Feeling the (Kung) Fury

Quite a while ago, in a place quite far north in Sweden, twenty-something FX artist David Sandberg quit his job, sold all his stuff and made an ’80s-inspired B-movie packed with retro gadgets, dinosaurs and terrible acting… the result was Kung Fury, the most-watched Swedish trailer of all time and possibly the most awesome film ever made*

(First published in N by Norwegian magazine, September 2015)

Things weren’t looking brilliant for David Sandberg a few years ago. “I’d sold my TV, I’d sold my couch and I was living on 10 kronor tubes of bean soup. I was having fun, but my parents were a little nervous and my friends thought I’d fallen off the face of the Earth.”

Sandberg had quit his job as a visual effects artist and stopped doing commercials – all for a plan that sounded, well, a bit ridiculous. “I wanted to make a movie inspired by Miami Vice and the ’80s that had dinosaurs and robots and gadgets – a kid’s dream, basically,” he explains. “It started with me writing down cool words: I wrote down ‘kung fu’ and ‘fury’ and got to ‘kung fury’. I thought: I’ve got an awesome title, I have to do something with this.”

His main problems were as follows: he’d never made a feature film before; he lived in Umeå, a town in a remote corner of northern Sweden; and he barely had a few thousand kronor to rub together. Avatar, this was not.

Fast-forward a few years, and last year the trailer for Kung Fury became the most-watched trailer ever for a Swedish film, with almost 13 million YouTube views. At press time, the half-hour version of the movie had been seen almost 20 million times, and Sandberg was a surprise hit at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, with Variety magazine calling Kung Fury “the most awesome project in Cannes”. If you go to Umeå airport now, there’s a huge sign that reads: “Kung Fury lives here.”

“It’s weird,” admits Sandberg. “It was meant to be this little idea that I’d put on the internet, but it’s grown and grown. The response has been more than I ever could have imagined – it’s all been a little overwhelming.”

To describe the plot of Kung Fury is almost to miss the point. Sandberg himself plays a Miami cop in the ’80s with extraordinary kung fu powers, who – after rejecting a buddy-cop partnership with a well-spoken triceratops – is sent back in time to kill Adolf Hitler, aka The Kung Führer. With the help of Hackerman, he goes too far back in time, meets Thor, a T-Rex and some Viking babes (one played by Sandberg’s real-life girlfriend, Eleni Young), finally gets to Nazi Germany and… well, you really just have to watch it.
The film is all bad acting, retro gadgets and nudge-wink ’80s references, from Miami Vice to Back to the FutureMASKHe-Man and Mortal Kombat (anyone who recognises the words “Finish him!” will enjoy the Nazi fight scene). Aside from the outdoor Viking scenes, shot in northern Sweden, the action was shot against a green screen in Sandberg’s tiny Umeå studio, which stands in for ’80s Miami and ’40s Germany.

The brilliantly OTT effects were designed to mimic a slightly scratchy VHS version of an ’80s B-movie. To cap it all off, David Hasselhoff not only appears in the film – he allegedly watched 15 seconds of the trailer before saying, “I’m in” – but performed the movie’s theme song, True Survivor, which has its own very naff video.

The whole film, and the story behind it, seem just a little bit too good to be true. “I know,” says Sandberg, “it feels like that to me, too.”

Sandberg, who was born in Kiruna but moved to Umeå aged three months, first got into visual effects at 16,  when he says he  bought a “manual thicker than the Bible and taught myself 3D animation. The aim initially was really just to get good enough at animation that I could put a T-Rex in something.”
By 19, he scored his first job as an animator and was directing music videos and commercials by his early twenties. “I was doing FX and commercials with the aim of eventually becoming a feature film director,” he says. “That was always the dream, but after a while I realised it wasn’t going to just happen. To become a feature film director, I realised I had to direct a feature film.”

So, just over three years ago, he quit everything and put US$5,000 (NOK41,100)of his own savings into the idea that would become Kung Fury. “It was a tough sell to get anyone involved,” he remembers. “At the time, I was obsessed with [Swedish ’80s synth musician] Mitch Murder, and thought that he needed to do the soundtrack, which included writing a song for David Hasselhoff. I emailed Mitch, heard nothing for two weeks and was totally bummed out. But then he emailed: it was his dream to make a song for the Hoff, and he was in. It was the start.”

Sandberg coerced many of his friends to help out, including his girlfriend, who plays two characters, and a bunch of friends from Umeå, many working for free. He realised he had the acting ability to play the lead – “Mostly it’s just moving your jaw and looking concerned,” he says – though casting Thor was more of a challenge.

“We needed someone really ripped, but with a beard, which was surprisingly hard to find,” recalls Sandberg. “Most the bodybuilders are totally hairless. Eventually I saw a guy on Reddit, Andreas Cahling, and was like: that’s him! He’s a Swede living in San Diego, and flying him over was by far the biggest expense we’d had.”

As Sandberg gradually ran out of money (“We struggled to even afford the police uniform in the trailer”), he was desperately searching for funding. “I’d go to film institutes and other bodies with moodboards and sketches, but it was quite hard to keep saying, ‘Imagine there’s a T-Rex standing there.’ At least one potential backer told me I was crazy.”

With funds all but gone, Sandberg got enough footage together to put a two-minute trailer on Kickstarter in late 2013. Despite the fact that he’d done the effects virtually all by himself, it became a viral sensation, and he smashed his target of US$200,000 (NOK1.6m) to raise more than US$630,000. As many as 14,000 people wrote wanting to collaborate, and Jorma Taccone of American comedy trio The Lonely Island volunteered to play Hitler.

Crucially, it allowed Sandberg to get help with the effects, including hiring Swedish visual effects studio Fido, who would spend 12,000 man hours helping Sandberg to create a 30-minute version of Kung Fury.

“Without Kickstarter, we wouldn’t have got past the trailer,” Sandberg says. “The film is totally a product of the internet. I definitely couldn’t have done this five years ago.”

By the standard of any movie involving special effects, though, it was still a tiny budget – and if anything things just got stranger. “There were all these random people coming up to Umeå, and we were like kids playing in a sandbox, just trying out all these crazy ideas. Like, for the scene where Kung Fury fights all the Nazis, I’d planned to do the fighting myself and CGI my legs to make it more impressive. But it looked ridiculous, so I had to hire a body double who could actually do kung fu.

“Looking back, it was madness, but we kept going because it was so much fun. A lot of people involved said it was the best time they’d ever had doing a film – it was movie magic!”

So, with a 30-minute version online, what’s next? He’s developing a feature film script with US producers David Katzenberg and Seth Grahame-Smith of KatzSmith Productions. It will be a new idea that will have different characters but keep the ’80s nostalgia and humour of the original idea. “It’s really exciting,” says Sandberg. “They’re just as obsessed with all things ’80s, and they totally get it.”

Beyond that, Sandberg isn’t ruling out becoming a “normal” film-maker. “Kickstarter made this project, but it was an exhausting process – I don’t want to make every film I do like that, and I don’t want to just be the guy who always does ’80s homages.”

As for now, he’s just happy with the rash decision he made. “It was a lot of bean soup, more hard work and more overwhelming than I ever could have expected… but yes, it was worth it. It’s been fun.”

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