Richard Elfman talks about cult classic Forbidden Zone 

He'll appear at the Charleston International Film Festival

The Charleston International Film Festival officially opens tomorrow. We bet you can't hardly wait, so in the meantime, here's an interview by contributing writer Kevin Young with Richard Elfman, director of the 1980s cult film Forbidden Zone, which will play at CIFF on Thurs. May 19 at 11 p.m. at Cinebarre. Elfman will answer questions after the film and appear with his modified band the Mystic Knights of the Cinebarre-Boingo.

When you think of a politically incorrect film from the ’70s and ’80s, Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles or Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs most likely come to mind. Richard Elfman’s Forbidden Zone, like the previously mentioned films, shrouds itself in a moral ambiguity that, in the end, gives the film much sharper fangs than many of today’s edgier films. As part of the Charleston International Film Festival’s lineup, Cinebarre will present the legendary black-and-white film in living color. I e-mailed Elfman, former member of the seminal pop act Oingo Boingo (with his brother, noted composer of The Simpsons score Danny Elfman), a few questions over the weekend, and he got back to me with the quickness.

City Paper: It’s been almost three decades since the film was unleashed. Are there any particular memories that came to mind when revisiting the footage?

Richard Elfman: Well, I see Matthew Bright (aka Toshiro Boloney) now and then, when he’s in from Mexico City, where he now lives. Matthew co-wrote Forbidden Zone, went on to write Gun Crazy, which was Drew Barrymore’s break-out film as an adult actress, and also wrote and directed Freeway, which did the same for Reese Witherspoon. Brilliant guy, and utterly incorrigible. The lad has sinned (to put it mildly). Matthew was sitting on the Forbidden Zone set in his Rene Henderson drag-garish makeup, negligee, and combat boots. The crew hadn’t properly sand bagged a tall light stand. It wobbled and started to fall. Now it had a 360-degree choice of where to land, and some cosmic power chose Matthew. It clocked him pretty bad. But the sight of him in his Rene drag being shuttled around in a hospital gurney was one of the more bizarre visuals I have seen this lifetime. Thank god it was only a minor concussion, and the blood wounds were superficial. Matthew has the heart of a trouper and was back on set in a neck brace the next day.

Then there’s the story of Susan Tyrrell (the Queen) and diminutive Herve Villechaize (better known as Tattoo on Fantasy Island) having their fierce lover’s quarrels — she with echoing pipes, honed from the stage at New York’s Lincoln Repertory Company, and poor Herve, whose smaller voice box provided a fraction the volume of hers. From the distance, one could only hear one side of the argument. That odd vision seems to remain in mind.

CP: What would you say is the difference, tonally, between the color and the black-and-white version?

RE: Only the difference between an old mono recording of a washboard bass solo and hearing a live symphony orchestra. My original vision was to shoot in black and white, then have all the underworld sequences hand-tinted in China. My cash ran out long before that proverbial slow boat made it to China. I can’t watch the black and white currently, I’m so pleased with the way the color version comes alive. Quite a different film.

CP: How long was the shoot? What was the estimated budget?

RE: The shoot, including post-production, took almost three years. I originally shot a 60-minute 16mm film. Some friends convinced me to shoot another 20 minutes and make it “feature” length. They also convinced me to shoot the new 20 minutes in 35mm, then blow-up the original 16mm to match it. With an amateur cameraman having done the original 16mm, and an older, seasoned pro (Greg Sandor) doing the 35mm, nothing matched, I had to reshoot the original 60 minutes. My budget for sets was 12 rolls of seamless paper. The union actors kicked their checks back into the production — Herve came and painted sets on weekends. The recent colorization cost about triple the whole price of the original film (which wasn’t much).

CP: Which cost more? Production or post-production?

RE: As we spent almost nothing on the production, the post cost more. The few minutes of animation cost more that the rest of the whole production.

CP: How’d you cast the film? Specifically, how did you get talent like Joe Spinell and Herve Villechaize?

RE: Pretty organically. Matthew Bright went to school with my brother, Danny Elfman. Matthew’s roommate was Herve. Herve was sleeping with Susan Tyrrell. She knew Joe Spinell. Ugh-fudge Bwana, who played Pa, was a school chum of mine who also co-produced the film. Matthew, Gene, and my ex, Marie-Pascale, were all members, along with Danny, of the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo, our musical-theatrical troupe.

CP: How’d you set out to put the film together? What was the motivation behind taking on such an intense task?

RE: The 12-member Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo were morphing into an eight-member rock group: Oingo Boingo. I basically wanted to preserve on film what we had been doing on stage. I didn’t realize I was about to do “film school” the hard way.

CP: Are there any any musicals you’ve enjoyed in particular?

RE: Three Penny Opera, West Side Story, and Nightmare Before Christmas (Danny sang the lead Jack Skellington as well as composed). I’m picky about musicals, though.

CP: Which do you think the film is more remembered for — the visuals or the musical numbers?

RE: Chicago beats us on visuals, but we have music by Danny Elfman, Cab Calloway, and Josephine Baker, so probably the music, although some of our weird visuals seem to stick in people’s heads (whether they like it or not).

CP: Why do you think the film has garnered such a rabid following?

RE: It’s kind of bizarre. It ran as a midnight show in a few theaters in the summer of ’82, then totally disappeared, or so I thought. About eight or nine years ago, when I put up my first website, I got tens of thousands of e-mails from all over the world. Total surprise. Forbidden Zone has subsequently been officially released in Europe, Latin America, and Japan, and here I come to Charleston.

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