A grand and ambitious new version of one of “the father of modern science fiction”‘s most famous novels has just completed production.
The First Men in the Moon, H.G. Wells’ 1901 “scientific romance” (as he referred to his “science fiction” novels), remains a classic of the genre. It was first filmed in 1919, in a silent version directed by Bruce Gordon and J.L.V. Leigh (UK). Unfortunately, the film is now considered “lost”. Most famously, however, the novel was filmed in 1964 as First Men in the Moon, directed by Nathan Juran. Starring Lionel Jeffries as Cavor and Edward Judd as Bedford, it captured much of the wonder and some of the social commentary of Wells’ novel (the Selenites’ antagonism comes from having watched our aggressive, war-like history from afar), using Ray Harryhausen’s stop-motion animation (“in Dynamation”) to create not only Cavor’s gravity-defying spherical “spaceship” but also the Mooncalves and Selenite hordes. Its period quality remains part of its continuing appeal, though it did deviate from Wells’ original story in many ways and is considered an unsatisfactory adapatation by many.
Now, in 2010, there are two new versions of The First Men in the Moon on the horizon. One is a BBC production directed by Damon Thomas and written by League of Gentlemen‘s Mark Gatiss, due for broadcast release toward the end of this year. The other is an impressive independent production from Praxinoscope Inc., being filmed in 3D, and written, co-produced and directed by David Rosler, who also took responsibility for art direction and VFX. After a two-year production schedule, The First Men in the Moon 3D will be coming in Spring 2010.
It’s a retro-Victorian period piece that looks destined to be a lively and stylish addition to the cinematic history of Wells’ novel.
Note: You can check out the 3D version of the trailer on YouTube here. You’ll need a pair of red/blue 3D glasses, of course.
Undead Backbrain’s Search-Robot, Avery Guerra, talked to David Rosler about his ambitious project.
Avery Guerra: To start with, please refresh our reader’s memories about the story, The First Men In The Moon by H.G. Wells.
David Rosler: The novel was published in 1901, and concerns two late Victorian English gentlemen, Mr Cavor and Mr Bedford, who, thanks to inventor Cavor’s anti-gravity paste, travel to the moon in a metal and glass polyhedron. Once there, they encounter all sorts of situations and creatures, including the dangers of low gravity, giant, slug-like creatures called Mooncalves and a mostly subterranean race of surreal ant-like semi-humanoid insects called Selenites. Wells was also a lion of a social commentator, so if you never read the book, you can imagine what kind of implications about humanity get made in a story like this.
AG: Can you tell me more about yourself and the crew?
DR: Well, I started out in stop-motion animation and effects, then additionally storyboards for commercials for some very large agencies and TV shows, and eventually got into producing and directing commercials, as well as some feature ghost-producing behind-the-scenes. I am, however, a big believer these days in the director getting off the stage right away and not talking about himself, and I do think The First Men In The Moon in 3-D speaks very well for itself, so I’m taking my own advice on that.
The crew was terrific. I should note that Emmy-winning cinematographer Sonjia Stark is a real artist and is one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet. Our composer Daniel Godsil is a real star in this film. As a creative and experienced orchestral composer, trained in part in Vienna with his own orchestral works performed with himself conducting, he created a fantastically sensitive and imaginative score on First Men – on my request to be evocative of the Golden Age of movies without any style imitations per se – that’s hugely accomplished and exciting. People should go to the website and listen to the background music they put up there – separate from the film clips — on the pages detailing the history of the film, book and author, and compare that music to today’s even very big-budget scoring. I’m sure they’ll appreciate in an instant how genuinely masterful and beautiful Daniel’s orchestral work really is. I’m really devoted to him, now.
AG: So, how did the film come about?
DR: The film came about when I got a call out of the blue from a Producer who knew me from another film, seemed to like what he saw and said “I want to make a movie with you.” The only limitations were the budget and the requirement that it would be derived from pre-sold, family-friendly material, like a novel. We eventually agreed on The First Men in the Moon, which I had always wanted to do anyway, and that the film should have a comfy, retro feel to it without being slow or dull — and that was that! Very simple and painless, and an interesting challenge artistically. Thus far everyone feels it works.
AG: Who has inspired you as a filmmaker? Who would you say are some of your influences?
DR: For vision and initial childhood inspiration, Ray Harryhausen and illustrator Frank Frazetta without any doubt. While directors like Wells, Hitchcock, Whale and Mamoullian are favorites, everyone has their high and low points, so a person could also point to any number of films as particular influences.
AG: Are you a fan of the previous film version? Of H.G. Wells’ original story? Are there any other stories by the famous author that are of interest to you?
DR: On the more famous film versions, I’m more of a fan of the men behind them: George Méliès, [whose 1902 A Trip to the Moon or Le Voyage dans la lune was in part based on Wells’ story — UB], and Ray Harryhausen, who did the effects on the 1964 version. The 1964 version was shot in Cinemascope, a move forced upon Ray by his producer that robbed Ray of the techniques that were crucial to his cinematic and directorial style, so while I like the film, I can’t say I’m a fan of it, unlike The 7th Voyage of Sinbad or Jason and the Argonauts, which are really stunning imaginary excursions that still hold up very well.
I am, however, a fan of the original Wells’ novel The First Men In The Moon and feel it’s the best narrative of Wells’ works. And in any film, it all starts with the story. When you think about it, it’s amazing and dumbfounding that so many Hollywood films in recent years pay the screenwriters next to nothing, or plagiarize something badly and then spend unbelievable amounts of money hiring armies of people to realize in glowing and elaborate detail a very poor screenplay. It really is as close to practically senseless in moviemaking as a person can imagine.
AG: How does your film adaptation differ from the previous version?
DR: The 1964 version was apparently hamstrung by demands by the studio/distributor to widen the audience market by including story elements that led the screenplay far astray from the original novel. The original story has a unique sense about it we very much wanted to put on the screen, though it was a daunting task on a TV movie budget, particularly in 3-D.
AG: Why a remake of this film now?
DR: This is not actually a remake in any way. A remake to me is taking material which began from conception to be a film, made into a film and remaking that. When a film is derived from a novel, however, the source material was created with an entirely different intention in an entirely different medium. So we really aren’t remaking any other films at all. We’re simply doing a film version of the book that we feel is particularly close to the original novel. For perspective, think of how many versions of A Christmas Carol or Alice In Wonderland have been made. A dozen or more, probably, when you consider animated versions. Wuthering Heights , Jane Ayre, Beauty and the Beast, the list goes on forever. Even plays, which are closer in form to movies than novels, like Romeo and Juliette, have been done endlessly on film. The 1964 version of First Men is wonderful, but in many ways extremely different from the novel, and so we felt very strongly that there was easily still room for another version without stepping on anyone’s toes.
AG: Why the use of 3D? How do you feel about the current surge of popularity in the technique?
DR: For us, it was originally a business decision because even a couple of years ago it was obvious that the market was going very strongly in this direction – you couldn’t miss it. I don’t think there’s any escaping it. Just as widescreen televisions have become the standard, even though for 60 years motion pictures and the majority of the television were mastered exclusively in non-widescreen 4:3 ratio, so, too, I think 3-D is here to stay – if nothing else, the box-office success of most things 3D ensures that it will.
There are technologies like lenticular screens which make 3D without the need for any kind of glasses a very real possibility. At such point that that happens, particularly, it’s only a matter of time before most everyone has a 3D TV. That’s just the way of things. Besides, most 3D TVs are certain to have the option to turn off the 3D, just as you can mute the TV or de-saturate the color or crop the aspect ratio on a widescreen TV now. Colorizing black-and-white films, though, causes real damage because it fundamentally changes the B&W values and contrast of the image, and that can ruin a delicate film.
Artistically, on the other hand, 3D really has the potential to be the first major new step in cinematic storytelling form since Griffith invented the basic narrative structure in the silent days, and I really mean that. Will people just fall into an endless array of novelty 3D shots of things flying at the camera or will the new Z-axis medium offer stunning new dramatic moments in the hands of the right directors? It seems inevitable that if 3D is here to stay, the latter must come true. And that’s exciting.
3D Action Sequence: The Mooncalf Attacks! (red/blue 3D glasses required):
Note: This clip and the one further down are from the 4:3 fullscreen version. A 16:9 widescreen version is also available.
AG: How long do you think interest in this technique will last? What do you predict will be the next big craze in the film industry?
DR: I think the market forces are so strong that 3D is here whether anyone likes it or not. But necessity is the mother of invention, and as people find ways to justify the 3D ball-and-chain they’ve been stuck with, great things artistically will come from it. At that point, it becomes a legit form of the cinematic medium, and debating the validity of its existence is moot.
Rather than make a predication, I hope that the next big thing is to make solid fantasy films with great storylines. The predominant industry perception has always been that fantasy films can function entirely on eye candy and it’s the dramas that pay attention to strong dramatic values and more nuanced theatrics. I’d like to see great fantasy films be the next big thing, because the majority of the films coming out of Hollywood right now just aren’t very good films, generally. When you compare them to the expensive films from Hollywood in the 1930s through the early 50s, the comparison is really just dispiriting. Giant union pressures have turned Hollywood cinema into really just very expensive versions of TV show episodes because they’re made the same way – big crews producing limited coverage of the scenes of thin scripts because the running clock is very expensive that way. If the 1940s were the Golden Age of Hollywood, then right now we’re in the Thin, Rusty Aluminum Period, though lavishly produced.
AG: What are the film’s release plans at this point? What sort of release will you be seeking: DVD, television, or theatrical/festival route?
DR: No festivals are planned. At this point a TV/DVD release is coming fast, but the who and when of it I’m not at liberty to say right now. Look for it soon is the best I can offer. It is a family film in many ways, so look for it particularly in those outlets.
AG: So, what’s next for you? Any other projects you care to mention at this time?
DR: There are several, actually. Though the story is still in development, one of the best bets is sort-of an homage to the monster-on-the-loose films of the 50s, but played straight and in no way campy or a send-up. That sounds impossible to do today, I know, but I’m working though the outline with a prolific, well-respected NY Times-bestselling thriller novelist, and we think there’s very solid potential in the concept and structure that’s being developed. I also want to tackle a couple more classic novels in time, because so few have been done faithfully, regardless of budget.
AG: Thank you for taking the time to do this interview. In closing, is there anything you’d like to add?
DR: Well, for a slightly more elaborate description of the actual making of the film itself, people can go to Films In Review, the online arm of the oldest film journal in the US, and look up “H.G. Wells Gets the 3-D Treatment” [link]. And thank you for your interest.
2D Action Sequence: Selenite Swordfight: