As a child, I was always a big fan of the original Twilight Zone television program. True, it had long been off the air by the time I appeared on the scene, but it lived on (and continues to do so) via reruns and various marathons, primarily on the SciFi Channel. I loved the surprise ending and plot twists that characterized many of the episodes. Even today, I still enjoy watching the reruns of this program from time to time, and consider it one of the finest television programs ever produced. Sadly, the formula for this show was lightning in a bottle, because except for the mostly un-even re-launch in the mid-'80s, every re-launched version of this show has completely sucked.
Speaking of the mid-'80s relaunch, I thought this version was great as well (at least, I thought this at the time -- looking back, it doesn't hold up extremely well). Sure, not every episode "knocked it out of the park", but the quality was such that I felt that it lived up to the reputation established by its predecessor. I remember watching this show and enjoying several episodes (the Shadowman episode in particular scared the crap out of me).
Around this same time as I was enjoying this new series, my uncle Stan and his family came to visit my family and my grandparents for Easter. I always enjoyed spending time with my uncle Stan, because to me he was just hilarious and a great person to hang out with (I still feel this way today). Well, little did I know that this trip would make a large mark on my childhood just because of one simple thing: my uncle brought his new camcorder along with him.
Well, let me tell you, I was fascinated by that device. I just thought that it was so cool! The fact that you could record something onto a videotape and replay it again was a wonderful concept to me. I remember marveling when we got our first VCR as a family, being amazed that you could actually tape something off of the TV (the first thing we taped was an episode of I Dream of Jeannie, as I recall). But to own a device where you could actually create the images to be taped? AMAZING! As far as I was concerned, this was the same equipment used to shoot my favorite television series.
Needless to say, I bugged my uncle to no end to let me use the camera. I am sure that I was a complete pest about this issue. Eventually he gave in, and decided to let my brother use the camera. However, he said that he would tape something that we came up with, but we wouldn't be allowed to hold the camera. This seemed like a fair compromise to me. Then, he laid out the bombshell that caught my brother and me off guard: First, we would have to write a script.
We were taken aback at first. A script? Who did this guy think he was? We weren't trying to create "art". We just wanted to tape ourselves acting silly and playing around in the yard. Looking back, he probably just wanted us to get us off of his back and hoped that the task of writing a script would be too much like work for us to actually accomplish the job. Little did he know, we wanted to use that camcorder badly. Heck, if he told us we had to jump off the roof we probably would have done it. Thus, we got right to work on a script.
We weren't sure what we wanted to do at first. Somewhere in our brainstorming session, we knew that we wanted to use the ability of the camera to make things "disappear" by pausing the camera while it was recording some items, moving the items, and finally un-pausing the camcorder to give the illusion that the items vanished. Being big fans of both Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, we had seen this technique used with much success several times, and we wanted to try our hand at this special effect. Unfortunately, we didn't have anybody to pull off the role of Samantha Stevens or Jeannie, so we chose not to go that route. Eventually, we decided that we would do a Twilight Zone episode of our very own. The anthology format of the series supported our concept of the supernatural and removed any nagging requirements for an established actor or actress.
With the television show chosen, we started on the script. For whatever reason, we decided not to use our real names, but instead give our characters the names Butch and Harry. (A little trivia for you: our dog had given birth to puppies recently. I named my favorite puppy Butch, and David named his favorite puppy Harry). Truly, it was a waste of time, since we never use our names throughout the entire "episode". We decided to get our parents in on the act, so we gave them the character roles of Aunt Jean and Uncle John. I don't know why we didn't let them play our parents. I guess we felt like we had to change things to mix it up a little bit. This wasn't Michael and David and their parents in this show: this was an actual cast of characters!
We roughed out the script with the basic premise that these twins kept having the same dream (not the same dream every time, but they would each dream about the same thing). If that isn't enough Twilight Zone creepiness for you, then hold on to your hats. Not only would they both have the same dream, but whatever they both dreamed about would come true! I don't know if this was prophecy, or they were actually controlling the future with their dreams. Just pick which one you think is neatest, and go with that. Whatever you think is the coolest, that is what we were going for. Honest.
During the script writing, we wanted to talk about how the two twins having the same dream was a coincidence. There was only one problem with that: neither of us knew how to spell 'coincidence', and neither of us felt like asking someone or looking it up in the dictionary. Still, our uncle wanted us to write a script, and we had to show him something or we wouldn't be able to use the camcorder. Thus, we opted for the much clunkier phrase "once-in-a-lifetime-thing", a phrase that still turns up often in our conversations as a running joke.
The movie plays out in three acts. Each act begins with some mundane dialogue to force the plot along, when one of the twins announces that they had a dream about something. The other twin responds that they had the same dream, and eventually the dream comes true. In the first dream, the twins dreamed that their aunt stubbed her toe (such high drama!). In the second dream, the twins dream that they get lost in the woods (the horror!). And in the third dream, the twins dream that they both vanish! I feel a case of the vapors coming on, certainly a natural reaction when presented with a scenario filled with such abject TERROR! Scared, kids?
We were quite proud of our script when we finally finished. We had never written anything like it before, and we were both convinced that we were naturals at this. Would Hollywood get wind of this script and option it for an actual Twilight Zone episode? Would a star turn in an actual television series be far behind? And what else could be next but our own series! The sky was the limit.
After approving of the script (I think he read it, anyway), our uncle decided to green-light the episode for filming. Sadly, our father was unavailable, so his character was struck from the picture, and time has taken away my memory as to what his scene entailed. My brother and I were ready to get started at once.
The next demand from our uncle was that we create a title card for the series. Now, this frustrated me a little bit. I wanted to start shooting as soon as possible. "We're burning daylight!" I thought to myself as we grabbed a loose leaf sheet of notebook paper and a permanent black marker. My brother and I hastily jotted down a title card and presented it to our uncle for approval. Denied. Too sloppy, he said. Undeterred, but exponentially more frustrated, we whipped off a slightly neater copy. DENIED. Still too sloppy. This, I am embarrassed to say, resulted in me going off on a crying jag that was unbecoming given my age. I now write it off to my being a misunderstood actor/writer who was fighting for creative control from an uncaring producer. The story is as old as television itself. Seeing that I couldn't be reasoned with, filming started immediately.
It is at this point that I must encourage you to actually watch the episode. Don't worry, it's only four minutes long. I'll wait for you. Go on, watch it! Oh, you're waiting for me to give you the link. Sorry. Here.
Wasn't that great? Of course it was! Now, on to the analysis / commentary.
First, I will admit that the sound quality is less than ideal. OK, it sounds like it was shot underwater in some places. That's what you get when you combine a cheap camcorder with a videotape that is over twenty years old. It also doesn't help that our West Virginia accents were so thick at that age, even Jed Clampett would have asked us to repeat ourselves. But fear not, faithful fans! The transcript for the entire episode can be found below:
Narrator: "The Twilight Zone. Hee-hee-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. Tonight's Story. 'The Dreamers.' By Michael and David. Characters. Butch and Harry. Aunt Jean and Uncle John."
Act One - Aunt Jean Stubs Her Toe
Act Two - Lost in the Woods
Butch: (Where are we?)
Butch(?): "...we don't have
anything to eat!"
Harry: "At last we're out
of those woods!"
Act Three - The Final Dream
Harry: "Let's go sit on our
bikes a while. Think of where we're gonna ride."
Narrator: "They have just entered...The Twilight Zone!"
My uncle was the director and narrator, and I must say he did quite a good job for an amateur, and given what he had to work with. The episode opens appropriately on the title card, followed by the episode information. You will note that the writing is a bit sloppy, but everything is spelled correctly. Seeing it with older eyes, I am glad that my uncle forced us to use the title cards. It gives it that touch of "authenticity" that was so important to me at that age. Next we are introduced to the Dreamers themselves, who have dreamed that their Aunt Jean has stubbed her toe. She then proceeds to stub her toe, shocking the twins into speechlessness, since they never speak to Aunt Jean. Actually, I forgot my line. I was supposed to ask Aunt Jean if she was OK, but ironically I was having a little stage fright now that filming had started in earnest.
The next scene finds our heroes riding their bikes, and then quickly lost in the woods. It is in this scene that a blooper exists. David's character Harry refers to my character Butch as Michael. A clumsy mistake that no doubt lead the larger television studios to overlook this pilot and thus crushing our Hollywood career in its infancy. This scene also includes me doing my best impression of dancing like the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz as I run down the hill, finally free of being lost in the woods.
The final scene did not go off as written. Our uncle / director, after insisting on a script, decided to again wrest creative control and make changes without any advance notice. Originally, our script had the twins disappearing immediately after waking up (cued by our uncle stomping), but I suppose our uncle decided that was not a satisfying resolution to the conflict created in the previous scenes, and decided to stretch the action out a little bit. Admittedly, this was the least fleshed out scene in the episode, as we were getting tired of the scriptwriting process by that point, and had decided to cut to the chase and just make stuff disappear. Thus, we shoe-horned a scene of the twins sleeping while leaning against a tree after being tired from running down a hill.
Our uncle suggested that my brother and I "ad lib" a conversation while walking from the tree to our bicycles, and that we would disappear while sitting on our bicycles. After explaining to us that "ad lib" is another word for "make up on the spot", we came up with the stimulating, thought-provoking, and completely natural dialogue that is contained in the scene. Eventually, we got to sit on our bikes and disappear, and the episode was complete.
Despite all of the issues and drama described in this article, I have fond memories of both the shooting of this film, and the video itself. I know that it is just a goofy little thing that some little kids did, but it will always be a special piece of video to me. Awww... If any Hollywood television or movie producers are reading this, just give me a call. I'm willing to negotiate. All I ask is that I not have to write my own title cards.
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