Three Filmmakers With the Same Wild Idea
Filmmakers Roland Emmerich and Dean Devlin met 10 years ago in Germany, when Emmerich was filming the feature Moon 44, in which Devlin had a starring role. Impressed with the actor's talent for improvising dialogue, Emmerich enlisted his help in writing the screenplay for his next feature, the science fiction action film Universal Soldier, and an enduring creative partnership was born. The two subsequently re-teamed for Stargate, Independence Day, Godzilla and The Patriot, under the banner Centropolis Entertainment, with Emmerich directing and Devlin producing, and both of them sharing screenplay credit on all but The Patriot.
The two movie buffs often discussed their favorite films with one another. In particular, they both loved the low-budget B-movie thrillers of the 1950s and early 1960s, such as Them or Tarantula, films whose enduring popularity over the years has earned them classic status and made them a genre unto themselves. As Devlin recalls, "we were wondering if there was a way to recreate that kind of film with more sophisticated visual effects and state-of-the-art production values, to bring it into the modern era but not lose the charm and humor that made those films distinctive in the first place."
It was essential that any such updated version, regardless of its modern effects and polish, "did not take itself too seriously or deny its origins," adds Emmerich.
What they didn't know at the time was that New Zealand filmmaker Ellory Elkayem had recently written, produced and directed Larger Than Life, his own homage to the genre, a 13-minute, black and white, 1950s-style science fiction film about a small spider that gets exposed to a toxic substance, grows to monumental proportions and terrorizes a woman in her house. The film played to enthusiastic audiences at film festivals around the world and eventually earned $50,000 for the New Zealand Film Commission, a remarkable figure for a short.
After Larger Than Life screened at the l998 Telluride Film Festival, executive producer Peter Winther showed it to Emmerich and Devlin. "Ellory's short film was precisely in the vein we had been discussing," Devlin says. "It was hilarious, stylish and well-made. We knew immediately that this was the opportunity we'd been hoping for, to revitalize a dormant style that we both loved."
The three met to discuss the potential for a feature-length version of the spider short, featuring not one giant arachnid but thousands. Emmerich and Devlin wanted Elkayem to direct because, as Devlin explains, "we wanted him to express his vision the way he did so effectively in the short, only on a larger scale, with the resources of a full production team behind him, our combined experience as filmmakers, plus the best effects. In other words, let's drop a Porsche engine into a Volkswagen and see what happens."
Bruce Berman, Chairman and CEO of Village Roadshow Pictures, whose numerous and diverse credits include The Matrix, Training Day and Ocean's 11, found the concept irresistible, being a longtime fan of genre films himself and knowing that Eight Legged Freaks was in good creative hands. He brought it to the attention of Lorenzo di Bonaventura, President of Worldwide Production at Warner Bros. Pictures, as a potential joint venture. "Both Village Roadshow and Warner Bros. Pictures had wanted to work with the filmmakers for some time," Berman says, "because of their extraordinary reputations. With this particular project, we knew their expertise with effects would play a big part."
Elkayem immediately set to work with Randy Kornfield to prepare a story outline, and later joined forces with screenwriter Jesse Alexander to write the screenplay for Eight Legged Freaks, working on Elkayem's premise that, "it should be scary, and funny, and suspenseful, all at the same time."
Stylistically, Berman points out, "The trick was not to sink into campiness, but to make a film that works on its own terms. Even though it's an homage to those science fiction movies many of us grew up with, it should also work for a generation that perhaps never experienced those movies and is being exposed to the genre for the first time."
Elkayem and Alexander developed a unique collaborative technique that those 1950s screenwriters could only imagine in their science fiction dreams. Using the internet, they took turns e-mailing each other revised versions of their draft in progress. "This was the most effective method for us," Elkayem explains. "We could revise in colors so that each of us could see exactly what the other had done and we could cross passages out without deleting them, in case we needed to refer to them later. This eliminated the necessity for us to be constantly in the same place, or even working at the same time."
Everyone was certainly on the same page when it came to their uneasiness about spiders, although they offered various theories about why these relatively harmless beasts strike such terror into the average person, even without toxic enhancement.
"I think it's primarily the legs," says Elkayem, wickedly. "It's the way they move with those eight creepy legs. Also, theyre sudden and unpredictable. They can be anywhere at any time, including above your head on the ceiling, or on your clothing, or in your shoe, and youre completely unaware of their presence until you happen to catch a glimpse of them peripherally and it's a shock. It makes you wonder if there are others lurking about that you haven't seen yet and where exactly are they?"
Devlin suggests the possibility that arachnophobia is a primal fear dating back to our earliest ancestors, and supports this idea with a story related to him by one of the crew members who recently worked on a film with chimpanzees. Every time the chimps saw spiders, they became visibly agitated. As for himself, the producer freely admits, "I can't stand them! They creep me out. They give me the willies."
But it's clearly Roland Emmerich who is most qualified to speak on the subject of spiders and the heebie-jeebies, having had a harrowing close encounter himself on a recent holiday, coincidentally several months prior to beginning production on the film. "I was visiting Mayan ruins in Mexico," he recalls, "and staying in a small hotel adjacent to a jungle. As I pulled my pants on one morning, my foot pushed out a furry object from inside one of the legs. I didnt realize until it righted itself and started to move that it was a tarantula!"
It's the buoyant humor of Eight Legged Freaks that provides relief for the anxiety aroused by watching 10-foot tarantulas stomping around on the screen and enormous orb weavers swooping down from high-rise buildings. "The laughter is a good release," says Elkayem. "because it's exhausting to be terrified every minute." Still, he admits, "A lot of people will probably be covering their eyes at least part of the time. And if they do, we will take it as a compliment."