Director Julian Higgins Makes Fan Films On A Professional Level
How to avoid IP traps and reunite the cast of 'Firefly' the fan film way.
Last year, I stumbled into the editing room at a friend’s house and saw the rough cut of a short zombie movie that I thought was balls-to-the-wall crazy great, but I had one problem: It seemed like it was borrowing too heavily from the world of the video game Dead Rising and I didn’t want to accuse the filmmaker of stealing all his good ideas from a game franchise with middling name recognition.
That’s when someone mentioned that this was an official Dead Rising marketing film, and I’ve never been so grateful for not opening my stupid mouth.
This was my introduction to Julian Higgins, a filmmaker that gets to do both official and un-official extensions of the fan film world that are out of this world. I got in touch to talk to him about his impressive resume in this field, to ask what makes production in a nebulously legal field worth it, and to talk about the Axanar vs. Star Trek battle that we find so fascinating.
Where’d you get your start in filmmaking?
I’ve been making movies ever since I could get my hands on a camera. From stop motion Star Wars action figure shorts to all kinds of other ridiculous short films with my brother and my friends in the neighborhood growing up. There wasn’t a time we didn’t have that big, bulky VHS camcorder with us. Through middle school, high school, and, eventually. moving to L.A. at 19 to dive right into taking film courses. Now, I just get paid to do it. Which is endlessly unreal.
What were your earliest influences?
I always wanted to make the movies I grew up watching as a kid. There was this golden age of film in the late ‘70s and ‘80s that I think has yet to be replicated: Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future. Spielberg, Lucas, Zemeckis: The holy trinity of ‘80s blockbusters. Just incredibly smart films that weren’t condescending to kids and had universal appeal that lives on to his day — so much so they’re making them all over again.
Later in life, I had a lot of regard and respect for the gritty, bootstraps filmmaking style of Robert Rodriguez — because that’s exactly how I made my first projects. Grab a camera, scrape together some dollars and find a way to use your neighbor’s airboat in the film.
When we first met, I recognized your work from a Firefly fan film. Tell me how that came about.
The Verse! That came about as a collaboration with a fantastic company of geeks and gamers called Loot Crate. My friends, Zack Finfrock and Peter Weidman, introduced me to the co-founders Matthew Arevalo and Chris Davis after they decided they wanted to start taking their web content a bit more seriously. That short fan film just happened to be one of the collaborations we filmed with them as a bit of fun. They put out this monthly box of random geeky goods that all are based a theme — and one of their sci-fi boxes had a bunch of Firefly goods in it. We pitched them the idea for the short, they approved, and we were off to the races.
What did the Firefly work lead you to? Can you talk about anything related to the upcoming game?
I had a lot of fun working with my friends on The Verse, which was the best part of the entire process. Getting love from the original creators like Tim Minear, and having Nathan Fillion give us a shout out was really fantastic. Getting to play around in that awesome sandbox Joss created and return something that was taken from the fans way too soon. Otherwise, that led to the awesome opportunity to collaborate personally with Quantum Mechanix (QMx) who are currently working on Firefly Online. I wound up doing some great video content for them, putting together interviews featuring all of the original cast members from Firefly, all of whom are reprising their roles for the upcoming game.
Walk me through how detail-oriented you had to be about re-creating sets or sounds or characters.
The thing about directing and creating a fan production like The Verse or any other property is that, as a fan yourself, you know exactly the sort of minutiae that you would be looking for in a fan project. You are your own audience. So, it’s a big task to make sure you try to live up to all of the emotions and textures that resonated so strongly with you in the first place. You strive for the best possible locations, best actors, best costumes, and best story so that you do justice to this piece of material that you love so much.
When you were putting this project together, was there ever any fear that you were going to get shut down?
We had a bit of a unique situation here, in that we were in a slight collaboration with QMx — who supported and wanted to help our efforts — which we hoped would provide us a little bit of understanding from any powers that be if it ever came to that. Fortunately, it never came down to that. Still, as a fan production, you have to ultimately respect the copyright holder and if they decide to drop the hammer or ask you to change something, that’s a very real risk you take with these sort of projects.
The next project of yours that I remember catching was a Dead Rising campaign for Loot Crate. How do you make that shift into fan films for the actual IP owners?
Ultimately, the quality of the projects have to speak for themselves. Fan films are no longer relegated to dinky VHS movies on cardboard sets built in your garage or kids in trench coats in forests with toy lightsabers — not that there’s anything wrong with that. The quality, overall, for fan productions has climbed dramatically to the point where you have people making these shorts, going viral, and getting attention of the big traditional studios as your sort of “proof of concept” or “movie pilot.” Do this well enough, and you may find yourself in a meeting with those very creators. Hollywood is already in the multimillion, big budget “fan film” business anyway: We’re just trying to climb into the little back bathroom window to get its attention.
Do you have some fan films that you’d cite as highlights — or lowlights — of the form?
I couldn’t point to any fan film as total garbage, because at their heart they are works of passion — for better and worse. It’s a big act to even try in a world where everyone is quick to tear you down. Some successes I enjoy are TROOPS and Grayson. Dan Tratchtenburg’s Portal fan film put him on the radar for crossover success. Adi Shankar has been the most punk rock with his MMPR and even the Punisher short — getting the original lead actor to jump in. Star Trek: Continues by Vic Mignogna, after decades of other Star Trek fan films, finally put all the pieces together just right and made something amazing. I recently had the opportunity to direct an episode of their show, and it was truly a dream.
And all of these aren’t even considering the tons and tons of awesome vignettes and parodies and shorts from people like CorridorDigital and Bat in the Sun and the thousands of other incredibly talented people out there putting this fan-style, IP-based stuff out.
What are your thoughts on the Paramount vs. Axanar debate?
It’s not terribly unexpected, as this sort of thing happens all the time. It’s a shame for the donors of the project. Overall, I think it is incredibly unfortunate when the fans bite back at the hand that feeds when it comes to stuff like this. There has always been a very fine line for fan film productions, where you have to be careful which lines you cross or which heights you attempt ascend to before someone notices and takes issue with it. Just like Icarus’ wings. As someone who has had a part in various fan productions, it’s always been at the forefront of our mind that the cards could come tumbling down at any minute. Without explicit licensing or permission, it is just the name of the game. I’m curious to see the outcome.
Do you think fan film law is changing?
Generally, fan films serve the fans — to fill in a gap somewhere where the fans aren’t getting something they want or need. That’s why we made The Verse, because people are passionate about that world Joss created and want to see more. That’s why this Darth Maul: Apprentice short film is sweeping the internet: It’s about a character that was cast aside in the live action films, and people wanted to see more. Ultimately, of all the studios, I think Lucasfilm has been the absolute best steward of fan films. They created the official Star Wars Fan Film Awards that has been running for years and it hasn’t impacted them in any negative way. On the contrary, I think it bolsters the respect of their fans. To understand that the passion of your fans is something to support and foster is a very progressive viewpoint.
Do you feel like there’s any sort of shade thrown your way for being a dude that works in fan film?
As long as you’re creating something that you believe in and that inspires you, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Will I exclusively make fan films the rest of my life? Definitely not. I absolutely continue to work on and develop original ideas and pitches for films that I’m incredibly excited about. At the moment, I’m collaborating with my father on an original feature documentary about Bill Haley and the Comets and the birth of rock and roll music in the 1950’s. That’s looking to come out this year. On top of that, we’ve have collaborated on three completely original and wildly different independent feature films together and have been lucky enough to have distribution around the world. So, I’m always looking for original projects to jump into, including some really original shorts I’ve worked on the last two years along side those fan productions.
However, if a fan film I directed got me meeting tomorrow with Lucasfilm to work on an installment of Star Wars, I guarantee you — whatever the money or circumstances — that would still be a fan film I’m creating. Ask J.J. Abrams if Episode VII is a fan film: You’ll know exactly what I’m talking about.