The Man Behind 'Forbidden Zone'

By Rip Rense, staff writer
Herald Examiner, August 18, 1982

Richard Elfman really likes to make movies. He made one recently about a lost dimension underneath a Venice (California) home ruled by a tiny Frenchman (portrayed by diminutive Herve Villechaize of "Fantasy Island" fame). One scene features a couple of googooing idiots slaloming through an enormous colon. The colon is animated in black and white ala Max Fleischer, who used to animate the old "Popeye" cartoons

Its called "The Forbidden Zone" which is where the googooing idiots - along with most other characters in the movie - are variously uh, excreted. A little gamey? "Vulgar appearances are merely a subterfuge," explained 33-year-old Elfman, cryptically.

He spoke from his beachfront Venice office, where he works in investments and property development. He did not say exactly what the vulgar appearances were a subterfuge for. He did reveal the inspiration for his film, which might have contained a hint... "Gene Cunningham, the executive producer, used to live next to this drunken family from Arkansas. The father would always yell at there mother, the mother would yell at the son, who would hit the other sister, who would kick the dog. I thought this suggested that the human condition had regressed quite a bit." said Elfman.

He did. 'He wrote, directed, produced, choreographed and generally supervised all aspects of "The Forbidden Zone." It took 21 days on a sound stage scattered over ten months - including a number of weeks in a garage with animator John Muto. Elfman's wife, Marie-Pascale Elfman designed and painted the paper sets (with help from Villechaiz) and co-starred Elfmans 29-year-old brother, Danny (leader of a musical ensemble known as Oingo Boingo), wrote the striking music and played Satan. The cast includes Toshiro Baloney, The Kipper Kids, Viva and someone called Ugh Fudge-Bwana ("this is actually a phonetic spelling of his name, which is Swedish and difficult to pronounce," explained Elfman.) It was shot for "no budget" with the post production cost outweighing everything else. Villechaize was the only paid actor.

Its all quite remarkable.

"Call it a bizarre comedy with music. If I could describe it better, I'd be a journalist," said Elfman. He might be. Elfman is certainly documenting some aspects of modern American culture, however idiosyncratically. This movie does indeed defy more specific quantification. (An hour-long earlier version entitled "The Hercules Family" was refused by numerous distributors as "Being a threat to national security.") Its part Three Stooges, part H.G. Wells. Its what "Alice in Wonderland " might have been were it written by Mister Rogers on severe hallucinogens in hell, with the Marks Brothers poking him with pitchforks.

It contains machine-gun duels in classrooms between students and teachers("not unlike," Elfman said, "my own class situations at Dorsey High"); musical numbers set to Cab Calloways "Hid-De-Ho" and Felix Figgueroa's "Pico and Sepulveda"; furious sexual compulsions involving bald men in jock straps, topless women and Herve Villechaize; the inexplicable presence of a six-foot-tall frog; and a brief visit to the moon.

It was, Elfman said, influenced by "Dr. Strangelove," "Porkys," "Airplane," and "Grease." It was called "movie of the summer" by the Village Voice, and has been acclaimed by baffled critics as "Hip and campy," "a delightfully twisted trip" and "not for the faint of heart." It is also the latest entry in Los Angeles area "Midnight movies" (Friday and Saturdays in Westwood) joining (and possibly outdoing) the ranks of "Pink Flamingos," "Eraserhead" and "The Rocky Horror Picture Show."

"It is," Elfman says in a press release, "not that far off from the machinations of every day life. The films protagonists, the Hercules family, are patterned after a working class family who use to live next door to mine. They always screamed rather than talked, they lived by the flesh and only thought of thing in terms of immediate gratification. 'Forbidden Zone' both lampoons and, in lighthearted way, pays homage to mans attempts to rise above."

Elfman was escorted to a white-clothed table at one of those "New Venice" cuisine houses called the West Beach Cafe. A waiter poisoned a black plastic chair. The interior or the place was...white. Reggae music, the music of Jamaican revolution, was piped over the Muzak system. Neighboring luncheoners talked heavily of Wolfgang puck, Vidal Sasoon.....

"After 11(p.m.), this becomes a fun place," said Elfman. "They serve Gourmet pizza a la Spago, and a lot of artists drop in." He perused the chalkboard menu, skipping the duck and the veal liver with sauce, fresh seafood salad (with an array of newly captured ocean-dwellers, a waiter announced).... "I'll have a hamburger," he said.

Rick (to his friends) Elfman and his 29-year-old brother Danny both have "red" hair that is actually more a rusty orange. They live in adjoining wooden houses in an old, pretty part of Venice also inhabited by gangs. Danny dotes on his thriving flower garden. Framed posters of colorful Japanese robot-heroes decorate his living room. Richard's home is decorated with lovely acrylic tropical landscapes painted by his wife. They own friendly dogs, who roam the common yard.

Together, the brothers founded "The Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo," a one-time traveling theater-music troupe currently incarnated as the very modern Oingo Boingo. Richard dropped out of the group a few years ago to pursue filmmaking, which was his first love. (He approves of the new Oingo Boingo, incidentally, and has just finished a videotape for them set to their song, "Private Life.") [note: pre MTV and the phrase 'music video'. Tboingo] His first film production efforts were with the infamous Cockettes, a transvestite theater group Elfman directed in San Francisco in the '60s. A trip to Canada led him to join a visiting French avant-garde theater troupe, The Grand magic Circus, and move to Paris. He traveled with the Circus for some time (marring one member in the process) and eventually inviting Danny to join. Discovering to his shock Danny's newfound musical abilities (he plays about seven instruments) Elfman hatched an idea. Before long, he and his brother returned to the states to form the Mystic Knights - whose up-the -down ever-evolving career is well known in Los Angles.

And here they are in 1982 - Richard embarking on his second (and first non midnight) film (more later); Danny and "the Boingos" getting rave receptions on a tour (of all places) the deep south. "That makes no sense at all" said Elfman. "The Boingos were carried off and on the stage by crowds in Birmingham, Alabama - yet in New Jersey, they didn't know quite what to make of them"

Although pleased by the surprise success of his movie, Elfman is no longer closely associated with the project. The Samuel Goldwyn Company has seen to the film's distribution (It is doing quite well at the Waverly in New York), and Elfman says he just calls once a month "to get my check" Big bucks Rick? "Well, by the time we pay off the bills, investors and distribution cost, I think it has to gross about $68 million before we make a dime."

"Forbidden Zone," Elfman said, was made "just to make it"- knowing that there was "perhaps a cult audience," but not aiming for it. Nor was the movie ever meant to be, incidentally, "The Oingo Boingo Movie." "Oingo Boingo as it performs today is different from the Oingo Boingo in the film. The film is a combination of how the group used to look, plus a new wave score. Someone shouldn't expect an Oingo Boingo concert, but they should expect to see what the group can do when its allowed to stretch out."

His aim, or lack of same, is unchanged for his new project. Elfman is confident that an audience will exist. "I know that there's a market for what I do," he said. "With the Mystic Knights, I played in front of enough crowds to know that there is a demand for something that is different, but very entertaining." And that knowledge has indeed driven him on to greater aspirations. Just around the bend is the next delving into his own private sixth dimension - his first "general audience" picture.

It is, he proudly announces, "Low budget"(meaning this one won't be shot entirely with paper sets). It will also be scored by brother Danny Elfman and will feature several returning cast members ( including baloney). It will be entitled, simply, "Attack on Cheddarania." "I'm now piecing it together," said Elfman in a deliberate, carefully considered near- drawl. "Here's the plot: A kid named Ramon is real miserable because his family is all dying of cancer. While in bed one night, including a sexual fantasy, he is kidnapped by spacemen who take him to planet urania, run by Generalissimo Revolto. They are at war with the planet Chedderania. Susan Tyrell, who was the queen of the Sixth Dimension in 'Forbidden Zone,' is the queen of Cheddarania, by the way." "Oh, Raymond becomes the key figure in the story. It has quasi religious overtones.

From the Fan Supported Boingo Page