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Justin Timpane approached his 30th birthday with a faint sense of unease. A registered nurse and local film actor, Timpane felt the weight of another candle on the cake pushing him to ask questions about his career and what might be next for him. He likely didn’t anticipate finding the answer while watching Clerks II with a buddy, but Kevin Smith works in strange ways.
“In that movie,” says Timpane, “there’s a very powerful scene where two characters who are disenfranchised, they make the decision that they could either continue to work as clerks or to buy the store themselves.” The characters were also turning 30. Timpane said to his friend Daniel Ross, another local actor, “We’re going to do this ourselves instead of acting in other people’s films.”
Ross, who along with Timpane had just finished filming the horror flick Crawler in Baltimore (yet to be released), was game. “We both decided to take the reins, so to speak, with our own careers and try something,” he says.
A fortuitous decision for the millions of fans who have watched Ross and Timpane’s movies, a series of low-budget horror films about ninjas fighting various supernatural villains. Once the guys decided to make a movie, they walked around a Blockbuster for ideas. “[We] looked around for the movie that wasn’t there and should have been,” says Timpane. That movie was Ninjas vs. Zombies, a tale of slacker dudes bestowed with the gift of the ninja who take on the living dead on sets around D.C., northern Virginia, and Maryland.
Ross was executive producer and played one of the ninjas; Timpane wrote and directed. Made for $18,000, the film was released on DVD in 2008. “We were pleasantly surprised to find wide distribution,” says Ross. The idea of a sequel was tossed around. “We really consolidated our resources and worked very hard to make a better film on a lessor budget,” he says. For $7,500, the guys made Ninjas vs. Vampires.
As it happened, a lot of people liked watching slackers-turned-ninjas fight bad guys. “We ended up being one of the top 10 illegally downloaded movies last year,” says Ross. Estimates are fuzzy, but he puts the number of illegal downloads “anywhere from 2-7 million.”
“It would be wonderful if some of those people had actually paid to see it,” he says. The number of people who have paid to see Ninjas vs. Zombies is “in the thousands.” The films have yet to turn a profit, but Timpane says they’re “very close to recouping our expenses.”
“For movies like this,” Timpane says, “our hope is that, while we have not yet completely recouped the cost, this is going to be a slow burn. People keep discovering it. I get a random message every couple days.” Ross says fan mail comes from Alaska, Missouri, and Ukraine. Zombies landed on Netflix steaming.
The films spawned a comic book series, which has done well in its own right. Ross describes their fans as “people who love Buffy the Vampire Slayer, movies by Joss Whedon, movies by Kevin Smith, and J.J. Abrams.” The movies have something of a cult following, with horror fans hosting screenings in their homes.
After Ninjas vs. Vampires, Ross and Timpane considered their options. “A lot of us did some soul searching,” says Ross. “This is an independent film we started five years ago, and now we’re looking at doing a micro-budget trilogy.” To help defray costs, they launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds.
“To our absolute delight,” says Ross, “there was such an outpouring of support.” The director of The Blair Witch Project recorded a video promoting them. Kevin Smith gave them a plug. And most importantly, $14,000 rolled in from around the world, $2,000 more than their goal.
So Ninjas vs. Monsters got the greenlight, along with equipment upgrades and a bigger makeup effects budget. The film has been cast, mostly with local talent, and pre-production is underway.
Ross is excited about tapping into the monster fan base. “There are dedicated monster fans out there,” he explains. “Classic monster fans. It seems to me there hasn’t been a really solid monster movie since The Monster Squad in the ‘80s.”
The film will doubtlessly earn Ross and Timpane more fans around the world, even if their local notoriety remains modest. Timpane says it does sometimes feel like he’s living a secret life—the patients who works with have no idea that their nurse receives adoring fan mail for the horror films he makes in his downtime. But: “I have once at the hospital been recognized.”