Let's get real: Poseidon Rex, the swimming tyrannosaurus movie, is not a movie you want to pay to see in a theater, even though it will be in a few starting today. It was made with TV in mind, for an intended audience that prefers their beers in a nearby fridge and their visual effects just slightly unconvincing (I imagine, though, that this level of fakish CGI will one day induce nostalgia in a certain generation, just as not-quite-convincing stop-motion did for our parents).
And yet the director is Mark L. Lester, the guy who made Commando, which is only one of the greatest movies in the history of ever. So I couldn't not talk to the guy, in part to see how he got here from there.
Mark L. Lester: How are you doing?
Luke Y. Thompson: I'm doing good. Big fan of Commando. I don't want to lead off with the Commando stuff, but I love that movie!
ML: I just came from the Austin Drafthouse - they did a Q&A with me there. They love it there.
LYT: Fantastic. So how did Poseidon Rex come about? Was it your idea? Did you come across the script? What was the process?
ML: These were all developed by me and I just thought of doing a Godzilla kind of movie where - one of my favorite old movies is The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, where the dinosaur comes up out of the water and knocks down the roller-coaster on the beach. I loved that movie as a little kid, and I thought that's a great thing to bring back. It's like Godzilla and Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, and it was an original script.
I thought it would be on an island where somebody would find treasure, and then Poseidon would be unleashed from underground. There is such a thing - it's like the biggest sea-creature dinosaur, and it's a lot of fun because it can come on the land. It's kind of a twist in the movie. After he kills people in the ocean, he comes on land, then he goes back in the ocean, chasing them. So we got to deal with a lot of boats, a lot of action, a lot of speed chases, and be in Belize. It was great.
LYT: So it's a real dinosaur? You didn't take any creative liberties with it at all?
ML: Pretty much! We just looked at pictures. There are Poseidon Rexes, though; deep sea dinosaurs. It's kind of a hybrid, though.
LYT: Are they called Poseidon Rexes? Is that their actual name?
ML: Yeah, yeah.
LYT: The character in the movie acts like she invented the name.
ML: Right, right. [chuckles]
LYT: How did filming in Belize come about? It's obviously a great side benefit, but was that the cheapest place? Was it one that just came about? Was it like, "This has to be shot in Belize, and we're going to make it happen, no matter what"?
ML: No, we've made two other films down there. We made one called Dragon Wasps, which was a giant B-movie in the jungle there. And then we did one called Jurassic Attack. There are marvelous beaches there, and there's the second-largest reef off of the coast, and the water is beautiful, so it was a great place to shoot, and it's inexpensive to shoot. There's no - you don't have 50 environmental protection board [members] standing out in the water with you. You can go out there and do these action scenes really nicely without paying a lot of money. So we bring a crew in from Mexico, and it looks like a huge production when we're down in these kinds of places. Very co-operative, and beautiful scenery.
LYT: I was a little surprised how sort of PG this movie was, ultimately. Were you planning on it for TV and then it became theatrical? I thought in the sex scene you had maybe a little more was going to be shown, for example.
ML: No, we make them for TV, basically. It's hard to compete with the $100 million films. This came out in the theaters this week. Normally, we make them for television networks around the world. A lot in Europe, and they want a little less violence over there, so there's not a lot of blood and guts like you might make if it was a total theatrical film. It has to play for all audiences.
LYT: Corin Nemec was originally going to be the lead, right?
ML: Right, yes.
LYT: What happened there?
ML: There was a little accident in the boat. He hurt his leg, so he couldn't continue. He's OK now. So we brought in Brian Krause, who is great.
LYT: If I could backtrack a little bit here to your great '80s output, you worked with so many big stars on big budget levels - what was it that made you go down to the lower budget levels? Was that a choice to get more creative control? How did that work out?
ML: Yeah, it started really - I did that picture Showdown in Little Tokyo with Warner Brothers, then I decided to start making my own films. I made a deal with Lionsgate in '93. I turned out 12 films right in a row, and I directed all of them. The Ex, Misbegotten, Double Take, The Base - a whole slew of movies, having a great time, and they were lower budgets. Then when DVD came in, if you didn't spend more than $10 million, you couldn't get into theaters, right?
So I started making these kinds of movies, and I have my own production company, so it was a lot of fun. I just kept making them and making them. And I've been through every decade now, '70s, '80s, '90s, 2000s, 2010s - I've been making films for 44 years. [chuckles] I just keep going. I'm making more of these. I'm making Vikings vs Dinosaurs. I have one I finished - I'm finishing in two weeks - called Dragons of Camelot. It's like a Game of Thrones epic movie. And then I'm going to make a remake of Class of '84, set today. So it's a lot of fun and you can control your own destiny.
The studios now, they want to make $100 million dollar films with 30 year old directors. It's harder to raise that kind of money, so I found a way to stay in the movie business.
LYT: Is this the most fun you've had in your career? Is that fair to say?
ML: I love the whole thing. It's all fun. Making movies is great. It's really a privilege to keep going and making films. It's harder and harder to make good films now, but I'm still shooting, and we're funding them all ourselves, so it's a lot of fun. We get the money back and we put it into the next movie, and keep going and going.
LYT: I always felt like Commando was the movie that really solidified Arnold Schwarzenegger's persona as the guy who made the James Bond-style bad one-liners and that kind of thing. How much of that was you, how much of that was him, and how much of that was the script?
ML: Well, it wasn't in the script. I was just inventing one-liners, because I wanted it - I grew up with Dr. No and the James Bond films. So when I met Arnold and I saw what a sense of humor he had, I thought we could put these one-liners throughout the movie like James Bond did. So I started writing a bunch myself, and Steve de Souza wrote some, and it became a kind of comedy/action with the one-liners. I tried to style it after the early James Bond films, and it worked out really well, and then from then on he got this personality of being able to do that.
Poseidon Rex opens today theatrically and on iTunes.