Visual Effects artist Thomas R Dickens is just back from Fort Lauderdale, where his first feature film “Aliens: Zone X” premiered in Cinema Paradiso. It is an independent movie that, in its early stages, has already won four awards at the New York International Independent Film & Video Festival and in Los Angeles, for Best Feature Film Sci-fi Genre (LA and NY), Best Actor: David J. Burke and Best Special Effects.

FB: How did you feel, standing inside Cinema Paradiso for the première of your movie?

TRD: It was an amazing feeling.  I felt like I finally “made it”.  Trying not to toot my own horn too much, but this film took a Herculean effort to produce – it really is “epic” in nature.  To finally see it projected on the silver screen was a dream come true.  I felt a great connection with every member of the audience.  They all seemed to like it so much.  And they were full of praise after it was over.  It was very humbling to me as well.  It’s great that these independent theatres are still willing to take a chance and show the world the work of film-makers’ dreams, not just those of corporate Hollywood.  When I was a kid, similar films, such as “Crater Lake Monster” and Harryhausen films, etc. were the ones I begged my mother to take me to.  Times have changed a LOT since then, but I was trying to make a similar “cult classic” type film.  It’s great that there are still venues able to show these movies, albeit still very difficult, when up against Hollywood competition.

FB: How did it look up on the silver screen?

TRD: The picture looked great.  It really held up on the big screen.  I’ve always only seen it on a high definition or 4k television screen or computer monitor.  There is simply just nothing like seeing a film in the theatre, with a dedicated audience, who have become “fans”.  The sound was also great.  It was awesome to hear the immersive 5.1 surround sound mix in the large room.  Terry, the protectionist there, was a great guy. Erin, who helped put the screening together, and assisted the Q&A, was also awesome.  It was also very special to have my wife, and kids (covering eyes and ears through much of the movie), mother, father, family and friends there to support the film.

I’d love for this film to be seen in theatres all over the country, and in fact, the world. I think there’s going to be a huge audience of fans for this film, if they can just get the chance to see it. It’s great on the small screen as well, but it really was a dream of mine to get this picture in front of audiences on the big screen. There’s a screening coming up in September in Austin, TX, and another in Las Vegas, NV. For the Vegas one, we’ve launched a campaign through Tugg. We need 85 people to purchase a ticket before we can get the go ahead. The Tugg page, has all the information. Hopefully, this will just be the beginning of a theatrical sweep, but the film is also been entered into several festivals, so we’ll see what happens there. Then, there’s the eventual digital release.

FB: You have a long past as a Visual Effects artist, from 300, to Spiderman, to A Beautiful Mind. How did the transition to directing come about?

TRD: When I was a child, late at night, I would sneak downstairs, look through the TV guide, and find when “Outer Limits”, “Twilight Zone”, “Night Gallery”, would come on.  I also saw “the Blob” which had a huge impact on me.  Later, such films as “King Kong”, “Beast of 20,000 Fathoms”, “Earth vs Flying Saucers”, and so many others were a huge influence.

I wanted to direct and produce effects films even then.  I learned stop motion animation, which took a lot of effort, as this was way before internet or any of the publications we have today.  Much was self-taught, or learned from articles from “Famous Monsters of Film-land” or similar books at the library.

At 12 years old I volunteered, and began teaching stop motion to children at the Discovery Centre Children’s Museum in Fort Lauderdale, FL.  I produced my animation films on my Bell and Howell super-8 camera, and later my Bolex super-8 camera.

After film school at Ithaca, NY, and art school at Sarasota, FL, I moved to Los Angeles, in ’89.  I began working in film, doing stop motion animation, matte paintings, and miniatures for many films.  I also directed the effects scenes in several television commercials, and did Visual Effects Supervision and 2nd unit direction on “Dinosaur Valley Girls”.  In 1996 I started working with CGI, my first film being “Anaconda”.  I went on to work on many films, both A-list, and indie.

I then Visual Effects Supervised the cinematic for the video game “Lair” at Sony.  It was one of the most amazing jobs I ever had.  But I still felt like I had not done what I intended to do my whole life …  Write, Direct, Produce, Post Produce.  It was time to do so.

I teamed up with David Burke, who ended up co-producing Aliens: Zone-X, and starring in it.  I had already directed and produced several short films, such as “Dark Ones”, “From Below”, when I shot, with David, a short film, “Vortex”.  We discussed our dreams, and I wrote ‘Aliens: Zone-X’.  We would begin principal photography within one month of writing the first draft of the script.

Directing was amazing, one of the best moments of my career. One amazing feeling was seeing the actors in the movie act out scenes that I had written a month earlier.  It was almost like giving birth to new real people.  The actors took on the persona I had created, adding their own interpretation.

Directing them, and all the shots in the film was so much fun.  Especially on this set.  There are so many effects and creature shots.  The actors had to act as though they were responding to many things that were not there, but would be added later in post.  I think they did a tremendous job of it, especially considering the rushed production schedule.

I had every scene in the entire film storyboarded inside my head.  I knew exactly every shot that was in it, before going out.  I didn’t have to guess if I needed a long shot, or close up, or what the emotion of a character should be, etc.  In fact, I created a term I called “kinetic filmmaking” which was almost channelling the film, before it was finished, and just going in and shooting the shots that were “already there” in the universe, just waiting to capture on “film”.

I’m hoping to direct many more films.  I’ve written treatments for a prequel to ‘Aliens: Zone-X’, and two sequels.  I’m also thinking about an idea for another picture as well, similar to CSI, but with a science fiction twist.

Crew in shot at the plane crash site. Spring Mountains, NV (Photo: Doug Harvey)

FB: As a director, do you have a specific genre at heart, or is it more to do with the story per se?

TRD: As a director I am influenced, I must say, by earlier works of science fiction and thrillers.  I love a lot of the stuff from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s.  However, I like modern movies as well.  I think that the techniques are now almost to a level of perfection.  However, I’ve always been a bit of a rebel.  I seem to be a rare breed that just isn’t falling for what the Hollywood corporate machine is turning out for us all to follow, most of which is “leave your brain at the door” entertainment.  I want to keep my brain in my head, thank you.  I used to love the “what if” type nature of older science fiction.  I was also heavily influenced by the writings of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne.  I like the adventure.  The “naïve” bounding energy.

As a child I watched the original Star Trek.  I gravitated towards the archetype characters and the thoughtful episodes which made one question their attitudes and beliefs.

But I also loved the films which were more “romps” such as dinosaur films, and giant insects; “Dracula”, “Frankenstein’s Monster”, “The Thing”, etc.

Later, films like “The Evil Dead”, “They Live”, “Heat”, “Close Encounters”, “Jaws”, “Alien”, etc. were big influences. There were so many.

I wanted to make films like these, in this genre.  However, one of my favourite films ever was “At First Sight”, with Val Kilmer and Mira Corvino.  Such a tearjerker, and a lot of unexpected scenes and character arcs, which kept one guessing.  I would love to branch out eventually and make films like this.  For now, I’ve still got the “creature film” bug in me though.  I like it.

I was never as much into the extreme horror or gore films.  I prefer the fantasy and science fiction genre, but not what Hollywood calls science fiction today, which is really just explosions and fights, battling a super-villain hell bent on destroying everything as the main plot.  I want to make an audience think and discuss the film and the many scenes after it’s over.

I was overjoyed when, after a screening of Aliens: Zone-X I gave in Hollywood, CA, the audience and I got into a rather long discussion about a great many things.  This film definitely makes one think, and spawns discussion.  But it also has plenty of just fun action as well.

FB: Let’s talk about Aliens: Zone-X. 

TRD: I got the idea for Aliens: Zone-X from, what was at first, a bit of a vague bunch of ideas that all came together.  I had researched UFOs and alien videos a lot on YouTube and other sources.  It was fascinating how witnesses really seem to believe they’ve seen things.  But what were they seeing/experiencing?  Real aliens? Hallucinations? Mind control experiments on the public? Hoaxes? This unknown element intrigues me.  Then there was the science fiction element of the creatures, etc. I knew I wanted to put together.  I also saw a program on television about a group of hikers stranded in the Grand Canyon, and their real life survival story of trying to make it through a freak heat wave, to get to water.  It was very harrowing.  I wanted to make a survival film, with a science fiction and alien edge.

I first started writing a script called “desert horror” which had some of the elements that would eventually end up in Aliens: Zone-X.  It was about a group of young hip guys on the way to Las Vegas from Los Angeles for a bachelor party.  Along the way, they got stuck in a terrible traffic jam which could have caused them to miss the party.  They pulled over at a gas station to figure out a plan, when a group of ruffians convinced them that they had a short cut to avoid the traffic, but they’d have to drive off into the desert.  Once they got out there, both cars stalled.  Soon, they realised they were in the middle of an alien experiment, with grey aliens testing them to see if the clean-cut boys and the street thugs could work together to survive or destroy each other.  It was a character study.

Eventually, the story morphed along, and grew.  When I began to work with David J. Burke, he began to influence the story as well.  In real life, he is a very spiritual person, on a quest for bettering himself in all ways.  To become “awake” and “enlightened”.  He believes in chi power, and the power of dark and light, etc.  I really wanted him to star in the film, which at the time was called, “Alien Grey: Zone-X”.  I thought he could bring something very interesting to the film, and he had a lot of positive feelings about working with me and making the film as well.

David J Burke – co-producer – park ranger Don Morgan

I began to write the character of Don Morgan, a Park Ranger working in the Nevada Park, but there’s something mysterious about him.  He has a power about him, and an insight into another spiritual dimension.  It’s his extra-sensory ability that gains the interest of the aliens, and brings them to the area where they begin their experiments on humanity, in Zone-X.

I had researched the concept of electromagnetic pulses and how these EMPs could wipe out electronic devices.  In a peculiar way, the aliens begin shutting off all power, stranding their “subjects”.

Once stranded, our hero, Don Morgan, must lead a group of stranded hikers and survivors of a small plane crash to water, over very rugged terrain, in the blistering heat.  They must pass into “Zone-X”, a secret military testing area.  Once there, they realise they are under the control of aliens, who are testing them.

The giant creatures are showing the vast powers of the aliens to “create” virtually anything.  Again, are these mirages, or real constructions?

Meanwhile, they are followed by someone else who breaks down in the Park area … The “madman”…  A crazed evil individual stalking the group.

There must be some of “Jason and the Argonauts” in there, where the Greek gods “play” with people, and create bigger and bigger challenges for them to overcome.  Will they divide or stick together?

I wanted all the characters to go through tests, and development. Through motivation, selfishness becomes altruism, devoid of empathy becomes caring.  I like these arcs.  It really keeps things interesting.

I didn’t want everything answered in the film.  I want the film to spark dialogue of all kinds.  Even by the end, there are many unanswered questions…  Was it all a dream?  A fantasy?  Real aliens? Some kind of test?  I want the viewer to wonder and discuss these parts of the story, then relate them to their own lives…  What, in the “real world” is “created” to make us feel in certain ways, and get certain responses from us? Are we to give in to every stimulus in the way we are meant to? Will we follow exactly what the powerful want us to, or will we question their motives, and take a step back at even those we really believe in, and question what we’re told (particularly in the media)?  Are these messages divisive? Constructive?  We need to think of these things and not “leave our brains at the door” – yet also not be overly cynical or suspicious, I think.

It shouldn’t be overlooked, however, that this film really does “have it all”. It has intense scenes, and when the audience is done, they’ll really feel like it was a super fun, and exciting experience. There are “episodic” scenes, which, like Flash Gordon and Star Wars, create very memorable sequences.

FB: Do you have some special trivia for the SFFN readers?

TRD: I guess a little bit of trivia was some of the production stories of Aliens: Zone-X.  First, most of the actors in the film were from the Las Vegas area, where we would be shooting much of the film.

Wallace Dorian (Pilot Mitchell Barns ‘Mitch’) and Thomas R. Dickens (Director), rehearsals. Las Vegas, NV (Photo: Doug Harvey)

One week before shooting, however, I still did not have an actress to play the leading lady, Suzan Barns, or the middle aged actor to play her “father”, Pilot Mitchell Barns (‘Mitch’).  I was pretty nervous about that.  We had interviewed several actors, but we just couldn’t find the right ones for the role.  Would we even be able to start shooting?  Finally, I put out an ad in Craigslist, and received several interested actors.  I interviewed them at the Coffee Bean and Tealeaf in Playa Vista, CA. When I interviewed Holly Poplawski, I thought she was great.  Had the looks for the role, and the acting chops, and had such a “can do” attitude.  She signed on to come out to Las Vegas and shoot the movie in the pretty gruelling Red Rocks desert.  Same with Wallace Dorian – the film is dedicated to Wallace, who not long after filming, sadly passed away. I thought he was perfect for the role.  Wallace and Holly were my only “California” actors, who came out for the production.

David J. Burke, who played the lead character, Don Morgan, was both a California and Nevada actor.  He’s a great action hero type character, and knows martial arts, and has many other talents.  He had lived in both areas, but was in Las Vegas at the time, having recently moved there from California.  Talk about “just in time”.  That’s one of the great things about independent film though.  Where there’s a will, there’s a way …  You can’t take no for an answer.  You have to just make it work.

Another little bit of trivia was that on the first day of shooting, which was supposed to be in the blistering hot desert of Nevada, it SNOWED!  I wondered if I could changes the scenes and somehow make it work, as a “drastic weather” fluctuation, so shot some scenes in the snowfall!  It was coming down heavier and heavier.  We were all freezing.  Finally, we called it a day and, unfortunately, those scenes ended up unused or redone.  They’ll probably be shown on a “making of” DVD/Blu Ray someday.