In the pantheon of cult movies, Forbidden Zone stands at high midnight. Richard Elfman’s 1980 Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo vehicle was a one-of-a-kind film careening down on a one-way street to an oddly predestined end. On the clock of Midnight Movies, his upcoming Aliens, Clowns & Geeks runs sometime after 3 a.m., striking after the popcorn has been swept under the seats by the night crew. Independent to its core and featuring Austin Powers‘ Verne Troyer in his last role, the movie cannot be brushed aside by the barrage of blockbusters. Aliens, Clowns & Geeks is the antidote to mainstream and a breakneck cure for the run-of-the-mill.
Shot in a fast-paced, classic screen-comedy style, the film is intra-dimensional, extraterrestrial and sonically grounded. The score was composed by Danny Elfman, who wrote the theme song to The Simpsons, the music to The Nightmare Before Christmas and did the singing voice of Jack Skellington, and won six Saturn awards. I don’t know what planet the aliens in Aliens, Clowns & Geeks are from, but I now know even insane biker clowns may not be what they seem.
For weirdness’ sake, Aliens, Clowns & Geeks has got everything. There are impossibly surreal scenarios, magnificently filmed miniatures, frenetically mimed sexcapades and acting so over the top it’s got its own campgrounds. The low-budget film is campy, vampy, trampy and loaded with cheese – government, string and two parts Velveeta. It is comedy parmesan.
Aliens, Clowns & Geeks is an unstable stopgap between Forbidden Zone and Zone 2 masquerading as a butt plug. “Eddy Pine (Bodhi Elfman) is a jaded actor dealing with the cancellation of his series,” reads the official synopsis. “To complicate matters, he wakes up with the key to the universe stuck up his ass. Apparently an alien Clown Emperor (Verne Troyer) is in hot pursuit of this, as are his rivals, the Green Aliens. Professor von Scheisenberg (French Stewart) and his comely Swedish assistants, the Svenson sisters (Rebecca Forsythe as Helga, Angeline-Rose Troy as Inga), come to Eddy’s aid. If only Eddy hadn’t fallen for Helga, and then the aliens manipulate his mind to confuse her with Inga! And when the mad little Clown Captain [Martin Klebba] steps on the gas and shifts his spaceship into fourth gear, all hell breaks loose.”
Richard Elfman, who also directed Full Moon’s Shrunken Heads, communicated with Den of Geek about the upcoming science fiction comedy. He also furnished us with exclusive stills from Aliens, Clowns & Geeks.
DEN OF GEEK: Where does Aliens, Clowns & Geeks fit in the scheme of modern films?
RICHARD ELFMAN: Aliens, Clowns & Geeks doesn’t fit into the scheme of “modern films.” Actually, the shooting style and underlying three-act story structure harkens back to classic comedies (says the son of a former English teacher turned novelist). The trappings though, are insane and off-the-wall. You might say it’s just my own, goony creation. Love it or hate it, the humor is balls-out outrageous, definitely not for everyone–no one dies of cancer. Aliens, Clowns & Geeks is simply meant to be fun for essentially the genre audience.
Who do you see as the audience?
We’ve done some test screenings that went really well–crazy actually. Anyone who had fun with Killer Klowns From Outer Space will like our “wicked” clown humor. Throw in a good chunk of David Lynch fans, Rocky Horror of course–maybe even What We Do In the Shadows and Los Espookys in terms of off-beat kookiness. And of course those who like my brother Danny Elfman’s music!
There are a lot of movie references in the film. What were you watching? What were you avoiding?
God, my wife Anastasia and I just continued watching our normal stuff. Supernatural horror is always a fave. Santa Clarita Diet, Twin Peaks. We joined the crowds with some of the better Hollywood genre tent poles.
Tell me a little about how “Hollywood” played into the film.
We live right under the Hollywood sign. I had fun skewering it. The film is about an actor whose series was just cancelled. Then he wakes up to find the key to the universe stuck up his ass, which puts him in the sights of aliens who plan to invade Earth and seize Hollywood film and television content. Good Intergalactic streaming value!
Is it easy to direct as family members?
My son Bodhi Elfman (three parts) and wife Anastasia Elfman (five parts) were too much damned fun to work with. I had to pinch myself and make sure I wasn’t dreaming!
Your portrayal of Eddy Pine’s mom is pretty intense. What does your own family experience say about that? Did this bring up deep issues for Bodhi Elfman and his grandmother?
Ha! No deep issues I’m afraid. The Elfmans are fortunate to be a positive and supportive family. Maybe it’s the family square dancing we do at Danny and Bridget’s on Sunday —live fiddle, old time country caller. Let’s just say my sense of humor can sometimes have a wicked edge, as our protagonist complains that his mom is a junky whore, his dad an alien from outer space, his asshole the portal to another dimension, and they cancelled his fucking series!
Your brother Danny Elfman has said that he gets called into service to work on your projects. How did you approach him on this one? Do you blackmail him with embarrassing childhood secrets?
Danny was a bespectacled science nerd growing up, basically stayed out of trouble. That was my department. Oddly, he wasn’t really into music. No bands, no concerts, no big music collection. Life is funny how things turned out. I showed him a rough cut of Aliens, Clowns & Geeks, he laughed his ass off and offered to do it. Yes, I’m very lucky to have “Mozart” as my little brother!
The score is completely immersive, fun and tells as much of the story as the visuals. Do you give Danny musical direction?
Aliens, Clowns & Geeks is definitely music-driven. It’s a 90-minute film with seventy-five minutes of music, pretty much wall-to-wall.
Danny did the score with my buddy Ego Plum (Guerrero) – current king of TV animation — composer/music editor, all the SpongeBobs plus other top shows. Danny set the pace, he and I have pretty identical musical tastes, same playlists. Clowns? Aliens? Surrealistic dreams? Right up Danny’s alley. I might have told him to use more Theremin with the aliens. Then Ego took the baton, so to speak. He and Danny work with many of the same people, like Oingo Boingo lead guitarist Steve Bartek, who does all of Danny’s film arrangements. We used most of the original Oingo Boingo members on the soundtrack. And that’s Danny’s voice in alien and clown music backgrounds!
How much improv do you accept in takes? Do you split takes between written scenes and improv? What are some of the things the actors came up with you wouldn’t have thought of writing?
Film is a collaborative medium, and I really had my dream cast, each of whom brought their artistic creativity to their roles. But the lines were basically mine. Although French Stewart (Third Rock From the Sun) would often crack us up with ad-libs at the end of takes. We kept many of them. And comic Steve Agee had some zingers. When Inga says, “I am through with men!” Steve, as Eddy’s trans cross-dressing “sister,” responds: “Never say never, darling. Trust a guy with a dick and a dress.”
How long did it take to shoot this?
It was a short shoot, so to speak. But I had a great veteran DP, Howard Wexler. We shot with two cameras which cut down time. I had to plan things well and move fast. The cast and crew were all pros and kept the pace. But we still managed to have fun. Post took over a year though. We basically shot the film with half the money needed, then had to raise more, work around Danny’s schedule, tons of special effect shots basically done by one guy—Carl Stern, moonlighting after his day job. Whew!
Speaking of special effects, I like the way you shoot your toys–space ships driven by automotive steering wheels and a gear-shift knob to blast into hyper-space. And that oddly dread-inducing way you capture clowns when they’re telepathicommunicating. Where did you come up with all this?
Drinking scotch and smoking cigars in my rooftop writing garret, laughing my head off! The green aliens have a totally high-tech ship, except for the automotive steering wheel and four-on-the-floor to shift gears. For the clowns we went for an absurdly updated version of Flash Gordon. And when our tiny clown emperor takes possession of an earth body, he has little dummy of the earthling sitting in his lap, their heads connected by electrical wires. Absurd and ridiculous, and that’s my middle name.
You embrace the low-budget, indie attitude. Do you think it allows you to get away with a wider range of taste? What do you want Hollywood to learn from the film? What would you want someone like John Waters to take out of it?
I don’t know how much I “embrace” it, so much as am fucked by it, having to work on such a modest budget. Although I’ve been a “hired gun” and directed scripts written by others, Aliens, Clowns & Geeks is really the first time since my 1980 Forbidden Zone that I’ve really done purely my own vision. Per John Waters, well, I’d hope he’d have something strong to drink and/or smoke and then laugh his ass off watching it!
This was Verne Troyer’s final film before his death. What was he like to work with? Does he represent a mini-you? How did he stack up to Forbidden Zone‘s Hervé Villechaize?
Verne was a prince on set. Hung with cast and crew. He really nailed his role as our megalomaniac clown emperor. A real pro, although I wouldn’t compare him to Hervé, other than both being little people—and Verne really little at 2’ 8.” Oh, Verne did do some great improv, although in alien clown tongue.
Why do you think clowns are becoming more known for being scary than fun entertainment? Were you at all inspired by the tales of creepy clown sighting which plagued America a few years ago?
Being born a male red head is basically being born into a clown suit. No matter how cool we try to be, we’re always one step away from “Honk! Honk! Honk!”
A few years ago the American Cinematheque did a weekend retrospective of my films. To publicize it, I donned a clown suit, placard on my back and marched around Hollywood banging a big bass drum (I did bring along a little marching band and camera crew, of course). Insane fun! During a dinner break we got really drunk before continuing on. Of course some big asshole on the street started heckling me with “eat clown shit” and stuff. I happen to look at life as “theatre.” I also happen to have grown up in Crenshaw and been a sparring partner in a pro boxing stable (on and off, 20 years). Put those elements together and what a YouTube video! “Bozo beats the crap out bully!” My musicians restrained me. Honk! Honk! Honk!
Have you ever encountered an alien, intra-dimensional or supernatural phenomena?
Not really, although I do exorcisms as needed. I believe that we are basically spiritual beings who inhabit a physical body. And I’m much more afraid of a spirit in a big body holding a club than a spirit floating around like Caspar with no body and no club. If anyone feels an unnatural, unwanted presence, I puff cigar smoke in the room and stamp my feet, screaming: “Get the fuck outta’ here!!!” Works every time!
What is the status of Forbidden Zone 2?
Wrapping up Aliens, Clowns & Geeks, about to do our final sound mix, then Forbidden Zone 2! Actually my “bucket list” film. I’m presently writing a series of ten minute shorts we’ll do on the heels of FZ2 based on its characters. “The Queen’s Revenge.” “The Kings Lament.” “Jupiter Rising,” and we’re not talking Papa Jupe’s astrology. Get ready to laugh, to cry, to piss in your pants! Forbidden Zone 2!
Aliens, Clowns & Geeks will be premiering at festivals in the coming months and should hit theaters this fall.
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Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.