Interviews: Director Ryan Bellgardt Talks About The Jurassic Games

The dinomite mash-up of the summer, The Jurassic Games stops onto VOD this June from Uncork'd Entertainment! 

Starring Ryan Merriman (Final Destination 3) and Perrey Reeves (Entourage), the film imagines a world set in the near future wherein ten Death Row convicts are chosen to compete in The Jurassic Games, the ultimate virtual reality game show that pits its players against dinosaurs and each other. However, there is a catch… If you die in the virtual game, you also die in reality; and for Anthony Tucker (Adam Hampton), survival is his one chance to be reunited with his children after having been wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of his wife. As the devious The Host continues adding improbable challenges, the characters will find the odds stacked against them as only one victor can emerge as winner and reclaim their freedom. 

The Jurassic Games is the third film from Emmy Award-winning director Ryan Bellgardt (Gremlin, Army of Frankensteins). 

The Jurassic Games will be available on Digital 6/12 and DVD 7/3. 

"Every year, 10 of the world’s most lethal death row criminals are chosen to compete for their freedom in The Jurassic Games, a television show where contestants must survive against a variety of ferocious dinosaurs. The players all die gruesomely in the game zone except for one, the last one standing, the winner, who is granted not only his freedom, but fame and fortune. Survive the dinosaurs. Survive each other. Survive…The Jurassic Games."

We had the opportunity to interview director Ryan Bellgardt about the film.

TMS: I did get to see the movie the other night, and I had so much fun with it! It’s a great movie, it's very entertaining, I had a blast! Great job!

RB: Thanks man, that was kind of our goal, was to make something that was fun. After the last movie we did, Gremlin, it was depressing, a little bit sad and kind of really heavy and dark, and I was really excited to get into something a little bit more fun and exciting. I just wanted it to be a 90-minute action movie, and it kind of felt like we did a really good job of just keeping the pace pretty quick on it.

TMS: As the co-writer, how did you decide on the tone for the movie? With a concept like that, it would have been easy to just make another Sharknado and make it just a big, goofy joke, but it was pretty grounded and serious. What made you go in that direction with it?

RB: I'm always that way about the movies that I'm fortunate enough to be able to do. I'm not ever trying to make a Sharknado or anything like that, but the process of how we do these is that they're made to get as much attention as they can from the beginning, and that goes with the title, the premise, the poster art and all that stuff. At that point I kind of get some free reign to make it my own, tell the story that I want to tell. I still want to make a good movie, and I feel like I've been given the chance to make a movie, so I want to make it the best one that I can. I'm not trying to make a bad movie or a B-movie, I'm just trying to go above and beyond what our budget limitations are and try to make the best movie that I can. I appreciate people saying that because originally, when we were thinking of the concept, we were thinking "cloned dinosaurs versus convicts" would be a fun idea. I think once we added The Running Man, TV reality show aspect to it, it kind of had a life of its own, and I felt like the story of what was happening outside of the game was a little bit more fun for me to write and a little bit more interesting than what was happening inside the game. Weaving in the story of the group that was protesting the game was something that I really had a lot of fun writing.

TMS: That's something that I really picked up about it, there were all these homages to all these different movies. You mentioned The Running Man, and of course The Hunger Games, Battle Royale, even little things here and there that I picked up from The Truman Show, stuff like that. What is your filmmaking background? How did you get into the business? What made you decide that you wanted to make movies?

RB: For almost 20 years now I've been working in production. I started in radio production, doing jingles and things like that, because of my music background. Then my clients started asking me to do television commercials so I picked up a camera and figured that out. I got into CG animation as a hobby about 10 years ago. All those things came together at the right time. I saw a friend a friend of mine who's my DP now, Josh McKamie. He had made a movie with a friend of his. They had made it really cheap, but it looked great. This was back during the DSLR craze, maybe 6-7 years ago, and I thought "I think I can do that!" We made our first movie together, Army of Frankensteins, and we were fortunate because sales agents found it and we got distribution. From there I got really interested in the business side of filmmaking, and I thought, "Wow, if that movie did okay, then what could I make that would do much better?" We started really paying attention to what buyers were wanting, and we have a really great sales agent in Galen Christie with High Octane Pictures, who's just been so fantastic guiding us and helping us come to the table with movies that distributors really want. It's been a really fun ride, it was only about 5 years ago that we did Army of Frankensteins, so from there to where we are now working on our fourth movie, it's really something I didn't expect to happen. It's been really cool, it's been fun!

TMS: I thought every part of the movie looked great. The effects were cool, it was well shot, if had a nice, glossy reality TV feel to it. Of all the different things that you did on the movie, obviously writing and directing, but also the special effects and I even saw that you did set design. Which part of that was your favorite, the part that you brought the most of yourself into?

RB: First of all, I want to make it clear that I didn't make the movie by myself! (laughs)

TMS: Of course!

RB: I had a very fantastic and talented team of people that came in and really helped make this movie happen. There's about 700 visual effects shots in the movie. I was not very hands-on with the visual effects, I just kind of oversaw the team of really talented people that came together and made it all happen and I'm really proud of them. To answer your question, directing is my passion, where I feel like I have the most fun. I loved writing it too, that part of it is really fun, but I have a tendency to see things "big picture." I can visual a scene or even the movie being finished before we even get started, and I think that helps me get in there and solve problems. That's what a director is supposed to do, they're just solving one problem after another, and they have to at least let everyone around them think they know what they're doing and always have an answer for any questions or problems that come up. Movies are just problem after problem after problem that has to be solved, and I actually thrive in that, I really like it, so I'd say directing was my favorite for sure.

TMS: To that point, what would you say are the biggest challenges of directing a movie like this where you don't even see half of the characters? You've got your actors running from digital dinosaurs. What are the challenges of doing something like that, particularly as your third film?

RB: We've gotten experienced enough with visual effects that that kind of thing was pretty interesting, actually. In the big scene at the end with the T-Rexes in the desert, we storyboarded a little bit, but then we just went out and shot. I knew what I wanted to happen in my head, and I just told the actors, "Look over there! There's a T-Rex coming at you!" Or "There's one behind you, you're looking around!" They were good actors, so they could just imagine in their mind what was going on. The team and the actors that we work with are kind of used to it. Katie Burgess and Adam Hampton worked with me on Gremlin, and it was the same kind of thing where I would just tell them what's going on, or even during the take I'm yelling out directions like "It's ten feet above your head, it's going to your left" and things like that. I think that is challenging for them because they have to imagine something that's not there. But for me, putting this all together, what was a really interesting challenge was the way the story is. I always thought what was pretty cool about it was that the story could be told from one of three different perspectives. it can be told from inside the game, it can be told from inside the studio, and then it can also be told from someone watching at home. That was really fun, to cut back and forth between all those different perspectives. Something I was kind of worried about was that the movie would seem choppy or not flow very well, but I was really happy at the end when we saw a cut of it. I think it works pretty well, it keeps it kind of interesting, because we're seeing it from all these different perspectives all the time. That to me was even more of a challenge, because weaving the story together and keeping the story really tight was even more challenging to me than the stuff with the visual effects.

TMS: I thought you nailed it. I liked the tone, I never really thought it got slow or felt choppy or anything like that. It had a really good feel, it flowed really nicely. That's one thing I really liked about it.

RB: Thanks man, I appreciate that so much! One of the things that I thought was really kind of cool about this movie, and I don't know if you picked up on this or not or if this is something that people liking the movie are picking up on, is that it's kind of a love letter to the process of making a movie like this. A lot of the things that are going on with the TV announcer, or even things that there characters are saying, for example when a character asks why they picked dinosaurs to chase us, and another says it's because they tested better than robots, that's actually what happened. That's why they're dinosaurs, because we did a survey with the buyers to see what they wanted more, and they said dinosaurs. There's a lot of that kind of stuff in the movie, things about demographics and why certain people are there are lifted right out of our experience in making this type of movie. We thought that was kind of a fun way to interject the kinds of things that we have to go through as filmmakers making this kind of movie, and we put that stuff into the story.

TMS: That’s a really interesting take. I honestly didn’t pick up on that, but the more I think about it, the more I realize how much of it I saw. It really adds a little more depth to it.

RB: It made it fun for us. Of course they would call it "The Jurassic Games" because they were trying to get people's attention, and the demographics of the contestants they picked would be a certain way. I think even as the host goes down the line and talks about them that you kind of imagine why they would be the certain way that they are. Like I said before, we had a lot of fun writing certain things that the contestants or the host said, because we're putting some of our real-life experiences making movies like this into their perspectives.

TMS: I got to interview Katie as well, and she was great. One of the things she brought up about the filming of the movie was that it was filmed on location in Oklahoma with local cast and crew. I thought that was really cool, because I didn't even know Oklahoma had a film scene! Why did you choose Oklahoma instead of filming it on a soundstage in Los Angeles?

RB: Oklahoma's my home state, I live here and I work here. It's got a fantastic film commission that's really supportive and there are great rebate incentives for filming here and we took advantage of that. We were able to get money back on money we spent in Oklahoma. You might have heard of other places like Atlanta or Los Angeles or New York having but there's one here in Oklahoma that's really attractive, so not only local filmmakers like myself can produce stuff here but a lot of people from LA come here and film stuff too. It's a good place to do it as you can see in the movie, there's a lot of cool locations. The desert is called Little Sahara and it's crazy! You can go out to this certain spot and 360 degrees around you are these 70-foot sand dunes just like Tatooine from Star Wars or something, it's unbelievable. We were shooting there, which was really cool. I know they shot some of American Gods there and other movies have been shot there. There's other really cool locations that kind of look like the Old West or that look like a jungle. There's lots of really unique and diverse locations here.

The talent pool is great too, there lots of great crew and actors here. Katie's an Oklahoma native, so is Adam Hampton who plays Tucker. Even Ryan Merriman who plays the host, he's out in LA now but his home is in Oklahoma originally so he had roots here as well. It just all around is a really great and supportive community. People here are excited when you come in and want to film on their locations, rather than trying to charge you a ton of money for it they're actually really excited and supportive, so that's kind of neat. The one thing that I don't love about it that I would like a lot better in LA is the weather. There's a saying here that if you don't like weather in Oklahoma, wait five minutes and it'll change. It's really true. It can be like ninety degrees here in the afternoon and below zero in the morning, it's really weird. Spring lasts about a week here and then it's summer. It's very bizarre weather conditions, but if you can get around that then it's pretty good.

TMS: I'm from Michigan and it's very much the same way here. We even have the same saying! So I definitely understand that. I was also telling Katie how beautiful the landscapes were in the movie, all of the outdoor scenes, everything looked great.

RB: Thanks! Some of the landscapes were enhanced digitally, there are no volcanoes here, so we added some of that kind of stuff, and we added a few giant mountains in post, but that’s a testament not just to the locations but to our great post team who did all of the visual effects and matte paintings and stuff like that. The studio set was built by one of our producers and set construction guys, Chris Hoyt, and he did an amazing job pretty much building that set by himself. It took him I think 43 days to build that entire thing. One of the most challenging visual effects aspects of the movie was adding the holographic desk and the little UI screens that are all around them, and the little flying drone. That stuff was actually in some ways more difficult than the dinosaurs, because there were so many of those shots. It was something we were really trying to get down. I even had to hire guys on at the end to get that stuff all done in time. It was so much work. Even the glowing visors they had, and the scene where the contestants are doing the finger maze, I think there was something like 150 shots of just that, just the green screen where the guy comes in and fights the raptors. That stuff was pretty brutal, one of those things where I'm like "I'll never do that again!" (laughs) It'll be a while before I replace that many green screens with virtual computer screens.

TMS: Just talkie indie movies from now on! At least the next one or two.

RB: (laughs) Right, right!

TMS: To that point, what else do you have coming up? You mentioned you were working on another movie.

RB: Yeah, we're about 2/3 of the way through shooting. Ace Entertainment, a company out of France hired us to make a movie called The Adventures of Jurassic Pet, and it's a really fun kids movie that's way stylistically different from The Jurassic Games but it's a really fun, kind of E.T.-style dinosaur movie where a kid finds a dinosaur egg and has to raise a dinosaur, and everyone's coming after him. It's really cool and it gives us a chance to kind of flex our dinosaur muscles that we've gotten pretty competent doing, I hope, doing 700 dinosaur shots in the last movie. I'm really excited about a dragon movie that we have in the works, we don't even know yet if it's going to be a modern-day dragon movie or a medieval-style dragon movie but we're excited about that. I think that we'll probably always be doing some kind of large CG creatures like dinosaurs or dragons or something, but it works well for us, because my studio here has the in-house post-production team to be able to work on that. I think that kind of a neat thing that we get to do here is make those guys the stars of the movie. When you have a team like that in house, you get to grow together and get better together. I'm really proud of them. We did a lot of work on The Jurassic Games, and it's gratifying to hear people in reviews say, "Hey, the CG didn't actually look that bad!" It's pretty cool because it's a very small team of people working really hard to make it happen. You get people like YouTube commenters who the first thing they'll say is "The CG is shit!" But they'll say that on Jurassic World too. I hate that because it does a lot of discredit to the people who worked so hard to make that stuff look even halfway decent, it's very hard, you know? No matter what they say, I'm very proud of the team and I just think they did an awesome job. Speaking of Katie, I know I'm jumping around a bit, but I'm really proud of her. She did really great. It's a very physically demanding role, and we had her running and punching and kicking and falling, pulling on ropes and stuff all the time, and she did all of her own stunts and everything. She's great, I think she's a really talented actress that is hopefully going to have a really bright future. And Adam Hampton too, who played Anthony Tucker. He co-wrote the script with me, and he's a really great director and filmmaker in his own right, but also a very dedicated actor who will literally push himself to the limits to get the best performance.

Going back to what you were saying earlier, you asked me why we chose to go serious, instead of some really cheesy or over-the-top silly thing?

It just never occurred to us to do that. Everyone that bought into this movie believed in it, and everyone was working so hard, every single person at every single position really gave everything they could to the movie and went beyond their comfort zone, and I think it turned it into something that was better than the sum of its parts. Looking back at it now, all I can think of is, "Wow! The team did such a great job!" I keep saying that, but it's just what I keep thinking. I'm really proud of them.

TMS: I think a lot of people are really going to be surprised if they give this a chance. They're going to come in thinking it's some goofy Syfy channel movie, but when they sit down and really watch it, I think they're going to be really surprised by the tone of it and how they feel about it. It's a solid action movie, it really felt like an '80s throwback.

RB: I'm so glad you said that! Thank you for saying that because I was feeling that vibe too. I remember as we were making it and putting it together I was telling our sales agent, "This has kind of a retro '80s sci-fi thing!" And he was kind of disagreeing with me a little bit, saying "No, this is a Black Mirror episode!" I was like "Okay, I like that too!" But I totally get what you're saying and I'm glad you picked that out. It might be just because I'm a child of the '80s, I grew up loving that stuff, so I think it just naturally found its way in there, that stuff is inevitably going to sneak in there. I'm glad you picked that out because I really thought that too.

TMS: It's got all those callbacks but in the end it's very much its own thing, which was really great.

RB: Well, thanks! Sometimes you just throw everything against the wall and see if it sticks. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't, you know? I'm really surprised. I was really hoping that people would like the movie and have fun with it. I remember watching the first cut of it and thinking, "Wow, that's fun!" It's one thing for me to think that, but to have other people like yourself and other people that have talked about it feel that way is really cool. I'm not used to it, the other movies we've done haven't been quite as well-received. And this time I actually learned to listen to the people who were giving constructive criticism. I think there might be some kind of disconnect sometimes between reviewers and filmmakers, because I'm sure sometimes if a filmmaker gets a bad review they're like, "Well, that guy doesn't know what he's talking about!" or whatever. I've learned a different approach to it. Obviously, there's some people who like to write mean things just to be mean, and that's their shtick or whatever, I get that. But if four or five or ten or twenty reviews say something negative and it's the same thing, then that's something I need to work on. Another thing is that a lot of times, something that would be negative in a review is something that we know as well, we just for whatever reason, budgetary or time or whatever, we just couldn't make it better. I guess that's why this is rewarding and kind of cool, because we've listened to issues about pacing or character development that people would talk about in our previous movies, and it's kind of neat that we've fixed them in this one. We're not getting the same comments now, we're getting the opposite, saying that the movie is well-paced or whatever, so it's like, I'm listening. I want to try to get better, and that's a big thing for us and our team. We're always trying to get better each time. I still don't feel a million percent satisfied, or think it's a perfect movie by any means, but I think I can look back at this one and think, "Hey, we did pretty good on that, now let's go make the next one better."

TMS: There's always room to learn and grow.

RB: Absolutely.

TMS: That's a great attitude, I love that!

RB: Thanks, man! I know that film critics aren't out to personally attack us. I think it's good to get your movie out there so an audience or critics can throw out constructive criticism, because your friends and family aren't really going to do that. I think if you take that stuff to heart, you can learn, so I definitely appreciate that.

TMS: How and when can our readers see The Jurassic Games for themselves?

RB: It's coming out on June 12 on VOD and then July 3 on DVD.

TMS: Congratulations once again, It's a great movie, it's a lot of fun! Thanks again for talking with me, I really appreciate it! Good luck!

RB: Any time! Thanks for taking the time to talk with me!