‘Star Wars’ producer rolls into horror with ‘Panzer 88’


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Gary Kurtz, the producer of the first two “Star Wars” films and the man who walked away from the franchise in 1980, is not the excitable type. He speaks in even tones and pragmatic terms, but there was a clear tinge of eager energy in his voice when he sat down recently to discuss “Panzer 88,” his first foray into effects-heavy feature films since the 1980s.

“It’s a good, good project, you haven’t seen anything like it for a while,” Kurtz said of the spooky wartime adventure that is planned as a $20 million independent film and will begin shooting in the winter. “It’s a visceral, reality-based story with horror overtones, and the idea is to have be like the best of the graphic novels these days.”


The plot follows the five-man German crew of the Ilsa -- a King Tiger, the biggest tank of its day -- on a mission to the frigid and fearsome Russian border, where they tread into an ancient mystery by stirring a powerful entity. The original screenplay was written by Aaron Mason and James Cowan; they share the writing credit with Peter Briggs, who will direct. Briggs, who co-wrote the screenplay for Hellboy,” finds himself back in the paranormal territories of the Third Reich, but he said this film hopes for a different caliber of character emotion and a “Band of Brothers” sort of ensemble.

“I’d already written a paranormal World War II sequence in the opening of ‘Hellboy,’ the British filmmaker said. “Tonally, ‘Panzer 88’ is a tad different from that. Our military aspects are more realistic, and mostly akin to the claustrophobic action and tension of ‘Das Boot.’ We’re aiming to do for the tank genre what ‘Hunt For Red October and ‘Crimson Tide’ did for submarine flicks. Only, with a supernatural twist. We’re upping the ante with visuals, equipment, and scenes that have never been seen in a World War II milieu. In retrospect, it’s strange nobody’s thought to do this in quite this way before...”

The project has the same sort of mash-up cinematic spirit as Jon Favreau’s upcoming “Cowboys and Aliens” (classic western meets UFO invasion) or the 1980s John McTiernan classic Predator (commando adventure meets sci-fi horror). For “Panzer,” the hybrid is between the supernatural and the battlefields of World War II; to fans of a certain age, the premise might stir an old comic-book memory -- “Haunted Tank” and “Weird War Tales” often marched into similar battle zones of the macabre.

Mason said the team has approached “Panzer” with meticulous research and a commitment to story vigor.

“The story features German protagonists on the Eastern Front of Russia in October 1944, and Peter and myself labored to anchor the story in the real history of the time, right down to charting actual troop movements. The few tank movies that are out there, like ‘Kelly’s Heroes’ or ‘The Battle of the Bulge,’ are fairly slow affairs, which is the furthest thing from ‘Panzer’ which shifts at breakneck speed. We’ve an occult slant to our story, like Michael Mann’s movie, ‘The Keep,’ although that movie’s pretty solemn and plodding, which is so not us.”

Mason added: “I think movies, and certainly horror movies -- if you want to label ‘Panzer 88’ as horror -- are struggling and mostly failing now to come up with something new. We’re besieged by 3-D and the ‘bigger and more’ mentality. Well, whatever happened to just doing something different? I think that’s what attracted Peter to Jim Cowan and myself’s original script. And that freshness is what’s making people sit up and notice this project.”

The project has stirred interest already with horror fans due to the participation of Weta, the visual-effects and film prop house in New Zealand that has become an elite brand name with credits such as “The Lord of the Rings” films, “King Kong” and “Avatar.” Richard Taylor, the design and effects supervisor of Weta Workshop, said via e-mail that, like the Oscar-nominated District 9,” there’s a chance with “Panzer” to make a visually compelling film with a nimble production.

“It has been fantastic being involved in the early stages of a project that has already had such a significant body of preparatory production work done,” Taylor said. “It seems that Gary and Peter have explored all production scenarios and analyzed all and every film-making option in an effort to produce an epic film on a respectable budget.”

For Kurtz, “Panzer” is pulling him back into the feature-film business. Briggs said the presence of Kurtz has ramped up the interest in the project and brought considerable filmmaking prowess to the movie. “I think it’s criminal he’s taken such a lengthy sabbatical from filmmaking, but I’m thrilled that he’s back with a vengeance on ‘Panzer.’”


Watching where Kurtz takes “Panzer” -- and vice versa -- will be interesting to track.

The producer left the Jedi universe after creative differences with George Lucas, and while that has made Kurtz, now 70, an integrity figure to many “Star Wars” scholars, his own career was hardly one for the history books. The Jim Henson and Frank Oz epic The Dark Crystal took three years to make and found commercial success elusive, while the Walter Murch-directed “Return to Oz” left most critics cold. The 1989 movie “Slipstream,” a collaboration with “Tron” director Steven Lisberger and starring Mark Hamill, was a disaster on all fronts.

Kurtz is 30 years removed from his “Empire” days and says that he has no desire to return to truly massive movie-making.

“I’m not interested in tentpole pictures; I think smaller films work better for the filmmaker and for the audience. For me, producing ‘American Graffiti’ was a more pleasurable experience than producing ‘Star Wars’ in a lot of ways.... I think all of the better films I’ve seen recently were more modest in concept and execution. The Europeans have known this for a long time. Right now, a movie like ‘Panzer’ is what I want to see ... and what I want to make.”

-- Geoff Boucher

Artwork: Concept art for “Panzer 88” courtesy of Peter Briggs. Photo: Gary Kurtz on the set of “Empire Strikes Back,” courtesy of the filmmaker.


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