Mark L. Lester has a long and storied history as a genre film director, starting in the early 1970s and continuing up to the present day. His credits include the Stephen King thriller Firestarter, the Brandon Lee vehicle Showdown in Little Tokyo, the John Candy comedy Armed and Dangerous, and the cult classic Class of 1984. (On a personal note, I will always be grateful for him for providing the sole nude scene in Lynda Carter's career in Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw.) His newest film, Poseidon Rex, opened this past Friday. In an exclusive interview with Mania, he talked about the project and the rest of his lengthy career.
Question: What was the impetus for making this movie?
Mark L. Lester: I grew up on all those great monster movies of the 1950s. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms is still one of my all-time favorites. There’s been a market for movies like that for a long time. Syfy has done very well with their line of movies, and they all have that same sense of fun that the old 50s movies had. Jurassic Park really revitalized the giant monster movie, and it’s been wonderful to work in that genre.
Q: what’s the appeal of monster movies like this? Why do we love dinosaurs and Godzilla-type creatures in ways the go beyond fads or trends?
ML: There’s something primal in the notion. Something that goes back to caveman days when it was eat or be eaten. We still have that part of our brain that worries about predators, about being hunted by something much bigger than us. That, and dinosaurs are just so cool. I make a lot of movies like this. I have one coming up called Vikings vs. Dinosaurs, and how can you not love a movie like that?
From a more practical perspective, dinosaurs are easy to market and raise money for. You get a good concept for your monster and put it on the poster or the DVD box, and everybody knows what they’re getting. It’s dependable and people love it, so there’s no downside. The only trick is to make sure the monster is cool. If I had one piece of advice for young filmmakers who want to make movies like this, it’s get a cool monster. You get that, and the whole thing just gets a lot easier.
Q: What prompted the decision to shoot it in Belize? Were there other options?
ML: There are always other options, but we had shot in Belize before and it just made a lot of sense. They have jungles, they have the tropical atmosphere you need for a film like this. And the beaches are great. The water is very clear, which makes shooting easier. You’re always in for an adventure when you shoot on the ocean, but in Belize, you know you’re going to get good footage. Places like that bring a lot of intrinsic value to the production. People like to say “well why can’t you just shoot it on a set with green screen?” They don’t realize that CG effects – any CG effects – are very expensive, and that shooting in LA comes with a lot of additional costs. With a smaller budget film, you want to save that money for the monster, and make it a really cool monster. In Belize, we have the setting cut from cloth and ready for us, without having to build it on some set or water tank in the Valley somewhere.
Q: You’ve worked in the Hollywood system earlier in your career, and now you’re working largely in smaller films. Do you have a preference? Which ones are easier?
ML: They both have their good sides and their bad sides. But the business has changed, and these days you can’t do anything in the studio system if you can’t get it made for $100 million. I like to think of the films I did in the 80s as actor-driven or concept-driven pieces. Things you could do without having to break the bank. I made Commando with Schwarzenegger and Showdown in Little Tokyo with Brandon Lee and Dolph Lundgren. Who needed gigantic effects budgets when you had those guys doing their thing? These days, if you make a film under $10 million, it’s never going to make it into theaters. The good news is you have all these other options for finding an audience. First it was video and DVD, and now there’s VOD and Netflix. Cable, too has become a lot more open to smaller movies. So you can make the movies you want and have a lot of fun and freedom to do it your way, and still make sure that your investors get a return on their money.