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.

Empire (UK) - - CONTENTS -

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).

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