Anglo-American relations go bad when London mob bosses invest in a West Virginia oil deal in hopes of laundering dirty money. The Big Ugly is an award winning feature by Scott Wiper. We recently spoke to Scott Wiper about The Big Ugly through Montreal Independent Film Festival.
Scott Wiper was born on July 22, 1970 in Granville, Ohio, USA. He is a writer and director, known for The Big Ugly (2020), The Condemned (2007) and A Better Way to Die (2000).
How did you start making films & what was the first film project you worked on?
As soon as VHS tapes and cameras were available, in the mid 80s, I started shooting shorts, editing the footage by hooking up two VCRs. You’d have to set one VCR at PLAY and PAUSE, and the other at RECORD and PAUSE — then you’d hit "release pause” on each to “make your cut” — each VCR had a different quirk and timing, and the 2nd VCR was usually borrowed from the neighbors. After several dozen cuts, you adjusted the timing on the "duel pause hit” to minimize glitches. I think the first films I made (and completed) were Crazy Jim’s Revenge and Captain Avenger. Crazy’s Jim’s Revenge was a horror spoof; Jim had ten pencils as fingers. Captain Avenger was a World War 2 SuperHero movie; my dad played FDR.
I made a lot of music videos as well, usually to ZZ Top songs because the costumes were readily identifiable. Beards and hats. At first, we were so fascinated with the technology, anything was fun. Gathering friends and filming on the fly, satire and spoofs came to mind at first. It was improv. Eventually, on a cold night in my back woods, we were all wet, and tired, and I was trying to come up with lines. A good high school buddy said to me, “You know, Wiper, this would probably be a lot easier if we wrote it out before we came out here each night.” In 1987, that was a moment I remember well. That was when I started thinking about WRITING — after a year or two of shooting films on the fly with pals.
My first professionally "finished" film was a half hour short on 16mm that I did as my senior thesis at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. It won the Frank Capra Prize; I’m pretty sure that gave my confidence a boost to carry on with a vengeance. Within 2 years, I shot my first feature on Super 16mm, blew it up to 35mm and premiered it at the Independent Feature Film Market in NYC where I found a distributor. That was Captain Jack — a superhero story set in a small farm town with no crime. Raising money always seemed to be 75% of the battle. On that first feature, I set up a limited partnership. I had 32 investors for a total budget of $144,000. Asking people to invest in you is painful at first. 32 investors probably means 200 said no, maybe more. The ones that say “yes” — well, that’s a blood contract in my eyes. Raising money, accounting, communicating and respecting investors, the entire process is all-consuming, but it’s quite often the deciding factor as to whether one will make films, or not.
What genre of filmmaking fascinates you as a filmmaker and why?
At first I loved action, because it was true alchemy with technology. You were creating something visually that did not happen, ever. I quickly realized that action only hooked me if I connected with the characters. Early on, as a teenager, I fell in love with Clint Eastwood westerns, Beverly Hills Cop, 48 Hrs., Lethal Weapon and Die Hard. I soon realized I was fascinated with characters confronting violence often with a “broth” of dry humor. Growing up, I had a tricky time coming to terms with violence in real life — bullies, an older brother, fights and football.
If you look at Nick Braun’s character in The Big Ugly, that’s the kind of story that grabs me the most — a good soul who believes in reason and kindness, but inevitably conflict forces him to confront violence. That’s the essence of most great westerns, noirs or action films: Loss of innocence and humanity. Conflict escalates to violence. Ruination. The reverse arc is also fascinating to me — a human who is jaded and cold due to the harshness of this world, then he or she learns to feel again. Redemption. So, stories of ruination and redemption fascinate me.
What is the most challenging aspect of being an independent filmmaker in the film industry?
It’s all challenging — except the actual days you are shooting film. That’s fun. The two years before, and the two years after the wrap party, that’s the challenge.
How difficult is it to fund indie feature films?
Financing is always difficult. In Hollywood, or independently. On the indie path, you are very aware every day that the clock is ticking, you wake with a 747 on your chest and the pressure is there until you make something happen that creates forward momentum. You start dialing the phone and writing letters. That pressure keeps you honest. In Hollywood, it may not seem as stressful as you go about the dance and shuffle, walking into fancy offices where they validate your parking and send someone out to get the exact coffee you like, but then, in Hollywood, you look at your watch and realize a decade just went by.
The night you realize one year, or two, or five years have gone by and you haven’t made a fuckin’ movie, that’s a pretty painful night for any producer or director. Both world’s are equally difficult and I have enormous respect for anyone who gets a film financed. If either path was easy, everybody would be making movies. Both are a brutal rite of passage for any filmmaker.
Please name three of your most favorite directors. How have they been influential in your work?
Spike Lee has been a great example of a Director/Writer/Producer who simply makes it happen. I’ve been studying his work for decades and recommend his book Spike Lee’s Gotta Have It: Inside Guerrilla Filmmaking.
Steven Soderbergh is another incredible filmmaker who always makes it happen, any size, any budget.
John Cassavetes, Hollywood wasn’t giving him the high he wanted, so he made it happen elsewhere. He was a pioneer; so was his amazing wife, Gena Rowlands.
What inspired you to work on The Big Ugly and how did the film go into production?
The death of my father inspired me and the death of my mother put us into production.
Your cast consists of well known stars in The Big Ugly. How did you find the cast and the crew of the film? Tell us more about the production of the film.
The script. Vinnie Jones. And a good casting director. There are scripts that are good for the Hollywood system, and there are scripts that are good for casting without big money offers. I knew this was going to be a project where roles had to jump out at actors. I look to Michael Mann movies for inspiration on that front. Writing a good complex protagonist in an engaging story is a full time job, but then you must strive to make sure roles 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 all have something to sink your teeth into; every good actor needs an arc of some kind. With Ron Perlman and Malcolm McMcDowell, Vinnie was able to get the script to them. I was very aware of his “hustle skills” when I set out to write a lead role for him. By casting Vinnie in as Neelyn, I was banking on the fact that I had “cast" a great producing partner, as well as a fascinating leading man.
What do you recommend to other filmmakers regarding the distribution of independent feature films?
"If you build it, they will come.” Get out there and shoot a movie, finish it in post, and get it out to the world. Then market the hell out of it, zone in on your audience.
What is your next film project and what are you currently working on?
Solstice. We are currently doing all the things necessary to film in 2021. Rewrites. Change of location. Securing film/tax credits. Casting. We were all set to film in Puerto Rico, but life happens. After the events of 2020, we now plan to film in a midwest city instead of a large island in the Caribbean. The story of Solstice has gone from Madrid, to Buenos Aires, to San Juan and finally to Kansas City. The Big Ugly went through many geographic transformations that altered and improved the script. After several drafts, I often suffer from “The Thrill Is Gone” syndrome. I’ve found when the DNA of the same story is transplanted into a new locale, the thrill comes back and the script gets better.
Why do you make films?
I love the process from A to Z. I’m addicted to alchemy.