What if Michael Bay directed a vampire film?
If the director of such films as Bad Boys, The Rock and Armageddon did
choose to turn his focus to the undead, the resulting film would undoubtedly
be along the lines of something like "Vampire Marines" - a team of young,
good-looking, kick ass vampires working on assignment for the U.S. government.
At least that's the conclusion that Tom Sanders and Ed Gross came to when
they turned that particular question over in their minds and created Dark
Commandos, the live-action Internet series that can be found at
www.darkcommandos.com. The show, airing in three-to-six minute installments,
chronicles the adventures of the Undead Brigade as they take on the missions
that no one else can handle.
"The idea of a team of vampire commandos was originally Ed's," says
Sanders, "and I have to tell you, when I first heard it I had my doubts. Ed's
always been into vampires, but I honestly felt that the genre had been beaten
to death. But we started tinkering with it and, as usually happens when he
and I start writing something, sending scenes and drafts back and forth,
fleshing out the characters and developing a storyline, we both got excited
about the material and pretty soon it was all either of us were thinking
Dark Commandos stars Justin Neal Thompson as team leader Non Agememnon Gage, who is over 500 years old. Transformed during the Crusades, he served
the vampire who turned him for several years, until the man's unrelenting
brutality caused him to flee. Non survived on the run for the next several
centuries, until an unexpected meeting with his progenitor resulted in Non
being forcefully buried in Austria in the mid 1800s, where he was left -
presumably forever. During World War II, however, the forces of the Third
Reich discovered his amazingly preserved body and brought him to Hitler's top
secret "Theosophic Research" facility, where his blood was sampled by Nazi
scientists who hoped to use it to create an undead army. Their experiments
produced several hideous false starts, but Hitler's vision remained
unrealized when American Commandos "rescued" Non, effectively drafting him
into service. Despite what he is, Non remains a spiritual man who continues
to practice his Catholic faith. On the one hand, Non would love nothing more
than final death, but in the back of his mind is the fear that he would be
denied entrance into Heaven. The alternative is too frightening to
Dreyfuss, second-in-command, is played by Bradley Upton. Turned during
the Spanish-American war, Dreyfuss was actually on a suicide bid when he was
attacked by a female vampire, suddenly finding himself cursed with eternal
life. After years of self-imposed isolation, he emerged as a solider of
fortune, hiring out his skills mostly to Third World countries with little
regard for his employer's stance. He never revealed to them what he was; they
knew him only as an efficient covert leader and killer. It was in this
capacity that he crossed paths with Non several times and was eventually
persuaded to join the DC in the 1970s. Of the Commandos, Dreyfuss is the most
resigned to what he is, wasting no energy debating the morality of killing to
Christopher Boicelli is cast as Ed "The Kid" Torin. Chronologically, Ed
is 55-years-old, but physically (and, some would say, emotionally), he's in
his 20s. His father was a great friend of Non's and when Ed was dying in a
Vietnam POW camp, Non went in and saved him the only way he knew how - by
turning Ed into a vampire. The Kid desperately tries to hold on to his
youthfulness. He embraces whatever is trendy at the moment, but it's a kind
of desperate clinging rather than a real exuberance. Feeling he was cheated
out of his youth, first by Vietnam and then by Non's life-saving "curse", Ed
has a soft spot for children, particularly the abused. While his youthful
idealism makes him a spirited fighter, it also leaves his emotions raw and
his impulse control lacking. At the same time, in many ways Ed embraces what
he is, and approaches vampirism as something of a super hero gig, serving as
Robin to Non's Batman.
Amber Phillips is Sue Janic, the newest Commando. In her early '20s, Sue
is a top CIA agent who is persuaded by someone high up in military
intelligence to join the Undead Brigade. In Sue the audience witnesses the
deconstruction of a human soul and its rebirth into the unnatural state of
vampirism. Sue at first embraces this journey, as it seems to offer a path to
the enlightenment she has long sought, but the transformation ultimately
takes her to places darker than she could have ever imagined. Even as Non
privately searches for his own redemption, Sue plunges headlong in the
opposite direction, prodded along by Ed's well-meaning, but ill-advised
companionship. In many ways, Sue's journey will be the audience's into this
bizarre world of the undead.
"What's cool about Dark Commandos," says Sanders, who also serves as the
show's director, editor and special effects supervisor, "is that although on
the surface it is very much a comic book concept, with larger than life
heroes and villains and lots of fantastic elements, within that there are
fully-realized characters dealing with all kinds of very human, dramatic
themes. You have to remember, every one of our vampire characters was at one
time a mortal human being, and that part of them is still there, lurking
inside, hungering for the life they've left behind. Each character deals with
that basic conflict in a different way."
Sanders looks to the original Star Trek as a dramatic model in the sense
of using the world of vampirism as a means of addressing some of society and
humanity's problems. "We're able to look at very human issues," he says.
"Things like morality, love, religion, death, youth, beauty, obsession, ego,
and we make these things as compelling and as powerful as we want, and yet
remain approachable by dealing with these subjects in the context of larger
than life characters and situations."
Filming of the first eight episodes took place in mid-October, with
Sanders leading cast and crew through four grueling - yet satisfying - days
of production. The total budget for these episodes was $15,000, which is
fairly impressive when considering that episode two begins with all-out chase
as members of the DC attempt to rescue the kidnapped daughter of the Vice
President of the United States.
"Dark Commandos was designed from the beginning with computer graphics in
mind," Sanders explains. "Nearly every shot includes some form of CG element,
whether it's a virtual set, a graphic overlay or some kind of digital image
manipulation. You could describe DC as the inverse of Roger Rabbit. In that
film, animated characters inhabited the real world of our universe. In DC,
flesh and blood 'human' characters inhabit a computer-generated fantasy
world. While that sounds expensive, it's actually the most affordable way we
can tell the story we want to tell. Some of the sets we've designed were
budgeted at upwards of $100,000 if we were to build them in physical space.
On the computer it's only the artist's time. Plus, it frees the artist to be
as creative as he can be, so it's a better experience for everyone involved.
"We were blessed to be supported by a dedicated and talented crew," he
continues. "Our cinematographer, Bodo Holst, for example, brought to the
production not only a talented creative eye and a resilient spirit, but a
team of hard-working technicians who helped us squeeze everything we could
out of every dollar. One of my most gratifying discoveries was our new makeup
designer, Katt Phillips. She and her team, including Claire A. Nach and
sculptor Dominika Waclawiak, threw themselves into Dark Commandos and helped
us realize a very cool and distinctive look for our vampires. It's one of the
aspects of the show I'm most proud of."
Another surprising aspect of the production for him was the speed at
which the four cast members virtually became the Dark Commandos, and genuine
pleasure for the filmmaker was getting to know so many talented and dynamic
"Justin Thompson has become inseparable from Non Gage," he offers. "The
personalities and presence of Bradley Upton and Chris Boicelli have already
inspired aspects of their respective storylines. And Amber Phillips has been
quietly working behind the scenes to prepare her character, Sue Janic, for
her initiation into the team, which gets underway in episode six. The
supporting cast is interesting, too. Timothy Jenson, Non's enemy and a
growing threat as the storyline develops, is played by a versatile actor
named Garrett Lambert, who immediately took to the character and wanted to
know everything Ed and I could provide him about his background. Since we
have spent the better part of a year developing these characters'
backstories, it's very gratifying when the cast takes the initiative to
integrate that information into their portrayals. Finding the right actor to
portray Non's spiritual mentor, Father Paul, proved an elusive goal, until we
realized the man for the job was already among us. DC adaptation novelist
Michael J. McPhillips, who is also an associate producer on the show,
auditioned for the role of the Padre, and turned out to be a perfect fit."
Technically speaking, Dark Commandos is a fairly sophisticated attempt
for the Internet, particularly when one considers that with the exception of
a couple of one-shot movies on the web, there's little else like it. In many
ways, the show is ahead of the curve and has gotten there on an extremely low
"We're ahead of the curve partly because we have no money," says Sanders.
"In a couple of years, maybe less, as bandwith on the Internet opens up, the
bug guns - the Hollywood movie studios and TV networks - are going to invade
this market with big stars, big budgets and marketing muscle that'll just be
impossible to compete with - unless you've already got a strong foothold. We
knew that if we were going to take a shot at this, we had to take it now,
money or no money. Ed and I have been banging our heads against Hollywood's
doors for ten years. Spec scripts, meetings, agents, options, even a sale
here and there. But as they say, 'In Hollywood you can die of encouragement.'
Trouble is, we enjoyed the creative process so much, we pretty much had to
keep writing if only for its own sake. And then this thing called the
Internet came along and we started thinking maybe we didn't have to depend on
Hollywood to 'discover' us after all."
Although Dark Commandos is in the early stages of its run, a number of
products are in the pipeline, including an anthology of original DC fiction,
comic book prequel, soundtrack album, and "making of" CD-Rom, all of which
tie into a particular thought that struck Sanders during production.
"What was really amazing to me," he says, "was being surrounded by a
group of people for whom Dark Commandos had become an entity in its own right
- greater than merely an idea created and shared by Ed and myself. Creative
and technical crew members invested themselves in the project in a personal
way, and when they expressed their belief in the Dark Commandos, it suddenly
seemed to take on a life of its own. That was a very gratifying experience."