Excerpt from Conquest of the Planet of the Tapes: Straight to Video III : When hell came to Frogtown by Randall Frakes

Some wise screenwriter once said, “Most of what follows is true.” I am here to dispel the myth about the making of one of the most bizarre B-movies ever put out on video or shown to death on USA Cable network.  I am a screenwriter who has worked successfully in the industry for the last forty years, collaborating with James Cameron on most of his movies, most especially TERMINATOR, TERMINATOR 2, ALIENS, TRUE LIES, and on all the AVATAR sequels, mostly as a story consultant.  But how I got my start is with a well-regarded B movie from the late 80s that had a torturous birth.

Cast your mind back to the ancient days, just post STAR WARS, I know, an eon ago! I had just finished being a story consultant on the first TERMINATOR script, helping James Cameron get his grounding on the story.  I had visions of following in the footsteps of Howard Hawks (as did John Carpenter), and Stanley Kubrick (as did Christopher Nolan), and Edward G. Ulmer (as no one deliberately did!)  I wrote several scripts, one of which Mr. Cameron decided was going to be his next movie after TERMINATOR.  But it turned out that my very unique and unusual sci-fi epic was too similar to a movie that had just been made and was about to be released (“Enemy Mine”) and therefore that deal vaporized.

A friend of mine who made zero-budget movies, a wild and crazy guy named Donald G. Jackson (responsible for a truly insane series of movies called ROLLER BLADE) had worked with me on his first movie, and had just sold his wrestling documentary I LIKE TO HURT PEOPLE to New World Pictures.  It was the day of the mom and pop video store where they would pay nearly a hundred bucks for a movie to put on their shelves.  I LIKE TO HURT PEOPLE was tremendously successful, making nearly a million in profit for New World, so naturally, they asked Don what else he had in his bag of tricks.

He hemmed and hawed, and then said let me get back to you.  He raced over to my house and explained.  He had a one page menu list of what he thought New World was looking for in a zero-budget movie: wrestlers, tits, ass, action – the usual formula for direct to video action movies.  I studied his menu list of story elements and all of a sudden, I saw the whole movie, complete in my head, like from a zap of lightning.  That had never happened before or since.  So I told Don I could write this script in less than a week.

Amazed, he said, “Okay, I’ll pay you five hundred dollars if you can do it in less than a week.  New World wants an answer right away.”  “You’re on,” I said, and sat down and started writing what became HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN.  He sat next to me day by day, until on the afternoon of the sixth day, I pulled the last page out of the typewriter (yes, it was typed on an IBM electric typewriter—the kind with the replaceable balls!).

He rapidly read it and said it was good enough to take to New World, which he did that afternoon.  A few days later, they rang him up and told him he had a deal.

They wanted to have him direct the script I wrote, made for $300,000, to be shot in 16mm, with no stars, for direct to video release.

Hooray!  Break out the beer and dance around the room power punching the air, right?  Not right.  This was just the beginning of my nightmare.  Because as co-producer, we now had to actually make the movie from the script I had written, and for a paltry sum, calling in all the favors we could from other people we knew who were rising up in the industry from the days of working special effects with Roger Corman.

We got the kid who had helped design the Predator suit for PREDATOR to create the frog masks and suits for a tiny sum.  We got a guy who built movie vehicles to create a fantastic motorcycle with a roll cage for next to nothing.  The bike could be flipped and would always come upright.  And we got a contract with the stunt rider who could make this cycle fly, slide, flip and roll for the major action set piece at the beginning of the movie where main character Sam Hell is captured.  We certainly earned our right to produce this low-budget weird movie.

But the first thing New World did is assign a co-producer to watch how we spent the money, and he had several ludicrous and pointless changes to the script he thought we should make.  This guy was younger and less experienced than us, so we had to get him out of the mix.  To do it, I challenged him to a coin toss.  I told him if he won, I would drop out as producer and he could take over and be sole producer.  He thought about it real hard, and then chickened out, and refused to flip.  I told him that was a forfeit and, humiliated, he dropped out as producer.

We started casting the movie.  A remarkably beautiful actress with little experience but a strong screen presence was cast for the lead role of Nurse Spangle.  But the head office, home video division, said no.  We needed a known star.  On our budget?  Really?  I called a meeting with the executive in charge and went over the budget again, asking if they would up it if we could get a known commodity to play Spangle.  They said yes, so we went after Sybil Danning (who was deservedly hot at that time) and even Pam Grier, who would have elevated the movie with her on screen charisma.  But the head office didn’t like those choices either.

Meanwhile, the script was being passed from New World Division secretary to secretary, and because of the way I wrote the male lead, as vulnerable and romantic, instead of a robotic killing machine, they thought it was funny and charming, despite its crass exploitational elements.  These wise women all realized this was a comedy send-up of Mad Max and the Planet of the Apes movies, with a trace of disguised feminism as well.

So, finally, the head of New World Pictures, who was Robert Rehme at the time, asked his secretary why she was laughing so hard.  She explained she was reading this really hilarious script from the video division that was being passed around.  He asked to see it, took it home where his wife read it and found it worthy, and then he read it.

The next morning we get an ominous call from the President of New World Pictures.  I’m thinking it has something to do with the coin toss challenge to that kid producer, and that they were going to assign us a new guy, probably someone worse.  In a way, I was right.

Don and I walk into the somber offices and sit across the large mahogany desk where the imposing Mr. Rehme (producer of HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER and THE OMEN, and dozens of other iconographic Hollywood hits) starts talking to us about our little project.  “I’ve got good news, boys,” he began, and then informed us that he had decided that the script was too good to be tossed off as a direct to video feature and that they wanted stars and a bigger budget for a national theatrical release.

I was staggered, not expecting that at all.  I could say nothing.  Don was fidgeting in his seat, because he was smarter than me about the real world of Hollywood power plays and knew what was probably coming.  And then it did come…

After telling us that our budget was going to be increased by a factor of five, an unheard of event in Hollywood history (the budgets usually get decreased just before going into production), he added his insurance policy.  “Of course, we are going to have to assign an experienced line producer to watch how you spend the money, and a co-director to ensure you stay on schedule.”

Don just glanced at me.  I said we needed to think about this before consenting to this alteration in our deal, which surprised the heck out of Mr. Rehme. It was his turn to be staggered.

Walking away from Rehme’s offices, Don and I muttered our misgivings to one another.  I asked Don if we could renegotiate a substantial hike in our pay, would he accept a co-director on the project he had initiated.  He thought about it for a few minutes, and then said yes.

So the next few weeks saw me in a contentious negotiation with the head of business affairs at New World.   I kept pushing our fees up and up, while giving little in return, which frustrated the Business Affairs lawyer, who kept threatening to cut off all negotiations and cancel the deal.  For some reason, I was young, dumb and courageous back then, and didn’t really care if they canceled the deal.  In fact, I almost wanted them to, because producer Brandon Chase had somehow gotten a copy of FROGTOWN from a spy at New World and was making overtures to us to buy the script outright.  We wanted to stay on as producers, and New World would agree to that, Chase would not.  Chase was the producer of several excellent low budget movies at the time, such as the successful and beloved SWORD AND THE SORCERER and the less-admired but profitable ALLIGATOR.  FROGTOWN probably would have been made better by Chase.  But then, we would have no control over the content.  So we stuck with New World Pictures, through more weeks of contentious back and forth with their lawyer, until finally, they agreed on a substantial pay hike and some other concessions.  In return, we agreed to become pay or play producers, which essentially meant that we were producers will no real power, reduced to advisors, who could influence the film making process only by argument and inspiration, but not by contractual authority.  However, no matter what, we still had to be paid our full fee, which at the time was substantial for first-timers.

Pre-production began in earnest, with several producers added on top to slow things down and muddy up the creative waters.  The line producer was more than competent, but not very creative, all his ideas designed to lower demands on the budget, rather than what I was doing, which was find cheaper ways to achieve the same screen effects.

And then a “friend” of Arnold Schwarzenegger came on board as a “production executive” which in this case meant adding stupid and unnecessary complications to the project, and cutting out the B-movie heart of the project, bending it more toward an ABC afternoon special.

All during this, my pot was beginning to boil.  So I wrote a memo to Robert Rehme and cc’d it to all the production heads.  The memo went through all the divisions of New World Pictures like crap through a goose.  What I wrote, in the most polite terms mind you,  is that the current producers and co-director were inefficient, uncreative and ruining the movie and that Rehme should make radical changes to correct the problem or we would have a turd instead of a good movie on our hands.

Rehme thought about it and did make a radical change… he fired me off the picture.  I was banned from the set as a troublemaker and so I walked away from the production, wiser for my mistakes, and smarter because I was already developing alternate methods of negotiating to defend the content of my scripts.

A week after that, I get a call from Don, telling me they want me to come back and shoot some second unit footage because they are so far behind.  All right, I cared about the movie and thought that in some small way, my contribution might help save it.  So I came back and shot some second unit footage the way I imagined the entire film should be shot: hand-held, down and dirty, Robert Rodriguez style.

So all my footage winds up in the movie, but looks out of place because it doesn’t match the TV movie style of standard master shot/over the shoulder close-ups, etc.

I had little input on the editing or the scoring of the movie. Two things that I think killed any chance for the movie to be an impressive piece of B-movie making.  And then the ultimate blow… the film is screened for cast and crew at the Cary Grant theatre on the old MGM (now Sony) lot.  Grant must have been turning in his grave.  It was worse than I thought.  The film just laid there like a smelly egg laid by a constipated dinosaur.  Slow, tedious and boring, rather than funny, fast and delightful.

One of my closest friends, who had been suffering through my momentary elevation from unknown struggling writer, like him, to a writer co-producing his first movie, summed the evening up best by coming up to me and whispering, “Sorry, Randy, that they fucked up your script.  Better luck next time.”

Now completely depressed, I couldn’t even have fun spending the large fees I had gotten for co-producing and writing, because I was too depressed to buy anything.

I wasn’t completely ungrateful, because the trailer guys managed to cut together a really funny preview that sold the movie very well, and had the kind of energy and pace the film itself lacked.  I could see how the film could have worked with a more inspired and energetic director and crew.

But another kick in the pants was waiting for me… the next day I was told that not only is New World not releasing the movie to a thousand theatres as promised before the screening, but that it was not going to receive any theatrical distribution at all.  Straight to video.  Didn’t surprise me. I wouldn’t have released it to a thousand theaters either.  But it wasn’t because the film was so bad.  It was because Rehme and his minions had run New World Pictures into the ground and were declaring bankruptcy.  Therefore there was no money for prints and advertising.  They couldn’t afford to release the movie in a thousand theaters!  Still, I was convinced we could have made a better-looking and faster-paced movie for $300,000 (which was indeed proved out when Don later co-wrote and directed the first sequel to FROGTOWN for less than $100,000 and it had just as recognizable actors in the cast, and looked like it had more production value… although it was almost totally incomprehensible storywise, it at least proved we could have made a better looking film for five times less than what was spent).

 

Then, an odd thing happened that truly surprised me.  Although the execution of the film was not good, the ideas, the concept, was so outrageously insane and silly, that FROGTOWN began to become a cult hit.  First on home video, and then when an edited version was shown endlessly on USA Cable Network.  Over the years its reputation has grown.  Rotten Tomatoes gives it a good rating.  Most reviewers get that it is a send-up of other cheesy rip-offs of Mad Max and the Apes movies.

And strangest of all, talks are afoot to remake the movie!  Go figure.  The audience is the final arbiter of any film.  They will love it or hate it no matter what formula you use to make it.  And although no one is ever going to confuse FROGTOWN with a work by David Lean, or even David Cronenberg, it still has its enthusiastic fans for being one of the weirdest post-apocalyptic movies of the late 80s.  An Australian rock band calls itself HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN, and the animated FAMILY GUY TV show’s third episode in their fifth season was titled HELL COMES TO QUAHOG.

All this is to celebrate the recently deceased Rowdy Roddy Piper, who I initially did NOT want to play Sam Hell, but whose performance made me eat my words and embrace him as one of the few things about the completed film I actually liked.  And his performance in my film led to him starring in John Carpenter’s THEY LIVE, and continuing making at least a dozen passable B movies.

All this is in tribute to Roddy, may he rest in peace, and to show you how difficult and soul-searing it is to make even what a lot of people think is a piece of crap movie.  And this also salutes Don Jackson for coming up with the initial outrageous concept, and for trying his best to save the movie from the Coneheads who flubbed the opportunity to make something that could have been better executed, and also a way for me to thank the loyal fans who saw past the errors and compromises and flabby filmmaking to see the fun and frolic of the ideas in the movie and embrace it as one of their favorites.  Pray that if there IS a remake, that it far exceeds even my humble vision for it.  You fans, man, you really rock, and thank you for seeing past the creative limits of many B movies and giving them a chance to entertain you in their own clumsy fashion.  I’ll tell you one thing, out of lack of creative vision and desperation, a lot of your favorite B movies are currently being remade by Hollywood, pumping obscene amounts of money into them and killing their low budget charm in the process.  But there are always the originals.  Vive la Originals!

Read more great filmmaker commentaries in Straight to Video III, as well as great fiction from hot new authors who have created there own ultimate B movies. Straight to Video: Collect them All. Visit Amazon.com!

 

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