We were fortunate to have a sit down with Dark Dunes Productions CEO Sultan Saeed Al Darmaki and discuss his upcoming horror sci/fi thriller HARBINGER DOWN, and working relationship with the practical FX house Amalgamated Dynamics Inc. (Studio ADI) owned by Alec Gillis and Tom Woodriff Jr. Alec and Tom have over 60 years of experience developing some of the most memorable creatures using Practical FX (PFX), and have teamed together with Mr. Darmaki to bring Gillis’ vision of HARBINGER DOWN to the screen.
HARBINGER DOWN tells the chilling story of group of young grad students who book passage on an old fishing trawler and end up trapped with a deadly gaggle of mutating creatures. The project has created quite a following among the sci fi/ horror fans fed up with Hollywood’s over-reliance on CGI. The film was the brainchild of writer and director Gillis, who promises it will be a PFX creature-fest, and a loving tribute to the claustrophobic body-horror films of the ‘80’s. With the help of a successful Kickstarter campaign and the investment of Mr.Darmaki’s Dark Dunes Productions, they were able to bring HARBINGER DOWN to life. As compelling as the film’s story is, I was curious as to what brought together two film makers from such divergent worlds.
J. Corman: First of all, Mr. Darmaki, thank you for taking time out of your schedule to sit down and chat with us today. I have to start by saying that the trailer to HARBINGER DOWN looks great; it’s sort of a throwback to the old fashion horror films I grew up with – lots of chills and jolts. How has the buzz on the film been since the trailer’s release?
Sultan Saeed Al Darmaki: We have had a lot of positive responses since the trailer was released and we are thrilled. Many fans are overjoyed and expressing their excitement at a new movie with all practical creatures. It is incredible to see a love for this type of film being kindled in the fan community. We hope that the fans will appreciate the effort we put into the film just as we are already appreciative of them showing their support.
JC: A lot of people became aware of HARBINGER DOWN through its Kickstarter campaign, where it became the highest funded sci-fi/horror film in Kickstarter history. How did you become aware of the project?
SSD: I became aware of the project through a mutual friend of mine and ADI who told me about it a couple of weeks before its Kickstarter campaign launched. It caught my attention because traditional practical creatures FX are my passion and studio ADI is one of the world’s top FX studios.
JC: They say “politics make strange bedfellows,” apparently so does Hollywood. How did an Abu Dhabi businessman end up working so closely with two Oscar winning monster makers?
SSD: When the Kickstarter campaign was running, I had the pleasure of getting into contact with both Alec Gillis and Tom Woodruff Jr. We realized that we had a lot of things in common, such as the love of both monster movies and pragmatic business practice, and I decided these were men I wanted to work with.
Monster movies are my greatest passion and I truly believed in the project. I recognized that it has the potential to change the way independent films are made, as well as bringing the art of practical FX to the attention of the much younger audience.
JC: What do you like about practical FX as compared to CGI?
SSD: They are real and therefore give a film more substance, more heart. The use of practical FX gets more genuine performances from actors, something I learned firsthand directing the latest Dark Dunes film, Kids vs Monsters. CGI is a very useful tool and has its advantages, such as set extensions and providing solutions to elements that are beyond control. However, it shouldn’t be used as a replacement for practical FX, but rather as a compliment.
JC: Do you feel today’s big budget studio films are over-reliant on CGI, while ignoring story and practical FX?
SSD: There are some are who are trying to keep using practical FX, but many others are relying too heavily on CGI. Horror, science fiction and fantasy films that feel real and tell original, strong stories are harder and harder to find these days. This is why I started Dark Dunes Productions and wanted to partner with studioADI, to change this.
JC: Your production company is focused on genre films. What sparked this interest?
SSD: When I was six, I watched the original King Kong movie and was intrigued by the creatures, the story and the techniques used in making that film. After this first taste, I found myself watching more and more monster movies growing up until it developed in a strong passion. It has always been my dream to get into the realm of monster movies, and once I found the means to do so, Dark Dune Productions was created. This is the genre I love most, so it is the genre I wanted to work in.
JC: It might be surprising to some people that there are horror fans in the UAE. Is this unusual?
SSD: When it comes to the love of monster movies, there are no boundaries. I think it is the fantasy element of these films that excites people, no matter what country you’re from. Good storytelling and monsters are universal to all languages and cultures.
SSD: It was a fun and exciting journey that was full of challenges. Many told me that L.A. is a very difficult place to make your first movie, and in some aspects, they were right on. While dealing with the Hollywood bureaucracy is a strenuous process, when you get past that, you can appreciate the advantages that L.A. has. It has a pool of talent in all fields of filmmaking, mixed with both veterans and young hopefuls, that is unmatched.
JC: While HARBINGER DOWN is a gritty old fashion Horror chiller, KIDS VS MONSTERS looks to be more family friendly.
SSD: I think of it more as my love letter to many of the monster movies that I grew up watching. It is certainly geared towards a younger audience, but made to be enjoyed by monster fans of all ages. It is full of practical creatures, campiness and has a lot of comedic elements (both slapstick and satire).
JC: I’ve noticed that Alec and Tom’s people at ADI created the monsters for the KIDS VS. MONSTERS movie. What was it like teaming with them on the project, and do you see yourself working with them on future projects — perhaps HARBINGER DOWN 2?
SSD: Dark Dunes Productions and Amalgamated Dynamics are practically family. We love working with them and they have always provided topnotch work. They outdid themselves with the monsters in KVM (KIDS VS MONSTERS), which turned out to be better looking than was what conceptualized on paper. We look forward to working with them continuously on our future films.
JC: Alec Gillis tells us the two of you have become friends. What can you say about your relationship with one of the best known Creature Creators in Hollywood?
SSD: Alec Gillis isn’t just a friend, he is like a brother to me. We can joke around and still be good business partners. When Alec and his wife visited my hometown of Abu Dhabi, my family simply adored them and has accepted them as part of our tribe. It was fun watching all my nieces and nephews gather around Alec and listen to his stories about making monster movies. When you combine that with our shared love of the genre and making monsters, you’ve got a very special friendship.
JC: KIDS VS MONSTERS stars another movie veteran Malcom McDowell, which means you’ve now worked with two film legends, Lance Henriksen and Malcolm McDowell. Can you us a little of what it was like working with both of them?
SSD: I truly loved working with them. I learned a lot of things from these two veterans while having a lot of fun. It was a strange feeling for myself to be working with both Bishop from ALIENS and Alex DeLarge from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, especially when both of these actors are coupled together for the first time. I hope I get a chance to work with them again.
JC: Dark Dunes Productions appears to be a very active production company lately. What kinds of films can we expect from your company in the future?
SSD: Apart from HARBINGER DOWN and KVM we have an exciting lineup coming over the next couple of years. We have a number of films being produced in Scotland with our co-producers Hex Media, with whom we made our first film, Lord of Tears. We are also working on a number of projects that aren’t ready for announcement. Creativity and business never take a break at Dark Dunes and we are dedicated.
Thank you very much for taking time to sit with me today. I see great things for both HARBINGER DOWN and KIDS VS. MONSTERS and look forward to seeing the final cut of both films.
J. Corman is a contributing author to A&E Playground.