In the stunning sci-fi short film MEGAN, which Strasz also co-wrote, he pays homage to J.J. Abrams’ Cloverfield universe with an unofficial story centering on the titular character referred to but not seen onscreen in the film 10 Cloverfield Lane.
In our interview, Strasz shares what inspired him to explore his own version of the Cloverfield universe, what were some of his biggest challenges during production, and what films inspired him to pursue a career in VFX.
T7M: You directed and co-supervised the visual effects (VFX) for the short film MEGAN, which is an unofficial story set in J.J. Abrams' Cloverfied cinematic universe. What is the short film about?
GS: Megan is an homage to the Cloverfield franchise. The short film tells the story of Megan Paulson, the estranged daughter of Howard Stambler who is portrayed by John Goodman in 10 Cloverfield Lane. Accompanied by the elite Delta Force team, Megan investigates a mysterious attack on Downtown Los Angeles. What’s perceived as a terrorist gas attack on the city at first, turns out to be something out of this world—quite literally. We hint to this in the opening credits, reminding the viewer about Tagruato’s deep-sea drilling operation that has unleashed forces unknown onto our world. This is, of course, straight from the Cloververse playbook.
T7M: What is it about the Cloverfield mythology that enticed you to do your own exploration of that world?
GS: Once you take a deep dive into Cloververse, you see this world is complex and smart, and it presents many storytelling possibilities. It’s enticing and it lends itself to further exploration. First of all, what a great idea it is in general: a modern mythology with its own world - [including an] Alternate Reality Game (ARG) complete with companies, people, news, documents, hints, websites, products, and “treasure hunts.” Secondly, it’s simply a great story. Aliens/creatures/monsters are on the surface; on the deeper level, it’s a story about good vs. evil, humans vs. monsters, corporate greed vs. society—it is as profound, as it is entertaining. While this is a “sandbox” that is not ours—we do not own the IP— we wanted to play in it. And play we did.
T7M: The short's titular protagonist is based on the daughter of character Howard Stambler (John Goodman) from 10 Cloverfield Lane. Why was her character chosen to be the protagonist of the short film?
GS: We wanted our film to fall squarely between Cloverfield and 10 Cloverfield Lane, like a piece of jigsaw puzzle connecting the universe created by these two fantastic films. It began almost like a game: who could our protagonist be? Then I realized that there is a character, who’s briefly mentioned in 10 Cloverfield Lane: the daughter of Howard Stumbler—Megan. We started discussing who is she? Where would she be at the same time as the events of 10 Cloverfield Lane? This discussion ultimately turned into the script and Matilda Anna Ingrid Lutz became our first choice to portray Megan. I was always a great fan of the Cloverfield universe, ever since the first movie came out, and it wasn’t yet a franchise. The film itself was so different compared to anything we have seen in the movies at that time. MEGAN intends to stay true within the genre—a monster movie—while also having a unique creative aspect to it.
T7M: During your illustrious career as a VFX artist and supervisor, you have worked on numerous high-profiles and prestigious projects including Independence Day: Resurgence and White House Down. Why did you feel compelled to take on the role of director for MEGAN?
GS: Why do any of us create? It’s all about the stories we want to tell; and I felt that at this time in my life, at this time in my career, I was ready to take the next step—tell stories of my own. In-depth knowledge of the technical and creative capabilities of visual effects allowed me to be more efficient as a director. I understand budgetary limitations and the shortcuts I can take on the VFX side to save money. I know what needs to be “real” on set and what can be enhanced, or created in post-production. I have worked in VFX for over 17 years, and 7 of them with Centropolis Entertainment. In my line of work at Centropolis, I was exposed to all aspects of film making, from pre-production, through production, to post. Centropolis has always allowed me unprecedented access. I learned a lot, and for that I am very grateful to Ute and Roland Emmerich, Marco Shepherd and Harald Kloser from Street Entertainment. Now this knowledge allows me to take the next steps and venture out into directing.
T7M: What was the biggest challenge you faced as director during MEGAN's production?
GS: Biggest challenge was to go back to basics after years on sets of major motion pictures, I think. This was a small budget short film, shot in mere 2, 5 days. On the last day, our crew was only 6 people.
I had an incredible team that was supporting my vision and I was surprised how well we put this together. We all wore multiple hats. This was not work for money, this was a film made by a group of friends.
One of the physical challenges was to create a realistic Black Hawk crash. We shot the actual scene in the Helinet hangar inside an operational Black Hawk. I have not worked with the LED video playback technology before MEGAN, but I was aware of it and very much interested in testing it. I could not wait to put my hands on it.
With the help of our Director of Photography Markus Förderer, we were able to make a case for PRG to become our partner on this film. Their LED wall provided us with background as well as interactive lighting for the scene inside the helicopter. This way we are not using green screen and then matching the lighting to moving images of the city we would add in post. In this scenario, the city would indeed be moving, but the unmoving lighting would be creating a visual dissonance.
With [the] PRG LED wall, we were getting real time interactive moving lighting on actors’ faces as the helicopter [was] “flying” above Los Angeles. But the most important words about the technology came from one of our actors Edwin Modlin II. He said that at one point in the scene, he looked out of the helicopter window and felt like the machine was really in the air. This is very important for me as a director, because the LED walls allow talent to interact with the backgrounds. Also, the reflections in actors’ eyes are real, not static light. This is a new level of storytelling. For future projects, whenever possible, I will always recommend using the LED wall instead of green or blue screens.
I am also very thankful to Gradient Effects for support and believing in my vision. The VFX Company had impressive infrastructure for handling the 8K [resolution] workflow of MEGAN. This included a high-speed network, clustered storage and a core engine that engineers could upgrade and tweak whenever a new insight came into play.
T7M: What was one of your proudest moments during production?
GS: My job was to stimulate and manage different kinds of creative work under intense budget and time pressure. Looking around and seeing a team of dedicated professionals, friends, filmmakers, and dreamers creating magic together. This is what filmmaking is all about: people coming together to create something new and meaningful, to tell a story that will touch the audience. I am very proud of my team.
T7M: What were some of the movies that influenced you to become a VFX professional and filmmaker?
GS: Cinema Paradiso by Giuseppe Tornatore. Magical movie about love, loss, hope, dreams and memories. Young Sherlock Holmes by Barry Levinson. One of the first CGI character generated in movie industry. Independence Day by Roland Emmerich. Incredible scale and vision.
T7M: As of this writing, MEGAN has garnered over one million views on YouTube. What are your hopes for MEGAN in terms of future development?
GS: It’s been quite the journey since Megan was released online. I am very grateful for the opportunities Megan presented to me as the director, and for all the attention it received, first and foremost from fans of the Cloverfield franchise. Whether Megan will or will not become part of this franchise… well, we have to wait and see!
T7M: What are you working on now?
GS: I signed with Jackoway Austen Tyerman Wertheimer Mandelbaum Morris Bernstein Trattner & Klein as my Legal Representative, and with ROAR as my management company, and we are working on developing multiple projects (Science Fiction, Drama and Action genres) for me to direct. I'm also working with Brian Gow and Robert Mitas on a thriller which we want to film in Johannesburg, Africa. The movie is about a captive lion trophy hunt. With a producer in Poland, I'm working on a story about two children in Warsaw Ghetto during WWII. It is a very passionate project based on true events.