Once again, Caltech in the movies == loonity

Rohit Khare (rohit@uci.edu)
Sat, 6 Feb 1999 13:03:38 -0800

[At least, unlike MIT, we don't produce the evil geniuses who destroy
the world in the first place :-]
(and no, don't correct me: I believe the only standing Caltech role
in TV was the use of Millikan Library as the evil HQ in The Man From
UNCLE or somesuch :-)

January 31, 1999
Having a Blast With a Little Fusion

The bomb shelter that's been constructed on a sound stage in Culver
City seems eerie yet oddly homey at the same time.
Half of it looks like Ozzie and Harriet's house--two bedrooms, a
kitchen, a sewing room, a fully stocked wet bar, and a "patio"
complete with lawn furniture, a pink plastic flamingo lawn ornament
and even AstroTurf. The other half looks like something out of "The
Jetsons." There is a 6-by-6-foot freshwater tank for trout farming, a
hydroponic garden with rows and rows of carrots, tomatoes and other
vegetables, a battery room, a generator room and an ominous,
6-inch-thick vault-like door.
For the nuclear family of three that resides here, time has
frozen in the year 1962. In a Cold War-fueled act of paranoia, the
head of the household--a brilliant former Caltech professor--has
built the ultimate bomb shelter under his San Fernando Valley tract
home. As the slightly mad scientist and his very pregnant wife are
watching televised news reports on the Cuban missile crisis, a small
plane crashes into their backyard and knocks out all the power.
Thinking the Soviets have finally dropped "the bomb," they bolt
for the underground shelter and there they live in seclusion for 35
It may sound like a plot line lifted from "The Twilight Zone,"
but instead it's the outlandish premise for director Hugh Wilson's
romantic-comedy follow-up to his 1996 hit "The First Wives Club."
"Blast From the Past," a sort of Atomic Age Garden-of-Eden
fable, stars Brendan Fraser in yet another fish-out-of-water role as
the couple's boy-man son, Adam. (The New Line film opens Feb. 12.)
When the time-sealed locks of the shelter pop open in 1997, Adam
ventures "above" to gather more supplies and hopefully find a wife.
What he discovers is a world far more cynical and hostile than
the one his parents described.
"This movie's a real think tank in a lot of ways, because you
can cram a lot of different ideas into one very simple premise,"
Fraser says during a break from filming. "My character is effectively
born into a time warp. The fallout shelter is like an incubator where
nothing exists past 1962."
For Fraser, the film is a return to the kind of light comedy
that turned him into a hunk star in 1997's "George of the Jungle."
His last role was more serious, as the gardener to Ian McKellen's
James Whale in the widely praised "Gods and Monsters."
The crew is scurrying to ready the set for the next take, in
which Fraser's character returns to the shelter after several
weeks--with a bizarre-looking homeless man in tow--and gives his
parents (Christopher Walken and Sissy Spacek) the first news they've
heard of the outside world in decades.
The parents rush to greet Adam and drill him about the
post-apocalyptic world above. Walken delivers a particularly funny
deadpan zinger and Wilson, who is watching on a video monitor in the
next room, cannot contain his laughter.
Normally nothing will draw the ire of a seasoned cast and crew
on a movie set faster than an ill-timed sneeze or electronic beep.
But this show is a little more laid-back.
"Now Hugh . . . ," Spacek chastises. There goes that take.
Alicia Silverstone, who plays the thoroughly modern Eve to
Fraser's babe-in-the-woods Adam, laughs when she hears the anecdote.
"Hugh ruined a lot of takes by laughing."
Wilson, who bears an uncanny resemblance to David Letterman, is
an affable Southerner, and his informal demeanor makes for a
different kind of movie-making experience.
"Hugh's a perennial gentleman and a real model in a lot of ways
for the part that I'm playing," Fraser says. "He's certainly someone
who treats everyone on equal terms and endeavors to make everyone as
comfortable as possible at all times."

* * * Wilson, who began his career as a television commercial
writer and director in Atlanta, has a knack for tapping into
America's comedy radar. In 1978, he created the popular sitcom "WKRP
in Cincinnati"; in 1984, he directed his first feature film, the
original "Police Academy."
"At the time I thought, 'Oh this is cool, a drive-in movie for
brain-dead 14-year-old boys. I'll be able to learn how to make a
feature and nobody will ever see it." The movie turned into a hit and
spawned a "Police Academy" movie franchise that went on much too long.
"Then I kind of floated off and didn't work too hard 'cause
'WKRP' started making a lot of money in syndication and that just
kind of cured my ambition. I sort of semi-retired."
Wilson, his wife and their "bunch of kids" moved to Virginia and
bought a farm. "Apparently moving to Virginia resurrected my movie
career," he quips.
Appropriately enough, the director, whose most successful film
to date is a revenge-comedy about three scorned first wives, credits
both his wife and ex-wife for much of his success.
"When I came out here in 1975, I was offered a trainee-level job
at MTM. I called my ex-wife and said, 'I want to take this job for
$200 a week to get my foot in the door but I don't know how I'm going
to keep up on alimony and child support,' and she said, 'I think I
can get by for three or four months.' And I thought that was one of
all-time great things anybody ever did for me."
Wilson's current wife, who had read Olivia Goldsmith's novel
"The First Wives Club," is the one who convinced him to make that
For "Blast," Wilson was approached by director-producer Renny
Harlin, whose productioncompany Midnight Sun Pictures (at the time
called Forge Pictures) had optioned the script from newcomer Bill
Kelly. Harlin's name is more synonymous with macho action pictures
like "Die Hard 2" and "Cliffhanger" than with romantic comedies.
"I first met Hugh in October of '96," Harlin recalls. "It was
two weeks after 'The First Wives Club' came out and that was when my
movie 'The Long Kiss Goodnight' came out. We couldn't beat 'First
Wives Club' in the box office, so I knew that he was the right
The two men could hardly appear more different. The Finnish-born
Harlin is an imposing figure, well over 6 feet, clad in black jeans
and boots, his long blond hair pulled back into a ponytail. The
casually rumpled Wilson favors a professorial look--khakis, cardigans
and wire-rimmed glasses.
Asked why he didn't direct the film himself, Harlin replies, "I
definitely do want to direct comedy one day, but I felt that this was
very American subject matter and that I'd best serve the project as
someone who could pull the right people together."
But the apple pie/Americana theme of "Blast" is largely what
drew Harlin to the project. "Growing up in Finland, I was surrounded
with American music, TV, movies, everything from that era. My first
'American' word was 'OK.' I learned it from 'Leave It to Beaver' when
I was 4.
"And also in Finland we lived right next to Russia, obviously,
so there was a certain amount of paranoia there. Finland is filled
with bomb shelters. We lived right next to a giant bomb shelter where
we would hold parties and sports events."
But, everyone associated with the film is quick to point out,
the bomb shelter conceit is just a device to set up a love story
between two extreme opposites: A gentle boy-man whose entire life has
consisted of learning science, history, foreign languages and
ballroom dancing, and a hip but hardened L.A. girl who's seen it all
and heard it all.
"Eve is pretty typical in the sense that she's a single woman in
Los Angeles who probably had a dream of love and then got really hurt
badly," Silverstone says of her character. "She's just a jerk and
angry. And then she meets Adam, and he's like her guardian angel. She
thinks he's crazy but for all the wrong reasons. He's just sweet and
that's crazy to her; he opens doors, and she thinks it's ridiculous.
"His good manners are annoying to her because she doesn't
understand it. I don't think anybody in this day and age understands
nice men."
Adam's polite, yes, but he's no sissy. His father has taught him
to box like a pro. (Luckily, Spacek's character Helen Webber is a
veritable June Cleaver, Harriet Nelson and Donna Reed all rolled into
one. During her duration in the fallout shelter she makes boxing
gloves out of sofa cushions; she makes Christmas presents out of old
coffee cans; she makes Adam a stylish sports coat out of her
bedspread for his 35th birthday. The woman is nothing if not
Eve and her roommate Troy, a droll gay man (played by Dave Foley
of TV's "NewsRadio"), try to update his social skills. Adam has a
gee-whiz outlook on life. Eve and Troy exist in a world of Gen-X
"There's some great interaction and exchange where Adam learns
about the world, obviously, but he also gives people a lot to think
about based on his sometimes goofy '50s morals," Harlin says. "I
think people are ready for something that's a little different from
the other youth and relationship movies that are being made now. This
is an old-fashioned love story."
Fraser agrees that the film's traditional themes may appeal to
today's audience, which has embraced such retro fare as swing
dancing, cigar smoking and Rat Pack music. "It's funny, unique and
retro-hip, but ultimately it's a story about honoring one's parents."
- - -
Kathleen Craughwell Is a Times Staff Writer