Every year an ambitious fan film emerges from the shadows and steals its audience’s heart like a thief in the night.
A recent example of this is evidenced in Iron Horse Cinema Production’s fan film The Last of Us, a 13-minute viral short based on the new namesake survival-horror video game developed by Naughty Dog. The film impressed Naughty Dog Creative Director Neil Druckmann so much that he endorsed the project with this glowing tweet: “Our fans continue to impress. Holy shit.”
A sequel to The Last of Us fan film is slated for early September. Iron Horse is currently raising funds for the project on Indiegogo.com and aims to reach $10,000 by its Aug. 27 deadline.
Director and writer Sy Cody White, a partner and co-founder of the New Jersey-based Iron Horse, says Druckmann’s support of the fan film completely boggled his mind.
“It was just like a validation,” said White, of Hoboken, N.J. “It was like getting a blessing from the Pope.”
Co-director Nick Sgroi was also blindsided by the tweet.
“To me, it was really big and really important,” said Sgroi, of Brick, N.J., who was “in my friend’s basement playing Mario Kart” when he received the good news.
The Last of Us video game is set in a bleak, post-apocalyptic future where an untreatable Cordyceps fungus has infected a mass population of people in the United States, essentially turning them into zombies. Joel, who’s about middle-aged, is a grizzled survivor who witnessed the outbreak when it struck 20 years ago, devastating his life and the world around him. Like most of the uninfected, Joel lives in a quarantine zone, an isolated and oppressive city controlled by the military.
Meanwhile, Ellie is a wise 14-year-old who only knows life in the military-operated zone. Fate eventually unites Joel and Ellie and it leads them outside of the city and into the unforgiving world of the infected, one that’s also plagued with merciless bandits.
The Last of Us fan film loosely recreates the demo Naughty Dog unveiled of the game at the 2012 E3 convention in Los Angeles, Calif., which served as the gaming community’s first introduction to Joel and Ellie.
White purposely spotlighted the demo in The Last of Us fan film because “I wanted to incorporate as much of the story as I could into this 13-minute short film and be able to kind of tell [the] story to somebody who doesn’t necessarily know the game or hasn’t played the game.”
Bringing the game to reality was a surreal experience for actress Kate McLeod (Ellie), who hadn’t heard of the video game until she got the casting call.
“It was really cool because usually you have to create your character yourself and you have to create the world,” said McLeod, of Hempstead, N.Y. “But we literally came on set and the world was already created for us. And we looked just like these characters that I’ve been studying and we had the clothes on, too. It was really so fun to dive into.”
Actor Jeff Moffitt (Joel) relished his role as the lead man.
“For me, it was a great feeling,” said Moffitt, of Lodi, N. J., who’s also a partner and co-founder of Iron Horse. “But it was also a feeling of a little fear that if I don’t nail this, the public’s going to be really pissed.”
The performers spent hours researching their characters, mostly by watching videos of the game on YouTube. And overall, the majority of viewers have responded with positive feedback, including some valuable criticism. For instance, some fans have mentioned that Joel should be “a little grittier,” the 47-year-old Moffitt explained. “In a few scenes, Joel was probably a little lighter than he should’ve been with certain lines that were delivered.” Moffitt added, “The fans critique everything. They want every detail, so we’ve got to pay even more attention to detail.”
As for Ms. McLeod, some fans have been a little tougher on her.
“Some of the negative feedback that we get online is really not constructive,” she said. “Someone saying, ‘I look, too, old.’ I am 20. Or just [comments about] physical things that I can’t change.
But there are constructive things. People posted comments about ‘this line shouldn’t be so emotional. Ellie doesn’t care about that stuff.’ Even though I have my own interpretation of Ellie, I still need to take into account of what people think who are avid players who’ve beaten the game. I’m doing my best to take everything into consideration.”
And so is the film’s director. He recognizes not all of the viewers were in favor of his decision to not create original scenarios or characters for the film.
“We’ve heard some feedback from people that they wanted to see new characters or new situations or things like that, which I think we do have room for in maybe the sequels, to incorporate more of our own voice,” the 26-year-old White said.
For the sequel, the Iron Horse team plans to introduce a new face from the game, one who’s highly skilled at creating deadly booby-traps for the infected.
One of the people “we may incorporate into a sequel is a character called Bill that you meet pretty early in the game,” White said. “To me, he would add some humor. He’s kind of like a heavier-set guy that could chop your head off in a spit second, if he wanted to.”
In the sequel, the storyline with Bill would likely focus on “how [Ellie and Joel] meet him, where he leads them to and, eventually, where he drops them off,” said the 25-year-old Sgroi.
A major reason The Last of Us fan film has been well-received is the decayed environments look very similar to the ones from the game. Moffitt says the brunt of the film was shot in upstate New York and the rest was in New York City.
Although The Last of Us fan film premiered on July 25, only a few weeks after the game was released, the Iron Horse team was able to swiftly come up with locations that mirrored the melancholy world in the game, thanks to a lot of groundwork the gang covered a coupled years ago when working on their full-length action film, Kingdom Come, an original project written and directed by Iron
Horse partner Jason Lee Hess, with co-direction from White. Kingdom Come is slated to debut in November.
“We just kind of incorporated some of those locations [for The Last of Us] that we hadn’t used for Kingdom Come,” White said. Many of the locations were discovered by “Googling places, word-of-mouth, or going on a road-trip one day and exploring.”
Considering the success of The Last of Us fan film, Iron Horse knows it has to up the ante for the sequel. Its current film was shot on a shoestring budget of approximately $1,000 and still managed to generate more than 290,000 views. This time around, the crew hopes to raise $10,000, which would significantly enhance the production quality of the sequel. The funds would also help to better compensate its loyal cast and crew.
Iron Horse has already raised $3,710 for the sequel via its campaign at Indiegogo.com, which deadlines on Aug. 27. While the guys would be bummed if they don’t meet their goal of $10,000, they say it won’t stop them from making the film as “we wouldn’t really be doing this if we didn’t really love video games,” Sgroi said. “This comes from the heart.”
Andre Lyrix Lamar is the fusion of Clark Kent and Peter Parker, yet without an S or spider emblem on his petite chest. Similar to Kent, Lamar earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism. Lamar is addicted to fan films, Japanese RPGs and cheese pizza. All the while, he’s also a photo journalist (like Parker) and enjoys shooting just about everything, from cosplay events to concerts. You can see Lamar’s photos at flickr.com/photos/andrelamar, as well as contact him at [email protected].