Since the release of his 2017 cult hit, Wheels, fans of filmmaker Donavon Warren have eagerly awaited his return to the big screen. Now, with his upcoming project Vampire Apocalypse, the beloved actor/writer/director is returning from hiatus, bringing his unique style to a new genre. After weeks of playing catch-up with Donavon’s frantic schedule, we finally got a chance to sit down with him and get some new details on the upcoming film.
Let’s start at the beginning. Who is Donavon Warren? What were some of the early influences that led you down this path?
I was born in Albuquerque New Mexico and lived there until I was 8. That was the longest stretch I spent in any one place as a kid. My mom, who raised me and my brother on her own, worked for the FAA, so we had to move all the time for her job. From New Mexico, to Oklahoma, Texas, California, back to Texas… I never spent more than two years at the same school. Eventutally I ended up living with other family in Santa Barbara and things went sideways. I spent the last 8 months of high school living out of my car. By that point there was no point going anywhere else. I wanted to go to Los Angeles to make movies. I remember my friend asking me “How are you going to have money to move to LA, you are living in your car?” I told him all I had to do was drive down there. (Laughing) It’s funny how things work out like that sometimes. All you have to do is get started to go where you want to go. I wanted to make movies, so I drove to LA as soon as I graduated.
I started out as an actor, but I also love making films, so I started a production company called Loaded Dice Films. After years of work, fighting through endless chaos and setbacks, I finally completed Wheels with the help of a truly amazing cast and rew. It was a rough trip, but I’m really happy with how it came out. The day it went up on Amazon was incredible – I just love knowing that people all over the world are seeing and enjoying this thing I’ve made.
There was a long break after Wheels. Why the hiatus?
I needed some time to decompress, readjust and figure out the direction I wanted to go in. Wheels was this unique anomaly of a film we willed into being for $60,000. I’ve settled into calling it an indie drama for simplicity’s sake, but really it’s hard to categorize in terms of genre, tone, etc. Ultimately, I think it was a success, but I decided that I wanted to be a little more focused and intentional about the direction of my next project. I spent years playing around with a variety of different concepts, and everything seemed to be pointing towards more action and grit, which meant a higher budget. Ultimately, Vampire Apocalypse emerged as the logical next step, both for me and for the company.
Can you tell us anything about the other projects you worked on in between?
After we released Wheels in 2017, I started working on a time travel concept called Time Wars. It’s a really cool idea that I hope to shoot eventually, but I hadn’t fully anticipated how tricky it is to handle time travel in a screenplay. The complexity just mushrooms out of control, and you end up with this spiderweb of plot holes and loose ends. I did ultimately finish that script, and the plan is to turn it into a 4-part series of action/sci-fi films. But with tons of stunts, a huge cast, multiple period settings, CGI, and so on, it’s an expensive project, and I don’t want to sell it short by trying to do it on a shoestring. Budget-wise, Vampire Apocalypse is a great midpoint between Wheels and Time Wars, and more importantly, I absolutely love the project. It’s really the more logical next step. I can’t help but pour my life and soul into whatever project I’m working on, and this lets me move forward in terms of my craft and career, hopefully without killing myself in the meantime.
I should probably point out to our readers that you’re speaking very literally there. You nearly starved yourself to death during the production of Wheels, right?
I wouldn’t say “to death,” but I definitely sacrificed my body for the project. To lose 50 lbs for the role, I starved myself to the point where I got kicked out of a medical study because my heart rate was so low it kept setting off the life support alarms.
It’s just how I operate, in life and as a director. The number one thing that got Wheels made was my decision that I was going to finish the movie or die trying, no matter what. It was bleed and bleed and bleed until you’ve almost bled out, then bleed some more. It’s 7 days a week on the playground for me. I can’t see it being any other way.
You wrote Wheels on your own but co-directed it alongside Tim Gagliardo. What’s the plan for Vampire Apocalypse?
I’m going solo on this one. It’s not that I wouldn’t love working with another director, I just would have to find the right symbiotic director for the job. If I found someone else who I knew was the right director for this film or the next one, it would honestly be a huge relief to hand over the reins, but I just can’t let go for Vampire Apocalypse. My ultimate goal is to work with other directors, but I will always produce my own films. I’d love to work with other producers, but I would not write a script and hand it off completely to another producer. My films are my babies.
I’m a big fan of your performance in Wheels. How have you trained as an actor?
I trained really hard for about a decade, I was always constantly training but honestly I don’t think it’s the amount of time that’s important, it’s the way you train. I was always trying to break the stage.
Break the stage?
It reached a point in my training where I would go up to the teacher and say “Give me the biggest barn burner in your book.” Acting teachers have these books full of scenes to rehearse, and I would tell them, “give me the hardest scene you have. I want the barn burner.” I did that for a few years, then I would pick my own scenes and my own partners. I would do first draft versions of scripts, then final versions. I would never watch the film until I was done doing the scene. I would bring full effects. I did naked scenes. I brought a swimming pool into class once.
This was kind of one of the turning points in my acting. I was looking for really impossible scenes that would force me way out of my comfort zone in as many ways as possible. So one day I was watching The Abyss, and there’s this scene where the sub is filling up with freezing water, and there is only one oxygen mask. One character has to let the other drown, so that hypothermia will keep them in suspended animation long enough to be brought back to the rig and resuscitated. It’s a phenomenal scene by James Cameron. So I brought it into class. I put these jugs of water around on bookcases and poked holes in them to make water pour in like through the holes in the leaking submarine hull. The pool was to catch the water and provide water reflections to light the scene. It was really cool and very challenging. I love stuff like that.
I’m guessing you have more acting class stories in this vein, and I’m guessing I owe it to the readers to ask you about them.
Probably the all time favorite was Oldboy. The original Korean version. I learned how to make homemade breakaway glass. So I made all these sheets of glass and set them up like they were art pieces. The scene starts with my scene partner walking in naked, then he tells me my character has unknowingly been sleeping with my own daughter. Then I jump through these sheets of glass to hurt myself. Chop out my own tongue. Then my scene partner uses a stage gun full of blanks to shoot himself. Good times.
I just can’t help but ask. Was there anything you couldn’t do?
I became absolutely obsessed with this one scene from Mission: Impossible 3. It’s the scene where Ethan Hunt is tied up and the villain shoots his wife. It is a very simple, but extremely intense scene. I wouldn't say I never got it right, but I could never get it in the first take. I went through so many scene partners it was crazy. The teacher told me over and over again to stop bringing that scene to class, until finally she realized it was something I had to keep tackling. I think to become really good at something, you have to get obsessive and go a little crazy. You have to beat your head against it until you get angry, then keep going until you get frustrated. Then do it a thousand more times. Then you can become great. That’s always been my attitude. Just keep going after it like a beast.
And that’s the approach you’re bringing to Vampire Apocalypse?
1 million percent. My philosophy is, you get one life, there are no do-overs. Why would I not go out there and get it? I look back at Wheels and what we did with that small film. We had no money, no resources. We used what we had, and we didn’t let anything stop us. We put one foot in front of the other and kept going. That’s what filmmaking is about. That’s what life is about. Yeah, you get beat up in the process. Wounds heal, and the day carries on. The sun will set, and the sun will rise.
Tell us a little bit more about Vampire Apocalypse.
The story is about a group of survivors that are trying to live a normal life in a world that’s been wiped out by a plague that mutates people into biological vampires. Our heroes have found safety and established themselves on a desert island off the coast, but things get crazy when the group has to venture to the vampire-infested mainland for medicine.
We are scheduled to shoot in February of 2023 for a release in the Fall. And audiences are going to fucking crazy for this movie.
I’m sold, but let’s give our readers a little credit – they’ve heard that line before. Why this movie, why now?
We all just survived a potential apocalypse with COVID, and we’re just getting started with the aftermath. Post-apocalyptic movies took off after the 2008 meltdown, and this time, I think it’ll be even bigger. The question nagging at the back of everyone’s mind is no longer “what if the world ended?”, it’s “is this the big one? Is this the one that ends it for real?” At the same time, there’s also this really seductive fantasy of surviving the apocalypse and having the world at your fingertips and the future in your hands. Movies allow us to confront the anxiety and live out the fantasy at the same time, from the comfort and safety of a theater. This movie has the end of the world, action, and vampires. What more could you want in 2023?