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Entries in Cult Film (3)

Thursday
Oct182018

THE AUSTRALIAN DIRECTORS WHO CHANGED THE SCIENCE FICTION UNIVERSE

2018 SCIFI FILM FESTIVAL: Despite a recent run of films that include Zak Hilditch's These Final Hours (2013), Hugh Sullivan's The Infinite Man (2014), The Spierig Brothers' Predestination (2014) and Luke Sparke's Occupation (2018), Australia isn’t traditionally known for its science fiction movies (The Time Guardian...anyone?), but there have been a number of Australian directors who have not just been world class at the genre, but helped to re-define it.


With the 5th annual SciFi Film Festival about to launch in Sydney (featuring no less than six new works from Aussie filmmaking talent), guest contributor STEPHEN VAGG looks at five local filmmakers who have glimpsed the future...

Jim Sharman with The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975): In the early 70s there were few hotter theatre directors than Jim Sharman – he was a twenty-something wunderkind whose CV included acclaimed productions of Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar and The Rocky Horror Show. Sharman reprised his theatre work with the 1975 feature film adaptation, adding …Picture to the moniker but maintaining the raucous, anarchic energy of the stage production (pictured, right; Sharman, right, directing Tim Curry). A famous box office disappointment before becoming the most cult-y cult picture of all time, its combination of kitsch, gender fluidity, sexuality, camp and tunes spawned countless imitators and created some of the most devoted fans in cinema history. While Rocky Horror was the world of many, notably Richard O’Brien, Sharman’s stamp was all over it. It wasn’t Sharman’s only venture into sci fi; in Australia he also made Shirley Thompson vs The Aliens (1972), arguably the first local science fiction film (unless you count On the Beach, 1959 or Summer of Secrets, 1976). Despite Rocky Horror being a game changer, Sharman hasn’t made a feature since the dire reception afforded the film’s sequel, Shock Treatment, in 1981.

Peter Weir with Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975): Picnic doesn’t have a reputation as a science fiction film – people generally consider if more of a mystery or period drama.  And yet, it’s a mystery that’s never solved about an event that never happened. Natalie Dormer, star of the recent mini series remake, calls the story science fiction… and the unpublished final chapter of Joan Lindsay’s novel is definitely science fiction. What no one denies is the film’s influence – it has affected countless other works dealing with death, femininity and adolescent sexuality, notably the themes of Sofia Coppola's finest work. Weir’s earlier The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) is also kind-of-sci-fi, which seems to have directly influenced the design for Death Race 2000 (1975). It’s strange Weir (pictured, above; Weir with actress Rachel Roberts) doesn’t work in this area more often, especially considering two of his best films were science fiction-esque, The Last Wave (1977) and The Truman Show (1998).

George Miller with Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2 (1981) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985): The Mad Max series can’t really claim to have invented the post apocalyptic road movie – that was already present in films like Damnation Alley (1976) and Deathsport (1978) – but those films remain that genre’s touchstone. Brilliantly transplanting Western tropes to a futuristic setting, they redefined the sci fi action film, especially Mad Max 2, and set new standards for world building and chase sequences which, to be honest, are still rarely matched, except by Miller himself in the most recent Mad Max Fury Road (2015). You can see the influence of Miller and Max on countless other films, books, TV series, video games, comic books, rock bands, directors… they revolutionised a genre.

Russell Mulcahy with Highlander (1986): In the mid 80s Russell Mulcahy was probably the most famous video clip director in the world thanks to his ground-breaking work with the likes of Duran Duran, Elton John, Spandau Ballet and Billy Joel, among many others (Ed: he directed the first video ever played on MTV, The Buggles’ 'Video Killed the Radio Star'). He made his feature debut with the visually stunning Razorback (1984) then followed it with this fascinating swashbuckler-sci-fi-fantasy-time-travel hybrid, starring Christopher Lambert (the US-born, Swiss-raised Parisian playing Scottish) and Sean Connery (the world’s most famous Scot…playing Spanish). The film was a box office disappointment at the time but became a major cult success, leading to a franchise of sequels (Mulcahy returned to helm the much-derided #2 in 1991)  and TV spin offs. Mulcahy backed away from sci-fi during his busy Hollywood heyday (Ricochet, 1991; Blue Ice, 1992; The Real McCoy, 1993; The Shadow, 1994), only to return to the genre in 2007 with Resident Evil: Extinction. (Pictured, above; Mulcahy, left, on-set with Connery).

Alex Proyas with The Crow (1994) and Dark City (1998): Proyas’ talent was clear from his early video clips (amongst them the Crowded House classics 'Don’t Dream It’s Over' and 'Better be Home Soon') and his debut feature, Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds (1988), but he was not that well known to wide cinema audiences until he made The Crow (1994), a visually dazzling work overshadowed by the tragedy of Brandon Lee’s death. Proyas confirmed his promise with the stunning Dark City (1998), which helped define “emo sci fi” of the ‘90s and ‘00s, including the films of Christopher Nolan and the Aussie-shot The Matrix (1999). He scored big with the Will Smith sci-fi starrer I, Robot (2004), but stumbled with his genre follow-ups (Knowing, 2009, with Nicholas Cage; the ill-fated Gods of Egypt, 2016). Perhaps weighted down by the studio restrictions that ironically come with big budgets (his unfilmed project Paradise Lost is one of the greatest “if only” films of Australian cinema), Proyas is still young enough to come up with a few more classic films.

STEPHEN VAGG is a scriptwriter, journalist and commentator who divides his professional time between Los Angeles, Sydney and Brisbane. He graduated from the Australian Film Television and Radio School with a Masters Degree in Screenwriting and has worked for FremantleMedia, Network 7 and Network 10. His feature film screenplays All My Frends Are Leaving Brisbane (2007) and Jucy (2010) were directed by his wife, Louise Alston. In 2010, his book Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood was published.

Saturday
Jul232016

FITZROY'S EPHEMERA FAIR A FILM FAN'S FEVER DREAM

Diarised months ago by any serious collector of cinema ephemera was midday, August 6. That is when the latest incarnation of the Fitzroy Film Fair opens for business and pleasure. The movie-themed bazaar that springs to life periodically in Melbourne’s inner–city mecca for all things cool is nestled into the confines of The LuWow, the South’s most swingin’ Tiki-themed enclave. The traditionally vibrant get-together promises to be the celebration of movie pop-culture fandom that founder Stuart Simpson (pictured, below; far left, at a recent FFF) had always hoped it would be. “It’s a relaxed social event where you can come and pray at the alter of movie madness,” he tells SCREEN-SPACE…

“I loved going to flea markets but always ended up at the film/tv/comic sections,” says Simpson, one of Australia’s leading underground auteurs who, as principal at Lost Art Films, directed the cult hits The Demons Among Us (2006), El Monstro Del Mar (2010) and Chocolate Strawberry Vanilla (2014). “I've always thought about how amazing it would be if the whole place was dedicated to the love of movies.” When approached by The LuWow founder Josh Collins with a concept for a film-themed event, Simpson envisioned a marketplace where true film buffs could indulge their passions with like-minded fans.

“I know there are giant conventions and all that, but (I wanted) something that was more about the old and forgotten stuff, the gems of yesteryear, those hard-to-find rarities,” he says. “The Luwow is such a perfect place for it, too; it even looks like a movie set. It seemed like a no-brainer to me.” The first event was held in September 2015 and proved so successful, Simpson moved quickly to ensure collectors and buffs never had to wait long for the party atmosphere to return; the second coming of the Fair was in December of last year, then again in April 2016. (Picture, right; actor Glenn Maynard manning his VHS-themed table).

The Fitzroy Film Fair ‘selling floor’ is a literal dream-come-true for the movie nerd, where the army of stallholders offer a myriad of collectible delights. The current craze for classic VHS packaging, aka ‘slicks’, and hard-to-find titles on the antiquated format is well catered for, as are those offloading newer libraries that have outstayed their welcome. “Variety is the key,” Simpson says, “I like to keep it open to all kinds of vendors of all sorts of quality. So you will find the old, dusty VHS right next to brand new Blu-ray.” Some of the most in-demand items are the vintage pop culture items, such as toys, promotional material and literature. “We've got something for everyone. One thing I do request is that prices are kept fairly low, (as) I want punters to feel like they are getting a bargain.

The celebratory mood extends beyond the buying and selling of silver screen artefacts. The December event hosted legendary B-movie goddess Kitten Natividad, star of the Russ Meyer classic Up!; in April, the Fair headlined a 16mm screening of the anarchic 80s nuclear-punk shocker, Smoke ‘Em if You Got ‘Em.

Scheduled for the August Fair are three sidebar events that speak directly to the B-movie thrillseeker - live special effects makeup demonstrations from the students of the Australian Academy Cinemagraphic Makeup (pictured, right; work from the AACM student body); the launch of a new horror-themed T-shirt label called Squirm, the latest venture from The Search for Weng Weng director Andrew Leavold; and, a gallery of works from Brisbane artist, Jesse Breckon-Thomas. “He paints reproductions of Italian Giallo horror/pulp film poster art with his own unique stamp,” says Simpson, who promises the artist’s originals will become must-owns for lovers of Euro horror.

Adding to the unique ambience afforded by The LuWow’s vibrant décor will be soundscape and soundtrack selections piped into the two rooms that host the Fitzroy Film Fair plus an eclectic series of 16mm film projections, courtesy of Perth’s Revelation Film Festival director, Richard Sowada. For Stuart Simpson, the end result is enticingly simple. “To (create the) perfect place to meet, buy, swap, and sell with other collectors and film makers,” he says, “and have a drink or two as well.”

Monday
May042015

MONKEY SHINES: DAVID LETTERMAN, A PLUSH TOY AND A CABIN BOY.

From Chevy Chase, Jon Stewart and Craig Ferguson to Jimmy Fallon, Martin Short and Whoopi Goldberg, the ‘Chair Behind the Desk’ late-night hosting gig has seen a great many talented talkers ease the sting of fickle fame with a shot at chat show popularity. But one man reversed the big-to-small screen stigma, melding television immortality and movie stardom.…well, sort of. Remember David Letterman in Cabin Boy…?

Adam Resnick and Chris Elliott connected as staff writers on NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman in the late 1980s. Integral to the core creative team, the caustic Resnick and off-kilter Elliott befriended the notoriously prickly but comedy-savvy ex-weatherman, who was being groomed for the chair left empty by the great Johnny Carson. But when sly manoeuvring by rival Jay Leno infamously robbed Letterman of that spot, the Indiana native downed tools and took some months off to rework the format for a new employer, CBS.

As the high-profile ‘War for Late Night’ was unfolding, Resnick (picture, right; on The Late Show in 2014) and Elliott watched the fate of their old boss from afar, having decamped to LA. They produced two seasons of Fox’s bewildering comedy series Get A Life, described by one critic as an ‘anti-sitcom’; Resnick’s unique comic perspective attracted the likes of Charlie Kaufman and Bob Odenkirk, while Elliott upped his Hollywood profile with acting gigs in The Abyss, New York Stories and Groundhog Day.

The time was right for the writing duo to graduate to feature films. From their off-centre chemistry sprang a starring vehicle for Elliott, a weird re-imagining that combined elements of MGM’s 1937 adventure Captain’s Courageous and the Greek epic poem, The Odyssey. The pitch found favour with the Disney offshoot, Touchstone Pictures; for the mini-studio, the key factor was the chance to secure the services of the pair’s script collaborator, Tim Burton.

"Disney was sort of kissing (Burton's) ass at the time because they wanted him to make a deal there," Resnick told a packed Q&A audience in 2005. "(The film) would’ve been great, if Tim had gone through with it. But he changed his mind at the last minute." The proposed budget of $40million took a hit without Burton’s marquee name; Touchstone now wanted the same script shot for $10million. Meanwhile, the studio fostered Burton’s pet project, Ed Wood, while the director was also working on Cabin Boy. Said a circumspect Resnick in 2012, “I don’t like to disparage the people that were involved…” (Pictured, left; Burton on the set of Ed Wood).

Burton’s eleventh-hour departure did not halt production, with Resnick taking on directing duties. The shooting script followed an uppity ‘Fancy Lad’ who mistakenly boards a rustic vessel, The Filthy Whore, and finds himself at sea with a band of gruff seamen (Brion James, Brian Doyle-Murray and James Gammon), a dim-witted swabby (future Conan O’Brien offsider, Andy Richter), mythical creatures (Ann Magnuson’s randy Octo-woman; Russ Tamblyn’s half-shark/half-man) and a pretty long-distance swimmer (Melora Walters).

“My immediate reaction was, ‘I don’t know how to direct a fucking movie,’ (and) I said no,” Resnick told Splitsider in 2014. “But then all the chatter started. ‘Don’t worry, Adam, we’ll surround you with good people’ and my agents (saying) ‘Do you know how many people would kill for this chance?” In a 2014 interview with The AV Club, the director recalls, “If I were going to direct my first movie, Cabin Boy would be the last sort of thing I’d come up with. It was written for Tim’s sensibility.” The finished film would become the stuff of Hollywood nightmares; debuting January 7, 1994, on a weekend when ice storms shut down much of the US East Coast, and with a tidal wave of negative press crashing against its bow, Cabin Boy sputtered to less than $4million at the US box office. What was once touted as Tim Burton’s follow-up to Batman Begins now seemed destined for movie oblivion…

But one incredible stroke of good fortune had befallen Resnick and Elliot - the Cabin Boy shoot had taken place when David Letterman was between his talk-show commitments. It would be in those fateful few weeks that their old friend agreed to film a cameo as ‘Old Salt in Fishing Village.’ As Fancy Lad wanders a seedy coastal village, Letterman’s cigar-chomping stall owner offers the greeting, “Well, well, well, what’s on your mind, little girl?” After several awkward platitudes and off-colour observations (“You remind me of my sister, Sally. She’s a dietician.”), Letterman brings all his character actor finesse to a line reading that would seal his place in the annals of cinema history…

“Hey, would you like to buy a monkey?

“Adam and I were both really so lucky that Dave agreed to do it,” Elliott told Vulture.com. It is the only character part that Letterman has on his IMDb page, despite being listed in the end credits as ‘Earl Hofert.’ The short scene, barely a minute long, became fuel for Letterman’s caustic brand of self-effacing comedy, with references turning up many times as part of his iconic ‘Top 10 List’ (Top 10 Things Overheard at the Academy Awards - No. 9: If this goes well, I hear they'll offer Whoopi Cabin Boy 2; Top 10 Cool Things About Winning an Academy Award - No. 9: Might get offered the lead in the sequel to Cabin Boy).

When David Letterman hosted the 67th Academy Awards in 1995, the notoriety of Cabin Boy and the profile that he had afforded his ill-fated bit part meant it was right for skewering on Hollywood’s biggest stage. Despite the professional and personal battering Resnick took following the film’s failure (he told The AV Club, “I never wanted to direct again. I didn’t have the strength to endure that level of failure and embarrassment.”), the director agreed to oversee a short that would air during the Oscar broadcast, in which some of cinema’s biggest stars reveal their Cabin Boy auditions.

The Cabin Boy creative team have both restored their tarnished reputations. Elliott would become a TV regular with recurring roles on Saturday Night Live and Everybody Loves Raymond, as well as scene-stealing turns in There’s Something About Mary, Kingpin and the soon-to-be-released The Rewrite, opposite Hugh Grant. Resnick rose to co-executive producer on the highly-acclaimed The Larry Sanders Show and penned the John Travolta/Lisa Kudrow vehicle, Lucky Numbers, and the dark Edward Norton comedy, Death to Smoochy; in 2014, he published his memoirs, Will Not Attend: Lively Stories of Detachment and Isolation.

Even their much-maligned debut feature has experienced a resurrection of sorts, with screenings and Q&A events filled to capacity with fans for whom the fresh insanity and bizarre tone of Cabin Boy represents a period of studio experimentation long since gone. “We’ve grown fonder of it over time,” says Resnick. “It’s kind of unique; it’s its own little strange thing.  And there are people out there who really like it.”

The Late Show airs its final episode on May 20; Cabin Boy is available to Australian readers via Touchstone (Aust) YouTube channel