We’ve been raving for ages about director Arvin Bautista’s spectacular X-Men fan films: the Dazzler music video that first made the rounds back in 2014; and the follow-up, featuring Lila Cheney, which dropped last week. This weekend, we finally got sat down with Bautista himself to talk about adaptation anxiety, straddling the fan/pro divide, and what it took to bring Alison Blaire and Lila Cheney to life.
JAY RACHEL EDIDIN: So, this is going to be going up on the heels of International Fanworks Day; and one of the things that fascinates me about what you do—the Dazzler and Lila videos—is the intersection of fan and professional work. How do you—as a director and producer—go about making something like this happen? Can you give me a rough overview of the process, from “Damn, it’d be cool to make a Dazzler video!” to the final cut?
ARVIN BAUTISTA: Alright, lemme try to talk through what we did.
Once we got past the point of “Damn, it’d be cool to make a Dazzler video,” you then go through the simultaneous process of figuring out what you want the video to look/sound like, what are important references you absolutely need, and then figuring out how much money you have to make it with.
It’s impossible to think about any one aspect independent of each other, at least with the resources we had. So once we kind of narrowed that down, I talked to my friend and music producer Taiwo Heard about the idea of collaborating on the song. I’m a filmmaker and storyteller, not a musician, so while I had a really good idea for the sound I wanted and had a barebones outline for the lyrics, I needed an actual musician’s help.
So not only did Tai write all the music, he also managed to find me Gentry, who ended up playing Alison, and then later, he also found Sage (who played Lila). Casting is probably the most non-monetary source of stress for these two projects, and SOMEHOW we just got super lucky finding both Gentry and Sage (and then, eventually, the New Mutants, which was a completely different headache).
Then we figure out our calendar, and I got recommendations for a costume designer among my film friends. For Dazzler, that was Leetal Platt of Cozday Clothing, who is just blowing up now (she recently won the audience award at the HerUniverse show at SDCC in 2015). She was still pretty new in 2014, so I just got super lucky that she was able to do the project for the budget we had.
JAY: Yeah, that was a spectacular costume. It’s a really challenging look to translate to any kind of real-life version, let alone video.
ARVIN: I thought I had a really good idea of how to make it film-ready, until I showed it to her. She was smart enough to loop the look back to the 80’s music/fashion aesthetic, and I feel dumb for not thinking of it first.
So the costume and the song were the two unique aspects that I had never encountered as a filmmaker before, and I had to get those two stewing while I then do the more normal film production things: location, casting the other characters, catering, shotlists, proplists, etc.
We shot Dazzler in one weekend in Los Angeles, mostly with a crew that I’d worked for before on a webseries called Old Dogs & New Tricks; and then afterwards I hunkered down to edit and do the effects while Taiwo did the final music mix.
JAY: How many of the folks working on the video were familiar with the character or the comics?
ARVIN: Of the original crew, I think only Tai was familiar, but only tangentially so. We were mostly ’90s kids, so even the comics fans among the crew weren’t too familiar, since she had mostly disappeared by then.
JAY: Did you have an elevator pitch for everyone else? Dazzler in 60 seconds or less?
ARVIN: “She’s an obscure X-Men character who’s half superhero and half pop musician, and I wanna do a music video as though it was by her as the actual artist.” And then if they still seemed receptive to hearing more I’d tell them about the doomed disco angle and how at the time she was routinely showing up on “Worst X-Men characters of all time” lists.
JAY: That’s so strange to me, because there’s literally no character we got more “WHEN/HOW ARE YOU GOING TO COVER—” questions about when we first started. I had no idea how intense Dazzler fandom was until WE started doing the podcast.
ARVIN: ME NEITHER!
I was partly doing it because I’ve always had a thing for underdog characters. I thought it was going to be a fuck-you challenge to the comic and fan community that I’d take on a character that nobody liked
I mean I didn’t appreciate her until AFTER I’d finished reading her series as part of trying to read Chronological X-Men. She has, like, the first ongoing spinoff X-book and I’m having to step away from the Dark Phoenix Saga so I can read six straight issues of Dazzler soap opera. Then somehow I develop Stockholm Syndrome, I guess, ’cause by the time we get to the Mutant Massacre, I was like “Wow, this is so intense I could really just go for another Alison-meets-fake-Michael Jackson story.”
JAY: Ha!! Any particular favorite arcs and creators?
ARVIN: That one’s good; it was the first Dazzler story I owned a floppy of. I just like the idea of an evil John Landis.
Obviously I’m a fan of the Jackson Guice blue costume design, and I think she fit in really well with the other ladies during the Silvestri era.
But the thing I really ended up appreciating about her was whenever she was really struggling with being an artist when everyone wants her to be a superhero.
JAY: Yeah! She was really one of the first characters to question the whole “You’re a mutant, you have powers, here’s your uniform” X-Men narrative.
Which is pretty unsettling when you actually look closely at it.
ARVIN: It’s such a cliche storyline, the artist whose parent wants them to be a lawyer or a doctor or a cop. I’m actually tired of the trope, but only in comics is the moral usually flipped: being a hero is a destiny that you are REQUIRED to fulfill.
JAY: It’s also a great mutual contrast with Longshot, who has the exact opposite deal.
ARVIN: In any other version of the story, you’re like “I believe in you Freddie Prinze, Jr! Go write me a hackysack poem.”
JAY: Let’s be fair: no one believes in Freddie Prinze, Jr.
ARVIN: But yeah, I made it a point to have the song be about that theme. At the very least, it gave me an out as far as minimizing the action scenes I couldn’t afford.
JAY: So, that actually brings me to another question: With each video, what were the absolute essentials—the stuff that you’d have cut anything else to keep?
ARVIN: For Dazzler, she just needed to have the blue costume and roller skates. Longshot was a wish come true, but didn’t come ’til later.
For Lila, I needed a scene in space, and I needed the New Mutants to be instantly recognizable. Originally, I didn’t plan on having dialogue or an extended opening: they were probably just gonna walk out of Stevie’s dance studio and go into the club and dance around. But I felt like I was just wasting an opportunity to not at least give them some more personality; and then, later, to give some of them a chance to show off their powers. I’d already spent so much time casting and costuming the kids, surely I could find time in the schedule to have them actually talk.
But hey, it’s a music video, even the ones you think HAVE a plot, actually have so LITTLE plot (not that I’m saying our videos are narratively complex). But I was shocked how much of a normal music video is just performance.
JAY: I want to go back to casting, because it blew our minds that you managed to find a group of actors who were not only age-appropriate but also straight-up look like they could have been drawn by Bob McLeod. What did you go in looking for?
ARVIN: Oof, that was a tough one. And I’m not saying I don’t think my cast did a phenomenal job, cause they did, again especially with implicitly trusting my vision; but being a low-budget fan film obviously limits your casting pool. All these actors are doing you a favor, and at the time we were casting, the characters really were only barely fleshed out in the script.
With the New Mutants, I just had so many constraints as far as what I needed to accomplish: they had to look young, I had to be racially sensitive, AND they all had to look right next to each other.
So I couldn’t have a tall Rahne, or a tall Roberto. And if I had to cast older, they’d all have to look older together. I think Rahne and Roberto were the last one we locked down, and we were cutting it close.
And then, you know, they actually had to be able to act.
Again, I’m not saying we did a perfect job, and I don’t even wanna just say, “Hey, I think we did better than Hollywood would’ve,” but I’m very grateful for the work the actors did and the response they’ve gotten.
But the handful of criticisms I got with regard to casting, I understand, these are characters people have cultural and personal connections to. I appreciate their passion.
JAY: Speaking of that, how careful were you about the comics continuity that made it into in each video? It seems like there’d be a really fine line between placing specific nods and Easter eggs, and getting bogged down in the minutiae to the point where it gets in the way of what you’re setting out to do. How do you find that balance?
ARVIN: I was intrinsically aware of the source material all throughout the process, but there are clear departures in continuity we made.
Alison is clearly early in her arc in the first video, so she should’ve been wearing the silver jumpsuit; but she also doesn’t meet Longshot until much later.
With Lila, Karma had left the team by that point, but I felt like I really needed her there. Guido as Lila’s bodyguard also didn’t appear until later–same with Dazzler performing with her–so obviously I took liberty with those.
I’d have some anxiety about it, then I immediately remember that this is still far more in-continuity than anything that’s ever been put on screen by comic book movie.
JAY: True, that. Any particular favorite references?
ARVIN: Dazzler had far more obscure ones than Lila, I’d say, at least since as an homage to New Mutants Annual #1, the Lila video’s references are more rooted.
I’m proud of the Burger Clown scene in Dazzler; Gentry [Roth] actually performs as a clown, and I was excited to be able to write that scene in for her. And it just so happened that my producer for Dazzler was married to a roller-derby player, and he just suggested maybe having her team be involved (mostly to find a stunt double for Gentry), without knowing that there was an entire roller-derby issue of Dazzler.
For Lila I was just really excited that I actually pulled Guido off. He didn’t need to be there, but by the time I’d convinced myself I was gonna try, I had completely woven him into the script, and there was no turning back.
JAY: What was the most challenging stuff to pull off—visually or narratively?
ARVIN: For Dazzler, definitely the costume.
For Lila, all the effects were tough. Again, in the original story, NONE of the New Mutants showed off their powers. Sam wasn’t even supposed to go to the alien planet.
Narratively, it was more about fitting in the story to fit with the song, which was another complication I wasn’t entirely conscious of in the beginning. For both songs I needed Tai to extend parts of the song so I could fit more plot in.
JAY: Was there anything you wanted to include and couldn’t because of budget / time / technical considerations?
ARVIN: Not so much for Dazzler, but I really would’ve wanted all the New Mutants to go to the alien world, and then to actually visit her Dyson Sphere. But once I’d created a conceit that Lila would actually “disappear” during her act during the bridge/solo, I had locked myself to a time span during which to cram all the alien world stuff.
JAY: The pacing on the Lila video feels a light tighter in general.
ARVIN: It’s a much simpler story, narratively. Dazzler, which was a “day in the life of” thing: Lots of location changes, scene changes. With Lila they just need to get in the club, and it takes care of itself.
I was smart enough not to actually try to tell a story of Lila stealing the earth and having space gangsters chase her down and then her bass player betrays her
JAY: Speaking of scale, I want to go back to the subject of fan works, because what you’re doing here—especially the Dazzler video, which was a bigger production, and which did the festival circuit—is a *lot* bigger in terms of scale, budget, and exposure than what we’re usually discussing when we use that word. How do you navigate the potential for legal issues with a project like this?
ARVIN: Well, certainly I think there have been many other fan films that exceed us in production value and budget; but yes, I’m a filmmaker first and foremost, so this wasn’t ever going to just be a “let’s go do something in my backyard” project.
This stuff has been ebbing and flowing ever since the internet became a thing, though I admit we’re at a very specific moment right now where things are kind of up in the air.
JAY: And it’s never been a particularly clear-cut legal space.
ARVIN: Yeah, there’s pretty much precedent for any possible outcome.
I think what we did with these two videos are something that had never been done with this franchise before, and there’s a cheekiness to it that not only protects us with regards to it looking kinda cheesy, but that I also think separates us from something that might be misconstrued as an actual Fox or Marvel product. But, my goodness, if there’s anything that’s true, it’s that I am not a lawyer.
JAY: Ditto, but, yeah—I think that distinction is pretty key. It’s *not* something people are going to see and assume is licensed or produced by Marvel or Fox, which seems like a pretty critical factor.
You mentioned a long history of fan films out there. Do you have any favorites?
ARVIN: I think I’m dating myself here, but Batman: Dead End was the first one that really blew me away as far as production value goes.
JAY: Oh, man. I hadn’t seen this before; but I just pulled it up on YouTube, and it is just ridiculously well put together.
ARVIN: That was 2003, with apparently a budget of $30,000, which, HA.
It was the first time I saw a fan film where the interpretation of the character was so much more true to the comics than the movies had ever been, without sacrificing production value.
It’s literally taken DC thirteen more years to do a Frank Miller-esque Batman, and we’ll still have to see how that actually turns out, and whether people are actually still into that interpretation anyway.
Are there any other X-men ones that I should be aware of?
JAY: I suspect, but honestly, that part of the landscape is kind of a gaping hole in our frame of reference. I suspect the X-Men tend to get short shrift just because there are so many of them. You can’t really do a capsule X-Men film with four actors the way you can with Batman.
ARVIN: That’s why I wanted to make a music video, because I didn’t specifically want to make a traditional fan film, which I think has a huge uphill battle as far as trying to match the source materials, especially if it already exists as a movie franchise.
JAY: Yeah. It becomes such an odd space to work in with any long-lived franchise, I think, because you’ll have people coming in with definitive versions from absolutely everywhere.
Which actually leaves me wondering: What are your definitive X-Men–era, medium, lineup, look, &c.?
ARVIN: I’ll be honest, I’m a ’90s kid. I was born in the Philippines, where comics have always been big, but when the reboot hit, it just EXPLODED over there. Aside from their popularity worldwide, I think [the X-Men’s] popularity in the Philippines had something to do with the Asian-American artists working the books at the time, Jim Lee and especially Whilce Portacio, who is Filipino.
It helped I guess that as a kid (and a non-American at that) the stories pretty much went over my head, so I never even tried to make sense of the continuity.
JAY: For what it’s worth, as someone who first read that era as an adult who grew up in the U.S., it’s still pretty nonsensical.
ARVIN: No, but at that point I didn’t even have the wherewithal to try.
But I was reading that Secrets of the X-Men blog you guys posted about a while back, and it talked about how Lee just insisted on doing old-fashioned X-Men stories, while Claremont had moved on from Sentinels and evil Magneto and the Savage Land.
And I can totally sympathize with [Lee], especially as an adult now with decades of X-Men stories behind me. Getting the entire team back together was just such an occasion to me, and it all felt right (again, this is from someone who was too young to know a good-guy Magneto).
JAY: Yeah. I think that happens a lot with legacy titles: new generations of creators coming in and reverting the state of the line to what they think of as the “real” one—i.e. when *they* first came into it. (Or: Why Barry Allen Is the Flash)
ARVIN: I totally understand both sides of those arguments.
Of course, now there’s actually such a thing as X-Men ’92, and I don’t even know how to really process all that.
JAY: I think that’s kind of an ideal solution, though: letting the universes split and fractalize. If everyone’s got their own “real” X-Men, why not explore them all?
ARVIN: I confess that I actually don’t read too many new comics. I have this completist mentality where I want to have read everything and catch up to the present, but how am I supposed to get past… um… what was that storyline after Onslaught?
JAY: Was it Operation Zero Tolerance?
JAY: THAT WAS SO BAD
ARVIN: And I feel like I’m not allowed to skip that. Like, I gotta prove myself as a
fan and read through this stuff in order, no skippies.
JAY: I re-read it relatively recently, because I could not for the life of me remember what it was actually about; and I would still be pretty hard-pressed to come up with a coherent summary.
ARVIN: I think there was that human Nimrod? Bastion?
JAY: Yeah, Bastion. And a friendly cowboy who was also a Sentinel; and I recall Jubilee playing a somewhat critical role.
And then Scott and Jean left the team and moved to Alaska and got in a fight with a bunch of birds; and that is pretty much my working summary of OZT and the immediate aftermath.
ARVIN: You guys recap it for me on the podcast, so I can move on.
JAY: OZT aside, If Marvel or Fox—Fox, I guess, at this point—were to walk up tomorrow and say, “Hey, we saw your stuff. It’s amazing, and we want you to helm the next major X-Universe film or TV project. Pick anything, any format.” What would we be seeing?
Fantasy project, so, unlimited budget; series or stand-alone; you’ve got access to all of continuity, or the option to branch off entirely.
ARVIN: A Filipino guy skipping down the street flipping everyone off!
I think I can pick up the next X-Men movie where they leave off. I had a better pitch for X-Men Apocalypse also; but then, again, who didn’t?
JAY: Fair point.
ARVIN: I would’ve done an interim movie with Xavier and the team in Africa encountering Ororo and fighting The Shadow King
Anyway, it would require one long weekend of really hammering it down, but I’ve got a pretty good Dazzler pitch for a TV series
It was going to be Jem and the Holograms meets Buffy, which isn’t a particularly inspired pitch, but that’s as much as you could hope for in a Hollywood pitch.
It was also the one that proved to my wife that I was onto something.
JAY: Wait, would Dazzler actually be fighting vampires? Because I would watch the HELL out of that show.
ARVIN: I don’t think any genre show has ever not done a vampire episode, so probably eventually, but I meant more tonally.
JAY: (I figured, but I live in hope.)
ARVIN: Meanwhile I’m trying to convince my wife to help me rip off your podcast. I wanna do one where she forces me to watch Heroes and I force her to read the 1986 Marvel New Universe
JAY: YES. DO IT.
ARVIN: And it’ll be a race on who reaches for the knife first.
JAY: Final question: What would be your advice to other fans who want to try their hands and projects like this—amateur or pro?
ARVIN: As far as fan films, first and foremost, make what YOU wanna make, and make it for yourself. Dazzler did great, and Lila did even better; but it’s even more rewarding when something you think is a deep and personal cut is shared by a community you didn’t even know existed.
Secondly, I did not and would not mortgage my house to fund any fan projects, especially since you can’t ever make your money back from it. Creativity blooms with restrictions, so learn to love your limitations. It’s a fan film: it’s nice when it’s pretty, but it’s okay if it’s a little rough.