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.