Every so often, a new filmmaker comes along whose work speaks to your soul. Such is the case with writer/director Orson Oblowitz. To say his passion for cinema runs deep is an understatement. Born in New York City to a filmmaking family, there was little doubt that he would pursue his dreams of getting into the family business. Throughout his still-blossoming career, Orson has never taken his foot off the gas, even for a moment. That isn’t to say that he hasn’t experienced his fair share of turbulence, but that’s independent filmmaking for ya! Through it all, he’s remained laser-focused as he meticulously hones his craft. With films ranging from the gritty Neo-noir’ The Queen Of Hollywood Blvd.’ to his tension-inducing home invasion flick ‘Trespassers’ to the blazing crime thriller ‘The Five Rules of Success,’ he’s established himself as a filmmaker with a unique voice and breathtaking visual style.
His latest film, ‘Showdown At The Grand,’ is a love letter to cult film and action cinema that captured his imagination early on in life. This instantly captivating film centers around cinephile George Fuller (Terrence Howard), a man who loves the movies like no other. As a movie theater owner, he’s always got the best seat in the house. But when corporate developers threaten his livelihood, he finds himself closer to the action than he ever imagined! Fuller must defend his family business against an onslaught of ne’er-do-wells alongside legendary action star Claude Luc (Lundgren) as art imitates life in a showdown for the ages.
Jason Price of Icon Vs. Icon recently caught up with Orson Oblowitz to discuss his passion for filmmaking, the challenges he’s encountered along the way, and breathing life into his most captivating film to date!
Orson, I have to tell ya, you’ve hit it out of the park with this film!
That’s awesome, man! That means a lot! Very cool.
As I told Terrance, you’ve surrounded yourself with some great people at Shout! Studios to bring the film to the masses.
Yeah, that’s really how it felt! We’re hand in hand because we both have such an aligned interest.
Let’s go back to your formative years. What went into finding your creative voice and lit the fuse on your journey?
I come from a creative, artistic family. My dad is a filmmaker as well. He made underground New York movies in the 1970s that my mom would act in. He went on to make a few Steven Seagal movies. So, there is a level of personal experience with Action VOD land that I saw my father experience. Now, he’s doing mainly documentary work. That was the first inkling I had, but I’ve always loved cinema, photography, and writing. I’ve never really thought about doing anything else! It’s been a sick, life-long obsession with the movies!
Looking back on what you’ve accomplished, how do you feel you’ve most evolved as a storyteller?
Every film is a true learning experience. I’m trying to learn to keep my voice and interests in a narrative form but still try to make it strong enough that it’s entertaining and an audience can enjoy it. At first, I felt the goal was almost to alienate the audience, but I’ve learned that isn’t necessarily the case. With this film, ‘Showdown at The Grand,’ I’m finding the middle ground where it speaks more to the audience and has a bit more of an emotional core. Working with Terrance Howard, that is something you learn — “Find great actors, and they will bring a lot of that!”
Tell us a little about what sparked the idea for Showdown at The Grand.’
I’ve always wanted to make a movie in a theater. It comes from spending so much time in the theater and my personal fear of what could happen in a theater. So, I’ve always wanted to use it as a basis for a movie. During lockdown, right at the beginning, all of the theaters started to shut down. Around that time, my producing partner and I, Christian de Gallegos, started brainstorming. We were like, “What are we going to do? It’s such a weird time.” I said, “I’m going to write an action movie about movie theaters disappearing!” It was born out of that moment in March or April of 2020. The movie that was impetuous for this is something I don’t think anyone would expect, “Goodbye, Dragon Inn” by Tsai Ming-liang. The whole film takes place in real time in a movie theater. It’s one of the most haunting movies I’ve ever seen. That’s why there is a little nod to it when Spike talks about her film degree and getting a PhD in Taiwanese New Wave. It came out of that, along with the fact that I have a terrible dislike for gentrification. I hate it, and I think it’s the worst thing that can happen in this world, and it needs to be stopped at all costs. It’s pushing everyone out of their neighborhoods. In short, I added all of that together and loaded it into an action movie. I love action movies, and they are what I grew up watching all the Cannon and Carolco movies. I grew up watching Dolph Lundgren, and he was my favorite action star as a kid. I also loved John Woo’s films like “The Killer” and “Hard Boiled.” Those were the kinds of films I turned to for comfort as a kid, so I wanted to make a movie that showed my reverence for it!
How did you find the right mix of actors to bring these characters you’d envisioned to life? Were Dolph Lundgren and Terrence Howard always at the top of the list?
It all happened really organically. My producer had an acquaintance type of relationship with Mira Howard, Terrence’s wife and manager. It was as simple as an email. We sent it to her, and she said, “I’m halfway through it, and I love it! Let’s talk!” Dolph was always at the top of my list because he was my favorite as a kid. As we moved forward, some people were like, “Let’s get this person and that person…,” but it landed with Dolph as I wanted it to. He’s a fantastic character actor who has this classic movie star vibe to him amid all the action stuff. The movie he had done that I had watched in the past couple of years was “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning,” which I think is a fantastic film. I know it was originally shot in 3D, but I think it’s a really, really good movie that people slept on. It’s only recently that it’s having a resurgence. That’s when I thought, “Yeah, he is perfect for this role!”
Making a film in any day and age is a challenge. What were the biggest obstacles you faced in bringing this project from script to screen?
This was a really challenging production. We had to kinda back it in due to the price point, and raising money is harder than ever now because movies do cost some sort of budget. Honestly, this was probably the lowest budget that either of those actors, Terrence and Dolph, had ever worked for! A big part of it was getting them on board with things like, “Hey, there are no motor homes on this film!” We had motor homes one day on this movie. We were like, “Okay, we’re gonna put you guys in the basement theater of this movie theater and rock ‘n’ roll! That was a big challenge. Also, shooting in LA is really hard. We changed locations a bunch of times from New Mexico to New Jersey to Mississippi. I love LA! This is my home, and this is my fourth movie here, and I’ve produced many films here. I think LA should be accessible to all to make films, and I feel that the city hasn’t done a great job and has pushed out indie cinema. So, it was tough on this budget, and we had very few days. We had under 20 days to film this movie, so we really had a tough road. We were losing an hour a day from Covid, and you’re losing tons of money in testing and all that stuff. It really came down to getting everyone on board. We knew we’d have to go with the flow, and everything would be okay. The key was turning problems into solutions and strengths.
What did Terrence Howard and Dolph Lundgren bring to these characters that you might not have expected?
They both brought a lot that I didn’t expect. Terrence’s character was written a lot more brooding or with an edge. It was more of a Lee Marvin type of character. Terrance brought this beautifully emotional, grounded adolescence to him. I was so happy, and when I started to see that, I just went with it. I thought, “We don’t need another strong man.” It was much more of a two-dimensional character that he made three-dimensional. With Dolph, he showed up and was kinda like, “I gotta way to do this.” The first scene he shot was the one in the dressing room, and when I saw his performance, I lost it! I was like, “Oh my God! I’m so happy to see this!” The original character had a much harder edge, but Dolph wasn’t afraid to expose himself more. He was much tougher in the script, but the way Dolph played him was a little more eccentric, funny, and someone who makes bolder decisions. They both really cared about the project and their performances.
That’s so cool to hear, and I feel it shows in the final product. You mentioned that every film is a bit of a learning process. With that said, what did you learn through this project?
I learned a lot. Like I said, I learned to turn problems into solutions and not let them overwhelm you because you don’t have time to be overwhelmed. I also learned that it takes a village to make a film. I’m someone who does a lot of the work myself. I often take on more than I should because I’m slightly controlling. So, I realized I need to let go and let the people who are very good at doing their jobs do their thing and do it as well as they can. I saw that on this movie! I saw a lot of people come together when I stepped back, and they shined!
One of the elements I truly appreciated with this film was your inclusion of the crew and the credits sequence, where we get an inside look at the production. While you’re all working hard, you can really see everyone’s passion for making this film happen.
That was actually Terrence’s idea! He said, “Let’s put the crew in the film, dude!” We had such a family experience of making this film. I had people lugging a motorcycle up a 1920’s staircase in San Pedro in an old movie palace, ya know? That motorcycle didn’t get there by itself! You see that and realize that they don’t have to do that. Everyone is getting paid something, but it’s peanuts. The crew really went the extra mile. I’m glad I got to include that because, in the end, this is a film about films, but we’re also peeling back the layers of the onion to show the core of how these films get made!
As a director, the action genre gives you plenty of room to play. There are so many great scenes and shots in the film. It really jumps from the scene.
Yeah, thank you! I call it “maximumilist filmmaking,” because I literally threw everything I enjoy into the film. Everyone who knows me was like, “Orson let his brain splatter onto a movie!” [laughs] So, I kinda feel like I slide one by! All of these short films in the movie are movies that I would write as a full movie. For example, “Necropolis” is the one we see as the film opens. It’s set in post-apocalyptic New York City, where it becomes a desert wasteland. I’m ready to make that! All of those were odes to films like “Neon City” with Michael Ironside and stuff like that. This movie allowed me to play in all of these genres that I love. I kinda lucked out in a way.
Is the action genre something you see yourself returning to in the future?
I love this stuff, so I’d love to do more. I just watched ‘John Wick 4’ recently, a little bit late. I’ve gotta tell you, that movie has as good a set of performances and plenty of artistic merit. Donnie Yen is a great example. You’re seeing Academy Award-worthy performances in action. Action is a genre where you see people work at such a high level, so I would love to do more action. I actually have one that we are working on right now that is a pretty crazy, interesting one. So, I’m very much hoping to return to action. Hopefully, with the next project, I’ll have a little more time! [laughs]
What lessons have you learned as an independent filmmaker that resonate with you as you move forward in your career?
The best lesson I have learned is that everything is an opportunity. To make movies, you can’t be snobby and hold your nose up in an elitist way. Everything is an opportunity when it comes to making a film. The whole film industry, it’s not even an industry; it’s a hustle. You’ve gotta see everything as an opportunity and learn to do it all yourself if you can. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned. I never want to be in a position where something couldn’t get done because I couldn’t do it. If there is an effect, editing, music, production, or anything else, I work in every department of this industry. That was the biggest thing for me. As I go on, I learn more! That’s a great asset to have because to get a movie made, you’ve got to get the movie done!
Orson, thank you so much for your time today. I truly enjoyed ‘Showdown at The Grand,’ and I can’t wait to see what you and your team bring our way soon!
That means a lot! Thank you so much, Jason. This was a fantastic conversation.
Orson Oblowitz’s ‘Showdown at The Grand’ hits cinemas and all major digital platforms (available to own and rent) on November 10th via Shout Studios.
Jason Price founded the mighty Icon Vs. Icon more than a decade ago. Along the way, he’s assembled an amazing group of like-minded individuals to spread the word on some of the most unique people and projects on the pop culture landscape.