The Making Of Brainbox / 9 May 1999
Attentive readers will recall an old text product in which I discussed how my friend Bob and I had written a script called Brainbox and had just begun filming it and hoped to complete it soon. This was, according to my notes, in 1997. Two years and seventeen dollars later, the 25-minute movie is at last complete and I’d like to share with you some behind-the-scenes tidbits.
A quick plot summary: Abe, played by Bob, builds a machine that hooks up to your head and makes you horrifically intelligent. It looks like this:
I play Sandy Claw, who is trying to enhance his intelligence via self-surgery, with limited results, so he hunts down Abe in order to get his hands on the box. Etc.
The footage we shot back in ‘97, complete with my friend Jesse wearing a bunny suit that he was violently allergic to, was scrapped by the time we resumed filming last year. These early scenes were some of the explanatory flashbacks that helped to make sense of the bone-simple-yet-still-head-scratching plot. We decided they only slowed things down, and the fact that they were entirely improv’d made ditching them more a pleasure than a chore.
As a result, Brainbox opens right in the middle of the action with Bob, playing Abe, preparing for the big party by applying deodorant and combing his hair and attaching a mysterious plastic tube to his neck with medical tape.
After a blistering opening credit sequence designed by Kurt (who also gets disemboweled by yrs truly in the subsequent scene) — bam! — we’re right at the cocktail party. Abe is the center of attention, impressing the babes with his wit and intelligence. We filmed this at Matt and Kieca’s fine home and thought it would add a touch of realism to the performances if everyone was actually drinking cocktails (I also threw down some cash for Cheez Whiz and sardines and cocktail weiners, which didn’t get nearly enough screen time to make that investment worthwhile). The resulting drunkenness made for a rather chaotic set, and Bob got a little perturbed with me since I was supposed to be directing the scene. But I think the hooch helped my acting job when Sandy Claw finally burst on the scene. I don’t think I could’ve managed this level of intensity otherwise:
Bob shoots me, though, and I flee into the night, boxless. He celebrates his victory by having an extended menage à trois. This was an interesting scene to shoot. Bob and I thought it’d be a great idea to have some nudity in this feature, so he naturally wrote an orgy scene for his character, but we both knew, in our hearts, that it would never happen.
But then this one night I was at a party, sitting in the corner and glaring, as is my wont, when I noticed all these girls stripping down to their bare asses and frolicking in the pool. I said to myself: I believe these young women have what it takes to be in Brainbox. They just seemed perfect for the tone of the piece. So I spoke with the hostess, whom I knew, and asked if any of her liberal friends would be interested in shooting a quick, painless orgy scene. Having modeled nude for “art classes” herself, she quickly agreed and promised she could corral many, many others. Well, by the time the scene rolled around, it was just her and one friend, but that was two more than expected, so no complaints here.
Bob felt he had to do the scene nude, too, because it wasn’t about the objectification of women but rather about the potent sexuality and lust brought on by the brainbox. So I was obliged to film my friend wearing nothing but tube socks and two women wearing nothing but panties groping each other (I believe the three of them met mere moments before shooting this). Here’s a more chaste shot from that scene:
Meanwhile, my character is out in the woods, doing brain surgery on himself. Raw deal! After recovering, Sandy takes off in pursuit of Abe again and the centerpiece of the film begins: the car chase.
I hijack a car being driven by Mike (who had a short film in the most recent Sundance, incidentally) and force him to chase after the post-coital Abe:
We shot so much footage for the car chase it’s unbelievable. We had three cars and two cameras and filmed every conceivable angle and combination. Bob, who edited this thing, did a fab job assembling all of this stuff into something cohesive. Here’s a nice shot that came out while I was filming Bob driving, which involved me hunching down on the floor of his truck and trying to squeeze the camera through the steering wheel or whatnot:
We could never remember which eye Bob had the tape over, so I think it changes from scene to scene. Anyhow, Mike and I did some extended improv, with me recognizing him as the star of a now-defunct fictitious sitcom called “Cookies and Milt” and asking about his scandalous affair with a 12-year-old, etc. He denies everything until right before he dies when he turns to the camera and says, “…I loved her…” Most of this didn’t make it into the final cut.
We did some actual stunt driving for these scenes. Bob drives like he’s in “Bullitt” all the time anyway, and all it takes is one tailgater or cutter-offer and I’m supersaturated with rage, so we sped through the quiet streets of Redwood City, squealing around corners, barely missing each other, tearing through parking lots, the works. We end up running into each other (this was staged), and Bob/Abe is too screwed up by the effects of the box to stop me from stealing it and scampering away.
Then I arrive at the lab of Dr. Kiss, the mentor of Abe and Sandy Claw. Kiss is played by George Kuchar, renowned cult filmmaker (Look! He’s in the Internet Movie Database! And here’s his book, Reflections from a Cinematic Cesspool!) that Bob befriended last year. Here he is:
Bob, I think, read something about George’s films and was blown away, discovered he was teaching in San Francisco and called him up and I think they recognized a common level of insanity and perversion in one another. Beautiful, really. Bob got to be in one of George’s class’ productions and he talked George into playing Kiss.
George was supposed to deliver an extremely lengthy monologue that explained some of the backstory that those flashbacks were going to cover, but since he’d never read the script until the very moment we started filming, he riffed a little here and there and we ended up with something ridiculously great, but also almost entirely incoherent. This set the stage for the final act of the production.
The finale was originally going to be a big shootout/chase thing set to the Birthday Party’s “Swampland,” and we even had the perfectly swampy location for it, but we ended up scrapping that whole sequence in favor of a big mental blowout. Cain, of Bible fame, played by me with a mask atop my head and a garbage-bag cloak, appears and does away with Dr. Kiss, delivers monologue #99, hooks both Abe and Sandy Claw up to the box, throws the switch, and plunges us into a nightmare freakout.
All of these scenes, as well as a few fillers that we forgot about, were shot on the last day with just me and Bob in his garage. We set up a couple of lights and draped garbage bags on the wall — it had a real 80s rock video esthetic to it. We filmed each other flipping out and it looked a little weak until Kurt ran the stuff through his computer and made everything distort-y, and Bob colorized the resulting shots. Here’s a sample:
A few weeks ago Bob and I made the soundtrack for this thing using feedbacking amps and a Casiotone and his bargain-bin theremin and overdubbed howling voices and the works, and the audio that goes with the brain meltdown scene really worked out nicely.
So after that visual onslaught, cut to black, then to Bob and I awaking in a nice pastoral area, shaking our heads and wondering what just happened. After a lengthy pause, I say: “What do we do now?” And after another, even longer pause, Bob says: “Let’s paint the town red!”
Thus begins the closing sequence, where Abe and Claw, covered in blood, parade around Fisherman’s Wharf, excitedly seeing all the great sights. We even went and danced in front of a huge crowd of tourists as some steel drum band played — a perfect example of how I, mind-numbingly introverted in most situations, will turn off my brain and do whatever it takes when the camera is on me.