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Robbie Amell, Stephen Amell & Director Jeff Chan Talk ‘Suits: L.A.’, ‘Upload’s “Shortened” Final Season, Forging Their Own Sci-Fi Franchise In ‘Code 8’

When cousins Robbie and Stephen Amell teamed with filmmakers Jeff Chan and Chris Paré in 2016, on the short film Code 8, they had little concept for the journey that laid ahead of them, which would see them build their own successful sci-fi franchise from the ground up.

After self-financing the 10-minute film and watching it garner over 7 million views on YouTube, the team moved to crowdfund a Code 8 feature via Indiegogo, far surpassing their goal at a take exceeding $2.5MM. When the film debuted on Netflix at peak Covid, in April 2020 — four months after hitting theaters and VOD — it achieved such strong viewership that Netflix moved to finance a sequel itself, one that would mark the service’s first original English-language Canadian feature. It debuted at #1 on its English-Language Films chart for the week of February 26 and brought the original film atop the charts once more, at #4.

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Robbie Amell leads the films as Connor, a young man with supernatural abilities living in Lincoln City, where those like him (known as “Powers”) are heavily policed and otherwise marginalized. Against this backdrop, he begins working with a group of criminals, led by telekinetic Garrett (Stephen Amell), to raise the funds necessary to care for his sick mother. Finding themselves at odds by film’s end, the pair are reunited after being sought out by Pavani (Sirena Gulamgaus), a teenager with powers who has just witnessed the murder of her brother and a subsequent law enforcement cover-up.

Speaking to the success of the sequel, co-writer, director and producer Chan shares that Netflix has been a great partner to the filmmakers, who not only allowed them to make the new film “in the same spirit” as the first, but also fully supported them “on the marketing and release side of things,” to the benefit of the film’s viewership. In conversation with Deadline, the Amells join the multi-hyphenate to chronicle their unforeseen journey, also taking time to tease Stephen’s NBC pilot Suits: L.A., soon to shoot in Vancouver, a compressed fourth and final season of Robbie’s Amazon show Upload from The Office‘s Greg Daniels, and the prospect of a third Code 8 film.

DEADLINE: How did it feel to see Code 8: Part II top Netflix’s English-Language Films chart in its debut at the end of last month?

ROBBIE AMELL: Very relieving. We were really excited to make a second one, and the only problem with a successful first one is the hype that comes with a sequel.

JEFF CHAN: You work on these movies for years and sweat about every detail, and whether you’re in pre-production, or freezing out in the Toronto late fall/winter, or you’re in a dark editing room, you really care. So when people actually respond and watch and share it, that feels really great.

STEPHEN AMELL: The entire thing is very surreal. Because Part I, when it came out and was video on demand and all of that stuff, and it ended up on Netflix, that was during the beginning of Covid, which was just a very, very strange time for everyone. When you also include the fact that we had to hold onto this movie for, I think, an additional five or six months while we waited for the strikes to end so that we could promote it, that it’s actually out in the world right now, and millions and millions of people are watching, it’s just incredibly surreal.

Any reasonable expectation that we had for how this movie was going to be performing on the platform, we have shot way past that. Everything that we’ve hoped for, we’ve hit those checkpoints and more. Without getting too into the specifics of it all, it’s been a home run, and we’re so very, very thankful that people are finding it and continuing to find it.

DEADLINE: How did you and Robbie come to connect with Jeff for the Code 8 short, and then the first feature? What was the inspiration?

STEPHEN: For me, it started way back when I was up shooting Arrow in Vancouver, and Jeff and Robbie came over with the idea that they were going to do a short film. We had originally talked about me being in it, and then I couldn’t because of my schedule, and I ended up sort of spearheading the Indiegogo campaign. But this is something that Jeff and Robbie have spoken about doing since they first met in L.A. over 10 years ago.

ROBBIE: Jeff and I got set up on a general, which normally don’t amount to anything. But he came over that night for beers, Stephen was there, and he brought the whole visual effects team that ended up doing the short film, the first movie and the second movie. And from that point, Jeff, whenever he came to town, would stay on my wife and [I’s] couch, and we became fast friends. We always wanted to work together. We were supposed to do a movie together and it didn’t work out because of dates, and then he phoned me out of the blue and was like, “Hey, I want to make a short film. It’ll cost us 20 grand each.”

He and Chris Paré got to work on what they wanted it to be. We kind of knew that we wanted it to be grounded sci-fi and live in a world of movies that we’re fans of, and Steve and I had always wanted to work together, so we tried to get it to work around his schedule. We had to push a little bit. We were very lucky that Sung Kang came in and helped us out and took a chance on us with the short film. But the short film ended up being 35 grand each.

We self-financed it, never knowing if we would get the money back. Luckily, it worked out okay. But the people on the movie were amazing. On the short film, Alex Disenhof, our cinematographer, is now the cinematographer for Lord of the Rings, the series. One of our storyboard artists just directed Kung Fu Panda 4. The amount of talent and sweat equity on the short film was really amazing, and from there, we did the Indiegogo campaign with Steve, and that’s where he really took over.

JEFF: I feel really privileged to get to work with these guys. Steve, not only are you a great actor, but you’re great understanding what your audience is looking for, and what they’ll support and get behind. So for both Robbie and Steve to believe in me and believe in this project, and then bring their audiences to the table, it was like all of these things came together for lightning to actually strike, to make the feature. There’s been a lot of surreal moments over this journey, from making the short, to seeing how people rallied behind it in the crowdfund, to having the first movie come out and then be discovered by the world on Netflix, and then now getting our actual Netflix Original sequel. So it’s been a journey of a lifetime.

DEADLINE: Why do you think the films have resonated to such a great extent?

STEPHEN: From my perspective, looking at the world that Jeff and Chris created, we didn’t try to do too much. We tried to make [it] really digestible, easy to follow. Making a sci-fi film is still a bold stroke, but I feel like we operated within ourselves and didn’t try to outthink the room, and just made a movie with the North Star being, is this a movie that we would like to watch?

JEFF: Neither of these films had massive budgets. We were working on a very, very tight boundary, in terms of what we can and can’t do, and were very ambitious with our visual effects. So for us, it was always like, let’s make crime films where the emotional realism is at the forefront, and we have these genre elements that are motivating the story, but ultimately, it’s not just purely about that. We always wanted to make the stakes matter, and again, working with both these guys, they really brought, from a performance perspective, that kind of groundedness and realism to bring this all together.

DEADLINE: What was key in pulling off ambitious worldbuilding on a budget?

JEFF: Everyone, from top to bottom, caring and really being invested. I think this stuff really starts from the top — the three of us here and Chris Paré, our writer-producer — all the way down to camera, lighting, the art teams to our production assistants. The Code 8 family in Toronto, we’ve made two movies together. It’s a very special set. People show up and bring themselves to it and take a lot of responsibility and care over it. I think that’s the only way to do it.

DEADLINE: The success of the Code 8 films seems to speak to a hunger amongst viewers for original storytelling, and renewed enthusiasm in the industry of late for building franchises from the ground up, rather than beating the same old ones into the ground…

STEPHEN: Yeah. I think there’s always going to be a little natural fatigue. I mean, Marvel’s put out what, 25 movies at this point? Nothing, by definition, can last forever, but I think there’s always going to be a strong desire to come up with original ideas and concepts, and that’s what Code 8 and the Lincoln City of it all feels like to me. You just need to have a willing partner, and Netflix was all of those things and more.

DEADLINE: You’ve all expressed a willingness to return for a third film if there’s the demand. What would you want to explore in a threequel?

JEFF: What’s great is me, Rob, Steve, and Chris, we have this great shorthand with each other and chat about different ideas. When you release a movie, too, it’s good to take a second to take a breath and get some perspective. Obviously, for us to come back together as friends and filmmakers to work on something, that’s something that we’re really excited about. There’s nothing to announce right now, but…we certainly want to work together more. I think right now, it’s about finding that thing that we’re really excited about, and then finding that right time and right story to come back together on.

DEADLINE: Certainly, it seems like there’s plenty more to explore, in terms of the world of the films…

ROBBIE: Yeah. Selfishly, obviously, I want the franchise to keep going, but I’m also a fan. It’s really great to have talented friends, and I love hearing about what Jeff and Chris are moving towards. I love hearing about the new Powers. I love hearing about the expansion of Lincoln City. As a fan, I really like getting that script and diving into it and hearing what they put together.

DEADLINE: Stephen, you’ve called these films the kind of thing you and Robbie could do for the rest of your careers. Could you talk about that, and what your general ambitions are, on the producing front?

STEPHEN: Well, I think about the difference from the short film to the first film, and then the first film to the second film. I know when I was watching the movie, when we got to the final frame and the credits start rolling, I was just thinking to myself, I want to know more about the Code 8 universe, about Lincoln City. And I don’t really know how or why I would go back to filmmaking when I’m not doing it with friends of mine, and people that I admire, in an environment that’s just all about whatever the best idea is. Jeff and Chris, when they’re on set, we go into a scene, no one is precious, best idea wins, and what you end up with is a movie that we’re really passionate about. You can’t fake the passion for it, and I think that people recognize it. I think it’s one of the reasons why it’s resonating with people. And look, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to do the action for the rest of my career, but I’ve got some time left. Thankfully now, I could do this as an action movie and then go back to playing a lawyer on Suits, which is much easier.

DEADLINE: Robbie, it was recently announced that your Amazon series Upload with Greg Daniels will end with its fourth season. How are you finding about winding down that journey, and what can we expect?

ROBBIE: Honestly, the process of getting the final season was scary. I know how much Greg loves this show and I’m such a huge fan of everybody on that show. They make me laugh so hard. Between Code 8 and Upload, I am spoiled in what I get to do for a living. So when Greg messaged the whole cast at the same time saying we got a fourth season, that was a huge relief.

I love that we get to finish the show because the cliffhangers have been enormous. Greg called me after and I was like, “Okay, who’s alive? Which Nathan?” And he was like, “I don’t know if I want to tell you that yet.” And I was like, “Okay. Well, just so you know, the only person who knows which Nathan’s alive is Nathan. So do with that whatever you will.”

So I’m very excited. Sadly, I think it’s going to be a shortened season, but it will be a season with a send-off and closure. I think TV shows, in general, are very hard to make, and to get to end something is very lucky.

DEADLINE: Meanwhile, Stephen, you’re at the beginning of a new journey with Suits: L.A., having landed the lead in one of the most buzzed-about shows of the new year. How did that feel, and what are you excited about with this new series?

STEPHEN: Well, first and foremost, Aaron Korsh, who created the original Suits, he’s back with his same producing partners, same writers, I think some of the same crew, certainly same costume designer. So it’s going to have that Suits feel. I was just excited to go do an in-person audition for the first time in like eight years, and I went into it without a ton of expectations because you never know what they’re going to be looking for.

But the script is great. The cast, most of which has been announced on your website, is really excellent. Both Lex [Scott Davis] and Josh [McDermitt], who I got a chance to do chemistry reads with, are sensational. So I’m trying to focus on what is directly in front of me, and what’s directly in front of me is a pilot script with more words per page than I have said in my entire career, by a factor of five. I’m just going to be a bit of a nervous wreck until we actually get on set and start shooting, which is in just about 27 days. Whatever, who’s counting?

No, I’m really excited, and I’ve also really been enjoying the show. I hadn’t seen the original, and I’m familiarizing myself because I think certain shows, they’ll have a syntax to them. But big fan and just glad I get to be a part of the world.

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