Crowdfunded juggernaut Lazer Team hits screens big and small
In Stage 5 of Austin Studios, home to pioneering online content providers Rooster Teeth, there's a big glass case. And inside that case is a boxing-style title belt. It was presented to Rooster Teeth by crowdfunding platform Indiegogo, for setting a site record for a project: $2.5 million donated by over 37,000 backers for their first feature film, Lazer Team. Director Matt Hullum said, "The crowdfunding campaign was not only a great way to kick-start it financially, but it gave us a boss. The boss of this movie is the community that said, 'You have to do it.'"
The sci-fi comedy, filmed in Austin and Manor, isn't just any old script with the Rooster Teeth brand stamped on it. This is pure Rooster Teeth, directed by studio co-founder Hullum from a script co-written with fellow founder Burnie Burns. The cast draws heavily from studio mainstays, including Burns, Gavin Free (Red vs. Blue, Ten Little Roosters, X-Ray and Vav) and Michael Jones (Achievement Hunter, RWBY), plus relative newcomer (and former Key and Peele writer) Colton Dunn. That quartet plays four losers from a small town in Texas who suddenly find themselves with an alien combat suit, designed to fight off an intergalactic invader. The only problem is that, like the dummies they are, each of the four grabs a different part of the suit, and then must come together to keep the Earth from being blown up.
Think The Wizard of Oz. However, instead of the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man not knowing they had courage, brains, and a heart, they know they have them, they just have no clue how to use them. Burns said, "I wanted the powers of the suit to play against the weaknesses of the characters themselves. Like the out-of-shape guy gets the boots. The dumbest guy gets the helmet that makes him smarter. The passive guy gets the shield and the hotheaded guy gets the laser. The pieces of the suit that they get play against these pieces of their characters, so it gives them even more to overcome."
Burns said the suit was inspired by his childhood love of Iron Man. "I always liked the idea that people's superpowers don't come from a special kind of radiation. It's technology pushing us a little further than we're willing to go, or than we're ready to go," he said. However, Hullum describes the story as the antithesis of the typical superhero flick. Rather than the quartet being invincible gods with flaws, "they're vincible," he said. "These guys are less-than-average Joes. It's not a genius billionaire putting on this thing."
There were no billionaires waiting to fund this film, either. Burns and Hullum both described the success of the Indiegogo campaign – almost four times their original target – as a massive vote of confidence from ordinary fans that turned Rooster Teeth shows like Red vs. Blue and RWBY into Internet sensations. However, the movie was about expanding what the brand means, not changing it. Burns said, "We knew how much effort it would take to make a feature film, and we didn't want to have to interrupt everything else at Rooster Teeth. That would just make people hate the product, if all the other shows stopped because we were all working on Lazer Team for a long period of time."
With so many studio regulars involved, that meant scurrying to keep the regular online schedule. Before shooting began, actor Gavin Free explained, "We had to preload a lot of regular content, so we were shooting like crazy before we began shooting. Days where we'd take a leisurely lunch, we'd just go straight into another video, and call it lunch."
His co-star, Michael Jones, added, "I'd say a good month before we started shooting, it was like extra day, extra day. I know one day in particular, all of us stayed 14 hours filming video after video after video. And in the two months where we were filming, I'd say Gavin and I came in half the days that we had off. We would just show up to work and [RT co-founder Geoff Ramsey] would say, 'Why are you here?' Eh, I'm not going to sleep for three and a half hours at home, so we would just come in, film two videos, and go to the set."
Burns and Hullum always knew they wanted the film to be more than an online short stretched to feature length. However, as the Indiegogo campaign became more and more successful, it continually raised the stakes for the film. Yet it also raised opportunities. Burns wrote the script to be flexible, so while the core narrative remained the same, there were tweaks that could be easily made. Hit one goal, and that meant leasing military trucks for a scene. Hit another, and Hullum could fulfill his dream of blowing a wooden shed to smithereens. Jones called the campaign "ridiculously successful. I talked to Burnie about it just before RTX [Rooster Teeth's annual convention], and he said, 'Yeah, they kept giving us money.' But you're sitting here as an actor going, 'Oh, shit, this isn't just something we're going to throw up on the site. This is actually going to get a theatrical release.'"
While Rooster Teeth has been an online pioneer, that doesn't mean everyone was a stranger to cinema. Before joining the studio, Free provided slow-motion cinematography for big-budget pictures like Hot Fuzz and Snow White and the Huntsman. Similarly, UT grads Burns and Hullum cut their storytelling teeth as co-writers and co-directors on their 1997 narrative feature, The Schedule. However, there were some things that were far beyond their control. Much of Burns' script revolves around the high school football field ("The best way to indicate a small town, at least in Texas, is high school football," he said), and all those exterior nighttime scenes were shot in Manor in the coldest November in decades. Free said, "We were getting all the cold. I had a blanket, and I went over to the light after we grabbed that take. I got so close, my blanket caught on fire."
But they weren't alone in the chill. Again, the fans were with them – quite literally, because they flew from as far afield as Australia to join the production as extras. Hullum said, "They were on set, and they were on the stands. When we shot the stuff on the football field, they were there. They came out and they played the military officers. They're in the movie, the actual backers. That's a great feeling, and then you walk out and you see everybody literally rooting you on, you go, 'Well, we have to work even harder today.'"
Now those same fans are expressing support through buying tickets. Aside from a regular theatrical run starting Jan. 29, and digital distribution through YouTube's subscriber service Red starting in February, the team is also working with theatrical-on-demand provider Tugg. Wherever enough fans demand a screening, it will happen. Hullum said, "There are hundreds of RT community members who are getting together for screenings in the most far-flung places that we've never even thought would happen, and really they're driving it. For me, that's the most fun thing, telling the audience, 'You have the control; how do you want to make this come about?'"
Lazer Team opens Friday, Jan. 29, at the Alamo South Lamar. Cast members Michael Jones and Gus Sorola will be at select screenings on Friday. See Film Listings for showtimes and review.