SUMMER 2001: A JOURNEY OF A MILLION MILES
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, quickly found Mark Polonia, 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.
DECEMBER 2002: FROM THE POLONIA MIND TO MY HAND
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 PBE actor, director, and general co-conspirator Jon McBride. He said, “You’re not going to write that Bigfoot movie, are you?”
JANUARY 2003: PEN AND SWORD IN ACCORD
My first draft of AMONG US was finished and sent to the Polonia Brothers with some trepidation. Deciding that there was no way to do a Bigfoot movie with a straight face, I channeled those weird stone-faced quasi-documentaries of the 1970s, Sunn Classics like IN SEARCH OF NOAH’S ARK and CHARIOTS OF THE GODS, that used to scare the skin off me as a pre-teen at broken-down Midwestern drive-ins. In my script, B-movie director Billy D’Amato (a Polonia Bros writing pseudonym), who has made a modest career churning out fare like BRIDE OF BIGFOOT and BIGFOOT HOUSE PARTY, ends up squaring off against the real thing at a remote cabin deep in the Pennsylvania woods, with an ex-lover and a weak-stomached cryptozoologist in tow. Fortunately the Polonia Brothers enjoyed the offbeat approach of my script and were eager to move forward. Now if it would only stop snowing.
SPRING 2003: “AND SO IT BEGINS”
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.
WEDNESDAY MAY 28: DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE
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.
THURSDAY MAY 29: “SURVIVOR: WELLSBORO”
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. 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.”
FRIDAY MAY 30: “I WAS BIGFOOT’S SHEMP”
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.
SATURDAY MAY 31: THE AFTERGLOW
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.
SUNDAY JUNE 1: PARTING IS SUCH SWEET SORROW
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.
John Oak Dalton