I caught up with Aussie director Luke Sparke (Red Billabong) for a chat on sci-fi, the war movie, film-making and his newest Occupation, in theaters and on VOD and Digital HD now.

Occupation takes a plot which isn't new to cinema, but is very new for Australian cinema – that of an alien invasion and how a rag-tag band of people come together to fight and hopefully survive it, this time in the Australian outback. This atypical setting for this kind of film, provided an endless array of challenges for the intrepid Sparke and crew, which he details below – but also does wonderfully to add a one-of-a-kind Australian flavor to this film which works out beautifully.

Occupation also is a must-see for fans of a great war movie. Sparke treats his material not as a sci-fi tale a la any of the alien invasion you can think of (Battleship anyone?), but rather treats it in the much the same way as a war movie: with war movie pacing, and a quintessential war movie feel which is natural considering his personal story (and family history and business), respect for history and detail – subjects we get into below – and gives Occupation a vastly superior flavor to other films which may seem similar at a superficial level.

Occupation stars Dan Ewing, Temuera Morrison, Stephany Jacobsen and Rhiannon Fish. Check it out now in theaters and on VOD and Digital HD, on Facebook here and Twitter here. Enjoy the interview below.

Hello Luke and welcome to The 405! I was hoping we could start with a question I ask everybody, what films and directors do you consider most pivotal on your development as an artist?

Well, I grew up in the '80s, which – to me – is one of the best times to grow up watching films. People like myself say, Back to the Future, Alien, Star Wars. … Being a teenager in the '90s when movies like Independence Day, Jurassic Park came out, so those are my obviously go-to movies.

In terms of directors, the obvious answer would be Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. I see them as inspirational directors.

Absolutely.

A bit more modern would be J.J. Abrams.

Nice. That's a fantastic list: especially considering what Occupation is – where it fits – as a film. What initially inspired you on the project?

I was in L.A. In 2016, after finishing my first feature film, and I had a bunch of scripts on the table to get the particulars of finances and that. All of them were high-budget range, reaching a bit higher than I probably could at the time, and they sort of turned around and said, "we love all this stuff, but what else do you have?"

I didn't have anything else, but I had this idea in the back of my head since I was a kid of walking back out into the country outback in Australia and seeing lights appear over the hill, and thinking, what is this? Is this an invasion? What would I do? What would my family do? What would the local burger joint guy do rather than presidents or computer analysts or military leaders?

So, I just literally pulled that out of my head and said, “well, how about: Australian out back; alien invasion; Independence Day matched with Red Dawn, what do you think?”

They were like, "you know what? We like that. It's a tried and true genre but Australia has never had an alien-invasion movie, so we'd like the script" And I said, "I will go write that for you."

So, I walked out of the meeting and my producer's like, "so, what's this movie? What's happening?" And I said, "It's ok. It's ok. We'll get it done."

[Laughs] That's fantastic.

So I literally started writing it on the way back from L.A. To Australia and 8 months later we were filming, so it was a pretty quick turn around.

Stephany Jacobsen as Amelia Chambers in the sci-fi film "OCCUPATION” a Saban Films release. Photo courtesy of Saban Films.

There you go. I was really surprised at how the film functioned more as a war movie, not a sci-fi flick. What were some of the tricks to getting that war movie pacing and balancing the film's tension and action like a war movie?

Well, the war movie is really in my DNA. My family are fans of history, my family goes right back to being in WWI, WWII – and I am lucky to have grown up when my family business has been to claim military costumes and props to movies and TV shows out here...

Fascinating. That definitely would give one an eye for the genre – an eye for realism, which the film does exhibit.

Sparke Films, We're one of the largest collectors of that out here in the southern hemisphere. I grew up living with military uniforms all my life.

Once I grew up and was able to work on film sets – and that's all I've ever done, work behind the camera on props, film sets, costumes, and directing – so, every journey's different and that's been my journey.

That adds a definite well-rounded quality. Especially to realism and mise-en-scéne.

So, when I was old enough and able to work on films like Spielberg's The Pacific mini-series: nine months out here on Queensland when they shot it; Wolverine with Hugh JackmanX-Men: Origins Wolverine – but the big opening of that movie where he goes through time, I was on set doing Hugh Jackman's military costumes...

Very cool.

Yeah. I took all that as like one big apprenticeship. And obviously – yes, you're correct, and I'm glad you brought it up – yes, I've always said it feels more like a war movie then a sci-fi movie.

I think it's just in my DNA when I go and I write these set-pieces that I'm always looking back on realistic history rather than some fantastical sci-fi thing which can get a bit cheesy sometimes. So, I'm always trying to think of how I can ground it in reality, looking back on all the WWI, WWII history stories that I know and love – that sort of intuits into an alien movie, which I thought was sort of interesting.

Stephany Jacobsen as Amelia Chambers in the sci-fi film "OCCUPATION” a Saban Films release. Photo courtesy of Saban Films.

I absolutely find it interesting too – as someone who has studied and loves history as well. It really speaks to me. What is like writing the motley crew of characters who make up the lead contingent of townspeople who are the film's heroes?

That came to me pretty early on. I knew after the budget restrictions and other things, I wanted to be smart about what I can achieve and what I couldn't achieve. I knew part of it was going to have to be following a very interesting and eclectic cast of characters.

So, I went about trying to pick sort of stories and backstories that would be the most interesting for these particular people in an alien invasion, that we haven't seen before, so...

Very early on, one of the characters was like a tattoo artist – and I thought even that was a bit cliché, so I stripped him even lower and he became like a bum on the street. I thought that was interesting, sort of seeing his station in life kind of go up in living on the land with the alien invasion, while other people's lives sort of came down with it.

That was an interesting dynamic.

People like Temuera Morrison from Star Wars, he was my first choice for the character that was an ex-convict. I was very pleased when he came on board very early on for me. I just thought that he brought that gravitas to the ex con character, with some roles he's played in the past like Once Were Warriors. He can be a very scary guy.

Absolutely. He worked well here as Peter Bartlett.

I thought that was interesting, his story of trying to find the family throughout the whole movie.

The main character Matt who's played by Dan Ewing, early on in the script he was going to be basically like a Captain America: sports hero and like all-around good guy. The actor who played him and I, we really stripped him back to make sure he was like not so heroic and gave him some flaws and...

From hero to hero as anti-hero. Love it.

Yeah. I thought things like that just helped the script. And obviously then between all the explosions, aliens, and everything that goes on, it keeps it so there's lots of different relationships happening.

So, that was one thing that I wanted to keep going – and obviously throwing the pregnant lady in there, that was one of my first ideas. The entire crew was kind of like, there's a pregnant lady! And she gives birth! In an alien attack! In the rain!

[Laughs] yep.

I kept going and going and going about how I could throw her into more danger every time, so it all just evolved as it went along. .

(L-R) Charles Mesure as Arnold Dan Ewing as Matt Simmons and Stephany Jacobsen as Amelia Chambers in the sci-fi film “OCCUPATION” a Saban Films release. Photo courtesy of Saban Films.

Well there you go. What were some of the challenges like on the film?

I think overall the film was one big challenge for us because Australia doesn't make movies like this. So, we had six weeks to shoot it. We had basically nearly every special effect you can think of. With that, I brought in a lot of people I had worked with before on shows like The Pacific, and war films and that, bringing the rain machines, bringing all the explosions, and because Australia doesn't make movies like this, I had to go and really piece together a team of visual effects artists out here that could achieve all the space ships and all that side of the film as well.

So, you know I've said it three times now, Australia doesn't make these movies – the whole movie just to get up was a complete challenge, going against the grain.

But yeah it's been really well-received. I'm happy about that.

Fascinating to know all those challenges, the new frontier that Occupation really is for Australian film. I hear a sequel is already in the works.

Yeah, we announced that back in May. Luckily because the film's budget wasn't the biggest in the world, between selling the film all-around the world and tax rebates, it's already made its money back, so November last year then we sold it to Saban Films on the AFM Santa Monica, and we also went to them and said "let's do a sequel". So, I've been developing the script and next week is actually our first week of pre-production. We start shooting in August.

That's fantastic. Especially with making the production costs back with the first already. What can we expect from that sequel? What you can tell us at least... I would never want to give our readers spoilers there.

Obviously can't go in to too many spoilers, with people seeing the first one.

Yeah. Would never want or ask that of you.

It is definitely a follow-on from this movie. With a sequel, the cliché thing is to go bigger and better. So it is definitely bigger. If I could akin it to anything, I'd say it's kind of like Occupation with Star Wars: A New Hope meets The Empire Strikes Back.

Nice.

I know that's a cliché thing to say in this day and age, but it... Empire Strikes Back is definitely my favorite film of all time, so I really went in to make it a bit more... darker, darker film, but also a much more character piece with a lot of depth to really getting into a world that's under alien occupation...

...This one, it's a year later, the aliens are here to stay, what's that world look like? That's kind of what the sequel's like.

Fascinating. I thought the ending of Occupation really left a lot of fertile ground for a sequel: sort of built-in. The last question I had, is there anything else coming up next for you Luke, maybe beyond the sequel?

Well, I'm living in the Occupation world for a while. Obviously with the sequel, as well as a franchise in general looking at me now. Apart from that, I'm developing a rather large TV show, I can't speak too much about that right now but that's separate to the Occupation franchise and something I'm really, really excited about.

So hopefully we can talk about that in the coming months.