SCI-FI DOCUMENTARY Recalling a simpler time — before mass commercialization and marketing took over the world of science fiction, pop culture, and fan conventions — local filmmaker Tom Wyrsch’s new documentary Back To Space-Con conveys the story of the home-grown, grassroots-fueled sci-fi conventions of the 1970s, told through interviews with the people behind the events, fans who were there, and rare footage shot on location here in the Bay Area more than 30 years ago.
Coming off the successes of his first two projects, 2008’s Watch Horror Films, Keep America Strong, which looked at the local TV phenomenon Creature Features and last year’s wildly popular Remembering Playland At The Beach, about the now-gone San Francisco beach-side amusement park, it wasn’t hard for Wyrsch to decide on what subject to tackle next.
Several years ago, the late Bob Wilkins, former host of Creature Features, had given Wyrsch a treasure trove of one-of-a-kind 16mm footage taken for his show at a series of Star Trek and sci-fi conventions, showing a great array of fans, their handmade costumes, and of course, the many special guests and celebrities who were on hand.
Wyrsch himself had attended some of these events, the larger ones called “Space-Con,” when he was growing up in the Bay Area. “At that time they were a brand new experience,” says Wyrsch. “To go to these conventions was just fabulous. And they definitely left a mark.”
With his fond memories in place and the opportunity to use Wilkins’ rare original footage, Wyrsch decided to interview the people who helped put on the shows, along with those who had attended the conventions as fans, all to help share the feeling of what it was like back then, which the film does very effectively.
“My approach to making documentaries is to really do two things: First, I want to take people back who actually experienced it. The other part is, I want to be able to take people there who never had a chance to go because they either weren’t in the area or they were too young,” says Wyrsch.
One of the great things about Back To Space-Con is seeing all the homespun costumes that fans wore — this was before the Star Trek movies started being made, and for some of the conventions included here, just before and at the beginning of the Star Wars (1977) phenomenon. There were virtually no official costumes or merchandise, and many of the people interviewed remark how wonderful it was to see such creativity and excitement in their fellow fans.
“[Space-Cons] were fan-based conventions that really did not have anything to do with the industry. They were the fans putting on shows for each other,” says Wyrsch. “In the film you can see how they are the grassroots movement of conventions that led to the ones we have today.”
Wyrsch is grateful to have been able to use so much original film footage, and he hopes viewers will appreciate how rare it is that material like this has survived all this time.
“What the younger generation doesn’t know was that it was very difficult and very expensive to go out in the field and do an interview or to film indoors because of lighting and the old cameras,” he explains. “With video and all the high-tech electronics and computers you can put in the camera [today], you don’t have to worry about that stuff anymore. But back then, it was tough, and with a lot of interviews they would go out and do them and then throw the film away because there was no use to it anymore and it took up a lot of storage space. Bob [Wilkins] kept this, and he kept part of history.”
Wyrsch will be on hand at a special Back to Space-Con premiere event at the Balboa Theater, along with former Chronicle writer and Creature Features host John Stanley, and Ernie Fosselius, the man behind the Star Wars spoof Hardware Wars (1978).
“I think people get to see the simplicity that was there in the seventies, it wasn’t so regimented like they are nowadays,” says Wyrsch. “And people love that.”
BACK TO SPACE-CON
Thurs/14, 7 p.m., $10
3630 Balboa, SF