Thursday, May 29, 2014

Fear of the Flesh: The Making Of The Fly

When the book is written about DVD there should be a chapter devoted to "false starts", and in it perhaps a note on David Cronenberg's masterpiece The Fly which Fox dumped on DVD in 2000 devoid of extras and perhaps most disingenuously paired with Chris Walas' utterly dismal sequel. Cronenberg fans had to wait five years for The Fly to be released in a stand-alone special edition but their patience was rewarded with a fine, nuanced transfer, a typically erudite director's commentary, plus a second disc of worthwhile extras. The centerpiece of the supplements is the 2005 documentary Fear of the Flesh, a superb 2 hour 41 minute making-of documentary which rounds up most of the major cast and crew members to share their memories of making the film.

Geena Davis and David Cronenberg on the set of The Fly

It’s almost expected these days that films produced under trying circumstances result in the most compelling retrospectives, watching the film-making process come off the rails in Burden of Dream or Hearts of Darkness can make for utterly compulsive viewing. The production of The Fly by contrast was relatively harmonious, but Fear of the Flesh is no less fascinating for it. While the film wasn't beset by a megalomaniac director or an out-of-control budget, the documentary reveals how two unforeseen crises fundamentally shaped the film into what we know today – the exit from the project of the original director (following the tragic, sudden death of his daughter), and the collapse of Cronenberg’s Total Recall adaptation for which the director had invested 12 months of pre-production work only to find himself effectively in search of work. Cronenberg himself is absent among the talking heads, which is a shame (perhaps he was busy making A History of Violence), but a younger, bespectacled Cronenberg is present in the wealth of video footage that was shot on set, showing the director quiet and relaxed, discussing set-ups with his actors or cheerfully directing the special effects crew to pump more blood and gloop. Despite the lo-fi fuzzy quality of the video footage, much of it is remarkable – we see the Chris Walas’ crew skillfully working the animatronic puppets (which netted the film’s only Academy Award), or Cronenberg himself wearing some bug-eyed glasses and dime-store fly wings, trying out the rotating room set which allowed Jeff Goldblum to crawl seamlessly up the walls of his laboratory. In addition there are outtakes of shots where optical effects didn't quite come off, and there’s some wonderful test film of Goldblum wearing the Brundlefly costume accompanied by a beautiful, fresh-faced Geena Davis.

Beauty and the Beast - Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis pose for test footage of the Brundlefly suit

As for the cast and crew interviewees, all bring vivid, fascinating recollections to the documentary. Jeff Goldblum, who seems as nervy as the characters he plays, remembers some last minute dialogue he added to his adrenalized monologue in the cafe scene; art designer Carol Spier reveals her inspiration for the design of the telepods, while cameraman Mark Irwin tells a hilarious story about Typhoon the Baboon's scandalous behavior on set. One of the more interesting subjects covered in the documentary are the two legendary cut scenes from The Fly – the infamous Monkey-Cat sequence and the Butterfly Baby dream sequence. In the Monkey-Cat sequence Brundlefly splices the baboon with a cat creating a grotesque, agonized hybrid of the two which Brundlefly quickly batters to death. In the second half of the sequence Brundlefly goes to the roof of his warehouse to vent his rage when a piece of fly appendage bursts forth from his body – which Brundlefly appears to eat away in utter frustration. The sequence was of course cut from the final film, which producer Stuart Cornfield admits was done in fear of the audience losing sympathy with Goldblum’s character. I personally don’t lament the loss of this sequence in the film, the actual monkey-cat puppet looks less impressive than Chris Walas’ other designs, which Walas readily admits was quickly prepped and shot right at the end of a hectic shooting day. Less contentious perhaps is the animated Butterfly Baby sequence which was conceived as one possible coda to the film. In the scene Geena Davis is lying on a bed and dreams of her unborn baby hatching from a larvae and flying off into a celestial light. It’s quite a lovely sequence in itself but absolutely belongs in another film. Wisely the sequence was dropped with little regret. Incidentally, both sequences can be found elsewhere on the DVD’s extras disc, and have been cleaned up and complimented with Howard Shore’s music to present them as they might have played in the final film. A very nice touch.

You are what you eat - from the Monkey-Cat sequence

Butterfly Baby takes flight (to the cutting room floor)


All told, Fear of the Flesh: The Making Of The Fly is an essential, near exhaustive chronicle of one of the great classics of 80’s Cinema, and establishes a marker for how a long-form biography of a film should be done. If, like me, you have missed this documentary, it comes highly recommended in conjunction with David Cronenberg’s commentary track. Be very impressed indeed.

10 comments:

  1. Wow, I had completely forgotten about those excised scenes, I really need to dig this one out for a viewing soon. There is no way around it, The Fly is an incredible film, and not just as a horror either. It's one I don't stick on as often as other films from the decade. Probably because the film isn't always an easy watch, and not one you stick on for cheap entertainment. Saying that, I absolutely love the sequel, and probably for all the reasons most people hate it. I didn't want an attempt to capture what had happened in Cronenberg's film, so the gore hound in me was delighted when it was essentially an updated 50's style monster film.

    I'm definitely going to drop this one in this week! Though I may feel the urge to watch the film again, too.

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  2. I think I'm the same John when it comes to The Fly - it's a fantastic film but y'know like Elephant Man this one will put you through an emotional wringer, which is a huge compliment for a creature-feature. Speaking of which, lately I've had a real hankering to see Chuck Russell's remake of The Blob. I saw this film the one time when it came out on video - what is that ? 25 years ? But I remember it being good... Speaking of Elephant Man, The Fly was another screenplay Mel Brooks took upon to finance, and while I've never liked his comedies, he played a pivotal role in signing Lynch and Cronenberg for their respective films...

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    1. A very good comparison on Elephant Man - I find it too hard to take, most times. Such a beautifully sad film, and I can't imagine any other director doing it as well.

      Oh man, The Blob is one of my favorites, you should definitely check that one out whenever you can. It's witty, gory fun... and pulls a few surprises too. Perfect late night entertainment. I'm hit-and-miss with Mel Brooks, to be honest, but I am always very surprised whenever I see his name on non- comedy material...

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  3. I know, I need to see this one right away. I have this great isolated memory of the scene where a grill-man puts his hand down a sink and retrieves a phlegmy like substance, and then a huge arm of slime emergers from the sink hole and pulls him down, bulging out the pipe - a great moment, if I am remembering it right... Y'know what, this dials in with what we were discussing here last week about TV, but all this talk of The Blob brings back another memory of seeing the 1972 film Son of the Blob on The Deadly Ernest Horror Show which was a Friday night Horror film slot on an early incarnation of Sky, this would have been around 1989, 1990. The film is totally trashy but just looking at the trailer now it looks like a lot of fun. Notable for being the only film Larry Hagman directed - when the film was re-issued on VHS in the 80's, it featured the once-in-a-lifetime tagline: "The Film That J.R. Shot !"

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    1. You have a pretty good memory, that scene is excellent! I've never seen Son of the Blob, but man, you just sold me on the tagline alone!! Classic stuff!

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  4. Wes, you convinced me to dig out The Fly over the weekend, and I ended up watching the documentary too. It really is excellent stuff, and has some really great 'behind the scenes' footage that I had completely forgotten about. I had also forgotten (or perhaps blanked from my memory) the scenes involving the baboon with the erection! Was hilarious. You are right too on the deleted scenes, the cat-monkey was terrible, imagine how it would have played in the film right before he chews that extra limb off? It's great that these moments still exist for us to look over, but Cronenberg at least knew when to excise something if it wasn't working (the 'twin' horror dreams in Dead Ringers come to mind). The baby dream sequence too was a lovely idea, but yes, it just feels wrong.

    My one complaint, and it's one I'll level at Terror Takes Shape too, is the complete lack of attention given to the scores. Howard Shore went on to huge things after these films he did with Cronenberg, and the score really helps make the drama and horror work so well together. Strange that they chose to not get in to it. Same goes for Terror Takes Shape, I mean, the score was composed by Morricone!! And they don't even mention his name in the documentary.

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  5. Brilliant stuff John, I’m kind of relieved that you feel the same way about the Monkey-Cat sequence because I’ve seen people make a real case for leaving it in the film, notably Tim Lucas who attended an early screening of the film and told Cronenberg he would be crazy to cut it out, and as much as I respect Lucas, I think he's wrong on this one... Yeah, the Baboon's boner montage was very funny - never work with animals and children seems like good advice for any film maker... Yeah, the omission of Howard Shore was a shame, I agree - I'm not a big film music guy but it really is one of Shore's finest moments and I hear echoes of The Fly score in his music for Silence of the Lambs and Se7en. I'd forgotten it until now, but that clanging metallic score for Crash is a fantastic piece of work as well, so too is Videodrome, which I think is my favourite Shore soundtrack and one that you could listen to purely as an album of music. I'm looking over a list of his film work now and scores aside, it's a pretty damn good collection... Yeah, not mentioning Morricone's score for The Thing is a huge omission for that documentary - it's one of Morricone's finest works, and a genuinly sinister suite of music. I couldn't imagine The Thing without it, and it really fits in well with the kind of music John Carpenter was doing himself around that time which Morricone should be complimented for I think...

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    1. I'll definitely check out what Lucas had to say on the matter, but seeing the sequences as they are, I think the right decision was made. The Monkey-cat was so over-the-top gruesome, it was like a deleted scene from Re-Animator... tonally it just felt completely off, and would have muddied the film up I reckon.

      Can you believe it has been so long since I watched Videodrome that I can't even mentally call up the score? I've been holding out for a definitive, uncut UK release, preferably on Blu Ray... Maybe Arrow will deliver the goods soon.

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    2. Yeah, tonally the sequence is off key while the second half with Brundlefly tearing off the fly leg is a bit overcooked for my liking. The film is perfectly cut as it stands I think... I never upgraded my Criterion Videodrome DVD to Blu - it looks so good on DVD (and comes mocked up to look like an old betamax tape), I'll keep what I have... Arrow's announcement for Shivers was really great news - the film has never had a decent release, but I'm hoping we won't have to wait too long for Dead Ringers, which I'm really looking forward to showing to Irene someday, but also Crash, a film which needs an appropriate special edition. I think it's one of the most monumental films of the last 20 years, and as important as Last Tango In Paris or In The Realm of the Senses - I vividly remember seeing this at Cork's much missed arthouse cinema the Kino, on a club screening while the Censor Board were humming and hawing about granting the film a certificate. James Spader has a line of dialogue that really brings me back to that screening: "The day I left the hospital I had the extraordinary feeling that all these cars were gathering for some special reason I didn't understand". In the residual minutes after emerging out of that screening of Crash I felt the world had undergone a strange sinister transformation that I can't clearly articulate in words. A hugely powerful film... I didn't quite get it when I first saw it at the Cork Film Festival in 2002 but subsequent viewings of Spider has confirmed that this is another great latter day Cronenberg masterpiece...

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    3. I have rips of the Criterion disc, and had planned on getting the official release at some point... but that point has now stretched on that it seems likely a Blu can't be far away at this point.I agree fully, Shivers will be great, but Dead Ringers would be even better, as I remember the DVD wasn't fantastic on that either. I remember watching Crash on its release too, with a group of friends who just seemed to be interested because there were boobs in it. I remember them distinctly being very disappointed! But yes, it's only hindsight that really made me appreciate the film, and it's definitely ripe for a re-watch in this house.

      I still haven't gotten to Spider, to be honest. I know some reliable folks champion it (you now join those hallowed ranks) so I really need to get on it.

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