Video Mutants: Prince of theme parkness

Pub date January 23, 2008
WriterCheryl Eddy
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

>>Click here to view some Damon Packard vids


Try explaining a Damon Packard film to someone who hasn’t seen one and you will fail. The best you can achieve is a description: "It’s a sequel to Logan’s Run, kind of, but with a lot of 1984, clips from Dateline NBC’s To Catch a Predator, and roller skaters jamming to ‘Never Knew Love like This Before.’<0x2009>"

Seriously, can you even imagine what that’s like? Step inside 2007’s SpaceDisco One and enter the world of a filmmaker who makes movies unlike anything you’ve seen before — except for the parts you have seen before. Every time he uses nonoriginal footage, it’s worth paying extraclose attention; though Packard would rather use only his own material, his choices of appropriated footage are never random. Why else would he include a clip of Dirk Benedict (Starbuck on the original Battlestar Galactica) padding dejectedly around the British Celebrity Big Brother house in a film that pays homage to — and mourns the lost aesthetic of — 1970s sci-fi movies?

"I’m not really into mashup-type stuff," the Los Angeles–based Packard explained to me. It was New Year’s Eve eve, and we were sitting in the basement at Artists’ Television Access — a dark, chilly space crammed with TV monitors and other electronic odds and ends. "In SpaceDisco, I didn’t plan on using any [nonoriginal] footage. It’s just a case of not having the money. It takes money to go out and shoot original footage. You need actors, props, costumes, and locations. That’s the short answer to it. [The nonoriginal footage] was just replacing things that I needed — I needed some shots of spaceships and things like that. For the most part the film is all original."

SpaceDisco One, in which Hollywood’s Universal City Walk stands in for the Ministry of Truth during the film’s 1984-inspired scenes, works real news footage into its narrative. At one point, a giant screen beaming the face of radio host Alex Jones attracts the attention of SpaceDisco‘s Winston Smith character — himself a result of Packard’s interest in recontextualizing familiar or favorite characters.

"I love the idea of taking characters from other films and utilizing them in some way — taking Arthur Frayn from Zardoz [and using him in] SpaceDisco," he said. In keeping with SpaceDisco‘s positioning as a Logan’s Run sequel, several of Packard’s leads are written as the daughters of characters from that film. "And of course Smith and O’Brien from 1984 — all sort of meeting up in the same universe. I like that idea, taking characters and settings from other films and coming up with a new adventure."

Anticipating my next question, he added, "I don’t know how that will ever translate into something in the [mainstream film] world professionally, because of copyright issues."

So far Packard hasn’t run into any cinema-related problems with the law, aside from being booted from a theme park while grabbing shots for 2002’s Reflections of Evil, an epically surreal study of LA paranoia. "[My films have all been] independent films made for no money and no distribution, or very minor distribution," he said. "Once it gets to a point where I have a budget and there’s real distribution, [using copyrighted material] would be a whole different situation."

He’s also never heard a peep from his celebrity targets, specifically Steven Spielberg (his childhood idol, who might frown on Reflections‘ depiction of Schindler’s List: The Ride) or George Lucas, who’s showered with ire in 2003’s The Untitled Star Wars Mockumentary. That film manipulates DVD featurettes from the newer Star Wars films, with wraparound footage (reaction shots, responses to conversations, the occasional porn snippet) adding a whole new level to the average Jedi’s beef with Lucas. It’s payback for Greedo shooting first and Jar Jar Binks, but to Packard, Lucas’s addiction to technology is symptomatic of a bigger issue — how Hollywood films have changed dramatically in the past 30 years.

"I don’t dislike Lucas," Packard noted, though a viewing of the hilarious Mockumentary might suggest otherwise. ("Angry black people became a strong inspiration for George," a faux Industrial Light and Magic animator notes while working on the schematics for a character described as Mace Windu’s streetwise brother, pointedly referencing the observation that some of Lucas’s Phantom Menace creatures seem ever so slightly racist.) "I would actually hope that he would have a good laugh at it if he ever saw it. [With Mockumentary] I was just expressing my disappointment in the new generation of Star Wars films and how Lucas has become part of that whole system of becoming obsessed with CGI and digital effects."

But Lucas is hardly alone, according to Packard. "It seems like all of the film industry is operating in this vacuum where they aren’t aware of what they’re doing. They’re out of touch with what audiences are interested in seeing — [although] maybe it’s just the reality that I’m experiencing. I don’t understand how most [mainstream] films get green-lighted; it’s just more of the same thing over and over, just variations on playing-it-safe themes, following the same formulas. Like Transformers. It was a film that I just — why? I was baffled by that film. It was kind of entertaining — I saw it in IMAX — but who would think that was a great idea? There’s nothing new or special about doing a Transformers movie."

That’s not to say Packard hates every new movie; you may have noticed he submitted a top 10 list to the Guardian‘s 2007 year in film issue, with favorites like No Country for Old Men and Paris, Je T’Aime. One of his friends in LA gave him a hard time for not including Sidney Lumet’s Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead.

"He was really upset," Packard said of the Dead fan. "He thinks it’s Sidney Lumet’s best film. I disagreed. I thought it was OK, but it doesn’t compare to his early works at all. It would have been much better if it was made in the 1970s with a sleazier cast, sleazier characters, and not [set in] a modern strip mall. The characters didn’t feel credible — they just weren’t very interesting. Things aren’t that interesting these days."

Watch a Packard film — and if you haven’t, you must; Other Cinema is working on a release of SpaceDisco One for later in 2008, and at least one version of Reflections of Evil is available at — and it’s clear he’s inspired by the 1970s and more than a little nostalgic for them. At 40, he’s too young to have been part of what he views as Hollywood’s last golden age.

"The late ’70s and early ’80s were the beginning of the downfall of cinema — the beginning of the blockbuster film and special effects. Suddenly the quality levels, the character-driven films, were diminishing [in favor of] special-effects extravaganzas," he said. "If I went back in time, it would probably be even more difficult to get into the film business [than it is now]. Still, I think it was a better time in a lot of ways. My films are always making a statement about the way things have changed for the worse."

Though he’s a YouTube user and sees the finer points of shooting on video (though he prefers film), Packard’s view of his future as a filmmaker is surprisingly old-school. Specifically, he would like to make more narratives. His dream projects are an "analog fantasy film without the overuse of CGI" and a longer version of SpaceDisco One, which now clocks in at less than an hour.

"I’ve always wanted to make big films, not small independent art movies. But my creative sensibilities seem to be so off the wavelength of the average person. The way people react to my films — they can’t understand them. They need to have something palatable," he said. He blames Hollywood — at one time a creative haven where up-and-coming directors like Robert Altman could make offbeat films like 3 Women — for creating the apathetic-audience monster. "I don’t know if there’s any hope [for the future of movies]. That should be a theme of [your] article: is there any hope? God only knows." Insert your own A New Hope wraparound — the exploding Death Star, perhaps? — here.