As a visual effects supervisor, Jabbar Raisani is used to big budgets to help achieve the results that will help drive the story. After all, his recent credits include HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” and it doesn’t get much better than that when your job is to help create a world complete with dragons, gory battles, and a slowly creeping army of undead White Walkers.
And while Raisani is well-regarded for his talents in the realm of visual effects, in recent years he has begun to turn his efforts towards directing features; his debut film, “Alien Outpost” (which he also co-wrote with Blake Clifton), is set to open in a limited release through IFC Midnight on January 30, with a wider release to follow. “Alien Outpost” will also be available through VOD and iTunes.
Raisani began his career under the tutelage of Robert Rodriguez at Troublemaker Studios. He was originally brought down to Austin, Texas to work on the ill-fated resurrection of “Barbarella.” And while that film failed to materialize, Raisani ended up working on several of Rodriguez’s projects. It was at Troublemaker that he met Clifton and the two began working on their goal of making features together. As Raisani noted, Clifton was working in the camera department and there was “a lot of overlap” between their two spheres.
“Alien Outpost” has an ensemble cast led by Joe Reegan, Reiley McClendon, and Sven Ruygrok. The movie follows three troops who are sent to the titular Outpost 37, one of the last lines of defense against an alien race known as the Heavies. The Heavies invaded the Earth several years before, and the united Earth forces are leery of a second wave of attacks. The reinforcements join a small, battle scarred unit just in time as hostilities between the aliens are starting to increase.
While Raisani may be used to a nearly unlimited budget on “Game of Thrones,” as a director, he was faced with much smaller financial backing. He and Clifton (who also served as cinematographer) decided early on that for storytelling and budgetary reasons, the best way to serve the story was to shoot “Alien Outpost” as if it were being filmed by a documentary crew.
“It was sort of necessary,” Raisani said.” So we started thinking: ‘How can we tell the type of story that we wanted to tell,’ by limiting the budget and resources as much as we can. And one way to do that, we said, ‘Okay, we don’t want to do found footage.’ We both agreed upon that. But we said if we do a documentary, these guys are making a documentary that is a crafted film within their world that allows us to reduce the budget in certain ways, reduce what we have to execute in certain ways, and not give up any of the storytelling stuff.”
And while certain concessions had to be made, Raisani feels that it didn’t really hamper most of the things that he wanted to accomplish for the film. It is ironic though, that one of the things that he had to sacrifice for the film was a separate visual effects supervisor—so in addition to co-writing and directing, he wore that hat as well.
“The good thing is I’ve been doing visual effects supervising for 10 years, so it just comes naturally and I don’t put too much thought into it” he said. “If I could have afforded one, absolutely I would have had a separate supervisor but given the choice of, ‘Hey you can either have this giant vehicle in your film or a helicopter or a visual effects supervisor,’ I went with the helicopter.”
One of the factors that makes “Alien Outpost” work is that while yes, it is about an invading race of aliens who have decimated the earth, the core of the story works because of character development and also the fact that it draws some parallels to our current military conflicts. Raisani feels that giving “Alien Outpost” a tether to reality helps the audience identify with the characters and stay engaged with the story.
“I’m sure you saw from my credits that I work on ‘Game of Thrones,’ and I read the novels a long time before that, as did Blake, and we’re big fans of the books and the series because it starts very grounded, and then it starts to step away from that,” Raisani said. “But it gives the people a real grounded base, it gives them something they can sink their teeth into before it starts to step away from that, and that was one of the approaches that we went with.”
The movie relies on building tension rather than constant bombardment from the jump. And while some of this may have been due budgetary limitations, Raisani believes that no matter how big a project it was, he and Clifton still would have told the story in the same way. After all, you need to spend time with the guys in the unit, otherwise why would you care what happens to them?
“It’s one of those things I wish people were doing regardless of budget; keeping everybody tied in to the story and the characters,” he said.” And the reality of it. And that’s one thing that Blake and I were adamant about with the first half of the film—before this thing takes off you have to really care for all of these guys. And once it gets into the heavy action, with the documentary style, you don’t have time to cut to scenes where you continue to get to know these guys. Once the action really goes, it’s a ride. And if you don’t love these guys before this ride starts, you’re never gonna care about them.”
Unlike a lot of indie projects, one of the luxuries that the “Alien Outpost” crew did have was time. The film was shot on location in South Africa; once the shooting location was set, this allowed Raisani and Clifton more time to work on their script as they spent time with the actors; one of the things they worked hard at was avoiding the clichés of the military/sci-fi hybrid genre and not to make the troops caricatures.
“That was one of the things that we had in our favor,” Raisani said. “I made very clear to the producers early on, ‘If you can give us time, both in preproduction and postproduction, we can give you the product that you can’t pay for if you did this on accelerated schedule.’ So we were in South Africa for four months. And as soon as we started scouting and locking down locations, Blake and I would go back to the script and we would write the script based on the actual location we had…So the script was really tied into the locations once we had it. And there was stuff like, relative to casting. Once we cast guys and really got to know them, we would adjust dialog, we would tweak their characters to match up with who we had really got.”
Asked for final thoughts before the release of “Alien Outpost,” Raisani echoed the sentiments of most first time directors—or veteran filmmakers for that matter.
“I hope people get out and see the film,” he said. “The thing you hope as a filmmaker is that you made something good. I feel that we did and I hope that people get out there and see it.”