Tyler Shields started skating professionally at the age of 12 and made it to the top of the extreme athlete podium before he turned his talents to art photography and high-end shoots, but he says directing his debut feature was the biggest risk yet, if only because he’d promised his Robin Williams he’d make it the right way.
By Katherine Monk
LOS ANGELES – Robin Williams made him promise to be true to his creative soul, and while it hasn’t been easy, Tyler Shields has managed to resist the temptation of quick hits and lowest common denominator success to pursue a unique vision in the richly saturated shadows.
An art star in the world of fine art photography and a former professional in-line skater, Shields has certainly felt the warm glow of popular success in the past, but when he decided to follow his childhood dream of becoming a filmmaker, he knew things would be different. And they were.
Shields directed the B.C.-shot thriller Final Girl in 2013, and while it’s just coming out now via streaming services, the California kid says he’s been living with the work since the production wrapped. “Obviously, you grow as an artist, and with anything you make, you look back and you think I could do this or I could do that differently, but part of it is you have to let it go and let it be what it is,” says Shields.
“The good thing is the response has been fantastic, and that’s the goal when you make something like this.”
A thriller starring Abigail Breslin, Wes Bentley, Alexander Ludwig, Cameron Bright and Reece Thompson, Final Girl is geared around the idea of revenge. Bentley plays a character who lost his family to a group of privileged killers and in order to get even, he trains a little orphan (Breslin) to become the perfect assassin.
“When I first thought of the character, I thought of him as an Olympics coach gone really wrong,” says Shields, who revamped the script to make it his own. “It was just a story about guys killing women before I got it. I changed everything. And because the film was financed by Jack Nasser, who works in Vancouver and makes movies in Vancouver (such as Steve Austin’s Damage, Steve Austin’s Hunt to Kill, The Whole Ten Yards and Steve Austin’s Tactical Force) I came up with a concept that would fit the Vancouver locations.
“I put my own twist on it. There was nothing period about it before. There was no style. It was just a completely different movie. And that’s one of the reasons why, when they came to me, I said listen: I will do this movie if you let me do it my way and put a real spin on it. And they agreed to it. But I think they were surprised by just how stylized it was.”
Shot by Greg Middleton (now working on Game of Thrones), Final Girl looks like a psychotic nightmare. The frames are dark and moody, and often entirely surreal thanks to the haunted old growth forests strewn with stringy lichen, but it’s set in the era of Happy Days and post-war optimism. “I thought it would be interesting to set in the ‘50s and give it the whole Edward Hopper-esque look and that Norman Rockwell tone because it’s not something you see in movies anymore. This was a movie for a new generation. So why not introduce art from an old generation to a new one?”
People come to every period of human history with an idea of what it was like to live in another time, and Shields says the post-war glow was really a great big lie. “If you look back at the history, some of the most vicious people lived in the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, but we like to romanticize the past. The truth is there were dark undertones in those times.”
Bentley’s character is the father figure transformed by hate: protective but highly violent. “He’s the gym coach who says I don’t care if you have a broken ankle, as long as you make the landing.”
It’s the perfect role for Bentley, who famously talked about the beauty of a plastic bag in American Beauty, but Shields says the producers were hoping to get Robert Downey Jr. for the part. “I said listen, we’re not going to get Robert Downey Jr. He’s great. But this was just after Iron Man. Still, they spent a month trying. Then they did what Abigail and I has asked them to do, which was get Wes Bentley.”
Shields says that’s the way the worm turns in Tinseltown, and if you can’t cope with the long waits, the immediate, angst-filled rushes and the constant grind of rejections, then you have to do something else with your life.
“You know, it’s funny. In other areas of life, people tell you to take things day by day. But in Hollywood, and I use that as a term for the industry – not the place – you can’t take things day by day. A million things can change over the course of a day, and you’d go insane.”
“You know, it’s funny. In other areas of life, people tell you to take things day by day. But in Hollywood, and I use that as a term for the industry – not the place – you can’t take things day by day. A million things can change over the course of a day, and you’d go insane. You know, you’ll get a text from someone saying they want Robert Downey Jr, and so you think, okay, where will this film be a month from now? Chances are, we’ll be casting Wes Bentley, and we were,” he says.
“So I tell my friends to live month by month, quarter by quarter, year by year. I know that’s an odd view,” says Shields, 33. “But I have been working since I was 12. I don’t talk about this too often, but I was a professional roller blader until I was about 20. I was in the X Games and did all that. I watched it get huge, then decline.”
Shields moved into art photography after packing up his skates and found success around the globe for his vibrant, and often humourous, images that simultaneously speak a pop culture vernacular with a classical accent. Shows such as Submerged and The Dirty Side of Glamour have exhibited in London and Los Angeles, and he has a new art film on the way – that he can’t talk about – which is slated to show in museums.
“The art world is a whole other story. I could talk to you forever about it. I mean, I had one museum director tell me he didn’t want my work in the gallery because I had too many followers on Instagram. Yeah. Too popular can be bad.”
Shields says he makes more money from selling one photograph at a gallery than he would making a film over the course of a year, but he’s not in movies for the money. “I’ve been lucky that I have been around a lot of great people. And it was Robin Williams who pushed me to make movies. He loved my photography. I met him through his daughter Zelda, who is a friend. He basically said listen, you need to make movies but make them your way, and you need to be patient about it,” says Shields.
“If you do it, do it for yourself. If you do it your way, you will go down in history as the one of the greats. But if you don’t, and you’re not patient, you’ll get sucked into that world and do it for a job and a paycheque. He made me promise I would do it the right way. And I am doing my best to live up to that promise.”
Final Girl is available on VOD and iTunes now.