The actors knew what they were signing up for when they agreed to head out into the desert for Damien Lay’s WWI thriller GAME OF ACES. Shooting long days under natural light, sometimes rushing to get shots as the sun set so only one or two takes might be possible, working on a period film on an indie budget, rolling up their sleeves like everyone else on the shoot… so why do it?

“It was the script,” says Chris Klein, who plays downed fighter pilot Jackson Cove, an American ace working with the British Allies in the North African Desert in 1918. “Most independent films, the scripts aren’t ready,” he says, “so many filmmakers get excited about making their first film that they forget about the story, and about the characters, and most importantly dialogue.” In a film like this, where there isn’t the budget to hide behind, or giant explosions to distract the audience, the film becomes all about the interplay of the actors.

Klein savored the opportunity to play Cove, who is a bit of a recluse, a bit of a wild card, a bit of a drunk, but mostly an Everyman. “I’m really drawn to those types,” he says, “you don’t seem them in films much anymore, rough and tumble, full of flaws.” Cove’s mission is to head out into the desert and retrieve a downed German pilot, a double agent, but also the man who shot down Cove’s brother.  His partner on the journey is a nurse and German translator, Eleanor Morgan, played by Victoria Summer. “She’s got a bit of an edge to her,” she says, “and without revealing anything, makes a pretty strong turn in the film.”

GAME OF ACES is full of turns in fact, which is part of its charm. Instead of WWI dogfights, the film is more like a 3-man play, with characters vying for advantage over each other and the elements.  When the two would-be heroes find their target, he is suffering from amnesia and cannot remember he is a double-agent.  He takes Eleanor hostage and drive off into the desert. Despite the indie label, writer/director Damien Lay makes the most of his assets, which include period aircraft, a Ford Model T replica, three dedicated and top notch actors, and miles of sand dunes..

“Damien’s whole thing is he wanted to make a movie that felt like a throwback film, like a film from a different era,” says Klein “hopefully people watch it and respond ‘wow this is what we’ve been missing, this look, these characters,’ after the long summer, the tentpoles, maybe catching a wind going into autumn.” This is the kind of film that a few years ago would have been an easy sell at an arthouse, like a “Merchant Ivory” with guns, and it is easy to see why the actors wanted to sign on for the journey. “I got to play with the boys, run up and down the dunes, shoot this World War I replica gun,” Summer beams, but for her, it was also about the script. Coming on late in the process, she read the script, agreed in three hours and then had a five day crash course in German before arriving on set and immediately start shooting.  “It was very daunting,” she says, “but to have that kind of character and go through that kind of transformation is a dream come true for an actress.”

Klein is quick to point out that Summer wasn’t afraid to get her hands dirty on set. “This is independent film, we all knew what we were getting into,” he says, “if there’s a 10k [a big light]that has to be moved, I’m going to roll up my sleeves and move it, and Victoria wasn’t afraid to do that either.  I wouldn’t ask her to move a 10k, but a 5k maybe.” With a background in stage acting, Summer was excited to show off her skills in a way she hadn’t before in films such as SAVING MR. BANKS and TRANSFORMERS: AGE OF EXTINCTION.  “Working with Chris, and being out there, on that set in those costumes,” she smiles, “it was worth getting sand out of your bra every night.” Both actors felt amazingly lucky to have the opportunity to do the film. “Even if there is a role I might be right for,” Klein says, “everyone one in the world is available to that director.  They can go on VOD and see something like 2000 actors’ work. I’ve been thinking a lot about that since the Olympics. It’s like the best of the best, and you might be some director’s fifteenth fallback.”

Shot for 25 days near Death Valley – “Dumont Dunes,” says Klein, “now all these dune-buggy-guys are going to be pissed at me because it’s like their secret park.”

GAME OF THRONES never feels held back by its budget. The film relies on its actors to tell the story but there are planes, there are action sequences, and yes, there are explosions.  “It is old school filmmaking,” says Summer, “You don’t have films like that now, where everything’s CGI, greenscreen, we didn’t have that. Everything we shot was in the camera. We did those stunts for real, in the camera.”

As a reviewer, I don’t get many films like this.  As a film festival programmer, I see them all the time – little films-that-can, crammed with dreams and ingenuity, just hoping to be discovered.  Most of them never make it to a theatrical run.  GAME OF ACES succeeds because despite the contained setting/plot/cast, everything is executed with skill and authority.  But most of it comes down to style.  This is not a modern film that happens to be set in 1918.  This film feels out of another era, and that’s a good thing.  It would be unfair to compare it the standard Hollywood war pic.  I’ve read a few reviews that seem to fall all over themselves to make labored flying metaphors and then point out that Eleanor’s makeup looks too perfect to be authentic.  Have they never seen a film made before 1970? There was a time when films didn’t have to covered in grit and could transport us to earlier era.  It’s an imagined, almost idealized version of that era, but sometimes that actually helps tell the story.  In this case, Lay’s film plays as an homage to an earlier era, when films themselves conjured up simpler times in bold colors and sharp stories, romanticized stories of heroes and femme fatales.  It’s an homage to an homage, a strong style choice to make on indie budget, and one that makes me want to recommend this film to everyone I can.

“Independent filmmaking can be a thankless business,” says Klein, “the fact that we’ve over come so much to get as far as we’ve gotten so far with a premiere in a theater is really cool and it speaks volumes to Damien Lay for his fortitude.  So many guys would have folded by now. And he never did.”

I also have to mention that in doing my research on this film, I came across a review that kept referencing WWII and films like “Inglorious Basterds,” so that’s what an indie film like this is up against, people who can’t even be bothered to read the opening supertitles that say 1918 (or who only learn their history from Tarantino).  Anyway, mini rant over.  See this film.

GAME OF ACES made its US Premiere in Austin at the Cinemark Southpark Meadows where it plays exclusively in town for the next week.  Chris Klein, a graduate of TCU, is now a resident of Austin, where he moved with his wife (a UT grad) to have their first child. I asked him what he recommends to people visiting Austin for the first time. “First I’d have them eat in some of the amazing restaurants we have downtown, because we really have some of the best in the country,” he says, “then I would send them out to highway 290, out west to see the Hill Country.” Klein says he has really enjoyed getting a different perspective here, away from the coast: “as we’ve gotten older [he and his wife], we find ourselves just gravitating more and more back here.”

Sitting down with Chris Klein, I can’t help but ask about the character he made famous, Chris ‘Oz’ Ostreicher of the American…Saga (is it right to call it that?  I think so – it takes us from virginity to marriage to that inevitable disappointing high school reunion). That moment he bailed on the second half of the Lacrosse match to sing A Capella with Mena Suvari, he’s basically to blame for Glee and Pitch Perfect and Straight No Chaser selling ten zillion crappy records.  “I don’t take the blame, I relish it,” he says, “if we started a movement, I’m never going to say it, but if you want to say it, I’ll give it to you, no argument”

GAME OF ACES opens tonight nationwide.


And just for fun, this…


Bears Fonte covers indie film for AMFM Magazine and programs and consults for film festivals nationwide.  He is the Founder and Executive Director of Other Worlds Austin SciFi Film Festival as well as the former Director of Programming for Austin Film Festival.  His short The Secret Keeper played at 40 festivals, his feature iCrime was released in 2011 by Vicious Circle.





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