It just occurred to me, over this past month, that I have interviewed two Hollywood veterans with ties to Joe Dante films. One was Eric Luke, writer of Explorers (my interview with him I’ll be posting soon) and two, Vernon Wells star of Innerspace.
Both movies ironically, did not fare well upon their initial release. But with the passage of time the pair have, at last, been realized for the true gems that they are.
Innerspace I saw for the first time on VHS. I vividly remember the video store giving away these promotional plastic visors, similar to those worn by WWF superstar Bret “The Hitman” Hart, but a transparent yellow with the film’s title emblazoned upon them.
I watched the film with my friend Christopher Elkington. He had already seen it and so grabbed the remote, and fast-forwarded to where he thought the movie should have started. This was just beyond the point where Tuck (Dennis Quaid) gets hammered at a military soiree and is helped home by his love, Lydia (Meg Ryan.) She leaves early the next morning intent on never seeing Tuck again. Dennis is hot on her heels, pleading for forgiveness when she jumps into a cab, driven by that guy, Dick Miller, speeding off and taking Tuck’s towel, leaving him bare-assed out in the street.
To this day I have no idea why Chris wanted to skip this portion of the film, but after he left I watched the whole thing again from start to finish.
Innerspace, in this dude in the audience’s opinion, is the second outing (Explorers being the first) in which Dante puts a new spin on a classic movie, long before the age of the ‘reimagined’ flicks like Burton’s horrific Planet of the Apes. When I spoke with Eric Luke, we discussed the influence of This Island Earth on Explorers. So too did Vernon Wells reveal that the studio believed ardently that Innerspace could be marketed as a kind of remake of Fantastic Voyage. There are parallels sure. But Dante’s film is far more nuanced than the pretty standard fare which is played out in Voyage. I love the film mind you, but I believe it was foolish to try to sell Dante’s movie based on its ties to a 60’s film with generally serious tone.
I wanted to talk with someone who worked on the film and could think of no one better than Vernon Wells. He was extremely kind in contributing to my book Conquest of the Planet of the Tapes: Straight to Video III, so I called him up and asked if Mr. Igoe wouldn’t mind sharing his reminiscences.
KH: I’m sure you are bored to death telling Road Warrior and Commando stories, so I wondered if we could talk about Innerspace?
VW: Oh yes, one of my favourite movies.
KH: That must have been a bit of a dream part for an actor because well, you don’t have anything to say?
VW: I don’t say anything period. No, it was great. Didn’t have to learn any dialogue, didn’t have to do nothin’. I wish they were all like that.
KH: (laughter) It was good to just stand there and look menacing hey?
VW: Yeah, just about, yeah.
KH: So whereabouts were you in your career when the part came along?
VW: I had finished Commando and was actually heading back to Australia, and my manager rang me and said they wanted to see me about a new film called Innerspace. Joe Dante was directing it, who was famous for the Gremlin movies, and I thought this could be fun. So I said well, you know I’m headed to the airport to get on a plane and fly home. She said yeah I know that, we’ll set it up so you can go do your interview before you head to the airport. Ok, so I went the interview with Joe Dante at his office over at the studio at 20th Century, and I walked in, and he was very happy to see me, we chatted for a while, and we sitting around a round table that had a glass top. So we talked about things, and he told me a little about the film and I was very interested in the whole thing – then he said they wouldn’t know until they got to speak to Steven Spielberg, cause it was Steven Spielberg’s film, and he was in England overseeing *batteries not included at that time. So I said ok, that’s fine, no probs, I’m headed back to Australia to see my parents and things so just, let me know. So I stood up and as I stood up I leant down on the table, and the whole top of the table lifted up in the air and fell on top of me. So I was kinda lying on the floor with the table on top of me, and Joe just looked down at me and he went; “Now there’s an interesting way to get a movie.” Then they lifted it off of me, and I got up totally embarrassed and thought well that’s that, and I told my manager as I was being taken to the airport, I said you know, you can forget that one, I screwed the whole thing, I had the table fall on me and anything that could go wrong did go wrong. So she went, “No worries,” another time sorta thing. So I went back to Australia and I got off the plane and was walking towards where you get picked up by your friends, after you’ve gone through customs, and there’s a guy standing there with a card, with my name on it. And I thought, O my god, seriously, my parents have sent a driver to pick me up cause I’m an actor now. I thought yeah they’re trying to give a hard time. So, I walked over and said alright, who put you up to this, and he said, “I’m sorry?” I said, who put you up to this? He said, “Up to what?” I said, carrying the card with my name on it, I said I don’t need a driver. He said, “I’m not a driver sir, I’ve actually got a telegram for you.” Well then I got all worried, because I’m thinking someone meeting me at the airport with a telegram, something might be wrong with my mother or my father or my brother or my other siblings. So I was all concerned so got the telegram off him, ripped it open and read it, and it said, Dear Vernon, please go to the Qantas desk and get your ticket for your return flight to America, you’re due in San Francisco for special effects in two days, and I went what? So I was like, you gotta be bloody kidding me, I got the film, and now I got to Australia, I was turning around and flying back. So as I walked through to go where I had to get the ticket and find out when the next flight was out, my mother and brother were waiting for me behind this line, and I waved to them as I went past, so walked over and said well guys, give me a cuddle and a kiss cause I’m back on a to America. And my mother was like, what? And I said yeah, maybe I’ll have an hour or so to spend with you, and they took all my baggage and stuff and it all went back on the plane. I think I had a couple of hours before the plane left, so I had a cup of coffee with my folks and jumped back on plane and flew back to Los Angeles and then to San Francisco, to start prepping all of the special effects stuff they had to do at the end of the film when I become very small, inside Martin Short’s body.
KH: Yeah, you had to climb inside that suit, the robotic suit?
VW: Yeah. It was actually quite interesting, cause I thought there’s no chance in the world. But, I was told later, when Steven Spielberg saw the interviews of each of the people, he stopped at mine and said that’s the guy out of Mad Max – and Joe said yeah, and Steven said I want him, I think he did a brilliant job in that movie and I love George Miller so I want him. And that’s how I got it, I didn’t get it because I could act, I got because of George Miller.
KH: I’m sorry to say it, but that’s gotta be a thing with you – it’s like, hey that’s the guy from the Road Warrior or get me the guy from Mad Max?
VW: It was, for about ten years it was like a big mill stone around my neck.
KH: So you often heard the old chestnut: get me the guy from Mad Max?
VW: Yeah, and the other one was yeah, yeah we’d like to use you, but unfortunately you’d probably be like that Mad-Maxy-character, and that’s not what we’re looking for. And I said yeah, that’s why I’m an actor, cause I can only do one thing. And it was that way for quite a while, but eventually it went away, but it’s terribly annoying when you’re the person that it’s about, and you know you can do other things but you’re not going to get the chance.
KH: Yes it must be frustrating as an actor identified by a memorable part, but then being constantly measured by said part?
VM: Yep, an annoyance sometimes, but, you know, you sorta gotta to look at it logically. I did two classic films, I did Commando, with Arnold Schwarzenegger and I did Road Warrior for George, and then I did Weird Science which has become a classic and then Innerspace. So I look at it logically, if George never had the faith in me, that I didn’t, and put me in Road Warrior I wouldn’t be talking to you. And that’s where my career started, and that’s what got me going, and that character became, and still is, the definition of who I am. And you know what, I am damn proud of it now, but for a long time it was like, bloody movie, cause it was always the yard stick I was measured against, and you know sometimes that yard stick gets to be really heavy.
KH: Especially when that’s all people seem to see that you’ve done, missing all other accomplishments?
VW: Yeah, and they don’t want to try you in anything else, its only gotta be that, and it was fun when I started playing just normal people in films, good guys as they say, it actually took me a few films to actually get into the rhythm of it because I was so used to being on the other side of the stick, which when you’re playing a villain there’s no rules you know, villains have no rules, they go out there and kick everybody’s arse and shoot people and go for it. When you’re the good guy you’re not allowed to do that. I had to get used to that.
KH: Just on that, when you said people were expecting you to do “that part,” it must have been cathartic to do Weird Science, where you essentially do a parody of that character?
VW: It took quite a while for them to convince me to do it actually, because I really didn’t want to go back there. It was sorta like, been there, done that, didn’t like it much, going home now. But, once again, if I hadn’t done it I wouldn’t be talking to you sort of thing, it was just one of those things. I think I just wanted to move on and try to find out what else there was cause I wasn’t old enough and I wasn’t mature enough in my acting to except the fact that the one that had made me who I was, was Road Warrior and I should be damn proud of it, you know, live up to it, but I couldn’t, I was, you know, it was there, like this ghost that haunted me continuously and I began to hate it, but then you get past that and you get to realize, shit, that’s what got me here, you know, that’s the thing that people remember me by, and that’s the thing that people talk about so I should be proud of that. And of course I am now, it’s the greatest thing in the world, but back then, for a few years was like urgh! But not anymore, so when I got asked to do Innerspace, it was just so much fun, it seriously was. It was just, out of control and I loved every second of it.
KH: Cool. So getting back to Innerspace; you had the quick turnaround, and you were off to do special effects. I guess you did that at ILM?
VW: Yes, they encased my in plaster, to make a little dummy of me that was going to be used for all those final scenes, which was kinda fun, and they kinda had a lot of fun with me while I was encased in plaster, they stood me between two desks in the foyer to let me dry, and everyone that walked past me would slap me on the arse – which was kinda of fun.
KH: There’s no stopping these people?
VW: I know, they just can’t help themselves. But that was kinda fun and doing the all the things that we had to do it, it was just, it was interesting and I got to do all the fun stuff. I had the arm that changed into anything they wanted including a very large dildo. It was just a fun time, you know, Joe Dante is just totally hysterical to work for, I’ve done two films for him now, and he’s wonderful to work with, but of course I got to work with my other hero , the first one being George Miller, and the second one being Steven Spielberg.
KH: Did you meet Steven?
VW: Yes I did. It was on the set and it was only because Joe knew what I was like about Steven, and Steven came to the set and I was there and Joe was working with me and he was saying “Back up, back up Vernon.” And there I am backing across the set and I’m thinking, dear god, I’m going to be half an inch tall in the shot if I keep going back. So I just kept backing up and I bumped into somebody, and I turned around and said I’m sorry and it’s like whoa, Steven Spielberg. And I said Mr. Spielberg I loved . . . I loved . . . what was his film?
VW: No. Phone home, phone home…
KH: Arh, E.T.
VW: E.T. yeah. So I said to him, as soon as I spun around and saw him, I said oh my god, I’m sorry Mr. Spielberg, Oh I loved E.T. and as soon as I said it I went, why did I say that. Of all the dumb shit things to say, I had to say that.
KH: No, no, I know what it’s like, when I’m talking to people who I admire like yourself – in fact I said to my wife this morning – should I get him to do some lines from his movies, and she’s like no, save it till after the interview, don’t piss him off otherwise he won’t want to talk with you.
VW: (laughter) I don’t get pissed off that easily. Were they lines from Innerspace cause I don’t know which ones they’d be?
KH: (laughter) That’s what she said – he doesn’t have any lines in that. No, I meant some of the classics from your other films like: “How come two unpopular dicks like you, is havin’ a party?”
VW: Arh yes, Weird Science. That was fun.
KH: So at what point did you look at the script and think “Woohoo, no lines to learn?”
VW: I knew about that right from the start, Joe told me. Joe told me that Steven had said he was taking away all of my tools as an actor. One being my hands, cause I use my hands when I act, the other being my eyes cause I have these big blue eyes, and the third one being my voice because, Steven said, your voice is just too known, because when I talk people just know who I am – so he just took all of them off me – to see if I could act.
KH: That has to be more challenging for an actor, not being to use those elements of you – to have to then emote without physically and verbally emoting?
VW: Oh yeah. Well now you have to create the character internally create the whole thing that you wouldn’t have to do when you can use your hands, your eyes, your voice, you project the character, you don’t have to do so much work, so to speak. But I enjoyed it, it was a great challenge and I had all this fun stuff to do. I worked with great people throughout the whole film.
KH: So what was the shoot like?
VW: It was shot in California and San Francisco. We worked up in the park by the Golden Gate Bridge, we worked up there, and shot stuff in San Francisco on the hills, there was two or three scenes like the taxi scenes that we shot there, but the majority of the film was shot back here in California. All the stuff in the shopping center was California, all the stuff where I was driving around in the BMW was California. All the internal set stuff was shot over at Warner Bros. A funny aside to that is, while I was on the Warner Bros. lot shooting Innerspace, at the same, Mel (Gibson) was there shooting the first of his Lethal Weapon movies and George (Miller) was directing Witches of Eastwick – all that the same time, the three of us and none of us saw each other.
KH: I was just about to say, did you happen to bump into each other?
VW: We were all working in closed sets and things and so never ran into each other cause we had different hours – so we never got to see each other – but the three of us, from one film (The Road Warrior) shooting three different films at the same studio.
KH: Wow – that’s a great story. So during the film, did you get to work with everyone or where your scenes shot separately and later intercut?
VW: I got to work with most of them. I got to work with Kevin (McCarthy) who played my boss.
KH: He must have been a great guy to hang out with?
VW: I love Kevin, loved him a lot, he was great to work with. And I worked with Meg Ryan and Martin Short, cause I was inside Martin Short, so I had to work with Martin, and worked with a lady, I can never remember her name, she was my boss, who I worked for, I can never think of her name, but she was wonderful. So I basically worked with the four leads, continuously. (The actress Mr Wells couldn’t remember at the time was Fiona Lewis as Dr. Margaret Canker)
KH: So did you get meet Dennis outside of Martin?
VW: Dennis was wonderful, everybody was wonderful. Martin was wonderful – every time Joe Dante came on the set Martin would sing, Joooeee Daannnte, wo wo, until Joe got sick of it. He was always joking, and Meg was very quiet, but very lovely, and Dennis was great. They were all just really cool people to be around.
KH: I thought it was a great ensemble cast?
VW: Oh yes, really fun.
KH: As I often ask – are there any tales from the set you can share that have not yet surfaced?
VW: Yeah, well everybody knows it. There was one, when I was inside that big costume, they take it from straight up and it goes over, down, down, down, to being flat and there’s like this door that comes across it when I go into the machine to be, you know, taken down to being small. I have a phobia about being in small places, and I have a bigger phobia when I have all these batteries around me and lights. So they were going to try to get this scene done as quickly as possible, cause Joe knew I was a little bit unhappy about it. So they did it a couple of times, the on the third take doing it, it all got stuck with me under the floor and they couldn’t open the floor and they couldn’t get me out. And it was funny because in very big stage whisper one of the stage hands went, “Shit, Vernon’s stuck down there, and he hates being in small spaces.” And I went. “Arhhh Crap!” So now I had to convince myself not to panic, cause I was in this thing underneath and I had all these batteries around me that could leak. It was just one of those interesting times that you have, of course, nothing happened, it was like all inside my mind and I was paranoid that I was gonna get fried or something. But they got me out and I was fine. But the other classic thing happened was that Whoopi Goldberg came to the set to have lunch with me. I had met Whoopi in New York a couple of months earlier, and she was in town to do an interview I think, but she came across and came on the set around lunch and came and had lunch with me and Joe, and Mike I believe, his producer. So it was kinda really cool, cause I knew Whoopi – so that was nice. The whole thing was just fun, really laid back set, cause Joe is just really laid back when he’s directing, you don’t have any tension, everyone just does their job and it’s all done well.
KH: I was leading up to Joe Dante, he is big hitter, made some great moves. As a director does he give you much, or do you know what he’s looking and give it to him?
VW: No he gives you a lot, you know, he sets the scene, he lets you know where he wants you to go and it’s up to you to deliver. He expects, since he’s hired you to do the job, he expects you to deliver. You know some directors can be very like . . . just their attitude makes the set a little bit . . . tight, everyone’s a little bit wound up, but on Joe’s sets it’s the opposite, everyone’s sort of mellow and laid back and doing their job and you don’t have any kind of tension on the set at all, which is really cool, I love working with him, he’s a really cool dude.
KH: I think, it might be just me, I think it’s great that in two films you’ve been in, there has been a shopping mall chase/action scene. Of course you weren’t in the scenes in Commando with Arnie in the mall, but you were chasing Martin around the shopping center. Was that shot during business hours?
VW: I think we actually filmed that on a weekend, no we couldn’t have, cause that would’ve been hell. I thing we would’ve shot earlier or midweek so there wasn’t a lot of people around, and that particular area we were in was closed off so we could shoot. I had a lot of fun doing it, and it was so funny because we had to figure out something I could do to the clown that was just horrible, and we came up with popping the balloon that he had in his hand – and that’s probably the worst thing you can do if you’ve got a clown who’s blowing balloons and you come up and pop his balloon. So Joe had me do that which was kind of mean to say the least, to the poor clown.
KH: I liked your interchangeable hand. How did that work?
VW: They had a fake part in my sleeve that I could put my hand into and then the bits they were using could screw into that, and I could hold them and if they had to move or do anything, I could put my fingers into whatever there was to control them. It was a little uncomfortable sometimes, but once you got used to it, it was fine.
KH: One of my favourite scenes is when you are being watched by the kid with toy gun and you then blow the smoke from your ‘hand’ gun?
VW: Yeah, the old chestnut, blow the smoke off the finger.
KH: Was it a treat to finally see the finished film?
VW: I loved it, I thought it was a really, really good movie and should have done so much better than it did. It was just a matter of timing; a matter of Warner Bros. didn’t seem to get behind it for some reason, there wasn’t a hell of a lot advertising, and the actual advertising they did with the hand and the little capsule that was inside Martin Short – you had no idea what it meant. So I don’t think that worked at all and just the wrong time to bring it out. It’s just one of those things, you know you sometimes – we have no control over that, we have to go with what happens. But I was a little disappointed that it didn’t go gangbusters, but it’s still, totally beloved by everybody.
KH: Indeed. I think it’s great what Joe Dante does. I spoke recently with Eric Luke the writer of another of his films, Explorers, and we were discussing how he likes to make movies that aren’t essentially remakes, but kind of a different spin on older movies. In the case of Explorers it was a different take on This Island Earth, and with Innerspace it was a different spin, if you will, on Fantastic Voyage?
VW: Yes. It was the same kind of thing and when it came out, that poster with the hand with that little capsule on the hand; people thought it was just a remake of Fantastic Voyage, which it wasn’t. And I think they tried to play on that, and it just didn’t work. But me personally, I don’t care, I love the movie and thought it was extremely well done, and I’m really proud of it.
KH: Another sequence I wanted to touch on, when the two pods do battle inside Martin Short, was that purely effects with insert shots of your face?
VW: Some of it was that way, but a lot of it was us doing it on cables, and fighting and to give the illusion of being in liquid inside the body. But then, a lot of the far away scenes – that’s why they had to make a body cast of me, to use it for those scenes with models. So some of those scenes were shot wide, they could use that, but for the close ups it was us, doing our thing and having fun.
KH: It is one those films that has endured, why do you think that is?
VW: (laughter) I think it’s just that I’m a bloody good actor.
KH: (laughter) Well that’s a given.
VW: I think its television to be really honest with you. The fact that they play everywhere on cable and you’ve got all these movies and the younger generation gets to see them, and people who now have kids that saw it when they were young they go oh my god, I remember this, this was that movie and they get their kids to watch it, and their kids like it, so you now have another generation that’s suddenly going, you wanna see this. It’s like another one of mine, Weird Science, it’s all over the internet at the moment – they’ve got this whole big thing cause Weird Science is playing somewhere, I’m not sure where, but you’ve got this whole internet thing, and it’s you know, let’s have Weird Science back, and it lists all the people in it, and it’s let’s see Weird Science. So it’s a new generation that’s catching on to these movies, and there’s no blood and guts in ‘em, they’re just fun movies, and I think people just like to relax and watch something that’s fun and funny and nice without everything blowing up and people getting shot everywhere.
KH: It’s true, and Innerspace is such a good balance of comedy, drama, and action. There are so few films that achieve that?
VW: Yeah, and I think that, having done plenty of movies where things blow up and people get shot and killed, being able to do the occasional movie that’s like a family movie or a kid-friendly movie is kinda fun.
KH: Well it’s been a number of years now, but the film continues delight, and let me sincerely thank you sir for chatting with me today. It’s been a rare treat and I have been trying real hard not to geek out.
VW: Are sure you don’t want me to do the lines?
KH: (laughter) No, no, it’s ok, you don’t have to.
VW: I could do one for you?
Mr. Wells did go on and he was very gracious to say some of his famous lines that I enjoy. It is a peril of the type of work and one cannot help sometimes getting a little star struck.
So dear readers if you’ve not enjoyed Innerspace for a while, or if you’ve never seen it, go check it out. I know that I feel like watching it again right now.
(Coming Soon: Big Ass Sensation: An Interview with Mike Mendez by Kent Hill)