When we were in the 6th grade, my friend Sean decided he wanted to make movies. Not just act, mind you, but also write and direct. A true auteur.
Armed with his dad's Super-8 camera (this was well before the age of video, you understand), he shot his first feature. It was about 5 minutes long, and it featured our friends Tim and Curt as wizards, battling it out on a local playground. The special effects were done by scratching the film with a nail. I remember being in total awe when I first saw the finished film. Even to this day, I think it's pretty fucking impressive.
For his next project, Sean decided to try something truly ambitious. He invested $45 of his saved allowance on something called a Craven Backwind, which would allow you to wind film backwards and create double exposures. He also got hold of an old cassette recorder, so now we could actually have sound.
Eager to push his new special effects capabilities to their limits, Sean decided our next film would be Return to the Land of the Giants. This was a big budget film, well over $100! Sean and his dad actually built a large, wooden spaceship to be used as a set.
Sean read a few technical books to learn how to do the giant/little people special effects. Unfortunately, despite the high tech capabilities of the Craven Backwind, they didn't turn out very convincing. Not only were the little people frequently transparent, but they were standing at odd angles in comparison to everything else. One hilarious scene featured me being frightened by a giant dog and swinging my briefcase at it. The dog was staring up at the camera, and I seemed to be floating on my back at a 45-degree angle.
Our next feature was The Adventures of Agent .05, starring me as a secret agent. This was the first collaborative writing effort between me and Sean, and I still take credit for the funny bits. Agent .05's partner was written in the script as a very sexy woman codenamed 36-24-36. We thought this was hilarious, despite the fact that she was played by a 7th grader. The bad guys belonged to an organization called M.E.S.S. (Maladjusted Enemy Secret Service), and they employed an assassin with a steel hand named Paws. You know, instead of Jaws. Holy shit, we were ON FIRE!!!
Most of the action took place in the local library (Sean actually called them and asked permission to film there). It also featured an exciting bike chase through the streets of Garland.
(Our 7th grade actress, Shelly, wasn't available when it came time to redub the dialog, so we called on Tim's sister Ruthi to fill in. Which means that our sexy secret agent was a 7th grader with the squeaky voice of a 4th grader. I just know that's gotta be against the law...)
Other film projects included parodies of Alien, Flash Gordon, Raiders of the Lost Ark (in which Sean was actually dragged behind a car driven by one of our older friends), and The Black Hole (where Sean finally got the hang of his Craven Backwind and superimposed an image of a spaceship floating above a flushing toilet bowl).
Probably our most ambitious project was our Dungeons and Dragons film, which was conceived immediately after seeing Monty Python and the Holy Grail for the first time. We were in the 8th grade by then, and our sense of humor had grown MUCH more sophisticated over the past couple of years.
The idea was simple. We'd have some people playing Dungeons and Dragons. And as they described the actions of their characters, we'd show the characters acting them out. Sometimes the players would make their characters do something truly stupid, like swing at a falling rock. And the character, rolling his eyes with annoyance, would step under the rock and swing his sword before getting crushed to death. It was comic gold, I tell ya!
Somehow, the original idea evolved into something much more far-reaching. I think Sean had it in his head to create an actual epic fantasy. And so, several months into production, we found ourselves in a vacant lot filming a pivotal scene.
Sean was an elven prince, garbed in armor and a cloak and wearing Mr. Spock ears. In the middle of the field, sticking up from the ground, he would see the legendary sword. So he'd grab it by the hilt and pull it from the ground. He'd hold it aloft, and its blade would burst into flames.
Now Sean was pretty well versed in special effects and pyrotechniques by this time. In addition to our crew of six and our equipment, we also had Sean's backpack, which was stuffed full of firecrackers, smoke bombs, Roman candles, and the empty shell of an actual Army surplus hand grenade.
The sword was made of wood, and Sean decided the best way to handle this magical scene would be to dowse the blade with gasoline and set it on fire.
So Sean was standing in the middle of a vacant lot and surrounded by tall, dry grass while holding a flaming piece of wood over his head. And the rest of us were so intent on getting it on film that we didn't even notice the police car that drove into the lot until we heard the quick little blast of the siren.
Sean was so startled that he dropped the sword, and we all ran over to stomp it out before it caught the grass on fire. Sean took the opportunity to slip off his pointed ears, and went to face the policeman.
"What the hell are you boys doing?" the policeman asked us. "You trying to start a fire or something?"
"Um, we're making a movie," Sean answered nervously. The officer glanced at all of us, and then his eyes fell on the backpack.
"What you kids got in there? Have you been firing a .22 out here?"
This caught us totally off guard. "No sir," Sean said. "We don't have any guns or anything."
"Mind if I have a look in there?" Before Sean could answer, the officer knelt and opened the backpack. Fortunately, he didn't seem terribly alarmed by the fireworks. But he was a bit concerned about the hand grenade.
"What the hell is that?" he asked.
"Oh, it's not real," Sean said, reaching for it.
The policeman jumped to his feet, his hand on his revolver. "Don't touch it!" he shouted at us. "I have a wife and kid at home and I want to make sure I make it home to them tonight."
"It's not real," Sean repeated in a trembling voice. He was talking frantically fast, running his sentences together, no doubt imagining the policeman opening fire on him. "If you look at the bottom you can see it's empty there's nothing in it it's not real I bought it at an Army Surplus store but it doesn't have any of the stuff in it that makes it explode..."
"All right, all right." The policeman examined the grenade, then set it back down in the backpack. "So, what's this movie you guys are making about?"
Sean had regained some of his composure by now. "Dungeons and Dragons," he said.
The officer regarded all of us, then said, "Do you boys know what that Dungeons and Dragons can do to your mind?"
Too intimidated to snicker, we could only look at each other with somber nods. Sean said, "Um, I don't know about that. I'm just making a movie."
"Well, I'd say you guys are done with your movie. If I catch you out here again, I'm calling your parents." He turned to leave, but stopped and stared at Sean's breast pocket.
"What's that in your pocket?" he asked.
"Huh?" Sean looked down, and then answered rather sheepishly, "Oh, those are ears."
When we first started in the 6th grade, Sean called his production company F&I Productions (for Freeman and Irby). However, by the time the incident with the policeman happened, my interest had waned somewhat. Part of it was pressure from my parents, who were convinced that Sean was going to get me arrested or killed. Part of it was high school, with new friends and new interests. And part of it was just the fact that I had grown self-conscious about dressing up in costumes and running around in public.
Sean changed the name of the company to AFP (Adventure Film Productions) and made a few more short films, some of which were truly hilarious. My favorite was an ad for a fake radio station called EVIL featuring Brian Damage and Jason in the mornings! Basically, the ad would feature somebody rocking out with a jam box. Brian Damage (in a straight jacket) and Jason (in a hockey mask) would approach. Brian would say, "What are you listening to?" The listener would answer enthusiastically, "E-V-I-L! Radio 105.666!" Then Jason would brutally murder the listener with a machete.
But eventually, Sean's passion for filmmaking went into decline. He still hosted AFP parties, and we all still got together on a regular basis. We hung out at the mall together, we played nerdy RPGs together, we went to movies, played computer games, played Photon (a precursor to LaserTag) rather religiously...
But we pretty much quit making movies.
Sean still has all of those old films in a box at his house. Every once in a while, he'll dig them out and set up the old Super-8 projector and we'll have ourselves a film festival.
Recently, he's expressed an interest in converting the films to digital format. He wants to get any of the old cassette tapes that survived the ensuing decades and synch up the sound, and then stamp them out onto a DVD. Sean's plan is to ultimately stage a film festival, and invite all of our old friends and long-suffering parents to see the fruits of our labors from 1978 to 1981.
So my pre-teen awkwardness and social retardation will soon be digitally remastered and preserved for the ages.
I can't wait!