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Action and horror magic

By Kavishna Wijesinghe

Director Jason Lei Howden of Guns Akimbo fame had a chat with Junkyard Theory about his filmmaking trajectory leading up to the much-talked about Daniel Radcliffe flick. A native of New Zealand, Jason had been a fan of death metal upon which his first movie Deathgasm (2015) was based. However, he also revealed that Guns Akimbo (2019) was written way prior to that. Jason’s visual effects portfolio is quite impressive, having worked on the lines of Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021), The Avengers (2012), and even a 4K rendition of The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003).

Jason’s first job out of high school was in video editing, which he worked for three years before starting to go to a film school. He also revealed that like most youngsters nowadays, he did not know much about VFX but he learnt it online with the tutorials available at the time. He added that it helped him with the short film he had shot around the same time.

Armed with his skills in VFX, he managed to get work on a kids show called The WotWots produced by Peter Jackson’s Weta Studio. Additionally, Jason also dipped his fingers into music videos and short films in his spare time to earn some cash. Later on, working at Weta provided him with the opportunity to try his hand at compositing on projects such as the Planet of the Apes movies and The Hobbit trilogy (2012-2014), which he says he enjoyed very much.

However, helming his own first feature was an entirely different pathway. Jason regaled about the time he won a competition that was run by the New Zealand Film Commission which essentially helped him fund his debut movie which was Deathgasm. Inspired by his passion for metal, the finished movie caught the attention of multiple festivals the world over and he was invited to screen the film at the South by Southwest Film Festival.

Combining elements 

When questioned about combining various elements and splicing genres, Jason stated that the more passionate someone is about a task or subject, the easier it becomes to create a film and the better the outcome will be. He also added that while he read a lot of scripts, he couldn’t find himself in those. “You need to find yourself in a script,” he said.

Being a fan of both horror and metal, it became easier for Jason to instruct the personnel working on the film, such as costume and production designers. Once the film was released, metalheads who had noticed his attention to details praised his work and the praise came from around the world.

With the conversation turning towards influences, Jason revealed that Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead movies definitely had a massive impact on his work; from the artwork, sound effects, to the camera angles.

Special effects vs. green screen

Moving on to visual effects vs. practical effects, Jason mentioned that it’s a controversial topic and he doesn’t want to throw anyone under the bus. With that being said, Jason admits that he prefers practical effects. While the original The Lord of the Rings trilogy used more practical elements than visual effects and the latter mostly to enhance what was shot in camera, The Hobbit switched tracks and had more VFX elements than practical ones. Jason mentioned that with the green screen, which was used on The Hobbit, you can immediately tell so much of it was VFX. However, Jason believes that the world is still learning to use green screen technology.

Transitioning from VFX artist to director

Jason revealed that while his background in VFX helped his transition to becoming a director, it sometimes annoyed other VFX supervisors because he was instructing them how to do their job since he had been part of that world.

He admits that being a VFX artist definitely does help in a way because you get an eye for it and it’s important to see the problems in a shot and figure out how you can solve them. Additionally, the audience is savvier than they used to be, so their expectations from VFX are also right up there.

‘Guns Akimbo’

With Guns Akimbo (2019), Jason revealed that he wanted to make the character a little bit fun rather than a slick gangster like John Wick. It was this decision which prompted him to make the film a bit cartoony in order to add more amusement. About signing on Daniel Radcliffe, Jason said that the former Harry Potter actor signed on after a simple Skype call, having read the screenplay.

While they shot the film in New Zealand, the paparazzi photos of Daniel wielding guns went viral online. Jason spoke about how he found memes being created from those photos and decided to incorporate memes and fan art in the movie itself.

While Jason’s energy can be up and down on set, he revealed that he tries to keep things bubbly for everyone and ensure the safety of the cast and crew. He also emphasised that he tries not to stress the crew because filmmaking is for escapism and the crew should be enjoying it.

Future

Jason is currently working on a few projects like a disaster movie, Deathgasm 2, and the Borderlands film by Eli Roth. 

The full interview with Jason Lei Howden is available on the Junkyard Theory YouTube channel.

Junkyard Theory is Sri Lanka’s first and only film education platform that brings on veteran filmmakers from Hollywood as guest speakers. Their webinars, hosted by Akash Sunethkumara, have been recognised on industry sites such as “No Film School”, and the team now runs film courses for upcoming filmmakers in the country.