With his guerrilla-filmmaking aesthetic and a black book that a “Surreal Life” casting director would kill for (Anna Nicole Smith, Evan Marriott and Christopher Knight are friends/collaborators), Bryan Michael Stoller takes pride in his Roger Corman-esque movies whose end credits read like back issues of “The National Enquirer.”
So when Stoller needed to fill a pivotal role in his latest opus, he simply sent out a request to one of the world’s most recognizable creative artists. By fax.
“We don’t do e-mail. I don’t even think he knows how to use e-mail,” Stoller recently revealed while discussing his mega-famous friend. “It’s all fax.”
And who is Stoller’s technology-impaired comrade? None other than Michael Jackson. Jacko co-stars in Stoller’s B-movie epic, “Miss Cast Away and the Island Girls,” and after two decades of standing by the legendary musician through all of his highs and lows, the director couldn’t be more proud of their friendship.
“What makes it funny is, you have the Pope introducing Michael Jackson,” Stoller marveled over a typically zany scene from his “Airplane!”-like spoof, recently released on DVD after a year or so of festival screenings (and a TV premiere in Russia). “It’s just a silly movie; I didn’t plan on [bringing about] world peace with this film. Here’s Michael Jackson and Eric Roberts and Joe Millionaire in the same film, with quirky special effects.”
“Miss Cast Away” begins with a plane full of beauty contestants crash-landing on a deserted island. Captain Maximus Powers (Roberts) and co-pilot Mike Saunders (Charlie Schlatter, from “Police Academy 7″) have to pacify their curvaceous passengers while avoiding such threats as Jurassic Pork (an enormous prehistoric pig) and a collection of surly apes building an ark that would make Noah proud.
The pop superstar, meanwhile, appears as “Agent M.J.,” a shadowy figure collaborating with the Vatican — right, the Vatican — to manipulate the shipwrecked crew.
“Michael was excited about it because, as most people know, he did a 30-second cameo in ’Men in Black II’ where he wanted to be an agent, and they wouldn’t let him, so that was the joke,” Stoller said of the idea behind Jackson’s sage-like presence, which he describes as an “Obi-Wan Kenobi character.”
To shoot Jackson’s scenes, Stoller was granted rare access to the Neverland Ranch; the eccentricities of the singer, however, presented challenges for which no film school could have prepared his crew.
“It’s his home. It’s all normal to him that there’s a train running around the property tooting its horn,” the director recalled of a noisy interruption that appears among the DVD’s bonus features. “[Another time] his staff brought us soup, so we were sipping soup and talking, and these two elephants walk by outside. Michael’s continuing to sip his soup like a fly flew by, and I turn to Michael and look at him and he’s not even acknowledging the elephants. He looked at me and laughed.
“I didn’t think of it until we were actually shooting; I didn’t anticipate that we were going to shoot somewhere and there was going to be trains and elephants.”
While Jackson’s participation in “Cast Away” may come as a surprise to some, the moonwalker has frequently expressed a flirtation with filmmaking, from a performance in “The Wiz” to his groundbreaking mini-movie video for “Thriller.”
“If you go to one of the buildings in Neverland Ranch, he’s got, like, a miniature Blockbuster; he buys every DVD and VHS copy of every movie that comes out,” Stoller said. “He’s also a huge film buff; he almost wants to make movies more than he wants to make music now.”
During Jackson’s recent trial, Stoller comforted his friend with a screening of a classic.
“His favorite movie is ’To Kill a Mockingbird,’ ” the director said. “He has an actual 35-millimeter print of the movie. We watched it together once and, you know, he was into serious pieces.
“I said to him one day, ’You’re living ’To Kill a Mockingbird’ right now,’ ” Stoller remembered. “It was all about a black man who was on trial. And [both Jackson and the character in the film] were innocent. It was just really weird that that was his favorite film even before these allegations happened. The trial was kind of a modern version of ’To Kill a Mockingbird.'”
When Jackson was acquitted, Stoller once again utilized their preferred means of communication.
“The first thing I did was, I faxed him a piece of paper, and all it had on it was a happy face with a thumbs up,” he remembered.
Stoller and Jackson became friends in the mid-1980s, when the director made a short film spoofing one of the singer’s Pepsi commercials. “Miss Cast Away” marks the duo’s first collaboration after two decades of talking about movies and, according to the director, it’s just the beginning.
“We were sitting in his theater — this was probably ’99 or 2000,” Stoller said. “He handed me this book, ’They Cage the Animals at Night,’ and said he’d been wanting to turn it into a movie and thought I’d be the perfect co-director for it.
“I submitted the book to Mel Gibson’s Icon Productions, and Gibson actually liked the book a lot,” he continued, saying that the threesome almost made the film in 2002. “I spoke with Mel and he wanted to meet Michael. They had never met personally; I set up a meeting between the three of us. It was pretty interesting: Here I am, a country boy from Canada, introducing Mel Gibson to Michael Jackson. We sat for three hours.”
Although Gibson’s company has since severed ties with the project, Jackson recently informed Stoller that he intends to make the film now that the trial is behind him.
“It’s a true story of [’Cage’ author Jennings Michael Burch] in the late ’40s, growing up in orphanages, and how rough a time he had. He had no real friends — all he had was stuffed animals. Michael really relates to it because Michael feels that he grew up like an orphan; he wasn’t imprisoned in an orphanage, but he was pretty much imprisoned in hotel rooms by his father, and Michael said he used to stare outside at the kids playing basketball or doing normal kid things.”
Thus, perhaps the most famous pop-culture figure of the last quarter-century and his B-moviemaking partner are currently shopping “Cage” around Hollywood, and have even discussed financing the film independently. With Stoller insisting that he will continue to stand by his controversial friend, there might just be more thumbs-up faxes yet to come. Providing, of course, that they can convince the elephants to stay out of frame.
Check out everything we’ve got on “Miss Cast Away and the Island Girls.”
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