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

Aug. 23, 2010 | 4:43 p.m.
Gary Kurtz, the producer of the first two "Star Wars" films, had a clear tinge of eager energy when discussing "Panzer 88."


Panzer 88

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…”

Panzer 88 3

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.”

Panzer 88 2

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.'”

Gary Kurtz Empire Strikes Back

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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21 Responses to ‘Star Wars’ producer rolls into horror with ‘Panzer 88’

  1. THE_TRUTH says:

    No decent person would make a movie portraying NAZIS as HEROES. "Panzer 88"? 88 is well-known in the Neo-Nazi movement as standing for HEIL HITLER since H is the 8th letter of the alphabet, 88=HH. This movie is disgusting and evil!

    • AFuchs says:

      Guess what Buddy. They're GERMANS, not Nazis. Get it through your thick ignorant skull that the vast majority of German soldiers in the Second World War committed not a single war crime.

      Get of your f*cking soapbox. It's about time we start seeing some WW2 movies with German protagonists.

      God knows we have more than enough Allied flicks…

      • Panzatroll says:

        Yeah its that funny thing with my country. After the war basicly 95% of all Germans said that they have been against the nazis all the time, 50% have been in active resistance and 75% hide jews. Also everybody knows and dosn't get tired to tell that hitler actually was austrian and not german. So in the end poor germany was taken over by a bunch of austrians who where really evil Nazis, but the germans have been al good people.
        Especially these germans that drove all the cool tanks around, they have had to be the good ones.

        so funny

        I still hope the golem wins.

    • Bryan says:

      I have four things to say to this:

      1. 88 is the caliber in mm of the main gun of the King Tiger.
      2. Panzer is a German word for tank.
      3. You're digging too deep into this.
      4. Stop whining.

  2. The Voice Of Doom says:

    The King Tiger is a Panzer. It had an 88 millimeter cannon.
    Briggs has already said that he was being careful to make the distinction between the soldiers in the tank, and the actual "evil" SS guys who set into motion the plot. If anything, the story seems more pro-Jewish, and the furthest thing from "evil" there is. Here's the link:
    No aryan conspiracy here.

  3. Luke Ryan says:

    To THE_TRUTH: Exactly what I was thinking! Maybe this guy's, "creative differences," with George Lucas had something to do with him being a total freakin' neo-nazi. I was sort of surprised the LA Times would run such a gushy piece without even touching on the whole, "88," thing. Weird.

    • bryan says:

      88 is the caliber in mm of the main gun of the German Tiger II, otherwise known as King Tiger.

      • Jim says:

        No one with any knowledge of the current neo-nazi landscape can use the number "88" without understanding the significance it holds. He is either very naive, ignorant or supportive of the movement. Was the King Tiger (Bengal Tiger actually) ever referred to as Panzer 88? How would this differenciate it from the Tiger I? Panther? It doesn't even make any sense in German. They didn't refer to the King Tiger as Panzer 88.

  4. Sheldon says:

    Not to correct such a legendary producer, but Kelly's Heroes was most definitely not a tank movie. It was a heist flick set in WWII – and the though an important part of an overall plan, the arc of the tank's involvement was not the principal part of the film [though Donald Sutherland definitely stole every scene he was in – which might be why Mr. Kurtz cites it…].
    As for Mor. Kurtz's post-Lucas films, The Dark Crystal may not have been a barnburner at the box office, but it is considered a classic and has become a veritable monster with its video [VHS, DVD and, now, Blu-ray] sales.
    Return to Oz may not have enchanted critics [who were, no doubt, looking for a more frothy production, a la the Judy Garland Wizard of Oz], but it was a very good film that hewed far more closely to the book on which it was based [which led to its being far darker in tone], than did the Garland vehicle.
    And some pretty notable and respected critics – Harlan Ellison for one – gave it very good reviews.
    Slipstream, though, was a total fiasco of MS3TK proportions and the less said about it the better…

  5. Joseph says:

    This sounds awesome.

  6. Ole says:

    I love this concept, saw the exclusive interview with the Minenraumer art, Engenious to see nazi prototypes, and old mumbo jumbo that nazis where connected with.. we need More such movies god damn it!

  7. […] the DGA atrium had filled with a remarkable array of individuals. I was there with Kurtz (with whom I’m collaborating on a movie), accompanied by his daughters. The perennially intoxicating Barbara Carrera (memorable as Fatima […]

  8. SGT Styles says:

    I'm sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for this movie. Sounds really entertaining.

    For the ignorant, uneducated people going on about the "88" reference. Clearly you dont know your tanks, weaponry OR history. The 88 was a fierce weapon that was feared on the battlefield. I used to listen to my Grandfather talk about "Hearing those 88s growl all night like monsters in the distance".

  9. Kyle says:

    Whatever the subject matter, the drawing of tank portrays a Panzer IV, not a Tiger II.

  10. derpderp says:

    It is a Tiger II, just equipped with side-skirts like a Panzer IV.

  11. M. Wittmann says:

    Why would a King Tiger need side skirts when it was arguably, at the time, one of the most heavily armored tanks in the war?

  12. dave says:

    i would rather see a jagdtiger tank destroyer used in the film (tank destroyer version of the tiger II) with a early production 128mm gun, bad ass monser to be sure! very cool movie idea, and by the way not all german troops were nazi's, most were regular wermact troops.

  13. benq says:

    Go nazis go

  14. benq says:

    king tigers are cool!

  15. Larry Anderson says:

    Saw on their Facebook webpage that they’re casting on this, and have a shooting date set. Awesome! Can’t wait. About time we had a fun movie to look forward to, instead of all the homogenized pap out there.

    How often d you get to root for a Jewish Golem in a movie?

  16. Kiwifangrrll says:

    Casting has opened with John and Ros Hubbard in London. I’m so psyched. I saw Briggs speaking on NZ Breakfast Time. This is so going to rock.

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