Go behind the scenes of Whipping Boy in our interview with filmmakers Aiah Samba and Michael Chance.
If you enjoyed the Prototype film Whipping Boy, let’s take a look behind the scenes with Aiah Samba and Michael Chance. Samba wrote the story while Chance directed.
Q: Who worked with you on the project?
MICHAEL CHANCE: Filmmaking is a special art to me and I work best with like-minded artists who also push to create something unique. Artists like my long-time producing partner Vicki de Mey. I hold no reservation in saying that she is pure gold, and the key to so many of my creations. Where I am right hemisphere, she is uber logical and comes at it from the left side of her brain. But we always come together to forge the path of the film.
Early in the process, I connected with my partner-in-VFX-crime Jesse Boots, who led my short film PROJECT ARBITER visually in the post realm. A ways back on Jesse’s film DELVE, I was introduced to his talented director of photography Ed Ng, and Deb Santosa who is a veteran VFX guru. It was back then that I said we should work together on my next project, not knowing it would be for PROTOTYPE later that year. Along with Chris Ely, my co-producer and friend, we set off to build out WHIPPING BOY’s team, and tackle what would be the most complex piece of filmmaking I have done to-date.
From my experience creating PROJECT ARBITER, I knew I could stretch a dollar beyond its tearing point and still miraculously have it hold together, but with WHIPPING BOY, I knew I’d have to rip it in half and tape a bridge. I was very fortunate to be surrounded by wonderful collaborators and supporters… Ed Ng of Be Media stepped up in a huge way and secured virtually all of our locations, props and set dressing from ACME prop rentals, picture cars from Turbo Hoses R&D and San Francisco Sports Cars, editing accommodations from Spy Post, top-tier camera rental from VideoFax and lighting equipment and crew from the amazing Little Giant Lighting & Grip in SF, and a talented camera team including our gifted Steadicam operator Benjamin Casias. Deb Santosa secured and led a fantastic team of students from Ex’pression College for Digital Arts. Lily Achatz pulled so many strings to assemble an amazing ensemble of wardrobe for the cultures Aiah and I developed – with Napalm’s coats being my favorite from the always stylish Brooks Brothers. I was able to connect with my long-time mixer Keith Ukrisna to secure a 5.1 surround at Sonic Fuel Studios, as well as receive donations from the creative team at Ziiiro Watches out of Europe, and several artistic motorcycle brands like Shark Helmets, Speed and Strength, and Nexx Helmets. Vicki de Mey unified our home base at Left Hand Man studios in San Jose for production, while Jesse Boots, in collaboration with the generous and prolific Nathan Robinson, formed a base of operations for post production in the San Francisco headquarters of NTropic, a long-time contributor to so many of my films – love those guys.
Aiah Samba and I are only as good as our team. Together, we formed an amazing amalgamation of talent that focused for six months to create WHIPPING BOY. Generous, creative, and passionate people. I feel very fortunate to call them friends.
Q: How did you pick out the crew and cast?
MICHAEL CHANCE: Once our core team was assembled, we each set off to bolster the ranks of our departments by calling upon the top talent we knew in SF and LA. Our roster of exceptional artists included FACE OFF’s finalist George Troester, Gadget Bot’s character designer and concept artist Robert O. Simons, Mythbuster’s octocopter pilot Duncan Clark, and my amazing composer Ryan Taubert, who conquered Han’s Zimmer’s ‘Bleeding Fingers’ competition.
I am also so fortunate to be connected to Traci Hays, who was an incredible casting director and collaborator. She was able to bring in amazing artists that got the off-kilter world of WHIPPING BOY while sustaining the humanity of each character. Tongayi Chirisa as ‘Napalm’ was a straightforward choice for me – he has this raw intensity while still being vulnerable and noble; plus he is just a wonderful person and kept the energy flowing into the late hours, which is key. Celeste Thorson is a beautiful gem – a femme fatale and strong intellectual, which is perfect for Ramona. Our cast was also found from many projects we have all collaborated on over the years – you see a performance on set and think, “That was fantastic; I’m going to work with this person.” And years later, here you are on set directing them and collaborating on a performance. One of the joys of directing and producing is creating these meaningful connections to true artists – trusting each other to create something genuine.
Q: Where did the story concept come from?
AIAH SAMBA: The concept spawned from an idea that we as a people are growing further and further apart. I used to always go on this rant about texting. I’m not a fan of texting and I even used to be against excessive phone calls as a kid. If I had the option to walk over to my friend’s house and meet up with him over chatting on the line, that’s what I’d do. That’s just the way I was.
So I imagined a place where we dwell in the extreme end of that spectrum. Where people don’t have a reason to leave their homes anymore because they’ve become so reliant on the newest techno gadget. Where you’re so in tune with technology but not with people, that you begin to crave contact anyway you can get it. So that led to a new fetish because… why not. Men who would go to your place of residence and allow you to pummel them into a bloody pulp. Getting all your frustrations and loneliness out in the session. They’re called Whipping Boys. And you have to understand that the Whip we follow, Napalm, is getting something out of this deal as well. He’s very much a part of this desensitized society that’s gone adrift. So by allowing the client to take all their rage of the current state of the world, out on his body, Napalm in that instance, gets to connect with them. So I loved the dynamics of such a relationship.
Q: Did anything in particular inspire this short?
MICHAEL CHANCE: WHIPPING BOY has been one great surprise after another. One day in September of 2013, I found myself going through the Criterion Collection area of Amoeba Records looking for a new film to study, when I saw a huge stack of Criterion Blu-rays stretching towards the ceiling – in all actuality it was likely ten of them. I thought to myself, I need to know who is getting these. So I introduced myself, we got to talking and I learned that his name is Aiah Samba, and that he’s a screenwriter. A few weeks later, Aiah and I sat down to discuss writing the feature film version of a short film I just wrapped called PROJECT ARBITER, and I could see from the start this would be a collaborator and friend for years to come, as we both love the same things – noir, period drama, and science fiction.
As we developed that project, PROTOTYPE was introduced to us just a month later. We sprinted to develop the script and look book for WHIPPING BOY, which came about from an interesting conversation. Aiah and I do our best work over burgers, so there we sat at Alcove Cafe down Hillhurst Avenue in LA, throwing around ideas we have had over recent years for new film concepts. And as I like to do to find the bedrock of truth, I posed an open-ended question to E (Aiah), “What is the craziest idea for a film you have ever had?” Without hesitation he replied, “That’s easy, Whipping Boy.” Within ten minutes he told me about Napalm and a world we are headed towards where we are all more connected technologically yet disconnected emotionally. I fell in love with the concept and the core of who Napalm is.
Q: How long did it take to write?
AIAH SAMBA: It took about a few hours to lock down the initial outline. Afterwards, I usually go on what I call “thought walks” where I let the actual moments in the outline come to life and start talking to me. I have a process called “The White Room” where I put my characters in a room of any construct, a la the Matrix, and let them just speak to one another. This is how I usually ascertain their voice. The actual script took me a day, but the locked script was about a week. I met with Mike and we went over that bad boy a few times until it was whipped. Get it! Yeah, you got it.
Q: How long was the production overall?
MICHAEL CHANCE: Once we had the green light to begin, there were only two months of intense pre-production, as we wanted to shoot immediately after the New Year. So all departments worked in parallel to shoot early January.
Once the first day of production arrived on the steps of the San Jose Athletic Club – to the sight of an octocopter hovering above and a Sentry beating down an Opey Dope with a metal baton – I soon came to realize that would be a fitting analogy to the production – brutal. The scope of the film demands it – there are so many locations, effects both physical and post-related, as well as fight sequences, a few fully computer-generated shots, all while executing advanced camera techniques to raise the bar for everything that is on-screen; to give the audience as much as we could while keeping it anchored to Napalm’s journey as a Whip. Aiah and I wanted everyone to see all the wonderful designs of our future in WHIPPING BOY.
So after four full days of production, with a few pickup shoots and a commercial shoot to create all the news anchor and digital signage vignettes, I felt like I had completed an entire football season as a return specialist. That’s the best way I can describe it. Imagine every day you wake up to play the sport you love – it consumes you. You’re down-field in the end zone and see this ball mid-air, and it’s falling towards you. Its dream-like and beautiful as you begin to see it come into view-similar to every day on set realizing what this moment in the film truly has to be. Then you catch it – feels great! You look up with that understanding and say, “I’ve got a long way to go.” And there are all these forces that naturally do not want you to get there – so you need an amazing team that loves the game – that can get hit and get up ready for more just like you. It’s equal parts love of the game and batshit crazy mentality to go for the rare and beautiful without compromise.
Then there is post production, and yes, that is like three rounds of overtime. We got the edit out in three weeks. Visual effects for four months solid. Sound design and mixing for a month. And then color and kicking it out. Its all-consuming, wonderful, and relentless – so much so that when its over and delivered, you feel like you are the only one on a hundred yard coliseum when the lights turn off. That is independent filmmaking. Intense, passionate, focused. I love it, and it always leaves me desiring to create again.
Q: Where did you film?
MICHAEL CHANCE: I like to say we filmed in my “backyard”, as being a recent transplant to Hollywood, I feel The Bay (San Jose, San Francisco, Silicon Valley) is where I go “home” to play. Lived there for 28 years, and there is so much variety and wonderful people welcoming you to film, and many of my core team is still up there. We filmed on top of the third-tallest building in San Francisco, the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, on the seventh floor and front of the SAP Success Factors building, at Ntropic’s headquarters, and inside many wonderful apartments and condos to get just the right modern, futuristic noir, Second Renaissance vibe.
So 90% of the locations and production was done in SF with a pickup day and all of sound and color in LA. However, practically all of the VFX team was in SF. I would travel up and stay for pockets of time to connect one-on-one with Jesse, Deb, Ed and our pixel artists.
Q: Where did the tech concepts and vision come from?
MICHAEL CHANCE: Much of the film’s technology initially came from Aiah Samba, our talented writer. Napalm’s weapon of choice is Blue Eyes, his telescoping bat. I loved that immediately – it was clean, specific, and unique in its final form illustrated by Robert O. Simons.
The watches and other communication devices like the digital signage were a collaboration set forth by our futurist designer Hiroshi Endo and implemented by our detailed-focused compositor Cosmo Ray. They really finessed the look of how information is delivered. And my initial brief was to stay with an elegant form of communication, so at times you will see slightly raised panels of user interface on the watches, orienting to the hand’s movement, and at times a completely voice-guided artificial intelligence communication with an HOS (home operating system) that has a subtle personality.
The Skypiercer arcologies where many upper-class citizens live were conceived by Aiah and I working with our VFX supervisor Deb Santosa to find the right forms and structure. We arrived at a platform structure that had many pillars jetting upwards, with brick-like shapes to form the domicile sections.
Then there are the Teardrops, flying personalized pods that Mark Yang of Shyft designed. I have a fascination with retro-futuristic concepts, and we both came together on a canopy that was based off the 2001 Ford 49er concept car combined with an aerodynamic tear shape. Mark created both a worn civilian and military silenced-propulsion version for WHIPPING BOY.
With Ramona’s heart, we all wanted to do something special. Benjamin Louis took on the daunting challenge of both designing and modeling a fully functioning mechanical heart. He blew us away with the specificity of the intakes and the design, which tells the story of Ramona visually through this device. It’s one of my favorite pieces in the film, and our VFX team added a great polish to its overall look. The design will also be featured in the latest volume of “Nuthin’ But Mech” by Design Studio Press which will be out next year.
Q: What was it like to film and choreograph the action sequences?
MICHAEL CHANCE: When my producer Vicki de Mey introduced me to Eric Jacobus, I knew our fights would be a lot of fun – the fights in the film that is. Eric brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to fight choreography. We had one training session where I worked with Eric and his team, and within a few minutes we were shaping the tug of war between Napalm, the Chloron Mercs, the Valkyrie and Ramona who has the BioFont. We talked about variety, the feeling of the impact of Napalm’s bat, the tasers, close quarters combat – it was all designed to anchor on Napalm as he fights back for the first time in the film, with a purpose to protect the one person he has a soft spot for: Ramona. So Eric, being a talented filmmaker himself, understood the fight needed an emotional arc, and so we worked to retain that while making a bone-snapping good fight. That scene also plays so well due to the crisp sound design by Michael Kao.
Q: Do you have a favorite scene?
MICHAEL CHANCE: I’m proud of so many moments and sequences in the film, and the structure overall as it is so lyrical, flowing in rhythms of society and settles its course as we see the daily life of our Whip. So the narrative we crafted is pretty special, as it plays as a short film hybrid and even experimental at times. But the moment for me in the script and in the film that connects with me personally is after Napalm takes a beating, and we go to the wonderfully metal gothic title of Whipping Boy by Hiroshi Endo, as we float into the client’s bathroom where Napalm is in the aftermath of the beating. This idea of a man allowing himself to be torn apart physically and repairing it; yet there is this deep emotional trauma that feeds on the pain and connects with it as a type of bond, fascinates me. It’s a strange and taboo topic we seldom speak of, but definitely impacts us as a society. From this extreme that Aiah created, I’m continually drawn to decipher it as a filmmaker and as an individual. And I’m so proud of Holly Ruth who designed the make-up and hair to look so naturally distressed. Then Josh Galbincea’s seamless compositing aided in taking the wounds deeper to enhance the powerful performance by Tongayi. Real subtle craft at work that just makes me smile.
Q: What about a favorite memory from shooting or production?
MICHAEL CHANCE: I love the spirit of our production – while we had focused preparation and designed so much of the film, there are moments you are unprepared for that you have to uncrate and mold, even in the macabre. The second client’s head split open on the floor was one of those moments for me. George Troester’s prosthetic for the head was already crafted in his workshop in LA and I said, “I’d love to tear that open man.” He was down for it, so I set off to cast a look-a-like. We found him in the talented Donn Simmons. He gave a wonderfully perverse performance with just a look, and he has an uncanny resemblance to the prosthetic. On the day, we had to put the head on a mannequin, but the dummy had no arms. So our production designer Andy Hengl put on the backup wardrobe and had his right arm and hand stand in for the foreground element in the shot. It was one of those team efforts where everyone puts their heads together to think of a creative solution-that’s what I appreciate and admire most.
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Michael Chance (Director)
Director Michael Chance fell in love with movies at the age of six when he saw ‘Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade’ on the big screen, and he has been imagining unique worlds ever since.
At the age of fifteen, Michael made his first short film on digital 8mm starring his father in the lead role as a Vietnam veteran struggling to let go of his war-torn past. Michael continued making countless films in his spare time and went on to study film at De Anza College. His graduation projects included the short film ‘The Reason,’ a police drama that played festivals nationwide, and the feature film ‘The Narrow Road,’ a supernatural family drama that garnered distribution on DVD and online through Netflix.
With writing, directing and producing continuing to fuel his ambition to create new worlds, Michael made a defining choice to forego transferring to a university and focus his imagination on his most ambitious film, ‘Project Arbiter’. Inspired by his grandfathers’ real-life stories, and centering around an operative in WWII that uses an invisibility battlesuit, Michael received an extended education through the adventure of independent filmmaking. ‘Project Arbiter’ premiered at the 2013 Comic-Con International Independent Film Festival. Michael and his writing partner Aiah Samba are currently developing the feature film world of ‘Project Arbiter’.
Originally from San Jose, California, Michael now lives in Studio City, California developing several feature film and television shows under the banner of ‘Burning Ideas’.
Aiah Samba (Writer)
Aiah has been writing for six years but always tells people ten since it sounds more impressive. A graduate of Brooks Institute in Ventura, he first got the writing bug after watching the film ‘Seven’.
He’s since had six features written, one screenplay optioned and another that reached the quarter finals of the Page Awards but feels ashamed that coming fifth place was a highlight. An avid reader of Ray Bradbury, Raymond Chandler and Raymond Carver, Aiah often wondered how many authors with the name ‘Ray’ he could fit in a biography. He also wrote and directed four short films though went through great lengths to ensure none of them saw the light of day. All witnesses were promptly disposed of. Aiah specializes in Science Fiction, Thrillers and Horror.