ABOUT THE PRODUCTION
"The comic potential of a regular guy unexpectedly finding himself with super-powers has rarely been explored in feature films," Gumen remarks, "without being handled in a purposely campy or spoofy way."
In fact, the original thrust to the "Wonderguy" script when first written was of the anything goes, "Airplane" variety. But when the script had to be dusted off and quickly revised, the humor was somewhat shifted to a more realistic vein. While its zany nature was not completely done away with - getting laughs being the first order in a comedy - the emphasis was on making the characters as believable as possible, and by playing the material straight.
But there were exceptions. During rehearsals, Gumen recalls Thomas Groves first demonstrating how he would handle the Warlock, and the director wondered whether the acting should be subtler.
"Oh, you don't want it like this?" Groves replied.
It was obvious the actor had a full grasp on his character and this performance could not be restrained. Rules are made to be broken!
The producer remembers being struck by Thomas Groves in a couple of operatic productions in New York City. Along with his commanding stage presence, the rich, booming voice of the 6'6" actor was an immediate attention-getter. It was a good thing Vincent Price, along with other stars, turned down the Warlock part beginning in 1978 - Groves was born to play the role, and the producer never considered another actor.
Casting wasn't Gumen's only concern during the first half of the year in production he had quit his job as an artist for Walt Disney Merchandising, and plunged headlong into bringing the many elements together to begin filming by the summer of that year. The producer sensed it was his last chance to join the "video revolution," an important new source of revenue that would make the elusive goal of producing an independently made, low-budget feature possible. Hungry for new material, the direct-to-video market would accept films below the technical par of slick Hollywood fare. However, this market was growing increasingly sophisticated, and the multi-million dollar Hollywood level was fast becoming the minimal standard. Regardless, one had to believe there would always be a market for entertaining, energetic and distinctive films. The idea was to get "Wonderguy" done as soon as possible, and have it help pave the way for those involved into bigger, theatrical movies.
Once production began, however, it soon became apparent that rather than becoming the means to an end, the film became an end to itself. Far from a quick shoot, "Wonderguy" wound up taking three years!
What complicated matters, as so happens in low-budget features (but rarely to this degree) was the extreme shortage of manpower, and particularly the lack of a second-in-command. It may not have been so bad if "Wonderguy" weren't so ambitious, with a huge cast, numerous locations and special effects. But on top of everything else, as Gumen had been away from the film business for years, there was no movie network to build from and most every contact had to be built from scratch.
Much of pre-production was taken up by revising the script and preparing the time-consuming and all-important storyboards, but enough elements fell into place for shooting to begin as scheduled. It was difficult to round up a proper crew, as the production was greatly hampered by not having any money to pay people, who were further constrained by being understandably reluctant to commit to a long-range project (estimated at three-and-a-half months of mainly weekend shooting). And as there was no central office (cast and crew interviews during pre-production would usually take place in mid-Manhattan offices of friends), there was a raggedy nature to the operation; crew people would report directly to the location on the day of the shoot, and the resulting latenesses, absences and part-timing would contribute to the precariousness of the production.
By contrast, the task of recruiting actors was comparatively effortless, thanks to the large pool of New York City acting talent. There were a number of magic moments, as when Carter Cochran, an actor from Virginia briefly staying in New York, strode into the casting room during an open call and was instantly recognized as the perfect embodiment of the character of "Chad." One of the harder parts to fill was that of the heroine, Carol; dozens of actresses had read for the role, not quite up to the challenge of its heady mix of sophisticated comedy and drama. On a lark, Gumen attended an Off-Off Broadway play to see actor David Frank, who had already been cast as one of the kidnapping gangsters. Ann Osmond practically jumped off the stage, winningly displaying her talents, with the perfect combination of energy, versatility and spunk that was integral to the lead role she would go on to capture.
Securing the many locations the script demanded presented a problem, as they had to be free not so easy in a hardened film town as New York. Business establishments, especially in the outer boroughs, would usually allow a few hours worth of filming in exchange for a film credit. Locations that would not benefit by such an arrangement were a different story; but once the two most difficult the "office," compliments of a publisher Gumen worked for as a freelance cartoonist, and the Warlock's "Great Hall," through gracious friends with a huge Soho loft were locked up, the film was in business.
Set Design was usually a luxury each location often had to be used "as is," since there was barely enough time for actual filming (coverage itself was very risky; one angle would suffice for a shot, and of that shot, usually no more than two or three takes). The Warlock's "Great Hall" was an exception: construction of the "Three Doors," (behind which various evils threaten Wonderguy in the film's finale) was necessary. Art Director Todd Rutt, an experienced professional who cut his teeth mostly on Chuck Vincent productions (and the co-director of "Shock! Shock! Shock!") was well aware of the rigors of low-budget film making, and engineered the set-up masterfully. He worked with the three hollow doors the producer talked a Long Island door company out of (and shakily transported into Manhattan on his 1971 Nova, the car that doubled for the Warlock's on screen). Of the three least expensive doorknobs that were purchased, Rutt commented, "Of course, these aren't exactly the right kind for the best effect," as he gamely installed them, knowing they would just have to do.
Cinematographer Tim Tyler had enough of the "whiz kid" in him to face the many technical problems that surfaced, and the boundless energy that his key position demanded especially as he had to balance his duties with those of his day job, working as a parking coordinator for major Hollywood productions. (Once in a while, the production vans from the big features, when available, would come in very handy to haul equipment between "Wonderguy" locations.)
Vincent Schicchi and Louie Zakarian had a few special effect credits under their belts, such as for the television show "Monsters." Their enormous job on "Wonderguy" was taking the helm of the many effects requirements primarily make-up, and some of the physical effects as well. The most demanding assignment would be designing and constructing the full-body suit of the "Demon," which they accomplished superbly considering the total make-up/effects budget was a minuscule $2,000. The budget for the photographic effects, which the producer handled, was next-to-zero and many of the non-post production effects as rays and disintegrations needed to be handled in-camera, for which a beam-splitter was constructed.
With all of Gumen's responsibilities, one role that took a bit of a back seat was playing "Wonderguy" a casting decision made mainly for insurance purposes, in a production with so many potentially undependable variables. An unexpected development over the months pertaining to this role was the stress-related loss of fifteen pounds...which could have affected continuity by showing up through the skimpy costume (happily, the weight was shed proportionately.)
"One of the unexpected delights of going out on location dressed as Wonderguy was the magical effect it would have on kids," Gumen recalls. Unfortunately, the effect was a little different on the police. During a break of shooting on a busy downtown street, the producer had to check on another location by walking a few blocks in costume, accompanied by Line Producer Jaime Vazquez. "Suddenly, a short siren from a squad car pulled us over," says Gumen. "I was tempted to greet the two officers with a 'Hello, fellow crime-fighters.' But when I noticed their unfriendly, suspicious eyes, I decided to play it straight. Luckily, the officers softened when they learned we were doing a film, and chose not to make an issue over whether we had a permit."
A camera malfunction led to the greatest misfortune of the shoot until that time - ruined footage - which led to an even greater disaster, the loss of the "Great Hall" location. The problem was to find a huge space with high ceilings (to accommodate the appearance of a giant Devil), convenient to public transportation at next-to-no-cost. And as morale was slipping (especially, for the first time, among some cast members...the delay would extend the production period to a total of five months), in addition to the impending unavailability of one of the principals (Osmond was planning a move to Hollywood within a couple of months), the location had to be found within two to three weeks. Without any location scouting assistance, it was quickly discovered that even if a place could be found to rent for a month at an unaffordable price of thousands of dollars, the real estate market did not care to rent for such a short term, especially to an uninsured production. Seemed like it would all be over when, on the day of the deadline, with all leads exhausted, a call from a sympathetic broker led to the perfect place that satisfied all conditions (with the added bonuses of ready electricity and a basement full of usable knickknacks abandoned by a theatrical company). It was a kind of miracle, and the filming would continue.
What was to be the last weekend of shooting was the most wrenching. The first "Sandor & Gangsters" day required some eighty set-ups. Fortunately, the 400 lb. wrestler/stand-up comic Michael Nico was an incredible trooper, and endured the unbearable itching of his bald cap for over thirteen hours. And what was to be the last shooting day (the "Demon Day") was as heavy a load but for the first time, the planned shots could not be completed. To top it off, the tolerance level estimate in a foam-rubber body suit fell short by a few hours, and the actor who played the Demon, Dennis Kyriakos, was temporarily ill as a result. He didn't give a second thought to going through the discomfort a second time (thus becoming one of the heroes of the production, as no one else could fit into the custom-made suit), and the last shooting "do-or-die" day was underway. Luckily, principal photography wrapped without much of a hitch, as a few of the actors had let it be known the day would be their last.
Post production (which would last nearly two years) began with a rough cut prepared mainly for the musician, Jon Le Mond, to have a guide to work from. Five months were taken by the preparation of the two minute title sequence, featuring full cel animation with many multiple levels. Gumen (who hadn't worked in animation since working on the feature film, "Raggedy Ann & Andy" many years earlier) drew, inked and painted nearly a thousand cels, without assistance.
Much of the post production effects were of a basic nature, accomplished by multiple exposures, mattes and rear screens. Schicchi & Zakarian farmed out the stop-motion devil design and construction to a highly talented young wunderkind named Evan Campbell. The degree of control was amazing to what budgetarily had to be a wire, rather than ball-and-socket, armature. Predictably, the model did not last long, and some improvisation became necessary for additional takes in the animated sequence.
One of the most frustrating periods was the “polishing and completing the soundtrack” stage, which took an unexpected four months...as a deal needed to be made with a facility for work to be performed during the off-hours. The "Murphy's Law" nature of film making continued through the very last phase of getting "Wonderguy" completed, which taught a valuable lesson: not very many things are really free, and the price to pay in having to make too many compromises becomes higher than expected when film activity demands so many personal life sacrifices. To justify such a soul-tampering cost, filming quickly and cheaply for stepping-stone purposes takes a quick back seat to being the most valuable priority. Instead, the film begins to take a life of its own....and then comes the discovery that what supersedes everything else is to make the film as perfect as possible.
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