The Realm (1984 film)

From Gestalt
Still from an Unnamed Scene in Halcyon

The Realm is an unfinished 1984 fantasy movie written and directed by E.E. Smith. It follows the adventures of a knight named Ash in the magical realm of Halcyon as he tries to awaken a sleeping princess.

The film's reels were shelved before release. Of them, only snippets of dailies, uncut feet of raw film, or bootleg VHS tapes survive, all containing only clips warped by time or sabotage. While the essence of the plot was never altered during development and production, the spirit, the imagery, symbolism, and messages varied greatly. The novel manuscript and first draft of the film were titled The Dreamenders Labyrinth, where the Labyrinth was initially planned to be literal and metaphorical, however, subsequent drafts altered the phrase to mean a more "internal labyrinth," as Smith described it, for the final film, leading to the title change to simply The Realm.

The unreleased film gained notoriety for the ziggurat collapse during the filming of the "Lost City of Gold" sequence that killed actor Vincent Lee as well as mother and child actors Maria and Luna Cavillace, discovered and hired only days prior. Their gruesome deaths led to a high-profile legal case in which Smith was found not criminally liable for the accident by reason of insanity.

A diverse cast for its day and exceptionally grim themes for what was intended as a children's story, it gained a cult following in years since for its infamous production woes, a growing urban legend exacerbated by the tragic early deaths of several cast members in the following years, and a bootleg hunt in the 1990s that eventually led to the Lorepunk online community.

Plot

Concept Art for Helios
The Realm's plot has long been a topic of fevered debate. A true plot synopsis was never released by the studio. In its stead lorepunks settle for back matter written for the unpublished novel (which did not include much of E.E. Smith's storyline), promotional writing like poster blurbs and the logline, and piecing together implied plot from reassembled clips. A short general synopsis was agreed upon in the early 2000s, but only refers to the setup, some of the conflicts, and character arcs, as there is no telling what the conclusion may have entailed. What's known, or what common elements have been cobbled together from all available copy, is this: the story followed the life of a young boy named Ash, whose tribe of Romani-like wanderers is exterminated by a zealotous imperial knight called Amon. Ash goes through an epic fantasy that is part Conan the Barbarian, part The Count of Monte Cristo, plotting revenge while growing to adulthood within the ranks of the army he hates. Part of that revenge involves waking the princess his captors keep asleep in their tower, a princess whose awakening legend says will end the world. The princess that Amon worships like a god. At various moments in his life, Ash finds himself interacting with our world and a young girl whose life parallels his own, each time changed by what he finds here--a reversal and subversion of the traditional portal fiction narrative.

In his rewrites, E.E. Smith shrank the importance of Earth and expanded the expensive Halcyon sequences. The real world intersections of the original manuscript become only strange artifacts Ash encounters once-in-awhile, implying a Planet of the Apes or Road Warrior style post-Apocalyptic reading of the story, although some argue Smith's love of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner should be contextualized with how he would want to adapt Dreamenders. These fans argue the artifacts were subtle clues that Halcyon was being dreamed by a girl from 1980s Earth, but that he meant the viewer to figure it out for themselves.

A recently discovered logline reads:

"When a dangerous cult led by a beautiful-but-savage zealot kills young Ash's tribe and enslaves him, Ash discovers his captors' secret: their princess lay asleep in her palace, a princess whom he vows to awaken."

It is uncertain at which point in preproduction this was written, and thus could have been altered later.

Cast

  • Ken Fielding as Ash Cinderborne
  • Heather Dunne as Princess Dawn
  • Christopher Price as The Serpent Tycoon
  • Madeleine Torrence as Darn the Dwarf
  • Vincent Lee as Starquilt the Nyx
  • Dame Amber Daly as The White Witch
  • Marty Porter as the voice of the Robot Phoenix, the Magic Sunflower, and Ebb-ebb the Ebblin
  • Luna Cavillace as Mother Yssyss
  • Maria Cavillace as Strella the Ghost

Production

Writing

Development on the film began in 1980 when Chariot Ln president Jack Goldman gave producer Tyson Ambrose the idea to produce a fantasy film. According to Ambrose, he agreed to do so and called Jane Orenda, an Ojibwe fantasy author with several optioned but unproduced screenplays to her credit. Ambrose originally gave her a blank check to write the "bare bones" of the plot and send it to Chariot Ln. "I just told her to write," Ambrose recalled in a 1995 interview. "Write whatever fanciful thing you want, without regard for budget, and we'll whittle it down based on impossibility. Well, she turned in this Lord of the Rings-level thing that still, to this day, some parts make me weep. I can't reread it mind, but I can think of some lines or scenes. There were armies, a massive battle, genocide and traumatic shock disorder, and she'd inverted our normal paradigms of Good and Evil, which had this curious effect of making one finish it questioning, well... Just questioning. We naturally couldn't do any of it." In her only on-camera interview, Orenda told a story which contradicted this account, saying that she had written Dreamenders as a full novel manuscript, and her agent put her in touch with a lower producer who told her Ambrose loved the manuscript and wanted to option it. Having failed as a screenwriter, Orenda took the deal and converted her manuscript into a screenplay. "He said he loved the book, so I just turned the book into script format and sent it in. When I finally met with Mr. Ambrose, I figured out halfway into the meeting that reading the script had been his first experience with the story. But that's producers. At least he seemed to actually love it, now."[1]

The script was massively reduced to enable shooting on soundstages rather than on location, impossible effects for the time like plant life growing in the footsteps of a winged horse and some of the more overtly psycho-sexual themes were toned down to make it into a children's story. Ironically, similar elements would be introduced in subsequent drafts, even as it drifted further from the original text.

The team brought in Pete Bland to write a "second version" of the script as a children's story, more simplistic and less sprawling or mature. Bland's version of the screenplay was discarded as dialogue-heavy and lacking in special effects, so some of the elements of the first script were re-added. After the draft was finished, the writing and production team first considered E.E. Smith to direct the film. Two months after they asked him to join the project and after he finished work on directing After Falling (1981), Smith read the shorter draft of Dreamenders Labyrinth. He was "intrigued" with what he read and accepted the position of directing the film as a "challenge". He reasoned in a 1982 interview that Dreamenders would be one of those rare films that "can take full advantage of today's special effects techniques" and would differ from his more realistic previous works in that, instead of having to research, he would have to make the movie entirely based on his imagination

The film was in a year of pre-production, which involved Smith editing the script, creating storyboards, Jack B. Peters and Derek Grimes coming up with and drawing set concepts, as well as Heather Dunne and Ken Fielding being cast as Rose and Ashur respectively. Orenda's draft allegedly called for a mixed-race Rose, but the studio didn't think they could recoup their money with an African American lead, so went with Dunne. This would be one of many points of irony when Dunne would later find out her real mother had been African American.

Ambrose's dedication to the project and his own personal troubles led to an over-commitment to Smith's vision and a belief they were making the next Star Wars. According to many accounts, he had only ever read Dreamenders, not bearing to see what needed cutting. According to Ken Fielding, what had been done to that draft was "the cinematic equivalent of rape," and that, "If Ty had ever read the later drafts, whatever we were on by then, triple goldenrod or whatever, he would've wept again. Maybe none of this would've even happened, 'cause he would've pulled over the caravan and held up the map, you know? Said 'Hey! It's over this way, not where you lot're headed!' But he was a busy producer, it was the '80s and there were parties to go to... No slag, producers actually do have to go to those things, it's just to say the fact that he'd even read the first draft was miraculous."[2]

Smith on the Helios miniature

Filming

The Realm underwent a very expensive, harsh, and dangerous production process, that by the end would go down as "probably the most disastrous production in Hollywood history."[3] The film's already huge budget ballooned, mainly due to designers having to make numerous alterations to the sets corresponding to the heavily evolving script. The movie was shot at several sound stages in Los Angeles, and eventually, once again ironically undoing budgetary restraints, on-location in Peru and Arizona.

After reading the overly-ambitious Orenda draft and becoming enamored with it, Chariot Ln studio producer Tyson "Ty" Ambrose signed off on a budget they could not afford, convinced it would make untold millions. When other executives trimmed the script to an affordable size and broadened the audience by taking out the mature elements, Ambrose hired Smith and gave him cart blanche, indirectly undoing the attempts to reign in the picture.

Under Smith's direction, effects combined live-action, animation, performers in costumes, prosthetics, puppets, animatronics, and one of the earliest implementations of computer-generated imagery (CGI). Smith described making Realm as "complicated" and "just so enormous". Special effects artist Steven Jackson stated in a 2009 interview that Smith hated working on the original film so much that in the middle of shooting, he took a vacation to the Caribbean which led to the special effects artists taking a three-week break from the project.[4]

An early concept painting of the blond villain Amon in golden armor, slaughtering a reptilian-looking hero leaked to the press and was received poorly by several religious institutions (including most Protestant Christian, Hasidic and Orthodox Jewish, and all Islamic sects), who called the imagery "Satanic" and "nihilistic," and felt their faiths were being openly mocked and that the filmmakers were attempting "to brainwash children." When told of the negative reviews of the imagery and that the studio (lower producers, as by this time Ambrose had stopped reading drafts) was worried about protests, Smith's infamous response was the single sentence: "Tell them to pray."

Ambrose, when questioned on the street, said that the Orions (the evil army in the film) were, like most fantasy villains, a Nazi allegory, "like Stormtroopers," and he found the religious leaders' interpretation of the image "strange and surprising." Rumors circulated the studio was going to fire Smith and completely reshoot. Then-Chariot Ln president Jack Goldman responded, "We've given him more money and, even more importantly, more time for him to work on the film. Some of the imagery will be changed so as to not offend religious sensibilities, sure, but only because it was unintended. We'd like to find a common ground that represents E.E.'s vision but still offers a film that really delivers for a broad-based audience. No one wants to turn this into a bland, sanitized studio movie. This is a very special piece of material, and we're just trying to get it right." The inversions of good and evil were undone, and the villains made to resemble reptiles.

The production was initially arranged to be shot entirely in a soundstage due to the original intention of making a children's movie full of Muppets. However, as it went through multiple drafts, the screenplay transformed into an avant-garde opus and a descent into human psychology. Actors performed dangerous stunts during filming, due to Smith despising the idea of doubles as "disingenuous." The puppets, however, remained. Smith called them "the realest[sic] actors in the film."[5]

Smith became obsessed with "verisimilitude" and portraying the "powerlessness of being a child." It is said that during this time he began to come up with ideas for new scenes in his dreams, where he was visited by the creatures of the fantasy world and instructed deep truths. After a few weeks of this, Smith reported that his dreams had slowly taken on a sinister note, as in desperation, his dream-self had enslaved the fantasy world in order to better serve him and help him finish the film.

The crew in turns followed Smith's lead, went on brief strike because of his unreasonable demands, and finally sank in and enabled his rapid psychological decline after shooting in Peru began to accrue complications and delays. In some of the extant documentary footage, Smith has, after going a month over-schedule, what could be called a moment of clarity wherein he refers to the film as "an insane mess." His wife and script supervisor, Patricia Smith, insists that he is mistaking his genius for messiness and begs him to continue the "quest." Whether this can be considered enabling, supportive, denial, or part of the collective hysteria of the entire crew by this point is a matter of debate.

Smith shortly thereafter ceased to believe he had written the film at all, but was tapping into a real, hidden world. Several of the actors, being Method, became absorbed in his delusion and enabled it. Patricia encouraged everyone not Method, including most of the crew, to become so, and to "believe in the Realm." She told them that Smith had said if everyone believed it was real, the movie would have unprecedented integrity and believability for a fantasy film. It is unknown if Smith himself actually said this, however, because by then he had ceased to speak with the cast or crew directly as opposed to through Patricia.

The crew was henceforth in full costume as Orion extras whether they were on camera or not. Christopher Price, a Shakespearean actor with a notoriously abrasive personality who in film had been relegated to horror movie villains, noted on repeated occasions that the set "looked like a bloody Renaissance Fair my nephew might enjoy, but certainly not a professional set." Price was also notorious for his outspoken hatred of Method acting as "the stubborn refusal of an actor to do the job he's hired for." Yet only days after the onset interview, Price was refusing to remove his costume or to retire to a trailer, insisting on living and sleeping in the set of his character, the Serpent Tycoon.

Eventually, the entire cast and crew took on the trappings and behavior not of a group of filmmakers, but a hollywood cult. Outsiders were shunned, cast and crew cut all communication with their family, friends, and the outside world, saying their intent was to "remove the distractions of life outside of Halcyon" so that the film could be finished sooner and with fewer budgetary issues. Quickly, the opposite became apparent. Filming went five more months past its deadline, and no one could be reached for any information as to why. Instead, apropos of nothing, a letter was received containing only the phrase, "Believe in the Realm."

One producer, Geoffrey Sampson, allegedly did a set visit to check on progress but never returned or reported back to the studio. He was later found in Montana, having started a new life and changed his name.

At one point, Smith wrote a rambling, almost incoherent letter to the producers in response to their request for a receipt of expenses. Keeping with an apparent theme of the production, only snippets survive, such as:

"Many powers are even out of your four divine hands. Some things are beyond controlling. Never-the-less [sic] you Centurions Of Light have broken into Valhalla, for you have betrayed me, your Inquisitor, and all the Kings of the Empire, questioning a [sic] unruly, yet devoted brother of the round table. The blessings are to [sic] many to count. The blessings."

The studio, terrified for their investment, hired a B team to shoot alternate footage in Arizona with a cheap cast. This footage was lost when a wild brush fire broke out on set, destroying the film and thousands of dollars in equipment. Due to the extravagant cost already sunk, the studio was forced to pray that Smith would eventually deliver a masterpiece.

City of Gold Ziggurat

Ziggurat collapse

Shortly following the letter, the "City of Gold" scene, a three-minute sequence somewhere after the midpoint of the story, went into its fifth day of shooting. At around 2:30 a.m., during a hazardous sequence that Smith insisted be shot in a real ancient ziggurat they'd found, the structure collapsed and killed character actor Vincent Lee (in the role of a Nyx named Starquilt) and the child and mother Smith had found and hired only three days after writing them into the scene.

In a sequence originally conceived as Starquilt finding the tomb of the Golden Father and the key to ending Serpent Rule, Smith had rewritten the scene as Starquilt being led into the chamber by ancestral spirits, where he would find out the Golden Father was the actual demon, and everything up until that point had been an illusion. Smith had decided that all of their trials were connected to the imagery of the story: they had conceded and changed the script, betraying the original concept, and in return the behavior of the cast and crew, his own wife, and himself had become increasingly strange. Intent to rectify this, Smith wrote in the twist so as to restore the original intent. In one of the behind-the-scenes diaries, with the lights off, he mused to the camera:

"Last night, I freed the spirits in my dreams. In terrific guilt and dread of retribution, I still managed to halt my crimes. To the surprise of my violent Anglo-Saxon mind, there was no retribution. Rather, the creatures nodded as if to say, 'we would have given freely,' and 'now you know.' When I awoke I saw our production anew. The whole of it, not just today or this scene or my career. At every turn, since the original image was in the Post, and the reactions from the Church and the Rabbis and the United Temples of the Light of Whoever, it's been a quiet on-set assumption that our hands were being guided by God, or Fate, the Universe. That whenever tragedy struck and we changed course, we were rewarded with a good day. Concept after concept, I changed to suit this idea despite I myself being agnostic, or at least thinking of myself as such before all this. Most of the crew, a few weeks ago, I would have sworn to you were at least secular. Yet superstition cannot be helped, it seems, when confronted by such obvious and directed turmoil. Then yesterday, I was staring at one of the trumpet flowers growing from a moss-covered statue of a serpent. I was struck--for a moment, it was as though I'd been drunk and a jolt of adrenaline shot through me. I suddenly thought, or truly, felt: what if it was not God's hand guiding us, but some sinister Force attempting to remain hidden from the world, one revealed by Orenda before she passed, that script that could make a Hollywood producer weep in front of his staff, but that I, in my artistic hubris, never bothered to read? A Force beneath all reality, all the powers of mankind, shaping it toward slavery and halting it at every turn, as we had been, that we had capitulated to, again and again? If God needed the same story told, there were many messengers, and many already published works, to choose from. One tale told in subtle opposition surely should not threaten the omnipotent."

It is then said he shared his new pages only with Vincent Lee (whose character Starquilt was the only lead involved) and the two actual Peruvians he'd hired that day to play the scene opposite, so as to not to be, perhaps literally, crucified by what was by now a cult rather than a crew. Madeleine Price said that upon reading it, Lee seemed shaken to his core, but when she asked what was wrong, he replied only: "Heavy hangs the shoulder even after the burden lifted. Lucifer is a girl's name," and then wandered off. Smith testified this is when Lee came up to him before going to first positions and suggested to shoot alternate versions of the scene to show the studio, but to burn them before post-production so they would have no choice but to deliver the real ending. "Vincent said that without that ending, what came before would be reckless. Yes, he said that word: 'reckless.'"[6] No one else heard this exchange.

The cramptness of the ancient space in Peru due to overgrowth by datura vines meant that only Lee, the mother and daughter, and a previously set up camera/lighting scheme could fit into the inner chamber. They ran film and had the three crawl inside. It is unknown precisely what went wrong then, because the film from the scene was damaged beyond repair, but the ziggurat caved in. Patricia described it as if some "mighty fist had crushed it between its great fingers." The collapse pulverized all three so that only one grave could be dug, with Lee's funeral taking place without a body in the coffin days later.

An international co-production of Italy's New Atlas Group and the United States, The Realm was ordered by Italian investors to halt production and shelve its footage in June 1984. The loss of revenue due to the expense of the film, legal battles, and negative press crushed the usually low- to medium-budget Chariot Ln Studios. Due to the deaths, the mental collapse of several of the filmmakers and documentarians, as well as urban legends about the footage itself driving people insane, the film has gone on to achieve cult film status.

Style

The movie blended all the go-to's of 80s fantasy: Henson-style puppeteered creatures; a dreamy, anachronistic score that melded classical with synth; an androgynous bad guy we feel strangely attracted to in Amon; and a load of off-the-wall, possibly cocaine-inspired, production design. The film itself was shot in an unconventional style featuring two different, strange cinematographic approaches--an expressionistic, almost horror-style noir for the technicolor fantasy world, and arthouse neorealism for the real, in black-and-white. What began as a simple children's tale as imagined by its producers (whose plot was a painfully unoriginal rip-off of The Secret Garden and Lord of the Rings) was transformed by Smith into something intended as both a critique of and homage to Edwardian portal fantasy, the passing of Classic Hollywood, the avant-garde filmmakers of Europe and New Hollywood in the 1970s, and a not-so-subtle takedown of capitalism and the Abrahamic religions. The unreleased results would be called "the Holy Grail of cinema", and much of its unfinished ideas would end up inspiring more successful attempts like Jim Henson's Labyrinth. Whether from the actual footage could have been cut a post-fantasy masterpiece or simply an "insane mess" is still a matter of heated online debate.

Dreamenders curse

After its shelving, rumors of a curse on the film, possibly the script, have grown into a full-fledged urban legend. Several of the cast members died early deaths. Heather Dunne was shot by home invaders in 1992 at the age of 23. Christopher Price died of bowel cancer in 1999. Several crew members died in accidents on other sets as well.

Lore Punks

The Internet has renewed interest and helped further its urban legend. Small usegroups became chat rooms became social media groups dedicated to reassembling or recreating the film. There is now an entire subculture devoted to the film called the Lore Punks. The obsessed few who've seen footage say it was oddly prescient and forward-thinking for its time. Because there is such limited actual information on the story and such little progress in its reassembly, there are arguments as to why the project was ultimately killed. Some say it was canned purely because the studio did not want the footage used in legal cases against it. Other, fringe conspiracists argue that the urban legends of curses, insanity, cult behavior were drummed up by the studio after the decision to can the film for being too progressive and too critical of the government and the church. Still others believe the curse is real and more so than fear of litigation, the studio destroyed the footage because of the dangerous effect it had on those that viewed it.

Despite fevered interest and many discovered clips or snippets of script, the film is still far from whole by any metric. This has led to conspiracy theories ranging from studio interference to the expansion of its "curse" theories. The urban legend by 2020 ballooned to include the Lore Punks themselves. It is now rumored anyone who watches more than five minutes of the film, or in some cases anything from Reel 2, begins to believe the fantasy realm to be the real world and themselves goes insane. While there is a preponderance of mental health issues among cast, crew, and the Lore Punk subculture, this is more likely due to the appeal of the urban legend to those with pre-existing mental health issues, a la Catcher in the Rye.

References

  1. Movies, Magic, and Madness: The Making and Unmaking of The Realm
  2. Vanity Fair interview, 1992
  3. Roger Ebert, "The Dreamender's Curse," on his blog, 2002
  4. Cinemascope, 2009; "E.E. Smith: The Director Who Went Mad"
  5. The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, 1983
  6. Chambers's testimony before a Grand Jury in 1985 court hearing on negligence

Subcategories

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