Wednesday, December 03, 2008

I Was Bigfoot's Shemp, Revisited

Five years ago I helped launch the website Microcinema Scene; now it looks like it will get folded into a new (yet unlaunched) site, and it goes with my good wishes. One of my favorite articles that I wrote for the site was about my adventures working with the legendary B-movie auteurs Mark and John Polonia. It was actually an expansion of an article I wrote for a very good site still in operation called Until this article finds a new home, here it is, reprinted for your reading pleasure.

I decided to get off the interstate and cut cross-country towards Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, a baseball game murmuring on the radio and the rolling hills easing past my windshield. Soon I arrived in the hometown of those unholy twins of b-moviedom, the Polonia Brothers. I thought the shooting would be done for the day, but learned from Mark Polonia's wife that they have been held up. But soon the cast and crew burst in, chatting excitedly. A planned "guerilla" filmmaking shoot in some local basement locations with permissions of the "don't ask, don't tell" variety went a tad sour when the sprinkler system went off, with flooding ensuing. I asked how things went otherwise, and learned that it had gone well, with one person being cut in half, and another beheaded by an evil priest. And just like that I was down the rabbit hole and back in the world of b-movie filmmaking.

A co-worker brought me a movie he said I “had to watch.” It was the Polonia Brothers’ space epic BLOOD RED PLANET. I was mesmerized. Past the motorcycle helmet space masks and the water bottle oxygen tanks and the gravel pit moonscape and the hand-puppet monsters I saw a great sense of energy and fun and love for the genre. I looked up Polonia Brothers Entertainment on the Internet, and quickly delved into their world. Probably best known for FEEDERS, one of the first shot-on-video features accepted at Blockbuster, the Polonia Brothers have made a name for themselves as b-movie horror mavens, embraced by some and shunned by others. I quickly found Mark Polonia’s email address, and thought I would drop him a line. At that point it never occurred to me that I might end up sleeping on his couch.

Mark Polonia and I had been writing back and forth and talking on the phone for some time, discussing projects and trying to get a few off the ground. Mark asked me if I would be interested in writing a Bigfoot movie based on an outline he and his brother John had worked up. I told him I wasn’t sure what I could do with a Bigfoot movie but that I would think about it. After I hung up with Mark the phone rang again a short time later. It was Polonia Brothers actor, director, and general co-conspirator Jon McBride. McBride is probably best known for helming the cult classic CANNIBAL CAMPOUT, as well as a happy-go-lucky little feature called WOODCHIPPER MASSACRE. He asked, “You’re not going to write that Bigfoot movie, are you?”

Casting, FX by Brett Piper (PSYCLOPS, DRAINIAC), and some second unit and b-roll shots are done throughout the spring, in LA and Pennsylvania, with the changing seasons and locations hopefully giving the project an expansive feel. The bulk of the shooting was locked down for the end of May in Pennsylvania, and I agreed to come out and be on the set and try to pitch in. Little did I know then that “pitching in” would include everything from gathering wood to cooking food to putting on an ape suit to feeding my own script into a campfire. I was blissfully unaware of what was to come.

I touched down in beautiful Elmira, New York at 11 p.m., and was quickly whisked off to Wellsboro, Pennsylvania by the Polonia Brothers and Jon McBride. They had been shooting all day all over Wellsboro with Bob Dennis and Hunter Austin, playing the leads Billy D’Amato and Jennifer Dempsey. Early in the morning we were going to leave for the cabin that is the centerpiece for the latter third of the movie and spend several days and nights living and shooting there, so everyone was ready to call it a night. But I did get a quick tour through Wellsboro, recognizing tons of locations from PBE films like FEEDERS, NIGHT THIRST, and others. At midnight we pulled up to the house that I last saw in THE HOUSE THAT SCREAMED 2. I had the surreal feeling that the whole town was a giant Polonia Brothers backlot, and I briefly wondered why the humble people of Wellsboro had not risen up with pitchforks and torches and driven these diabolical twins into the river. A short time later I was lying on Mark’s couch and asleep.

For the first time I heard words that I wrote coming out of an actor’s mouth, and it’s a weird feeling...from my laptop in the cornfields of rural Indiana to an L.A. actresses’ mouth in a van bumping down a road in Pennsylvania. It is basically a funny little scene where Billy D’Amato is driving to the cabin and talking about the differences between shooting documentaries and shooting porno movies. Unfortunately the first scene I would hear of mine mouthed by a professional actor had the word “cornhole” in it. At the end Mark Polonia turns to me as I’m crouching out of the camera line in the back seat and says, “Well, you’ve seen your first scene comes to life!” and John Polonia cheerfully chimes in with, “We haven’t even started raping the script yet!”
Before long we arrive at the location, a cabin miles down a dirt road deep inside “the Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania,” with a raging river at the front and cliffs at our backs. The whole cast and crew piles out, soon to be joined by rats, snakes, centipedes, and whatever chewed on the legs of the outdoor chairs. Mark Polonia intoned, “They’re more afraid of you than you are of them,” a line that would be repeated often throughout the day and deep into the night. However, I also learned from his wife that he once chased a bear away from the trash with nothing to defend himself but his “tighty whities,” so there you go.
John Polonia gleefully told me that what is politely called “production assistant” in credits is more aptly named “prison b***h” on the set. But it was fun to be involved during the shoot, doing a little of everything from setting up lights to taping “behind the scenes” footage with my Digital 8 camera to shooting promotional stills to grilling hot dogs for lunch and washing up afterwards. At one point I was carrying the heavy tripod and camera across a rickety footbridge that would be considered too unbelievable to use in an “Indiana Jones” movie, with John Polonia right behind goading me forward, and I thought two things…one, at least if someone is rolling tape they’ll have something to sell to FACES OF DEATH; and second, I wonder what the WGA would think about all of this?
Later in the evening we set up for a major scene where the principals are sitting around a campfire and start revealing little bits of their backstories about what motivates them to find evidence of Bigfoot. Unfortunately, wet wood and five inept males could not get the fire started. Finally Bob Dennis took me aside and said apologetically, “If this offends you we don’t have to do it, but I brought an extra copy of the script…” I looked around at the fading “magic hour” and said, “light it up.” A moment later I was watching Bob feed the script into the fire and thinking, “Well, I know writers say actors send their scripts down in flames, but I bet William Goldman has never seen this.”
When we got going on the campfire scene, my heart started racing. With the night falling, the cabin lit in the background, the flickering light from the fire illuminating the actors, I looked through the viewfinder and realized for the first time that the movie was going to look fantastic. Then the next scene shot was a little away from the fire, the heart-to-heart between Billy and Jennifer, where some of their unexpressed feelings bubble back to the surface. I got a chill when it suddenly dawned on me that the acting was great too. At the end of the scene, Hunter had tears in her eyes, and the crew spontaneously clapped. John Polonia observed, “It was the first time someone cried making a Polonia Brothers movie, instead of just watching one.”
(Flash forward to a few days later, when I told Mark Polonia that I could remember the exact moment when I thought the movie would be great. He looked on, sleepy but sage, and said, “Be prepared for bad reviews anyway.”)
Fourteen hours after we loaded in gear at Mark Polonia’s house we were ready to wrap for the day. Bob Dennis, the Polonias, and I retired to an upstairs bedroom to look at dailies. When Hunter Austin joined us, she let out a blood-curdling scream. Although we assumed she was looking at the screen, she was actually watching a snake slither out of the rafters and dangle ominously over Bob’s head. More girly screaming ensued as two more snakes made an appearance, perhaps coaxed out by the warm movie lights we had used earlier. The sad part is that the girly screaming was evenly distributed among the participants, only one of which was a girl. It was loud enough that it actually woke up Jon McBride, who throughout the shoot showed the ability to drop onto any flat surface at a moment’s notice and instantly fall asleep . The fastest set breakdown in cinematic history had us bouncing back up the road to Mark Polonia’s house just a few minutes later. Quoth Mark Polonia, “I was there the day the courage of men failed.”
There is an ironically prophetic line in the script where Jennifer queries “counselor’s cabin at Crystal Lake or Leatherface’s living room?” Suffice to say, it did not take long for the Polonia Brothers to abandon their idea of the location as the center of a series called “Hell Camp.” John Polonia’s replacement idea: “Hell Yacht.”

The whole cast and crew returned to the cabin in the light of morning, shaken but determined to go on. The entire day would be spent shooting the last few minutes of the movie where the Bigfoot creatures lay siege to the cabin. It never occurred to me to ask that with Hunter, Bob, Jon, and John Polonia in the film, and with Mark behind the camera, who might be called upon to put on the Bigfoot suit.
First there would be many intense scenes of screaming, running, smashing things, swinging meat cleavers and hot dog forks and rolling pins, running up and down the stairs, and so on. Basically, everyone drew on their real-life experiences of the night before. And the real, palpable fear on everyone’s faces when shooting the scenes where the cast barricades themselves in the bedroom (aka “the snake room”) only gave the sequence some extra spice.
Late in the afternoon we returned to Mark Polonia’s house, and were treated to a great home-cooked meal put together by the Polonia Brothers’ wives, giving a much-needed second wind. Then it was off to the home of the Polonia parents, a friendly couple whose easygoing manner made it hard to believe that they spawned the twins who made SPLATTER FARM, to shoot vehicle interiors for a climactic attack on Billy’s van. Although Jon McBride had “shemped” Bigfoot in the publicity stills shot earlier in the day and John Polonia shemped Bigfoot in the b-roll, it fell upon my shoulders to put on the heavy, hairy suit and throw myself repeatedly against the windows and doors of the van while screams and shouts issued forth. It didn’t take long to realize that there were no airholes around the nose and mouth, but I tried to bravely soldier forth, ripping off the mask in between takes to gasp blissful gulps of air and wipe the sweat from my brow. My head spun only once.
I peeled off the suit, leaving it uninhabitable for other mortals, and stepped away from it smelling like the inside of a flat tire. Then I looked around and realized that principal photography was over. Like the film’s antagonist, the shoot was hairy, noisy, smelly, and left a swath of destruction in its wake. But as the cast and crew congratulated each other and said their good-byes, it was a good feeling.

With two of the main actors, Bob and Hunter, making their way home, the Polonia Brothers, Jon McBride, and I began to watch all of the footage, seeing the scenes we had shot over the last few days unfold before our eyes. Everything was there (a blessing, as John Polonia had an alarming tendency to leave the lens cap on), and not only that, it looked great. Over several hours I began to see in my mind how the film would piece together, and I thought, even if it gets panned from coast to coast and in every dusty corner of the Internet, I am still proud of what we did.
That evening I was treated to a great dinner at a nice restaurant with the extended Polonia family. There I saw a poster for the local “Rattlesnake Festival,” where denizens swarm the hills to capture and bring back rattlers to the baseball diamond in the center of town. Prizes are awarded for the biggest capture, and anti-venom and pork fritters are easily on hand. For myself, I would then apply a well-swung axe; but the fun-loving Pennsylvanians turn the snakes loose again. For the first time I thought I understood what in their formative years made the Polonia Brothers what they are today.

My last day in Wellsboro was full of odds and ends. I got to see John Polonia’s massive VHS and DVD collection, chockablock full of everything from rare Italian giallo to undistributed backyard slasher flicks to films I’ve never heard of from Russia and England to Mexico and Japan, a wall of horror titles that would make a fanboy weep and a Blockbuster rep quake in fear. I got to peruse the basement lair of Mark Polonia, where boxes of grisly props, alien hands and buggle-eyed masks and scorched spaceship models and gore-spattered swords, are packed in next to an AV nerd’s dream-stash of edit controllers and cameras and film equipment. I saw the row of PBE master tapes, NIGHTCRAWLER and FEEDERS 2 and SAURIANS and others, nestled in orderly rows in a basement, but already having a life of their own, in video stores and department stores and homes all around the world. I looked at them and wondered, would one day AMONG US be picked off a shelf in a store in a town in a country on this great spinning earth?
Later both Polonias and Jon McBride accompanied me to the airport. As I was checking my bags in the quiet terminal, the attendant inclined his head and said, “Your family can come up here and talk to you while we’re doing this if you want.” I began to muse on the idea…was this group of people more Partridge Family or Manson Family? Or was it something else, a family of artists and dreamers and technicians and of course filmmakers but above all movie lovers, who rose up from rich Middle American earth and followed their vision despite what those who cluttered the coasts might tell them was possible, embracing fans and ignoring foes while striding ever forward?
I was still thinking about it when the plane rose up into the sky.

The Polonias had caught me in an unguarded moment when I carried that heavy tripod across the rickety bridge near “The Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania,” and I agreed to help them with rewrites over their next two features, a couple of relative quickies about a piranha attack and one about a killer rabbit. The killer rabbit script came to me a mixture of handwritten pages and typed inserts from an old script called PSYCHO CLOWN, bolted together with brass screws. The piranha script turned out to be a bit of a mishmash after production problems and long delays, but a little Polonia Brothers magic smoothed them out into enjoyable little packages, and both were on the shelf and ready for consumption.
But everyone involved were ready to gird their loins and launch another epic project. Some unwise historical collectors, unaware of how much mud and (fake) blood splashed around at a b-movie shoot, had offered access to period uniforms and weapons from World War II. This sparked the Polonia Brothers on to a burst of ideas, and somehow, once more, I was sucked into their vortex, on a supernatural war movie tentatively titled HELLSHOCK.

Today we hauled equipment under two barbed-wire fences to state land behind the Polonia Brothers ancestral home in Ansonia, Pennsylvania. Mark Polonia insisted it was okay but seemed to be keeping his eyes peeled for rangers anyway. This was my first glimpse of D.P. Matt Smith and his low-riding purple van laden with dolly tracks, a jib, and every kind of light setup imaginable, including the low-budget filmmaker's friend the Chinese lantern. People who might scornfully say that the Polonia's movies were all shot with handheld camcorders would come to a reckoning on this day. The authentic costumes and weapons add much, though everyone's shoulders are hunched against the eventual FBI raid, or the appearance of nervous hunters. John Polonia voices his fears that he might have gotten on some unwanted lists by buying Nazi armbands and costumes from casually-perused websites.Lots of tramping in the woods, with a fog machine providing some spookiness. Mark gave the actors a faceful of leafblower to simulate a "cloud of souls" passing over the troops, and it was amusing to watch people's skin flapping back against their skulls. I came to realize that World War II filmmaking is a lot like the various descriptions of actual battle--long periods of boredom and inactivity spiked with sudden bursts of madness and desperation.Later we retired to a gravel pit, where I stood down at the bottom and allowed Brian Berry and Bob Dennis to lob mock grenades down on me, and I retrieved them take after take. Angling for that "Grenade Wrangler" credit.Even later we went to John Polonia's basement for some underground stuff, a location seen in more features than any Hollywood backlot. Mark and John decided to scrub a scene where the soldiers accidentally shoot a cat who jumps out in one of those patented scares oft seen in such films. John voiced his concern for showing cruelty to animals. Meanwhile, behind him, Jon McBride is pointing out to curious castmembers where he was standing where he was whipped with hooked chains in HOUSE THAT SCREAMED 2, and where Ken VanSant took the machete to the skull in PETER ROTTENTAIL. Our ragged band returned home late, after about a 14 hour day.

Today was the first day of shooting at the historic church in little Germania, Pennsylvania. What man of the cloth allowed the demonic twins to have unlimited access to this sacred spot remains a mystery. Though I remembered the ban on cussing at the church from earlier in the pre-production phase, when I had to rewrite the script to take out the bad words. If the Polonia Brothers and I were going to hell, it wasn't going to be for cussing in a church.
I continued to be amazed that the good people of the small towns of Pennsylvania--Wellsboro, Ansonia, Germania, and so on--don't rise up with pitchforks and torches and drive the Polonia Brothers across state lines into the wilds of upstate New York. As a for instance, we couldn't get cell service, so Ken VanSant (Lt. Bonham) walked down to a pay phone in front of a mom and pop store. This was unfortunately after the scene where he gets wounded and thus had some bloody bandages on. Apparently this caused a bit of a stir in downtown Germania, a stalwart hunting and fishing community where such injuries are perhaps not uncommon but certainly not welcome. Though later Dave Fife (as a German prisoner) walked into the local honkytonk with a leaking neck wound and a Nazi uniform and apparently didn't cause a stir. But this is what happens when Hollywood comes to town.

A journalist, with a photog in tow, show up at the set from Harrisburg, the state capitol. They had been nosing around the night before, but stayed through until morning to see the cherry picker shots for the open and close of the feature. But the cherry picker never arrived, and everyone seemed disappointed except the unflappable Mark Polonia, (who has seen more b-movie disasters than Irwin Allen) who simply said, "We'll move on." I had been keeping my eye on the photog, hoping he would get a picture of me in full William Goldman mode, nodding in approval at the Polonias from a discreet location, instead of a shot of me going to pick up the pizzas or picking up all the trash in the church. I really didn't expect to be interviewed, so I was surprised when the journalist climbed into my van as I headed down the road to our lodgings to boil some hot dogs for the cast and crew's lunch.I was chatting along, trying not to talk out of my butt too much, when the reporter asked me if I was interested in going to Hollywood. It seemed like a dizzying anomaly for a moment. I was in our rented rooms above the local general store, boiling hot dogs. That morning, while I was drinking coffee with the locals downstairs, I learned a group of them had chased a mother bear and her three cubs down the main street of town the day before. It was not the William Goldman moment I had hoped for.
But I was reminded of a shelf of free paperbacks in the store below, alongside the video rentals and the Polaroids of hunting adventures and the fresh coffee. I had found a Philip K. Dick book I wanted, a welcome find, and left a paperback I had brought. This brought me more happiness than almost anything else all week. I remembered an interview I had given a while back where I recalled that as a child I had never thought about writing the New York Times bestseller but instead thought about my Great American Novel being on a dusty shelf in some out-of-the-way place, and a kid finding it and reading it and thinking: I could do better. I think about my movie experiences the same way. I have always been drawn to the underground, the unheard voices, the photocopied 'zines, the local bands with their homemade cassettes, and so on. Let my movies exist, not under the searchlights of Hollywood, but on a shelf in Germania, Pennsylvania, and let some disenfranchised youth from our great Flyover Country between the two coasts find it for rent, and be inspired to go on the same long, crazy trip I have taken.
That great, beautiful country sang by my windows as I took my leave of this latest cinematic adventure and pointed my car towards home.


Tim Shrum said...

So what is happening to Microcinemascene? Did Chris decide to part ways with it?

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I am so very proud of you and the adventures you had making "Among Us". This has undoubtedly increased your great knowledge of film making. I fully expect your brilliant writing will someday be widely recognized for its superb quality. Dad