Last spring, Adam Lipsius was celebrating the success of “16–Love,” a tender teen story the Denver-based filmmaker had produced and directed.
Jumping to the disaster genre wasn’t necessarily top of mind when he met Micho Rutare, development director for The Asylum, a Burbank, California-based film studio.
Rutare tapped Lipsius to make “Asteroid vs Earth,” a film involving a head-on intergalactic collision, which will be released on April 29.
Founded 17 years and more than 300 films ago, The Asylum produces low-budget disaster flicks, creature flicks and creature/disaster mashup flicks.
At an alarming clip—nearly two films a month or double the number a saner studio might release—The Asylum entertains by way of panic, explosion and catastrophe.
And Lipsius, well, he’s a gentler soul.
A father of two, he wrote his undergraduate thesis on Dr. Seuss while at Dartmouth College, authored a children’s book and named his production company, Uptown 6, for the train where he first laid eyes on his wife.
A scary film factory and a subway romantic seem an unlikely combo. But then again, who’d think to pair sharks with tornados?
The Asylum did.
“Sharknado,” the studio’s biggest hit to date, involves a crash of creatures and disaster that sends great whites raining down on Los Angeles.
When the film came out in July 2013, it lit up the twitterverse at 5,000 tweets a minute and proved a runaway hit for the Syfy Channel.
Lipsius met The Asylum’s Rutare at the Cannes Film Festival last May. At the time, “16–Love,” was selling strong through Warner Digital’s video on demand and Rutare was interested to learn about its producer.
The two men sat down to talk and Rutare thought Lipsius, with his far-ranging interests, might be a writer as well as a producer.
“We’ll go from Scorsese to Bangladeshi tea farming in the course of an hour-long conversation,” Rutare says.
Rutare tossed a ridiculous premise at Lipsius: What if an asteroid were about to hit the earth, and we couldn’t move the asteroid, so governments agree to detonate nuclear weapons to move the earth?
“It was an idea that sounded so ridiculous that I just said yes,” Lipsius says.
In addition to the concept, Lipsius liked the studio’s business model.
In a world where most films never get made and of those that do, few are seen, The Asylum makes movies that find their audience wherever the audience may be: on cable, video-on-demand or Redbox.
Instead of taking endless meetings that may or may not produce results, the studio sets an aggressive production schedule, completes the film on deadline and on budget, (typically under $1.5 million) and moves on to the next project.
To date, none of the company’s films have lost money.
“I love the fact that these guys say they’re going to make a movie and then they make it,” Lipsius says.
In the Fall, he started researching asteroids, earthquakes, nuclear weapons and even Uighurs (ethnic Chinese Muslims, a few of whom were locked up in Guantanamo Bay). Lipsius drafted a three-page proposal and six days before Halloween, Rutare said go.
Lipsius wrote incessantly for 11 days, devising complicated schemes to save planet Earth while breaking only to take his kids trick-or-treating.
Before the script was even finished, actors were hired, sets built and shooting begun.
“It’s almost the Frank Capra model,” Lipsius says of the prolific Depression-era filmmaker who wrote, produced or directed 40 films, including “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” in just 15 years. “Write for a week, shoot for a week, edit for a week and take a week to sleep it all off.”
“Asteroid vs. Earth,” starring Tia Carrere and Robert Davi, was shot in just 15 days.
When production wrapped in early November, the film sped through editing, color correction, sound effects and all the post-production work that under more typical circumstances takes years.
The result, five months after inception, is 90 minutes of meteor showers threatening our humble planet.
The tagline, “Heaven is falling, so Earth must move,” gives a glimpse of the extreme measures needed for a full rescue.
In “Asteroid vs Earth,” Lipsius has world governments collaborating to set off nuclear weapons, which set off a chain of earthquakes, which ultimately shift the Earth on its axis and out of harm’s way.
What makes the film stand out, Rutare says, is the “nonstop genre action that is plot-based rather than narrative lard.”
If Lipsius’ fat-free plot sounds outlandish, that’s part of the appeal.
“The human species, we’re wired for novelty,” Purdue University communications professor Glen Sparks, who studies scary movies, says. “And this certainly sounds novel.”
For some disaster film fans, the draw is more material.
“The heart rate goes up, muscles tense and there is an arousal response that goes along with the feeling of fear,” Sparks says. “The arousal hangs around in the body and can intensify the emotional experience afterwards.”
If the post-movie experience is positive, it’s a more intense positive. It even causes elation, which can be addictive.
“Everyone has a genre they love,” Rutare says. “For many people, it’s disaster films--the term disaster porn was coined for a reason.”
“Asteroid vs. Earth” will be available on video on demand, in Redbox booths, DVD and iTunes on April 29.
Listen to an interview with Adam Lipsius on CPR's arts show this Friday at 10.30 a.m. and 7.30 p.m.
Jody Berger is a freelance writer living in Denver.