Michael Lukk Litwak’s short film, The Life and Death of Tommy Chaos and Stacey Danger, was a rare debut—the director’s undergrad film from NYU, it was an instantly iconic pastiche of diverse fantasy-adventure influences told with rare speed and verve. I was in love, and so were others—the film landed the young filmmaker representation at CAA, and kicked off a professional career.
Things have been slow, but steady, for Litwak since that film’s release in 2014. He’s consistently worked, building his skills, and has stretched himself in the process. We featured a subsequent short, Napoleon in Exile, which is a far cry from the zaniness of his breakthrough, focusing instead on grounded performances and controlled direction. In the interim scripts have been sold, commercial work has followed, as have exciting experiments like directing episodes of Doug Liman’s Samsung VR series, Invisible.
Yet with Alpha Squadron, today’s world premiere, it feels like Litwak has looped back to his roots, sharing a space-adventure story that brings back his charming DiY models and effects, and which serve to mask the deeply relatable and bittersweet character dynamics undergirding the fantasy.
Still, despite the similarities, the precocious undergrad filmmaker of Life and Death has given way to a more mature filmmaker dealing with his late 20’s. As such, Alpha Squadron has a different feel that reflects its creator’s changing stage of life. Speaking to us about the inspiration for the film, Litwak cited personal experience, sharing:
I had an argument with a close friend I hadn’t seen in a while and I had this sudden realization that we had both turned into completely different people and that we were never going to be the type of friends that we used to be.
This confrontation sparked the genesis of Alpha Squadron and is in many ways emblematic of Litwak’s artistic and storytelling approach—to take relatable experiences and then place them in unconventional settings. Essentially, people in larger-than-life worlds dealing with grounded real-life problems.
In Alpha Squadron the drifting away of close friends is dramatized through a crack team of fighter pilots. After a typically exciting mission, Alpha 4 (Sunita Mani) declines the invitation to celebrate with space beers by dropping a figurative bomb—she’s heading off to grad school and is leaving the squad.
The potential dissolution of his crew throws Alpha Leader (Griffin Newman) into a funk. 4’s replacement annoys the hell out of him, and further defections occur. Faced with his closest mates embarking upon new stages of their lives, Leader feels adrift, refusing to move on.
The film takes place entirely in cockpits, so while the script is smart, with several humorous touches, your mileage will depend heavily on your affinity for the characters. Since the characters communicate exclusively over headsets, the natural metaphor is online gaming, and I’d expect the film to especially resonate with heavy co-op gamers. Visually, despite the limited setting, the film is pretty dang cool—unapologetically lo-fi, the largely practical effects are nonetheless expertly constructed on a shoe-string budget. If this kind of ingenious production problem-solving is your cup of tea, you’re in luck! Litwak has prepared an excellent BTS that provides a great overview of the techniques and process.
Alpha Squadron wasn’t conceived with grand ambitions in mind—Litwak really wanted to just stay busy and improve his VFX skills while larger projects (including a feature adaptation of Life and Death) made their way through development. Still the proof-of-concept ended up finding a champion in Paul Feig’s new digital venture Powderkeg—the company is planning to expand the world of the short as a digital series. Litwak has a lot of balls in the air at the moment, and his unique and highly appealing creative voice, tempered by his growing experience, lead us to believe that a breakthrough is imminent.