Note: Adult language in the following story.
Tim Burton’s “Batman” got the world’s attention in the late 1980s. And this summer’s “X-Men” film is getting hype that almost equals it. But in 1991, another superhero movie got the movie industry’s full attention, although few outside of Hollywood ever heard about it, until this spring.
True, “The Silver Surfer” is only a five minute film, but it broke all the rules of what Hollywood thought was possible, and it was done on a shoestring budget, all for love of the comic character.
It all began in 1989, when Erik Fleming was studying film at the University of Southern California. He lived in a house with five guys, and learned that one of his housemates – who was big into computer animation – share a passion with him.
“And we both discovered that we were really big ‘Silver Surfer’ fans as kids,” Fleming told the Comic Wire on Sunday afternoon. “He had this whole concept how to do this character with computer animation, and we agreed that this was the only way to do the character and make him realistic.”
Such thoughts aren’t too radical in the summer of Disney’s “Dinosaur,” but at the time, it was a fairly wild-eyed idea.
“I think ‘The Abyss’ had come out, but ‘T2’ had definitely not come out,” Fleming said. “The only computer animation at the time was like ‘Tron’ and ‘The Last Starfighter’ where it was totally inanimate objects.”
But the guys had a vision.
“We went and got these two kids who worked for the Creature Shop [special effects house].” The company built them a two foot high model of the Silver Surfer they could digitize. “We’d picked up a lot of the 1980s stuff, so we could have a bit more contemporary look.”
Once they had digitized their Surfer, they realized they needed access to a more powerful computer than they had to build the skeletons the animation would be based around. USC, of course, had just such a computer. And it was one which was mostly used to make title credits for IMAX films. And so, Steve Robiner, a student who worked with the computer in question, was recruited.
The guys also got access to the software that would eventually be used to create the dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park” and eventually produced a number of color pictures of the Silver Surfer as he would appear in their movie.
“We flew out to New York, which was really cool for us, and had these laser proofs with us,” Fleming said. “They told us that it was a waste of time. They had met with ILM, and ILM had told them it would be impossible to do a ‘Silver Surfer’ movie. Which was true at that time. Because ‘The Abyss’ had cost like $500,000 for six seconds. … They had done ridiculous stuff like shoot a bald black guy running around and shoot him in negative. … Marvel liked the images, and they said, ‘we’ll give you permission, but you’re just wasting your time.'”
But there was another hitch: A German film company, Constantin (http://www.constantinfilm.de/), had control of the movie rights to the Fantastic Four, including all the related characters, including the Silver Surfer. And so the USC students had to get the permission from Constantin to produce their short.
Their response was similar to Marvel’s: “We think it’s cool, but it’s just a waste of time.”
And they meant it: Quentin Tarantino, fresh from his critical success with “Reservoir Dogs” had come to Constantin with a “Silver Surfer” script and had been turned away.
If Tarantino (admittedly, a pre-“Pulp Fiction” Tarantino) couldn’t get a “Silver Surfer” movie green lighted, why should some kids from USC bother?
“Originally, what this short was supposed to be was a 10 second demonstration,” Fleming said. “The point behind it all was that no one who owned the Silver Surfer believed it could be done on film, right? … It was going to be the Silver Surfer flying down the street, doing a kick-turn, and flying back off down the street. It was going to just be computer animation integrated with live action.”
But because what they were trying to do was breaking new ground, the students found companies willing to donate and loan materials to their cause. Fleming estimates that the producers spent less than $3,000 to make the film.
Of course, once all the materiel investment started rolling in, the producers’ began to imagine bigger and better things.
“We said ‘let’s create a little narrative around it, building up to when he appears, like a little trailer.’ … We knew that the whole reason we were doing this was to try and convince these two companies … people in suits, that this was a viable investment. It’s not that we were selling out the character, we were trying to come up with stuff to show them that this movie could make $100 million.”
So they patched together ideas from various science fiction hits, lifting elements from “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Starman” and “E.T.” A friend of theirs, Jeff Eastin, came in to write the script.
And then, James Cameron entered the picture.
“The weekend is upon us, and two weeks before, out of the blue, ‘T2’ comes out, and everyone is calling us and saying ‘there’s your silver man.'” The shapeshifting Terminator wasn’t as technically advanced as the USC students knew their Silver Surfer could be: His muscles didn’t move when he walked and the reflections on his metal skin were static. But the comparisons were still inevitable. “We knew we could not not make a reference to it, so that’s why we put in the T1 doll.”
But before they could film the live-action portions of the movie, with Fleming directing, one of the companies that was loaning them the material called USC to double-check that the students were who they said they were. Oops.
“At this point, we had actually graduated film school, and we were lying to keep on getting these donations. … It was never meant to be a student film. It was only meant for those two companies to see.”
After that, it was a student film: USC agreed to help them, but the rest of the work would have to be done using USC students and the university would get the rights to the film. Since the point of the film was to be a proof-of-concept for Marvel and Constantin, this wasn’t a big hurdle, and the producers agreed.
After the one weekend of filming was completed, it took a year and a half to hand-animate the Silver Surfer.
“Up until the day we finished it, we were like ‘this is the biggest shit, we just wasted two years, and we won’t be able to show this to anybody.'” But ultimately, “we do the short, we render it out, and it actually works.
“We flew to New York and showed it to Marvel, and they totally flipped out. We met with Stan Lee here in LA and showed it to him in this private theater, which was really cool, since he was our hero, and he flipped. And he talked to us for like an hour afterwards because the Silver Surfer is his favorite character.”
“USC now, because of us getting caught, owns this movie. … And they start showing it all these festivals. They showed it at First Look,” a night in which USC screens films by recent graduates to the Hollywood film industry.
“The entire industry goes nuts over the short. Overnight, we get calls from every single studio, every single agency. We’re having lunch with presidents of studios. No one’s ever heard of the Silver Surfer and they think we own the rights to him. And we’re like, ‘no, we’re idiots, we don’t own it.'” Of course, during the course of the production, there had been those who had argued the guys should have dumped the Silver Surfer in favor of a character they made up and that they did hold the rights to. But no dice: “The whole reason it came out so good,” Fleming said, “I think it all has to do with being true to yourself. We wanted to do the Silver Surfer. We wanted to prove it could have been done. I still say if we had done Blue Man or Fire Man, it wouldn’t have come out as good.
“We wanted to do the Silver Surfer. We wanted to prove it could have been done.”
– Erik Fleming
“Now, every studio is hounding Marvel Comics for the rights to the movie. … We had made Constantin a $5 million commercial for their property,” Fleming said. “Overnight, Oliver Stone is calling, asking to direct it.”
And then came a classic Hollywood moment.
“Overnight, they totally blew us off. It’s suddenly an A-list project, and they have to bring in an A-list writer, an A-list director. … That’s really just how Hollywood works. … We should have signed a deal ahead of time, but we were just too young and naïve. … Your word is no good in Hollywood. All that matters is a signed piece of paper.”
And nine years later, the Silver Surfer is in limbo.
“Right now, it’s currently set up at Fox. They’ve written four or five scripts by A-list scripts.” Fleming said that Chris Columbus is currently on tap to direct the project. “Now, if ‘X-Men’ breaks through huge, maybe they’ll just speed up the development.”
In the meantime, there’s also a documentary about the making of the “Silver Surfer” film, done by a friend of Jeff’s who wanted to break into documentary film making.
“He said, ‘do you mind if I film this’ and we were like ‘whatever, we don’t care.'”
Of course, it’s not like the guys didn’t benefit from their moment in the sun.
“Steve Robiner went on to be the head of visual effects at Sony/High Definition. I have gone on to direct three movies now,” Fleming said. “The most recent film was for Nickelodeon, called ‘My Brother, the Pig.'” He and Jeff Eastin co-wrote “Held-Up,” which debuted this past weekend. Jeff also created UPN television sitcom “Shasta McNasty” and crossed paths again with James Cameron again, and is now co-writing “True Lies 2.
“It did really good things for all of us, in terms of getting us lot of exposure,” Fleming said. “The bittersweet part is that it didn’t do anything for the Silver Surfer and, if anything, it got us ousted. … My dream is to have one of these make enough money that it will all come full circle and they’ll let us make the movie.”