and those around you are safe, healthy and thriving as best as can be.
GelNerd: I fully agree, and I am so sorry to hear how this has affected you and countless other lives. I am safe and well as can be, and doing what I can with a somehow less than convincing Government to guide us forward here in the UK!
Now I will be honest - when I first came to hear of you via 'Fox Hunt Drive', something I will grill you on in a moment, I was eager to know what led you on this path. It's safe to say you are a prime example of what it means to be a successful independent film director and producer. Can you share with me your inspiration that made a young Drew want to take up a camera and create his own stories on film?
Drew: What a complement! And to be honest myself, I actually started as an actor. As far back as I can remember, I wanted to be in front of the camera. There's something about being an action hero that was quite appealing to me and I fed that fire through my formative years. I kid you not, the first email address I ever created was drewbond07. To digress for a minute -- I had recently read Zero Minus Ten, in the first scene showcases two MI6 agents going after Bond in a training exercise to achieve 00 status... I guess young me figured I hadn't earned 00 yet!
Anyway, it was around 14 that I started making shorts with Adam Armstrong, Marcus DeVivo and Michael Olavson (many of the same names in Fox Hunt Drive), and I began to see my passion for technology and storytelling take over. I continued acting and actually starred in a few shows at Sonoma State University, but by that time had made up my mind to go to the University of Southern California to study film production and focus on directing. USC introduced me to a world of film I didn't know existed -- from Italian Neo-Realism to Hitchcock's body of work, it was an inspiring time and I loved every minute of it. It was also a moment of transition for the school: I was among the last classes to shoot on 16mm film, which, aside from the cost and difficulties when working with the format, taught me to be a bit more... economical with my directing --one of the things no one teaches you is when to move on from a setup. I'm a perfectionist by nature, so learning that lesson was very difficult, and extremely valuable.
GelNerd: Wonderful to see the passion blooming from a young age, not just for James Bond, but the industry too. I know you have experience working in the company of Disney - how much of an experience was that, and what did you take away from such a now dominant entertainment empire?
Drew: Disney acquired Maker Studios while I worked there as Vice President, Programming overseeing the development of our content verticals. Transitioning from a start-up environment of a few hundred employees to being a cog in a machine of a hundred thousand was, as you might expect, humbling. Culturally, it was a fantastic experience -- all of the divisions at Disney were excited to work with us in "new media" and I was excited to share our techniques with them. Among the first integrations I did on the front lines of Disney's acquisition of Maker was a digital content initiative with Marvel and Disney Studios for Guardians of the Galaxy.
For Guardians, we executed many successful integrations with Maker's amazing talent including a shot-for-shot remake of the Guardians teaser trailer in LEGO. I actually watched Forrest (the creator) show the trailer to director James Gunn at a screening. I think it's safe for me to say that Gunn was enthralled with the work. The success of that project led to working with LucasFilm on Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and I'm not sure I can put into words how amazing it was to develop, pitch and get approved both content and strategy for the Star Wars universe. I still have the pitch deck I produced for it.
Working with the incredible teams at Disney left me with quite a few lessons. The main one being that, if you're going to do something, make it as good as you possibly can. The 80/20 rule doesn't exist for me when it comes to storytelling.
GelNerd: Star Wars is something else! Wow. You really DO have some amazing experience, and prove that nothing is ever out of reach for those with a desire to go for it. And, I do love LEGO trailers. Bravo, sir!
Now, before your debut film, you helped bring a wonderfully entertaining show to life in America, 'Hacker Labs', in 2018. This sort of creative show never fails to be a hit, especially bringing movie gadgets and themes into real life - where did the idea come from to do this?
Drew: The original Hacker Labs pitch was heavily inspired by Mythbusters, one of my favourite TV shows. At the time I was between jobs and pitching REBL HQ, a digital entertainment studio, to seed investors. A big part of the interest in creating REBL HQ as a start-up company was the IP/creative I would be able to bring to the table. Due to REBL HQ's proximity to Full Sail, I set my sights on developing a show that could find a home as unique, high-concept branded entertainment for Full Sail, as well as live on its own as a series that I could also sell externally.
In addition to its various degrees in film and music, Full Sail has branched out into a program called Simulation & Visualization in which they utilize technologies like 3d printing, software coding and external hardware to bring to life some amazing prototypes... with my deep passion for technology, I almost dropped REBL HQ all together so I could take that course! Saner heads prevailed, and after being inspired by the students and instructors in Full Sail's SimViz program, I walked away with some strong ideas of what was (and wasn't) possible.
Of course, I was re-watching Mythbusters at the time. I tried to break down the things that I personally loved about that show -- watching things explode was cool, but I specifically enjoyed seeing the behind-the-scenes: watching how they created the prototypes, what tools they were using, their problem solving of the obstacles they ran into.
I realized I wanted to watch a show that heavily focused on technology -- how that technology could be adapted and used in ways that it was never meant to be used to create something wholly new. We were never going to be able to blow things up for safety reasons, so my hook turned to fiction -- how cool would it be to see my favourite tech from movies come to life? Finally, I set the stakes for the show, giving the participants a timeline with which they needed to accomplish their goal. It was only after I adapted the IP for Full Sail as branded entertainment that I discovered YouTube's James Hobson, aka "The Hacksmith", was doing something similar. I reached out to see if he would be interested in coming to Florida for a few days to help the participants as a special guest, and that's when the show was truly ready for an audience.
James and I are hoping to find a home for the show on TV/streaming. It's still one of those great pieces of IP that I have in my back pocket.
GelNerd: Thank you for sharing this Drew. It now makes sense that all roads led to your first feature film release as director and producer; 'Fox Hunt Drive'. I've seen the film, and it's nail-biting stuff and honestly something that you see from the A-list stars and studios in terms of style and content. How did the film come to be, and why did you decide to debut with a thriller? Rom-com not your style?
Drew: You're too kind, sir! We are all very proud of Fox Hunt Drive in its final form. Quite often, I find myself trying to push the limits either for my budget, my team, or my timeline. For Fox Hunt Drive, it was one of those rare moments in which we understood our limits in terms of budget/talent and we found a way to maximize both to create something that punches above its weight. Of course, it goes without saying that there were some growing pains along the way!
The film was a purposeful move at REBL HQ. We knew we wanted to make a big piece of content, whether it be a digital series, a film, or a tv show. The problem was finding the right project for the budget. That's when I turned to long-time collaborators Adam Armstrong and Marcus DeVivo to see if they had written something that would fit the bill. They decided to pitch two different indie films -- Fox Hunt Drive being one of them.
I wasn't actually 100% sold on the project when it was pitched, but, when I read the first draft of the script, it was clear that this was the project to make.
It would be nice to say that everything fell into place after that, and many things did, but it was quite a journey to get the project from script to screen. I'd like to think I could direct any genre, given that my approach is to focus on the truth of the characters in a story. That being said, my palate is much more attuned to thrillers, action flicks, sci-fi/fantasy and horror genres. As a director, I wanted my debut feature to be a "calling card" of sorts -- if a producer is looking at me to helm their next genre project, they'd be able to see that I have the chops to bring the material home. I also wanted a good challenge -- Fox Hunt Drive is a thriller at its core, but we also tried to get a few laughs in there as well. Balancing the tone on a project like that is a tough thing to do, but when done well, it adds a lot to the project and grounds the characters in a relatable way. The laughs are also one of the more fun aspects of watching the film with an audience: each one will find different jokes landing more than others.
GelNerd: One thing I can tell from watching it, is how close the cast and crew were in bringing the story to life. Everything gels, and nothing feels out of place or wasted. As an independent filmmaker, how difficult was it, but also how rewarding was it, getting the project from script to screen and never losing faith in your talent?
Drew: Fox Hunt Drive was a difficult film to make. The crew wasn't set in stone until the day before production began... and I'm not talking department heads crewing up, I'm talking about above the line roles walking away from a feature film. In a way, these massive issues made the rest of my job easier: rather than overthinking how prepped I was as a director or spiraling into whether or not the film would be good, I was entirely focused, until the first shots, on making sure we had a proper support system in place to complete the project. I'm a leader by nature and a manager by occupation. That is to say, it's difficult, and most times a force of personal will, to remove my "Producer" hat and put on my "Director" hat. Even as a creative, there's always something in the back of my perfectionist mind pushing me to move onto the next setup. Jennifer Miller, our Production Manager, and Alejandro Treviño, our Producer, stepped up in a way that made it easy for me to focus on my directing responsibilities, and I'm so thankful to them for that. Moreover, I couldn't have asked for a better crew than the one we ended up with.
All these difficulties also added to the feeling of gratification. Of course, as a creative, there are many lessons I've taken away from making my first feature film. That being said, considering the factors involved, and the fact that I've probably watched the film 100+ times between editing, finishing, and distribution, I'm still pleasantly surprised when I rewatch the film. Talent is a big part of the project's success; Lizzie Zerebko and Michael Olavson are fantastic actors; Anthony C. Kuhnz, our Director of Photography, painted a beautiful image; Shawn McFall, our Production Designer, made the setting come to life... I could go on and on.
Unfortunately, talent isn't the only ingredient to success: stubborn persistence, undying work ethic, and strong leadership were also required to make the film come to fruition, and the cast and crew exhibited these traits throughout the process. I'm eternally grateful to everyone on this project that helped make it happen, it is, by far, the highlight of my creative career.
GelNerd: Do you have any idols in the industry now that you like to feel somehow, somewhere, bleed into your work? Be it an actor, director, producer? Do you have someone out there you one day would love to be the "next" of?
Drew: I became a fast fan of Alfred Hitchcock while studying at the University of Southern California. The first time I saw The 39 Steps, I realized I was watching a master at work. Even at that time, the film was 70+ years old, and yet, my eyes were glued to the screen as if it were the latest Daniel Craig James Bond flick. Truly, watching it made me feel like I was watching the birth of a genre.
There are other filmmakers out there I idolize -- Nolan, Peele, Bigelow, Cuarón. I'd love to think that my work invokes their spirit. There are the obvious moments when we take a technique like the dolly zoom and incorporate it directly. There are other, more subtle nods to these storytellers that are fun to incorporate here and there. However, in general, I prefer to imagine a script shot-by-shot and see where it takes me. There will usually be a handful of shots/imagery/sequences that I'll feel very strongly about and I'll fight for those to be in the finished product. Some sequences are more difficult to visualize and that's where collaboration becomes key, especially with one's department heads.
For example, there are directors who are highly visual, but I find myself balancing my aesthetic by focusing on overall storytelling and directing actors, meaning, for me, my collaboration with Anthony was imperative to bringing the film to life: external inspiration, his expressive eye, and my personal vision. The artistic collaboration in film-making is where it becomes difficult to distinguish between what is inspiration from other storytellers and what is uniquely ours. All that said, because the language these filmmakers have cultivated over the years are ingrained in all of our minds, I'm sure I'm unconsciously tapping into them, and many other of my favourite filmmakers, in every frame.
GelNerd: I can definitely see the masters of thriller and suspense coming out in what you do, Drew! The industry is hard, and making it through education to learn to get into the industry is even harder now. With many film fans interested in writing, producing, directing and acting in an independent movie, what advice would you pass on from one who has made it?
Drew: The most important lesson I learned: there's no one way to be successful in the industry. That is to say, there are many avenues for success and forging one's own path by following one's passion will usually be the best way forward. My own path hasn't been close to ideal.
I realized, after it was too late, that I wanted to go to USC for film production. I was only a slightly above-average student in high school, my focus being on personal growth, making films and acting. The summer before attending my first semester at university, I went to a summer program at USC for making 16mm film and fell in love with the program. I refused to go to any other film school. When I started at Sonoma State University that fall, I had made up my mind that I would get into USC. I focused on my studies, I focused on extra-curriculars, I cultivated a resume that would give me the best chance of being accepted. Which leads me to another strong lesson: work harder than everyone else.
Meeting my peers at USC is what truly started my journey. Even in film school, networking is important. People that were in my class have gone on to make huge films, others have made successful companies, others millions of dollars, etc. I'm an introvert by nature, and I missed many opportunities because I didn't network as much as I could have. The relationships that I did make led me on the path that I continue on today -- Anthony C. Kuhnz shot an award-winning short with me while at USC, and I called on him for Fox Hunt Drive; Mickey Meyer, a President at Group Nine Media, recommended me for a job at Maker Studios; the list goes on. Lesson three: networking is important: meet peers, be genuine.
Although framed through the lens of the start of my journey, these principles could be properly applied throughout one's career to great success.
GelNerd: I love those three lessons. Easy to say, but it takes nothing but courage and commitment to get there. Thank you for sharing, and thank you for being so honest about how you have come by them. Can you share what's next on your roster and where we will see you next as either director or producer? Surely Fox Hunt Drive was only the beginning for you...!
Drew: I'm fully committed to ensuring that Fox Hunt Drive is only the first film you'll see from me! As I'm not signed onto only one project yet, I can't say for sure what role I'll be playing for the next one. I will say that I have IP which I'm extremely excited to bring to the world being developed across genres. Adam Armstrong, Marcus DeVivo, and I are working on a follow-up film called Push To Kill, a thriller quite a bit darker, and much bigger in scope, than Fox Hunt Drive.
I recently acquired the rights to a six-book fantasy epic entitled The Gold of Felder for which I'm in active development with the author, Corinne Rice. I've also somehow convinced Fox Hunt Drive actor Michael Olavson to write a feature of his own (!!), currently titled Ride the Lightning.
There are other films and tv series I'm currently developing pitches for, and I hope I have the opportunity to share them with you... soon!
GelNerd: Well. That is exciting! I am there for the fantasy adaptions, and I wish you the best of luck with that project! Now, I have it on good information that you are a James Bond fan. You are already a man with good taste, but who is your 007 and what is your favourite 007 film!
Drew: Chris. We talked about this. These were all supposed to be softball questions! Kidding, kidding! But, this is truly a tough one.
I grew up with Pierce Brosnan's Bond, and although he still embodies the role for a young Drew, I have to say my favourite Bond is a tie between Sean Connery and Daniel Craig. I know you'll disavow me for forcing a tie upon you, but I don't think I could do without either of them. Connery is just the unequalled epitome of classic Bond. And, in my opinion, Craig (and team) have been able to elevate the character, the story, and the franchise to another level these last 15 years. To that end, I think I have to go with Casino Royale as my top 007 film. Martin did the classic Bond justice with GoldenEye, and then immortalized a near-perfect vision of Bond in Casino Royale. I've seen that movie... too many times! From Russia with Love comes in at a close second.
GelNerd: No, I accept your choices and I'm happy with that. Sad there's no Timothy Dalton, but that's another chat altogether! So I'll leave it there! It's been a real pleasure to discover so much about you and your work Drew, so thank you again for taking the time to talk to me and share this. Just one more question, as I use popcorn to rate movies in my reviews, are you a sweet or salted popcorn eater?
Drew: Thank you, Chris. It's always a pleasure to speak with you! And regarding the popcorn, I prefer salty, but I'd say there's always a time for caramel corn too.
GelNerd: Drew Walkup. You're a legend and a scholar. Thank you, and I can't wait to follow you in your future projects, and I wish you all the very best.
Drew: You as well, keep safe out there! Cheers to GelNerds World!
Please follow Drew on Twitter - @DrewWalkup - and let him shine a light on the independent film world as the generous and pleasant guy he is, always willing to chat about his work and keep you informed on his latest projects.
Also, please do seek out the thrilling Fox Hunt Drive which is available to watch as part of the Cinequest CINEJOY virtual festival until December 31st - https://bit.ly/FHD-CJFF - for just $3.99 and well worth it!