Houston resident Amir Valinia has been making films for over fifteen years, and has ten feature length films to his credit. In 2013, Amir was the inaugural recipient of the Houston Filmmaker Grant. Awarded every two years, this matching funds grant, introduced by the Mayor’s Film Task Force, is funded by the City of Houston through the Houston Arts Alliance, Houston First Corporation, and the Houston Film Commission. It is intended to support and inspire the development of local filmmakers. Amir is currently a guest at Comicpalooza 2015 - Texas International Comic Con, being held at the George R. Brown Convention Center, in Houston, throughout Memorial Day Weekend. At Comicpalooza, Amir will be premiering the trailer for his new film, AlternateRealities, as well as being a guest on select panels on filmmaking.
Having started out shooting commercials and music videos, Amir is probably best known for his sci-fi/horror films, such as Lockjaw: Rise of the Kulev Serpent, Xtinction: Predator X, and Mutants. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Amir and discussing his career in film and what it’s like being a successful independent filmmaker:
Randy Krinsky: So you made the trek to Houston?
Amir Valinia: Well, actually I live here and I have a movie I finished that we’re going to be announcing tomorrow night. I’m also on a couple of panels. I’ve been a filmmaker here for fifteen years, but normally I shoot out of town. The last movie I did, we shot here. It was entitled Flashes but the distributor has changed it to Alternate Realities. It’s basically about… alternate realities.
RK: I saw your name on Saturday’s panels. I think it’s wonderful that they are doing this because there are so many aspiring filmmakers here and I had no idea that there were so many actually connected to Houston.
AV: There are, definitely.
RK: People always think Austin, everything’s Austin.
RK: But there’s such a thriving film community here in Houston. It’s awesome that you’re coming out and talking to some of the young filmmakers. What are some of the panels that you’re participating in?
AV: I’m not sure… it’s going to be some aspect about filmmaking in Houston. I’ve done panels like this before, usually because of the grant. We were actually the first ones awarded the 2013 Houston Filmmaker Grant. It was the first one they ever awarded from the Mayor’s Office. We were the first recipients of that grant; a lot was riding on it. They are going to do it every other year now. The deadline just passed on it for this year, May 5th. It’s a $30,000 grant that they give out, and it’s a matching grant so you have to some funds; but if you’re making a movie you should have that anyway.
RK: But that’ll definitely help.
AV: It helps to have that little extra money here and there for sure!
RK: What do you think about this new way of funding film through social media, crowdfunding, like Indiegogo and Fanbacked. Filmmakers putting their idea out there ahead of time and saying, here’s what I’m doing, anybody interested in helping me make it?
AV: I think it’s great to be able to do that. I never had much luck with films like that; I’m more old-fashioned and not as strong with social media. It’s great if you could build a fan base before you start because all those people that are donating to you, they’re your audience and they are going to talk about it and you are going to get an even bigger fan base. If you can do it, it’s great. I know a lot of people who get higher numbers through it than through other funding. It’s amazing.
RK: So what project are you bringing to Comicpalooza this weekend?
AV: It’s called Alternate Realities and we’re going to premiere the new trailer here. The film was called Flashes but we got a brand new trailer for the retitled film. At the panel we’re going to screen the trailer and announce the new distribution deal we have signed that we were keeping quiet.
RK: When did the name change happen because I do remember reading about the film as Flashes?
AV: We just made it! That’s going to be the announcement, that Flashes is now Alternate Realities. It basically came about as we were talking with the distributor. You see the website that I created for the film was called “Alternate Realities.org”. I did that just for marketing purposes thinking maybe we could do something like remember back when HBO was doing True Blood, they had the Vampire Rights Association and their commercials were about Vampires having rights. I saw that and thought, is this a real thing now? So if you put “.org” at the end, people start talking. Is this for real? Is this a real organization studying travel to different dimensions?
RK: For someone who’s supposedly not very social media-savvy, that’s pretty good.
AV: Well, that was just the idea. Now, as far as getting it out there…. I mean having to hashtag everything, I mean, we were talking about that yesterday with the rest of my team, and I remember the hashtag being a pound sign. I remember first time I saw it, I would ask my girlfriend, why do you put “pound” this, “pound” that? She would say that’s a hashtag. So, that was years ago.
RK: I’m the same way. I didn’t get the memo changing the pound sign to the hashtag…
AV: Exactly, and actually I saw something on Facebook that was so funny. You’re from Houston, remember that club, Numbers (#’s)? They were saying that they were driving down the street and their kids were like, yeah, there is this really cool club here, which has been here forever called Hashtag’s. They were like, what? Oh, that’s Numbers! I was like, wow!
RK: It’s a different generation….
AV: Definitely! I never thought I would say it, but I’m out of touch!
RK: I’m right there with you!
AV: You know, I don’t know if you want to include this, but for me, in this movie, there is something very personal. When we were starting this project, about a week and a half before we went into production, my girlfriend passed away.
RK: I’m so sorry.
AV: Thank you. I dedicated the whole thing to her. I didn’t even realize how close the story of the movie is to reality because it basically describes a man trying to stay with the love of his life and he’s basically going back and forth between different realities just trying to stay in the one where he can be with her.
RK: The reality in which he can stay with her.
AV: Right. It just became very personal for me. The whole movie is dedicated to her. I even used some of her pictures in the film. There’s one scene where we have this billboard on a building that’s talking about being happy and every picture I used in there is a picture of her and I. Nobody will probably ever catch it because it goes by really fast but I really included her in there.
RK: That’s touching.
AV: On a giant screen you might catch it, all these fast shots of different memories, birthdays, weddings, all sorts of good memories.
RK: Beautiful. That’s really nice.
AV: That’s my little touch that I added for her.
RK: Has anyone seen a cut of the film yet?
AV: Oh yeah, we had two screening in Houston originally last May. It was the original cut, but we went back and recast it with Tom Sizemore and Christopher Judge. We made the movie a lot slicker and we added a couple of scenes with those guys and I just love the new cut. It’s much better now.
RK: Sound great. On making this film, can you elaborate on independent filmmaking? Like, you made this movie and then you went back and tried to make it even better and recast some parts. Can you tell me something about the process?
AV: Well, basically it was a script that I found about two years before I started working on it and it was a short film on InkTip.com. I really liked the story. I’m just one of those people who loves alternate reality stories. So I contacted the writer and I wanted to do is as a short, but then I was like can you make it a full-length feature for me? He did and it kind of developed from there. While we were in pre-production, Thada, my producer, tells me about the film grant here in Houston and asked if I wanted to apply. I said that I never win those things but if she wanted to apply for me, then go ahead. Now by that time, I had already done over ten movies and every time I am shooting in Louisiana, and this time I was like, I want to do this film here! I want to go home at night; no staying in a hotel. So we decided on that and then we went through and cast it, shot it. It was a great movie. The actors we had in it were great, but, of course, the distribution company is going to tell you, get some names in the film. We thought about it and it was nothing against any actors but we had to find maybe two scenes that we could reshoot in maybe one day, with two names that could help sell the movie. So we looked at it and saw that, okay, this guy only shows up here, and then this guy only shows up in this scene; we can probably combine the two. So once we got our actors (Tom Sizemore and Christopher Judge) we thought, what if we added them throughout the movie. So we came with this murder scene in the beginning and it is so easy to do because it’s alternate realities. In this world, they’re both cops. Tom Sizemore becomes the lead detective and Christopher Judge became the CSI guy. So we were able to put them in there right from the beginning! So then we came up with another scene where Chris Judge is a drug dealer from whom the main character, who is a rock star in this reality, buys his drugs from. He did such a great job. I mean, every character he played was different. At first he had a full beard, then he shaved a little bit, and in the last scene of the day, he shaved it all off; each time playing a different character. We shot eighteen hours that day! It was great working with those guys.
RK: Sounds like it was fun! Making films like this, independents; what do you think are the benefits, as opposed to working for a studio?
AV: Well, of course, you can do what you want. You really don’t have a boss but at the same time most of the stuff I’ve done, it’s been independent, but at the same time we do have guidelines because even though they are not studio films, they were made for Sci-Fi Channel (SyFy). So, they’ll say we need this type of movie. They love creature-features, as you know Sharknado was big, so they’ll say it needs to have this, it needs to have this many special effects, or give you a list of some of the actors available that they use.
RK: I’ve noticed that many of those films do share some of the same cast members.
AV: Yeah, and, honestly, when you are tied in, or you say your hands are tied when you want to get creative; you find a way to do it anyway, so it’s not bad. Being independent just has its advantages of being your own boss but you still have to think that it is a business and you have to sell it at the end of day. Whoever buys it, or distributes it for you, they are going to want certain things, so you have to think about it as a business. But, at the end of the day, the people that are judging you on it are going to be your audience. So you also have to keep that in the back of your head. If you say, this is an independent movie and I can do what I want, well no one might like it. So you want to make sure you are creating something that people will enjoy. The main thing is to get people so involved in the movie that they don’t notice anything else – oh, the lighting is bad here – if they notice that then I didn’t do my job of getting them involved in the story. Of course, as the director, my DP and I are going to notice and say, no, the lighting needs to be correct!
RK: That’s his job.
AV: Also, my sound guy is one of my best friends and a business partner so I have to hear about it if there’s a problem with a shot – no, we can’t shoot here there’s a problem with echo….
RK: Right! You have to make the best product you can. So, what drew you to film?
AV: Why film? I think that was the only thing I was ever good at. As a kid, I was raised in a family where you were supposed to be a doctor or an engineer; I really wouldn’t be any good at either. So, when I took a communications class in college, I thought this is cool and next thing you know I changed my major to communications. When I graduated I worked for one year making commercials and then I started my own thing and did mostly rap videos; this was back in 1997, 1998. Hip-hop was really big and every rap video was a couple of hundred thousand dollar budget; they were basically mini-movies. One of my first clients was Cash Money Records, with Lil Wayne, who is now one of the biggest artists out there but back then he was, well, little; that’s why we called him Lil Wayne, I guess…
RK: Ha! Nice!
AV: So Birdman, Juvenile, all those guys would get on the road to Atlanta and we did a documentary with them. Slowly from that I got one of my clients, actually my first movie, from Master P. You remember him?
RK: Of course.
AV: He had this act, Kane and Abel, under his label, they were twins, and one of them called me, they wanted to shoot this move. We talked about it and I went to Louisiana. We shot it in New Orleans and it did really good. It actually became something of a cult classic. It’s called Da Block Party. They even did a sequel without me, but… After that, I really like doing movies, I still do music videos, but you build a family over the shoot; everyone becomes really close.
RK: I’ve heard that before. You really become a close-knit family. It really helps, doesn’t it, because you grow so close that you know what to expect from certain people in certain positions; the sound guy that’s your close friend – you know what he’s capable of. You respect his opinion.
AV: Exactly! You become family, eating lunch together, arguing and then making up.
RK: So what’s next for you? You have another project coming up?
AV: We’re talking about doing an angels and demons movie. That’s something that I really like. One of my favorites is Legion. Have you seen that one?
RK: I have not. I’ve seen the trailer but never caught the film.
AV: I think it is really cool and I’d like to do something like that. I really like the idea of demons. I’ve been watching “Supernatural” back-to-back on Netflix. Not all of it is great, but they have some really cool episodes.
RK: I love all that: science fiction, fantasy, angels, demons, and the supernatural.
AV: It makes you think. I love sci-fi too. My favorites are pretty much time travel and alternate realities. I like aliens, depending on how far they go with it.
RK: Do you remember The Prophecy, with Christopher Walken? I liked that one.
AV: Oh yeah, those movies are great. I like possessions also. You are just glued to the TV if it is done right.
RK: Now, if you do something with angels and demons, do you want to do it as a feature or for television?
AV: Independent films are still kind of made for TV, unless you get lucky and get a big distributor who’s going to put it on the screen. It’s tough to say, to be honest with you, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’ve been talking with my distributor so we’ll see. I believe in him. Like when he told me to change the name of my film. He gave me the reasons and at first I hated the name. My team was like, Alternate Realities, that’s not a name for a movie, that’s just describing it. But after he explained it to me, it makes sense. So, we’ll see.
RK: Perfect. Well, I wish you success with your new film and I can’t wait to see it. Thanks greatly for sitting down with me.
AV: My pleasure!
Be looking out for the review of Alternate Realities, coming to INFLUX Magazine soon!
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