Early 2008: I was living in San Francisco frantically trying to finish a short film I had began the previous Summer called "UNÏWERÏA ZEKT". While shooting the final few shots needed to wrap, the record button on the '80s VHS camera shorted out from some moisture in the air while filming too close to the ocean on Stinson Beach. The next day I needed to be on a plane to move to New York City. This film remains unfinished for almost three years now, and that is a sadness.
"UNÏWERÏA ZEKT" (2006-?)
I had been itching to make a film ever since moving to San Francisco in early 2006, and resenting the stagnant lax lifestyle I had adapted from working at a record store. As much I love the magnificent scenery of San Francisco, and this film is a testament to its surrounding oddity and beauty, its too easy to become one of the many apathetic arty types.
I began working on this project upon dropping out of film school. In a rather rebellious mindset, I decided to conceptualize a zealous science fiction film I could make with little money and minimal dependance on friends, which would solely rely on extraordinary locations to create a fantastical constructed reality. At the time I was excited by otherworldly, avant cinema -- Andrzej Zulawski's "On The Silver Globe", Philippe Garrel's "The Inner Scar", Stan Brakhage's "Stellar", Lucio Fulci's insane "Conquest", Patrick Bokanowski's "L'Ange", Werner Herzog's "Heart Of Glass", and most importantly Kenneth Anger's "Lucifer Rising".
"On The Silver Globe" (1987)
"The Inner Scar" (1972)
One very stoned evening I was viewing "Lucifer Rising" on glorious VHS, (this was before the beautifully restored Fantoma disc existed), and fell in love with the desaturated flat look of the poor video transfer. I had thought, what if Anger intended for his film to look this way? With this in mind, I purchased a used VHS camera on ebay for $100 and began to sketch out a simple story.
Lucifer Rising (1972)
A second influence for this project came from revisiting a Super Nintendo favorite: "Out Of This World" (one of the greatest artistic achievements of the '90s). I loved the story: a botched experiment haphazardly transports a scientist to a barren, alien world where he must solve puzzles and fight lumpy humanoids while in pursuit of a way back to Earth. The game's melancholic ending is stunning as well -- the scientist never returns to earth, but rides out into the horizon on a pterodactyl-like creature. This was one of the first video games to adapt a cinematic feel with astounding low-fi cut-scenes and an ominous, brooding soundtrack.
Out Of This World (1991)
The thunderous, celestial music of Magma, a prog-rock outfit from the planet Kobaïa, would supply the final source of inspiration needed to execute this project. Extremely adventurous and imaginative, the musical force of Magma is unparalleled. I can not properly articulate how much of a proud affect this band has on me.
Magma is a high-concept group complete with a fictional backstory about their fleeting of Earth to settle on the planet Kobaïa, where they discover the spiritual plight of the Kobaïans as well as their cultural native "Zeuhl" music. Magma's "Zeuhl" sound is blend of symphonic prog-rock and fusion with heavy John Coltrane and Frank Zappa worship. I would recommend their track "De Futura" (the album version) or their "Kohntarkosz" album which I believe is their masterpiece. Magma Christian Vander, drummer and Magma helmer, even constructed the fictitious language the lyrics are sung in. Below is a from Wikipedia, about their most famous release "Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh...
MDK is story of the prophet 'Nebehr Güdahtt' who delivers to the people of the Earth this insight: If they want to be saved from thmeselves, they must morally cleanse themselves to worship of the Kobaïan supreme being, 'Kreuhn Kohrmahn', by learning sacred "Zeuhl Wortz" music (already wildly popular on Kobaïa, of course). In response to this blatant cultural imperialism the people of the Earth initially march against Güdahtt, but slowly like any true believer Güdahtt attracts enough of a base of adherents to survive, to sing the Kobaian music.
Magma's music is visceral, painting a cultural portrait of a alien world. The title of my film, "UNÏWERÏA ZEKT", is a Kobaïan reference taken from scripture featured on their "Udu Wudu" album. I also sampled the opening chant from their song "Stoah" for the opening few shots, and it also can heard in the trailer (bottom of post).
Magma - "Mekanik Destruktiw Kommandoh"
Play this clip while you're reading onward!
Play this clip while you're reading onward!
Filming began with friends Chad as the cosmic traveller and Jaan as the native druid. We rented a car and drove up to the very top of Mount Tamalpais (just north of the Golden Gate Bridge). I intended to shoot languid, wide masters of the traveller wandering through vast rolling hills. To my initial dismay, dense fog crept in blanketing the sky and dimming visibility to about 40 feet.
You couldn't hear anything. The wind was loud and cold. Disregarding my notes, we embraced the unearthly landscape. We hiked about a mile inward with camera equipment and costumes to escape telephone pole lines and roads. We shot beautiful wides of the traveller walking through clouds of fog. Hiking further through the fog, we discovered a perfect grassy hill (pictured below) to shoot the standoff between the traveller's first encounter with a life form -- the native druid.
Shooting "UNÏWERÏA ZEKT"
Some weeks after reviewing the Mount Tam footage, Chad and I regrouped and travelled to Treasure Island -- a half condemned manmade island built off of the bay bridge in between Oakland and San Francisco. Originally built for the World's Fair HQ in the late '30s, it was quickly reshaped into a naval base during WWII. In 1997, the naval base shut down mysteriously leaving many of the once functional barracks, fueling stations, and military facilities abandoned. The island has been the target of much controversy as some claim that unlawful chemical testing took place during its military occupancy. The SF Bay Guardian reported that the island's air is contaminated with asbestos, radium, and plutonium. People shouldn't be allowed to live on Treasure Island, but they do. And I did.
In a frantic attempt to escape Los Angeles, I moved in with a friend who "lived in San Francisco" and I stayed on Treasure Island for 9 months. The view from my window was of a condemned townhouse structure with signs that warned of its contaminants which could cause cancer and/or birth defects (!). On occasion we would break into the abandoned police station only to find the desks, chairs, file cabinets and its contents not moved or tampered with since its condemnation. For some reason, its inhabitants left with no hesitation.
The island was accessible by bus via the bay bridge, and very often during this commute my peripheral would catch crude facial sores of the natives. I recall one episode on the bus where a man stood and began to scream about his spider infestation, frightening the passengers with his bite ridden arms. Treasure Island sits as an ominous ghost town in the middle of the bay.
Treasure Island, California
Treasure Island was a perfect location for this project and the flat VHS look was great, distorting the already brittle abandoned structures. The traveller arrives in an earth-like town which appears to have been abruptly deserted. I planned on shooting a sequence where the traveller would be hunted down by an ambiguous black shape -- a homage to "Out Of This World", too bad we've never shot that!
Shooting on Treasure Island
Unexpectedly, this film grew into a cosmic travelogue of sorts. While searching for final locations for this film, a friend mentioned Battery Rathbone, a former gun turret used during WWII just north of the Golden Gate Bridge. As soon I a saw a photograph, I knew instantly it had to be used as a teleporter. Heading towards Rathbone, before filming the teleportation sequence, we stopped along the way to shoot a beautiful master of the ocean.
We then headed down to Stinson beach to film the final shots. This of course is when my camera shorted out. Th film was suppose to end with the traveller laying beside a large shelter he built using washed up wood from the ocean. My close friend Gabe had created the model shelter and traveller (pictured below), which we were never able to shoot using the VHS camera. However, before the camera's malfunction we did manage to get some great shots of the ocean and the traveller descending a large rocky cliff.
Digital Camera Stills of Model Traveller and Dwelling
A year later, I programmed my own film to play at the 2009 TromaDance Film Festival in Park City, UT which takes place during Sundance in January. I was eager to see the film projected on a large screen, thats why! In preparation for this event, I flew back to Minneapolis in December of 2008 to record the score for the film with my friend Joe. Guitars, synthesizers, flutes, screaming, wind, water, rain, and thunder. Upon returning to New York City, I quickly edited a rough 30 min cut of the film.
The film played to a capacity crowd of the wrong people. Within minutes of the presentation, people were screaming "Get this Pink Floyd shit off the screen!", "I'll never get this ten minutes of my life back!", etc. Then things got really heated as audience members began to violently argue with each other during the rest of the film's duration -- I guess a few people were trying to enjoy it.
When the presentation was over, Tromadance's co-curator Jonathan had to rush out into the chaos to calm the aggravated crowd. I couldn't be present during that experience and hid in the projection booth, because at the time it was too much of a heartbreak -- although it was my fault to selfishly program my own film for a puke and fart audience.
My future colleague David, who was present at the screening told me that he was actually impressed with the enraged response praising the ability of the film to provoke such a reaction. David equated the experience to what it could have been like to attend Alejandro Jodorowsky's premiere of his first feature, "Fando Y Lis" in Alcapulco, which broke out in a full scale riot. Looking back now, in preparation for future projects, it was a truly valuable experience to have gone through. I'm proud to have captured some impressive shots and managed to only spend about $300 on this project.
Below is a trailer of sorts I use in my reel. Hopefully, someday I can actually finish a definitive cut of "UNÏWERÏA ZEKT" I'm content with. In the meantime, enjoy:
Please view in full screen