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“Find a Way” – An Interview With ‘Space Wars’ Director Garo Setian

Garo Setian loves sci-fi movies.

And not just the franchise juggernauts, but the ragamuffin strays spawned in their wake too. Though scrappier fare like Battle Beyond the Stars, Spacehunter and Starcrash made less of an impact on popular culture, they left a huge mark on him.

After a prolific career editing trailers for Lionsgate, Garo Setian and producer/actress/wife Anahit formed their own production company. Under the banner Hungry Monster Entertainment, he continues to create award winning trailers while also producing and directing ambitious feature films of his own including his latest, Space Wars: Quest for the Deepstar.

Space Wars is a loving tribute to those aforementioned sci-fi classics that are too often found today buried at the bottom of a Wal-Mart DVD dump bin. It also stands on its own as a rousing, big-hearted space adventure.

Perhaps most of all, Space Wars is a potentially galvanizing revelation for visionary indie filmmakers. What Setian and his team achieved despite limited resources is an inspiration for those who feel crippled by low budgets and doomed to single location talk-fests and found footage retreads.

Setian recently sat down to discuss his long but resolute road to feature filmmaking, the joys and challenges of realizing Space Wars, and the value of thinking big no matter how limited your resources may seem.

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DUSTIN LEIMGRUBER: With Space Wars you achieved a dream that so many are chasing. You created an epic scale sci-fi adventure film that not only pays homage to the movies that made a lot of us want to make movies in the first place, but you put your own stamp on it. It’s full of original ideas, endearing characters and classic villains. There’s a genuinely moving story with a lot of heart at the center of it. And most importantly you did it on your own terms, outside the studio system, with what I’m assuming was a small group of family, friends and fellow dreamers. I feel like every aspiring filmmaker should see this movie because it’s incredibly inspiring.

GARO SETIAN: Thanks man. My wife and I have been trying to make movies for twenty years. Before we were even married. There would always be a big project that you would get behind and then it just wouldn’t happen. And usually those would be projects through the system. Like “Oh, I’ll work with this writer who has these real credits and maybe we’ll finally get something.” Ultimately a lot of those broken projects, little pieces of them, all came together for my first film Automation. That one was like 85 grand. Basically we sat down and we had to figure out what we could do. There was this cool guy I know, Ted Smith, who builds all these cool props. He had a dream a long time ago to do this thing called Space Pirates. He built a lot of the props for this potential movie. And we went around and took all these cool pictures, wrote the script and rewrote it, we took all these meetings.

I remember we met with Richard Hatch from Battlestar Galactica. We were trying to get this project made and it ended up not happening. It was around 2008 when everything kind of went bust. What used to be the straight to video movie at like half a million or million dollar budget suddenly became a 250,000 dollar budget. And we couldn’t do the movie for that much. Many years later, Ted said to me “If you ever want to use some of that cool stuff we built for your own movie, you’re totally welcome to it.” And he had a robot suit from another project that he was never paid for or something. So we had a robot, we had control panels and things. I had a cousin who had an insulation company. And there was an actress we were talking to for another project that didn’t happen, Elissa Dowling, and I knew she’d be good in something. So we wrote a new project around all this stuff and slowly that became Automation. A thing built on the broken pieces of lots of old dreams.

It’s reverse engineering the project with what you have on hand. Like Robert Rodriguez on El Mariachi, “I have a guitar, I have a school bus… What can I do?”

Yeah, absolutely! And the thing that’s amazing is that Automation ended up being pretty well received. It got distribution through Epic Pictures and after that all it took to get Space Wars going was the fact that Automation existed.

Let’s go way back to the very beginning. When did you first realize that you wanted to tell stories?

Oh my gosh, I was nine years old. My grandfather gave me his old Brownie 8MM film camera. This was like World War II stuff. And I would make my own little films with it. It all came back to an interest in dinosaurs. I just loved dinosaurs, so I’d watch any movie with dinosaurs. I thought I’d be a paleontologist one day. But then that became Godzilla and Gamera movies and giant monster movies and anything with special effects. And I decided I wanted to be a special effects artist like Ray Harryhausen. So I would try to do stop motion animation with my grandfather’s camera. It wasn’t even a stop motion animation camera. I would push the button and it would fire off three or four frames at a time. I would try to do my own clay dinosaurs or Medusa or things from Clash of the Titans.

Let’s talk about your company Hungry Monster Entertainment, specifically the trailer division. How did that come to be?

Well I always was into movie trailers. I used to collect them from VHS to VHS.

I did the same.

Yeah, yeah! I just loved movie trailers. When I graduated from film school, non-linear editing was not around. That literally came in right after I graduated film school in 1995. I would work jobs cutting 3/4 inch to 3/4 inch. I eventually went on to a job at an advertising agency that was going to get an AVID. They needed someone to come in and set up their database. A bunch of work that I never ever wanted to do in my life. However, I wanted to learn the AVID. So I told them “I’ll set up your whole department as long as you’ll hire someone to train me on the AVID.” So eight months into my stint there, after doing all this other garbage I didn’t want to do, they hired someone and I learned how to edit on the AVID system. And that was incredible because I got to adjust an old short film I did. I remember shooting and editing some commercials and I just got better and better at the editing. And then an opportunity to work as an assistant editor at a trailer company came up so I took that. And I worked there for a while. I did a few cool little things editing on my own. Remember the movie Ghost World with Thora Birch?

I love that movie. You cut the production featurette for that, didn’t you?

Yes, I did! I did the one on the DVD.

I have that DVD.

Nice, thanks! It was great. It was a first cut. I just did it once, they submitted it and it got approved. That was my first major piece of editing with a company like that. And then they let me go shortly thereafter. And I was freelancing for awhile and my friend Tyler Stringer had a company called Mercury Filmworks. They had a couple AVIDs and he let me sort of hang out there and take jobs when they came in while I worked on my own stuff.

I did a couple trailers and saw an ad for a job for Artisan Home Entertainment for a trailer editor. This is back when they had ads in Variety or Hollywood Reporter. So I sent my reel, had a meeting and thought for sure I got the job. But it didn’t happen. They just never called me back. At that point I started working with a broadcast promo company called Studio City. The work I was doing there was like if you were watching Judge Judy and you’d see a promo, “On the next Judge Judy!” I would cut a lot of those spots.

Then about eight months after the interview, Artisan called me and offered me the job this time. So I took it and worked there for a year. I did a whole bunch of trailers for them and they loved my trailers. The clients were raving about them. They were like, “Wow, this is incredible! This is like a real movie!” And then around Christmas the next year, like in our movie Automation, they were having these mass firings. But they never called me in.

Me and my producer were the only two people left on the third floor at what was formerly Artisan Entertainment. Now it’s Lionsgate and we’re like “Well, do we still have our jobs? I don’t know.” The person who hired me said “I think you’re gonna be ok. Whatever happens, just keep coming in.” So I just stayed and that turned into 16 years of work at Lionsgate. I became a senior editor there and over that time I must have done over 300 trailers and TV spots. And the thing was I was an independent contractor while I was employed there so I was able to start my own company at the same time. I was doing trailers for other vendors in my spare time. Eventually people were just coming directly to me. So that’s when I formed Hungry Monster Entertainment in 2015 or 2016. My wife and I formed that company to not just be a trailer company but also ultimately be a film company that makes movies.

You had made some short films before Automation, right?

Yes, those were a lot of student projects. There was some clay animation stuff I used to do a lot of. They were projects I did at NYU as an undergrad and my graduated thesis project at USC also involved the same little clay animated character. It was very sweet and sentimental. I tried to get that sold as a children’s television show but it didn’t happen. But so it goes.

Your first feature was Automation which is sort of Office Space meets The Terminator with a little bit of Short Circuit and Chopping Mall thrown in. Again, I really enjoyed that and it has a lot of heart. It has a very bittersweet ending. It’s not at all what you expect it to be, even as you’re watching it. It goes places that you don’t anticipate.

The sentimentality aspect of it was very important to me. There was a sweetness to Automation that caught a lot of people off guard. I like things where people are interacting with fictional creations whether they’re clay figures or dinosaurs. I love making the unreal real.

The one thing I knew I was going to do right with Automation was making you feel something for Auto the robot and making him an interesting character that audiences will have conflicting feelings about but still overall kind of like him. You’re not really cheering him on as he does the bad stuff. It’s more like, “Oh gosh, I wish he didn’t do that. Now he’s gonna be in trouble.”

Can you talk about the learning curve from short films to a full-length feature.

Before I did the short films, I worked with public access television. I created my own TV show. It was like Twilight Zone. It was called Valley of the Shadows. And we would do half hour shows. Sometimes we even did things that were an hour long or 45 minutes. And there were like a hundred of those things. So I always had a good sense of telling a story in more long form. If anything I never wanted to touch a short film again over the last twenty years. I wanted to tell bigger stories. I had been writing feature screenplays.

There must have been like twelve screenplays before Automation that had various moments in the sun but never ended up materializing. In terms of a learning curve, it was just a bigger commitment of time. Everyone is being paid and we’re all scheduled and you’ve got to get everything within a certain amount of time. That sort of thing.

That brings us to Space Wars. Actually the full title is Space Wars: Quest for the Deepstar. That title underscores the fact that this seems to be a love letter to a very specific type of sci-fi movie from the late seventies and early eighties. Things like Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, Battle Beyond the Stars, Starcrash, Ice Pirates, Space Raiders. All those awesome movies that were greenlit because of the success of Star Wars. You’ve got a character named Kip Corman, a villain named Dykstra, a star base called Stella Star Station. A lot of deep cuts for genre film fans. Can you talk about your relationship to those movies and how they influenced you?

Yeah, every movie you mentioned is the right kind of movie we were referencing. I wanted it to be one of those. People talk about the Star Wars rip offs, “There were just so many of them.” But when you think about it there really weren’t that many. If anything, I wanted more of those. That’s what I was trying to do.

Right now we live in a world where it’s Star Wars 9 and Star Wars TV. I want the other space opera. Something else. That’s what I was trying to do with Space Wars. Give you another adventure in space. Sort of a pulp space novel filled with action and adventure. Like when I was watching Star Trek as a kid, the old episodes. Each episode was a brand new thing. They encountered something new and explored strange new worlds. I want the feeling of going somewhere I haven’t been. That sense of discovery and adventure like you’d have when you were watching a Sinbad movie. I just recently saw The Primevals, the film David Allen was working on his whole life. It had that spirit of wide-eyed optimistic adventure. Spacehunter, yes, it’s a B-movie but a fun B-movie. You go out into space and see some new things. And that’s really what I wanted to make. Space Wars is its own expansive fantasy adventure movie.

Space Wars is obviously insanely ambitious. Frankly, on the page it seems impossible to produce as a low budget indie movie. Going in, how daunting was it considering the sheer scale of what you were going to try to achieve.

I just knew we could do it. I knew we could pull it off. It was really all about being economical and knowing where the special effects were going to be and how many sets we had. We basically filmed the whole movie on three stages and they were all at my uncle’s business place. One was mainly a garage and that was the main spaceship set. And then we would re-arrange it and turn it into a different spaceship. There was another area which was Elnora’s base. And we had another thing which was a cockpit and then later became the pod they flew in and also became the box they were dropping into the monster at the beginning. It was a lot about pre-planning and knowing what we were going to film on what day. And the exteriors, we knew we also needed a degree of getting out of spaceships and how that would break up the movie and make it feel like a more expansive journey.

That’s one of the things that’s most exciting about it. It does have that sort of “backyard movie” feel to it. Like the kind of stuff we all tried making when we were kids. But it’s a real movie. So it says you can use that same spirit and make a real movie.

 Yeah, exactly! You can! It’s all about pre-planning. And if you have a vision for it, you can put the whole thing together. There has to be enough business going on to keep you interested and you’ve got to like the characters and find them interesting. Joe Knetter was really good at writing these very broad and fun characters.

Let’s talk about the script. At its core it’s a really emotional story of a family lost then restored stronger than they were before. It sounds like there’s a lot of autobiographical elements in Automation. Where did this story and its themes come from? Is this a personal story for you?

I was going through a lot at the time of the development of this story. Part of me wonders if that’s what Joe was reaching for because my mother had Alzheimer’s and passed away at the time we were developing the story. I still wonder if that’s why he plugged the mother into the story. He never really answered me on that. It definitely affected how I felt about the story and gave me a little more emotional connection to it. I had a bunch of action scenes in mind that I wanted to do. And Joe really helped tie all those together with this emotional storyline. It was always going to be a father and daughter on the adventure. And then he came up with the idea of the “essence” and the goal of bringing the mom back.

That’s the stuff that makes it worth doing. Not just the action stuff.

Yeah and he’s such a good writer in that he understands that and always tries to find a way to emotionally hook the audience so you care about the characters. Obviously it’s important to me too. You want to have that. Your whole film’s going to live or die on whether you want to go on the journey with the characters. If you’re going to spend ninety minutes with them, you better like them.

A lot of it was shot in garages and relative’s businesses and such. You can see the raw, pre-FX footage in the DVD extras and really appreciate the limitations you were up against. It makes the final product all the more impressive. What were the biggest challenges you faced in the production?

Well we had some very talented people working on this, but it was a big ask to have all these sets built in the amount of time we had available to us. Once we were done filming on one set, we’d move to the other one and the previous one would have to be striked and turned into a new set. And there were times when sets might not be ready in time. So just trying to get all that done in time so we’re ready to go on the next day was challenging.

The film looks great. It’s filled with rich, saturated colors which is refreshing in an age when so many filmmakers are going for that desaturated, washed out look. How did you connect with your DP Michael Su and how does your collaboration work in pre-production and on the set?

Michael Su is great. I met him before we did Automation. He was recommended to me by Rolfe Kanefsky, who was one of the writers of Automation. Rolfe worked with Michael Su before. He knew we had a limited schedule for Automation and was like, “Look you need someone who can shoot quickly.” And Michael Su is very gifted and he’s very fast but he also doesn’t sacrifice quality. He’s always trying to give the movie a lot of movement. And I’m not talking shaky-cam stuff. I’m talking about being on sliders, being able to dolly around and work with a Steadicam. All those little tricks. He’s very good with lighting.

On Space Wars there were times when we’d need to add a few more lights and he’d find a place to hide them. Both films, Automation and Space Wars, use a lot of primary colors. We wanted to distinguish each ship with the lighting. Kip and Taylor’s ship is a little more green looking, the bad guys’ ship is more purple looking and Elnora’s base is more red.

When they get in the blue space cloud everything goes blue. When we go to the red planet I knew right away I wanted The Angry Red Planet, Mars circa 1950. There was a lot of talk about the look we were going for. He grew up on all the same movies we were talking about. Battle Beyond the Stars came up a lot in the conversation. So he knew exactly what we were looking for.


What camera was Space Wars shot on?

It was shot on a RED. I don’t remember which kind but it was the RED. I think he had an updated version versus the one we used on Automation.

This movie is so well cast. Everyone wears their character so naturally. Michael Pare is perfect casting as that classic space rogue. A little bit Han Solo, a little bit Peter Strauss in Spacehunter.

Oh yeah.

How did he come to the project and how was your experience working with him.

 The experience was awesome. I can’t say enough great things about Michael. He’s a total professional. He really cares about the film and the story we’re trying to tell. He came one hundred percent prepared right from the first moment he was onboard.

What’s funny is almost all the characters in that movie were written for the actors who ended up playing them. Jeff Miller, my executive producer, had worked with Michael Pare before so he told us write something that would be a good part for Pare. And we knew that was going to be our lead, at least in an ideal version. We didn’t know for sure but we had a pretty good feeling that he would be our actor.

And Sarah French I worked with before on Automation.

My wife and I really liked working with her previously. Her boyfriend is Joe Knetter, the writer. I got Joe on board through Sarah. I knew I wanted Sarah in this because she’s really into fitness and stuff and she’d never done an action role before. I knew I could count on her and her physicality to really pull off what we wanted to do. So when I met with her I said, “How would you like to be an action hero in a sci-fi movie?”. She was just all over that. And the role of Jackie was written specifically for Anahit. That’s my wife.

She is so great in that role. She brings a sort of playful, almost child-like quality to the character. She steals the whole movie which is a big achievement considering some of the other actors in the film. What were some of the challenges and benefits of collaborating with someone so close to you?

 It was fun. That was the dream. It’s what we’ve always wanted to do. Anahit has always acted in plays and shows and stuff. Once we had a family, raising our kids became top priority. But she always loved acting. She has a small part in Automation and all the other actors were very impressed with her. We knew we were going to have to rely on a couple people we knew. It would be Michael Pare and Sarah.

And the plan was to write a role for Anahit. I remember we all went out to lunch, Joe, Sarah, Anahit and I. And Joe really got a good feel for Anahit’s character. I mean, she can play almost anything but he really tailored that role for her personality and it just worked.

There’s a ton of bad guys in this movie. Threats coming at our heroes from all sides. It’s a real rogue’s gallery of villains. Olivier Gruner is really good as the big baddie. He’s genuinely threatening. Talk about developing the villains and how you balanced so many of them in the film.

I always liked movies and shows where you have a main bad guy but then there’s another curveball sort of bad guy that might be hovering over it. Going back to G.I. Joe, there’s Cobra Commander but then there’s Serpentor.

Right. Or Skeletor and Hordak.

Yeah! Yeah! I think there was part of that. A lot of it’s about keeping your movie moving and interesting at all times. I wanted to keep forward momentum going in this movie.

Let’s talk about the visual effects. What your team achieved here is incredible.

The FX company is two guys in England. Steven Clark and Paul Knott of CKVFX. They’re wonderful. Steven is the one who does most of the animation of the monsters and spaceships.


They’ve done work for the Asylum movies and things like that. They were fantastic. They were so excited to come on board this film. They said to me “You made the kind of movie we grew up on.” They were thrilled to come on board and that enthusiasm really helped out a whole lot. They’re actual genre fans and have a passion for these kind of things.

It comes through, especially in things like the animation of the monsters.

I wish I could say I personally designed every monster in this movie. But we rarely did. When you’re doing a lower budget movie, it’s the design that would kill you in terms of budget. To have someone build a 3D model is very cost prohibitive. But you can buy a lot of these things. Spaceships and stuff. Our main hero ship was something they already had available for us to use.

But a lot of the spaceships and creatures were things I purchased through various websites. But here’s the thing… you’d be very surprised. You’ve actually probably seen one or two of those creatures in another movie before. However they didn’t look like they did in our movie. We changed them around a lot. A lot of what it is about a creature in a movie is how it moves. I’ve seen some of our creatures in other movies but you would never know it was the same creature. Just by how it moves, how the director utilized it. Those things can end up moving super rubbery and fast. They just don’t look like they’re really there. They look like a video game. I was very insistent on Space Wars that everything have weight and feel big and lumbering.

I kept mentioning Ray Harryhausen. “Make it feel like a Harryhausen character.” I’d get up and pantomime how I want the creature to walk. And it’s also how you skin the creature. Maybe you add a few more eyes to it or something. We had some additional effects by Gary Jones, Adam Lima, and Perry Harovas. Those guys did a lot of the compositing for windows and computer screens and graffiti removal on the big cave at the end. That cave was a real cave where Taylor and Wade were fighting. But the actual cave was covered with graffiti and we had to digitally erase all of it!

Can you talk about how you navigated the more complex FX scenes like the asteroid sequence?

One of the things that would help for those complicated sequences, like the asteroid chase, that was a really elaborate storyboard that I worked on with our production designer Anthony Pearce. Editing is my first thing. I’m editing my own movies here. So when we’re doing an action scene involving special effects, how do you begin with something when you don’t even have the FX shots yet? How do you cut that together? First I lay down some temp music. I was using James Horner’s Battle Beyond the Stars score just to get some tempo. Then once I had those storyboards, I brought them into my edit system. And while I’m cutting to the music, I’m cutting in these shots that are storyboards. Then I send the completed sequence to the FX guys and they create each of the FX for all those boards. And it was just total magic. Anytime we got a new FX shot, it was like Christmas morning. We were blown away each time. It was amazing.

I want to talk to you about editing. You’re an editor. You cut the film yourself and it really moves. I feel like editing is the most underrated tool in the filmmaker toolkit. Knowing how one piece connects to the next piece, be it a shot or a story point or a theme, is essential. How does being an editor, having an editor’s mind and perspective, influence your approach to the other aspects of filmmaking?

It’s everything. When I’m shooting something I’m already editing it in my head. So I know what I need. I don’t tend to shoot a lot of wasted footage. There were just a few deleted scenes in Space Wars and Automation. Not much. It saves a lot of time when you know exactly what you need already. The editing can really make a difference in the pacing of a movie and the emotions you feel. If you’re intercutting dialogue between two actors the more rudimentary style of cutting is just “one person talks, next person talks”. And you just keep cutting between them.

And that’s not editing. That’s just assembling something. You, as an editor, have to find those little emotional beats that are going on in-between the dialogue. When do you cut to the other person? What do I want to see on their eyes while one person’s talking? Or maybe I just want to tighten the pace of a scene and make the dialogue move quicker. So I‘ll have to intercut a little more tightly. There’s just so much that goes into it. But you just know what’s right when it’s finally all together.

I have to say it’s outstanding that in the age of streaming, there’s an actual physical DVD release of Space Wars that people can own with features and commentary and deleted scenes. Was it important to you to have that tangible representation of all your work to put on your shelf?

Yes! Yes! Yes! I have a very vast shelf of movies. If you saw just my science fiction section of movies, you would laugh. It takes up an entire wall. That’s something I definitely want.

I’m going to ask the question that I’m sure everyone asks. But I’m genuinely interested… will there be a Space Wars sequel?

I’m hopeful there will be. And if I do go forward with it there will be a Space Wars 2 and 3. My plan would be to make them both at the same time.

There’s so many adventures that this family can go on. It seems like we’re just at the beginning of it.

That’s exactly the hope and the idea. And look, if it doesn’t happen, the film ends in a way where you’re supposed to feel like there’s more. When you saw Spacehunter you felt like there was going to be another one.

And you imagine their adventures. You don’t necessarily need to see them. But if you can, it would be great.

Yeah. Boy, I wish there were more adventures of Stella Star out there.

Oh, yes! Definitely!

But yeah, I think we might be doing it. I’m planning on shooting something this fall. It will either be back to back Space Wars sequels or it’ll be a different science fiction movie.

Finally, what advice would you give to filmmakers who might feel like achieving their vision is out of reach because of limited resources.

I would say find a way. There’s always a way. Will it ever be exactly how you imagined it? No. You’re going to have to compromise to a degree. Don’t always think so small. I’d say if you have an idea, especially if it’s an original idea or something that you don’t feel has been seen before, do it! There’s a million ghost movies, there’s a million “guy tied to a chair tortured in a basement” movies.

Do something new. You find a way.

If you don’t have the budget to shoot for ten days straight or whatever, shoot a weekend here and there. Just try to get something done. But you have to move forward. It definitely helps to get one film made in order to get the next one. Getting the first one is tough because no one knows for sure if you’re going to get it done.

There’s a lot of people who start things and don’t finish them. Or they don’t do a very good job. But if you can achieve getting that one film done, you’ll have a lot of people more confident in you for the second one.


Dustin Leimgruber is a Los Angeles based filmmaker and screenwriter with a martial arts thriller filming this summer. He’s also a film journalist and creator and host of Cherry Bombs: The Underappreciated Movies Podcast. You can find him on Twitter/X @CherryBombsPod.

Space Wars: Quest for the Deepstar is available On Demand,
streaming on Prime Video, Tubi, and Vudu and is available on DVD

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