Director John Wynn reflects on the challenges of helming the first American-Ukrainian co-production, and creating an epic adventure film on a modest budget.
Fans of epic historical battle films like Mongol or Braveheart should look forward to the release of The Rising Hawk, a new entry in the genre starring Robert Patrick, Tommy Flanagan and Alison Doody. Set during the 13th century, the film follows the plight of a village in the Carpathian Mountains as it prepares to fend off an invading Mongolian army.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect to the film is its actual production, which is also historical in being the first American-Ukrainian co-production of equal partnership.
“Past international companies have come to the Ukraine and basically used it as a service, utilising the crew and the people and not as an equal ‘Hey, we’re making this together’ thing. And I feel a huge sense of pride in being able to do that,” director John Wynn tells STACK.
With such a bold venture comes significant obstacles and challenges, not least the language barrier.
“This is an English-speaking film. The script is English. Everyone speaks English except for when we have subtitles for the Mongolians. And the majority of the crew did not speak English, or didn’t speak it fluently. So here I am as the producer and director and I have seven translators on set to be able to communicate with all of my heads of departments,” explains Wynn with a frazzled grin. “Even to move a camera, my direction is going from me to a translator to the AD [assistant director] to a translator to me, and back and forth.”
If the casting of Robert Patrick and Tommy Flanagan seems familiar, it’s because they previously appeared together in the hit series Sons of Anarchy. Although a seemingly unlikely pairing for a film of this type, they quickly prove to be effective leaders amongst the ensemble cast.
“Right from the start they were high on my list of actors I wanted to bring to the project, and with any of these projects you’re just hoping you can schedule and – money-wise – you can work it out, says Wynn. “I had met Robert for lunch and pitched him the project and he was really receptive to it. Once he signed on it was a lot easier to then get Tommy, and they added a real sense of validation to the project.”
A comparatively modest film at just five million dollars, The Rising Hawk belies any budgetary restraints. In fact, with its sprawling widescreen cinematography, sweeping aerial shots and voracious production design, the film stands up against its much bigger contemporaries like Robert the Bruce and Ironclad.
Having worked in almost every department – as an actor, writer, producer, composer, editor and special effects artist amongst other roles – Wynn is a true all-rounder, and with guidance from Guillermo del Toro of all people (who produced Wynn’s short film The Passing), he has tackled his budget with expert precision.
“The first thing is that you need really talented people around you,” he says. “I had a fantastic crew alongside the cast. And my producer [Nathan Moore] was fantastic and a huge part of it, too. But really, the biggest way to pull something off like this on limited resources always comes down to planning and the pre-production. Where you might not be able to make up the money with hundreds of millions of dollars in actual production and post, you can make up for with just pure smart time and preparation.”
When reflecting on the filmmakers that have inspired and informed his own cinematic journey, Wynn points out some unlikely heroes.
“For me, from an actual physical and visual standpoint, Danny Boyle has been very inspiring, because of his ability to jump genres. In terms of looking at it creatively from a script point of view, the amount of time I spent with Guillermo has helped. He has spent a lot of time talking to me about script and that kind of stuff. And then of course, in my own nerdom, Sam Raimi, Christopher Nolan and David Fincher. I have spent weeks at times watching their Blu-ray features and commentaries and studying those, and they have helped shape a lot of what I do.”