"That sounds like a very Hollywood `in' film", comments Jittlov, "but we made it for everybody to enjoy. It's about the little guy going up against the system, the creative soul in each of us that's fighting for expression. It's a movie that you can watch after a hard day's work, you can relax and laugh with...and maybe even learn something really interesting."
"And it's a lot different from anything I planned", he adds.
Over four years in the making, WIZARD actually had its genesis many years earlier. In 1969, while a UCLA student, Jittlov created Speed - a filmshort that followed a green-jacketed dynamo running and flying at super-speed over Los Angeles streets. The filmlet not only generated further projects, via cash awards from film festivals, but it also inspired him to write a science-fiction feature that would make full use of the speed effect...as well as another effect that was truly special.
By doing his own camerawork, artwork, editing and sound, Jittlov had discovered subliminal techniques, which when coupled with his superspeed cinematography would evoke amazing responses from audiences. "I found out why time-lapse animation has such a magical fascination on viewers, and how to use movies to boost self-healing and intellect...for a few hours, anyway. When invited to lecture at film festivals, sci-fi conventions and universities, I showed some of my experimental films. Big lecture halls, full house, and the audiences would occasionally stand and cheer, but not really know why. Until I told them." Jittlov smiled, "There is real magic hidden in this medium, you could do a lot of good."
Unfortunately, no studio seemed interested in producing a $7,000,000 science-fiction epic. Until Star Wars. And then no studio wanted to produce such an epic with an unknown writer-director, who would also act, edit, be fully responsible for his ideas' effective realization. No studio, that is, until 1979 - when Jittlov's films were seen by two Disney executives. They read his script, Godspeed, and asked him to showcase his technique on their TV special. His two "Camera Wizard" sequences - combining live-action, super-speed, lip-sync pixilation and lifesize stop-motion - became the hit of the show. But instead of going on to feature production, he was now completely typecast as a creator of short novelty-animation sequence.
Luckily Jittlov retained the rights to his Wizard footage, retitled it and redid its soundtrack, and The Wizard of Speed and Time became an immensely popular short at film festivals and screenings around the world. When a friend gave him access to a video editing facility, Jittlov was able to finally make a demonstration tape of his work. And in 1981, another friend showed a copy of that tape to Hollywood-based producer Richard Kaye.
Kaye was impressed and immediately saw the filmmaker's potential, but also knew Jittlov's sci-fi epic would be a tough sell. Did he have anything that could be produced for a smaller budget, say $2,000,000? Mike showed him another script, Fantum (about a quiet bankteller who inherits a loudmouth guardian demon), and gave Kaye a free nonexclusive option to take it around.
A year passed, and Kaye called to ask if Jittlov had anything that could be done for even less. Mike was, by that time, using his life savings of $35,000 to finally make his own movie, The Wizards of Hollywood. Loosely autobiographical and using many of his short films, the feature also showcased Deven Chierighino, John Massari, Toni Handcock, and other exceptional talents who had worked with him. He'd already shot a fifth of the movie, including an amazing crowd scene finale, all in 16mm for video release. Kaye said that was crazy, that 35mm was the only route for professional theatrical distribution and credibility, and soon had another free option to take around. This time, armed with both a Wizard video and a Wizard script, Kaye went to the 1983 Cannes Filmfest and secured a financing deal with Don Rochambeau (a wealthy real estate investor from San Diego), as well as distribution interest with Shapiro Entertainment.
Jittlov was excited, the dream was finally happening: he was going to produce his first feature film. And he would even act as one of its principal characters, "Since I was always available, very affordable, and I'd do everything the director wanted me to." Kaye proposed that they form a partnership, where the filmmaker would have full control of his movie's creation, and Kaye would handle all business, bookkeeping and distribution deals. And in the summer of 1983, they were off to film the Wizard. Almost.
Hollywood is built upon the Three C's: creativity, collaboration, and compromise. Co-producer Kaye felt the original script was just too cerebral, and worse, too G-rated. In several weeks of story sessions, the film changed markedly, becoming much more adversarial. The semi-documentary theme was retained, but Kaye came up with the comedy thug elements, ribald and ethnic humor, and also wanted to play the part of a villainous studio producer.
"Since we had a filmmaker playing a filmmaker, and an actress playing an actress," mused Jittlov, "an evil producer as an evil producer couldn't be more apropos." The studio personnel had all been whimsically named after cigarette brands, "because they were always burning somebody", but Kaye chose his own character's name, and required one more change: the movie would be titled The Wizard of Speed and Time, after Mike's successful filmshort.
Casting took several more weeks, with Jittlov insisting on talented unknowns, and Kaye insisting on established SAG actors to get better distribution deals. The biggest argument was over the film's leading lady, Jittlov recalled. "Kaye wanted a girl who looked like Judy Garland... and I wanted Paige Moore, because she's an excellent actress, and I felt our on-screen romance could be more realistic. Paige and I won that battle, but Kaye got to name her `Cindy'." Jittlov did welcome Kaye's choices of Philip Michael Thomas, Steve Brodie, Arnetia Walker and The Riot Act. And both men were in total agreement over Frank LaLoggia, Gary Schwartz, Angelique Pettyjohn, Will Ryan, and many other comedic talents.
The casting of the film crew was considerably easier, with Deven in charge, and 20 non-union professionals were soon chosen. Chief among them were production manager Daryl Kass, master-gaffer Rick Heebner, and Russ Carpenter as the unanimous choice for Director of Photography. An impeccable craftsman with a keen sense of lighting and composition, Russ also understood the filmmaker's total involvement. "If I needed to film something myself, there was no problem", Jittlov notes, "And no matter how difficult things got on production, I think Russ, Deven and I were the only ones who never lost our tempers."
And as with most low-budget independent productions, difficulties were the name of the game. The first inconvenience occurred when Kaye announced that, due to SAG actor availability, shooting would have to begin sooner than planned. Jittlov protested, "We weren't just filming actors talking back and forth...this was a complex action-effects movie demanding ten times the usual prep, with a tenth of the usual budget. I needed two solid months of pre-production to storyboard, find and secure locations, build the sets and props, rehearse the actors and pre-plan the hundreds of special effects." But Kaye was confident that the resourceful filmmaker would make it all work, somehow. Jittlov resigned from the Director's Guild, both as a matter of principle and to avoid guild disputes over his multi-union overtime workload.
On September 22, the roller-coaster ride began. "Actually, it was more like laying track in front of an on-coming express-train. The stress on everybody was incredible," Jittlov recalls. And, just citing his own, "Well... imagine suddenly directing yourself in a 35mm motion picture, something that only seasoned actors do, as well as being ultimately responsible for every job and aspect of film production, for making a feature-length movie that will compete with professional big-budget releases, that will handsomely reward your investor and everyone else, and finally get the attention, confidence and backing of a good studio producer for your future projects. It could be a little demanding. Especially if you have never done this before."
His work didn't stop when he left the set, since his family home became a major production, planning, and storage location. "We'd wrap at six, conference for an hour, then I'd gulp down some breakfast-lunch-dinner while rewriting the script. After a few hours building special effects, the bike and robots, repairing electronics, then set-designing whatever room we were filming in tomorrow, I'd drive around the city after midnight scouting exterior locations. I'd finally get home and get to sleep at about 3am, wake up at 7, greet the army and calm down angry neighbors, sit for make-up as we rescheduled for equipment malfunctions and weather problems, and then run the gamut again."
Speaking of weather, those months saw a parade of freak atmospheric conditions in Southern California. "We had melting heatwaves, then lightning and downpours, even a tornado downtown - and none of it matched our script's schedule." One day saw a full crew filming twenty girls running down a neighborhood street in bright sun, when a wave of black clouds came boiling over L.A. "I got Russ to shoot some of that, but the clouds turned into a waterfall", and the cast and crew rushed to the modest house for cover. "So, we rescheduled for the interiors - the crowded living room scene... and the quiet, sunny bedroom scene. Lights and sky-boards were set up outside the windows, everything shielded with tarps, as the rain really pouring and pounded the roof - and Paige and I did this gentle romance with lightning booms every time we got close. Her reaction in the out-takes was amazing."
Jittlov also did his own stuntwork, which worried co-producer Kaye. "He was adamantly against my doing the pool scene, particularly the single continuous film-take I'd scripted, but I knew it would be a unique shot." Jittlov considered using a hidden breathing apparatus, "But we couldn't find one and I didn't have time to rig anything, so I just put 16 pounds of sheet lead around my waist, got thrown in, sank to the bottom and held my breath for two minutes...I'm a Los Angeles native, I'm used to not breathing." The on-screen tension around the pool was all too real.
And racing through real Hollywood traffic on a motorized suitcase nick-named "Killer", just a heartbeat ahead of wildly swerving chase cars, was the sort of acting that puts film insurance companies on edge. The 40mph suitcase was built by mechanics wizard Eddie Paul, and powered by a Rolls Royce starter motor. "But there just wasn't time for Eddie to engineer in a braking system and still meet production schedule", so Jittlov just steered for the softest landings. "Still have the scars to prove it. I found out the crew was even taking bets on my surviving some of the stunts. But I was very confident in Gary (Schwartz) and Philip (Michael Thomas), who did some phenomenal stunt-driving behind me and never even scratched the paint."
Every shot had a story, and many could rate a movie all by themselves. One of the most memorable occurred on October 31st - Halloween night. "We were in the alleyway behind Hollywood Magic and Frederick's of Hollywood, at 10 PM, the air was calm, and we were ready to film the kissing scene. It was Paige's last night on the shoot, she even wore a Frederick's dress and really looked radiant. Someone played a lonely sax in the distance, but the soundman said `no problem', the mood was perfect and we rolled camera. I whispered `action' ...and suddenly there were loud crashes, sounds of glass shattering, people shouting."
Production halted, as one of the crew ran to investigate. The 1983 Halloween Riots were breaking out, all along Hollywood Boulevard, and right on the other side of the building. In minutes, there were sirens wailing and police helicopters shining spotlights everywhere.
"We were going into overtime, with a full crew in the middle of a combat zone, I just wanted to get this critical shot and get us out of there." Jittlov knew the sound could be looped and directed a retake, but the production manager stopped it. "Part of the shot required a practical effect, a small fountain of sparks back-lighting us. Although we had a filming permit, we did not have the fire marshall, licensed effects supervisor, and $500 permit required to set off a 50-cent firework on cement pavement in a wide, brick-walled alley. With present conditions, it was a cinch that we'd attract the riot squad."
They decided to wait it out, with Jittlov pacing - and as Halloween's midnight neared, the coast and skies were finally clear. Fireworks, camera, action... and the shot was perfect. "It was also a genuine first kiss," Jittlov admits, "and I got to kiss `Miss Virginia of 1980'. Lot of nice milestones in this movie."
Principal production lasted 18 weeks, going well beyond schedule. "Kaye also decided we should refilm the Wizard Run sequence, and have me run run through Japan, Europe, famous cities and locations, it'd really wow the distributors. I asked what the Wizard was supposed to be doing in all the locations, but he said I'd figure it out, we had to leave immediately. His confidence was unshakable."
With a small crew and two cars, they filmed as they drove up to San Francisco and Northern California, then over to Nevada and Las Vegas. "It was crazy, we had no plans and no script. We were shooting in these heavy-union towns without permits, and I'm running down the street in a green robe with a smoking torch."
Editing space was set up in a side-room of their Hollywood office, and Jittlov went to work. The Wizard Run short had to be completed first, as a demonstrable taste of the feature's power. "It was a monster jigsaw puzzle, making the pieces as I went and not knowing what it was supposed to look like. You can't just throw a montage together, you have to decide every cut with your emotions and keep at it until it works. And when you realize the mathematics - there are over 3 million ways just to arrange ten shots, nevermind judging each length and frame cut - and that there are 280 shots in just four-and-a-half minutes of the Wizard Run alone...I don't think anyone else really understood how complex this movie was."
Foreign locations were created out of thousands of photos, taken by Jittlov or clipped from travel brochures, with dozens collaged together to make a single scene. Jittlov animated his Wizard character racing across oceans and flying through space, zooming through forbidding territories to obliterate barriers and sweep the dark into colorful day. "Nothing stops the Creative Spirit, that was the message I was showing", noted Jittlov. It was then up to John Massari's creative spirit to produce, write, and orchestrate the score for the Wizard Run, as he conducted a 70-piece orchestra of studio musicians in a whirlwind one-day session. Steve Mann had a backbreaking job creating thousands of sound effects, with a minimum of 60 tracks per reel, and the team made a stereo mix in a single afternoon.
Kaye took the completed segment to Cannes '84, to initiate foreign pre-sales interest, as Jittlov dived into editing the rest of the movie. Later that summer, several weeks were spent with a small crew, shooting transition shots and Mike's workshop scenes. The Wizard Run was shown in connection with the 1984 Olympics, to cheering audiences and glowing reviews. A sneak preview at the 1984 World Science Fiction convention brought an equally thunderous reaction from 1,600 fantasy fans, who demanded an immediate encore showing. Feelings were very high.
The financial situation, however, was very low. Jittlov had kept costs down by working for free since November 1983, deferring all of his pay until after the investors were repaid. "I also broke the cardinal rule of filmmaking, by putting my savings and everything I'd made back into production. But it kept the office and editing going." Kaye seconded that by sub-leasing the Wizard office out to other productions.
Bizarre problems continued to mount, until "I think we were actually fighting World War III with Murphy's Law." Jittlov had to track down the film negative on several occasions, when it was mistakenly picked up by Universal. "They were shooting a movie called The Wizard, and developing the footage at our lab. It was an amusing little mix-up, and my hair grew back eventually." Brian Thomas joined the Wizard crew, performing an ever-growing number of jobs including driving the Jittlov family truck as Mike stood in the backbed with a camera brace and literally got his "pickup" shots.
While Kaye looked for further funding and the office was relocated, Jittlov continued to work on friends' editing tables, repairing their equipment in exchange for time. Potential backers were seldom used to seeing and understanding a rough-cut movie - especially with so many effects scenes yet to be completed - so Jittlov meticulously scratched into the workprint sparkles and lightning so realistic that many thought them finished effects. "We probably should have included Xacto in the credit roll."
In 1986, Kaye secured completion funding through Shapiro Entertainment. And 1987 saw a full year of post-production activity with Kaye taking the creative reins, supervising the songs and music selection, and the sound mixing.
Herein expunged: several years (and too many pages) of stress, sacrifices, disturbing revelations, a life insurance peccadillo, illegal accounting, account books vanishing, lab losing negative, a godawful soundmix, production accounts transferred, production accounts disappearing, illegal property transfer, incompetent film distribution, financier dying (liver damage), then sudden success - snatched from the jaws of victory as Universal's THE WIZARD is released, industrial intrigue, production office lock-out, partner vanishing with all production files & equipment, production (and partner's) attorney dying (unknown causes), financier's agent disappearing, financier's widow disappearing, and much much more.
| "Let's keep it quiet, keep it, upbeat... People don't wanta know about this, y'understand? Because it's nobody's business."
| -- unnamed producer of nobody's business
| "Let's keep it quiet, keep it, upbeat... People don't wanta know about this, y'understand? Because it's nobody's business."
"The making of The Wizard of Speed and Time is almost like a fable, fraught with frustration, disappointment, and joy", Kaye suggests. "I think the overall effect is a basic entertainment piece, it is designed to make people feel good. I'd say the film is a campy portrayal of Hollywood, and contains the broadest range audience in a long time. It's for young people and older people. It's visually exciting and very moral. The cutting style is similar to MTV, but it's not derivative... it's very trippy. There's a lot of upfront visual information as well as background information that is hard to notice at first glance... split-second shots where you see a complexity of images."
"I guess you could say it's `Walt Disney Meets Monty Python'. As well as a glimpse into a corner of Americana that's rarely seen anymore - with a real family, and home, and honest labor captured on film," notes Jittlov. "And two of my best friends, Deven and John, actually found their wives because of the WIZARD filming - that's pretty wonderful all by itself."
The Wizard of Speed and Time and related images © Mike Jittlov
Updated: July 31, 1999
Copyright 1997 John Hudgens - All Rights Reserved