“ If something is going to be set in Fantasia, then there must be gritty realism. "
Cover story by Wally Hirst.
FANTILIGY (THE ART, THE FILM OF THE FANTASTIC)
Fantiligy issue 9: Quest for Steel interview with Simon Roptell
The following interview was done a few months ago. I spoke to Simon recently and he has just completed a cut of this film. Our apologies to Fantiligy readers for the delay in our publications. Like everybody else, the COVID related situation has led to reshaping the way things are done. We have been working remotely and working harder than ever on all that is the best in the world of premium fantastical cinema, so we have lots to share in the upcoming months. However, it is good to be back in form and to finally present the Simon Roptell Quest for Steel interview:
When I arrive at Simon’s house he is drawing. He has agreed to do a sketch for each of Fantiligy’s 8 issues to go on our socials and is allowing himself a maximum of 5 minutes per sketch. Besides being a filmmaker he is an avid illustrator and classical sculptor and his house is filled with examples of his work. The props he has laid out from Quest for Steel somewhat fit in to the classical environment. He then shows me about an hour of the cut film and I am extremely, extremely ecstatic over what I have seen. I am a big fan of sword and sorcery and have been longing for a film - in his words “to be as ballsy as they were in the 1980s” and now I am seeing it. I ask him for the impetus for the 2 hour and something R-rated film.
Roptell: If you only make one shot at making a feature film, I think you have to put everything into it. I am a student of the fables and the greatest lover of world mythology, but the great myths are but one of my many influences. When I was about seven or eight we kids started to see the Masters of the Universe toys in shops. For those of you who do not know what they are, they were hyper masculine toys – that encapsulated the bigger and brighter is better attitude of the 1980s. Now, the animation was not out then, but we had our imagination and I was imagining it to be as giritty and as nasty as video shop faves such as the Exorcist or Deliverance - It wasn’t. Skeletor sounded like a New York car salesman and Battlecat was just a better drawn version of Snagglepus. Fine, of course, as this was a program for kids. However, being a kid myself at the time, I remember I quickly turned the volume down and swore one day I would make a sword and sorcery epic with all the glam of MOTU but it would be through the gritty social realistic lens of a Mike Leigh, Ken Loach or Pier Paolo Pasolini. Later on, when I was a high school student at an all a boy’s school - which, if you have attended a boy’s school, you will know can be a dour, crushing and uninspiring experience - The only comfort a lad had was the trip to the Video Ezy on the walk home. I never forget entering the premises one day with my mate, Michael Lomas and seeing the cover of an Argentine/Italian/American production called Deathstalker. The art work was by Boris Vallejo and it featured a scantily clad oiled up babe being manhandled by an orc and a barbarian was swinging his sword at it. I remember thinking this is going to be the greatest film of all time. It kind of was not, but it had promise. After seeing it, I swore one day I would make a sword and sorcery epic with all the glam of Deathstalker, but it would be through the gritty social realistic lens of a Mike Leigh, Ken Loach or Pier Paolo Pasolini.
F: I’m waiting for another influence here.
Roptell: I am mainly a fan of British dramas and comedies. I remember seeing I, Claudius and I remember Nelson and being a big fan of all the Black Adders and history programs like Frederick Forsyth’s Soldiers and Magnus Magnuson’s documentary series - the Vikings. After seeing these brilliant shows done to perfection with dialogue taken straight from the history books I remember I swore one day I would make a sword and sorcery epic with all the dialogue and nuance of well scripted and produced British drama, but it would have the glam of a Deathstalker or Masters of the Universe. However, I did not know until quite recently, that Game of Thrones had kind of beat me to it.
F: I was going to say Simon, elements of what I have seen is very GOT.
Roptell: I know that now. I was aware of the series when I started penning the script almost a decade back but I had not watched it. Back then I didn’t have the time to invest in watching a lot of television. Besides, I did not want to be influenced by contemporaries because all you would be doing is replicating that. But, when I heard George R.R. Martin say that I, Claudius was a big influence on GOT, I put everything down and watched the whole series. Like everyone, I was a big fan and hooked. It was a fantastic series. Such a formula is air tight. If something is going to be set in Fantasia, then there must be gritty realism. I like the GOT comparison. What a compliment.
F: You were an artist turned writer and now filmmaker. How did this start?
Roptell: I’d studied film, writing and theatre at university and had been writing dramatic and comedic pieces since I was a late teen, but my photographer friend Tom got me a start in shooting mini videos for fashion labels, rock bands, burlesque acts and art events. I was a gun for hire but I always made sure what I shot told a story. I made a half hour dramatic sci-fi piece called the 4th wall early on and that led me to the world of green screen. I wanted to do a genre that no one was doing so I tried my hand at revamping a British pulp genre that had lied dormant for decades: The British war comic strip. In Sydney a few years back, pole dancing was everywhere and I remember thinking why have I never seen a pole dance fight on a London bus during the Blitz? This would be a fantastic set piece for the racy titular lead. Thus, The Top Secret Adventures of Clara Chapman, was born. I was working with period, British actors, and staging action scenes so this 30 minute comedy gave me excellent ground to ready myself for my big venture; Quest for Steel.
F: Before we talk about scale, tell us about story.
Roptell: This is a fantasy adventure film about the first steel sword. There have been many films about magic swords but not the first steel weapon. I run with the notion that such a development would have been like the invention of the nuclear bomb. That those who had bronze weapons fell before those wielding this superior technology. Whilst I am exaggerating - this is not far from the truth. At the time of the Sea Peoples or the late Bronze age all the great powers had fallen, possibly as a result of this new weaponry. However, it is important to remember that this is a fantasy adventure film, not history with a capital H. I trust your readers permit such license?
F: They do. I think?
Roptell: Great. The movie begins in Zova, Amazora, a civilization north of the Caspian Sea and home to Asiatic female warriors who fight with the bo-staff. The Sea Peoples are coming and it is a race to claim the first steel sword and thus win the war. Our heroine is Tegra Fez and on her journey she is tempted by bronze, but seduced by steel and we explore the good and the bad of such temptations.
F: From what you’ve shown me it is the age of myth, of Sirens and Ferrymen and Egyptian cat armies but there are also hilarious fly on the wall type conversations such as ones involving Greeks outsourcing physique models to pose for statues because the stable of local models are not the desired eight heads in height. Would I be right in assuming you are drawn to dialogue and not the action dominated antics of modern fantasy adventure?
Roptell: I am. I may work in the sphere of computer-generated backgrounds and images but computer generated action does not motivate me. I love conversation in films and traditionally such incidental conversations are often attributed to dramatists such as David Mamet, Dennis Potter and Quentin Tarantino, but if you read historian Robin Lane Fox or even go back as far as Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars you will find that “matter of fact” type dialogue was commonplace.
F: The scale of Quest for Steel is huge. For a film layman like me, explain to me how this is achieved without the huge Hollywood style investment.
Roptell: A budget should not dictate scale of creativity - kids make sand castles not sand caravans. It’s the same philosophy. The very best drama does should not require production extravagance. Use what you have and what you can get - It’s called sustainability. If you want uniforms, see what you have in your wardrobe first. You will be amazed about what you can find. If it doesn’t look right on film, angle the camera so it does - It’s called filmmaking. Now don’t get me wrong I do love some of the big pictures, but for every Troy or Gladiator there are so many films you look at and say what a waste of money. Now, you’re probably saying well what about crew? If you have learnt to draw, learnt to write and learnt to sculpt, you can learn sound, learn editing and learn lighting. I rely on myself and I know what a realistic deadline is. Most importantly, I love doing it.
F: So, besides a good eye, what should a filmmaker have?
Some of Simon's concept art for Quest for Steel.
Roptell: Your greatest strength should be writing. It will always be the story and how it is told that makes a good film. Something should be able to live on a piece of paper and be its worth in gold. You then owe it to find the best cast you can – not the most famous – the best. I love traditional British theatre actor - they are a good fit for what I do and there are some residing in Australia. But you may exhaust those areas and may need to look elsewhere. They could be dancers, artists, university teachers. I always find that if someone is intelligent, patient and hard working they will often be more than capable actors.
F: I was just going to say, the female leads are fantastic and so versatile.
Roptell: They are, but that’s extensive casting for you. I’m asking for a lot in my actors. I searched for six months. Australia is a small place and you feel like giving up, but then someone appears and they are perfect for the role. But you got to have rehearsals - got to give direction. Actors must know what you want. I storyboard everything so everybody knows where they are going and what they are doing. Actors need to be as confident as a patient entering surgery. Unpredictable locations, improv and no storyboards does not always instill confidence in a cast, no matter how fashionable it is to say you work like that.
F: Well, I am dying to see the whole thing. Can you tell me when this will be?
Roptell: Well I just spoke about forging solid connections There has been loads of interest due to the posting of production images early on but I need to find the right person or people to get it out to the widest audience there is. I have been a good judge of talent so far and I hope to continue with this. People will see Quest for Steel and will want to see more so it needs to be handled with care. You saw some of it projected on the big screen today, films like this deserve big screen releases but let's see what happens. The world is changing.
F: Simon Roptell, It’s been an absolute pleasure.
Roptell: Thank you, and the films you have selected for your publication are spot on.
F: Thanks, Simon.
I look down and see the collection of sketches he has churned out while talking to me; a Luke Skywalker, an Indiana Jones, A Marty McFly and a Daenerys Targaryen. I feel like I am going home from my talks with Simon with a gift bag.
Filmmaker Simon Roptell displays the sword from Quest for Steel.
The movie trailer and links to all things quest for steel can be accessed here: