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Before Sharknado there was Leprechaun…

by Brian Trenchard-Smith Sep 26, 2014

lepposters

All the Warwick Davis LEPRECHAUN movies are coming out in a new Blu Ray combo pack. The commentary tracks offer some memories of my two contributions to the guilty pleasure franchise. Here are a few more.

Warwick Laser

I grew up enjoying the absurdist humor of the Monty Python’s Flying Circus TV series. So why not Absurdist Cinema? I loved the 1941 HELLZAPOPPIN’, an early iconic example. The concept of the mid ’90’s LEPRECHAUN franchise was proudly ludicrous – pint sized Jason/Freddy/Chucky amalgam with an Irish twist terrorizes and kills most of the supporting cast. But he was never really scary. I decided to embrace the absurd and make it as much fun as the formula allowed.

 

Blue Rider Pictures, for whom I had made NIGHT OF THE DEMONS 2, were asked by Trimark to produce the third and, at that stage, the intended last in the series. Send the little guy to Vegas, the capital of greed and broken dreams – was the concept, but Trimark only wanted to spend $1.2M, 300K less than LEP 2. So together with Blue Rider principals Jeff Geoffray and Walter Josten, I had to do some clever production planning. First step was to re-write the script to fit LA’s Ambassador Hotel as a seedy Vegas casino where we would shoot for 14 days.

I also beefed up the humor overall with limericks, and put much of LEP’s dialogue into rhyme. ” For playing me this trick, ” says Warwick, swinging an axe, ” I’ll chop off your..” Whack! Blotting out the last word, the axe lands between John Gatins legs, an inch from inhibiting his social life. That sort of thing. ( Crotch gags abound in my movies – see THE MAN FROM HONG KONG as an early example. Suspended adolescence, I guess. Sexist humor, too. I know, I’m a sick and wicked puppy. ) Caroline Williams, an awesome comedienne, made the most of every scene as the blowzy croupier seeking magical transformation into beauty.

Shooting with the speedy cinematographer David Lewis went well in the Ambassador, despite the fact that the empty decaying hotel was simultaneously rented to three movie companies. I would bump into Martin Sheen occasionally between scenes of his period gangster movie. Tia Carrere and Eric Roberts were doing a thriller set in a night club. We worked around each other efficiently.

 

AMBASSADOR HOTEL2

 

I felt a little guilty about shooting a morgue scene in the kitchen area . I had first arrived in the United States on June 6th 1968, the morning after Presidential candidate Senator Robert Kennedy was shot in the kitchen pantry area of the Ambassador Hotel. I experienced a society profoundly traumatized.

28 years later, I found myself staring at an X carved into the floor tile beside the elevator, marking the spot where Kennedy’s head lay, bleeding from a wound behind his right ear . . but the kitchen was the only area with white tiles and fridges. No money for set building, only for dressing locations within the Ambassador. I felt a little ghoulish but you know how it is… the show must go on. Today cultural sensitivity gets more attention in location agreements.

LEP in Freemont districtWe finished the Ambassador shoot at 2 am, then flew to Vegas at noon with Warwick and a guerrilla crew of 5 for a dusk till dawn shoot, setting the Leprechaun against real Vegas backgrounds for brief scenes that would pepper the movie. We had been refused permission to shoot outside major casinos like the Golden Nugget but we did it anyway. ” Golden Nugget? I’d like one of those ! ” exclaimed Warwick, as the low angle 14mm lens made him appear to tower over he building. Such was the penetration of Leprechaun into popular culture that people came up to us: ” Are you making a Leprechaun movie? Can we be in it, please?” Free extras! Thanks.

Screen shot 2014-09-27 at 6.12.20 PMWarwick Davis was wonderful to work with. He appreciated the opportunity to embellish his character with spoof TV commercials in which he portrayed an ambulance chasing lawyer, a psychic and a fire and brimstone televangelist. His patience and dedication every day during 3 hours plus of make-up application (and 40 minutes removing it) was heroic.

 

lep_Gabe bartolis part make up Warwick
Gabe Bartalos, who created his make-up, also devised great new prosthetic make up gags, like the hilarious Caroline Williams’ collagen lips in overdrive, and the lethal Fembot that crawls out of a phone sex ad on the TV screen to straddle, then electrocute lecherous casino owner Mickey Callan, who added the line: ” Oh, you want my heat seeking moisture missile…”

 

FEMBOT

Casting director Tedra Gabriel brought me two wonderful comedic actors – Tom Dugan and Roger Hewlett to play the loan shark guys who want their money from sleazy casino owner Mickey Callan. We improvised ninety percent of their part. For instance, I had 15 more minutes of the shooting day left, and one shot to do: the mob guys waiting impatiently for Mickey Callan to show up. No written dialogue. I said: make some small talk for about 20 seconds. The off the wall ” jocks vs. briefs ” dialogue is what followed. When The Cinefamily played Lep 3 & 4 on St. Paddy’s day, there was a Q&A at intermission. Leprechaun completists may find it interesting. It certainly shows how much fun we had on the show.

 

 

There was one gag I decided to drop on the grounds of taste. (Rare for me.) As Lep disposes of the mob guys, Tom Dugan improvs a Wizard of Oz reference as his dying words: “What was Judy Garland really like?” Warwick, a dab hand at improv himself, shot back with customary malevolence: ” She was a bitch!” then delivered the coup de grace with his shellack as the button on the line. We all fell about laughing, but in the cutting room I felt it might hurt Liza Minnelli’s feelings. (I know, she probably doesn’t see Leprechaun movies). But if anyone was bitchy to the munchkins on The Wizard of Oz, it was the studio brass, not her mother. She didn’t deserve the slight. Funny line, but it had to go. I encouraged all the cast to embellish their characters. Leigh-Allyn Baker’s improv ability turned her walk-on waitress part into a gem. Metallica, indeed.

 

Leighjohnlyn
Clockwise, Leigh, John and Lynn

 
Such was the spirit on the set – at 2 am – even Trimark exec in charge Dave Tripet volunteered to swell my low budget crowd of extras, and gave me a yawn I could use as a cutaway during John DeMita’s performance, wonderful as the incompetent vain glorious magician.

I had a terrific crew, led by an awesome first assistant Lynn D’Angona,

She went on to be my second unit director on two subsequent films, MEGIDDO, and LEPRECHAUN IN SPACE.

LEPRECHAUN VIDEO STATISTICS

LEP 3 shipped 55,000 units, making it the highest selling independent direct to video of 1995. So the marketplace demanded another.

 

 

Trimark had originally wanted to put the next Leprechaun aboard APOLLO 13. “Trimark, we have a problem.” I suggested the ALIENS formula – space marines hunting down a deadly creature – would offer more scope, suggesting a penile variant on the iconic chest buster moment.

 

 

Buoyed by the response to the comedy in LEP 3, I pushed LEP 4 a step further into farce incorporating sci-fi homage and parody moments.

 

Warwick and Dalek2

When Dr.Mittenhand (yes, really) becomes a giant spider/scorpion (brilliantly realized by Gabe Bartalos on low dollars), he squeaks the final line from The Fly: ” Help me! ” before being blown to pieces.

I cannot praise Gabe Bartalos prosthetic work highly enough. Here’s another sample.

 

 

Cinephiles smile but the core audience wanted more horror, and I should have paid more attention to their expectations. Also, by relocating a mythological creature into space as JASON X did, I destabilized the foundations of a good horror movie: ordinary people in the real world menaced by the supernatural. My characters were a pastiche of sci-fi tropes limiting audience identification. It was a risky experiment, which occasionally mocked the requirements of the Made For Home Video market.

Like the obligatory topless moment that had to be worked into the story – a firm demand of US video distributors at the time. So writer Dennis Pratt came up with the most absurd reason for nudity. On Princess Zarina’s planet, when a member of the royal family exposes her breasts, she is pronouncing a death sentence to those standing in front of her. ” You may find this cruel but you leave me no choice. Look upon them and know you are forever doomed…” she says opening her bra wide. Miguel Nunez’ reactions get some laughs.

LEP - Rebekah in chains.

Brave Rebekah Carlton brought her mother to the set that day, then handled the chore with dignity and aplomb. The movie’s final shot – the Leprechaun flipping the bird to the heroes accompanied by Kubrick’s ” 2001″ – like chords – reflects my view of the cynical reductio ad absurdum nature of home video sequels.

Lep flips the bird

Among the many disparate ingredients stirred into this B sci-fi cocktail was a FULL METAL JACKET marine drill sergeant, played with gusto by Tim Colceri. And thereby hangs a therapeutic tale.

Stanley Kubrick had cast Tim Colceri as Sgt. Major Hartman, but replaced him with the technical advisor R. Lee Ermey, a former marine drill sergeant with 2 tours in Vietnam behind him. Lee got a Golden Globe nomination, went on to a great career, and graced 3 of my movies. Matthew Modine tells the story of Colceri’s replacement in his diary at the time.

Though he did go on to play the mad machine gunner instead, Tim felt the loss of this career making opportunity keenly. So I gave him the chance to play that role albeit in a low budget low profile movie. He did a terrific job. The scene where he flips back and forth between maniacal marine and cross dressing crooner is a balls out tour de force. In this clip he confronts the evil Dr. Mittenhand, played as a kind of Nazi Dalek by Guy Siner, a star of BBC’s classic WW 2 comedy series ‘ALLO ‘ALLO, channeling Colonel Klink and every Gestapo movie cliche he can.

When he became the scorpion spider, Guy suffered bravely through six hours of make up, and a toxic reaction to the chemicals, like the trooper he is. Great funny actor.

Guy Spider and BTS
Guy and Brian

Warwick Davis is the heart and soul of the series. Stars set the tone of the shoot. He never complained about long hours in the make up chair, was always totally prepared. He’s a lovable personality with great comedic flair. Here he channeled Alfred Hitchcock. ” Good evening…”

LEP $ - Hitchcock

In Vegas, I had given him limericks and rhyme. In SPACE we upped the ante to faux Shakespearean speeches culled from Richard The Third.

 

 

He was a joy to work with. I hope we do it again one day.

Warwick with and without make up.

The VFX in Number 4 were disappointing. Because of out budget, the first render was often the final render. But the last scene in the cargo bay is a demonstration of the vanishing art of miniatures. Today set extension is all CGI, but then we went back to old Hollywood techniques executed by veteran model makers.

Giant Lep in miniature set2

By building an enclosed miniature set to fit Warwick’s height, it looked vast and we were able to get many more wide shots as he searched for the heroes, supported by a few digital composites.

If you have to spend 4 weeks in a warehouse in Burbank, here’s a great bunch of people to do it with. Thanks for all the hard work.

LEPRECHAUN IN SPACE CREW

LEPRECHAUN 4 IN SPACE cost 1.6 M. It was profitable, but shipped about 40,000 units, a drop from LEP 3, the result of my favoring parody over horror. But it did not kill the franchise. However Trimark never hired me again. With creative risk comes the potential for failure, but we gotta try… Nearly two decades later, Vegas and Space are still making people laugh at moments unlikely to be repeated in the history of Cinema. It gives me satisfaction to know that Lionsgate, who acquired the franchise, have a nice little St. Paddy’s Day earner for the rest of time.

I have not seen the series reboot, LEPRECHAUN : ORIGINS starring WWE’s Hornswoggle. Here’s the trailer.

It clearly goes for a Friday the 13th vibe. There’s always an audience for that formula.