Published in the fall 2011 issue of MyLIFE magazine
PHOTO BY JOHN MCMURRAY
Arizona filmmaker Steve Wargo has always been a storyteller. The son of a Navy machinist, Wargo grew up knowing that if you couldn’t buy it, you might just have to make it yourself. As a child, his bicycles were all customized, and his first motorcycle was a Sears moped with a custom paint job, a chrome gas tank and 14-inch ape hangers. When he was 15, before he was even old enough to drive, he bought a 1950 Ford for $90 and dropped a ’57 T-Bird 312 engine in it. He got his first Harley when he was 18, and dozens more bikes would follow, including a ’52 Indian. The most memorable was a 1957 Harley chopper with a jockey shift, a suicide clutch and a chrome-plated steel springer front fork that extended a full 24 inches. “That’s what they did in the late ’60s,” Wargo recalled. “That front fork still hangs in my garage today.”
Years later, Wargo had an urge to share his knowledge of and passion for automotive technology with others. So, he borrowed a Betamax camera from a friend and shot a set of instructional videos on topics such as building desert racing vehicles and rebuilding a small-block Chevy engine.
But wait … what does any of this have to do with filmmaking? Well, somewhere around 1989, Wargo met legendary director Ken Kennedy, who was hunting for someone to shoot the opening and closing scenes for his feature film Aggie, The Farmer’s Daughter, which featured a young actor named Nick Nolte. The film required a trip to the Arizona State Prison Complex in Florence to shoot an execution scene. Aided by master set builder Kevin Simpson, Wargo built a replica of the gas chamber located at the prison, under Kennedy’s direction. “I shot the final execution scene in just one day,” Wargo noted proudly. Kennedy was thrilled with the outcome and had Wargo edit the scenes into the film before sending it out for distribution.
Filmmaking eventually became Wargo’s true calling. “I had been bitten by the filmmaking bug and decided to produce a low-budget film on Chemtrails—the much publicized theory that the government was involved in a conspiracy to cloud cover the entire country in an attempt to stunt global warming, or for other purposes undisclosed to the general public,” he said. However, the cost to produce the film, around $150,000, was beyond Wargo’s reach. Still, the new technological advancements being made in filmmaking intrigued him. After attending a workshop on electronic filmmaking with his lighting director, Anthony Miles, in 2002, Wargo walked away convinced that high definition, or HD, was the future.
Sony had released the Sony F-900 camera in 2000. Developed in partnership with Panavision under the watchful eye of filmmaker George Lucas, who insisted that feature films could be shot in HD electronically, the F-900 was the first electronic camera to shoot 24 frames per second, the same as a 35mm film camera. The first film shot entirely in HD was Star Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Clones.
In the fall of 2002, Wargo and his wife, Jackie, took delivery of an F-900 HD cinema camera—the first electronic HD camera in Arizona. Wargo began production on the Chemtrails film but was distracted by the huge demand of corporate production work that came from owning one of the most famous and most expensive camera of all time. The cost? More than $160,000, which included a $30,000 lens specifically made for the F-900.
Wargo was hired in 2005 to shoot two HD feature films: The Hoax, directed by L.A. director Huw Bowen, and The Controller, written and directed by a local director named Frank Michels. “Each film took three weeks to shoot,” Wargo recalled. “The Hoax was about an alien abduction and is distributed by Netflix. The Controller won film festivals in Marguiritaville, Fla., and in Hawaii,” he added.
The following spring, Wargo was involved in a near-fatal motorcycle accident a mile from his Tempe home. When his wife arrived at the hospital, she was told that if he lived through the weekend, he would be a quadriplegic. However, not only did Wargo survive, but he walked out of the hospital, just two weeks later. With the exception of a broken jaw that required surgery, most of his injuries—13 fractured vertebrae, seven broken ribs, a fractured right hip and a broken left shoulder—were healed using an Erchonia Cold Laser. His doctor called him a walking miracle.
While Wargo was recuperating from the accident, he realized there were still many projects he wanted to accomplish. Today, as one of the most prominent filmmakers in Arizona, he is busy making those projects happen. He is currently working on a narrative feature film and a docudrama based on a well-known government conspiracy theory, which he said had been on the back burner for 10 years while research was being done. “Now is the perfect time to bring it out,” Wargo said of the docudrama. “We would love to have it hit before next year’s presidential election.” He is also working on an “outrageous” comedy and a second docudrama that focuses on a disease Wargo described as “99 percent curable, yet kills 32,000 men a year.”
He is also gearing up, literally, to begin production on a new film called Postponement. He has ordered a Sony F-3 camera, which has a Super 35 mm sensor and the ability to produce 4:4:4 files using Sony’s propriety S-Log codec. Wargo called the the F-3 “an incredible piece of equipment” that is “setting the HD production world on its ear.” A complete F-3 kit costs about $25,000 and a set of prime lenses will add about another $30,000.
Sony recently announced a firmware upgrade for the PMW-F3 that enables S-Log gamma mode, Dual Link 4:4:4 RGB video output, 3G-SDI output and more. One reviewer said it “jacks up the dynamic range of the F-3 by 800 percent.”
One thing is for sure—we can count on Wargo to combine his love for storytelling and his fascination with technology into films that inform, entertain, captivate and delight.
For more information about Steve Wargo’s work, visit swathd.com or call 480.345.2187.