Thursday, April 02, 2009

ALIEN TRESPASSThe Evening Class Interview With R.W. Goodwin

As officially synopsized, Alien Trespass begins in 1957 in the star-filled skies above California's Mojave Desert. It is a special night for noted astronomer Ted Lewis (Eric McCormack), who is preparing a special dinner for his beautiful, adoring wife Lana (Jody Thompson) to celebrate their wedding anniversary. In another part of town, Tammy (Jenni Baird), a waitress at a small local diner with big plans for the future, looks out her window and is excited to see a shooting star, which she takes as a good sign for her dreams. But, what Dr. Lewis and Tammy assume is a shooting star, is really an alien spaceship. The fiery ball hurtles toward Earth and crash-lands on a butte in the desert. The only witnesses are teens Dick (Andrew Dunbar) and Penny (Sarah Smyth) who are necking in a nearby lover's lane. A tall, metallic alien named Urp emerges from the craft unharmed, alarmed to discover that the monstrous Ghota, who was also on board, has escaped. The menacing one-eyed creature's unquenchable appetite could mean the end of civilization as we know it. Urp is the only one who knows how to stop the hideous extra-terrestrial, but to do so he has to take over the body of Dr. Lewis and enlist the aid of Tammy, the only human in town willing to believe and trust in his mission. The local police—including Chief Dawson (Dan Lauria) and Officer Vern (Robert Patrick)—are confirmed skeptics and offer little help. Together, Urp and Tammy must hunt down the Ghota and neutralize it before it consumes all the local inhabitants and uses the human fuel to multiply and conquer the world!

Sound familiar? It should. In an expertly pitched homage to the sci-fi classics of the 1950s, R.W. Goodwin has succeeded in evoking the innocent albeit paranoid spirit of the Eisenhower era when Americans truly believed that a basement bomb shelter stocked with canned preserves would ward off the nuclear holocaust nagging at the back of their collective psyche. In town for San Francisco's 2009 WonderCon, R.W. Goodwin met with me to discuss Alien Trespass. He goodnaturedly signed the publicity lobby card created for the film—"Trust no one"—Deep Throat's now infamous admonition delivered in "The Erlenmeyer Flask", the last episode of the first season of X-Files; the first of nine episodes Goodwin directed for the series.

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Michael Guillén: It's my understanding that Alien Trespass premiered earlier this year at the Palm Springs International Film Festival?

R.W. Goodwin: It did! The world premiere.

Guillén: I find that an intriguing choice, considering PSIFF's audience is largely a frosty-haired crowd. How did the film go over?

Goodwin: It went amazing. It was just the best premiere ever. Premiering the film at Palm Springs wasn't really planned on our part. They had seen the movie as we were just getting ready to go out with it and they asked, "Where are you going to do your world premiere?" We said, "Don't know." They wanted to do it. Turned out it was their gala feature on their first Saturday night. They had a big party for us and the whole thing. And it was actually a pretty good mix of young people as well. The thing that I'm so heartened about is that the young people seemed to be as thrilled with the movie—if not moreso—as the old folks. We had wonderful reviews. The Desert Sun said it was one of the funniest premieres ever presented at the Palm Springs festival, and they've been going for 20 years! So we liked that. And we got a wonderful review in Variety from Todd McCarthy.

Guillén: Yes, in his review he characterized Alien Trespass as "devotedly retro." In that it is devotedly retro, could you speak to how the film is more homage than spoof?

Goodwin: Absolutely. It's not a spoof in any sense of the word, not a parody, not anything like that. Not that I have anything against those kinds of movies; but, it wasn't what we wanted. My partner Jim Swift—this was his idea—tried for years to come up with the script and finally brought me on board. I loved the story idea because he had taken some elements from some of the best sci-fi classics like War of the Worlds, The Day the Earth Stood Still and It Came From Outer Space. He took all those elements and made an original story because I had no interest in doing a remake. And he was on the same page as I that—if we were going to do it—we were going to do it in the absolute spirit of the '50s because that's what we found so charming. Jim and I saw these films when we were kids. We didn't know each other but we went to the same school in L.A. and went to the same theater on Saturdays and saw the same movies. We never met each other until many years later. We've been friends for the last five or six years. The thing that I like about these original films is that when you revisit them now they're so inadvertently funny. They didn't mean to be.

Guillén: They're funny and they're comfortable. I can watch grade-B b&w sci-fi movies from the '50s over and over and over.

Goodwin: I prefer the grade-B color ones, though, like
Invaders From Mars. That was a hoot! [Laughs.] I mean, look at The Blob. Talk about color! That was like nuclear color. I love the black and white ones too, don't get me wrong.

Guillén: Speaking of The Blob, as I began watching the film and picking up on how you were acknowledging these films from the '50s, I thought about The Blob (before you cited it in the film), as well as Invasion of the Saucer Men….

Goodwin: One of the worst movies of that era!

Guillén: Admittedly one of the worst; but, still one of my favorites. As a young teenager I identified with those kids in lovers lane who were aware of the extraterrestrial threat but whose warnings were ignored by the adults.

Goodwin: I have a friend
Margaret Drain who's head of programming for PBS. She was the executive producer of The American Experience. She said her favorite movie was Creature With the Atomic Brain. She was around eight years old when she first saw it and she said it scarred her for life. [Laughs.]

Guillén: But in a good way?

Goodwin: Yes, in a good way. When you look at that movie now, it's so bad. I mean, that was bad. Jim and I were emulating the good movies, the classics, but of course I borrowed tons and tons of elements from the not-so-successful B movies. I loved all of them as a kid and I still do; but, some were obviously less artistically successful than others. So in terms of the overall concept, we were going for the feel of the classics. Because the actors were better in those films, they acted well within the context of the style of the times. I didn't want my actors copying I Married A Monster From Outer Space or something like that because some of the acting in that was not so good. Even in The Blob, if you look at it the only good actor in the whole movie is Steve McQueen; the rest were not very good. I didn't want my actors thinking that I was going to go for that cheesey bad acting. No. I was going for good acting within the context of the period.

Guillén: What differentiates your project from some of the films of that period is its great production value. For starters, can you talk about Louis Febre's thoroughly atmospheric score for Alien Trespass? It sets a suspense level that grants credence to the film's fright quotient.

Goodwin: Right. Louis Febre is a brilliant composer who's done very contemporary stuff—and still does—TV and movies and everything else; but, his own personal field of interest, which he's spent much time studying and writing about, is sci-fi movie scores from the '50s. That's what he's immersed himself in as a student. He knows Bernard Hermann and Max Steiner backwards and forwards and he created the score for Alien Trespass with a huge orchestral sound that was just gorgeous. But then, of course, what we had to have from the '50s was a theremin. So I called Mark Snow—who was the composer who did X-Files and practically almost everything else I've ever done—and he's from Juilliard. He made a bunch of calls back and asked, "Who is the greatest living theremin player?" And there is one. His name is Rob Schwimmer. He lives in New York and plays with the New York Philharmonic. He's played with Paul Simon and Stevie Wonder and is a very talented guy who plays several instruments, not just the theremin. But he's acknowledged as the best theremin player in the world. So we brought him out to L.A. and spent a whole afternoon recording all these wonderful theremin tracks. Samuel Hoffman—who did most of the theremin scores in the '50s—used a distinctive pronounced vibrato whose exact style Rob copied for Alien Trespass.

Guillén: It's a nervewracking vibrato.

Goodwin: It's wonderful. Every time you hear it, you know something's about to go wrong. [Laughs.]

Guillén: And then the look of the film. Your palette is confectionary. It's a beautifull palette of pinks and blues.

Goodwin: What I basically had everyone look at was War of the Worlds, which utilizes that rich, saturated, beautiful '50s color. That was our stepping point. Moxie—his name is David Moxness but everybody calls him Moxie—immersed himself in the period. He looked at many different DVDs of all these different movies and devised big boards with color schemes that we wanted, coordinating between the production designer, the set decorator, and the costume designer to give Alien Trespass a definite '50s look. Moxie got very strict about it. He would only let me use the lenses that were actually used at the time, which I had intended to do anyways. I had no intention of using, let's say, a zoom lens or Steadicam because they never used those. I stuck to the tools that they had. They had three lenses—the 25, the 15 and the 75—that's all they ever used so that's all Moxie would let me use. That was it. He wouldn't let me cheat.

Guillén: So what is your preoccupation with extraterrestrials?

Goodwin: I don't know. It's kind of bizarre, isn't it? It's weird. I never grew up wanting to deal with aliens and I don't know quite how it came to be. I accidentally got on Star Trek for the first feature. I never finished it so I never got any credit for it; but, I came up with the idea that became the first feature. Gene Roddenberry had brought me in to work with him. They had given up on the feature and were going to do it as a TV series and then decided they would do a two-hour opening TV show. I had this idea that Gene liked and so I developed it with a guy named
Alan Dean Foster and that became Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I built most of the Enterprise and cast the bald-headed girl Persis Khambatta; but, left because they had changed directors when it shifted from TV to features. Anyways, there was that, and then there was The X-Files. I have this wonderful photograph of myself when I was working on Star Trek where Gene Roddenberry is sitting at the end of this long conference table and I'm standing over him and we're both smiling at each other. I'm this skinny young guy. Then I had this photo taken at a conference table up in Vancouver on The X-Files with Chris Carter sitting at the table in the same pose—Chris didn't know what I was doing, right?—and then I had the two photos framed of Gene and me and Chris and me and said, "Maybe you really are him?" [Laughs.]

Guillén: The element that is a through-line, I would say, between the '50s films, your work on X-Files, and now Alien Trespass is paranoia. Certainly the '50s sci-fi films were bracketed by Cold War paranoia. Why then do you feel that your "devotedly retro" aesthetic applies now (and I'm delighted to hear you say that young people like the film)?

Goodwin: I think there's a lot of different levels, to be honest with you. Contemporary sci-fi people like the film first of all just on it's own because the experience of it is so much fun and it takes you back to a different decade that most people have only read about or seen the movies on DVD. To most people—and there's probably some truth in it—the '50s was an optimistic, kinder, gentler time. The only thing you had to fear was the threat of nuclear holocaust; but, other than that, life was pretty good. Alien Trespass takes you back to a time—given where we are today—that's a wonderful escape; the Eisenhower days. I also think that in the '50s with all those wonderful classics and then the not-so-classic sci-fi movies, the basic vocabulary for sci-fi was established. If you look at anything that's come down the line since then, you can always find the roots of what you're watching back in the '50s. Now films are much more sophisticated with special effects and action and maybe not as much character as I would like to have in some of the films; but, some do have great character. But the '50s were so seminal in creating sci-fi that it's built into the DNA of the genre. That's part of the fun of it. Truth is, audiences get scared by Alien Trespass.

Guillén: I experienced alarm, even though the Ghota is perhaps one of the most ridiculous creatures I've ever seen in my life. I was watching the coverage from New York's ComicCon where you acknowledged that the Ghota is a seven-foot penis with one eye. C.G. Jung would love to talk to you about that!

Goodwin: [Laughs.] Actually, it gets worse but we won't go into that. As I was saying at ComicCon, when Joel Echallier—the creature maker—had us come look at the first one, I turned to him and said, "Joel … a seven-foot penis…?" Joel, who's French, said, "I vuz afraid ju ver going to say dat." That's why he put the little tentacles over the forehead to try to take the curse off of it; but, Dan Lauria (who plays Chief Dawson) said, "Yeah, a French tickler!" [Laughs.]

Guillén: These are always production design challenges. I know that when Art Clokey created Gumby, he had the same issue with the original design of Gumby and that's why he had to taper his head off to the side a bit, to avoid his looking too much like a penis.

Goodwin: How funny! I never knew that. The Ghota's not made to be looked at for too long in full figure. In those 1950s movies, they were very careful. Look at It Came From Outer Space. They had a horrible creature. I'm sure they had nicknames for it; I think they called it "the carrot." But it's the same thing. If you look at Alien Trespass carefully, we're very stingy about how much we show you. It's not until the very end that you actually see the Ghota. You're seeing bits and pieces of it—the eye, a tentacle—because, otherwise, we would give it away too soon. As with It Came From Outer Space, you never see much of the monster until the very end and you wish you hadn't. We brought the Ghota out for its first scene in the movie in the diner. We shot for three days in the diner where the Ghota attacks Tammy (Jenni Baird). Jim Swift and I had been working for weeks with the art department and the creature designer and—when they wheeled the Ghota into the diner—Jim turned from where we were watching on the monitor and said, "What have we done?" [Laughs.] I told him, "Don't worry, Jim. You're staring at it right now but you won't see it this much in the movie. The lighting will be more obscure."

Guillén: In an age where so much sci-fi is—as you've mentioned—hyper-realistic and bombastic, or pitched at a comic, self-reflexive level, was it difficult for you to push forward a project pitched somewhere inbetween those two styles?

Goodwin: I'm not sure if it's inbetween or where it is; it's unique. I don't think anyone's done what we've done since 1957 or 1958, to be honest with you. Pitching it wasn't difficult because there were only two of us involved: Jim Swift and myself. We did it as an independent production through our own financing. There was no one else we had to consult, which was one of the great joys of making this thing. And not just for Jim and myself because he and I were both on the same page; but, no marriage is perfect. There was always something that we didn't quite agree on; but, not very much. Overall, the most important stuff we always agreed upon. We ran a Jim and Bob show and that was it. The whole cast and crew knew that they weren't going to get a lot of executives in suits coming down and telling them what to do, reshooting this or reshooting that. They knew that when Jim and I came to a decision, that was it. They all told us after shooting was over that making the film was the most fun they've ever had in their lives.

Guillén: That comes across in the film.

Goodwin: There was one guy in the Q&A at Palm Springs who asked me, "Did you have as much fun making this film as we had watching it?" We had more fun than was legal, I'm telling you.

Guillén: Can you speak about your choice of the film's narrative framing device; i.e., the simulated b&w newsreel?

Goodwin: The thing about Alien Trespass is it's unique. We did a lot of test screenings across the country. I even screened it in Australia. We screened all over the place. What we found was that very early on the audiences had to know the context of what they were going to see. If we ran the movie with no introduction, it took the audience several minutes to figure out what the hell they were looking at. Eventually, they came along and they liked it; but, we found out that—if we educated them before we ran the movie—then they really enjoyed it from the beginning. We struggled for months to find the right way to open the movie and introduce it. Finally we came up with this idea of the newsreel. The first three newsreel stories are real; they're genuine '50s newsreels. We bought those and then we created, of course, our own '50s story that told the whole story about this lost film and the destroyed prints and all of that. We found out that did everything we wanted it to do. Audiences know from the very first frame that it's November 1957 and so they know exactly what time and period they're in. The feel of those charming old newsreels—which are corny and funny and sweet—fit perfectly with this silly thing about this lost film. Merrick's very last line when he's talking to Edward S. Burrows who has asked him to talk about the movie is, "Well, I'll tell you a little; but, Goldie will have my you-know-what." And then the reel wraps with, "That's the news!" and the audience laughs. It gets them right in the mood for the movie.

Guillén: Yes it does. Thank you for taking the time to talk with me today, Bob. And thank you for such wonderful entertainment. It's great to go to the movies and have fun.

Goodwin: Thank you. I appreciate that.

Cross-published on


jorge vicente said...

i hope this movie comes into portugal. it seems so much funny!!!

best wishes to you

Michael Guillen said...

And best wishes back to you, Jorge. Thanks for stopping by to comment. I hope you get to see Alien Trespass in Portugal someday.