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Moriarty Visits The Pomona Set Of RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN! The Rock... And Whitley Streiber?!

Hey, everyone. “Moriarty” here. I really am not a morning person. And having kids has only complicated that. I work all night, but even when I do have time to sleep, my youngest is still up every few hours. For the most part, the hours from about 6:00 to 11:00 are mine most mornings, uninterrupted. Unless I have to be in Pomona. Pomona is, from pretty much any point in Los Angeles, a big drive. Problem is, so is my house but in the other direction. So I had a big drive before I had a big drive. And when I finally arrived at the Pomona Fairplex, about ten minutes before the 8:30 call time, I was barely conscious. I was one of a handful of familiar LA online writers who had been invited, and I saw them standing with Jack and Tim, the Disney guys I normally deal with. Everyone was picking off the craft service table or ordering from the catering truck. I didn’t have to be encouraged. I figured I’d need some carbs to kickstart me out of sleepy grizzly mode, so I ordered a breakfast burrito and told the guy to “make it reeeeeeally hot.” Two things. First, I forgot to mention that this wasn’t just a set visit. We’d been told that we specifically were going to be put on camera. Somehow, Disney had wrangled us into extra work. And second, never tell the dude on the catering truck to “make it reeeeeeally hot.” He will most likely take it as a personal challenge to his manhood and decide to fuck you up on purpose. Point taken, catering dude. Point taken. The Fairplex is a giant collection of buildings where they can have events. It’s laid out like a city in a science fiction movie. It’s the permanent home of the LA County Fair every September, and the rest of the time, they have all sorts of events, like this month you can see the Tattoo & Body Art Expo or the Los Angeles World Guitar Show or, my pick, the California Summer Nationals Karate Tournament. It’s a very nice, very upscale facility, and one of the buildings was our stage for the day. And outside, we were met by director Andy Fickman. His is not a long filmography, nor is it one likely to flame wild enthusiasm in the fanboy community. Of his work, I liked REEFER MADNESS: THE MOVIE MUSICAL, I’m indifferent to SHE’S THE MAN (probably due in large part to my almost chemical-dislike of Amanda Bynes), and I thought THE GAME PLAN was a big phony demographically shrewd Rock vehicle that did its job with all the efficiency the Disney marketing department needed to make a slam dunk. And it made a super-colossal fuck-ton of money. So I guess I assumed when driving out that Fickman would turn out to be some slick hipster dude, making these easy softball Disney and Nickelodeon generation movies. And instead... well... let me start by saying that Andy Fickman is Yosemite Sam. Visually and personality wise, all he needs is a pair of working six-guns. He comes at you at about 150 miles-per-hour from the moment you meet him, and watching him on three separate occasions now, I’ve never seen another mode. Fickman’s a battle tank. Whatever his personal secret is, he should probably be squeezed or extracted or reproduced somehow so we can all either live to be 100 or at least work as hard as if we did. Within about ten minutes of meeting him, we felt like we knew his life story. He’s been in the business a while, and at one point, he ran Bette Midler’s production company. If I remember the list correctly, he was also a professional juggler, a roadie, a crab fisherman, a human statue, a drag race driver on tour, and the original Ronald McDonald. He’s also, and this one is true, a huge UFO enthusiast who was born in Roswell, New Mexico. Seriously. He is one of those guys who can quote it all to you, chapter-and-verse, everything from Roswell forward, and although he stopped short of telling us, “Well, of course I’ve been abducted, too,” he certainly spoke with authority when he told us how his film isn’t a remake. He’s setting his movie thirty years later, and the old films happened. And within moments of being introduced to us, he’s already telling us how much darker his idea of WITCH MOUNTAIN is and how Oren and the rest of Disney are supporting them AND leaving them alone, letting them make a Disney movie as dark as the PIRATES films. That would certainly be a major decision by Disney, and intriguing. Does Fickman really have that much clout? He suggested to us that it helps that Andrew Gunn is producing. He was the producer on SKY HIGH, but more importantly in terms of buying some clout with Disney right now, he produced COLLEGE ROAD TRIP. “Now’s the right time,” said Fickman. “Both of us are just coming off of things that are very, like, ‘I’ve got the dog and you’ve got the pig.’” Whenever Gunn spoke, it was obvious that the film he’s most proud of, that he brings up as an example of almost anything you might end discussing on a film set, is SKY HIGH. It may not have made a ton of money, but it seems to be very near and dear to him, and a lot of the experience of getting something a little off-center through Disney is one that he’s counting on to help get RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN done. Both he and Fickman view this as a real action movie, and that’s a big part of why they went after Dwayne Johnson as their lead. I’ve met him a few times now on different sets, and I’m of mixed mind about Dwayne in person. He’s very affable, very approachable, and he’s one of those guys who seems determined to keep a set moving forward with everyone smiling. Verrrrrrry professional. But the other side of that is a sort of robotic repetition of industry terms, where I can tell he must have an awesome team of agents and managers and publicists all using those same terms. “We feel it’s time to transition Dwayne into the family market with an aggressive slate of material designed to reach a four-quadrant demo.” Sheeeeesh. The thing that got this movie greenlit was, bottom-line, Dwayne wanted to get back into the action business. And RACE TO WITCH MOUNTAIN lets him bring his new-found family film success to an action movie, so it’s the best of both worlds for him. And, look, I’m fairly cynical these days about all the remakes and the reboots and the revamps and the strip-mining of our collective childhood. I really can’t fathom that so much of this nerdstalgia is choking most original work out of the studio system completely. It freaks me out, and I think it’s short-sighted. I just don’t see where the new voices are being encouraged, where we’re taking any chances as an industry. As a result, the closest thing we see to daring is the decision to let Fickman turn a lovably cheesy series of kid’s films from the ‘70s into an action-SF update with monster aliens and The Rock kicking ass and Carla Gugino hottin’ things up using the stunt team from the BOURNE movies and CASINO ROYALE. Which, admittedly, sounds sort of crazy, and that’s why I dragged myself out to Pomona to see what they were doing. Inside the building they were using for the day, an entire UFO convention had been created. I’m not sure how much of this you’ll be able to register onscreen, but it was sort of amazing how detailed the entire convention was. Every booth was manned by a real enthusiast, someone who was really part of the UFO community, and as a result, from the moment we stepped inside, it was easy to forget you were on a stage. Even between takes, people were checking out the booths, reading pamphlets or flipping through books, trading business cards with each other. The two cameos that seemed to excite Fickman the most were Whitley Streiber, author of WOLFEN and, of course, COMMUNION, and Bill Burns, the host of UFO HUNTERS on The History Channel. Fickman talked about how most UFO conventions fall into one of two extremes. Either they are very dry and scientific because they’re worried about respectability, or they are completely cheesy sort of lunatic gatherings where everyone’s running around yelping about anal probes. For this particular convention, they tried to design something in the middle, and the best compliment Fickman got from the real UFO enthusiasts he brought in is that they’re going to steal his layout for the next real convention they have. He was laughing how he thought it was silly for the production design team to put a karaoke booth onto the convention floor right next to the cattle mutilations display until he caught the UFO fans crowding in to do some karaoke every time there was a break in filming. We walked by the Bill Burns booth first to meet him, and then Fickman led us further onto the convention floor. He talked about how it’s a fine line when you’re inviting these real people to take part in a scene like this because, all kidding aside, many of them take this all very seriously, and if they think you’re making fun of them, it could get ugly very quickly. Because Fickman’s a real-deal UFO fanatic himself, though, that wasn’t an issue. I don’t think he could belittle that community if he tried. He’s too connected to it. An example of a joke that pays respect to the community while still building character involves Carla Gugino’s address to the convention. She’s a serious scientist with genuinely explosive facts to reveal, but because she’s determined to play it straight, her Power Point presentation bores everyone right out of the room. Meanwhile, Garry Marshall, who plays a rival UFO expert, gives a pandering speech full of ridiculousness and light of any science, and he’s greeted warmly as a result. Marshall’s look in the film is based fairly directly on Bill Burns, which made it extra strange when Burns walked by Marshall’s booth while we were there. Carla Gugino’s look in the film, on the other hand, seems to be based on the fact that she’s really, really hot. Distractingly hot, to hear producer Andrew Gunn tell it. Evidently, when the two lead kids were cast, young Alexander Ludwig (THE DARK IS RISING) wasn’t familiar with Gugino. He asked what films she’d done, and instead of someone steering him SPY KIDS, they mentioned SIN CITY. The next day, Alexander seemed particularly determined to be around Carla as much as possible, puberty striking that table read like a tsunami. I don’t blame him at all. Alexander is one of the two alien kids who are the ostensible leads of the film, with AnnaSophia Robb (or Natalie Portman 2.0, as I like to call her) playing the other lead. In the original WITCH MOUNTAIN films, the kids were playing by Ike Eisenmann and Kim Richards, and both of them will make appearances in Fickman’s new film. The basic premise of this new film is similar to the original movies. Two alien kids on the run on Earth, trying to find something that ties them to their home planet, with a normal unsuspecting adult drawn into the chase while protecting the kids from people trying to hurt them. In this case, Dwayne Johnson is the cab driver who gets pulled into the chase, with the movie drawing some structural inspiration from Michael Mann’s COLLATERAL. And the bad guy in this one is Ciaran Hinds, a pretty impressive catch for a Disney alien movie, and it was obvious that Fickman was just as startled by the casting as we were. “I keep asking him if he learned any tricks from Spielberg that I can steal,” he joked at one point. One thing that’s different this time is that there is an alien monster in the mix, the Syphon, played by Tom Woodruff Jr. and designed by Woodruff and Gillis. In the scene being shot while we were onset, Dwayne was running through the crowd, trying to find the kids, worried because the Syphon is close behind. The group of us was gathered together, dressed in UFO convention t-shirts, and then scattered around a photo area that had been set up with life-sized STAR WARS mannequins that were actually sent from Lucasfilm. The shot that we were supposed to be in featured Dwayne running through, interrupting the photos being taken. They told us to look at him like he’d just ruined the most important moment of our lives, and we ended up running through about nine takes from two angles. In between, we got a chance to chat with Dwayne a little bit, and this was the moment where we got to see the “real” Dwayne, a guy who wasn’t repeating Hollywood-ese at us, but who instead just seemed to be blowing off a little steam between takes. We also got a chance to chat with Whitley Streiber, who was there with his wife. To my surprise, he seemed to know Ain’t It Cool fairly well, and we ended up having a nice conversation about SF in general. A few years ago, I took advantage of a Q&A at the Egyptian after a screening of LIFEFORCE to thank Tobe Hooper for kickstarting my own puberty with the casting of Mathilda May in that film, and chatting with Streiber, I took a similar opportunity to thank him for writing THE HUNGER, which led to Tony Scott putting Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve in a lesbian clinch. “God, I had a second puberty when I saw it,” he told me, “so I can only imagine what it did to a kid.” I was also surprised by how open Streiber was in talking about his UFO experiences, which have by now become a cottage industry for him. Whether you believe him or not seems to make no difference to Streiber. He didn’t hard-sell me on the idea, and at the same time, he didn’t downplay it or act embarrassed about it. I’m not sure I’d have the stones to tell people I was abducted by a UFO if it happened to me, if only because of the incredulity factor. Finally, around 1:00 in the afternoon, they finished with our shots, and we were told that they would invite us back for some of the bigger sets in the film in the weeks ahead, so we’ll continue our discussion of the film in a few more articles, one for each of the visits I made to the sets, featuring more detailed interviews and explanations about why they’re making this new WITCH MOUNTAIN and what to expect when it hits screens in 2009. In the meantime, anyone whose curious in San Diego next week should keep their eyes peeled for the Disney panel, where you’ll see some of the first WITCH MOUNTAIN footage for yourself. I think genre fans might be pleasantly surprised by what they see if they check it out.

Drew McWeeny, Los Angeles

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