You might love 50’s sci-fi, but you don’t love 50’s sci-fi as much as Joe Sikoryak loves 50’s sci-fi. In this interview, the title designer and sci-fi consultant for Wasp-Men From Mars! talks about how creature features portrayed the fears of 1950’s America and how Wasp-Men fits in this tradition.
Why do we want to make Wasp-Men From Mars? Watch writer/director Gerrit Thompson, special effects costume and makeup artist Julian Bonfiglio, director of photography Kevin Jones, production designer Van Dyke Roth, and classic sci-fi consultant Joe Sikoryak talk about what attracted them to the short film.
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In “Phases,” a second season episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Willow confronts her boyfriend Oz at his house about their relationship and the mixed signals he’s been giving her:
Willow: “I had this whole thing worked out. And I had it written down, uh, but then it didn’t make any sense when I was reading it back.”
Oz: “Willow, this is not a very good time.”
Willow: “I mean, what am I supposed to think? First, you buy me popcorn and then you’re all glad that I didn’t get bit. And you put the tag back in my shirt. But I guess none of that means anything because instead of looking up names with me, here you are all alone in your house doing nothing by yourself.”
Oz: “Willow, we’ll talk about this tomorrow. I promise.”
Willow: “No, damn it! We’ll talk about this now! Buffy told me that sometimes what a girl makes has to be the first move and now that I’m saying this, I’m starting to think that the written version sounded pretty good, but you know what I mean.”
It’s a heartful plea from a girl who isn’t sure what’s going on in her relationship.
What’s makes it brilliant is that Oz has discovered that he’s a werewolf and was in the middle of chaining himself up for the night, but Willow’s plea has put herself, Oz, and other people in danger.
This situation is why I, and I’m sure many others, love Buffy, and gets to the heart of the show. These are teenagers with real teenage concerns, who happen to live on top of a mouth to Hell. Even though a werewolf is on the loose, Willow is more concerned about her relationship with Oz and how it’s not moving forward. The werewolf thing is Oz’s main concern, of course, and he doesn’t recognize how distant he’s been, even before he became a werewolf. And it all comes together in that wonderful scene.
All seven seasons of Buffy contain fantastic moments that combine genuine emotion with horror that ranges from kinda-campy (the singing demon from “Once More with Feeling”) to pretty scary (the Gentlemen in “Hush”). I’ve been rewatching the series lately — I’m currently up to season 3 — and it’s been great to experience such an expert blending of light-hearted humor with dark scares and gut-wrenching emotions.
Despite the fact that it’s set in the 1950’s, Wasp-Men From Mars! has a lot of Buffy in its DNA. In the center of its horror/sci-fi plot are the emotional lives of three teenagers. Willow’s feelings and confusion makes her oblivious to what’s going on in the main horror plot of “Phases” when she confronts Oz (“Why do you have chains and stuff?”). Wasp-Men’s lead character, Suzie, becomes so wrapped up in her own feelings that the film’s alien invasion is actually a secondary concern for her.
Buffy often makes their monster of the week a metaphor for something in their characters’ lives, but I chose not to do that in Wasp-Men. I have a bit of fun with the idea in one scene, which I refer to as the Tremors scene, but its attempt to grasp for a metaphor isn’t meant to be taken seriously.
Wasp-Men isn’t a Buffy ripoff or homage. I’ve read a few amateur screenplays that try to ape Whedon’s style and they always fail from trying too hard. While writing Wasp-Men I recognized how Buffy influenced the screenplay and tried to draw on some of the elements that made Buffy great, all those things I’ve talked about in this essay, and refrained from imitating Whedon’s voice. Which was hard because there were times when the characters could have easily slip into the jokey voice many Buffy characters have. Suzie, Timmy, and James are their own characters, with their own voices, but they wouldn’t be out of place at Sunnydale High.
Wasp-Men From Mars isn’t being created in a vacuum. It’s inspired by many of my favorite sci-fi and horror films and TV shows. I will take a look at a few of them and how they inspired the short. Today’s inspiration: Tremors.
During my most recent viewing of Tremors I looked for the character arcs. I’ve seen the film several times, but if I was asked how Val and Earl changed, all I would’ve been able to say was that Val learned to appreciate a woman who didn’t meet his ideal, but that’s not much of a character arc. No, what Tremors is about is two intelligent men who have always been viewed as screw-ups who finally live up to their potential. All it took was a push from some violent monsters.
The film starts by a cliff, where Val and Earl are setting up barbwire fences after a stampede prank and an argument over who’s making breakfast. As Earl stretches out some barbwire, he hurts himself and spits out, “Is this a job for intelligent men?” Val’s response is, “I don’t know. Show me one and I’ll ask him.” This moment establishes Val’s personal struggle: he thinks they’re screw-ups. And everyone else in Perfection, NV, thinks so, too. No one believes that they’re gonna leave town for something better. Their leadership is questioned during the battle with the graboids, when Burt calls them out as screw-ups, and mockingly calls Val, “fearless leader.”
Earl recognizes that they’re smart, and he’ll have the opportunity to prove it, so it’s Val who has to go through the most growth. Earl even pushes Val during the film when he scolds him for never having a plan.
Compare them to Burt and Heather, the gun-loving survivalists. They’re the take-charge pair. Sure, they’re mocked for their survivalism, but on the surface they’re better equipped to be the heroes. And while Val and Earl are stuck in Perfection with hopes of leaving, Burt and Heather want to be there.
Meanwhile, all the characters acknowledge how smart the “graboids” are. They’re the perfect monsters to show Val and Earl’s growth: they’re intelligent, problem-solving creatures. Val and Earl need to outsmart them to save themselves and the others.
Even the deaths of the graboids show a progression our leads’ development: the first is killed by dumb luck, the second by the prepared and equipped Burt and Heather, and the third by Earl, who comes up with a good plan. That leaves the final showdown between Val, the one who didn’t seem convinced in his intelligence, and Stumpy, the smartest of the graboids. Pay attention to the dialogue during the climax. Val dismisses Earl and Rhonda’s advice to throw the bomb and recognizes that Stumpy isn’t falling for their trick. “This one ain’t dumb.” He embraces his intelligence when he says, “This son of a bitch ain’t smarter than us.” He finally comes up with his own “goddamn plan.” And he does this near the cliff where he had mocked the idea of being an intelligent man. As a matter of fact, when his plans goes into effect, Earl and Rhonda, both of whom already proved their intelligence, abandon Van by the cliff, leaving him to face Stumpy alone. And he wins.
So how was Wasp-Men From Mars inspired by this? Well, like the graboids, the Wasp-Men push my characters to their limits, although the characters don’t succeed the way that Val and Earl did. In fact, one of my characters, when pushed, makes a terrible, selfish decision while another makes the smart, heroic decision. But the truth of who these characters are deep-down wouldn’t come out without the Wasp-Men.
There’s even a scene where the characters speculate about the monsters’ origins. It’s not a rip-off of the speculation scene in Tremors, which is one of my favorite scenes, but I do lovingly refer to it as the “Tremors scene.”
While I was hoping to achieve a tone similar to Tremors when I was writing Wasp-Men, it ended up developing its own tone, one that’s made the film stronger. It will probably never become a beloved classic like Tremors, but I’m hoping that it will at least be better than the sequels.
Wasp-Men From Mars isn’t being created in a vacuum. It’s inspired by many of my favorite sci-fi and horror films and TV shows. I will take a look at a few of them and how they inspired the short. Today’s inspiration: Doctor Who.
I knew about the original Doctor Who series when I was younger but I had never seen it. I wasn’t interested enough to seek it out. It was only when SyFy (or was it Sci-Fi at the time?) started airing the new series in 2005. I loved how the concept of an alien traveling through space and time allowed the show to tell almost any kind of story, and I loved Eccleston’s version of the Doctor, who was scarred by war and trying to find something worth living for. I’ve followed it through all the different Doctors, different companions, and different show runners. It’s had its highs and lows but I’ll keep with it as long as it goes.
I eventually went back and viewed the earlier episodes but I couldn’t really get into it. I liked the Doctors I saw but his companions didn’t register as real characters for me. The best thing Russell T Davies did was to make the companion the character the audience identified with and add family, friends, and drama that the original companions didn’t have. They had a life outside the Doctor and their decisions to travel with the Doctor impacted their lives for better or worse. The new companions have their strengths and weaknesses, but all came across as people, even if there were hurdles that had to be cleared first (like treating Clara as a mystery).
The new Who still has monsters, of course. These monsters sometimes had connections with the characters, through real relationships or thematic ties. But sometimes they were monsters for monsters’ sake, and that was still cool.
While writing Wasp-Men from Mars, I recognized that I was creating something that was like an episode of new Doctor Who, but without the Doctor. There’s the cool alien monsters determined to conquer Earth, but there’s also the humans dealing with their own issues in the center of it. Teenagers with teenager hangups and obsessions. In this case, issues of entitlement and struggles with sexuality. The Wasp-Men have a thematic tie with the teens, one I won’t reveal right now.
The Wasp-Men themselves come out of the new Who tradition of updating old monsters to make them scary. People were scared of the original Daleks and other aliens, just like I’m sure people were scared of 50’s aliens, but the audience has changed and they’re not scared of those old monsters anymore. Doctor Who had to update their monsters to make them scary again, and we’re going to take the idea of the 50’s Cold War insectoid alien and try to make it scary again.
Oh, and there’s running. These stories require a lot of running.
There’s more that I can write about how Doctor Who has changed in the 21st century, but I want to keep these articles relatively brief. I love the show, I love all the Doctors, and I hope Who fans loves Wasp-Men From Mars.