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Smithton man’s ‘Batman’ episode is both ‘fan-made and Grade-A professional’

"Batman: Master of Fear" filmed in and around Belleville

Richie Watkins, of Red Fist Productions, talks about actors in his movie that was filmed at several metro-east locations. Here he's at Braeutigam Orchards where a fight scene was filmed.
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Richie Watkins, of Red Fist Productions, talks about actors in his movie that was filmed at several metro-east locations. Here he's at Braeutigam Orchards where a fight scene was filmed.

Type in “real Batman videos” into YouTube’s search panel, and millions of options appear. Videos run the gamut from fan fiction shot with a cell phone to professional and copyrighted productions.

After July 14, one of those viewing options — “Batman: Master of Fear” by a Smithton man — will blend the intensity of fan fiction with the professionalism of trained actors and movie makers.

Recent Webster University film school graduates Richie Watkins, 24, of Smithton, and Matthew Kohler, 24, produced and directed the first of what they hope will be several episodes on YouTube. Kohler wrote the episode with Ian Blaylock. Fight scenes were filmed at Braeutigam Orchards in Belleville, where Watkins once worked as a farm hand, other scenes were filmed in Belleville within view of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital and in St. Louis.

“We’re both fan-made and Grade-A professional about it” says producer Watkins. “Batman: Master of Fear” will be a 12-to 15-minute episode by Red Fist Productions, a company founded by Watkins and other graduates of the Webster University film school.

These kids are so talented ... Working with such a small, concentrated crew, I thought it was going to be a chump project. Then I saw the footage — it looks better than some of the projects I shot last year for NBC.”

Johnny Alonso, who plays Batman in “Batman: Master of Fear”

“It’s a martial arts film noir take on the Batman universe,” Watkins said.

The title character is played by Johnny Alonso, a New York actor known for roles in “Gotham” and “One Tree Hill.” Raw Leiba was most recently in “Bone Tomahawk” and plays the evil “Nightmare” character in “Batman.” Both have extensive acting resumes and have worked with Kurt Russell, Idris Elba, Jada Pinkett Smith, Sandra Bullock and Andre Braugher, among others.

Alonso laughed that he barely knew where St. Louis was, and had no time to explore the area once here. He flew into St. Louis and immediately went to work learning the necessary martial arts skills from Kohler.

“When you see the scene we shot with the stick fighting, you’d think I was a pro. And it was all the mastery of Matt,” Alonso said.

“These guys know how to manipulate a computer the way the old salts used to know how to manipulate film.”

“These are some really, really amazing kids,” Leiba said in a phone interview from his home in Miami, which he says is next door to Dwayne Johnson. Leiba “kind of bypassed my agent on it” to work with Red Fist Productions.

“Once I talked to them, and I saw how badly they wanted me to do it, I was just like, ‘Wow. I was like them one time; that was me.’ So I was like ‘Somebody gave me a chance ...’” Leiba said.

Like Leiba, Alonso was also drawn to the project partly because of Red Fist’s enthusiasm, and wanting to help newcomers to the industry. One of his first big chances was a guest on an episode of “Homicide: Life on the Street” in 1995.

“I was a kid, maybe 20 years old, and Ned Beatty took me in like a son, a grandson. ... And Andre Braugher would meet me downstairs at the hotel at 6 a.m. to go over lines. Later I’m thinking, ‘Maybe he just didn’t want me to screw up ...’”

“These kids are so talented ... Working with such a small, concentrated crew, I thought it was going to be a chump project. Then I saw the footage — it looks better than some of the projects I shot last year for NBC.”

Part of what Leiba enjoyed so much about making “Batman: Master of Fear” was the acceptance that Watkins and Kohler had for any ideas he brought to the shoot.

It’s a martial arts film noir take on the Batman universe.”

Richie Watkins, of Red Fist Productions, on “Batman: Master of Fear”

“Richie and Matt are absolutely fantastic, and part of the reason is they have not been tainted by Hollywood. ... I’ve never met two more honest kids in my life,” Leiba said.

Alsonso doesn’t remember how he heard about the project, but was on board quickly after talking to writer and director Kohler.

“I thought it was a big company, the way he talked it, sounded like he knew what he was doing,” Alonso said.

“I said, ‘If you could, get your secretary to get in touch with me,’ and (Kohler) started laughing,” Alsonso said. Kohler had made the call from his mother’s home in Galesburg.

Red Fist Productions was getting calls from all over the world with actors interested in being part of the martial arts-slash-film noir take on Batman, Kohler said.

“It got kind of out of hand. We thought it was going to be a St. Louis only kind of project; next thing we know we get Johnny and Raw reaching out to us.”

Kohler, who has been in martial arts for about 15 years, said Alonso had no martial arts background, and fight scenes were key for the film.

“Most of the fight scenes I’ve watched have been pretty sub-par,” Kohler said. He was determined to make the fight scenes look real and be well-done.

“Our goal was to bring back hard-hitting, fast-paced action,” he said. Fight scenes were filmed with the camera farther back than typical movie scenes, so the action can be seen better and be more fluid, without the close-ups that mask that an actor isn’t fighting, Kohler said.

Without the big budget that other filmmakers possess, Red Fist Productions relies on web likes and word of mouth.

“We want to make sure people love what they’re seeing,” Kohler said. “Our faith is in that people will spread the word.”

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