The Man Who Makes It Happen:
An Interview With Steve Wargo

Share | | Synthetic Human Web Exclusive 01-08-2011 | Steve Wargo's Website

Written by: SHP Staff Writer

Whether it is a small independent film or a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster, everyone knows that if you plan to shoot a movie in Arizona you need to talk to Steve. With a career in the industry spanning more than 30 years, Director, Producer, and Cinematographer Steve Wargo is one of the most respected names for film making in the state. His production studio and rental house, SWAT HD (formerly Show-N-Tell Productions), delivers the gold standard for video editing, post-production engineering, and duplication. He was the first to shoot on an HD camera in Arizona, taking the plunge in August of 2002. His crew of professionals has their hands in the majority of the larger film shoots in the Valley. With his trusty Sony F-900, his mobile grip studio, and his eye for detail, Steve rolls onto every set ready to take care of business.

Steve has been a major supporting force behind Synthetic Human Pictures since the beginning. He is always there to lend a hand with barely a moment's notice, saving several Synthetic Human productions from falling apart or compromising their vision. When part of downtown Phoenix was closed off for a major scene in the 2007 film Drain and the generator powering the massive lights shut down, Steve hopped in his truck and came to the rescue. Within minutes, the power was restored and filming quickly resumed. Spirits were high and, with the help of Steve Wargo, Synthetic Human was able to finish one of the most ambitious scenes they have ever committed to film.

I recently sat down with Mr. Wargo to find out more about what makes him go. What drives the man who some describe as both someone filled with ingenuity and integrity, as well as an "ornery old bastard," to be such a powerful and deciding force in the business?

Steve, when did you know that you wanted to be a film maker?

In 1979, I saw an article in the Arizona Republic asking for extras in an upcoming movie to be shot in the Valley titled Used Cars. I showed up and they actually gave me a speaking part for a character known as "The Food Giant." Later, the part was given to SAG actor Tiny Wells. I spent 12 days on set with my Harley Chopper and actually got a head-shot in the film. Lead actor Jack Warden sat with the extras almost every day at lunch and got us excited about being involved in Used Cars.

I have a 2 second scene in The Gauntlet (Clint Eastwood) 1977 and you can almost see me in Cloud Dancer (David Carradine, Jennifer O'Neil) 1980.

So the famous eye behind the lens of SWAT HD got his start in front of the camera. When did you finally get to have some creative input of your own on a film?

In 1989, I met Director Ken Kennedy and he was re-cutting his film, Aggie. He had decided that the film needed to have a new segment where the main actor was interviewed by a news crew before she was escorted to the gas chamber. We built a jail cell and an execution room, complete with gallery seating, in the warehouse of Star Video Duplicating. The original movie was shot on 35mm and I was shooting all of the new scenes on my SONY VO-8800 3/4" tape deck and a Panasonic 300-CLE camera, which had 3 chips instead of the customary nuvicon tubes. This was my first movie shoot and we matched in the footage without any computers.

I feel that type of analog editing is more satisfying than using a computer. There's something to be said about tactile knobs and sliders. Speaking of, you are also well-known for running a very efficient, high-quality editing studio. How did you get your start working in post-production? And what was the first film that you created about?

My first full length feature film that I shot was The Last Gunfighter in 2002 starring Tony Casanova. We shot that over three weeks at Cowtown near Lake Pleasant. All of the actors were experienced Western types with authentic clothing and guns. Seven of the actors were stunt men and women. We had a roll down a hill, a crash through a roof, we set a guy on fire and kicked him through a wall, fistfights, and near the end one of the stunt guys did a jump through a tall second story window onto a big rubber pad. We shot that scene last just in case…

Following that, we shot Psycho Manor in Prescott, also in 2002. We shot all of the principal footage in 5 very long days. We had a huge Victorian house to use and we wrapped the windows in black plastic and went to work. We never knew if it was daytime, nighttime or what. When we started to run out of time I decided to shoot until we were done, with no breaks, for 36 hours straight. The actors took turns sleeping and I caught a few minutes of sleep on a few occasions.

In July 2005, I shot The Hoax. The following month I shot The Controller. The Hoax (Director Huw Bowen) went to NetFlix and The Controller (Director Frank Michaels) did 6 months on Starz In Demand and has gone onto receive DVD distribution. Both films were shot on our Sony F-900 HDCAM CineAlta camera.

Wow, 36 hours straight. I have been on sets like that and there are usually a lot of short tempers by hour 20. How are you able to maintain the group's levels of creativity at that point?

The truth is that I expect everyone to do their job properly and without any bullshit. Although we want to have fun at our job, it's a job first and an entertainment outlet later.

All of the films you have mentioned were filmed in the scenic old West parts of the state, or in the picturesque mountains of the Northern Valley. What about Arizona makes it your chosen base of operations?

I moved to Arizona in 1975 from Akron, Ohio which is in the midwest's snow belt. Had I been in the film business, I probably would have gone on to L.A.. After a lifetime of working in the machine shop and automotive industries, I stumbled into the video business by accident and now I've been in the production world since late 1981. It's warm here and the weather's fantastic. We have every terrain within 200 miles and the people are a wide cross-section of America. We have it all right here.

I agree that Arizona has a lot to offer to film makers. We even see more and more productions coming in from L.A. each year. But there are some drawbacks.

Arizona's "Industry" since the 1950s has been electronics with Motorola, Honeywell and Intel being the big employers as well as Raytheon and several others. One of our biggest employers now is education with our main state colleges, Maricopa Community Colleges and the University of Phoenix.

What do you feel are the 3 biggest issues with trying to make successful films in Arizona?

1: We had a fairly thriving movie industry in the 1980s but Arizona has not developed a good tax incentive to invite more companies to shoot here.
2: Lack of film investors.
3: Money

It is indeed a very expensive prospect to make a feature film. If money was no object, what dream project would you undertake?

Several years ago, I came up with a movie plot that would be a possible Hollywood Blockbuster and I am quietly putting a script together with certain A-list actors in some daring roles.

You have said your favorite film is 12 Angry Men. What about that film calls to you?

It's a story of doing the right thing in the face of going against all of the evidence. It has fantastic writing and even greater acting. It proves that a movie does not have to be "big" to make an impression on Americans for years and years.

What film of yours are you most proud of and why?

All of my film work has been for others, and the film that I was given the most latitude on was The Hoax. Director Huw Bowen gave me carte blanche on how it was shot, and together, we made a very good looking film on a very meager budget.

That's a great thing when you find that synergy with your crew on a film. What was your favorite moment during the filming of The Hoax?

We had a scene where the main actors, playing homicide detectives, were in a helicopter. I had the pilot land the chopper on the back of a flatbed truck in preparation of our major scene. When we shot the scene, I had the pilot lift off of the bed about a foot and hover while the detectives were pursuing a known alien being. It was a dirt field at CJS Studios and the camera and I and were sitting on the ground, almost right under the helicopter, surrounded by crew, dirt flying everywhere from rotorwash, light flashing across the scene and unbelievable noise. We had two takes to get it right and the finished shot was incredible. However, we later discovered that our main actor had taken her headset off when getting instructions from the director. Our resident genius, Adam Benson, built a headset in 3D Studio Max and put it on her head.

What about The Hoax would you do differently if you could go back and do it all over again?

We would have liked to have shot two more scenes because I felt that the story lacked a comprehensive conclusion. There were too many unanswered questions at the end of the story and the writer would not budge.

You have your hand in cinematography, directing, editing and you run a successful production studio and rental house. What is a non-film-related passion of yours that most people might not know about?

Building custom cars and motorcycles. In 1965, a friend and I built a badass '64 Chevy that won many trophies at Dragway 42 in Ohio. In high school, when the other guys were making ash trays in metal shop, I took a 312 engine from a '57 T-Bird and dropped it into the back seat of a 1950 Ford Coupe, using a panel truck transmission attached directly to the rear differential. That car would do moderate wheelstands. We didn't have wide tires back then so getting enough grip to pull the front wheels up was quite an accomplishment. I owned a '1957 Corvette in '67 and I customized it with a big block 454, a tube front axle and tilt front end. Started building custom Harleys in '68. Had that custom shop 'til I moved to Arizona in '75.

You are always up to something, so I know I must be keeping you from several projects right now. What is next on the agenda?

We are working on three feature films. One is based on a short that was done for a short film competition and it has a huge future. The second is a docudrama based on national health issues and the third is a crazy comedy that starts out on the Jerry Springer Show and goes nuts from there.

You have worked with and helped Synthetic Human Pictures for several years now. You also seem to work with just about every other film company in the Valley. Every time I go to a film festival I see your name scrolling upwards on the end credits of most of the films. Are you actually a film sage sent from movie heaven to bestow your skill and wisdom upon the people of the land?

The Synthetic Human team is just that – A Great Team. They are consistent, professional and dedicated. They have formed a production team of young, multi-talented artists who work closely to create very interesting and entertaining visual programs with an unexpected level of quality. Although I help and mentor many young filmmakers, I always look forward to being part of the Synthetic Human projects because each one stands on its own when it comes to originality and high production value.

A lot of that value comes from your contributions. You helped secure a great location for the film Tension of Skin and have offered priceless technical advice to boost the level of quality in the final product. With that said, what other gems of wisdom can we get from you that will help us as we move forward? What advice would you give other Arizona film makers who aspire to have a long-lasting career like yourself?

Never give up and always follow your dream. Find a team of people to work with who will push you to a new level on every project. Never let anyone tell you that you can't do something, unless he's in a police uniform and has a gun. Even then, we've been known to push it a little bit.

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