Neil Breen: B Movie Supreme Being

Movies Features Neil Breen
Neil Breen: B Movie Supreme Being

The world of “bad movies” has many deities, from Ed Wood to Tommy Wiseau. But none have the numen artistry, the lunatic integrity or the sheer incorruptibility of Neil Breen, a 64-year-old auteur with no formal filmmaking experience and a galaxy brain swimming with delirious ideas.

There’s a scene in his latest epic, Cade: The Tortured Crossing, in which his character is attacked by a white tiger. The sequence, which sees a sexagenarian quasi-superhero and a janky 3D tiger model engage in a 90-second Greco-Roman knuckle lock until they come to some sort of mutual understanding, is not an anomaly. It is vintage Breen. 

The director landed on Earth in 2005 with his debut feature, Double Down. Shot around the scrublands of his native Nevada, it’s a cyberthriller in which he plays a genius hacker tasked with shutting down the Las Vegas strip to cleanse the city of sin. The film set a few important precedents. First, its non-specific, pseudo-spiritual libertarian rhetoric would become the thematic throughline of Breen’s sci-fi dramas, which feature AI, aliens, ghosts, gang violence and casual genocide as an answer to government corruption. Second, it established that Breen doesn’t simply make “bad movies.” He makes egosploitation movies. 

The term “egosploitation” describes films that are written, produced and directed by the same person, who typically casts himself as the hero, usually some sort of supersoldier or messiah figure. Breen’s characters are often both. Five years after playing an altruistic and highly decorated government merc in Double Down, Breen gave himself a promotion: to god. In his 2010 sophomore feature, I Am Here…. Now, he plays an all-powerful being so disappointed by humanity that he turns up on Earth to wipe out anyone who doesn’t meet his moral standards.

As with all egosploitation filmmakers, from John De Hart to Frank D’Angelo, Breen shows little sign of self-awareness. For every one of his scenes that might mean something, there are 10 more that betray his fundamental misgivings about how the world—and everything in it, from syringes to oxygen masks to windows—actually works, leaving many first-time viewers wondering whether he’s really a deep-cover agent for Adult Swim. Is this guy really for real? Good question.

Details about Breen’s past are scarce. Prior to making films full-time, Breen says he was a practicing architect working on large commercial buildings. Fans have searched for proof of that. Instead, what they found was an expired real-estate license, leading some to speculate that he was never an architect but in fact an estate agent with delusions of grandeur. Breen says otherwise. The few things we know for certain are that he lives in Las Vegas, loves supercars and has an AOL email address.

Released in 2015, Breen’s third feature was a turning point. Fateful Findings was as close to a breakout film as an inexperienced middle-aged egomaniac could possibly make. His star exploded, especially on YouTube, with the likes of RedLetterMedia and Kurtis Conner publishing watchalongs and reaction videos that have collectively racked up tens of millions of views. 

“It was pretty apparent that he was special from very early in the film,” Adam Johnston, known for his channel YMS, tells Paste. “Then I started piecing together that it wasn’t just Fateful Findings but a body of work and that there were consistencies within his films. That’s when I decided to marathon all of his available movies. No matter how far we go, it seems like he’s still producing consistently entertaining and admirable content.”

Breen is aware of his “bad movie” fanbase and claims to embrace his cult status. But he’s clearly skeptical of it too. In 2019, he contacted the admins of the Facebook fan group Real Human Breens and demanded that the page be shut down for “impersonating” him. He’s quick to call out illegal sales and streams of his films. Like his movies, his actions seem to disclose his anti-governmental anxieties around dishonesty, liberty and identity theft. 

Those who’ve had the pleasure of meeting Breen in person say he’s a nice, normal, level-headed dude. In audience Q&As, he makes self-deprecating jokes, is open about his growth and learnings as an artist, and showcases more self-awareness than you’d expect from a man who frequently casts himself as a supreme being. That is, until the topic turns to cinema. 

Few filmmakers have ever seemed less indebted to the history of the pictures. In fact, it’s almost as if Neil Breen has never seen a movie in his life. Not only because his work is so strangely orchestrated, but also because of his refusal to remark on his influences. 

At a Q&A at the Garden AMP in Orange County, California in 2019, an audience member asked about the movies that inspired Breen to get into filmmaking. He responded: “That’s a normal question that I get: ‘What films have influenced you, Neil, in your life?’ No answer. ‘What actors have influenced you?’ No answer. ‘What directors have influenced you?’ No answer. I’m a huge movie buff. But I can honestly say there isn’t one film or one director or one genre that has influenced me.” 

You might be inclined to believe him, were Cade’s signature catchphrase, “I’ll be right here,” not lifted directly from E.T.

Part of the appeal of “bad movies” is their purity. Folly can’t be forced. “It sucks the joy out of it,” says Johnston. “If you’re failing at making something sincere, then it’s funny. If you’re failing at making something funny, then it’s not funny. It’s just insincere. There hasn’t been anyone quite like Neil Breen in that sense. He seems to be unfazed by the criticism.” 

That the peculiar texture of Breen’s works hasn’t changed in the light of his success is what distinguishes him from his contemporaries, namely Tommy Wiseau. 

The director of The Room is similarly shady in that we still don’t know much about where he or his film’s $6M budget came from. Like Breen, he can be evasive in interviews and has suppressed attempts to reveal information about his past. Unlike Breen, Wiseau looks back on his creation with an ironic distance that defangs the dangerous, crackpot vibe that made it so fun in the first place. 

Somewhere along the way, like a rogue A.I. intent on world domination, Wiseau gained sentience. He seized upon The Room’s fan-built reputation and repositioned the film from way-too-personal drama to in-on-the-joke comedy. Tommy’s new film, Big Shark, is presumably about the one he jumped a long time ago.

Breen is different. Where Wiseau still tours The Room, turning up in repertory theaters across the U.S. and the U.K., Breen rarely gives interviews. Where Wiseau still promotes late-night showings of The Room, Breen won’t allow his films to be screened publicly after about 9 PM, for fear of them being branded “midnight movies.” And where Wiseau profited from best friend Greg Sestero’s book The Disaster Artist being adapted into a Hollywood comedy, Breen’s sales tactics remain resolutely old-school. The only way to legally watch his 2015 opus Pass Thru, for example, is to buy it on DVD directly from its own dedicated website. $40 gets you a labeled disc in a slimline jewel case with no artwork:

According to Breen, Fateful Findings, Pass Thru and Twisted Pair, his fifth feature, have all been profitable. Following theatrical runs, Fateful Findings and Twisted Pair are available on digital platforms, but only to buy, not to rent. If, for every YouTube video that racks up millions of views, Breen makes just a few hundred sales, he’s laughing all the way to the mattress he keeps his money under. Online sources estimate his net worth could be between $1.5M and $5M. The real figure? Who knows. But whatever it is, it has the potential to be higher.

Wiseau plays the game. From backpacks to bobble-heads, there are few things Tommy won’t slap his face on and flog to fans. In contrast, when asked about the prospect of releasing Blu-rays and T-shirts, Breen says that between the admin and shipping costs, it’s not worth it. (He’s almost certainly wrong.) The real reason he’s reluctant to make merch seems to be control. “He could be making 10 times as much money right now if he did merch, if he did Blu-rays,” says Johnston. “He would just need to outsource some of that. The problem is that he doesn’t seem to trust anyone with any of it. I believe that he prints all of his DVDs himself.”

For a while, Breen was coy about his comprehensive approach. He used to list made-up companies such as “N J N Sound Assoc.” and “The BNB Effects Studio” in his credits. We know these are not real because he tells us as much: “Any of the above listed companies in the credits with an ‘N’ or ‘B’ in their name are fictitious. This work was actually done personally by Neil Breen.” These days, he’s less modest. On Cade: The Tortured Crossing, Neil Breen is individually credited for the casting, the hair and make-up, the costumes, the sets and props, the locations, the production management, the special effects, the stunt coordination, the legal and accounting services, the craft services, the cinematography, the sound, the writing, the direction and the editing. 

He also plays the hero and the villain. 

Cade: The Tortured Crossing is a loose sequel to 2018’s Twisted Pair. Breen is back as twin brothers Cade and Cale Altair—both are A.I. entities, but one is a brave warrior for truth and justice, while the other has a beard. Cade follows the altruistic hero as he attempts to restore a dilapidated mental hospital whose patients are being kidnapped by big business for gene-editing experiments. It’s absolutely incomprehensible.

Breen doesn’t discuss budgets—he says “they’re irrelevant”—so we don’t know how much his movies cost to make. They’re typically shot in 1) the desert or 2) his house, but much of what Breen saves in location and set design fees he probably spends on stock footage. We know he uses non-union actors, but he says he pays SAG rates. In 2017, he raised $7,073 of his $50,000 GoFundMe target to finance Twisted Pair. Two years later, he said of its follow-up, Cade, “I will not self-fund my next film.” As far as we know, not only did he self-fund it, he also did everything else. Except…

In March 2021, while in pre-production for Cade, Breen tweeted, “I’m looking for special effects artists experienced in Blender ,Cinema 4D, 3D Maya, etc. to work with me on my 6th Indie theatrical feature film. I’m the producer/ director. Send me a private message with your email address and a link to your work . It will be an amazing film !!” 

Among the hundreds of responses came one from a young animation graduate. Emily Brixey was introduced to Breen’s movies through YMS in 2017 while studying film and media arts for animation at the University of Utah. “I became a big fan after that,” she tells Paste. “I watched all his movies.” Encouraged by her family and friends, Brixey set up her first Twitter account and got in touch. To her surprise, she got the gig. 

“He told me it was going to be a good movie, not a bad, dirty movie,” says Brixey, still confused. “I was like, ‘None of your movies have been that so I didn’t assume…’” Breen’s brief was specific. It would be Brixey’s job to bring to life one of Cade’s wildest and most imaginative scenes: The tiger fight.

“He didn’t tell me the whole plot of the movie but he told me the tiger scene was going to be a big part of it,” says Brixey, who is credited on the film as “CGI artist for fighting tiger.” “He didn’t tell me who the tiger character was, so it was kind of hard. I think he said someone was a shapeshifter?” (Indeed, after Breen brings the tiger brawl to a close, the cat transforms into the “Lady in white” before blowing him a kiss. Meow!)

Breen sent Brixey still-camera footage, shot on green screen cyclorama, of him rolling around and throwing punches. It was up to her to add the tiger and make its movements match up with Breen’s. The filmmaker was adamant about the cat not just being a tiger but a white tiger—and not just a white tiger but a snow-white tiger. He had Brixey pick a pre-rigged 3D model, which he paid for. When it came time for Brixey to render the footage a few months later, Breen’s strict instructions gave her hardware a hard time. “I had some lighting that could better emphasize the fur on the 3D model but he was like, ‘No, it has to be snow-white’. So I had like 16 different light fixtures running to make sure it was snow-white when I rendered it.” 

Brixey’s isn’t the only tiger you’ll see in Cade either. In another shot, shortly after the fight with the 3D model, the big cat is clearly an orange Asian tiger snatched from stock footage, comped in with its saturation lowered so that it appears black and white. It’s an absurd solution, but therein lies the appeal of “bad movies.” Low budgets and lack of expertise force filmmakers to reach conclusions that better-equipped artists would never contemplate. 

Brixey wasn’t the only remote collaborator on Cade. Once Jonathan Higgs got involved, the film became a truly international production (and not just because it features stock footage of Amsterdam’s city center). “It feels amazing to be involved in Breen lore,” he tells Paste. Higgs’ résumé is impressive. Not only is he a founding member of Everything Everything, an art-rock four-piece nominated for many of British music’s biggest awards, he also directs the band’s music videos.

Higgs responded to the same request for visual artists that Brixey did and was desperate to get Breen’s attention. They traded a few DMs but the director “didn’t seem to bite.” Then, in September 2021, Breen tweeted a callout for “an orchestra score. A haunting movie sound”. This was Higgs’ cue. They DM’d. Breen said he’d keep him in mind. Months went by with no word. Then? Higgs just did it anyway. 

“I think that’s what got me the gig. I just did it and sent it and that probably made things easier for him. Then he started asking for changes.” Higgs’ brief was to write a piece of music for Cade’s flashmob sequence, an unlikely scene in which the hospital patients break into dance after a rousing speech from Breen. 

Higgs describes Breen as polite, professional and to-the-point. “He doesn’t want to chit-chat. He wants what he wants, even if he doesn’t quite have the vocabulary to say it.” The entire business was conducted over Twitter DMs. “He asked what he should pay me and I said, ‘I’ll do it for free, of course – I’m a big fan of yours’. He wanted to do everything properly, which is a big hallmark of his.”

Both are proud to have worked with Breen, despite how that might look to people unfamiliar with “bad movies.”

“I put it on my résumé,” says Brixey. “I don’t think his films are bad. If they’re entertaining and they get their point across, they’re good films. It’s not a Marvel production, but I’m still proud to work on it. I would do it again if he asked.”

“It is dodgy ground,” says Higgs, who alongside his band’s multiple platinum discs keeps a much rarer honor on his wall: A framed print-out of his Twitter exchange with Breen. “Some people might think I’m taking the piss out of him or that I’m deranged for doing it at all. But I don’t want to take the piss. I respect him more and more as time goes on, just for the singularity of vision. He isn’t being corrupted by this attention at all. He’s not bluffing. It’s not comedy. A lot of people try to make so-bad-it’s-good stuff and you can always tell. With Breen, it’s fucking real. And it keeps coming.”

Higgs wouldn’t see Cade until its London premiere in June 2023. “I was losing my mind with joy,” he says. “It got to the flashmob scene and the crowd was going so wild that I couldn’t hear my music.”

At the time of writing, Brixey is yet to see her work on the silver screen. “People like the movies he makes,” she says. “He’s not a one-hit wonder. Nobody talks about Birdemic 2; Tommy Wiseau never made another hit after The Room. Neil Breen movies are always entertaining. He stands by what he makes.”

And as long as he does, we’ll stand by Neil Breen. Is this guy for real? “I believe he’s completely genuine,” says Johnston. “But the fact that there’s a conversation about it at all makes it interesting. We’re lucky to be alive while he’s releasing films.” A man. A god. A real human Breen.

Sean McGeady is a writer, editor and freelance film freak living and dying in London. He has bylines at Empire, Fangoria and Little White Lies, bookshelves heaving with unwatched bargain-bin DVDs, and interests that include horror, masculinity in the western, and mid-budget mid-1990s action films with MIDI soundtracks.

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