April 17, 2019

Independent Filmmaking the Fred Olen Ray Way, Part Two: An Interview with Actor Jesse Dabson

Last post I profiled low budget filmmaker Fred Olen Ray and his extremely varied output, from his ‘80s and ‘90s knock-offs of popular sci-fi and action films to his current specialty, Hallmark Channel-style romantic TV movies.

Fred’s early path to success was to take box office-proven sci-fi concepts, enlist veteran name actors on the downswing of their careers, mix in young actors eager to work, and borrow as much as possible from other productions -- sets, props, costumes, etc. -- to keep costs low.

One of those eager young actors was Jesse Dabson, who at the time had just two movies on his resume when he went to work for Ray on Deep Space (1988). Jesse would work again with Ray on Alienator (1990), a Terminator clone featuring an impressive list of veteran actors (Jan-Michael Vincent, John Phillip Law, Robert Clarke, Leo Gordon and Robert Quarry), and a female cyborg terminator played by bodybuilder Teagan Clive.

Jesse Dabson and Dawn Wildsmith in Alienator (1990)
Benny (Jesse Dabson) gets a well-deserved rest after
a long night of battling the Alienator.
In Alienator, Jesse plays Benny, the brainy member of a group of vacationing college kids who, while driving their camper through the woods, accidentally hit a weird drifter (Ross Hagen). They enlist the aid of a park ranger (Law) to get him medical attention, but little do they know that the stranger is an intergalactic fugitive who is being hunted down by a unstoppable, deadly cyborg. When the Alienator shows up to menace the space renegade and his newfound earthling friends, Benny has to grow up fast and find his inner-hero.

Since Alienator, Jesse has appeared in a diverse array of movies and TV. He had a major recurring role in the 1990 TV series Elvis, co-starred with Susan Griffiths in the TV movie Marilyn and Me (1991), and has appeared in such shows as The Golden Girls and Beverly Hills 90210, among others. Most recently, he’s guested in two episodes of Chicago P.D.

In an exclusive Films From Beyond interview, Jesse talks about getting into acting, and his work on the sets of Deep Space and Alienator.

How did you become interested in acting?

I was always a bit of a ham and have one of those personalities that thrives on attention. I can remember as far back as childhood watching Creature Features on WGN in Chicago when we visited my Grandparents and wanting to be in those movies. I did a few plays in High School for something to do; small town Pecatonica Illinois didn't have a lot of diversions. However, it was my Freshman year of college at Knox College the bug bit hard. I was playing football and the ADD kicked in and I auditioned for a play fall term, got cast in the lead and proceeded to do a play every semester for the next 4 years. Of course it was supposed to be training for going to law school because I was majoring in Economics, but I soon picked up Theater as a second major and graduated with a BA in Economics and Theater.

Your first movie credit according to IMDb is The Hanoi Hilton (1987), a drama about U.S. POWs in a North Vietnamese prison camp. How did you get the part? What were the biggest challenges for you on your first movie set?

Actor Jesse Dabson
Jesse Dabson today.
Not only was that the first movie I did, that was the first movie audition I ever had. I met a Casting Director named Perry Bullington who worked at Cannon Films and was a Northwestern Grad. Back in the day there were "showcases" where you could pay a small fee to do a monologue or a scene and the organizers of the showcases would invite Casting Directors to come view them. It was sort of pay for play and has since been discontinued as a practice, but I viewed it as a ticket to get to know "people in the biz" because basically I didn't know anybody in Southern Calforinia except the bartenders and other waiters at the restaurant that I was working in. So Perry sees me in this show case, I don't remember what I did, but he sees on my Resume that I attended Northwestern for Grad school. I must have made an impression on him beyond the resume because the next thing you know I am driving up to Cannon studios and auditioning for this movie. I, of course, don't know the first thing about that whole process, so when it's my turn, I stride into the room, walk around the table, shake Lionel Chetwyn's hand and proceed to do three different versions of the sides, with commentary about the approach to the part blah blah, like I am auditioning for my college professor, wind things up and walk out. Perry comes dashing down the hall yelling "What the hell was that?" And the next day I got a call telling me I got the part. Sometimes its good to not know what you don't know.

You first worked for Fred Olen Ray on Deep Space (1988). How did you get that part?

I met Fred through some friends. He never had any money to do his movies. He shot very fast and was a genius at cobbling crap together and talking people into financing his projects. 1988 I think was the year of the writers strike so there wasn't a whole lot going on and Fred contacted me about making this movie over the course of about 5 days outside of LA near where he was renting a home. Fred always had great cigars, good booze and was a riot to work with so when he called, I went.

Your next role for Fred was in Alienator (1990), as Benny, the brainy member of a group of college kids threatened by the alien-cyborg assassin. At this point in his career, Fred was known for doing low budget knock-offs of sci-fi hits (Alien, The Terminator) with name actors who were in the twilight of their careers. What sorts of things about a Fred Olen Ray production stand out for you, as opposed to the other movie work you have done?

He had as much fun as you can have directing. He shot fast and furious, wasn't afraid to change stuff on the fly. It was all just run and gun and he would let you improvise if you had a decent idea. He was also a very bright guy and knew his film history so he told great stories. During Alienator he was dating or married to Dawn Wildsmith, I believe she was a wiccan at the time and the canyon we shot in was where her Coven met. To this day, I'm not sure we actually had permission.

In Alienator, you worked directly with veteran actors John Phillip Law, Leo Gordon and Ross Hagen. What was that like? Any other members of the cast who were especially fun or interesting to work with?

Teagan Clive as the Alientator (1990)
The Alienator sets the fashion scene ablaze with her no-cost outfit.
John Phillip Law was very funny and I enjoyed his stories about Barbarella. I don't remember a ton about Ross or Leo other than they came and went and were there for a paycheck. Old School. None of us ended up being drinking buddies. I do remember Gary Graver the Cinematographer also shot porn and those were some interesting conversations.

What did you think of the idea of a Terminator knock-off, but featuring a female bodybuilder instead of a male? The Alienator costume is unique to say the least. Did Teagan Clive have fun with the role?

I honestly don't remember Fred telling me what the movie was about when he called me. He said, you want a job? I said sure and the next thing you know we are shooting. I'm not sure Fred ever had the whole thing planned out when he started.

That costume was cobbled together from stuff Fred got for free or borrowed. He was a master at that kind of thing. When Teagan showed up on the set, let's just say she didn't look quite like the bodybuilder picture she submitted and there were some alterations.

What have been your most gratifying roles?

Definitely the first one in the Hanoi Hilton, playing Scotty Moore in Elvis the series and at this stage of game usually the last one I did because I'm happy to still be doing it.

April 11, 2019

Independent Filmmaking the Fred Olen Ray Way: Alienator (Part One)

Poster - Alienator (1990)
Now Playing: Alienator (1990)

Pros: Cast features an intriguing selection of action and horror stars of the past; The concept of a female cyborg assassin is a nice twist.
Cons:Several of the veteran actors are wasted; Too many storylines and character backstories slow down the action.

For over 40 years, Fred Olen Ray has been living the fantasy. A big horror & sci-fi movie fan in his youth, Fred, like many of us boomer “monster kids,” tried making his own movies on 8mm. Then in his early 20s, he landed a gig at a Florida TV station where he discovered an old 16mm camera and some unused film. Scraping together a few hundred bucks with the help of a friend, he made his first feature, The Brain Leeches (1978), featuring a “supreme alien intelligence” made out of tinfoil and manipulated like a puppet, and rubber ants purchased at the local dime store.

Although it was admittedly “dreadful,” the experience of getting a full-length movie in the can inspired him to keep going, and to this day he hasn’t stopped. In the intervening years he’s done it all -- producing, distributing, directing, writing, special effects and makeup, cinematography… you name it.

The range of films he’s directed -- over 150 and counting -- is similarly impressive (although the one constant is that none have been big budget productions). Fred started out in the ‘80s doing very low budget sci-fi, horror and action, gradually moved to softcore comedies in the ‘90s and 2000s (e.g., Girl with the Sex-Ray Eyes, 2007), and today is mainly cranking out made-for-TV romance movies (e.g., A Christmas in Royal Fashion, 2018).

Fred Olen Ray poses with some of his more memorable creations.
Over the years, Fred Olen Ray would get
many more films "in the can." cc
In his book The New Poverty Row: Independent Filmmakers as Distributors (McFarland, 2006), Ray talks frankly about the hard lessons he learned starting out, handing off his films to distributors with questionable ethics and accounting practices, and ending up empty-handed for all his trouble. In one egregious case, after a year out on the theatrical circuit, the distributor of one of Ray’s early films, Scalps (1983), reported back that instead of a payout, the filmmaker owed the distributor $30k (on a film that only cost $15k to make!) (New Poverty Row, p. 179)

After getting burned, Ray decided that he would either work for hire and get paid upfront, or control the distribution rights as much as possible. He would end up doing both under the banner of American Independent Productions, Inc., formed in 1985.

Like his predecessor from the previous generation, King of the B’s Roger Corman, Ray learned how to beg, borrow or steal (make that maximize) resources to keep the cameras rolling and keep costs way, way down. Fred’s women’s-prison-breakout flick set in space, Star Slammer (aka Prison Ship, 1986) is a perfect example:
“As in other films we cannibalized our fellow filmmakers to get this one together. Some costumes came from Metalstorm and Galaxy of Terror; we used Dean Jeffries’ Logan’s Run land rover; the monster from Ted Bohus’ Deadly Spawn was shipped in from New Jersey; and the spaceship footage was culled from several films including TV’s Buck Rogers, Carpenter’s Dark Star, and Battle Beyond the Stars. The picture certainly had a big look for its meager budget, but even after all these intervening years I have yet to see any of my profit participation money. This was yet another lesson in the film distribution game.” (New Poverty Row, pp. 182-83)
Maximizing resources to make pictures quickly and cheaply is one thing, but even the cheapest film needs paying customers to turn a profit (if only to line the pockets of shady distributors). Ray realized from the get-go that in order to make his low-budget films stand out from all the other product out there, he needed recognizable actors to goose the marketing.

Through his work at the TV station, Ray met Buster Crabbe, famous for his portrayal of Flash Gordon in the 1930s serials and for his work in countless westerns in the ‘40s, and enticed him with a decent wad of cash ($2k out of a total budget of around $12k) to appear in The Alien Dead (1980). Even though Crabbe had been out of the limelight for decades (and only worked one day on the set), his participation was a game changer.

In addition to being a plus for a film’s marketing, the ability to secure the services of a “name” actor -- no matter how old or out of the game -- bolstered the filmmaker’s legitimacy in the eyes of potential investors. Ray made the leap very early on and never looked back. His films of the 1980s and ‘90s in particular are a collective who’s who of actors in the downswings of their careers.

Poster - Commando Squad (1987)
Another early lesson was to take popular movie/pop culture trends and mix ‘em up just enough to distinguish your stuff from the rest of the pack. If sexy-women-in-prison is all the rage, mix it up and set in in outer space (Star Slammers). If Arnold Schwarzenegger can wrack up ticket sales as a special forces Commando (1985) going rogue to save a loved one, then bend genders and have ex-Playboy centerfold Kathy Shower lead a Commando Squad (1987) to save her boyfriend. At the same time, keep yourself interested by adding your own quirky style and humor to the mix:
“My feeling has always been that these films have been done before and all you can hope to do is give the audience something a little bit different that makes your tired concept a bit more entertaining. I have always leaned toward an offbeat sense of humor and self-mockery that tries to say ‘Yeah, I know you’ve seen it all before and better, but check this out…,’ and I’ll do something weird or funny.” (New Poverty Row, p. 182)
While not the best or the quirkiest of Fred’s output from the period, Alienator (1990), is a good object lesson from the Ray Film School of Hard Knockoffs. It took a popular title (The Terminator, 1984) and added a unique spin to it. It featured not just one, but a whole gaggle of name actors -- a couple of former matinee idols in Jan-Michael Vincent and John Phillip Law, and several veteran character actors in Robert Clarke, Leo Gordon and Robert Quarry. To top it off, it was released at a time when anticipation was building for the Terminator sequel, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, which hit theaters the next year.

For a low-budget quickie with a 93 minute running time, Alienator is very ambitious, with spaceships, laser cannons, a female bodybuilder dressed like a wild post-apocalyptic punk rocker, and a large mix of veteran and young actors running around in multiple storylines.

Ross Hagen as Kol in Alienator (1990)
Kol channels his inner-Luke Skywalker as he makes his escape.
The main story features Kol (Ross Hagen), a member of a humanoid alien race and rebellion leader who has been captured and sent to a remote prison planet to be executed. While the guards are distracted by the execution of another rebel, Kol manages to break free, steal a ship and crash land it in the woods of a California state park.

The prison commander (played by Jan Michael-Vincent in permanent snarl-mode) unleashes the Alienator (Teagan Clive) to track down and eliminate the fugitive. As a remorseless cyborg, she is programmed to let nothing stand in the way of her objective. Unfortunately, unwitting earthlings in the form of a group of vacationing college students (Jesse Dabson, Dyana Ortelli, Dawn Wildsmith, Richard Wiley), a park ranger (John Phillip Law), an alcoholic country doctor (Robert Quarry), two backwoods good ol’ boys (Fox Harris, Hoke Howell), and an ex-military survivalist (Leo Gordon) all get in her way and are forced to fight for their lives.

All well and good, but the film’s pace suffers as it tries to cram in all the characters and their exposition in between action sequences. As the Alienator lumbers around in pursuit of Kol, we see the comic relief backwoods boys ineptly trying to evade the ranger as they set animal traps on public land; the brainy college kid Benny (Dabson) gets his moment as he exalts about taking part in “man’s greatest historical encounter”; and we even get a bit of history of the tough-as-nails survivalist, Col. Coburn (Gordon) as he distributes his cache of weapons to the survivors of the alien assault.

Ross Hagen and Jesse Dabson in Alienator (1990)
Kol and Benny binge-watch Game of Thrones as they wait
for the Alienator to show up.
And that’s just what’s happening on earth. Yet another storyline, set on the prison station, plays out intermittently even after Kol has made his escape. Veteran B actor Robert Clarke plays Lund, a sort of space-based bureaucrat whose anti-capital punishment views are a thorn in the side of the prison ship commander. The prison side drama is vaguely reminiscent of Star Wars in its space Empire vs. feisty rebels backstory, and it (kind of) gets tied in with the earth-based action in a head-scratching “twist” ending, but it’s tedious nonetheless and could easily be jettisoned.

Ray’s lineup of veteran actors is impressive, but one movie can hardly do justice to all of the characters. Robert Quarry of Count Yorga fame is wasted in little more than a cameo -- he gets a brief scene talking on the telephone, then is promptly set on fire when he encounters the Alienator.

The Alienator herself is either inspired or laughable depending on your taste. The bodybuilder Ray hired for the role, Teagan Clive, is certainly impressive, giving even Schwarzenegger a run for his money in terms of sheer physicality. Her getup is fine (acknowledging that this is a very subjective call) -- it’s both cheesy and formidable-looking, what with the platinum wig, silver half-mask, chrome “hubcaps” covering her chest, and the huge laser weapon she wears on one arm.

Leo Gordon and John Phillip Law in Alienator (1990)
Coburn and Ranger Armstrong practice
skeet shooting with a surplus landmine.
Ray pays tongue-in-cheek homage to the original Terminator, when the cyborg stops in the woods to get her bearings. A doe wanders into the clearing, and at first we subjectively see the Alienator training her bionic crosshairs on the animal. When the digital read-out processes the data and delivers the verdict “non-hostile,” she relaxes. The doe walks over to the cyborg, who reaches out and pets it. I can see Ray smiling over that bit of “Bambi meets Alienator” business.

The Alienator doesn’t really become a proper menace until late in the film, when she confronts Kol and his new earth friends at Col. Coburn’s cabin, and is introduced to good ol’ American firepower in the form of guns, crossbows and even a surplus landmine. Nothing seems to faze her though. In one amusing scene, she pauses with the cyborg-equivalent of a perplexed look, reaches around the back of her head and pulls out a hunting arrow.

Teagan Clive as the Alienator (1990)
"As soon as I finish this assignment I need to turn myself in
for my 50 million mile check-up and an oil change..."
For all its faults, Alienator is still an interesting exercise in low, low budget sci-fi filmmaking, having been made near the cusp of the new era of CGI-driven blockbusters. Jurassic Park was released just a few years later, and its amazing computer-generated dinosaurs would spell extinction for Ray’s brand of low-budget sci-fi thrills. Digital bits and bytes effectively swept away the rented warehouses doubling as spaceship interiors, the borrowed spaceship models, the recycled costumes, and the optical effects and stop-motion creatures that were Ray’s early stock-in-trade.

Fred adeptly pivoted from cheap action pictures to softcore to Hallmark Channel-style romance, and is apparently doing quite well. Along the way, he gave audiences something “a little bit different” for pennies on the dollar. Here at Films From Beyond, where we treasure “different” and “low budget,” we salute him for it.

Coming soon! Don’t miss part two for an exclusive interview with Jesse Dabson, “Benny” from Alienator and a veteran of movies and TV.

Where to find it: Alienator is on Blu-ray or DVD from Shout Factory