Artist Overboard!

In Attack of the 70-Foot Courtesy Lady, he immortalized a high-rise-size hausfrau who wipes out an entire city with her "patent leather purveyors of death."

In What I Did to "Psycho," he presented a revisionist version of the Hitchcock classic in which, dressed as all the characters in the movie except Norman Bates, he interacted with film clips of Anthony Perkins.

And in Atomic Twinkies, which won first place in a national video contest sponsored by the makers of Hostess Cupcakes, he told the life-affirming tale of nuclear-holocaust survivors (all of them played by the filmmaker himself) who find hope in huge irradiated snack cakes.

But it's in his latest--and, to date, most ambitious--cinematic effort that Valley artist/filmmaker Paul Wilson's quirky career really reaches a new high-water mark.

Now waist deep in postproduction, Wilson's currently editing The Purseidon Adventure, a feature-length video about an ocean liner that capsizes on New Year's Eve--after colliding with a gigantic ladies' handbag.

Any resemblance between Wilson's $300 opus and a similarly titled big-budget disaster flick about a shipload of stereotypes battling their way to the bottom of an upended luxury liner is strictly intentional.

"Ever since I saw it as a kid, I've been fascinated by The Poseidon Adventure," says the 34-year-old Wilson, who spent more than a year creating his detail-heavy homage to the now-campy Irwin Allen classic. "The party favors, confetti, the Christmas tree--all the things that were once the focal point of joy now being trampled and smashed is just so intriguing. The concept of gaiety turning to chaos is quite delightful to me."

To say the least. After seeing the movie in 1972, Wilson read the book, bought the View Master reel and howled over the Mad magazine parody ("The Poopsidedown Adventure"). Later, as a Camelback High student, he even hosted several Poseidon-themed New Year's Eve parties--at the stroke of midnight, revelers dressed as Gene Hackman, Stella Stevens, Roddy McDowall and other characters from the movie flipped over tables and vied for the privilege of crashing through a fake skylight.

Yet as Purseidon's sole star (with the exception of a handful of friends who appear as extras or in bit roles, he's the only person who appears on screen), Wilson was able to relive all of the roles that had been unspooling through his head for the past quarter century.

"I knew I was never going to get to see that set or to set foot on it or go back in time," says Wilson. "It's also very unlikely that I'm ever going to meet a lot of people who were associated with the film. Making Purseidon is my way of somehow bringing all that back so I could experience it myself."

Thanks to his meticulous re-creations of the original film's props and sets, Wilson was able to duplicate virtually all of those experiences--getting crushed beneath a (cardboard) grand piano, staggering through a fiery engine room, plunging through that stained-glass window--right in his own carport.

Convenience aside, Wilson's makeshift sound stage left much to be desired. Scenes that weren't interrupted by a neighbor's barking dogs were frequently ruined by flocks of tweeting birds, necessitating heavy dubbing. Another key scene had to be reshot when a puzzled pedestrian happened to be walking past the driveway just as Wilson, in Shelley Winters drag, climbed up an artificial Christmas tree while gasping, "Gas! Gas! Oy, I've got gas!"

Unnerved by the weird spectacle unfolding before him, the passerby hollered a tentative, "Uh, are you okay?"

"'Everything's fine,'" Wilson remembers answering. "I don't know that he believed me, though. Here I was in a dress, straddling this tree and struggling with all these purses--he must have thought I was a complete idiot."

Wait 'til he sees Wilson's movie.
Not content to merely restage favorite scenes, Wilson does to The Poseidon Adventure what Airplane! did to Airport, ripping the wings off the disaster genre and turning it upside down in the process.

Capitalizing on the film's kitschy time period, the Purseidon's band of survivors battles not only fire, water and exploding glass, but such scourges of the Seventies as harvest-gold crockpots, macrame and Smiley Faces. This go-round, one character's cherished swimming medal is miraculously transformed into a piece of "Have a Nice Day" junk jewelry.

Jaws, Gilligan's Island, Flipper--Wilson's production includes nautical pop-culture nods to every seafaring icon this side of the Tydee Bowl man. (But don't hold your breath waiting for any Titanic shtick. "I absolutely hated it," says Wilson. "I got so sick of hearing, 'Jack?' 'Rose?' 'Jack?' 'Rose?'")

Self-referential gags abound. In one of the earliest scenes, Roddy McDowall's character ponders an actual poster from the original movie and wonders aloud whether the "Hell Upside-Down!" advertising slogan means that life aboard the uncapsized ship is "Hell Rightside-Up!" Later, the sneering teenager played by Pamela Sue Martin taunts her obnoxious kid brother by pointing out that he didn't fare as well in author Paul Gallico's source novel: "Robin, don't forget--in the book version, your character dies!" And later, after the boat capsizes, Shelley Winters' character paws through the wreckage of the ship's dress shop because, "I need something wash 'n' wear for my big underwater scene that's coming up."  

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:

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