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Adventures in the Scream Trade

by Mark Burger

Big Brother is watching you, and he’s got a lot of “little brothers” just to be sure.

Welcome to the world of Eyeborgs, an independent science-fiction thriller currently being filmed in Winston-Salem.

Set in the near future, the film depicts an America that has withstood another terrorist attack, not unlike 9-11. In response, the government has instituted a new security program designed to stop terrorism and crime.

These would be the Eyeborgs: High-tech surveillance robots with unique – and often lethal – capabilities designed to thwart criminals.

But something’s not quite right with the Eyeborgs. Little glitches in the system are suddenly becoming big glitches… and people are getting killed as a result.

Has the system malfunctioned?

“That’s very possible,” said a poker-faced Richard Clabaugh, the director, co-writer and one of the producers of the film.

Or, perhaps, has someone reprogrammed the system for their own nefarious gain?

“That’s very possible,” Clabaugh repeated. Far be it for him to give too much away. He just wrote the thing, after all.

Beyond the “killer robot” hook, Clabaugh and his wife, co-writer Fran, wanted to incorporate a bit of contemporary allegory. The fantasy genre is an ideal one in which to make, if not a statement, then an observation about the real world around us. Think HG Wells or Phillip K. Dick or “Star Trek” – all of which, incidentally, are sacred names in the Clabaugh household. (One can talk for hours about the finer points of “Star Trek” with Clabaugh.)

Eyeborgs stars Adrian Paul as Robert “Gunner” Reynolds, a hard-bitten Department of Homeland Security operative who was one of the instigators of the Eyeborgs program. Megan Blake, a former Miss Georgia, plays Barbara Hawkins, a hard-driving TV newscaster. And Luke Eberl plays Jarrett Hewes, a disaffected punk rocker (replete with purple hair) who also happens to be the nephew of the president of the United States.

On the eve of a presidential debate – in Winston-Salem, if you can dig it – these three people are united in a common resolve to stop the Eyeborgs. Unless, of course, the Eyeborgs stop them first.

Eyeborgs is the first feature film produced by Crimson Wolf Productions, which is based in North Carolina. Richard and Fran Clabaugh are among the founders of the company, which also include John S. Rushton, executive in charge of development and producer; Charles Peller, vice president and executive producer; and his wife Melissa.

Crimson Wolf was founded to make low- and medium-budget feature films in North Carolina and to utilize the many film technicians who have decided to remain in the region rather than relocate to California and New York.

As a faculty member at the School of Filmmaking in the NC School of the Arts, Richard Clabaugh has seen many a graduate decamp for the ostensibly greener pastures of Hollywood.

But he always intended Eyeborgs to be made here, and despite a few false starts and a couple setbacks, he and his partners at Crimson Wolf never lost hope.

“When you’ve made the movie a hundred times in your head, it really is something to see it actually happening right in front of you,” Clabaugh said. “After talking about it so much for so long, it’s almost unbelievable.”

Having known Clabaugh for so long, I too have been in on Eyeborgs since its inception. I was an early investor in the project, but am no longer.

[Given how freely we’ve discussed the project over the years, Clabaugh and company granted me – and, therefore, YES! Weekly – unlimited access to the set, a privilege afforded no other publication.

I was permitted to watch every detail of set-up and shooting, to chat freely with cast and crew, and even to watch video playback and the dailies if I so wanted. The only caveat: Don’t get in the way. Grateful for their trust in me, I wouldn’t have.]

I have even cast in the movie as an extra, donning the same jacket and tie three days in a row to play a DHS agent. [(The government must really be desperate for a few good men!)]

While working on the script for Eyeborgs, the Clabaughs have envisioned certain actors in the leading role of the heroic Gunner Reynolds, and Adrian Paul is at the top of their wish list.

Best known for his starring role as Duncan MacLeod on the “Highlander” television series, Paul previously worked with Clabaugh on the feature film Little Chicago, which Clabaugh directed and which featured Paul in a pivotal cameo role.

He’ll be absolutely perfect for the lead in Eyeborgs, Clabaugh keeps repeating.

And then the project goes forward.

There’s a problem though; Paul is currently working on a film in England.

While an offer is made to Paul, the decision is made to begin the film on schedule – but without a leading man. As it transpires, and much to the relief of all concerned, Paul accepts the part and will arrive on the set a few days into principal photography.

They simply shoot around him, a common practice in moviemaking when an actor is unavailable for part of the time.

Midway through the shoot, however, he’ll return to England and complete his work on the film he’s making there, a political thriller called The Heavy, in which he co-stars with Stephen Rea, Jean Marsh and Christopher Lee. Then he’ll return to Winston-Salem and finish his work on Eyeborgs.

Juggling two (or more) projects at once is nothing new in filmmaking, but “this is the first time I’ve ever done it,” Paul admits. “It’s a little like switching hats, but if you do a lot of prep-work, it’s easy to go back and determine for yourself: These are the parameters.”

On the surface, there’s not much in common between Eyeborgs and The Heavy, but Paul does respond to the political subtext of both projects.

“In The Heavy I play a quintessential English character and in this I play a quintessential American character – and I like that.”

Despite his popularity on “Highlander,” Paul admits that he’s not necessarily a fantasy aficionado.

“I liked the script,” he says of Eyeborgs. “I was pleasantly surprised.”

“[Gunner] has an arc,” Paul says. “His core of beliefs changes, from being very linear and one way, to seeing things in a totally different way.”

Having worked previously with Clabaugh, there is a bit of shorthand between the two. “I think it’s all about collaboration,” says Paul, “and at this [fast] pace, I think you have to get ideas from everyone.”

Clabaugh would be the first to agree.

“He brings a lot of ideas to the set – all of them good,” he says. “He’s wonderful. He’s collaborative. He’s a determined and creative fellow, and I like that. And, when the pressure mounts, he keeps his cool and keeps on going.”

The political allegory of Eyeborgs is one of the elements that attracted Eberl to the role of Jarrett Hewes. Another was that he’s a friend.

Eberl was all of 10 years old when he first worked with Clabaugh on the 1999 Dean Koontz adaptation Phantoms, on which Clabaugh was the cinematographer. The two have long wanted to work together again. All it took was Eberl dyeing his hair purple.

Eberl thinks fast, talks fast and radiates energy and enthusiasm. In every way a team player, Eberl often comes to the set even when he’s not on call – simply to soak up the atmosphere.

During one lunch break, he and Clabaugh engage in an animated conversation that encompasses such diverse topics as “South Park,” Vice President Dick Cheney, the terrorist mentality and various points about Eberl’s character in Eyeborgs. A number of times, Eberl will literally finish Clabaugh’s sentence. “Do you have any idea,” Clabaugh says later, “how an actor like Luke spoils a director?”

Although the character of Jarrett Hewes is very apolitical, Eberl is just the opposite. “I’m very, very political – which is one of the reasons I liked this. I think it’s socially relevant.”

Eyeborgs – socially relevant?

“Yes, it’s got killer robots and a lot of action,” Eberl confirms with a laugh, “but it’s also got a story that’s about something.”

“It’s definitely about people,” says Blake. “My character has a lot of pain, and she’s driven by that. There’s more to her than when you first meet her. Richard wrote this role for me, which is flattering – and a big responsibility. I have to bring her to life.”

Eberl is coming off a small but pivotal role as an American POW in Clint Eastwood’s Letters from Iwo Jima, which earned four Academy Award nominations including Best Picture and Best Director, and won the Oscar for Sound Editing.

“That a film I was in was up for Best Picture blows my mind,” Eberl says. “When they announced it, I couldn’t help but think ‘That’s my movie – and it’s up for Best Picture!’

“I loved working on it,” Eberl says. “As far as quality, that was the best film I’ve ever been a part of.”

In a further display of his career ambition, Eberl has written, produced and directed his first feature film, Choose Connor, which screened at CineVegas earlier this month. Eberl describes it as a drama but also has elements of a psychological thriller and a dark satire.

“It runs the gamut,” he boasts. “Some people have absolutely loved it, and some have hated it. If people love hating it, that’s fine. If it gets a reaction out of people, that’s the desired effect.”

The Park Building in downtown Winston-Salem doubles for the area branch of the Department of Homeland Security, and is also the setting for one of the film’s major set pieces: A spectacular six-floor fall by stunt coordinator (and fellow school of the arts faculty member) Dale Anthony Girard. It is unquestionably the money shot.

Even before the scene is shot, Clabaugh confers closely with Girard and members of the stunt team. The goal is to make it spectacular and to make it safe – and not necessarily in that order.

Girard, looking all the world like Charles Manson’s bastard offspring with his long beard, straggly hair extensions and facial contusions, is also playing the role of Sankur, a political dissident initially suspected of terrorism. As it transpires, however, he will meet his end thanks to the Eyeborgs.

Girard jokingly explains the contusions. “I tell Richard we need more time and he hits me.”

“No, I was the one who hit you,” corrects Kyger, sitting nearby. Actually, the scars and wounds are the handiwork of makeup artist Pat Mueller, who can frequently be found just out of shot, a smile on her face and a large syringe of stage blood in her hand. She likes being in the thick of things and right there in the moment – “where the action is,” she says.

There’s plenty of it in Eyeborgs. In addition to Girard’s fatal plunge, there are gunfights, explosions and dismemberments… as well as quite a few demolished Eyeborgs. It’s a safe bet that not every character in the film will emerge in one piece.

Juan-Carlos Guzman (or “J-C”) plays the role of Eric, Barbara’s wisecracking cameraman. He too is initially skeptical of an Eyeborg conspiracy – until he learns the hard way how real it is.

“There’s so much that’s serious going on, and Eric’s kind of the escape hatch,” Guzman says. “He’s full of energy and he’s a note of positivity.”

Guzman, who recently completed work on Death Sentence with Kevin Bacon and David R. Ellis’ Asylum, was one of several actors cast at the eleventh hour. Cathy Shields, who plays another TV reporter, was cast the day before her scenes were to be shot – making her feature film debut with 24 hours’ notice.

“We’ve lucked out,” Clabaugh confides during one of the set-ups. “Looking at the people we’ve gotten [at the last minute], we couldn’t have done better. J-C’s unbelievable. He and Megan had never met, much less worked together before, and they immediately established a rapport.”

Rushton, who cast Shields after working with her in the theater, isn’t quite as surprised. As an actor and teacher himself, he knows a lot of the talent in the area.

“There are a lot of good people in the area – actors and technicians both,” he says. “That’s one of the main reasons we want to make movies here, this incredible resource. We’d be foolish not to take advantage of it.”

The producers admit there have been entreaties from a number of companies to co-finance or co-produce the film, but this would have entitled these potential partners to possibly call the shots – like who would be in the film, where it would be shot, and how it would be edited.

Just imagine… Pauly Shore in Eyeborgs. Corey Feldman in Eyeborgs. Ron Jeremy in Eyeborgs. Paris Hilton in Eyeborgs.

“We thought of all of them, actually,” jokes Rushton. “None of them would work with me.”

Thanks but no thanks.

The folks at Crimson Wolf were adamant: They wanted to make the film in the Piedmont Triad and utilize the skills of industry professionals in the region – to do it their way, on their terms. That’s why they waited until all the pieces were in place, and they’re glad they did. Almost all of the films’ investors are from the area, and many have been a part of the project since the very beginning, more than two years ago.

“That’s as gratifying as anything else – that the investors stuck with us,” Peller says. “They shared our enthusiasm for the project. This is really a story of tenacity.”

“As frustrated as we’d sometimes get that we couldn’t make it right then, we also knew that this was a bonus,” Rushton says. “We now had more time to prepare. It wasn’t time idly spent, or spent moping. As it turns out, it was exactly what we needed.”

Fran Clabaugh puts it more succinctly: “Timing is everything.”

The creation of the Eyeborgs themselves is left to Michael Mayer, another school of the arts faculty member, who has worked closely with Clabaugh to design the physical prototypes. Although the film will feature a significant amount of computer-generated imagery, Clabaugh did not want to rely entirely on it.

Therefore, several days during shooting, Mayer is on set, polishing the practical Eyeborgs for use, making them look simultaneously high-tech and menacing. One crew member even brandishes a bandaged finger.

“They bite,” he says.

Like many involved with the project, Mayer has been in on Eyeborgs since the beginning, so when word came that that filming was a go, he went to work. Some of the Eyeborgs are small and some are large. Some have blinking lights and movable arms. Some don’t move at all. Some of the larger models are motorized and, what’s more, fuel efficient.

“Yes, definitely,” confirms Mayer as he demonstrated one. “It runs on air. We could be looking at the future of eco-friendly transportation.” And, from the looks of them, they’d make great stocking stuffers, too.

“Don’t think we haven’t thought of the marketing possibilities,” Clabaugh says.

Eyeborgs is Clabaugh’s third feature film as a director, having helmed the giant-snake opus Python shortly before coming to teach at the school of the arts, and then Little Chicago in 2003. Prior to that, he had been the cinematographer on such films as The Prophecy with Christopher Walken and two installments of the Children of the Corn franchise, as well as the aforementioned Phantoms.

As for Python – “you’re not going to write about Python, are you?” asks Rushton – it falls somewhere between spoof and straight-out horror, but has amassed enough of a following to remain a staple of cable TV and to have spawned a number of sequels and knockoffs, none of which Clabaugh was involved with. Fine with him.

“I don’t want Python to be the epitaph on my tombstone,” he jokes. He’s as happy to talk about what doesn’t work in the film as was does. He’s loath to criticize – or even watch – the sequels.

That’s okay.

He reasons, “I didn’t make them. You can only blame me for the first one!”

Don’t worry, his students have.

The crew of Eyeborgs reads like a Who’s Who of the NCSA School of Filmmaking, encompassing faculty members (line producer Steven Jones, editor Steven Gonzales and stunt coordinator Girard), graduates (cinematographer Kenny Wilson and first assistant director Scott Kyger) and a handful of current students, who decided to forgo summer vacation for a working vacation.

The faculty members and graduates already have filmmaking experience, and now the current students are getting their opportunity to put it to use in North Carolina.

On the set, the crew moves quickly but not hastily. Time is almost always a consideration, but getting things right – or as close to right as possible – is an even more pressing consideration. On some days, they beat the clock and get everything they need, sometimes with time to spare and sometimes at the last second.

Sometimes time wins out and some scenes have to be filmed later. So far Eyeborgs has been fairly close to target. The film had an initial shooting schedule of 25 days, which has since expanded). That may not be altogether luxurious, but it’s roomier than many independent productions.

Last summer, for example, Clabaugh was the cinematographer on Fall Down Dead, a horror thriller shot in Winston-Salem that had a schedule of 15 days. That film cost almost as much as Eyeborgs and featured a high-profile cast including Dominique Swain, Udo Kier and David Carradine.

The mood on the set is light but never lazy. Regardless of age, the crew members are treated as professionals and they know what’s expected of them. But if the idle chitchat gets a little too boisterous, there is the booming voice of Kyger admonishing them to keep things to a dull roar. When Kryger roars, things get quiet in a hurry.

Cinematographer Wilson was the first student Clabaugh mentored when he began teaching at the school of filmmaking in 1998. Since graduating in 2000 Wilson has worked on numerous projects both in and out of state, including fellow alum David Gordon Green’s George Washington, All the Real Girls and Undertow. His debut as a producer, From Bubba With Love, was recently filmed in North Carolina and Virginia.

Undoubtedly, Clabaugh’s mentoring left some kind of impression, yes?

With a wry smile, Wilson plays it perfectly straight.

“I forgot all of it, anyway,” he says. “All I really remember are the red shirts.”

Ah, yes. Richard Clabaugh’s red shirts. It was only a matter of time before this issue was addressed.

Clabaugh’s friends and acquaintances have never seen him wearing a shirt any other color. Once, when playing a role on stage, he was required to wear a black shirt… so of course he wore a red one underneath.

Students in his class and members of his crew have often joked that they’ll somehow arrange for everyone to wear a red shirt on a specific day – just to get a rise out of him.

Some theorize that Clabaugh’s affection for “Star Trek” colors his wardrobe. After all, red was the color of the engineering crew – those (like James Doohan’s immortal Mr. Scott) with a knack for techno-wizardry. That would certainly apply to Clabaugh.

Or, perhaps it’s his affinity for the character of Superman, who wears a resplendent red cape.

Maybe it stems from his days as a cinematographer, so he’d stick out in a crowd – or on a crew. There are many Hollywood anecdotes about stars that personally selected or suggested their cinematographers, since they’re the ones whose job it is to make the star look good.

Needless to say, with so many theories floating about, I asked him about it once.

Just once.

“I like the color red,” he said simply, promptly resuming his margarita.

Years later, Clabaugh said he didn’t remember saying that. Must have been the margarita talking.

[If over the next few weeks you happen to be in Winston-Salem and see what appears to be a movie shoot, and there’s a guy in a red shirt who looks as if he’s directing things, you can be pretty sure it’s Richard Clabaugh. Tell him you read about him in YES! Weekly. Who knows? Maybe he’ll see red.

Maybe he’ll cast you as an extra – like he did me, for the big sequence at the Park Building where Girard does his high dive.]

This is my second stint as an extra. A decade ago, as a reporter in South Florida, I appeared in a supermarket scene for a film called Raging Hormones, which seems to have vanished in the interim[, although my appearance (hopefully) had nothing to do with that].

Something tells me that Eyeborgs is going to turn out better and be seen by a lot more people[, but Laurence Olivier I am not. (“Laurence Oblivion” is more like it.)]

After five days of shooting at the Park Building, the move to the next principal location is only a few blocks. The Millennium Center is where the presidential debate is scheduled to take place, and it is here that heroes and Eyeborgs will square off in the climactic battle.

Upstairs there’s a wedding reception. Not an uncommon event at the Millennium Center, to be sure. Little do the bride and groom realize that the future of mankind may be at stake right beneath their dancing feet.

Downstairs, Paul and a team of stuntmen – clad in DHS regalia and brandishing automatic weapons – blast away at the rampaging Eyeborgs, which will digitially be added later.

Out of deference for the reception upstairs, the filmmakers aren’t supposed to start firing weapons until after 6 p.m., but the music from the reception upstairs is so loud that the microphones pick it up – which will necessitate some sound looping in post-production.

Even after the guns start blazing, you can’t mistake the cheerful salsa music drifting downstairs.

Hell, what’s a wedding reception without a little gunfire?

The space in the Millennium Center is so large that Clabaugh is able to direct an entire sequence on one side of the room, while the second unit films stunts on the other. Clabaugh is able to check setups for both units by walking about 20 feet from one to the other.

And then the shooting starts – in both senses of the word.

To say that Clabaugh is a pacifist would be an understatement. He detests real violence, but reel violence is another story altogether.

“I love gunplay,” he says. “If you don’t get it right the first time, you simply dust ’em off and do it again. And at the end of the day everybody gets up and goes home.”

On playback, the gunfights are appropriately loud and gritty – even without the Eyeborgs present. Girard’s Park Building fall is white-knuckle scary even with the safety wires plainly visible. Those too will be digitally erased in post-production.

It looks so good, jokes Fran Clabaugh, “that people will probably think the whole scene was done with CGI.”

Indeed it wasn’t. Girard took the plunge himself – several times.

This is only the first of what Crimson Wolf hopes to be an entire lineup of low- to medium-budgeted films that will be produced in Winston-Salem and the surrounding area.

“It takes a combination of local resources and the cooperation of the community and businesses in the community,” Peller says. “To get that cooperation is something we don’t take lightly. We appreciate it, and we want it to continue and grow. We have ideas. We’re funded and happening. We’re here to stay.”

As filming continues, Fran Clabaugh edits the footage and adds temp music. The old adage “It looks like a real movie!” comes up time and again.

“I just hope it’ll play,” Clabaugh said.

“I think it will,” Fran said.

After all, it’s got killer robots, political subtext and automatic weapons.

You almost wonder how Hollywood didn’t think of it.

Of course, if Eyeborgs hits, Hollywood will.

Mark Burger is an award-winning film critic and former arts reporter at the Winston-Salem Journal. He can currently be heard on the “Two Guys Named Chris” radio show weekday mornings on Rock 92 FM. To comment on this story, e-mail him at marksburger@yahoo.com.

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