April 5, 2009|It shouldn't come as a surprise, really, given that the film in question deftly balances crowd-pleasing satire with incisive critical commentary, but R.W. ("Bob") Goodwin walks a fine line when discussing Alien Trespass, his paean to cinematic science-fiction of the 1950s. At his most jovial, he pushes forward with the wild abandon of a salesman who knows that he's clinched a deal; at his most thoughtful, he seems to delicately pluck the strings of personal experience, careful not to sabotage what's on the table by revealing too much. Throughout our dialogue at the Four Seasons Hotel in Boston, we never stray far from the ins and outs of Alien Trespass (a very brief detour into his career as producer and director for "The X-Files" is mostly limited to the preparation offered by "feature-quality work done on a television schedule"), though I suspect that's only because we both have a lot of conflicting notions about the various modes of filmmaking on display here and we're eager to get them off our chests. What, exactly, is the worth of an infallibly earnest pastiche of the atomic era at this stage of the game? Goodwin beams with pride over positive reactions to Alien Trespass, feeling particularly validated by the idea that this, his first film, is more of a communal experience than an intellectual one. If Goodwin's perhaps a bit of a deliberate obfuscator at times, he definitely knows the score.
FILM FREAK CENTRAL: How is it here, with your feature debut, making these [promotional] rounds? What's it like for you?
R.W. GOODWIN: Well, it's new--I've never done it before. It's fun to be able to go to all the screenings, because almost all the screenings that we've done since we started press and promotion for it have been great. The audiences have just been so responsive. The more people there are in the room, it seems like the better it gets--which is why part of it all [started] with our preview screenings. It was such a unique movie, and from the very beginning, what we learned very quickly is people had to know exactly what the movie was before they saw it, or else they'd be obviously confused by it. (laughs) You know, because it is definitely a '50s sci-fi movie, made as if it was actually, truly made in 1957. And since then we've added a new opening, which is this old newsreel--have you seen the movie?
Yes, I've seen it. Twice, actually.
Oh, have you, really? So what'd you think?
I very much enjoyed it. I was struck by how you weren't terribly concerned with irony.
Right. (laughs) No, we were definitely innocent '50s people working whole-heartedly in earnest on our 1957 movie. And the goal was everybody had to be totally into the piece and do the best work they could do within the framework of the styles and the technologies available. [E]verybody had to watch the three prototype movies--actually, my friend [and story writer] Jim Swift had a whole arsenal of them--which were the original War of the Worlds, the original The Day the Earth Stood Still, and It Came from Outer Space. He cherry-picked those movies, took a character here and a monster there and a story part there, and got some funny twists of his own to make this original story that sounded and felt like it truly was in the '50s.
In that same vein, though, were you concerned that the premise already lends itself to a certain irony?
Are you talking about parody?
Well, sort of like pre-made camp.
N'unh-uh. That was the whole intention, not to do that. We fought against it. When he asked me about doing it, and he showed me story, I'd seen them all when I was a kid. I loved them. But I went back and revisited them and what I liked about seeing them fifty years later was that they still had all the stuff I remembered and liked as a kid--but fifty years later, they were all really funny... Their intention was seriously to make the best sci-fi movie they could make. But given the change of style...they've been made really funny, and that's what I wanted to do. I wanted to make a funny movie, and a fun experience, but I didn't want to do Mars Attacks!, or any of those kinds of movies. It wasn't about to be a spoof or a parody. And campy is not the right word--it's just that the acting style was different. The '50s were a sort of transitional period for film acting. In the '30s and '40s, a lot of the actors came from theatre, so they were still very theatrical in many cases. There were some that weren't. Some of the big stars were the ones who were able to not be that theatrical, but it still was kind of the norm. And in the '50s, they were transitioning to a more naturalistic film style, but it still had a bit of the flavour of the '40s. It was just before Brando and James Dean came along and changed it all with real naturalistic acting. So I had all the actors and all the crew look at least those three movies...and the reason I wanted them to see those, if you look at those--they weren't campy. Richard Carlson was a really good actor, and so was Barbara Rush--and especially Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal from The Day the Earth Stood Still. They were A-list actors, and they were great actors, but they were acting in the style of the '50s, which is what we wanted to capture there. The actors had to seriously be into the scene, and believe in what they were doing--and not try to wink at the audience or give them any kind of indication that they thought they were being funny.
But just making this in 2008 and 2009, here and now, you didn't have any problem resisting that kind of winking.
No. Not at all. I didn't want to do that. I had seen people do that, and that's fine and good for them, but that's not what this movie does. That, to me... If it works, it works on those terms. Because if you look at it, you're not looking at a bunch of 21st-century actors and directors trying to do something in the manner of the '50s--we're actually living in the '50s. It was a sweeter time, it was a much more innocent time, there was much more optimism. I didn't want to harm any of that with a cynical [perspective].
Sure, but at the same time, something like The Day the Earth Stood Still is informed by a very fearful mentality... Where is the line, exactly, between the optimism and the fear?
(pause) I think that that's displayed in those two monologues [at the end of the film]. I think that Tammy, her monologue is completely optimistic, totally [looking] to a better place--the cosmos--and she has learned so much from this experience. And I think that Urp, in his farewell speech to these pathetic lifeforms, gives a real strong hint that there are darker days ahead. It's a pretty good indication of where things were.
What really fascinated me about the picture is concerned with maintaining the small, human moments in the face of this kind of disaster. How does this concept of the apocalypse inform your film?
Well, that's what underscored, or underlined, all of those movies. Because as wonderful and gentle as day-to-day life was, the only thing you really worried about seriously in those days was this instant nuclear holocaust. It was always just there. They used to have drills--getting under your desk in case an atom bomb went off? I mean, that's what we used to do, they never let you forget it, and that's what the movies do, sublimate it into that. And that's exactly what's happening in Alien Trespass--it's just 1957, the end could happen at any moment. Y'know, mass destruction.
Do you think any of those feelings translate today?
Well, yeah... I think it's transformed more--well, it's taken a different form, basically, terrorism... It's slightly different than it was in the '50s...you always thought that death was coming from way up there, something out of the sky, some big bomb from Russia was going to come and get you, and that was transformed into aliens. I think that was a more specific thing than now, when you seriously wonder, walking down the street or going on the subway or anything else--whether something's gonna happen, something much more terrifying. It's more realistic. There were atom bombs dropped in 1946 or whenever it was, but the reality was that there wasn't the kind of physical terror that there is [now]. That started more in the '60s.
"...These terrible things happen, and everybody stampedes out before they're dissolved into puddles. But you have to remember it's all being done by a seven-foot penis with a big eye in the middle, okay?"
How did your personal experience and evolution form your artistic decisions?
I don't know. (laughs) It's hard to say, I don't know. Obviously it must have some effect on it, but it's not something you consciously think about. Jim Swift brought me the idea, I thought it was fantastic. I could do a funny movie with some scares in it, some suspense in it, there's some heartwarming stuff in it. Overall, [the movie is] sweet and heartwarming, a great experience for people--especially at this particular time, when things are so terrible--where you can escape to a decade that seems much nicer and kinder, [and] during that two hours you get to have some fun.
Sure, definitely. But what about a scene like the Blob screening, where you have all of these people watching a movie--and all of a sudden here comes the reality, here comes the real monster to invade this little fantasy world that you've created for yourself. Doesn't that say something? Escapism is fine and all, but there's something there, where you're sitting in an air-conditioned theatre, it's comfortable... Here's a ready-made apocalypse for you--
--and these terrible things happen, and everybody stampedes out before they're dissolved into puddles. But you have to remember it's all being done by a seven-foot penis with a big eye in the middle, okay? So let's not over-think this, let's not make it too serious! That's the response. It was a funny, silly monster, so that to me is what the fun of the movie is. If you take a real good look at the crowd running out of the movie theatre in The Blob--they were all local people...they looked real good at it. They were all laughing. They're all laughing, okay? (laughs) Look at it again, and you'll see it, they're running at you and they're all laughing.
That's fair. I suppose having seen The Day the Earth Stood Still last night--
See, The Day the Earth Stood Still, of all those movies, was much more philosophical, serious--it was an "A" movie. That's one of the only "A" movies ever made in the '50s in sci-fi. Dan Lauria, who plays Chief Dawson in our movie, who's a dear friend of mine--and he's been in movies and theatre all his life, and he's like an encyclopedia of the whole business--he says that the only "A" sci-fi movie ever made was The Day the Earth Stood Still, and the way you know that is by the cast. Because Michael Rennie and Patricia Neal were A-list cast--and there was a much higher tone to that movie. And we borrowed a bit of that with Urp--you know, him trying to save the planet and the universe and all of that--but I think we're looking at a less elevated approach to that, let's just put it that way. (laughs) This guy Todd McCarthy gave us a review in the DAILY VARIETY, which was just a wonderful review--we were so happy to get it. They really enjoyed it from top to bottom, and it started off with the sentence "Good, silly fun." And I'll take that in a heartbeat. That's what our movie is. It's good, silly fun.
I can certainly appreciate that. I just think there's still a lot going on there--
Hey, I leave it to you to find all of that. Clearly I have been influenced by everything that's happened in my life, and in the world and all of that, and that's one of the things I learned from taking film criticism courses, or even literary classes in college. I think it's fascinating--for instance, I'm an incredible Faulkner fan. I love Faulkner's work. I just re-read The Sound and the Fury again for the five-hundredth time, and I can't get enough of it. And there's this incredible book of criticism that I had in college, and people like Cocteau [are] writing fairly substantial treatises on these books. To me it's fascinating. I'm sure Faulkner never thought of that stuff, really, or at least never consciously thought of a lot of that. But that's for folks like you who have an objective eye to stand back and try to analyze that stuff.
I definitely appreciate the idea of a piece of escapism, but I just think something that's really interesting to that end--I don't think, personally, you can just be awesome for awesome's sake without something in the undercurrent.
And clearly we felt similar things as you did, or we wouldn't have included all of these elements within the story. But at the end of the day, I didn't want it to [dictate the movie].
I guess the way to encapsulate the whole conversation is that I'm really glad that you didn't make it hostile. You just see all of these hostile parodies...and I'm really glad that you played it straight.
Well, I'm glad you're glad! I'm glad, too! (laughs) It was fun, and I'll tell you one thing: as a filmmaker, you're always trying to get a vision in your mind. You have to have a vision, no matter what you're trying to create, from when you start way back here at the very beginning. It took us a year to get the script, once we decided to go forward--over a year--and from all that process on...I had to know from the beginning where I had to be, and I feel real strongly that I pretty much got there. But what's kind of amazing to me is that it's so much better than I ever imagined it would be, and the reason is that there were so many people along the way who joined us, who added so much. Everybody added--art direction, cinematographers, costumes, everything--so that, actually, it works for me I got what I wanted, but way better. Which is, for me, kind of a great experience.