Rueful Warrior is the brain-child of 34-year-old writer/director Mark Owen, a 2006 graduate from the Met Film School of Ealing studios in London. After graduating, Owen has since taught himself various aspects of production however, writing and directing has been his main passion for many years.
Owen’s latest work is the short film Rueful Warrior starring Michelle Fahrenheim, Oliver Park, Claire Cartwright, Christina Forrest, Simon Pengelly, Georgia Annable, James Ballanger and Jordan Dumaurier. It’s the story of alien Yalalia, who during a major battle, finds herself on Earth attempting to locate water for her species’ survival. Yalilia, a strong combat fighter, wishes to harm nobody except when the fate of her life is in jeopardy. Rueful Warrior looks at the duel natures of humans (and aliens) while delivering a solid, action-filled, throwback to the sci-fi action thrillers of the late ’80s. It’s the kind of movie Arnold Schwarzenegger was starring in 30 years ago and now in 2019, the fierce, cunning, strong lead is played by actress Michelle Fahrenheim. Rueful Warrior has many influences yet at the same time, it feels incredibly original in style, assemblage and message that war, no matter the decade or galaxy, is still an unfortunate aspect of society but with some understanding of our “enemies”, perhaps there might be a future where there are less of them.
Mark Owen, who is showcasing Rueful Warrior at festivals all over the United States this fall, took time to speak with us about his work, ideas, wishes, movie love, females in film and how it feels to be releasing his vision to the public four long years after he conceived it.
Jason Sheppard: Hello, Mark. To start off I was wondering if you could you tell me a bit about your background?
Mark Owen: My original background is very much kind of off the mainstream world of growing up with Spielberg films and all the magic of the ’80s. It sounds a bit cliched but those films are what captivated me and want to escape and it was kind of the easy way to do it because his movies were so engaging and they took you out of normality and put you in something with Dinosaurs or aliens or war or something. That’s what inspired me to think outside the box and focus on stuff which was very character-driven. And I’m a sucker for poignancy. I like to find these little moments in the story where you can try and guess what the characters are actually thinking early on.
JS: How did attending film school prepare you for filmmaking?
MO: The film school taught me a lot but I probably taught myself everything since or certainly through more experience and work with a lot of good people on set. Experience really is key in this whole thing. People come to me for advice sometimes and say, ‘what’s the best piece of advice you’d give to budding actors or budding filmmakers?’ And I always say or have said recently that it’s probably 10-15% talent and the rest is all mental stamina because you’re going to have so many rejections whatever field you’re in. You got to learn to be tough, because at the end of the day, audiences rightfully just want to know, is it a good movie? Am I entertained? Does it do what it says on the tin and do they care about how much trouble you had or how many years it took you to do one effect shot? I guess audiences know about it, but it’s a business and it’s bums in seats, isn’t it? So that’s what I got to keep telling myself to keep going.
JS: How did Rueful Warrior initially come about and how involved in the post-production process are you?
MO: I was working temp jobs in London for around five years and I wasn’t really going anywhere doing that so I just thought ‘what am I waiting for? Let’s save up and make another movie.’ I always self-funded everything and doing it this way was painfully slow. I was being encouraged to make cheaper movies on a phone or camera. It takes me a while to save up or take a bank loan out, which is what I did for Rueful Warrior, it was quite a substantial amount but only a fraction of most movies. I like to tap into every kind of aspect of pre-production, production and post, but ultimately writing and directing has been my passion.
JS: I have to say that for a short film there is some high production value on display here.
MO: Hopefully you can see that it was worth it. Some might say, ‘well, maybe we should get rid of this, maybe we should get rid of that.’ And I stubbornly kept saying ‘let’s keep it here and see if we can pull it off.’ Especially the underwater sequences at the end where everyone was saying ‘I’ve never seen an underwater fight in a short film.’ Something that’s not shot in a swimming pool and the chlorine and the camera man’s faces and stuff is always a thing.
JS: I noticed quite a few Spielberg touches throughout from certain camera angles, lighting to sound effects.
MO: You could probably see some obvious notes in Rueful Warrior to Spielberg which I didn’t shy away from. I didn’t have to go ‘this is an Indiana Jones moment.’ People will tell from the sound effects—the splat punches and all that. I was keen to throw little moments like that in there. But yeah, certainly a few Spielberg influences and probably a few others as well.
JS: Besides Spielberg what were the other influences?
MO: Just a mix of excitement and youthful stuff that I’ve seen. I could probably say, old ’60s, ’90s things like Gerry Anderson puppetry like Thunderbirds and things like that with all kind of rockets and real smoke and pyrotechnics. If I were hypothetically, to make a feature and have this huge aerial battle with rockets and fighter jets and things like that, I would try to do it the old fashioned way, as the original Star Wars trilogy.
JS: Another couple of Influences I picked up while watching your movie were Minority Report by Philip K. Dick and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. Would you say this movie could be described as a combination of those two as well?
MO: Yeah, that’s good. Sometimes people will take different things out of it. The Philip K. Dick comparison is a good one. That’s a pretty nice compliment. It’s got that kind of crazy combination. So yeah, I’ll take that one
JS: Where was this movie filmed?
MO: This was, believe it or not, shot on site. Pretty much everything you see on screen is a real untouched location in West London called Kempton Steam Museum which is a museum by day. You don’t really see it in the movie but there’s a shot where Yalalia (Michelle Fahrenheim) punches a guy and you see this backdrop for a second looking up, kind of low angle where it’s light and you see these huge Victorian windows with light pouring in and smoke so you can see a glimpse of the infrastructure there. The entire building had seven levels on it so it was kind of a bit of a maze trying to work out what level we were filming on. It’s just a huge steam Museum which is open to the public in the daytime and then it’s heavily used as film sets when it’s not. It was used for big productions like Sherlock and Bruce Willis did a movie there a while ago and you can see the building in the old Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I would say 95% of what you see is genuine piping and stuff on the real location. The only thing that was actually added was the propeller fan, which was basically a fake wall that was added and then painted in just to give that whole kind of extra sort tense moment.
JS: So where were the underwater scenes filmed?
MO: We had to shoot everything underwater in a separate water tank in Essex, London which again was quite an unassuming place on the outside. They shot a James Bond movie in there and a Star Wars film. When the characters come out of the water, that was all filmed in a water tank with people staring on the outside watching and we replaced that digitally with the shot now.
JS: You just mentioned Star Wars and I noted while watching this movie, like the original Star Wars, this story begins while an ongoing battle is occurring. Was that something that was done on purpose?
MO: It’s funny you should mention that because this whole idea literally, from the moment it starts where you hear battle sounds in the background and then the captain of the enemy soldiers references “so now your friends seem busy across the way,” and you can hear this whole other battle, I actually wrote the idea for a feature film before any of this took place and in the middle of that film, there’s effectively 20 Yalalia’s. This Yalalia got a slightly different outfit, so everything where she’s got yellow detailing on her costume, there’s a slightly different shade of color for them. There’s this huge ground battle that’s happening off-screen for the same reason—to find water. We start this story when all hell breaks loose and in the middle of that fight, Yalalia gets cut off during an explosion. Hypothetically, in my head, I thought it would be interesting to find out for a minor character, which she would have been in that bigger movie, what her story is. What if you followed her around the corner, what would happen? So it’s almost as if she’s just come around that corner from that battle. This side story was evolved from a much bigger one. So you hit the nail on the head with it taken from a bigger movie, because I am now currently working on an idea to try and pitch that as a feature. I was thinking of all these wacky ideas to start that off with. Old school ideas of spaceships and models and Ariel fighter jets engaging with this huge rocket. You see from the alien’s point of view on their planet, they’re all launching from their base on this distant planet, and we follow a ship that has Earth as the location, not knowing that that is going to be the planet that has water. It’s all a bit crazy.
JS: Sounds much like George Lucas when he had his Star Wars ideas in his head before writing them down. So how long did the filming for this movie take?
MO: Filming was five days, Five in the main location and then we had one day after that in the underwater tank. They were very full-on days right up to the end of the fifth day where we shot the last scene where they’re coming out the water tank. Michelle’s costume was a real leather costume and obviously we weren’t sure if it would shrink or not. We were under pressure from the staff and the buildings to close down and we’ve got guys telling us we can’t do more than one take. We just had to go for it. So I couldn’t really do any directing. I just said this is what you need to do: just go and I kind of just prayed a bit. I was hoping that it would be pulled off and luckily we might get a powerful strong emotional last scene and that was really the fundamental nature of how that materialized. The next day we shot the scene where they come out of the water and just before they get out, they have a look and then there’s this bit of respect for each other before coming out. That wasn’t actually originally scripted until the night before. To be a look between them before they continue fighting but I somehow missed that we hadn’t shot that moment on my way home that day and I was gutted about it. And then I said to Josh, the VFX effects guy, ‘if we had some time, could we fit this in if I wrote that?’ and he said, ‘yeah, it should be fine.’ So some things happen for a reason. It ended up being much more powerful that way around, I think.
JS: I did really like that moment where she says “I’m sorry” to the one big guy before breaking his neck.
MO: To be honest, one of the things I was always fearful of was this is a woman who fundamentally doesn’t want to fight yet she goes around whether she wants to, sometimes killing people. Fighting seems to be Yalalia’s last resort and she’s on the retreating side of their approaches. She is filled with adrenaline after being shot a couple of times so it’s to the point of no return for her and then that’s when you see she can’t really hide her restrictions anymore and her restraints and then you see her kind of unload and it’s adrenaline mixed with sheer determination and, and anger. So I thought It was kind of a good mix to see two titans clash at the end.
JS: Did the actors know each other before filming?
MO: Well, Michelle and Oliver did. They were in my previous film a few years prior called Fade which was a drama about a boyfriend and girlfriend who cheated on him but it wasn’t quite as it seemed. This was all about this guy’s mindset of going absolutely crazy with her not really listening to her explanation. Then it becomes an out-of-the-box, sci-fi mini-drama. Those two already knew each other a couple of years prior to shooting this one in May 2017.
JS: And what about the editing? How long did it take you to assemble this movie?
MO: It was more or less two years of editing, including waiting for the VFX shots and I think we’re on something like, edit 22 so that gives you some sort of rough scale of how much time was spent tweaking this thing. Plus, when you wait for the effects, you start looking at things again and Emma, the editor, she was ‘don’t start looking at it again, we’ve locked this,’ and I was trying not to become like George Lucas and keep tweaking things, you know, falling into my own trap. But it all came together in the end. It was a relief to get it done because it had been my life almost every day for four years.
JS: There’s an incredible amount of physical fighting in this movie. How extensively did the actors train for this? Did any of them have any previous training experience?
MO: Michelle hadn’t done any fight training at all before filming. She never laid a punch in her life but I thought that perfectly embodied the character because she’s very much a reluctant fighter and this is not a guns-and-fists style movie. It isn’t all about fast-paced, modern martial arts. She wins through sheer grit and determination and is quite feisty, and can lay a punch. From a production point of view, that was one of the key things I wanted to address—that it was very much female on female or female on male and they can hold their own. I was kind of conscious to make that a 50/50 split with the agenda and hopefully that came across pretty well. Michelle trained one on one with each of her fights for the eight characters. We had two fights per day with her training so it was relatively fresh and the fight choreographer managed to teach all the basics of making it convincing.
Claire Cartwright who played the main female soldier villain, she had held a gun in a Shakespeare play but hadn’t fired anything. She’s like the nicest woman and you wouldn’t think to watch her that she wasn’t typecast as some sort of soldier or woman of authority. She actually auditioned for Yalalia a year prior and I didn’t think she was a fit, but then I asked her if she wanted to play a female soldier and she was ‘hell yeah.’ So she got in but she didn’t really have any fight experience. Neither did Georgia Annable, the ginger-haired girl. She actually had a whole fight with Michelle but we had to cut that down for festivals.
Christina Forrest, the shorter girl who ends up fighting Yalalia twice and then gets chopped up by the propeller, she actually went to acting school with the fight choreographer so she knows a bit about sword fighting and martial arts. But together, they had no training and really what you see on the screen is pretty much what the actors can give in real life. Simon, the big guy that gets hit by the crowbar, he was desperate to do that back-flip just because he practiced it himself. But everything else was done through just sheer grit and determination especially with the end fight and Oliver had done quite a few action scenes in other films. Obviously we had the mattress for throws but everything is Michelle. When she gets smashed against the pillar that’s her and when she gets slammed on the floor that’s her also.
JS: This Fall, you’ve been showing the finished film to audiences at festivals. What is the festival circuit like and what has the response been so far from actual movie-loving, viewing audiences been from those who have seen your movie?
MO: It’s been pretty good as I generally didn’t know what to expect. It got to the point where you become in this bubble so much through the editing phase. Emma, the editor and I sat in her room during editing and we both become so acclimatized to it, we genuinely started to forget what lines of dialogue mean as we’d both seen this 200 times. One time, we both managed to sit on a bed, watch it and zone out all the film-making from it and just watch as a fan which was a very humbling experience because she cried at the end, which I’ve never seen her do before. I didn’t cry but I was surprised by my own dialogue. At that moment, I realized how easy it is to get disassociated from it. Having said that, I still really didn’t know whether it will be a hit or not. It seems to be a crowd-pleaser and there’s something for everyone; action for action fans, for women who like seeing strong females and ultimately has a strong message. Some people who have seen it privately have been very complimentary. At the moment, it’s on the festival circuit which will probably last into next Spring.
Michelle and I are traveling to Arizona to go to the Show Low Film Festival which is a very exciting kind of excuse for us to go to travel and Arizona. It’s going to be good to network and meet people and who knows? I might have a chance to pitch the feature out there. But yeah, it’s been very good and Michelle, she’s actually a comedy actress which you probably wouldn’t think. I guess as an actor though the cliche of playing someone that you’re not is very much the thing. Especially with action.
For actors who primarily do drama and don’t really get to sort of lay a fist or fire a gun, it’s just the kid in everyone to enter another world and become someone you’re not. The whole process has been pretty uplifting and I couldn’t try to keep myself grounded as a filmmaker if I don’t get too high about the highs or too low about the lows, so it’s a very mixed field and festivals can be up and down with their responses and if it doesn’t get in it doesn’t mean it’s not good. If someone accepts it might mean that one judge liked it, I don’t know. But I think the main thing really is to enjoy the ride and keep learning, keep absorbing stuff. And don’t ever think that once you’ve done something like this, you’ve made it because you still got to learn. Even Spielberg said a few months ago he still goes to every film set, terrified and not having a clue what to do. So it’s really a case of trying to heed advice and keep that in the back of your mind whenever you think that you know something you probably don’t. But just to keep learning.
JS: There’s a very prevalent anti-sexist message in Rueful Warrior. Do you feel that the industry is finally recognizing strong, female characters as equals finally and not only that, are audiences clearly responding and embracing them enthusiastically?
MO: Yeah, and I think since the unfortunate business with Harvey Weinstein was where it sort of really came to the fore. I think the tide is definitely turning. Interestingly enough, I sort of have done some anti-sexism interviews on the side before the Weinstein stuff broke and now that’s come out vulnerable actors feel more confident coming out. So it is a case of like, ‘oh, it now feels safe to talk about this.’ Certainly from a narrative point of view, with film’s in some ways, there’s always certainly been some role models along the way like Sigourney Weaver and Alien or Lara Croft or whichever character it is, there are role models there that clearly show women can fight and for some reason, there’s always been a stigma that they can’t which I think is always kind of a false statement. There will always be some ‘buts’ or ‘maybes’ to every scenario with those just assuming that men are stronger, which I find ridiculous, to be honest. One of the reviews for this film made a point which wasn’t very subtle in kind of saying, ‘oh, it’s unrealistic that she’d be able to beat someone twice her size’ which I thought was kind of missing the point. But everyone’s entitled to their opinion. But it is moving in the right direction. I think it’s a shame that we still have to kind of market and kind of flag it up and make an effort to make that balance. Without trying to blow my own trumpet I feel this film kind of does it in a clever way. To use a comparison, in the last Avengers movie which someone else pointed out, there’s a very subtle shot of all the female heroes making a stand. And it was powerful, but some people resented it. Here It was very much about a soldier there to do a job and they’re all there with their respective jobs to either protect the building from Yalalia or she’s there to get water. I think there needs to be a drive but done in a clever, try and make it as subtle as possible way. But the tide is definitely turning and hopefully in a year or so we won’t even be having these conversations anymore.
JS: What would you like viewers to take away with them after seeing Rueful Warrior?
MO: I really find enjoyment in watching something that is an obvious note to ’80s action films because doing something old school like that where it’s sort of fighting style is very much Die Hard or Indiana Jones where there’s no real defending, it’s all ‘you hit me ten times, I’ll hit you ten times and we’ll see who’s standing at the end that’ whole, unrealistic fighting style. But it was it’s attributed to the most loved films that have been made and they are all great! The best decade was the ’80s for action movies so I kind of wanted to pay homage to that. But that was a close second to the primary message, which was to make this message about war and the futility of miscommunication that can lead to extreme consequences and conflicts and kind of just despair really. And I didn’t want to gloss over the fact that despite having this fun side to it and sort of Hollywood ingredients, that it would necessarily have a happy ending and it was an unrealistic film. That was the balance I was always trying to be conscious of. I had a Skype call this week with a director in America and I asked his advice saying ‘I’m worried whether I can get the balance or will it pay off if I try to blend action and having fun with something so serious’ and his response to me was ‘Have you seen Deadpool?’ and that made me realize yeah, so you break the fourth wall and you can have seriousness and comedy mixed. This isn’t the same as that movie but the notion was still the same and then that’s kind of pat on the back I needed to go and give it a crack and hopefully we managed to do that.
JS: Why did you end the movie with an anti-war quote from Dwight Eisenhower?
MO: I thought that the moment of Michelle and Oliver’s characters holding hands, even in death was quite powerful so I was looking desperately for a quote that kind of summed everything up. And I had a few but the Eisenhower one seemed to be perfect. The whole notion that he was a soldier himself, the quote seemed to carry much more resonance in that it was actually all pointless and they were all basically going to their deaths in one way or another through the art of war and conflict. None of Rueful Warrior should happen if they just all spoke and tried to be diplomatic, but they’re all robots following orders. So just an unfortunate mess, I think is the simplest way of putting it. But I needed a quote to be powerful enough to highlight, as it says, the stupidity of it. Because that’s really what it just comes down to; the entire thing could be avoided, but protocol always seems to prevail.
JS: Finally, what has been the nicest thing a viewer has said to you about Rueful Warrior?
MO: Certainly the response I receive is just a sea of positivity even if it’s made people cry or make people want to watch it again. To be honest, some people who are sort of big macho men said they watched it and cried and that was surprising and kind of reaffirmed my earlier comment where I said I was in my own bubble and couldn’t really ever appreciate it myself. But it’s just nice that people seem to enjoy it. I’ve had old ladies watch it and very young girls and very young guys. Everyone’s supportive. So if it makes more people aware and they take the message home with them about the message of war which sadly, is still as topical today as it ever has been. If some guy watches the movie on YouTube and he comments, it makes them react and contributes to a change of thinking, that’s my goal. It’s a drop in the ocean but I always say oceans make waves and you got to keep going. As a filmmaker, you feel responsible on a political level to help drive messages and how futile they might be or however small an audience might be, you just got to take a stand and make material based on what you believe in.
JS: Thanks so much for speaking with us.
MO: My pleasure. Take care, mate.