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Although the "big underwater scene" proves to be a running gag throughout Purseidon, actually shooting the much-joked-about sequence almost sunk the entire production, nearly hospitalizing Wilson in the process.
Original plans called for shooting the swimming sequence in a friend's backyard pool last summer. But when a waterproof camera housing he'd hoped to borrow still hadn't materialized by late November, Wilson decided to go ahead and shoot scenes of various characters swimming with a camera stationed poolside. Cold as the water was, he reasoned, it'd still be warmer than it'd be in December.
Never mind that Wilson doesn't even know how to swim. Or that the temperature of the pool water was hovering below the 60-degree mark that day. And who could have guessed how difficult it would be simply to dress the set? Backdrops painted to look like engine-room walls kept floating to the surface. Meanwhile, wigs sank, makeup ran and prop debris drifted out of camera range.
After floundering in the chilly waters for nearly an hour without producing a scrap of usable tape--the buoyancy of his costuming made it impossible for him to sink beneath the water's surface--Wilson finally realized he was in over his head.
Throwing in the towel, he took to his sickbed with nothing to show for the day's shooting but a raging cold that later blossomed into tonsilitis.
From misery, inspiration. Reflecting on the debacle while recuperating, Wilson suddenly realized why he'd missed the boat.
"My big mistake was falling into the trap of thinking that I had to shoot underwater scenes in real water," he explains. "Everything I do is fake, so why not fake those scenes, too?"
That's how he came to shoot the amazingly effective "underwater" scenes in his living room, which he'd lighted with yellow lights.
After turning his camera upside down, Wilson draped the lens with a green chiffon scarf, then aimed it at the coffee table that would serve as his stage. Dressed as various characters, he'd then lie on his back on the coffee table and make blowfish faces while pretending to swim toward the camera in slow motion. To complete the effect, he'd wave a soap-bubble wand over his head before each take, giving the impression that bubbles were floating "up" as he paddled through the murky depths.
In the annals of cheesy special effects, it's pure Brie--and almost as ingenious as the sequence in which he persuaded a couple of gymnast friends to do handstands atop a dinner table to simulate the postcapsize scene where diners "dangle" from the floor.
"It's funny," notes Wilson. "Because The Poseidon Adventure is all about stuff being turned upside down, I couldn't believe how often simply turning my camera upside down was an absolute boon to production."
More invaluable assistance came via a couple of like-minded aficionados he met over the Internet. Using copies of rare stills, old press material and other ephemera his pals had collected, Wilson was able to "reconstruct" an entire merchandising campaign around the original film--including a line of action figures that was never actually produced. The lounge singer "Nonnie" doll, for instance, comes complete with patented "Christmas Tree Climbin' Action," as well as "soiled New Year's Eve outfits and vest, microphone, New Year's Eve banner, trashed guitar and debris." Pull the string and she sings "The Morning After."
Although Wilson's film won't dock in public for months (a Valley Art Theatre screening is a definite possibility), advance word of his strange venture has already piqued the curiosity of several cast members from the original film. Through an intermediary, Pamela Sue Martin sent a note saying that it sounded like Wilson was having a lot more fun than the cast of the real movie ever had. From Stella Stevens came a personally inscribed 8 x 10 glossy with a handbag reference. ("I do have a purse to match--but lost it when we turned over.")
And during a recent phone interview from her home in Malibu, Carol Lynley praised photos of the action figures a mutual friend had shown her. "I think they're very nice," says Lynley, whose "Nonnie" character figures prominently in the twist ending of Wilson's movie. "I thought that my doll looked like Linda Evans, though," the actress says, laughing.
One Poseidon alum who probably won't be filing any positive reports on Wilson's work is Shelley Winters: Her doll was modeled on a John Goodman action figure from Blues Brothers 2000.
Smiling wryly, Wilson claims the unflattering figure is a payback of sorts: As a teenager, he once sent Winters a packet of pictures from one of his Poseidon parties, along with a letter asking specific questions about the film's production.
Winters' response? Across his cover letter, a hastily scribbled "What you saw was what you got."
What Wilson's audiences will eventually get is something considerably more personal. When they'll get it is another question.
Wading into a den/editing room knee deep in dozens of videocassettes, Wilson seems temporarily overwhelmed by the wave of Poseidonmania that has engulfed his life.
Explaining that he hopes to finish The Purseidon Adventure in time to enter it in a San Francisco film festival this autumn, he shrugs. "It'll be done when it's done, I guess."
Or, to crib a line from his own script, "It ain't over 'til the fat lady swims."
Contact Dewey Webb at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org