Deth Eternal Part Two (Mania.com)
Date: Thursday, August 08, 2002
The sixth and latest entry in producer Charles Band's long running sci-fi series, TRANCERS, has recently been released on video and DVD. So what better time to take a look back at the career of Jack Deth, the time traveling, tough guy cop who stars in the series? Joining us for this look, courtesy of recent and older interviews with this author, are many of the creative forces who have helped to bring the TRANCERS films to the screen. Today, in part two of our profile, we look at the later films in the TRANCERS pantheon.
"Part of what helped me with TRANCERS 3," writer/director C. Courtney Joyner recalled, "was that Albert [Charles Band's filmmaker father] was so incredibly supportive of me. It was just great to know that I had this kind of surrogate dad sitting nearby, puffing on his pipe, who was this veteran filmmaker, that I could discuss problems with." Ultimately, TRANCERS 3 was a success in video stores, and Full Moon began to explore the idea of doing more with the character.
At its peak, in the early '90s, Full Moon had multiple films in various stages of development and was even exploring moving into the TV arena. "Yeah, there's been a couple of tries to turn TRANCERS into a TV series," recalled Tim Thomerson, the actor who played Jack Deth. "There were these two kids I'd met when I did SLIDERS, they were writers for that show, and they loved the character and they wanted to pitch it to the Sci Fi Channel 'cause they had a relationship with them. I went with them but they just totally blew the pitch. And then Courtney wrote one with Jack and a group of followers wandering a post-apocalyptic desert."
Joyner remembered Band calling him about doing a television version of TRANCERS. "What he was looking at was doing it as a TV series. In fact, he even had a woman on staff at that time, who was in charge of TV development. I wrote a script and it was in the future and the Trancers have won and mankind is underground. You know, a post-apocalyptic thing, which translates as 'cheap to shoot in the desert' in producer speak. Everybody seemed satisfied with it but the deal went south. But in that one, it was actually Jack Deth fighting alongside his own daughter, or I guess his great-granddaughter."
The TV series never panned out, but Thomerson was happy with the third film in the series. "Yeah, I like number three a lot. I like Courtney a lot. I like the way he writes and the way he thinks. I don't know that the budget on that was all that big, but it looks good, doesn't it? It was great that [Helen] Hunt came back and kind of wrapped up her storyline. I mean, she was already big by then and she didn't have to do that. And you had Telma Hopkins back and Megan Ward and Andy Robinson was great. I like that one. It might be the best of them all and they should have followed the ideas that that one set up." But they didn't.
Financial problems were developing for Full Moon and the next two entries in the TRANCERS series were shot in Romania where the company had a small studio and could produce films very inexpensively. To adapt the character to such an alien setting, all the ideas set up in the third film were jettisoned and Jack Deth found himself in a fantasy based, medieval world. In addition, all of the cast, from the earlier films, excepting Thomerson himself, were also dropped. While he was still onboard, Thomerson said that he was none too pleased with the results. "Well, I think four and five are pretty much crap, don't you? I mean, think I did my part. I wore a trench coat while riding a horse and smoking a cigarette in the middle of Robin Hood Land. But it was just a stupid idea. Jack Deth just doesn't work in Robin Hood Land. They just aren't very good films." Directed by David Nutter, who helmed some of THE X-FILES' best episodes, the films were plagued with budgetary problems which Nutter has said were often solved by just tearing pages out of the script, and the films themselves would seem to back up his version of the production.
The next few years saw a continuance of Full Moon's decline. The company lost their deal with Paramount, amidst rumors of dubious money-handling on Band's part, and the only one of their numerous franchises that they managed to keep active was the PUPPETMASTER films, the stars of which couldn't demand salary increases, since they were simply articulated dolls. Eventually, the company sank to turning out micro-budgeted, shot-on-video fare. The Romanian studio was lost, as was their California based Silver Lake studios. The company moved into an old building in a decrepit part of L.A. and then even lost that, soon operating out of small, rental offices. But Band knew he still had three franchises with a following, PUPPETMASTER, SUBSPECIES and TRANCERS, and reasoned that he might be able to raise the money to shoot another entry in one of these series. But, to keep costs within the company's very tight financial limitations, they had to consider making a TRANCERS film with minimal, or no, involvement from series' star Thomerson.
"I think over the years the great-granddaughter and this warrior woman who were in the TV script kind of merged in Charlie's mind," opined writer Joyner, "so that the daughter was the warrior and that really led to the idea for the new film." The idea for TRANCERS 6 was to have Jack Deth be forced to travel back in time in order to save the daughter he never knew he had, and thus be forced to inhabit her body in order to save her from a new Trancers threat. Director Jay Woelfel and his partner, producer Johnnie J. Young, of Young Wolf Productions, came on board to make the film under the Full Moon banner. A friend of both Thomerson and Joyner and an on-again-off-again presence at Full Moon, Woelfel gave his own take on how the idea for entry number six came about. "It was really suggested by an idea in the first film in which Jack's boss, McNulty [played by burly character actor Art LaFleur], is trapped in a young girl's body when he travels into the past." However the idea came about, it still seemed to need at least brief participation from Jack Deth himself, as played by Tim Thomerson, to pull it off.
"Things have been tough at Full Moon since they lost their deal with Paramount a few years ago," said Woelfel, "and I just don't think Charlie could afford Tim. Plus, I think there's some bad will there over some money Tim says Charlie still owes him for some of the earlier films. And I hate to say it, but I wouldn't doubt that it's true." The bad will is rumored to revolve around how Band paid Thomerson for his work on TRANCERS 4 & 5, supposedly utilizing "off-shore dollars," which have U.S. currency value, but can only be spent in the country they were issued in - Romania, in this case. That, coupled with the fact that part six's budget eventually ended up so low that it had to be shot without SAG (Screen Actor's Guild) approval, helped Thomerson make up his mind: "I wasn't dead against playing the part, but it was a non-union gig and I just can't do that."
Woelfel reluctantly chose the only alternative remaining, to utilize some footage from previous TRANCERS films to allow Thomerson's Jack Deth character to at least be glimpsed in the new film, and then move on with the idea of the new Jack Deth a '40s styled cop from the future who is now in a girl's body. Now the question was, who could play such a bizarre role? "It's a tricky part," shared Woelfel. "You've got to be tough, funny, sweet, geeky, and sexy. We probably saw 100 people for the part and only a couple of them offered what we were looking for." One of that "couple" was a diminutive young actress named Zette (short for Elizabeth) Sullivan, an energetic and fearless performer who stands all of five foot tall. "At that time, Full Moon had a reception desk, which was very tall down at the end of this long hallway," recalled Woelfel of his first meeting with his soon to be star. "I saw her standing there and thought she looked so small next to that desk. And as I started walking towards her and got closer, I realized that she just wasn't getting any bigger."
Sullivan herself found that her character came with some unique challenges, saying that, "My character is named Josephine Forrest, or Jo. But that's not really who I'm playing. My character is really Jack Deth. That's one of the trickiest things about the film. It's not just that I'm playing Jack Deth inhabiting the body of his daughter. I'm playing Tim Thomerson playing Jack Deth in the body of his daughter."
Zette was familiar with Full Moon when she landed the part of Jo Forrest. "I love the PUPPETMASTER movies," she said, but she'd never seen a TRANCERS film. "Jay asked me if I wanted to watch a couple of them. Well," she added with a smile, "he wasn't really asking me, he was telling me, but that's Jay's way." She ended up watching all five and became intrigued with both the Jack Deth character and the actor who played him. "I think he's great. I think he's the Marlboro Man, you know, a genuine macho cowboy type, and I think that kind of character is great. I wanted to know who Tim is and who Jack is. I worked on, and really watched, Tim's mannerisms and how he made the character his own. I had to really work at it because it's a man who's not comfortable with being a woman and you can't say, well, a woman would do this, because she might not do that because she's in a man's body now. It was tricky, I'd walk and I'd swing my butt and Jay would say, 'Jack Deth doesn't do that.' And then I'm doing this John Wayne saunter but I'm in a skirt and stockings and I have to be very uncomfortable in that outfit. It wasn't easy."
Praise for Zette's efforts was pretty unanimous from all involved, starting with Woelfel: "She's a good actress. She lowered her voice and took on some of Tim's mannerisms, the way he cocks his head when he says certain lines for instance. I tried to let her go her own way with it and just guide her when I could see that she wasn't quite getting there." Joyner, who wrote TRANCERS 6 under a pseudonym ("Only because it's non-SAG," Joyner explained, "it's not meant as some negative comment on the film) found Zette's efforts equally impressive. "I was on the set a couple of days and she was really giving it all she had. And every once in a while she'd really nail some mannerism of Tim's and it would be really strange coming from this cute little girl. When I met her I told her," Joyner added with a laugh, "'Gee, you're the same size as the last person who played the daughter, but she was eleven years old.'"
As for Thomerson, he was gracious enough to talk to Zette and give her some tips on how to play the role. "He told me to watch Steve McQueen and act just like him, only more pissed off," Sullivan shared. But he hopes TRANCERS 6 won't be the end of his involvement in the series. "I love playing him," the always-busy character actor shared. "I love those kind of characters, you know, the kind of tough guys Jim Thompson and Elmore Leonard and James Ellroy write, and I think it's kind of a tribute to them. Jack's the kind of guy who gets a cigarette, a trench coat and the girl."
Recent years have exposed Thomerson to the fact that there's a huge fan base out there who consider Jack Deth the signature role of the actor's lengthy career. "I didn't even know about it until I did my first convention and some guy came up to me quoting lines from TRANCERS," said Thomerson. "I mean, it's not the world I live in and I didn't even know it was there. But it's great. I love that the character has meant something to some people." Thomerson still hopes that a TRANCERS series might happen, or a larger budgeted film, which might pair him and his daughter up against the evil Trancers, and he thinks the demand is there to do it. "My sister lives in England and she tells me there are TRANCERS parties where everybody gets together and watches them and you have a drink every time I light a cigarette or something. Now, you got to admit, that's pretty cool."
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