Former SHP student finds short and long way to Hollywood success

An animatronic puppet stars with actor Alex Neustaedter in sci-fi film "A.X.L." (Photo by Tony Rivetti Jr.)

By Kate Daly

Special to the Almanac

Attack, Exploration, Logistics, or A.X.L. for short. That's the code name for the robotic dog starring in the new feature film "A.X.L." But it could also be used to describe how Oliver Daly, a relative unknown in Hollywood, came to create a potential summer blockbuster so early in his career.

Daly just turned 34, and his sci-fi adventure film was released in over 1,500 theaters abroad on Aug. 23. It was released in the United States on Aug. 24.

His film's trailer ran before "Incredibles 2," so already millions of eyeballs have seen the outline of the story, which in part is rooted in growing up on the Peninsula.

"I went to Sacred Heart Prep and I feel I got an insanely good education there," says Daly, a graduate of the class of 2003.

He did not take any film courses, yet learned about germination, "how you could take an idea and form a team around it; the entrepreneurial spirit is so ingrained in the Bay Area, it's similar to starting a tech company," he says.

His movie deals with the theme of society and how technology changes people.

"I'm interested in artificial intelligence, robotics and how technology can protect a group or divide us, or possibly bring us together," he says.

Daly majored in art semiotics at Brown University, taking computer science classes and studying at Rhode Island School of Design. He likes to draw and take photos, and ended up interning on a set of a Bollywood film in India.

After college he supported himself by working on animations, mostly medical illustrations of diseases, illnesses, and surgical procedures for clients in both the U.S. and India. When he eventually moved to Los Angeles he also made a couple of cartoons.

"I hadn't successfully sold something; I was creating a lot of things, but it was a good 10 years of failure" until he discovered the world of off-road dirt biking, he says.

He became enamored with the culture of off-road cyclists, meeting people on social media and videotaping them for fun. And then he got serious about making a movie combining off-roading with a robotic dog.

He noticed other young newcomers in the film industry, such as Damien Chazelle, who put together a short version of "Whiplash" that won at Sundance Film Festival in 2013 and received a high marks when a longer version came out a year later. Chazelle has since scored an even bigger hit with "La La Land."

Daly decided to try a similar path and sat down to write a script for a short film. He launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $40,000 to produce the project, and finished making "Miles" in 2015.

Daly felt he could transform it into a full-length feature film for about $15 million, but needed to gain the attention of studio executives and backers. So he used his short film as a proof-of-concept to gain traction, and that worked.

He signed on with WME agency, and in 2016 with Lakeshore Entertainment and Global Road Entertainment behind him, Daly found himself directing the feature film he wrote. The name changed, but the script is still about Miles befriending a robotic dog that was designed by the military to protect soldiers of the future. The film is rated PG.

Daly recalls working long, exhausting days during the shoot in Santa Clarita, when he would leave his house at 4 a.m. so he could arrive early to set up scenes in the desert with dirt bikes flying in the air everywhere, driven by stunt people and some of the real-life off-road cyclists he knew from making the short film. At night he spent hours in the editing room, finally crashing at midnight to get a few hours sleep before repeating the pattern the next day.

He describes that two-and-a-half-month stretch as intense and grueling, "but you're so energized with all these amazing people, the clock is ticking, (and) half a dozen producers, the crew, and actors are in front of you saying, 'What should I do?'"

He says the key is to come off as a leader. "You have to be confident, when I really have no idea what I'm doing."

These days he's back in the creating mode and says he is "very excited to do it again, writing a wilderness survival movie set on Earth a thousand years from now."

He enjoys putting his personal vision on paper, and is pleased with how his "fantastical creature" A.X.L. turned out. Half the time the robotic dog was digitally made using computer-generated imagery, and for the rest of the film it is a full-size animatronic puppet with one person inside acting, two puppeteers manipulating the eyes, ears and mouth, and a fourth person on a crane to control the head.

Daly is also proud of all the special effects and his cast, led by Alex Neustaedter, Alex MacNicoll and Becky G. As he waits to see how audiences react to his first major release, he points out that the production process is so complicated, "every film that gets made is a success story, it's such a dream."

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