Adapting a video game for film is no easy feat, especially when you’re working with source material as beloved and complex as the Dead Rising series. Luckily, Dead Rising: Watchtower director Zach Lipovsky, writer/producer Tim Carter, and producer Tomas Harlan were more than up to the task. We had the chance to chat with the filmmakers at WonderCon about all things Watchtower, from the daunting task of bringing the game to (undead) life, unique zombie characteristics, innovative camerawork, and more.
Before we dive in, here’s a little more about the film, which premiered on Crackle March 27 as the streaming platform’s top performing original feature film, as well as one of the highest viewed premieres in the networks’ history:
The story follows Chase (Jesse Metcalfe), an online reporter trying to make it big – but the pursuit of his career-defining story leads him into the heart of a zombie-infested warzone. The quarantined city quickly erupts into carnage and anarchy, becoming a deathtrap he’ll be lucky to escape. With an all-star cast including Jesse Metcalfe, Dennis Haysbert, Virginia Madsen, Meghan Ory, and Rob Riggle and with an exceptional creative team including director Zach Lipovsky and writer and producer Tim Carter, “DEAD RISING: WATCHTOWER” has captured the hearts of fans everywhere. Executive produced by Haruhiro Tsujimoto, Kiichiro Urata, Tomas Harlan and Lorenzo di Bonaventura. A Crackle Original Movie, Legendary Presents a Legendary Digital/Contradiction Films/di Bonaventura Digital Production.
When Zach, Tim, and Tomas started the process of adapting the Dead Rising video games for film, their central influence was, of course, the games themselves. Tomas and Tim come from a gaming background and established a very collaborative process from the very beginning, getting the story, look, feel, and characters approved by Capcom directly before approaching the studio. “We wanted to create something that was absolutely recognizable to Dead Rising fans immediately,” Tomas said. “Everybody involved in the process when we made it either played the game or watched the game being played. We made all the actors do that; the director did it; the writers knew it. That kind of authenticity in developing a project, I don’t think that existed before.”
Zach talked about wanting to capture the tone of the game in particular: “Obviously, the game can be very dramatic but also incredibly silly and very action-y—it’s got all the different genres mixed up.” He compared this blend of tones–which is tough to get right–to films like Indiana Jones, “where it can be really fun and it can be really dramatic and it can be magical… I love adventure films, and we’ve tried to kind of give that sense into it,” he said.
The filmmakers also looked to real world events for inspiration for the film, from the post-Katrina reminiscent stadium scene at the movie’s opening to the corporate connotations of Zombrex, a drug that can keep infected individuals from fully becoming zombies if they take it every day. Zach was interested in exploring the character side of Zombrex: “The game never really explores what it’s like to live with that or what it means as a person or to the people around you; it’s really just a game mechanic. So I really wanted to explore that to kind of bring that to life,” he said.
One thing the filmmakers do not count among their influences is that other zombie project you just might be familiar with, The Walking Dead. “We had no interest in making The Walking Dead,” Tim said. “We wanted something that was lighthearted and that had a sense of fun to it… Anyone who’s played the game knows the game is silly, the game is funny, the game is fun. You may die, but you’re gonna die in absurd ways. There is no way to adapt this into live action without capturing that spirit of the games.”
Bringing the Game to Life
From the opening, dialogue-less scene of Watchtower, the film remarkably captures the feel of a video game–and one of the major contributing factors is the innovative camerawork used in production.
“Me and the DP for a few films have been really exploring where we can put these cameras. We had cameras basically hidden all over the place. Like, even Virginia [Madsen, who plays Maggie] was like, ‘You can’t put a camera down there! What are you doing?'” Zach said. He talked about a particular shot involving a biker gang, when they called cut and the guy who was in charge of the GoPros “was running around cutting like 7 cameras, because they were all attached to the bikes and also zombies and everywhere.”
With up to 10 cameras–GoPros, two main cameras, and a drone–rolling at a time, Zach was able to capture an incredible array of innovative angles that captured that video game feel. “I just like exploring all the different places we’ve never really seen an angle before, and it obviously fits in a video game because you’re already used to those first-person angles,” he said. Though some of the angles just didn’t work and thus weren’t included in the film, “sometimes there are those great little moments that are really unique and add a new kind of fresh energy to it,” Zach said.
All About the Undead
Dead Rising: Watchtower viewers will notice right off the bat that these aren’t the zombies you’re used to seeing on The Walking Dead or other well-known projects. In the opening sequence, a police officer zombie and a clown zombie wield a gun and an axe, respectively; later in the film, we even see zombies pushing a stroller or a wheelchair.
“One of the signatures of [Dead Rising 3] was that the zombies retained a certain amount of muscle memory–a certain amount of identity–which we thought was really valuable,” Tim said. “We want to pick up elements of the game and make that part of the game come to life, but it also allowed us to make zombies that had a bit of personality and presented a new challenge.”
“Remember, they’re just newly zombified,” Tomas added. “That’s why you don’t see them moving, lumbering along with appendages just falling off. They retain a little bit of who they were right before that.”
Attentive viewers will also be rewarded with a little extra zombie history, if you will. “If you watch carefully, most of the signature zombies, you actually see die as people at some other point in the film. A lot of people that die on camera in the stadium reappear as zombies at other places, and whatever the story of their death was carries through as to who they are as a zombie,” Tim said. “Like, the wheelchair guy’s in a wheelchair. The people who were fast in real life are fast as zombies.”
Tim also teased some grisly details regarding one of the film’s most recognizable zombies, Bonzo the Clown. “If you look carefully at the van [Chase & Co.] are driving, there’s little bits and pieces that suggest that Bonzo as a live human was probably not a really great guy. Like, he was already using that axe before he became a zombie,” he said.
The Future of Dead Rising
Without delving too far into spoiler territory, let’s just say that Dead Rising: Watchtower definitely sets things up for a sequel. So can we look forward to another film down the line? Zach said that there are ideas, and that there is “a lot more to do in that world which is definitely worth exploring,” including many more fun combo weapons. Though it’s too soon to say anything for certain, Watchtower has been Crackle’s most-watched original feature film and has “had an amazing response, beyond the expectations of everyone involved,” Zach said. Fingers crossed that we’ll get to return to the world of Dead Rising before too long!
By the way, Zach’s pick for an innovative new combo weapon? “A paddlesaw, which is like a canoe paddle with chainsaws on either end.” We hope we’re never on the receiving end of that one.
If you missed our WonderCon interview with Jesse Metcalfe and Dennis Haysbert, two of the stars of Dead Rising: Watchtower, you can check it out here.