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Andreas Kossak (Co-Writer / Producer) - Cyxork 7
Originally from Hannover, Germany, Andreas Kossak is a graduate of the USC School of Cinema. He is the cinematographer of over 200 productions worldwide, including 11 feature films, 7 short features for cable, various pilots and a documentary series. On the set of the cultish Howling VII he hooked up with veteran screen writer John Huff. After years of collaboration as writing partners they wove their wide ranging professional experiences into a filmic satire on the low-budget underbelly of Hollywood. Andreas co-wrote and produced. Since that doomed day, Andreas innocently stepped into the Cyxork's power field and was transmutated into its writer-producer-slave, nothing has ever been his fault. He's just a body following Cyxork's whimsical orders. Darren Rea caught up with Kossak as Cyxork 7 was released on DVD through Troma Team Video...
Darren Rea: How did you and John Huff first meet?
Andreas Kossak: John and I met on set of the infamous Howling VII [Howling: New Moon Rising], a film that certainly ranks among the worst in movie history.
But let me set up this “meeting John” a little: I was the cinematographer of the Howling VII, one of the first people hired, who never got fired, never quit, who even sat in the editing room to the bitter end. And I enjoyed every bit of it. That said: the script, like most, made little sense to anyone involved, except to its star who was also its writer-director-producer-accountant (can there be a greater auteur?). Of course, nobody would have admitted to that. “Do you want to be honest, or do you want the job?”
Needless to say, the Howling VII didn’t have much of a budget to begin with. But after the executrix producer took her heart-stopping bite out of the pie and the owner of the rights to the title The Howling pocketed his jaw-dropping chunk of change, the film had to be seriously scaled back.
Now, the star-writer-director-producer-accountant was certainly not someone - and God bless him for that - who could be easily scaled back. This was “his” damn movie. And if you have no money, you have to go where it’s cheap: the desert. We ended up shooting in a place called Pioneertown, which had seen its heyday as a Gene Autry Western Set and where the locals could be convinced to act in the movie for a warm meal and beer. But then before the shoot, the sheriff did a raid and we lost half of our cast. So, the few law-abiding locals were rounded up to be in the movie. Among those new recruits was, you guessed it, John Huff.
We were shooting at night in the local two-room western church when they brought him in. I had heard rumours that John had written his own dialog because he refused to say those terrible lines in the script. That earned him great respect among the crew. When I first saw him I was rather shocked. He looked every bit as frail as I had been forewarned. And the star-writer-director-producer-accountant told me: “Hurry up, mate, light this damn shot. I don’t want this guy to die on my set.” And I sure didn’t want to be the cinematographer who killed an actor by being slow. So we did some quick setups, and I didn’t kill him. John seemed to appreciate that.
John had leukaemia and was expected to only live for a few more weeks. Well, he didn’t quite live up to the expectations and recovered rather amazingly. And I should point out, seeing the finished Howling VII didn’t kill him either. We started hanging out after the film was done, talked movies all night and eventually wrote together.
John, being also a pastor with his rather minimalist "church in a shoe box" (Luther should be proud), performed my wedding, baptized my daughter, co-wrote and directed Cyxork 7 and has put up with a stubborn non-believer like me for some 15 years. No small feat.
DR: Where did the original idea for Cyxork 7 come from?
AK: The rough idea actually came to John in a dream. “Dream” as in being asleep and on his birthday no less. In his dream there was an Oscar-worthy epic script but when he woke up all he could remember was the image of some filmmakers shooting a movie in the vast desert and that constant earthquakes menaced them.
Quakes are almost a daily occurrence around Pioneertown and usually do nothing more than re-arrange the items on your desk. The image of the ant-like, struggling film crew in the vast desert could have been inspired by John looking down at Pioneertown with its ever-present low-budget film crews.
John elaborated on his dream, adding to it from his many years in the industry. Then he showed it to me and I came on board with my tales of shooting movies in Hollywood’s low-budget underbelly. Over two years we quilted our stories together. John came up with the word “Cyxork” and we made it the seventh sequel because we met on a seventh sequel.
DR: Did the two of you have many creative differences, and how did you settle any possible disputes over the way the story would go.
AK: We had remarkably few creative differences in writing and shooting Cyxork 7. We had written together before and were familiar with each other’s way of developing ideas. When one of us would put an idea forward, it was never a threat to the other’s ego and it wasn’t defended or used as a creative bargaining chip. We looked at the emerging script as something external, something already existing, something that both of us had to discover together.
Like in improvisational Jazz, one idea triggers the next. We resisted molding and discarding elements too early, even if they were inconsistent with each other. We left scenes and segments unfinished knowing that on a second and third pass some fresh idea would solve it and we hop-scotched around the script, working on sections here and there in a non-linear fashion to avoid getting stuck. We also like to break a script into at least four acts, rather than the usual three, to have more and evenly spaced structural waypoints. That way we try to avoid running out of steam during the long middle act as it so often happens.
Working this way, we had some 54 numbered drafts and sub-drafts. At certain points we both felt that some of the scenes should be left alone, because they were in themselves finished. When most scenes had reached this stage, we did several final passes to smooth out the building blocks and cut entire segments that were getting in the way of story flow.
Unfortunately, all writing has to stop when the camera begins to roll and even then, actors came to us and we changed things around. But most of our “last minute” writing was done the night before, such as the scene when the drunken Kommander 88 and Angela bond in the desert after their encounter with “Clever” Bill Emory.
In the end it’s the actors on camera who really write the final draft. And there is nothing more satisfying than to watch actors take the script and really make it come alive.
DR: What would you say John’s best and worst features are as a human being and as a writer/director?
AK: Let’s see... I’d say his "worst" feature is probably his tendency to be overly optimistic, that he does have his moments of, as Alan Greenspan called it, "irrational exuberance." He gets easily excited and I find myself playing the fire extinguisher.
At the same time, however, I think that this "irrational exuberance" is also his best feature. Combine that with his tenaciousness of sticking with something, as he likes to say, and I quote: "like stink on sh*t."
Let’s face it, when you set out to make an indie film, the odds are stacked up sky high against you. What you need to keep going is a tenacious optimism that must border on the irrational. When I had my doubts I often said to myself: "Well, John thinks we can do this and he was right about us getting this far." So I just surfed his wave of exuberance. My suspicion is though, that a bunch of John’s exuberance was pure show, directed towards me with the purpose of nudging me and us further along the edge. I at least took it that way and whatever Kool-Aid kept us going was just fine with me.
Cyxork 7 was John’s first film as a director. As a cinematographer I have worked with a bunch of first-timers and you can usually tell within ten minutes of a shoot if the director has no control and the crew will have to step up and direct the movie. My camera teacher at USC used to say: "Look at the director in the morning and pick your pill for the day." I was luckier and got some great first timers, especially women directors. They had to overcome tough crews, break-neck schedules and got in the saddle making things happen. As a tribute to those women directors making it in the Hollywood sweatshop system, we made our fictional director a woman who grew with the challenge and pressure. Though, in the end she sold out and we couldn’t let her get away with that.
I watched John closely on his first day and didn’t detect any of the usual telltale signs of a director about to drop the ball. John did not only stay on the horse but kept on riding it with ever growing finesse. He was very much focused on the actors, which is where the rubber meets the road. He has a superb eye and ear for dialogue delivery and capturing the moment. Plus, he formed great working relationships with his cast. Just ask Ray Wise.
The film was pretty simple technically and John and I had developed a fallback, detailed floor plan detailing the entire coverage for the movie. I tried to surround John with a crew of people I had worked with before, so I knew John was in good hands if he needed it. I think from the start, he found just the right balance between steering the ship loose enough for creative input to flow and hard enough to keep cast and crew from meandering off on their own.
DR: And if I was to ask John the same question but about you, what do you think he’d say were your best and worst characteristics?
AK: I think on the bad side, John might call me overly skeptical, someone for whom the glass is always half-empty. But combined with his optimism we’ve balanced each other out quite well.
John might add in the plus column, that I have a rather sarcastic sort of humour, which over time has gotten better or worse, depending on the flavour of your view on life.
John asked me once early on during writing, truly fascinated, if I really deeply believed that I tend to be always right? I think he expected an embarrassed "no." But the answer he got was an honest "yes." I think that kind of shocked him.
But on the other side, I hope John would also mention as a positive that I am always ready to change my positions immediately if a better, smarter, or more innovative idea comes along, even if I contradict everything I said before. I enjoy when someone blows me away with creativity, when something unexpected lurks at me from outside my thinking box. But if I don’t see something better around, I tend to push my way and John might have found that a bit much at times.
I think John and I both value in each other our contempt for the pious and entitled, the ideologues and especially the moralists. We both tend to find ourselves ending up of the side of the humanists.
DR: Were you ever worried that the movie wouldn’t get made? And when were you finally convinced that it was going to actually go ahead?
AK: I was never worried that the film would not get made - simply because I was absolutely certain it would not get made. If I had believed that all we were writing would actually end up on screen, I would have really started to worry.
Reality hit later when I finally got a call from our executive producer Bill Kemper and he said to me: "Enough writing. Andreas, it’s time to lose some money." That was probably the best thing he could say to a first time producer. He took the edge off and at the same time challenged me to prove him wrong, win back his money and live up to his trust. I think he quite accurately read my personality and knew how to best send me into battle.
Throughout, Bill was always in the background, never pressuring but supportive. He always encouraged us and let us do our job. Many cast and crew members consider Cyxork 7 their favourite movie shoot experience, never knowing that it was Bill Kemper who had set the right tone early on. I always carry his photo in my wallet.
DR: Were you surprised at the reaction to the movie, and at how many fans seem to rave about the film on Internet message boards?
AK: Yes, I was surprised. When we were making Cyxork 7 I didn’t want to think about the real audience. Otherwise I felt I would have constantly second-guessed myself. I think all one can do is try to load the piece with as much energy as possible. If I had to smile, or I saw John smile, that was all that mattered. In that sense John was my audience during that stage.
At the beginning of production as the first dailies came in, I was quite unsure how the film would play. At night back at the hotel I even started to work on a letter of apology to our investor. But then I saw that our cast and crew were so excited about what we were doing, having such a great time. So, I deleted that letter.
Later the people who worked on the film in post, in sound effects, people who did the colour timing and visual effects, sat back and laughed at the right moments. That gave me more hope that the film would somehow connect.
And finally I first saw it with an audience at the historic Apollo Kino in Germany and later at the Mann Chinese Theatres in Hollywood. They got most of the jokes and stayed with the story. That was quite amazing.
The reviews have been great. And I take my hat off to all the reviewers, like you guys from Sci-Fi Online. You picked up on so much of what we put in but weren’t sure if anyone would ever notice. Your reviews helped us greatly. During the long stretch of festivals and no acceptable deals, John and I always reminded ourselves of all your enthusiasm for the film. That certainly got us through these dark periods of post-completion hell. They also steeled us against whatever negative stuff might come our way. Like one of my teachers said to me in filmschool and we have the character Max say it in the movie: "It’s not about how many people like your work but who likes it." And we’re certainly like to be liked by Sci-Fi-Online.
DR: If you’d had more time and money what’s the one thing you’d go back and redo on the film?
AK: Given time and money, I wouldn’t redo anything we shot, just add some more scenes and subplots.
Early on I played it safe as a producer and we eliminated scenes that would have had to be shot in LA. I just didn’t want to take the financial and scheduling risk of a "company move" from the desert to LA. But we were ahead of schedule from day one and came in under budget, so in retrospect I could have taken more risk.
What I would have loved to explore more are the producer characters Emory and Jake and their world in Hollywood. These characters had so much more potential for satire. But I only saw that on the last day of production in the desert once Roberto Bacalski [pictured] delivered his performance as Clever Bill Emory and the whole scene not only came together with the plane and his assistants but took on a whole different dimension.
I can see scenes where gay cowboy unter-producer Jake has some painful Emory encounters. We could have actually shown Emory breaking the arms of his assistant. Now he only stands next to Emory in front of the yellow plane with his broken arms in casts - a satirical reference to a famous movie director with an infamous Emoryesque personality. But we could have thrown so many more jabs at Hollywood.
DR: Troma has just released the movie on DVD; are you happy with how that’s turned out? Have you met Lloyd Kaufman? And what did you make of him?
AK: Marketing and eventually selling a true indie film like Cyxork 7, I learned about the absolute importance of finding and connecting with your niche.
On the festival circuit we got a good idea who our target audience was but connecting with them on a commercially meaningful scale was difficult. We tried everything including self-distribution but it became apparent that without a substantial marketing budget we couldn’t pull it off on our own.
The glut of all those “studio-indies” saturating the market is just too great and they have the advantage of entire departments of young web slaves blasting the Internet, hitting the message boards and chat rooms with direct or indirect PR. And they have their system of studio festivals from Sundance to Vancouver, Toronto to Chicago for their front companies to premiere, promote and celebrate phony sales of their “indie” product - sales are usually done in advance and only announced for the benefit of the press. As a real indie film your only option is self-promotion using print ads in small niche magazines and web based word-of-mouth campaigns.
We were even offered a positive "review" by an independent movie critic who contributes to the LA Times. The price was "only" $5000 without guarantee that the paper would actually print it. We didn’t take that offer. In those shark infested waters where anything can be bought, true indie films just don’t have the resources and support structure to successfully compete against a sustained, well funded marketing campaign backed by studios, which have been feeding all those sharks with kickbacks and perks for decades.
Then Troma approached us.
Troma is a unique company. There are many, many distribution companies that deal in the low budget world and there are some that are truly independent but I know of none that is actually run based on the philosophy behind independent films. We had passed on about fifteen offers when Troma came to us.
Troma’s great asset is their loyal fan base, which they have cultivated with great effort and success since the 70s. We found that there was a large overlap between the Troma fan base and what we perceived to be our target audience. So teaming up with Troma gave us at last an opportunity to connect with our niche market on a large scale. Troma got us into virtually every online store including TCM and Movies Unlimited, big retail chains like Best Buy, bookstore chains like Borders, video rental companies like Netflix and Blockbuster. After this big first wave subsides, I hope our film will build a small following, gain longevity in the market and end up on the cult film shelf of your favourite little video store.
Troma and foremost its president, Lloyd Kaufman, were not only open to our ideas, they actually let us create certain elements of the DVD. For example Troma wanted to change the box and label artwork of our preview DVD to give it more of a sci-fi feel. They then let me do the design, which I based on two existing designs created by our VFX supervisor Nicolai Strehl. I wedded two of his pieces, built some new elements, changed others around, added the text, and logos and Troma took it without changes.
Lloyd also told us that whatever extras we wanted, they would put on the DVD. So we produced the Making of... video, got Cinema Insomnia to give us the clip with John’s interview, and I cut a little video from the raw footage of our interview with SFX maestro, Robert DeVine, who did our Mutant mask. We found Robert so inspiring, we added Shoptalk with Robert DeVine to the DVD.
Troma let us even shoot and cut the DVD intro with Lloyd and Ray Wise. It started as something a lot more conventional. But then Lloyd’s Blackberry kept on ringing and we had our chance to turn this into something strange. I cut several takes together, added additional rings and Ray Wise did the rest with his performance.
I first met Lloyd at the LA premiere party for his film Poultrygeist at the House of Blues on Sunset. My wife and I attended with a bag - actually it was a trash bag - full of Cyxork T-Shirts, which we passed out to his guests. One should never miss an opportunity for a little promotion. Then I met Lloyd again when we shot the DVD intro. He is quite the old school Yale professor type, but armed with a lightning fast wit, which he shoots rather casually from the hip. If you manage to return his serve and he gets on a roll, you’ll have a bunch of balls coming at you - politics, philosophy, and film history. And he’ll spin them fast and furious, high and low. It’s fun to be around him.
John once called him a social anarchist and Lloyd seemed to like that characterization. And for your educational benefit Lloyd will smash all that precious family porcelain - hoping you’ll have the courage to break at least a cup and go through life with a little less weight. At least that’s how I understand Lloyd.
DR: What’s the one thing in your life that you’re most proud of and why?
As Leon would say: “… is this the test now?”
Well, in a way I am most proud of having avoided all those predetermined narrow paths through life that were waiting for me.
I grew up in Hannover, Germany, in a blue-collar neighbourhood. And I wasn’t doing well in school. Because of my bad grades in English the principal at the time, who prided himself as being a psychologist, recommended that I leave school, learn a trade, because I didn’t have what it took to go to university.
That brought out my fighting instinct. I had to proof my teachers wrong. I stayed in school and worked my way back from the brink. Contrary to the official prediction I did make it to university and managed to graduate with high honours from the USC School of Cinema in Los Angeles. I was able to make a living in the US as a freelancer working in film. I did write a novel and scripts in English and even became a member of the Writers Guild of America.
Robert Frost’s poem "The Road Not Taken" especially the last verse has become my motto and I even made it the centrepiece of my wedding speech: "Two roads diverged in a wood, and I - I took the one less traveled by and that has made all the difference."
DR: Is there any chance of doing a George Lucas and making Cyxork 1-6? Or 8?
AK: Of course John and I thought a lot about sequels. We had extensive notes on the back-story of Cyxork 7, the development of the franchise and all that. Our notes included a concept for Cyxork 1, the original sci-fi movie that put Cyxork 7’s Rex Anderson on the map as Kommander 88. After finishing Cyxork 7 we looked at our old notes and developed new ideas and a concept for turning Cyxork into a real doomsday machine, in a way that would make people smile. It could be a real fun project. Ray Wise would obviously have to be Kommander 88 - if we’ll ever get it together.
We were also toying with another more obscure spin-off from Cyxork 7. It is the film that the character Angela LaSalle directed before her tragic death: Magma Divers. It’s always been a favourite of certain crew members. The comedy about actors, driven by their agents and managers to immortalize themselves, diving into a volcanic crater - of course, styled to the max and in beautiful cross-back light with multiple high-speed cameras capturing their final performance. I doubt we can raise the money for that but wouldn’t that be a strange little animated film?
DR: If a movie were to be made of your life, who would play you and why?
AK: I guess you’re referring to the self-aggrandizing audacity of injecting and satirizing myself as a German cinematographer with the character of Otto von Harnack.
Now, Jack Jozefson playing Otto did a great job. He’s the American that beat all the German actors who we auditioned. We were looking for an anarchist, socialist, old artist-craftsman type from East-Berlin but the real Germans actors who auditioned were so used to playing Nazis that the moment they got into character they slammed their heels together and I suffered uncomfortable flashbacks to my days as a private in the German army. Then, we had some Russian born actors come to our audition and they got so into playing a German that one of them even broke my desk lamp. So, it was the mellow American Jack Jozefson from North Hollywood, who played Otto. Unfortunately, Jack is dead and no longer available to play me.
One actor who is alive and whom I very much admire - his agent actually pushed us that we cast him as Otto - is Klaus Maria Brandauer. Of course we would have cast him but Brandauer was on stage in Europe and couldn’t do it. But imagine if he had come out to the desert with us. So, Brandauer would be great. He tends to portrait the kind of outsiders who I can identify with.
And there is of course my other favourite - and I was too shy to even approach him for the role of Otto: Bruno Ganz. Especially, the Bruno Ganz in Wim Wenders’ The American Friend. I like his character’s ability to be a nice family man but also someone who can easily step into the criminal world of Tom Ripley. Someone who moves among different worlds, never really belonging to any, who always keeps a degree of distance. Again, a kind of outsider, even loner but in a positive way. Personally, I’ve always loved being a “resident alien."
DR: What’s next for you? What will you be working on next?
AK: For me Cyxork 7 was a full-time, all-consuming job lasting for five years. So I really enjoy that Cyxork 7 is out of my immediate life and that the people at Troma are now taking care of it. Finally I can come up for air, get some time for decompression.
I can even imagine packing up the family, quitting LA and the film business for cold, rainy Northern Germany - living in the country side, listening to jazz, sipping tea and reading the collected works of Thomas Bernhard for the tenth time.
Unfortunately I still have to make a living and learned only one trick to do so, which is making films. And you can’t make films alone. You need friends and connections, which I have in Los Angeles, but unfortunately not in Germany. So, I guess I’ll have to stay in LA for a few more years, go back to restoring my old Victorian house, do camera work.
In terms of producing, I have been spoiled by the ease and efficiency with which we were able to bring Cyxork 7 to life. Everyone was paid, insured, fed three catered meals a day, had their own motel rooms and rarely had to work more than eight hours a day. The whole thing was fun and I don’t mind having invested years of my life in producing Cyxork 7. If I were to do it again, the production would have to be structured in a similar fashion, so that egos and contracts don’t put a drag on the process and the work can be done with transparency in a safe and sound way.
The project John and I have ready for cameras is an edgy little thriller based on a yet unpublished novel I wrote. There was some flattering industry traction, so we’ve started to put feelers out for talent and compatible co-production partnerships.
And finally, in a month or so, John and I will sit down with Lloyd Kaufman for an un-plugged jam session of reckless brainstorming and wild speculation about the future. I have no idea what, if anything will develop but I am sure it will be fun.
RG: Thank you for your time.
Cyxork 7 is released on DVD from Troma Team Video from