Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Do You Want To Play a Game?

Scott the Reader, in addition to being the first to post a comment on this blog, is a reader (duh) and frequents quite a few screenwriting blogs. He even has his own blog and since it’s a good read, I feel honored that he swung by for a look. After reading my intro post, Scott asked me to share the Super Mario Brothers story. So, here goes…

The year was 1992. My wife and I had been married a year and a half and within two years, we’d have our first of four kids crawling around our apartment.

We lived in Norfolk, VA, but for these few days, I was five hours away in Wilmington, NC and had just finished shooting my tiny walk-on part in an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles. (Actually it was a sleepwalk-on part. I would take a moment to explain, but it would be doomed to the cutting room floor anyway). After getting out of wardrobe, I stopped to call my wife to let her know I would be hopping in the car and heading home soon. She quickly informed me that I needed to call my agent right away.

Now, my agent never called me twice in a week, not to mention calling to tell me about an audition while I’m on the set of another film. My first thought was, “There’s a problem with these schmucks paying me.” It was a real throwaway role and I really didn’t have much hope of it making the final cut. But they had to pay me, right?

I hung up the phone and immediately called my agent. She wanted me to run over to this abandoned cement factory to audition for Super Mario Brothers. I was really damn close to asking her what the heck she was babbling about.

“It’s a movie based on the video game,” she said.
“But I’ve never played this game,” I replied. “I have no idea what it’s even about.”
“That’s okay. They just need to cast someone for this right away.”

Great. I just love being kept in the dark about things. But I’m a nice guy and she’s a really sweet lady, so I ask her for directions and make tracks for this little slice of desolation.

She wasn’t kidding after all. It really was an abandoned cement factory. Except there were trucks and people milling about. Not cement trucks and not factory workers. Transportation vans and production people. I turned in and was guided to the crew parking lot. The guy asked who I was there to see. I told him…Rocky Morton and Anabel Jankel. At the moment, it didn’t dawn on me that they were the duo responsible for Max Headroom.

So, I go straight in to meet them. They were pleasant, middle-aged artsy folks who spoke to me all of one minute and then informed me that I was now cast as a Devo Chamber Technician. Now that I think back, it should’ve worried me that they didn’t bother to explain anything about the film’s plot. Because I now believe that, at the time, they probably didn’t have a solid idea of what the film was about, either.

I’m not saying they’re shoddy directors. I kinda liked Max Headroom. Not in a fanboy way, just an interesting concept. What I am saying, however, is that this film went through more screenwriters, directors, cast and crew than a dozen films combined. By the time I came to be involved, no one really knew what the hell was going on.

At any rate, I was taken directly to wardrobe to get fitted for a costume. Blue coveralls and a red hardhat. They must’ve found them lying around the factory. I wasn’t sure if I was to be working in a devo chamber or with the band Devo. I was then to report to visual effects. Visual effects? Sweet! This scene wasn’t just going to be people standing around talking. I would be part of a mind-numbing visual film event. I walked into the trailer and was told that they would need me to do a full-head cast. This was just getting cooler by the second.

I decided that I had to ask them what was going to happen in this scene. I figured if anyone knew, it would be the visual effects team. They had to have this thing planned for weeks, right? Here’s the answer I got:

“You’re a technician in the devo chamber. It’s a de-evolution chamber, capable of evolving or de-evolving anything millions of years in a matter of seconds.”
“Koopa is the main villain. He evolved from a T-Rex.”
“Uh-huh. Who’s playing Koopa?”
“Dennis Hopper. Basically, he gets mad at you and de-evolves you into primordial slime.”

I don’t remember which part of that answer I was responding to…Doing a scene with Dennis Hopper or being turned into slime. Looking back, they both generate the same emotional response.

After having my head covered in white goopy shit for a half an hour, I was ready to go home. They told me they needed me back in three days.

A few days later, I’m driving back down to the cement factory, but this time I’m bringing my wife with me. “You have got to get a load of this freakshow”, I told her. We arrived and headed over to wardrobe to put on my new work clothes.

Next stop was hair and makeup. This is when things got truly weird. My wife and I climbed into the trailer and sitting in a barber chair was Dennis Hopper, no eyebrows, hair slicked back in tailored rows going straight down the back of his head. He turned to see who had just arrived.

Now, sometimes when you meet people, you get an immediate gut feeling about them the second they look you in the eye. You either like them or you don’t; they’re either friendly or they’re not. The look that shot out of Dennis’ eyes was just plain creepy. If you’ve ever seen Henry Rollins on stage, you know the gaze. He could nail you to the back wall of the concert venue with that stare. The last time I saw Dennis Hopper come close to the look he had in his eyes at that moment was when he was telling Isabella Rossellini not to f**king look at him. But he wasn’t staring at me.

As I followed his gaze over my shoulder, I saw my wife’s face. She was absolutely terrified. I turned back to look at Dennis. He was locked on her like a cat on a bird. And I’m thinking, “Holy shit! Do they know each other?” I was half expecting him to say in a horrified whisper, “It’s YOU!!”

Just then, one of the hair crew broke the tension and asked him about his golf game. He blinked and turned around, carrying on a perfectly lucid conversation about his swing being off or something. It was like someone flipped off the psycho-switch on the guy.

They ask which role I’m playing and take a quick glance at me. Hell, I’m wearing a hardhat. How much attention to my hair is really necessary? As my wife and I start to leave, this short, stocky, brute of a fellow storms in, kicking and cursing like a cockney sailor. We take a couple of steps back to give the guy some room to vent when he looks up with a wry grin and a wink. It’s Bob Hoskins, pulling a fast one on the crew. As it turns out, he’s a really nice guy.

Finally, we get to the devo chamber. If you’ve seen the film (and I pity you if you have), you know the set. Decorated in pure white bathroom tile, reminiscent of the “TV Room’ in either of the Willy Wonka movies. I was beginning to feel like an Oompa Loompa with an overactive pituitary. I get my sides and we work out the blocking for the scene. It doesn’t take me too long to memorize them. No tricky words or “sci-fi speak”. In fact, I’ve read over it so many times, I’ve even memorized Dennis’ lines.

Which, we will soon find out, is a very useful thing.