Luke Sparke on Delivering the Blockbuster Devastation of ‘Occupation’ Through Low-Budget Means

We chat with the Australian filmmaker about translating his wild imagination into manageable sci-fi terrors.

Occupation

We chat with the Australian filmmaker about translating his wild imagination into manageable sci-fi terrors.

Ask any respectable genre-hound, and they’ll tell you their idea for an alien invasion epic. Watching a hovering UFO above the White House beam down its glorious and utterly destructive green fire creates a hunger to replicate global panic. Having a boots-on-the-ground POV of Tom Cruise running frantically through the streets of New Jersey scratches a particular itch in your imagination. When the Martians come, where and how would you fight back?

Most dreamers out there don’t have the multi-millions available to them that are necessary to reproduce a blockbuster Mars Attacks. Does that mean the independent spirit has no place amongst the Roland Emmerichs and Steven Spielbergs of this world? Hell, no. If you can’t go big, go small.

Luke Sparke is a filmmaker that can’t help himself when it comes to the realities of budgeting an independent sci-fi Armageddon. He has no place in his heart for kitchen-sink melodramas or romantic weepies. He’s making movies for the maniacs that crave a legit War of the Worlds. You want a bug hunt, he’s gonna give you a bug hunt. Somehow.

Occupation is a shot-on-the-cheap action-adventure film inspired by the terror and the desolation of Independence Day. However, the heroes are not presidents or washed-out computer geniuses. Here we witness the end of the world through the eyes of the everyday stragglers of daily routine. The alien resistance by way of Rugby players and homeless crusaders.

I spoke with Sparke over the phone. We had a brief chat but covered everything from the cinematic and historical inspirations of Occupation to the real-world challenges of turning his tentpole script into a low-budget actuality. He’s not looking to make a one-and-done escapade. If he has his way, he’ll be living inside this alien apocalypse for several years, and he doesn’t need any Hollywood helping hand.

Here is our conversation in full:

FSR: Let’s just start with the very idea of an alien invasion movie. That’s a pretty big bite. That’s a lot to take on for a rather limited budget. Any anxiety in taking it on?

Luke Sparke: To be honest, I’ve grown up behind the scenes in a lot of productions, over here in Australia. Wolverine, The Great Raid, doing war films and action films. So, I don’t know if I can write small, I think I would shoot myself if I had to do like a kitchen sink drama. So, I always think big. To be honest, I’m the one that kept pushing to make it as big as it possibly can be and I wasn’t too concerned at all. There was no anxiety. I feel like at the set, on the first day I was like, “Holy crap, what am I doing?” Then that sunk in.

When you think of the great sci-fi alien invasion films, is there one you want Occupation to stand beside?

Every film is different and no film is perfect. Probably my favorite alien invasion movie ever is Independence Day, and the budget we have on this is probably what they spent on catering on those other movies. So I don’t think it would ever stand next to it, but I’m definitely trying to put my own little spin on invasion movies with the budget in size and scope that I have. That’s why I have got to focus on 10 eclectic characters and how they sort of survive rather than try to show the grand scale of destruction. Because you know you can’t beat Independence Day when it comes to blowing up the White House or New York. I tried to focus on a smaller scale but still with a larger scope in mind

Independence Day was your sole inspiration?

The inspiration for me, I guess, the pitch was Independence Day matched with Red Dawn. But I am a huge fan, a huge scholar of history. Rather than trying to go really hard sci-fi, I always look back on the past. You know, World War I, the Civil War, World War II and how a real historical invasion looks like and could feel. You know, the German Blitzkrieg in World War II to suddenly invading Poland and how they affected all that kind of stuff. I think my inspiration was more historical based than trying to be hard sci-fi fantastical.

What I thought was interesting about the movie was how it starts pre-invasion, and then you have the alien attack. You’re with the characters for a long period of time dealing with the immediate aftermath of that. But, then you jump forward what, eight months?

Yeah, and that was something that I really wanted to do. When I pitched it in LA and they sort of said they were interested, I started writing the script on the plane on the way back, or at least the outline of what I wanted. We have seen all those attacks before, and we have seen other films where you’ve got half of the Apocalypse as already happened and its years later and they’re trying to pick up the pieces. I kind of wanted to have both sides of the cherry, I really wanted to do both. That’s why I came up with the pregnancy so I was able to follow through with her and also the eight months into the montage of them living in a society and dying and how that feels out in the outback of Australia. Yeah, something that I really wanted to do was jump ahead eight months and see that world and how these people are coping with it.

Right. And your version primarily focuses on the title of it all, the occupation. Societally we’re certainly preoccupied with how such an act alters a people.

Yeah exactly, being under someone’s thumb, being under a different ruler and how the 10 personalities of the cast reflect different ways of looking at those particular ideas. That’s obviously in my script, where you start seeing a little bit of the other side. I wanted to make sure that these aliens, once you get behind the mask, they weren’t monsters, and they were actually a society themselves. So they have their own ideas of why they’re coming here to the planet.

How did you go about populating your characters? You know, getting those 10 people together, those 10 types together. What did you want to see?

Like I said, I want it to be a reflection of ordinary people, rather than yeah, we have seen the president hop into a fighter jet, we’ve seen an astrophysicist on an Apple computer. I wanted to really sort of see the me in this movie. You always try to write with what you know and try to make the movie that you would want to make rather than what other people want to see.

As a kid, I looked out on the horizon and saw lights from airplanes or whatever and thought, “Wow, imagine if that was an alien attack.” And no one near, there was no TV about, there would be no build up, just a boom, it happened. So I really wanted to populate the world with people that I knew, like my local burger joint owner or local grocer, and how they would deal with this. So it was really coming up with a list of, let’s try to get the Average Joe and what that looks like. So even coming up with the idea of having a homeless person, I found that was interesting because his world doesn’t actually change too much because he’s living on the street. Then all these other people start living on the street, too. So, I thought that was kind of an interesting take on that kind of stuff. So yeah, I was just populating the world with characters that I thought were people that I might know.

And so when you finally get on the set and you’re there and have to execute this thing, what was the biggest challenge of getting it all done?

I think just the time. I have very vivid imagination in the scope of things, but obviously, you have to deal with what you have. We shot the whole thing in seven weeks. To pull that off on this sort of scale, especially some of the action sequences, like the opening impact, it’s just up against the clock all time and I’m wanting as many explosions as I can. That takes time to set up and rig and safety and that kind of stuff. I think the biggest challenge for me was just the time that I had. Luckily I have had crews down here in Australia, obviously, who have had a lot of films over here recently. From Pirates of the Caribbean to Thor to Aquaman. So everyone sort of jumped on board and really wanted to showcase an Australian film on this scope. So yeah, it was awesome, all hands on deck.

Was there a moment in the filming process where you started to feel like you were achieving your goals?

Yeah, I think really after week two we sort of went flat out for like two weeks so there weren’t any stops. We had like one weekend off and I quickly cut together almost like a two-and-a-half-minute little showreel of what was done in that two weeks and I played it for the crew the next morning and everyone’s very quick to be like, “Holy Crap, look how good this looks!” I think that really bolstered everyone on for the rest of the shoot. I kept doing that every week just to keep the crews excited with all these practical aliens and practical explosions. At that time we obviously didn’t have the spaceship in there but just practical alone makes people go “Wow, what we pulled off practically was great.”

During the invasion, when we meet the aliens for the first time, they’re kind of like Stormtroopers. They’re invaders. But as you said, eventually, we get to know them as a people. How did you determine the stages of introducing those beings to the audience?

Yeah, they are very much like Stormtroopers, and that’s why I went more practical effects because I love the old movies like Starship Troopers, Predator, where the aliens are all practical. I decided to go with that rather than CGI them. But in terms of the people themselves, the beings themselves, yeah I really wanted at the end of the first act, start of the second act after the montage, to really have one of our characters sort of be behind the curtain a little bit. To have the moment of doubt in the audience’s mind to be like, “That’s interesting.” Then obviously the next scene our heroes are faced with decisions. When they capture an alien, what to do? When you’re looking at anything, whether a lion or a bear or an animal, it’s a living thing. I had some audience members of the advance screening come out and say, “I feel really sorry for a particular alien in the movie.” I said, “Well that’s good, then I have done my job. The first hour they’re killing the hell out of people and then you’re feeling sorry for them. You know obviously, something has happened in the minds of an audience to have happened like that.

Right, when you get to that Temuera Morrison confrontation, not to spoil it for our readers, but that’s definitely a massive turning point, emotionally, in the film.

Yeah exactly, and that’s something that I kind of wanted. We have seen alien invasions a lot so I had to sort of really think of ideas we could have with a bit of difference. That’s something that I came up with. Being faced with a decision of what to do face to face with one.

I understand that there’s a possibility of a continuation. The film certainly doesn’t have a hard stop. Can we expect Occupation 2?

I wrote it originally as a one and done, but it wasn’t until I was editing the film where I kind of saw the whole Universe, and once we sold it around the world, buyers really wanted to see more. Pre-production actually starts next week.

Red Dots

Occupation will be released in select theaters and on VOD and Digital HD on July 20th.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.