Posted on Monday, May 2nd, 2016 by Blake Harris
In 1970, an L.A.-born artist who went by the name “Metrov” moved to New York City. He began the decade working as a designer for the famed Push Pin Studios and then eventually made a name for himself as a fine arts painter, working out of a loft studio across the street from Andy Warhol’s Factory.
In 1979, inspired by a friend and guerilla filmmaker, Metrov came up with an idea for a low-budget, high-concept movie he wanted to direct: Solarbabies. This is a story about what happened next—how it was sold to Mel Brooks, how it was directed by a choreographer—and why, by the time Solarbabies was finally shot, its creator was no longer involved in his creation.
Solarbabies Oral History
How Did This Get Made is a companion to the podcast How Did This Get Made with Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael which focuses on movies This regular feature is written by Blake J. Harris, who you might know as the writer of the book Console Wars, soon to be a motion picture produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. You can listen to the Solarbabies edition of the HDTGM podcast here.
Synopsis: In a sun-scorched post-apocalyptic world, a group of orphans spend their time playing games and defying the tyrannical “Protectorate.” When one of the orphans discovers a strange sphere, it leads to an all-out struggle between good and evil.
Tagline: Who Will Rule the Future?
Metrov: I was called in and Mel explained to me that the script was a piece of shit. He was ready to drop the project. So, in the hopes of keeping Solarbabies alive, I suggested that he give me a chance to write the next draft. Mel looked at me and, in a very soft voice, he said, “Okay…go ahead and write it.” And then, screaming at the top of his lungs, he said, “I GUARENTEE IT’LL END UP IN THE GODDAMN CONFETTI MACHINE IN FIVE MINUTES.”
CUT TO: A few years earlier…
Part 1: A Little Rascals of the Future
Blake Harris: If I understand correctly, the whole idea for Solarbabies began with you. Though, at the time, you weren’t even in the film business. You were a fine artist living in Manhattan. So how did this all start?
Metrov: Well, I had actually gone to film school at UCLA, but I didn’t go down that path was because I had no idea how to raise millions of dollars to make a movie. Then I became friends with Abel Ferrara. Do you know Abel? He’s made a bunch of underground classics. One of them was this crazy movie called Driller Killer, which I watched him make for under $100,000. So I sort of learned the guerilla filmmaking process and that you didn’t need millions of dollars to make a feature film. So that’s when I came up with the idea for Solarbabies.
Blake Harris: And tell me more about that original idea.
Metrov: Sure. I was very influenced by George Lucas and Spielberg at the time. I especially liked Lucas’ first film THX 1138, which had this sort of all-white motif. So Solarbabies, visually, the design was modeled after THX 1138; the kids wore all white, they were living in this white world set against the desert. It was almost like a Little Rascals of the future.
Blake Harris: [laughter]
Metrov: It was a story about these kids who were very quaint and charming and inventive. They’d sneak out of their orphanage at night and play this game on roller skates with sticks and a ball. And one night, the little kid finds this magical glowing sphere and they learn that they can incorporate it into their game. But then someone steals it from them, so they go on this adventure across the desert in order to retrieve their magical sphere; which, by this point, they’re sort of able to communicate with. And roller-skating was really big at the time—people had started doing it outdoors—so I guess the roller-skating thing was in my head and I came up with this idea of the kids going on an adventure across the desert on roller skates.
Blake Harris: You mentioned these kids were inventive. In what way?
Metrov: Like on their adventure they have to cross a ravine. So how do they do it? They build a giant kite and fly themselves over the water one by one. Or another example: They’d send a mouse up on a balloon to scout ahead for them and indicate which way they should go. These kids, they were always coming up with contraptions. They were inventive. And the world they inhabited was inventive too. Like at one point they come to a place called Tire Town, where everything is made out of old tires—the clothing, the homes, everything. And, like I said, I was very adamant about this THX look. This all sort of white look. I’m not sure how else to describe it except that it was very original, very unique, very charming and sort of quaint.
Blake Harris: So what was the next step for you? Did you write a script?
Metrov: I wrote up a treatment, it was 32 pages long and included pencil drawings. Then around 1980, I left Manhattan and moved back to Los Angeles. So I started showing it around—this 32-page treatment—and people found it interesting. One of those people was Walon Green, a sort of legendary writer guy who was famous for writing The Wild Bunch. Walon liked the treatment and he said, “It’s funny, I just got a call from this producer named Mark Johnson.” A few years later, Mark went on to win the Academy Award for producing Rain Man, but at the time he hadn’t produced anything yet. He was just a kid starting out—he’d recently worked as an assistant director to Mel Brooks—and even though he thought my treatment was interesting, he didn’t really know what to do with it.
Blake Harris: I imagine part of that had to do with the fact that you’d never written or directed a film before, right? So even if they liked this idea, they didn’t really have much of an idea what it might look like up on the big screen.
Metrov: Exactly. So eventually I had the idea to present the concept as a computerized slide presentation. In other words, it was a slide show that could run automatically and sync with this music. And this was 1980 or so, computers hadn’t quite hit yet, so no one had ever seen a movie presentation like this before.
Blake Harris: And what did you actually present?
Metrov: So I got a bunch of kids together, dressed them up in costumes, put them on roller skates and took them out to the countryside. Photographed them skating through scenes in the movie. It was sort of a broad strokes sketch of the whole movie concept. And we photographed this on 35mm still film—which was the same resolution as the film stock at that time—so I was able to project this presentation onto a full-size theater screen. I wrote the music for it, another kid did the voiceover narration and we put on this 12-minute long slide show that was quite powerful.