At American Film Market, I was invited to a special presentation of “Panzer 88″ a film in development. It was most enlightening seeing how a film of this magnitude is promoted. The sizzle video, the elaborate picture brochure, and the talk by producer Gary Kurtz gave an intriguing picture of how the film will look and the many aspects of developing and producing it. I had an opportunity to talk with him and from he and other participants gather details about this upcoming production.
Additional details were gleaned from the promotional brochure, trade stories, industry websites, and online interviews. This article provides an overview of this fascinating film being ready for production. Of course, changes will likely be made so information presented here is based on available information.
Entitled “Panzer 88″ this WW2 film takes place in October 1944 as a five-man German tank crew motors across Russia in retreat. To develop this WW2 film project they have assembled a notable creative team. They include Gary Kurtz, the Oscar award-winning producer of Star Wars, American Graffiti and Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, director/writer Peter Briggs (best known for co-writing Hellboy), and Richard Taylor and Peter Jackson’s Weta Workshop (The Hobbit, District 9, and King Kong), who have signed on to handle the film’s physical productions.
Producer Kurtz said that the film is a “visceral, reality-based story with horror overtones.” It’s a combination of the monster genre and a period piece war movie. The film thus caters to the WW2 armor fanatics with adrenalin-fuelled tank-to-tank battle scenes. It also caters to the audience in love with the suspense of a supernatural world, as a vengeful Creature will stop at nothing to see this tank crew die. Another target for this film is video game players who are into sensory cinema, an audience with an incredible visual literacy.
The movie opens 100 years previously with a flashback. A child is being told a bedtime story about the history of Krytepka, her Russian town. In the story, Marauding Cossacks invade the town and kill Irina, Rabbi Loew’s daughter. Bereft, the Rabbi forges supernatural pact to save the town and a monster-like Creature emerges, driving horseback attackers away.
Several miles away from this ill-fated village, the story segues to “Present Day” late 1944. In as swift, frantic tank-battle scene we are introduced to the heroes of the story. Exploding from the edge of the forest, the King Tiger, nicknamed “Isla” inadvertently stumbles upon three Russian T-34 tanks. A tense tank battle scene ensues and we see “Isla’s” men in full action. They are seasoned professionals. We also see how tough the King Tiger’s is as it takes on hits and returns fire. With its reinforced armor and 88mm cannon, it is no match for the Russian T-34s.
The crew is a microcosm of Germany at the time. Kessler, the commander, is a member of the Nazi party because his rank requires it, not because he wants to be. Heinz, the loader, is sort of an Aryan poster boy, blond and pretty, with no real notion of what Aryan means. He’s an innocent participant.
The gunner, Wolfy, represents the average person, the one who is manipulated to do wrong. Director Peter Briggs says, “For me, he is the most interesting.” Another crewmember is the grizzly old driver, Max; one who would rather not be involved. Kurt, the radio operator, is the new kid and it’s through him we see the story unfold.
The crew of “Isla,” needing to restock supplies and refuel, passes through the current-day town of Krytepka. To their disgust, they find that SS Troopers have gotten there first and massacred everyone. Strange supernatural occurrences affect them: a forewarning of things to come. Leaving the town, they pass the walking wounded, and remnants of abandoned German vehicles. These visuals elevate the theme of the movie. While this is a retreat of men and machines, it is also a retreat of ideologies, a questioning of the war, ones country, ones duty, and ones accountability to human values.
At the depot, the crew picks up their mail and stocks up on supplies. An altercation occurs with a rival Tiger 1 Panzer crew over fuel allocations. However, Colonel Bauer steps in halting the standoff, and then gives Kessler fresh orders to meet up with a King Tiger Battalion assembling across the ice plain. While adding fresh armor to the tank’s hull, a raid by allied fighter-bombers forces sends Kessler’s crew scurrying for cover, unaware they are being followed by a group of vengeful Russian partisans. To make matters worse, the Russian Partisans have radioed Kessler’s position to their command center.
Unable to secure the needed supplies at the Depot, the crew stops to hunt a deer for food. They find more than they bargained for–the lone and lost SS Officer Huber Gottfried. Gottfried, a junior SS officer, is partially responsible for the extermination of a small Russian village. He creates division among the crew driving a wedge between their camaraderie and teamwork. He’s a charming sociopath with a sadistic bent, an immoral compass, and the one actual dedicated Nazi in the story.
With the SS man onboard, the crew of “Ilsa” sees a huge hulk looming out of the Russian mists. It’s “Gustav” the giant siege gun built by the Krupp Munitions company in Germany. Its destruction later in this fictional version suggests what might have happened to this giant siege gun in its finals days.
“Ilsa” heads out across the ice lake where every creaking sound puts the crew’s nerves on edge. Along the way, they pass an eerie column of frozen and abandoned tanks, many sinking into the ice and jutting up at odd angles. Eventually, they come to rest for the night at an abandoned and half-destroyed church, where another disturbing night awaits them. While the crew beds down for the night, Kurt, the radio operator, has a jarring supernatural experience.
They are not alone. Out across the ice plain, the crew of the Tiger 1 tank, the one Kessler’s men encountered back at the Depot, is about to experience a more violent otherworldly event.
The next morning the crew wakens in a morning fog. Heinz, the loader, investigates a sound, and unearths an old Russian truck buried in the snow. However, off to the side in the fog, something else draws his attention. He calls out to the others, and they advance on a grisly sight, the crew of Tiger 1, the one they encountered back at the depot, all five are impaled on high spikes.
Before they can process this mayhem the sound of a Russian SU-100 killer tank seeps through the morning mist. It is accompanied by a white command tank, one from the previous encounters. In addition, Russian Partisans with rocket launchers emerge and a ferocious tank battle ensures.
After eluding the SU-100, “Ilsa” hurries into the woods, switches off her engines, and hides. There they discover the Russian Partisan they took inside during the battle is a woman, Nadia. The chain of command unravels with Kessler injured and unconscious. Then when Gottfried’s questioning of Nadia goes array things take a surprising twist when she unveils a grenade that she’s smuggled onboard.
Things become more desperate when out there somewhere, the arrival of the Creature takes the action to yet another level.
While Max and Heinz undertake repairs on “Ilsa,” Kurt and Wolfy venture on motorbike to the tank graveyard they passed earlier. There they find a replacement firing pin for their broken cannon. Barely escaping a frozen drowning from a sinking tank and roaming pack of wolves, Kurt plays a deadly game of cat and mouse with the Creature around of icy metal hulks.
Just in time, Wolfy rescues Kurt, but they loose the firing pin in the process. The two escape on the motorcycle and head back across the ice-plain to the tank, the Creature in hot pursuit.
Frantically racing to join up with Max, Heinz, and Gottfried at a repaired “Ilsa,” a perilous mid-ride transfer to the tank proves challenging with the vengeful Creature on their tail. When bullets, grenades, and rocket-launchers are thrown into the mix, Heinz and Wolfy are rapidly lost to the Creature.
The final showdown takes place at the giant siege cannon where demoralized remnants of the crew await rescue. Having discovered Kurt’s secret, Gottfried chooses to make his move atop the giant cannon. Unfortunately for Max, the Creature also makes its appearance and “Ilsa” is no more.
Kurt and Gottfried’s tense standoff is interrupted by the tortured whistling of the torn-apart King Tiger tracks and the final battle for survival is on. So ends the published synopsis. However, there has to be more and that’s why you’ll want to see this movie.
Putting this story into cinematic terms will be a challenging job. First off, the military hardware is a logistic nightmare. Accumulating the number of working tanks that are required for the battle scenes would be budget prohibited. Gary Kurtz told me there is only one working King Tiger tank and that is in War Museum, thus unavailable. He went on to say that Peter Jackson/ Richard Taylor’s Weta Workshop would be building one. A Panzer 88 King Tiger weighs about 60 tons and the replica would weigh in at about 15 ton. By using lighter materials such as aluminum, plastics and fiber composites, the weight can be kept down, yet make it appear authentic. For cinematic purposes, this tank would appear fully operational.
Weta will also build the interior sets of the tank. Director Peter Briggs states that these interior sets would be placed on hydraulic ball joints to duplicate affect of movement across rough terrain. Currently, they are planing on building three interiors for the three models of tank they will be using. For “Ilsa” the set will have removable sections, which will allow camera access for full coverage of the tank’s interior. He also plans to use hand-held camera when in the mists of tank battles. There will also be some combination of jiggle/rack focus/45 degree shutter, possibly in conjunction with a C-G “shimmer” concussion blast. This, in combination with visual and sound effects will replicate much of the tank’s battle action.
A combination of C-G, miniatures, and green screen against realistic backgrounds will be used for much of the exterior scenes. For instance, the pursuit of “Ilsa” across the ice plain could be shot in Sweden using 1/4 scale tank in a live setting or in New Zealand with a cyclorama using the same miniatures. Moving plates would be C-G’d in for the background.
In such close-quarters, claustrophobia adds pressure to the crew. It becomes a story of five guys in a tin can who keep getting hit by the unforeseen. The director likens it the Das Boot where to survive; they must work as a team and not give in to their fears. However, in Panzer 88, the arrival of the SS officer creates disharmony and opens up those fears.
To mark the passage of time and distance, beauty shots of the terrain such as frozen waterfall, the abandoned hull of a capsized ship or the marvel of the Milky Way above them will be used. Another beauty shot considered is the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) in the background as the tiny speck of the King Tiger tank moves across the Russian arctic landscape.
The Creature will be a hulked-up entity twice the size of a human being and will be a green screen digital composition to gain the right perspective with the other characters and military machinery. He might be creature in a suit, with facial and other CG replacement and sometimes 100% CG. Director says, “He’s a fairly fiery bad ass: he’s most definitely not indestructible, but you need to pour an awful lot at him to make a dent.”
Smoke, fog and snow will play a major part in the atmosphere of the film. They will play into the horror aspects of the film as they hold up a curtain of intrigue as to what’s waiting out there. Fake snow, green screen plates, and a healthy dose of manufactured sounds will round out the production filming. In addition, authentic looking costumes, uniforms, armor & weapons will likewise give the story that authentic lived-in look.
The budget for the film is reported to be around 40 million, which is a moderate amount for an independent film. Talks with stars such as Gary Oldman, Jay Barucchel along with Thomas Kretchman have been reported as casting possibilities. Liev Schreiber has all been mentioned.
I suspect that the film will be action driven with limited dialogue. Much of the drama plays out with maneuvers of the tanks, soldiers, and Russian partisans. However, the major force will be on the expressions of the crewmembers as they face one dilemma after another. Such coverage makes the film more action oriented and thus easily marketable to foreign territories.
While the crew is the protagonist of the film, the director does not see them as being sympathetic. It is more likely we will admire them for their professionalism and the dangers they overcome. They are innocent pawns who stumble across a chain of events that turns them from being warriors into becoming victims. They don’t understand why the Creature is obsessing on them. Yet, we understand the aims of the Creature and sympathize with it. This is the moral dilemma the audience will have to play with and will undoubtedly create considerable commentary among audiences as well as reviewers.
Marketing “Panzer 88″
Carnaby International, based out of London, will be the marketing/sales force behind the project and will shepherd its placement in domestic and international markets. Carnaby is an integrated independent production and sales company with the specific purpose of financing and producing British feature films. To date, Carnaby has produced and co-produced ten feature films. Panzer 88 will be a truly international film with cast, crew, locations, and facilities crossing many borders. The project is being presented at the Berlin Film Festival for additional pre-sale commitments.
Financing and marketing “Panzer 88″ embarks on new territories in filmmaking. Few films have ventured into telling a story from the loser’s point of view, much less between Germany and Russia. Therefore, this film should attract an eager audience wanting to explore this slice of history.
In this story, no one wins. There are no heroes. Only victims of devouring ideologies. In a way, it might be considered a tragedy where we care, feel and identify with the tragic struggles of admirable characters. Thus, there is a high emotional connection between the story and the audience.
The 1981 movie Das Boot is a comparable film with a budget of 14 million and a worldwide box office of 85 million. Adjusted for inflation the budget would now be around 37.8 million and box office of 229.5 million. Das Boot is about a WWII German U-Boat crew facing the boredom, filth, and the sheer terror of a precarious mission. The similarity is uncanny and while the film did okay in the U.S., 11.4 million (30.8 adjusted), it did exceptionally well internationally.
In Das Boot, what I found appealing is the diversity of characters, their wants and emotions. It wasn’t just about the mission; it was about compelling characters dealing with one crisis after another, each in their own way. They dealt with moral issues, family issues, mechanical problems, and their internal fears. With such characters, we strongly identify.
Similar characters are found in “Panzer 88,” as they too must deal with the same issues. While many WW2 films glamorize war measuring success by territory gained or the number of casualties inflicted, we rarely see the brutal carnage inflicted or the horrors experienced by the participants. Panzer 88 has an opportunity to show the realistic side of military action and bring a new dimension to such films. The mission is secondary; survival of the team becomes paramount in Panzer 88.
All these elements will draw audiences to this film, its story, its characters, and its dimension of horror. Another element is the realization of this story, the photography, the military hardware, locations, and the computer graphics. The way these are incorporated into a seamless story line that informs, entertains, scares us, and most of all, tugs at our heartstrings. These are my expectations for “Panzer 88.”
One thing viewers will look forward to is the behind the scenes video. This is a complicated and imaginative production and how it came together will be of emense interest to its audience. Interviews with the stars and the production team will display the many aspects of producing a film of this magnitude and the tremendous efforts behind it.
Links to online photos and sketches can be found at Panzer 88 Movie – Google Search and Facebook.com/Panzer88Movie.
This is a movie, whose concept is grounded in imaginative databases. It has a creative team that is highly capable of using these innovative tools to create a masterpiece. “Panzer 88″ will be a monster hit the world over because it has a universal story, compelling characters, intense action, unique concept and a highly professional team behind it.
CREDITS: Proposed cast includes Gary Oldman, Jay Barucchel, Liev Schreiber, and Thomas Kretchman. Director-Peter Briggs; Writers-Peter Briggs, James Cowen and Aaron Mason; Producers-Gary Kurtz, Andrew Loveday, and Priscilla Ross,; Art Director- Kim Sinclair; Production Manager-Philip Sharpe; First Assistant Director-Richard Matthews. Casting Director-Steve Daly; Art Department: Armor & Weapons-Matt Appleton; Supervisor: Weta Workshop-Robert Gillies; Concept Artist-Stuart Jennett; Head Creature Designer-Paul J. Mendoza; Design & Effects Supervisor-Richard Taylor; Concept Artist-A. J. Trahan; Sound Department: Supervising Sound Editor-Mike Hopkins; Sound Designer-Dave Whitehead. Special Effects Department: Special Effects Supervisor-Steve Ingram; Visual Effects Director of Photography-Alex Funke; Special Effects-Weta Workshop. Studio Facilities-Stone Street Studios. Panzer 88 was slated to go into production March 2014. No revised date has been published.