VEGAS IN SPACE
The true story of a cult film in which three astronauts travel to a planet called Clitoris. Don’t ask us how they found it.
RATHER FITTINGLY, IT
started and ended with fur. The beginning: Doris Fish, famous (and infamous) San Franciscan drag queen and lead member of drag troupe Sluts-a-go-go, returned from a trip to New York in 1983 and exclaimed to friend and young filmmaker Phillip R Ford in her thickest Australian accent, “I’ve spent a thousand dollars on fun fur, so we
have to make a Barbarella-type movie!” Nearly nine years later, the end: Ford was at Sundance Film Festival with Vegas In Space, the film they ended up making, but without Doris Fish by his side. It was snowing and, clad in a fur coat, he made his way up the hill to a glitzy evening event. “Pardon me,” a gentleman queried. “Do you know the way to the queer party?” Turning on his heel, Ford was faced with acclaimed British punk director Derek Jarman, whose seminal queer movie Edward II was in competition. The year was 1991 and New Queer Cinema was exploding out of the festival. Directing Jarman up that white-dusted hill in Utah marked the apex of a long and remarkable journey for Phillip R Ford, Doris Fish and Vegas In Space. One that would take in debt, drugs, drag, debauchery and death over the course of almost a decade.
AFTER DORIS FISH’S
fur-inspired proclamation, the initial plan was to remake Valley Of The Dolls, but then Fish and Miss X— a fellow member of Sluts-a-go-go — wrote an original 25-page script by hand and presented it to Ford over a breakfast of buckwheat pancakes. It wasn’t finished, most crucially lacking an end, but they had a rock-solid concept and had even gone so far as to assign the lead roles to themselves and other drag queens they knew, including Timmy Spence and Ginger Quest. The story was this: a group of astronauts are sent undercover as showgirls to the planet Clitoris: a world without men which has experienced a spate of thefts of the gems “girlinimum”. To pass unnoticed on the pleasure planet and undertake their mission — to save the universe — they must change sex by swallowing gender reversal pills.
Timmy Spence — who played Lt Dick Hunter — remembers being thrilled by the idea immediately ( “Well, I did love that movie Queen Of
Outer Space from 1958 starring Zsa Zsa Gabor!”), and Phillip R Ford concurred. “I loved it,” he tells Empire of his reaction to the script that morning. “The whole social and metaphysical concepts — or, in terms of the planet, the physical concepts — were thought out. We’ll have a pink sky and everyone will be a queen or a princess or royalty. Working classes will be in black and white; they won’t have earned their right to be in colour.”
Ford had form for bizarro films. Having “flipped out” at an early age over Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Tod Browning and James Whale, he made a film while still in high school which he now describes as, “Kids wantonly doing drugs and misbehaving [who] go in the hot tub and take off their clothes, before the little sister turns the water up and boils them all.”
While studying film at San Francisco State University, Ford met two like-minded students: Robin Clark, who would become director of photography on Vegas In Space, and, perhaps most crucially, Lori Naslund, wife of Doris Fish (legal name: Philip Mills). It was Naslund’s bartender girlfriend who had first passed the message to Ford over gin gimlets:
Doris Fish wanted to make a movie with him. Immediately sold on the pages in his hand, Ford took $5,000 from Fish — and those piles of fun fur in magenta, lime green, yellow and hot pink — to kick-start production, and filming began in March of 1983.
With such a relatively small amount of money, filming took place almost exclusively in the apartments of Ford and Fish, who also built almost everything herself. “She was very handy for a queen,” remembers Timmy Spence. “She could make sets and do all of that stuff.” The three main sets — the opulent throne room, the spaceship and the Empress’ lair — were all created in Fish’s small living room.
“It was all magenta fur,” remembers Ford of the throne-room build. “We didn’t have enough fur to cover both sides of the room, so we put the fur up and built the set on one side of the room and shot everything, then took the fur down, stapled it on the other side and shot everything there.”
The special effects were toy rockets hung on string, flying over a city made from perfume bottles and lipsticks. This DIY approach was born out of necessity, with a crew numbering just three, in addition to Ford: a cameraman, a sound recordist and Robin Clark, who came armed with just a crate full of gels and some rudimentary lights.
Hair, make-up and wardrobe was also the domain of Fish (who was playing the lead role of Cpt Dan Tracey/cpt Tracey Daniels). She visualised, designed and made everyone’s costumes, designed the hair and make-up and personally painted the faces of the other leads. Though the production fell into something of a rhythm, it is perhaps unsurprising that, against this background, it was beset by pauses and delays lasting from weeks to months at a time.
“Time lost all meaning!” laughs Ford now. “Doris would build the sets and then go off and start putting people into drag. I had a shot list and would use stand-ins and Robin would light it. It could be a day later when people actually came in and, of course, when you’re dealing with drag queens you do their face and their beards start to grow out! They don’t stay pristine…”
Two or three scenes would be shot this way in five-to-ten-day bursts — the cast and crew often sustained by drugs — until, usually, the money ran out. A few months would pass and they’d go again once they’d refilled the coffers (occasionally through Fish selling sex). When they picked up production, it could be with the addition of whole new scenes dreamed up in the meantime. Ford recalls the key dream sequence being added because Doris had thought of the joke, “Calm down, it was just a bad dream sequence!” in one of the filming breaks.
In the meantime, Timmy Spence had to leave the production. “I was in a band and we were beginning to tour,” he says. “I just didn’t have time, so that’s why I ‘died’ while taking my sex-change pills.”
Though it became known in San Francisco as the film that might never get finished, the final scene was in the can by August of 1984. What isn’t disputed, though, is that the film wasn’t completely finished for eight more years.
In this period, Fish became a greeting-card model — appearing on local talk shows and embarking on nationwide tours — and she and Ford spent a year doing a “legitimate” production of the Maxwell Anderson play The
Bad Seed. The fire would be stoked by occasional screening parties hosted by the pair, bits of film projected against sheets hung on the apartment walls as the stars oohed and aahed, “thrilled to see their faces so brightly lit,” says Ford.
But in the back of his mind was the constant nagging thought that bloomed into a source of pronounced stress: they had to get back to the movie. “I had low level anxiety and depression, thinking, ‘Will this ever get done? How will it ever get done?”
And something far more devastating was also hurtling towards them, previously unseen. “AIDS started,” says Ford. “Everyone started to get sick and [was] dying.” The disease hit those closest to the film, with Fish and Tippi both developing full-blown AIDS.
A major unfinished element of the film was the sound, which had been worked on initially by Bob Davis, Tippi’s partner. Unable to carry on working on the film as her illness progressed, Davis’ work was picked up by his business partner Joshua Raoul Brody, a friend of Ford and Sluts-a-gogo. “Kinda rushed,” is how Brody recalls the experience 25 years later.
“And overcast with Bob’s sadness. He was still ‘in the room’ and offered advice and ideas when he could, but he wasn’t really there.”
The film, however, was eventually completed. In January 1991, aided by a $30,000 donation from an independently wealthy friend, Ford was able to pick up production and charge full steam ahead towards the date that had been set for the film to premiere in San Francisco: 11 October. But not everyone would make it to the autumn.
Doris Fish died in late June while the film was being mixed; Tippi six weeks later when they were designing posters. Both saw a work-inprogress screening but neither saw the finished film.
“It seemed like a cheat, like a joke of life,” shares Ford, after a pause. “It seemed so unfair and unreal. People were dying all the time. Half the people I knew died. You didn’t know if you were going to die.”
Vegas In Space played for ten weeks in San Francisco as a midnight movie while Ford tried to line up a distributor for a national rollout. Then Sundance came a-knocking. Or rather, a friend of Ford’s on the committee pulled some strings and Ford ended up on that snowy hill with Derek Jarman.
THE FILM WASN’T
out of the woods yet. Given 1991 was being hailed as the year of New Queer Cinema — Edward II, Swoon and Young
Soul Rebels all played that year — the timing might have looked fortuitous. But many gay filmmakers at the time sought to move their filmmaking into the mainstream, achieve legitimacy and avoid tropes at all costs.
Vegas In Space, as an unashamed celebration of camp, fell very firmly outside this movement.
“It didn’t fit in,” states Ford firmly. “It seemed beneath this crowd. It was a very different movie; it was clearly an exploitation picture. It was vulgar, it was stupid, it was very cheap. It didn’t aspire to the refined sensibilities.”
This resistance didn’t just extend to the industry, either. The reception from audiences also wasn’t what Ford had hoped for. “We were trying to make a stupid movie,” he admits. “I wouldn’t say we were trying to make a bad movie, but we knew what we were making. When it opened, I thought it would be more of an art film, but it became underground immediately.”
Ford met with several distributors in the following months but none were interested, or interested enough to offer up an appropriate advance. That was, apart from Troma, an independent film distributor that specialised in low-budget movies and was prepared to stump up cash.
Vegas In Space went on to play theatrically for a week in New York, then in San Diego, and was licensed to Japan. There was also a deal with the USA Network to play as part of the Up All Night cable series that aired weekly on Friday and Saturday nights. It may not have been what Ford or Fish had envisioned, but it was powerful in a way that they could only have dreamed of.
Joshua Raoul Brody vividly remembers being approached by a student after guest-lecturing at a film class: “As I was getting ready to leave, a young student came up to me, his eyes wide and maybe even a little watery, and confessed that seeing Vegas In Space on cable TV in his little Midwestern town changed his life. It reassured him that he was not alone, and gave him the courage to come out and move to San Francisco.”
Unsurprisingly then, in this context, Vegas In Space has developed something of a cult following in the 25 years since its release, recently playing a sold-out anniversary event in San Francisco attended by Miss X, Timmy Spence and Phillip R Ford. “It was a ton of fun,” remembers Timmy Spence. “I actually like the film a lot better now!”
Ford’s relationship with his movie is admittedly a little more complicated, almost three decades after it began. He admits that he doesn’t watch it often these days. “I’m not ashamed of it,” he insists. “I’m proud of it, it’s very singular — there is nothing else like it. But that seems like a different person. I was 20 when I started doing it; I’m now 55.” In the intervening years, Ford admits to battling a “pretty serious” drug problem and drifting in and out of homelessness. But he has worked in corporate finance for the past 15 years and has come some way to reconciling himself with the rollercoaster that was making the oddest space movie any of us is ever likely to see. “The best bit of making Vegas In Space?” he muses. “For a while, I found my family. I found my artistic family.”
Top: Empress Noodles Nebula (Arturo Glaster) in her starcruiser.
Above: The colourful world of Planet Clitoris.
Right: Cpt Tracey Daniels and Queen Veneer on location in San Francisco with Ford.
Below: (clockwise from top left) Queen Veneer, Empress Nueva Gabor (Ginger Quest), Cpt Tracey Daniels (Doris Fish), Princess Angel, Lt Sheila Shadows (Ramona Fischer), Ford and Lt Debbie Dane (Lori Naslund).