Wednesday, October 21, 2015

RICHARD ELFMAN: An EXCLUSIVE interview with the FORBIDDEN ZONE director!


An EXCLUSIVE interview 
with director 

By Stephen SPAZ Schnee

     If you’ve never seen the 1982 film Forbidden Zone, prepare to be dazzled, confused, amazed, charmed, frightened, titillated and delighted when you sit down and experience it for the first time. Like a mixture of a Max Fleisher cartoon, David Lynch’s Eraserhead, a John Waters nightmare and a Tim Burton daydream, Forbidden Zone is a trip and a half. It is so camp that you won’t be able to keep a straight face. The film is also very sexy, which is odd once you consider that the movie’s biggest star is none other than diminutive actor Herve Villechaize, who was at the height of his commercial success on Fantasy Island when Forbidden Zone was filmed. To see him cavorting on screen with the lusty Susan Tyrell (his real life girlfriend at the time) might just be worth the price of admission alone. Come on. Now you’re even more intrigued, aren’t you?
     Like all proper cult films, Forbidden Zone’s release barely caused a ripple, and quickly disappeared from theaters. However, the film’s legacy has continued to grow over the years and it is now considered a bona-fide avant-garde classic. The movie is proof positive that you can create a new form of art by turning all other forms of art on their heads. Or something like that. Director Richard Elfman didn’t think inside or outside the box – he threw the damn box away. Filmed in black and white, Forbidden Zone was filled with colorful characters and a warped sense of reality. When it was colorized a few years ago, the cold and gothic feel of the original movie suddenly had a warmth and depth to it that enhanced the viewing experience.
     Second only to the visuals, the music of Forbidden Zone remains timeless to this day. More importantly, it changed the way you hear films today. Richard Elfman used his musical theater troupe The Mystic Knights Of The Oingo Boingo, to help create the film. His brother, Danny, was the troupe’s musical director. Once Richard began focusing on directing, Danny grabbed the musical reigns, shortened the troupe’s name to Oingo Boingo and became one of the most popular ‘80s bands in L.A. By the mid-‘90s, Danny dismantled the band and pursued a career in film scoring. Twenty years on, he is one of the most respected film composers of all time. And it all started here with Forbidden Zone. Even at this young age, he was extremely gifted and created music that is still fresh and invigorating today.
     With the brand new reissue of Forbidden Zone on DVD and Blu-Ray, director Richard Elfman, who is in the process of putting together the long-awaited sequel Forbidden Zone 2, was gracious enough to take the time and talk to Stephen SPAZ Schnee about the film and so much more…

STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: What many consider the ‘ultimate’ edition of Forbidden Zone is now available. How are you feeling about the release and the journey you’ve taken to get to this point?
RICHARD ELFMAN: It’s been a long circuitous journey and I could not be more pleased with this release. One, it has both the color and black and white versions. And two, it has the most extra features of previous versions. I only retained full 100% rights and control to the film in the last year, believe it or not.

SPAZ: Going back to before the film, you put together a musical theater troupe called The Mystic Knights Of The Oingo Boingo. What inspired you to go that route rather than just theater or just music? Did you like the challenge?
RICHARD: Funny how life works and evolves. In a nutshell, I was a professional percussionist – Latin afro-jazz – since I was 18. I signed with a group and staged a show in Las Vegas. And then in San Francisco in the late ‘60s, I got involved with this thing called the Nocturnal Dream Show, where every month for a weekend, this huge old Chinese opera house would fill up with thousands of hipsters. This group called The Cockettes would put on this show and they’d send up old musicals. I started writing material, performing with the group and even directing some stuff. One thing led to another and I’m at a festival in Toronto and I run into this scruffy French avant-garde troupe called Le Grand Magic Circus. They needed a percussionist so they incorporated me and then I talked them into staging five minutes. It went over well and then I went back to the Bay Area. Six months later, Peter Brook, the director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, picks up Le Grand Magic Circus as an executive producer, gives them a huge budget and an 800 seat theater in Paris. They invited me to join them – I think I was 21 then. The show was a monster hit. Danny gets out of high school and joins me – I got him in the show for three months. It really got my mind going. I decided to come back to Los Angeles – I brought the lead of the show, Frenchy (Marie-Pascale Elfman), with me. And with some childhood friends, we founded The Mystic Knights Of The Oingo Boingo (MKOB). Danny was in Africa – he joined us six months later to become our musical director. It was a crazy time. The rule I had with the MKOB was nothing original – so we took older classics that people could no longer hear live – or completely off the wall original stuff by Danny, who out of the blue, turned out to be a musical genius. He had no musical training or musical background – it was like he was hit from outer space or something. Eventually, the MKOB, which was a 12-14 member troupe, evolved into a more manageable rock group called Oingo Boingo. By that time, I had left to do film and direct theater.

SPAZ: Was Forbidden Zone made up of sketches from the MKOB stage show or was it an entirely fresh concept?
RICHARD: It was inspired by the stage show. It very much encapsulated the feeling of an MKOB show including some of the music. But I gave it a new plot.

SPAZ: Who were your cinematic influences? Forbidden Zone has a very unique look.
RICHARD: Most of my influences are musical rather than cinematic. I guess German expressionism – The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari inspired the design, which was dictated because we had no money. I think the whole art budget was 12 rolls of seamless paper. My cinematic influences would be Fellini, Busby Berkely, Max Fleisher

SPAZ: I felt that the characters and plot were always so colorful, yet you originally filmed it in black and white. What made you choose to go that route?
RICHARD: Some people go to film school – Richard Elfman does it backwards! (Laughs) My original plan was to shoot it in black and white and then use this art technique done in Paris in the ‘20s and have all the Forbidden Zone stuff hand-tinted. I was going to send the film to China. But I went bankrupt long before the slow boat made it to China. (Laughs) When a company offered to colorize it a few years ago, I jumped on it and it was great. They let me supervise every single frame. We were looking at Danny and they asked “What color are his eyes?” I have a male Neanderthal brain and I didn’t know. I called Danny’s wife Bridget (Fonda) and asked her what color were his eyes. She said, “A little bit of brown and yellow and a glint of this and that,” and they nailed it. I’m so pleased MVD are putting out both the black and white, and color versions. I can’t watch the black and white version but some people want to see it the way it was originally released.

SPAZ: Do you feel that the colorization adds another dimension to the film? It seems to have more depth and warmth in the colorized version…
RICHARD: It definitely brings out levels in the design. And also, the nipples are pink and provocative, which is a very important cinematic point.
SPAZ: I noticed that! (Both laugh)

SPAZ: Has the film’s longevity surprised you?
RICHARD: Yes, beyond surprised me! It ran for a summer, was attacked for being politically incorrect and disappeared. Unbeknownst to me, it was wildly bootlegged on college campuses – on VHS or whatever format. About 10 years ago, I put up my first website and I got thousands of hits from all over the world by people who had seen Forbidden Zone! Every month or so, I’m flown somewhere to put on a little show for a screening of the film. It packs the theater with mostly millennials who weren’t born when we originally did the film!

SPAZ: How did you manage to get Herve to do an independent film right in the middle of his successful run on Fantasy Island?
RICHARD: Matthew Bright, who is credited in the film as Toshiro Boloney, contributed to the writing as well. Matthew was a friend of Danny’s in high school and was an original member of MKOB. Matthew was rooming with Herve at the time. Herve was fucking Susan Tyrell at the time. There you go! (Both laugh) If you get the new MVD release, there’s a documentary where we interview Susan Tyrell, and she talks about sex with Herve. He was quite the ladies’ man! It’s too politically incorrect for me to even quote half the things she says! I miss the guy. He’d come and help paint the sets. His agent didn’t want him to do Forbidden Zone but he did it anyway – he cut his checks back into the production.

SPAZ: In regards to the music in the film: did you work with Danny in creating the music or did you tell him what you wanted and let him take it from there?
RICHARD: It was a mixture. For the love scene, I played him an Erik Satie thing and then he gave me a Danny Elfman version, which was different. For other things, he’d surprise me. He’s a genius and it’d be completely his own.

SPAZ: What are you currently spinning on your CD and record players?
RICHARD: All of Danny’s soundtracks. And then I go through hundreds and hundreds of musical pieces to select the musical pieces for Forbidden Zone 2. I look for pieces that are timeless – what I call memorable music as opposed to serviceable music. Chicago is a good example of serviceable music. I loved the stage show and absolutely loved the film. However, the musical numbers kind of run together in your head. That’s serviceable music – it services the production well. Memorable music stands on its own – West Side Story, Fiddler On The Roof, Three Penny Opera and anything that Danny’s written – its timeless. That’s one of the reasons Fobidden Zone is so popular – you can listen to the music over and over. That was my challenge, which I think I’ve met, for Forbidden Zone 2. They are things that you’ll absolutely love hearing and you’ll want to hear them again!

Thanks to Richard Elfman
Special thanks to Larry Germack, Clint Weiler and Nick Kominitsky


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freeze said...

I dont think 1982 adds up for this movie. MKOTOB became OB in like 1979.

Stephen SPAZ Schnee said...

The movie began production long before it was finally released in '82. So, Richard did point out to me that he did show 16mm reels in '80 (maybe for copyright reasons?) but the film was not released until '82. By then, the music had already been in the can for a few years and the band had morphed into Oingo Boingo!