This article first appeared in IF Magazine Issue #150
Justin Dix made a name for himself in the local film industry after creating special effects for the Star Wars prequels filmed in Australia, as well as on independent horror movies such as Dying Breed and Storm Warning. But he always dreamt of directing his own movie – a dream now realised with the release of his debut feature Crawlspace.
Set beneath the real-world military base at Pine Gap, the movie follows a small team of elite soldiers who are sent into the bowels of the complex to rescue a top scientist from an experiment that has gone badly wrong. Once they are in, the soldiers encounter a mysterious survivor called Eve. It quickly becomes clear that the facility is a testing ground for something far more sinister and, with Eve in tow, the team finds itself fighting through escaped inmates and facing devastating psychic attacks rooted in their own darkest, primordial fears.
The film was inspired by Dix's insatiable appetite for sci-fi and horror films made by the likes of John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg, George Lucas and Ridley Scott. He hopes the movie will encourage more people to create genre films in Australia.
"We are good at making kitchen sink dramas and Aussie comedies but to be honest, they don't sell outside of our country," says Dix. "Crawlspace pretty much sold world-wide at Cannes, which is a testament to what the world market wants and I think it shows we can deliver. In Australia, I think ‘genre’ is a dirty word, but it should be embraced."
Dix runs his own special effects company, Wicked of Oz, which allowed him to showcase every kind of effect he could imagine including miniatures, creature suits, zombies, silicone bodies and make-up effects.
"It was probably a lot of pressure doing the effects on my first feature film, since we created so many. We pretty much made prosthetics or some kind of effects on every day that we worked, which is usually unheard of on low-budget films. But it helps to keep the costs down when you know how to create this stuff.
"I was the special effects designer, writer, director, producer and story boarder on this movie, so when it came to the special effects, I knew exactly what I wanted them to look like and I could allow this to happen. Working on a lot of low-budget horror films in the past helped me know how to get the best bang for my buck."
The film is full of fantasy effects, with one creature so huge that it filled the whole set, which Dix says added to the scary nature of the action-packed scene. David Hankin, who wore the make-up effects and costume, was made to look double the size of a normal person – the entire effects took six hours to create.
Despite Dix's obsession with creating make-ups, he was careful not to let it overwhelm the story.
"Even though you may have some amazing effects, it doesn't mean you need to linger or possibly leave it in the film if it's not working for the story. I never thought I would cut out any of the effects in my first movie – but we did. Ultimately it comes down to the question: Is the effect working within the context of the story? If it's not, then you need to lose it. Even if you have spent really good time and money on the effect, you shouldn't just keep it in there for the sake of it."
Crawlspace is set to continue its successful run around the world, having had its world premiere at the Sitges Film Festival in Spain recently. This event is the largest genre film festival in the world and has been running for 45 years.
The film has also been bought by IFC Midnight (the deal was brokered by XYZ) and is set for a US theatrical release in the New Year. It had its Australian premiere at the Cockatoo Island Film Festival in Sydney and was released in the UK at the end of October.
Although the movie was funded by the private sector, Dix hopes it will help to convince government funding agencies to back more films like this in future.
"I think that Australian funding bodies just don't understand what makes a good genre film or even a successful one. There is a reluctance to back them. It's easier and safer to fund something that is a culturally viable drama. Even if it fails at the box office, no one will really condemn them for it."