Nick Dunlop is a Screen Director and Editor at Little Star Productions based in Perth, Western Australia. His award winning documentary ‘Comic Book Heroes’ debuted on ABC-TV in 2013 and now that a little time has passed, we thought it would be great to revisit the project and reflect.
Nick, What got you interested in Gestalt Publishing and at what point did you feel there was a story to tell there? You also had to stay focused on the project for many years – that takes dedication. How did you stick with the project for so long?
I’m a documentary maker now but I used to collect comics obsessively as a kid and a teenager. I also used to create comics and sell them to my Grade Three teacher, Mrs Hird, who was kind enough to pay me in cash whatever price I wrote on the cover. And she was also kind enough to give all those comics back to my mother a few years later so these days I still have those early comics I made.
I did harbour dreams of making comics myself early on, but living in Perth comics were a very distant thing, not a reality, and instead I got into film making (which was only slightly more realistic) and that became my career and I kind of forgot about comics.
One day in 2011 I was reading the local newspaper and I saw an article about Gestalt Publishing and their recent trip to San Diego Comic-Con. It was mentioned that “Changing Ways” by Justin Randall had gotten a lot of attention. And this got me really excited. “A comic publisher in Perth? Comic-Con in America?? Could there be a documentary in this?”
And that idea niggled at me until one day I just decided to get in touch. I found Gestalt co-founder Skye Ogden on Facebook and I was like, “Hey Skye I’m coming to Japan in a couple of weeks. Would you like to do a bit of filming and see if there might be a documentary in this?” And we met and got on really well, I remember my partner who was pregnant at the time helped carry the camera gear while I filmed you walking around Shibuya and surrounding areas.
And then I met up with Wolf for dinner at the Paddington Hotel and explained to him what I was thinking and he was into it, and said “Yes, okay, film us”.
It was very much a “let’s try this and see what happens” project – which was a wonderful, free, experimental attitude to have. It felt like there was a good level of trust between us from the beginning because you, me and Wolf all have a fairly similar way of thinking.
I started to feel there was a story once things went wrong in San Diego. It’s tough for the participants, but that’s exactly the kind of material you need in an observational documentary. Those are the situations where people show their true character. There’s no story without drama. It can be tricky to film then because the subjects have suddenly lost control of the situation, it’s chaotic, people are upset because something’s gone wrong. As the filmmaker, you have to keep calm, and also empathise with what they’re going through.
The thing is, afterwards everyone’s okay. No one died. Christian Read called it the worst nightmare you guys have been through or something like that. The doco is a valuable document for people to remember that incredible, distressing adventure you all lived through.
You spent years filming Wolfgang, Skye and the other Gestalt creators. What was that like? You must have had some great funding to do that. Would you say Australia is generous with its Arts grants?
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. This documentary wasn’t made with an Arts grant. Comic Book Heroes was commissioned by ABC-TV and then received funding support from ScreenWest, Screen Queensland, Screen Australia and Wild Fury. Which means in some form or another, they all have a piece of the film. Basically it was a 2-year process to get the funding, piecemeal.
The West Australian State agency ScreenWest were the first to give me development funding, based on a pitch and a little reel of footage I’d shot with you and Wolfgang. With that small chunk of funding I took one crew member to San Diego Comic-Con in 2011 and filmed the scenes which form the main drama of the documentary. Then I cut another sizzle reel, basically a 3-minute trailer, and pitched it as a two-part documentary to the ABC and various large production companies. That process ended with me teaming up with another producer, Veronica Fury, who is based in Queensland. ABC-Arts then commissioned it based on the strength of the reel, the Treatment I wrote and the producing team.
Filming for two and a half years was a lot of fun. I loved it. I’m in my element doing a shoot. And we were filming in some really fun places – Comic-Con, Tokyo, Supanova, Melbourne Oz Comic-Con, the studios of various talented artists and writers. I loved working with a small crew, or shooting on my own, and just relating to the people in the documentary. I got to know them really well, which was an enjoyable process!
You manage to capture some tense moments and drama Comic Book Heroes. How do you manage to be there for these personal moments? Is there a line you need to be careful of? What’s your approach to that?
Well we filmed something like 200 hours of footage, and we happened to be filming when those tense moments occurred. When you’re shooting, you do your homework to try and figure out the storylines as they happen, then you follow your instincts. On that first shoot I had a DoP with me, Carmelo Musca, who was very experienced in documentary shooting and he was very tuned in to the drama of certain situations. Having the talent trust us was also key to all of that.
I believe in creative luck. Shoot enough and something has to happen. Plus, I’m an editor so I know I can piece it together afterwards. And if nothing does, I’m not afraid to throw out huge amounts of material.
Do you have any favorite moments filmed that needed to be left on the cutting room floor?
One day at Comic-Con Christian Read spontaneously went into a hilarious send-up of all the Gestalt graphic novels. It was really funny and tasteless and extremely clever. It was great for insiders but too off-topic for an audience so it didn’t go in the film.
There were great scenes interviews with some incredible creators that sadly didn’t fit the duration.
When the documentary aired people seemed to react very positively to it. What was one of your favorite reactions to the film?
The best screening was when I showed Wolfgang and Justin Randall the final cut before it went to air.
You guys had had me around filming for more than two years by that point, you were all pretty sick of me, and had never seen a single frame of the movie. You all trusted me, more or less, but really it was a bit of a gamble as to how you were going to look in the final edited film.
The doco opens with a quote from Russell Hoban, “Explorers have to be ready to die lost”. This is a pretty bleak quote to some people. But it’s also the motto that Wolfgang puts at the bottom of his emails. And it perfectly demonstrates his all-or-nothing approach to business. So when he saw that quote right at the top, knowing nothing about the film, I sensed a certain excitement in him. And then during the first scene, which is very dramatic and punchy, Randall started verbalising, “Yeah! Fuck yeah!” kind of comments and he was laughing at the drama. So I knew they were getting into it.
Now that some time is passed do you think that there’s anything that you would have done differently? Something you wish you had added? Theres’s been rumor of a possible extended cut. Will that be a thing?
There’s some bits of the film I would edit differently now. But mostly not. I think it does justice to the greatness of Gestalt’s work and the epic heroism displayed by Wolfgang and Skye and everyone in getting the work out there. I like the rock soundtrack by Ash Gibson Greig. (He won an award for that soundtrack by the way.)
So, what does the future hold for Nick Dunlop?
I’m about to start work Post Directing and Editing a new documentary called Play To Win. It’s another creative business story, about the young guys behind Australian gaming company, Halfbrick Studios, which had a monster hit with their mobile game Fruit Ninja. It’s literally the most-downloaded mobile App in the world, second only to Angry Birds. They are legends in Australian gaming, incredibly tough and creative people, and it’s the story of how they came to be a multi-million dollar company working out of Brisbane.