In 2002, filmmakers Myles Kane and Josh Koury were accepting submissions for Brooklyn Underground, a festival they were programming, when they first saw one of the sci-fi films made by Florida auteurists — and professional scientists — Eric Swain and Troy Bernier. Kane and Koury simultaneously rejected and embraced the film, a medieval fantasy titled "The Brief Spell." Their reasons for rejecting it (for the festival) and embracing it (as an obsession) were the same: Its Ed-Wood-ian delusions of grandeur, combined with an endearing and utter lack of technical skill or narrative surefootedness. Privately, Kane and Koury began watching "The Brief Spell" on regular rotation, and showing it to friends at parties.
When the two resumed programming the festival in 2003, "we started having a serious conversation," says Kane, who in addition to filmmaking works as the video and audio producer for newyorker.com, the Web site of The New Yorker. The conversation went like this: "We've seen lots of bad films, and most bad films we never want to see again," Kane recalls. "Why do we keep celebrating their work?"
Kane and Koury not only accepted "The Brief Spell" into Brooklyn Underground, but they embarked on a three-year period of trailing Swain and Bernier as they wrote, produced, and filmed "Planet X Part II: The Frozen Moon," the amateur filmmakers' latest low-budget, fantasy-scape labor of love.
"Journey to Planet X," Kane's and Koury's film about the making of "Planet X," screens at 8 p.m. Thursday and 1:20 p.m. Saturday — along with "Planet X" itself — at the Little Rock Film Festival, coincidentally the same week that the magazine where Kane works has published its first Science Fiction issue. In that issue, the author Colson Whitehead reflects on his boyhood ardor for schlocky fantasy and horror films, in terms that also seem to account for the oeuvre of filmmakers like Swain and Bernier, who certainly must be aware that low- to no-budget films no longer have to indicate the production value of a George Lucas production as interpreted by a rural high school theater troupe.
In his New Yorker essay, Whitehead calls this style of filmmaking "ritualized mediocrity," but the artlessness, he believes, is far from willful. In fact, it's the complete opposite. "This is what I understood about art: its very existence was credential enough," Whitehead writes. "If it had posters and TV ads and contained within its frames actual human beings who had posed before cameras and mouthed words, it satisfied the definition of a movie, and that was enough for me."
Here, Kane answers a few questions about what he came to understand about art by making "Journey to Planet X."
Your film includes a sequence where Troy and Eric screen a film for a live audience, and they seem to take the audience's laughter in stride. Are they more accepting now of their films being received in some circles as comedic?
They're both scientists, so they bring this very analytical approach. Troy tends to obsess about budget, and Eric will concern himself with questions like 'What would gravity look like on the moon?' They obsess over details like whether blue screen works better than green screen, and some would say they spend too much time in the wrong areas. Up until this film they've always talked about their budget limitations, and everything that comes along with that. In an ideal world, they would be making very serious action thrillers. They would probably just as soon have people not laugh. But I think they're smart enough to realize that any positive reaction is a good reaction.
Troy seems to be the heart and soul of the filmmaking operation, but in terms of character, Eric is the most fascinating. After seeing his home life, you have to wonder about his pathology. Is he a hoarder, do you think?
I think ... He's been a lifelong bachelor. He's definitely child-like in a way. He's lived in that house for 25 years, part of it being that he takes care of his father. You could say on some level he's stuck in a sort of stunted childhood. He's a brilliant scientist. When he's huddled in this little corner working on a film, everything else is invisible to him. I think it's less hoarding than just everything having a potential creative purpose to him, all the toy models and the costumes. He's an obsessive creative type.
What do you make of the pre-occupations he seems to work out in his film casting? He seems to gravitate to what you might describe as some hybrid of Star Trek's "Uhura," and rap-video babes.
That's always been a strong element of Eric's work — the space-bikini ladies. It was unmistakable: So distinct you can't miss it. A lot of filmmakers have their muses. He obviously has a type of woman that he's attracted to. For him, film is ... not in a sleazy way, but it is a social conduit to meet and interact with these women. It's one of the few things that gets him out of his house.
The leading lady in "Planet X" has some star quality. Is her British accent real?
She does speak like that. I don't know where she's from. She was definitely more subtle than some of their other actresses. If anything maybe slightly boring, comparatively. But more subtle. I look at that as a sign they grew a lot with "Planet X."
Every documentarian probably grapples with whether to intervene if their subjects are making bad choices. Sometimes the circumstances are more dire. But, as a filmmaker yourself, did you ever want to just say, hey, that space helmet still just looks like a bicycle helmet you painted?
We basically tried to stay out of the way. But they looked up to us and would ask us things. We would intervene once in a while, but less with things like the bike helmets. We figured, that's on them. We mainly gave them advice about sound. Sound was a huge technical flaw of their old films. It always just killed me that you couldn't hear them, even though they were low-quality visually as well. They would just use the built-in mic in the camera, and you could never hear anything. Selfishly, we knew we were going to need to include parts of their finished film in our film, and we wanted it to sound good. They also ended up buying the same camera that we were using. We didn't recommend that — they just did it. So it's interesting that the documentary and the movie the documentary is about were filmed with the same camera. It shows you how tools can be used.