Science Fiction Land tells the true story of how, in the late 1970s, a utopian dreamer named Barry Ira Geller enlisted comics legend Jack Kirby, Planet of the Apes make-up artist John Chambers, and visionary architect Buckminster Fuller to help him create the world's first science-fiction theme park and the largest sci-fi blockbuster of all time, based on Roger Zelazny's novel Lord of Light.
Years after this project collapsed amidst scandal and fraud, Geller learned that his screenplay and Kirby's designs were used by the CIA to rescue American hostages from Iran. Neither Geller nor Kirby has ever received credit for their part in this incredible story.
Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: Your Kickstarter seems to be coming around at exactly the right time.
Judd Ehrlich: Well, it's not exactly an accident; we've been thinking about it for some time. We knew that Argo was coming out, and that this is an interesting story with so much more there that isn't touched on in the film. We wanted to do it before Argo came out, and I'm very happy we did, because we're getting a lot of attention. People – literally around the world – are sending emails and donations. It's really been incredible; it's really turned out well. We're actually on track to make our goal.
CB: As the story goes, this is too strange to be fiction
Ehrlich: Right, yeah, I think the story that we tell is even much stranger. I've heard Argo referred to as stranger than fiction as well, but I think there are so many layers to the true story that it's understandable why it wasn't such a candidate for a Hollywood political thriller. It is really an incredible story with so many layers to it, and we're just trying to weave all of these things together and look at the story from a lot of different angles and perspectives.
CB: What are some of the elements that you are playing up in your documentary that we won't necessarily see in Argo?
Ehrlich: Basically, the project started back in 2000-2001, when researchers working with Errol Morris and Diane Bernard who were researching one of the segments on Morris's TV show First Person; the segment was with Tony Mendez, the CIA expert who Ben Affleck plays in Argo. During that interview, Mendez says he stole a script for Lord of Light and drawings that were done by Jack Kirby to use as a cover.
This piqued Bernard's interest and she wanted to know more about where this came from, so she tracked it back to this guy who was living in LA, Barry Ira Geller, and it turned out that he was the person who put all of this together. He bought the rights to the award-winning Roger Zelazny book Lord of Light, and had gone about trying to make the biggest budget blockbuster sci-fi film of all time in the late 70s. Along the way, the dream grew as he began to bring all of these luminaries on board, Kirby did these incredible drawings and designs for the film and it grew into this vision for a theme park – Science Fiction Land – that was going to be larger than Disneyland, larger than any theme park in the world. It was a massive dream on a massive scale, and he got all of these people involved: Kirby, John Chambers, Maurice Stein, Buckminster Fuller, Ray Bradbury.
It was sort of this dream team of sci-fi, futurism, comics, and just imagination. Things really fell apart in dramatic fashion, but they came really quite close to making it a reality.
CB: So it actually did start as an attempt to create a film, it wasn't originally a bizarre attempt to get spies out of Iran?
Ehrlich: No, not at all. The connection between Mendez and the Lord of Light script and Science Fiction Land was John Chambers. Unbeknownst to Barry, to Kirby – we think – and to the rest of the team was the fact that Chambers not only worked in Hollywood and was working for Barry, but at the same time was working as a master of disguise for the CIA, in particular working closely with Mendez. Barry told me that in fact he had a conversation with John just before he died, and after Barry found out about the fact that Tony used the script and the Kirby art and all the work that was done, he had a conversation where John Chambers apparently told him that it was in fact his idea to do this.
We know that John basically gave Tony everything and he agreed that it would work because this had a kind of Middle Eastern feel; there are things that take place in bazaars and in the desert, giving it a plausible cover. They had this really dense, incredible script to take, and they had all of these incredible designs to take as well. This became the portfolio. I believe that this is part of the reason the mission was successful; they had such an incredible, realistic looking cover, because this was for a real film, a real project that had been years in the making with a lot of money behind it.
In the movie, you're not going to see any of that, you're not going to hear about Lord of Light, about Science Fiction Land, about Barry, about Jack Kirby. Essentially, the way they present it is that Tony comes up with the idea and they just sort of whip up some storyboards quickly – not in a Kirby style – while Michael Parks is strangely credited as Jack Kirby, but never referred to him in the film. He is on the screen for a split-second, and in that scene, he is working directly with the CIA, which, as far as we know, was never the case.
Kirby worked with Barry, quite closely, in developing the plans for Lord of Light and Science Fiction Land, the grand designs of what the theme park would look like. It's a big focus of our film and has been since the start, and it's not in Argo.
It's interesting because the theme has always been about these masks that people wear, both literally and figuratively, and the myth-making of Hollywood or espionage. Even someone like Barry is almost chameleon-like, as he's worn so many different hats in his life and been, in essence, so many different people. To get all of these people to believe in his project, he had to wear the disguise of a big time Hollywood producer, with all the necessary pieces. He rented a house in Hollywood Hills when before that he was living in a basement apartment; there were a lot of instances of people playing roles in this story, which are echoed in the world of comics with secret identities and superheroes – certainly that's Jack Kirby's trade.
Everybody is sort of dealing in that world, with Tony Mendez literally as that master of disguise, and people used these disguises for different purposes in this story. It's very complex and something that the documentary can explore, all of these angles. It's not necessarily neat and clean, definitely not a political thriller, but it's something we're able to really explore, the real events, and try to find some truth. There are so many different vers
ions of the truth and what is real, and that's really what interests me. The fact that everyone is so enamored with disguise, superheroes, science fiction, all of these things, and that it sort of mirrors those fictions in their own lives as they move through the story is really fascinating.
CB: It's interesting on so many levels. On one hand, it's grounded in reality, based on true spy stories, making it interesting on a symbolic level, with characters in masks, and with secret identities. Then there's this whole other layer of trying to create a film and build Science Fiction Land by some very talented creators. I can imagine that you could easily do five hours, even write a full 400 page book for a documentary like this and not even hit everything involved.
Ehrlich: Not even scratch the surface. That's part of the reason why it's been such a long-standing project. I've produced three other films but still have been working on this until now. This was really the time to get it out there, because there's interest in the story.
People have asked if I'm upset that Argo is coming out and that sort of thing. I'm very happy that it's bringing attention to this documentary; we're not a big budget film. We don't have stars associated with us, so it's great to get that kind of attention.
The other interesting part is that it's amazing how it just fits into all of these themes we're talking about in the story, because here, again, is a Hollywood film that is highly dramatized, highly fictionalized, that is purporting to be a true story at many levels. They'll say that naturally there are going to be elements that are fictionalized, but a lot of people are going to view this, especially years from now, as exactly what happened. We've seen that before with Hollywood films, we've seen that with a lot of things.
It's a whole other layer on this tapestry of what is real and what is not. If you create your own mythology, if you say it's real, if people believe it's real, does it become real? Where is that line?
Those themes were very much present before, when Argo wasn't in the picture at all. With Argo here, it sort of fits right into that. It's interesting to have a Hollywood film that is trying to comment on Hollywood in a way, engaging in some of the same things it's trying to comment on, so it gets very complex but very interesting. These are the kind of ideas you can delve into and leave the audience with questions at the end of the film, leave them wanting to know where the truth lies, and that's much more difficult to do in a big budget film
CB: One of my writers and I do a bi-weekly column on documentaries, and we found quite a few that really shake up our view of the world, which I think is really something you can't do in fictionalized drama, even if it's based on reality. I think there's just something about the chaos of real life that makes it quite a bit more compelling.
Ehrlich: It's always been what's attracted me to making documentaries. That's not to say I don't like seeing the big Hollywood films as much as the next person, but if I'm going to create something and put it out in the world, I want it to have an impact on people. I want them to think about something in a new way, feel something they haven't felt before, learn about themselves in a new way; that's important to me.
CB: So, what made you come to this as a subject for a documentary? I know you did a film on the birth of the New York marathon, and I don't know that I could thing of two things more different, you know?
Ehrlich: Well, I think I could draw similarities between all of the films that I've done. With all of them, there have been personal connections of course. I worked in editing before, but the first film I did, I had a connection. I actually used to be in social work, and it was a client I had worked with. I made my transition into film because of it. With Run for Your Life, I was not even a runner, but I was a New Yorker. A friend of mine was Fred Lebow's nephew, we got to talking about the story, and I realized that there was much more to the story than I knew or that I felt that other people knew
It's interesting to think about that film, because it's not so much about the Marathon as it is about Fred. Fred, like Barry, was a real dreamer; he had this goal that people thought was crazy. He wanted to do something, and he had to find a way to get people to believe and invest in it, to dedicate themselves to it. He had to get people to work on it; it's kind of like being a filmmaker too. Barry had to do that as well. It's certainly different in that Fred's dream succeeded and created the biggest sporting event in the world; it started this running craze around the world. When Fred started, people thought that people who ran were nuts, and while he succeeded, Barry's dream sort of went down in flames, unrealized.
In the story there are all of these things that happened, the most notable of course is that the work set in motion by Barry and those working on Science Fiction Land and Lord of Light, the work that was used by Mendez, was part of the reason these six people got out, that they were saved and are alive. Of course, none of them except Chambers could know that this was going to happen, but they put this out in the world and it had incredible unintended consequences on the other side of the globe literally a week after everything was falling apart. When Barry was at his lowest point, something unbelievable was happening with all of the work he'd done and he didn't even know it. It was over 20 years later that he'd find out.
CB: That's so interesting. Why don't we wrap this up with a bit of an elevator pitch. Why would the people who are reading this want to come and contribute to the Kickstarter?
Ehrlich: This is a tough one for the one line pitch
CB: It sure is.
Ehrlich: It always takes so long to explain the story, though it's become easier. I did spend four days at NYCC constantly explaining, but it's become a little bit easier because people are familiar with the story of Argo, so I start with that and they go “oh yeah, that film with Ben Affleck as the CIA guy with that fake science fiction movie.” Then I tell them that it actually doesn't tell the whole story, that there's actually a lot more that's truly fascinating, that the film they use was not fake and was about to be made along with a theme park. And then I tell them that all of these incredible people were associated with it. It is a longer pitch…
CB: I'm sorry for putting you on the spot.
Ehrlich: It's okay. I would say it in this way. With a film like this – this is my fourth film – my first Kickstarter. it's been unbelievable. We have over 500 contributors, we've raised nearly $40,000. I really had no idea what to expect, but I think that it's so fitting for this story that it succeeds through crowdfunding. I think that the ultimate dream everyone had for this film and theme park was that it would create a new consciousness, change the way people think.
For Science Fiction Land, this was going to be a place that would be an incubator for scientists, create new technology, be like an open source type of thing where people would have access to this technology that they only thought about being in science fiction, but it
would be real, not in the hands of corporations, not protected by patents. It was not about making money, but it was about inspiring people. Inspiring people to be the next inventor and to create this kind of stuff. I think it's really fitting that this is getting out there to people who are interested and that they're the ones supporting it, because that's the kind of ideology behind Science Fiction Land.
It's also interesting that we have this other film out there that deals with some of the same things that came out of a different system with millions of dollars and all of these things, and we have none of that. We're just a very small, dedicated, passionate group trying to get these stories told. These things can only be done with other people coming onboard and helping. Crowdfunding is just incredible; I've seen some friends do it before and not only are you raising money for the film, you're also finding all of these people and making connections as people who share an interest in this story around the world. You're building your audience, connections, and friendships, and it's really amazing.
I think it's really fitting that this comes from a sort of ground-up way of funding, considering what the theme park was all about.
I've gotten emails that said “I thought this was a Kickstarter for Science Fiction Land,” and that's what we wanted to do, to make people feel as if Lord of Light was produced as a film and that Science Fiction Land was made, that you can experience it, because for Barry, Jack, and the others, it was very real in their mind. It was very real, and you can only go after a goal like that if you believe 100% in that vision, if it is real for you. Barry could see that, he could see everything. It's very much the same for anyone that's had that big goal, working completely with that focus: they just have to believe that it is real, and he did.
We wanted to make that a reality. We haven't talked about the downfall, but that was really devastating for everyone. There are some questions still surrounding it, and that's another piece we want to delve into.
CB: There are so many facets, it's endlessly intriguing. I'm looking forward to the documentary. I first found out about this in an issue of Jack Kirby Collector. I thought it was a hoax or something, but as we've seen, sometimes truth really is so much stranger. Thanks for speaking with us Judd.
The Kickstarter ends soon, so head on over and help support this incredible documentary. For more information, check out the film's website. You can follow updates on their Facebook page or their Twitter account (@SciFiLandMovie)