Can You Make An Epic Movie On A Budget? Local Filmmaker May Have Done It

Nov 2, 2017

A scene from "Atrophy"
Credit courtesy of Jason Slingerland

Ever wonder why you don’t see a lot independent films in the sci-fi and fantasy genres? Or set in the future or the past? That’s because it’s hard to make those things look realistic without a whole lot of money. 


From left to right: Zechariah Metzler as Dordo, Chadwick Sutton as Matt, and Hannah Homnick as Moira
Credit courtesy of Jason Slingerland

For his first two feature-length films, Kalamazoo filmmaker Jason Slingerland played it safe. His movie “Coffee Shop Kings” was almost entirely set in - you guessed it—a coffee shop.

In his documentary, "Hobocon," he lived at a gaming convention for three days.

For his latest film, Atrophy, Slingerland says he wanted a challenge. Atrophy will have its first public showing at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts on Thursday, November 9th at 6:30 p.m.

“We always refer to it as the Wizard of Oz meets Mad Max with some steampunk thrown in. That was kind of the goal when I wrote it that I wanted something big and epic that we would try and make on a very small budget,” said Slingerland.

Jonathan West as The Captain with the mechanical arm in "Atrophy"
Credit courtesy of Jason Slingerland

Slingerland says the beginning of the film is pretty simple.

“It starts off as a story that a lot of us have heard and a lot of us have lived, right," he said.

"You’ve got new parents—one of them is working a lot while the other one is trying to stay home and it’s not working for them.”

Then, the husband, Matt, goes downstairs to do some work and falls asleep. When he wakes up the next morning, he finds himself in the middle of the woods in a different world.

“So the story is about his journey through this world that he finds himself in. Trying to survive, first of all, because it’s a very harsh world with a lot of harsh people," he said.

"He meets some people along the way that help him and he meets a lot of people that don’t want to help him. And the story is about him trying to get home.”

Slingerland says just by looking at it, you’d never believe the film was all shot in Michigan. Half the movie takes place in a desert—which certainly doesn’t exist in the state. Slingerland says they shot those scenes at two sand mines in Grand Haven—a lot of the filming at just one dune.

“We shot all the way around that dune probably two dozen times. There are scenes where you’ll see people talking and through the magic of film they’re both standing at the same dune, but it looks they’re in between valleys of dunes,” said Slingerland. 

They even shot inside a World War II submarine - the USS Silversides in Muskegon.

Most of the cast and crew are from the Kalamazoo area. Slingerland says the main cast members were all Western Michigan University students at the time, as were the costume designers and fight choreographer.

“He was really keen on finding each character and figuring out what…how would they fight someone," Slingerland said. "It actually ended up making the fight scenes very unique because each character kind of has their own style.”

But it’s not just people that Matt has to watch out for. He’s also being followed by a giant machine or automaton. Though we only see parts of it for a good portion of the film.

“Very much kind of like a ‘Jaws’ where you get to see pieces of something but not the whole thing," said Slingerland. "I think in movies when they do that, it can make it build up a lot better, right, and make it more frightening.”

Slingerland says he found out that making a big movie is a big time commitment. He says he thought Atrophy would take a year to complete. It ended up taking seven. All the same, Slingerland says, he thinks he accomplished his goal.

“I wanted to prove that we could do this. If nothing else, just for us, I guess, and to show other independent filmmakers you can do something huge if you really are willing to make some sacrifices," he said. "Use the lack of funding as an opportunity.”

The Kalamazoo Institute of Arts will show “Atrophy” Thursday, November 9th at 6:30 p.m. as part of its Unreeled series.