Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Will Ferrell in Land of the Lost Movie. Will Ferrell!?

I was one of those 1970s kids who grew up watching Sid and Marty Krofft's live-action adventure series Land of the Lost on Saturday mornings. It was riveting viewing, this live-action series about a contemporary family (the Marshalls) lost in a closed universe with dinosaurs, Sleestaks, Pylons, and the Pakuni.

I watched the show religiously for three years, and just completed my collection of episodes with the release of the third season DVD. I've written about the series for Cinescape, in a detailed online retrospective replete with interviews, and for Media Whack I conducted an interview with a screenplay author (Teddy Tenenbaum) in 2000-2001, who was fashioning a faithful adaptation of the series to movie form. I was even "thanked" on the Second Season DVD box set credits, for helping to arrange interviews with cast & behind-the-scenes personnel. So it's fair to say that I remember Land of the Lost fondly, and that I've devoted some time and effort writing and thinking about it.

And that's why I'm utterly aghast (and heartbroken) at the news published on April 25th, 2005 that the series is being "re-imagined" as a broad comedy movie starring Will Ferrell. That's right. Will Ferrell. True, he did play Marshal Willenholly in Jay & Silent Bob Strikes Back, but otherwise this is a really uninspiring and sad choice. Bewitched (also starring Ferrell...) is being re-imagined this summer as a post-modern movie-within-a-movie version, and now Ferrell is participating in a Land of the Lost farce. Will, can't you let my childhood rest in peace? Can't you just leave it alone?

For many children of the 1970s, Land of the Lost was our first exposure to serious science fiction. And it was just that, despite the fact it aired on Saturdays and was intended for children. David Gerrold was the series story editor, and the series' episodes were penned by giants in the fields of science fiction and television such as Larry Niven, Theodore Sturgeon, and D.C. Fontana. Why, Harlan Ellison was nearly retained to write an installment, if I'm correct. In 43 episodes (over three years) the episodes dealt with time loops, alternate universes, alien possession and other long-standing themes of the genre in a way that made them understandable (and still fascinating) to young minds. The show never talked down to its intended audience and that was part of its magic.

The show also wasn't afraid to be scary. Remember those creepy Sleestak, hissing and attacking from the pitch black of night? Or the episode where Will and Holly encounter a vision of their (deceased) mother? Or the one where Holly hangs suspended over a bottomless pit for the better part of a half-hour, surrounded by darkness on all sides? For children of the disco decade, these were signature moments and ones that we have held with us for thirty years.

But what I always liked best about Land of the Lost was its environmental message. You see, the Land of the Lost was a closed, pocket universe which ran by its own set of rules. Sometimes, those mechanisms would get out of whack and the Marshalls would have to act as good stewards to fix them, preventing storms, endless days, unending nights, and so forth. And they fixed things by cooperating with their neighbors, the Sleestak and the Pakuni. The message was plain to me even at age 5 -- we must all work together to protect our universe's treasures, the riches and resources of this fragile Earth.

It would be wonderful if a new Land of the Lost would take the concept of the original series seriously, providing our youngest generation with an understanding of environmental responsibility as well as a healthy dose of science fiction action.

Instead, we'll probably be invited to laugh at burping dinosaurs, silly ape men, and risible Sleestak bumblers, all with Will Ferrell goofing off in the middle of it.

What a shame. I'm still going to show my kids (when I have 'em...) the original Land of the Lost on DVD. It still has currency for children, I believe, and I hope that other people will do the same.

Monday, April 25, 2005

Project Greenlight's "Feast" and Clu and John Gulager

Hope y'all have been watching this year's riveting installment of Project Greenlight, the screenplay/director's contest-cum-reality TV show sponsored by Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, horror guru Wes Craven and Chris Moore (soon-to-be the director of a remake of the 1975 Peter Fonda/Loretta Swit horror vehicle Race with the Devil). To get you up to speed, this year is a real humdinger. The producers have selected a horror script called Feast (concerning a pack of monsters chowing down on a bar full of patrons with names like Honey Pie, Hot Wheels, Beer Guy, etc.) and handed it over to first time director John Gulager, son of the great 1970s-1980s B actor Clu Gulager. The elder Gulager appears in the film as a shotgun-toting Bartender, and looks great.

Man, I have so many memories of terrific Gulager performances from years past, but my favorite has to be his role as Burt in Dan O'Bannon's 1985 flick Return of the Living Dead. He played the owner of the Uneeda Medical Supply Warehouse, and the boss of James Karen's Frank and Thom Matthews' Freddy, the two nimrods who (accidentally...) opened some U.S. Army barrels containing zombies and thus started an outbreak of living dead in Louisville, Kentucky. For those who have forgotten, the film also features Linnea Quigley's striptease in a graveyard, atop a stone monument. Yowza!

Anyway, one of Gulager's best scenes has him soliciting help from Ernie (Don Calfa), an embalmer next store, in disposing of some incriminating body parts. Gulager's shtick about the handy bags of limbs actually containing "rabid weasels" is pretty funny. Anyway, he's a great and underrated actor, and it's nice to see him back in the saddle again, especially in the horror genre.

And I really respect his son, John Gulager, for sticking with his film, Feast, through thick and thin. You see, John has arrived at the unpleasant truth that the producers of the film (and they outnumber the director by about six-to-one...) see him only as a contest-winner, not an artist, and are unwilling to let him express his vision for the film. He also has to deal with a recalcitrant DP who would seemingly rather argue with him about camera placement than actually place the camera where John Gulager would like it, and is surrounded by bean counters who just worry about "making their day" (meaning sticking to the schedule).

This Project Greenlight is a textbook example of how corporatized and ugly filmmaking has truly become today. It also explains why every film that comes out of this grueling Hollywood process looks the same: directing by committee. Like Julius Caesar surrounded by murderous senators, John is under constant siege from his fellow filmmakers, who all want to blunt his edge, dampen his creativity, and be certain that he cranks out something acceptable. Acceptable, but not great.

But here's my thing -- I think John Gulager has a great movie inside him. If he were actually allowed control over casting, or the honor of deciding camera placement, we could end up with what the writers actually intended - a spiky, kinky Evil Dead meets Die Hard with raunchy humor. Instead, as the reality show makes plain, John is there as a hired hand only, but goddammit if I'm not encouraged watching him every week, standing up for the primacy of the director in this technological art form.

John Gulager fights a lot of battles. He loses some, but you know, he's absolutely right most of the time. He should get to choose who is in his film. He should get to choose what the camera sees. He should get to choose which take he wants to use, and if he falls an hour-and-a-half behind, well, in the end, everyone will still make more money because the movie will be better. There seems to be no recognition of that fact. So fellas, do you want the movie done fast, or do you want it done well? That's the schism being acted out. The producers want it done quickly and on schedule, while John sticks to his guns and fights for quality, for his vision.

It's remarkable to see this battle play out before our eyes, and Project Greenlight is riveting, heart-wrenching television this season. I want to see John make his movie, and I'm delighted that the series has become a place where the role of director in Hollywood is being debated. Producers want John to be a traffic cop, and he wants to be an artist. Personally, I'd rather see a movie directed by an artist. In the dark of the theatre, who really cares if Feast took a half-day longer to shoot?