Q&A: Clive Young on fan films

You may remember that we blogged not long ago about the awesome-looking independent film The Hunt For Gollum . Well, that got a few people's attention, including Clive Young, pundit and author of Homemade Hollywood: Fans Behind The Camera. It's a book all about the phenomenon of amateur and independent film production, particularly those movies inspired by or based on existing Hollywood franchises. It's published by Continuum Publishing on 26 February, and we caught up with Young to ask him a little bit about the culture of fan films.

SFX: What got you involved in the world of fan films?
During the internet boom of the '90s, fan films started popping up on the net, and to me it was a real punk rock thing. People were making these flicks with no worries about being sued into oblivion - instead, they were basically acting like squatters inside intellectual property, telling the studios, "These characters aren't yours; they belong to everyone."

Fan films were hard to find on the net back then, so I started the first website about them, Mos Eisley Multiplex, to be a central location where you could find fan movies. It's no longer around, but these days I run a daily fan film news blog .

SFX: What's the craziest fan film story you've come across?
There's a lot of competition for that one! There's Dan Poole, who made a Spider-Man movie in the early '90s called "The Green Goblin's Last Stand," where he swung off a six-story building, hung off speeding cars, climbed buildings, dodged roman candles, and more; it's amazing he didn't kill himself. These days, he's putting the finishing touches on his first original sci-fi feature film, "The Photon Effect."

Then there's the three pre-teens from Mississippi who spent seven years in the 1980s making a shot-for-shot remake of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" - and they did all of it, from dragging under trucks, to getting chased by boulders, to setting themselves on fire with gasoline for the bar fight. When they finished it, they all went their separate ways and through a series of coincidences, Eli Roth, who directed the Hostel movies, wound up getting a bootleg of their movie. He gave it to Steven Spielberg and it blew his mind - he had to meet the guys behind it. Now their life story is being turned into a Hollywood movie! There's so much more unreal stuff in their tale that it takes an entire chapter of the book to tell it.

One story that isn't in the book just happened this past year: a Canadian fan filmmaker was arrested for murder after making a horror short - the case goes to trial next autumn.

SFX: Are fan films a strictly modern phenomenon? Where did it all begin?
A lot of folks think "Hardware Wars" in 1977 was the first fan film, but actually, they go back to the silent movie era. The earliest I've found was from 1926: a fake "Little Rascals" short made by con men in Anderson, South Carolina. They claimed they were making a real film for the Hal Roach Studios and cast the local kids in it, getting money out of a local theatre owner who paid to screen it for the town.

Today, when we think of "The Little Rascals," it's typically "Oh, cute kids getting into mischief," but this version of them was extremely racist - and that underlines one of the reasons why it's worth studying fan films. When we watch the official Rascals movies - or James Bond, Star Trek or any long-running franchise - we see them through the eyes of people living in 2009. Our modern-day values and beliefs colour how we experience those films. When you see a period fan film though, you're not only watching a story, you're getting insight into how people experienced the movies back then. The ways they try to imitate a series reveals how they perceived the original and illustrates what aspects resonated with them.

SFX: How did you research the stories for your book - did you invite people to get in touch?
When I heard from fan filmmakers, it was usually 12-year-olds making stop-motion Transformer videos - God bless 'em but that wasn't what I wanted to write about. Instead, I was interested in certain movies that had clearly struck a chord with fans - flicks that were groundbreaking and had stood the test of time.

Tracking down the filmmakers wasn't easy though. For instance, there's a series of fan films called Star Trek: Phase II where the Captain Kirk, James Cawley, spent $100,000 on his Enterprise bridge set. That series is so high-end that George Takei and Walter Koenig have appeared in some episodes. Getting Cawley on the phone took over a year, but it was worth it. We've talked a few times since, and he's a smart, innovative guy - he's used his fan films to get the rights to make official Buck Rogers web movies which will debut in 2010.

SFX: Do you have a favourite fan film?
This week, it's "Reign of the Fallen," which is a very subtle, 50-minute Star Wars fan film. It has an indie-film vibe, with struggling relationships, quiet arguments and gorgeous cinematography. The special effects, lightsabers and so on are almost an afterthought, which is kind of daring if you think about it.

SFX: Have you made any films yourself?
Yeah, I made a few about 10 years ago - they were pretty terrible, which was sort of the point. Only one is online - a 60-second experiment, "Jay & Silent Bob Meet Bill & Ted," where I took audio from "Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure" and an obscure MTV ad that Kevin Smith did, mashed them together and animated the result. It's on YouTube and I love reading the comments because it seems to really get people ticked off.

SFX: What's the response to your book been like so far?
It's only been out since the week after Christmas in the US but on the web, it's had good write-ups from like io9, movie sites like Cinematical and Spout, filmmaking sites like MicroFilmmaker and comic sites like ComicBookBin. The fan film community seems to dig it, too; not much nitpicking online, so that's a good sign.

SFX: Have you got anything else in the pipeline?
Writing-wise, it's sort of a surprise - I wrote a spec comedy script a few years ago, "Worst Case Scenario," about a slacker who inherits an abandoned mansion. It won a national competition run by Script Magazine, beating hundreds of other screenplays - and then I never shopped it around! We were having a baby and that had to take precedence with the little free time I had, so I posted a blurb about the screenplay on my author website, cliveyoung.com , and that was that. Now interest in the book has caused some industry nibbles about the script, so we'll see what happens. I'm not holding my breath, but hey, it's fun to dream!

SFX: Thanks Clive!

Have you seen and enjoyed many amateur sci-fi films? Maybe you've made a fan film yourself? Let us know about it - comments below or here in our forum .