David Giancola Puts the Pedal to the Metal With Axcellerator

Director leaves tragedy behind and embraces the B-movie

Ryan Wesen and Laura James in Axcellerator, the cinematic return of director David Giancolo

You can hear David Giancola's grin on the phone. The filmmaker is driving from his home in Vermont to Boston to catch a flight to Austin, where he will present his latest sci-fi action romp, Axcellerator, as part of the Other Worlds Film Festival's year-round screening series. It's not just the warmer weather - although that's a plus, he says.

The film marks a comeback for Giancola, whose career began in 1994 with the low-budget Time Chasers. Initially a commercial failure (life then was pretty tough for independent filmmakers with no industry connections, shooting in Vermont), it gained cult success three years later when it was dissected by Mystery Science 3000. However, by that point Giancola was directing his third film and kept making movies until 2007, when his career suddenly hit a brick wall. His ninth and biggest project, a media satire called Illegal Aliens, became tabloid fodder because of star Anna Nicole Smith, who died before it could be released.

It was such a torturous experience that Giancola made his own documentary about the filming experience and the aftermath, 2012's Addicted to Fame - a decision he now somewhat regrets. "I'm very proud of it," he said, "because I got to say what I wanted to so, [but] it left me marinating in the misery of a flop for a lot longer than I probably should have. While I'm grateful that people like Addicted to Fame, I think if I could go back in time I would tell myself to walk away."

That whole process was one - but not the only - reason for him taking a nearly decade-long hiatus from filmmaking. "I saw the change from shooting on celluloid to shooting on digital was coming," he said, "and changes in how films were distributed, but primarily we lost our ass on Illegal Aliens. I had a lot of my money and a lot of investor's money."

Axcellerator puts all that behind him, with Ryan Wesen as a car thief who accidentally ends up with a handheld teleportation device: After dragging innocent bystander Kate (Laura James) into his plight, he finds himself the target of a wild government conspiracy and various nefarious characters (Empire Records' Maxwell Caulfield, Blade Runner star Sean Young, and Sam Jones, aka Flash Gordon himself, as a psychokiller with a positive attitude). It's a return to Giancola's B-movie sensibilities, but that's not where he always saw himself as a filmmaker. "I got to that over time," he said. "When I started I was much more serious, but what I realized was that these movies, no matter what I did, were handicapped by being the catering budget on an A-list movie. So I decided we needed to have fun with these things: Because, if not, we're not doing service to what we can do with the amount of money that we have, and to the actors."

Austin Chronicle: What was it that made you go, this is the right time to get back into filmmaking, and this is the right project?

David Giancola: I met this new screenwriter called Mike Ford, and I took a gamble on a new script based on my treatment. My treatment was really long and he, being young, being, gosh, 21 or something like that, he basically said, "This is wrong." I was making mistakes at story stage. ... I had the story so advanced that the two leads weren't young, and he went, "No, they have to be unaware, they have to be in over their heads," and I went, "Oh, yeah, d'uh."

I really liked his take on the material, but then he had to leave the project and I had to do a couple more drafts after that, but I liked it. And, truth be told, I'm getting older, and I knew I wanted to make it but I didn't have all the financing, so I literally did the old filmmaker thing - I probably never will again - that filmmakers do in their twenties. I went out and got a bunch of credit cards, and started charging things up to get a start on the movie. Once I had put enough debt on my credit cards, I had no choice but to make the damn thing.

AC: And it's the classic story of a McGuffin and a hero who's out of their depth.

DG: Exactly. And that was one of those things that kicked me right in it, was that Mike Ford said, "It should be this, this and this." We had a lunch meeting and I said, "Shit, this kid's right," and after we got into that it was easy for me to lay on more of the humor and the '80s talent. Not that we're making fun of it, but we're having fun with it.

I think that's a distinction from Illegal Aliens. With that, we were trying to create cult and camp, and you can't do that. My first movie, Time Chasers, has got a cult status that happened completely by accident. You can't create that, but you can have fun. You can say, "The touchstone for this is Back to the Future, or Romancing the Stone. We're gonna go on a ride and have a good time."

AC: You've got a reputation for spotting actors early in their career, like Sean Astin and Chris Evans, but this time you've got a few names that are instantky recognizable to genre fans, like Sean Young and Sam Jones.

DG: When I do a movie like Axcellerator, I'm responsible for bringing in partners in financing, and the creative decisions stop with me. Having been a fan of Sam's for a long time, we were able to get him and he was charmed at the idea of being able to play a bad guy. I thought he'd be a great bad guy, but I didn't think he'd pick up the movie and run with it like he does.

He had a history. After making Flash Gordon, his career took a big dip, and he took a big dip. But he got his life back together, basically found God. The thing with Sam is that with Ted and Ted 2, and the re-release of Flash Gordon, he's been doing a ton of comic cons - literally every other weekend, all over the world. The one accommodation we had to make was that he could leave the set to do a comic con and then come back.

Sean had been given a lot of horror roles and crappy things: But give her something where she can play a smart women, that was refreshing for her. ... There were Hollywood stories about her, but I didn't have that experience with Sean. My experience was wonderful, but it did take a couple of days of her getting to trust me. I think that what's happened to her on some roles is that younger directors, or more inexperienced directors, they're trying to mold a woman who's been doing this for many, many decades.

AC: You're having real festival circuit success this time. What do you think the difference is from some of your earlier experiences?

DG: I think maybe I'm a little more mature, and a little better at reading the tea leaves about, "Will this work?" or "Will this person be a good addition?"

Part of it was me letting go off stuff, and Sam Jones' performance is an example of that. What Sam did in the movie was not what we had talked about, but I got along with Sam, I liked him, he was committed, and he did the first scene and I went, "Well, that's not what I thought," but everyone was laughing and it was working and it still had the menace that the story needed to drive things forward, so I went with it.

I think the younger director of me would probably have tried to rein in Sam Jones, which would have been a phenomenally bad idea. I once tried to do that with Bruce Campbell (on 2000's Icebreaker). Bruce is an amazing actor, and I was in my '20s, trying to tell Bruce Campbell, "No, no, no, you've gotta do this, you've gotta do that," instead of letting the man go.

AC: How did that go?

DG: Bruce is a good guy. Bruce is a gentleman. The thing is that he doesn't suffer fools easily. We wouldn't get into an argument. He'd just sway me with facts.

Other Worlds Film Festival presents the Texas premiere of Axcellerator with writer/director David Giancola in attendance @ Galaxy Highland, 6700 Middle Fiskville, Wednesday, June 26, 7:30pm. Tickets and info at www.otherworldsaustin.com.

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