A Boom with a View: My Days at The Asylum

I get delayed on my way back from a trip, and I end up being an hour late for my call time on the set of The 18-Year Old Virgin. When I arrive, I see a couple of grips I know from my work on another Asylum movie. I greet them warmly and head inside.

The house where we shoot in that day is a fancy one in a good part of Long Beach. It has an espresso-maker with steamer-wand built into the goddamned wall. When I ask the make-up lady where the sound department is, she says, without a trace of a smile, “In the kitchen, next to the four cups of fake jizz.” It is that kind of movie.

The Asylum is, as far as I know, unique in its business model. They find what movies are likely to be blockbusters, and then shoot cheap knock-off versions to release on DVD, usually on the same day as their big-budget counterparts get released in theaters. Their whole strategy seems predicated on customer confusion. I imagine a harried mother or father going into the video store to get whatever movie their kids have been yammering about and get the wrong one by mistake, Transmorphers instead ofTransformers.

Asylum also has a cult following. I’ve got excited phone calls from film-geek friends who spot me drinking tequila in the background of one of the party scenes.

The story of how I got involved with Asylum is long and not interesting enough to warrant a full re-capping, but a little background will go a long way toward explaining the mindset of the people who work on these films.Sunday School Musical was my first moderate-length gig after graduating film school. I was the boom operator, the guy who holds the furry microphone over the actors’ heads and gets yelled at if it dips into the camera frame. A small measure of skill is involved in boom opping, particularly if you have to compensate for shitty equipment, but at the end of the day my job was to hold a stick.

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Their whole strategy seems predicated on customer confusion. I imagine a harried mother or father going into the video store to get whatever movie their kids have been yammering about and get the wrong one by mistake, Transmorphers instead of Transformers.

Since I happened to own a large guitar amp, I also became the playback supervisor for musical numbers, working from the Producer’s iPod. And I worked with the key grip and best boy whenever I could. In all, I helped out in at least four departments. And I didn’t get paid, not even for my considerable mileage. The Asylum is that kind of studio.

So, after two weeks onSunday School Musical and a one-day gig onDeath Racersfor which I was promised (and never received) twenty dollars—I resolved to part ways with the studio forever. That lasted almost two months.

It’s funny what you’ll do when you keep not getting work. When the middle of August rolled around, and I had twenty dollars in my bank account, it dawned on me that I might have to call my parents and let them know that, no, I still wasn’t famous, and, no, that interview at Starbucks never panned out, and, yes, maybe I should have waited until I had a job job before I moved to Los Angeles. I sprang at the chance to work for what amounted to half minimum wage and a chance to be forever linked on imdb.com with what the Producer told me over the phone was going to be “likeAmerican Pie, but with, like, WAY more nudity."

The first day of shooting went fairly smoothly. I don’t remember messing up too badly, apart from tripping over a power cord and plunging the room into darkness. The scene that day took place in the bedroom, in low light. The Director of Photography and the Director got in a fight. She wanted the lights to be lower, but he explained that the lights were as low as they could be for the camera to function. She, having clearly heard anecdotes where the Director allows the cast and crew their little artistic tantrums by agreeing to do it both ways, insisted that the DP shoot one take “for [her]” with lower light.

I should mention that this discussion of philosophical differences concerned a scene in which an ostensibly comatose octogenarian gets fellated by the eponymous virgin. The elderly actor was perfectly content to stay in bed while the debate between DP and Director raged over him. He fell asleep a number of times throughout the day, an impressive feat considering it was never less than 90 degrees, and people were constantly arguing. The highlight of that day was the medium shot, in which the elderly gentleman and the fellator were both in action. Because the fauxllatio took place under the blanket, the lead actress wasn’t there that day and the up-and-down motion was supplied by the art department, also known as Hilary, a wonderful and talented person who demonstrated her willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty. My notes from that day mention that I had never expected to hear an eighty-year old man fake an orgasm. Cross that off the bucket list.

For lunch, they provided us with the largest burritos I’d ever seen. Because I’d spent the summer on a financially-induced “starvation diet,” I finished the entire thing in under five minutes, prompting one of the actors to call the cast’s and crew’s attention to my gastronomical talents.

“He put that shit down, dude!” he said with an air of genuine awe. “That was sick!

“Yeah, that burrito was good,” another crew member said. “I ate the whole thing.”

“But did you put it down?!” he said.

I had a champion.

My next day of shooting should serve as a warning to any wide-eyed innocent who might make the horrible mistake of going to film school, graduating, and then working for a living.

I spent the entire day in a not-large shower with two other dudes and a giant camera. It is one of the cruel ironies of filmmaking that, while production companies have access to tons of money and expensive equipment, air conditioning noise gets picked up by microphones. Thus every indoor set turns into a sauna. No air conditioning + other people’s body heat + warm equipment + twelve hours in a shower = serious contemplation of throwing in every last towel and moving the hell home. My shower-mates, if memory serves, were Bob the 1st Assistant Cameraman, and Eli, the 2nd Assistant Cameraman. Bob, a respectable 5’8” or 5’10” was the temporary Director of Photography, filling in for the dude from the day before who left in a huff and didn’t return. Eli, like me, was at least 6’4” and seriously hurting for space.

The reason we had to be in the shower was that bathrooms, with their cramped spaces and large mirrors, are a bitch to shoot. There was exactly one angle that would work, and that was inside the shower, where Bob’s, Eli’s, and my man-stinks commingled. Also, I had to lift the boom pole over my head, which meant poor Bob had his sniffer on a level with my doom-pits. Combine that with the fact that I’ve been a lifelong semi-claustrophobe, and you’ll understand why it took me forty minutes, and plenty of breaks, to do the re-living necessary to type these two paragraphs.

The scene we were shooting involved the lead actress, a poor little redhead named Sophie, shaving an enormous merkin (google it) onto the bathroom tile. Since Sophie’s character was a virgin who needed to have sex at this party for some fucking reason, she had to make her vagina look as nice as possible by grooming it for the first time. That morning the Art Department had shoved a tray of what looked like the scalps of four people with bad perms under my nose. “Which looks best?” she asked

 “Um, far left,” I said.

 “They could’ve told me our actress was a redhead before the first day of shooting,” she muttered darkly. “Do you know how hard it is to find ginger pubes?”

Fast-forward to Bob, Eli, and myself in in the shower, with a pantsless Sophie shaving her fake pubes onto the tile. They did a lot of shots and used all of the merkins, the scraps of which blew all around the bathroom floor and got everywhere, but seemed especially attracted to the sweat on my bare legs. Eli, also wearing shorts, suffered in a similar manner. Bob had worn jeans that day, and thus was immune from the pube maelstrom, though he had the class not to gloat. Either that or the layer of hot denim was slowly steaming him to death.

At the end of the day, the bathroom looked (and felt) like a Wookiee sauna. I was not sorry to say goodbye to that house.

After those two scenes, shooting moved to another house in Long Beach, this one belonging to a good friend of the Director. There was a lot more room, and the sound recordist and I staked out a couch and guarded it fiercely for the duration of the shoot. Due to my prior negative experiences on Asylum films (and because I made $64 per 12-hour day), I decided to be a real son of a bitch, not lifting a finger except when we were shooting. Since much of every day is spent adjusting lights and changing camera set-ups, that meant I got to spend a great deal of time reading. Over an 18-day shooting period, I read every Sherlock Holmes story and all of Moby Dick.

I spent a lot of time hanging out with dudes whose duties seemed to fall in a catch-all category. I assumed they were higher-ups for the first couple of days because they were in constant conference with Rachel, the Line Producer. As it turns out, they were even newer to the Asylum that I was, recent college grads who were interning free, just as I had done on Sunday School Musical. They were the kind of scathingly funny, hard-working guys one would expect to quickly rise through the ranks in the film industry. I haven’t kept in contact with them, but their imdb pages show me that most are still in the Asylum-style world, working on the wide periphery of Hollywood.

During down time I also had some conversations with a few of the porn starlets hired to provide the film’s extensive nudity. We were shooting in an upstairs bedroom on a day when it was about 85 degrees out. Because it was a ménage a trois scene set at night, the windows were blacked out and there was a lit fireplace, to make it look sexy. During a break in shooting, one of the starlets and I stepped onto the balcony to escape the Inferno, and so she could have a cigarette. It wasn’t much better outside, as the sun shone directly on us. I held up a light bounce for shade for us both and offered her the only chair.

“You’re such a gentleman,” she cooed. “You remind me of Ron Jeremy.”


“Nicest guy I’ve ever met,” she said. “And that,”here she pointed at me with her cigarette, “is why he gets so much pussy.”

Later, I was standing next to the camera when another starlet approached me.

“Do I get naked now?” she asked.

I was wearing headphones and holding a boom pole. I clearly didn’t make decisions. Further, she’d worked in plenty of “films” before; she knew what my job was.

“Yes,” I told her. “Yes, you do.”

I’m not proud of much in life, but I did enjoy that moment.

After we had shot these scenes: grandpa fellatio, crotch-shaving, and the night-time three-way, both our male and female leads dropped out of the film. They weren’t happy about the level of professionalism. (I don’t know what they expected from a film where the only special effects involved shooting fake semen out of a turkey baster.) The crew was given a day off while the Producers scrambled to replace them. I was jazzed at the prospect of getting paid for more days’ work, until I realized that any re-shoots would involve heading back to the shower, and I almost had a nervous breakdown. To be honest, I can’t remember how we re-shot those scenes; I’m pretty sure my psyche won’t let me.

The new lead actress was bubblier, more attractive, and much funnier. It’s amazing what new casting can do. “Hey, we’re actually making a comedy now,” I heard the Assistant Director say. “This is way better than the movie we were making last week.” The new actress’s name was Olivia, and whenever she saw herself on the Director’s monitor, she waggled her boobs, mesmerized.

She’d starred in a soft-core Cinemax comedy series called “Co-Ed Confidential.” In a weird coincidence, after her first day on set I went home to find my roommates all watching an episode. It was one of Olivia’s scenes, and she was topless and bouncing on top of some guy.

“Hey,” I said. “I saw her naked today.”

“Shut up, Towers,” they said.

As I mentioned briefly, I kept a notebook during my time on set, the rediscovery of which prompted this piece. The following are verbatim excerpts:

Director to actress: “Acknowledge your crotch.”

[Unattributed quote:]“I don’t want to hit her in the face with the coochie sausage.”

The Assistant Director and I have a conversation. He has just spent the morning pulling a fake mouse between a woman’s legs. This is not what we had envisioned for our lives, nor had anyone in college warned us about this.

We delay five hours, waiting for the actress to get up the gumption to show her vagina to eight strangers and untold dozens of eventual DVD viewers. Someone tells her “Strippers do it every day.” This does not help.

Director of photography to naked actress: “You look great…from a lighting perspective.”

It’s 8 in the morning, and while I drink coffee I overhear the make-up girl recommending colon hydrotherapy to the lead actor. I dump my coffee down the sink and exit the room.

Director, regarding a prop: “Can we get some more pubes on the chicken?”

The last day of shooting, we still had an extremely uncomfortable scene to film. It entailed the lead actress donning a strap-on to penetrate a male sexual conquest. They had (understandably) failed to acquire a willing actor when one of the Executive Producers showed up on set.

One of the advantages of being boom operator is that you can surreptitiously listen to private conversations. I rarely abused this power, but that day I was cranky, tired, and curious. I trained my microphone on them and overheard them discussing their casting problem.

“There’s got to be somebody,” the Executive Producer said. “Why don’t you use somebody from the crew?” At that exact instant, both turned and made eye contact with me. I saw the director cock her head thoughtfully and step towards me. I pulled off my earphones, dropped the mic and hid for the next hour.

As I drove home that night, full of No-Doze and one glass of celebratory that’s-a-wrap! champagne, I doubted very much that I would ever see any of those people again. The Asylum’s next film was shooting abroad, and I was not invited. This did not sadden me. However, as I drove on a series of desolate freeways, I remembered a moment from one of the scenes we shot that week.

The whole film was structured around the character’s sexual misadventures with other characters. I remember fondly a prop that Hilary the Art Department made: a dildo rigged with a set of tongs to open and close the meatus, effectively making a penis puppet. I affectionately dubbed it “Hilary’s Ingenious Penis,” and one of the highlights of the shoot was filming a scene in which the main character was hallucinating, and the Assistant Director read the penis’ lines in a French accent. I laughed harder that day than I had in a long time, one of the rare times in which the material we were filming actually seemed funny. The entire crew was laughing, and it created a feeling of companionship, the kind only fleetingly achieved by teams or close friends.

Remembering that now is one of the only things that makes me at all nostalgic. It’s hard to pinpoint whether it’s inspiring or disheartening that all these bright, funny people worked long days in an industry they love but that doesn’t love them back.

Wish them well. 

GRAHAM TOWERS is a gentleman.

James P Blaylock: My Life in the Steam Trade

My attraction to the world of Steampunk is mostly literary, and it’s in a literary sense that I understand it, although I’m happy that it’s manifested itself in fashion, art, technology, and even as a philosophy for living. My own life as a reader, and hence as a literary type, began when I was ten years old and became interested in the books in my mother’s library. It was my first discovery, The Return of Sherlock Holmes, published by McClure, Phillips, and Co., that was the siren song. I had no idea, of course, that Sherlock Holmes had ever left, and so the “Return” in the title meant little. The book itself was the talisman, and it still is: it’s sitting on the desk in front of me right now. The cloth is black, with yellow-gold printing on the spine and blood red printing on the front, with a cover illustration of the dark silhouette of Holmes (actually a Holmes facsimile) sitting placidly beyond mullioned windows in a lamp-lit room, waiting to be shot. The cover is as alluring to me today as it was fifty years ago, and so are the stories inside. I sometimes wonder what would have happened to my literary sensibilities if instead of “The Affair of the Empty House” I’d opened the cover and found a treatise on the economies of northern Europe or a discussion of fifteenth-century Italian fashion. I’d probably have taken up juvenile delinquency.

What actually happened was that my mother, noting the evident effect that the book had on me, began hauling me down to the local library on Beach Blvd. in the neighboring suburb of Stanton on Tuesday afternoons, where I set out to find more books with signifying covers—ideally with the familiar black cloth binding and red or gold lettering.  A cover or frontispiece illustration was preferable, but not vital. I found an H.G. Wells that filled the bill—The First Men in the Moon—and a seafaring book by Howard Pease, and, over the weeks and months that followed, a dozen assorted novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, where I discovered Pellucidar and the mechanical mole: “Then Perry interested me in his invention…” 

My mother suggested that if I liked Wells and seafaring books and lost lands, I might like Jules Verne, and so I came home with 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and The Mysterious Island. By that time the die had been cast: the workings of my mind were already steam-driven, with the occasional octopus or whale or arcane submarine looming into view in the shadows. Not much has changed in that regard over the years.  

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By that time the die had been cast: the workings of my mind were already steam-driven, with the occasional octopus or whale or arcane submarine looming into view in the shadows. Not much has changed in that regard over the years.

(In all this I’m reminded of the sad story of Thomas Chatterton, whose mother instigated, aided, and abetted his enthusiasm for medieval poetry, leading to his early fame as a writer and then—in the face of literary neglect and starvation—to his drinking arsenic in a London garret at the age of 18, his career already washed up.  People find Chatterton’s story endlessly interesting, but I’m convinced that his mother’s story would be equally so, if anyone ever thought to tell it.)

The second Steampunk die, like the infamous other shoe, was cast a couple of years later. I saw two films by Czech director Karel Zemen: The Fabulous World of Jules Verne and The Fabulous Baron Munchhausen—films that are in fact fabulous in nearly every sense of the word: dreamlike, mysterious, and evocative—absolutely quintessential Steampunk in all its squid-and-clockwork glory, and the only two films that I’ve ever set the alarm clock to wake up for. (Back in the day they were often aired at two or three o’clock in the morning.  Maybe they still are.)

By the time I was a student at Cal State Fullerton my aspiration was to be a literary beach bum, which suggested marine biology as a major. I envied Doc’s life in Cannery Row (which had certain Nemoesque qualities about it) and I had read and reread Steinbeck’s descriptions of Western Biological and of the tide pools along the shoreline of Monterey Bay. “That’s the life for me,” I thought, and I set up aquaria full of tidepool creatures, including an octopus the size of your hand, which could devour a dozen hermit crabs in a sitting. I bought a copy of Between Pacific Tides, co-authored by Ed Ricketts, the prototype of Doc in Cannery Row, and Steinbeck’s traveling companion in The Log of the Sea of Cortez. I remember following that up with Gunther Sterba’s Freshwater Fishes of the World, pondering the photos of South American leaf fishes and gobies and freshwater puffers with a strange avidity, not knowing that I was in a very real sense learning my trade, but that it would be a trade that had little to do with marine biology, which turned out (unfairly, I think) to require math classes. I did the sensible thing and changed my major to English, where you were rewarded when you simply made things up. The beach would have to be its own excuse. 

In the following couple of years I developed a broad taste for Victorian literature, and I met Tim Powers, who suggested I read P. G. Wodehouse alongside the Robert Louis Stevenson that I was already stuffing myself with, and out of that, in 1977, came my first Steampunk story, “The Ape-box Affair,” which is devoid of fish, but has an orang-outang in it. (Orang-outang, by the way, is the official Steampunk spelling of the word. Don’t let anybody tell you differently.) The story was almost feverishly informed by the Bertie Wooster and Jeeves stories in symbiotic collision with Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights and The DynamiterUnearth magazine paid me forty dollars for the story, and I suspected at the time (and still suspect) that I had gotten away with murder. Writing the story had been immensely fun. Someone had paid me for it. Readers seemed to like it.

Now it’s 30-odd years later (some of those years particularly odd) and writing Steampunk stories is still immensely fun. I’m working on one now. And, marvel of marvels, more people than ever are not only reading such stories, but have wandered off the Steampunk deep end, and are going out in public dressed like Conan Doyle’s Dr. Maracot when he stepped aboard his steamship, off to study deep sea life in uncharted oceans. I’m all for it. I hope that Steampunk consciousness is increasingly infectious, especially the Arts and Crafts Movement influence—the interest in building useful things out of natural materials that are meant to last and that look good into the bargain. A couple of years back our family went off to Singapore, where we all bought new watches for three dollars apiece from a street vendor near the Raffles Hotel—literally less money than it cost to buy a Tiger beer at the satay joint next door. Mine ran like clockwork, till it quit running altogether on the plane on the way home. It had lasted three days—a dollar a day, like a self-destructing rental watch. Captain Nemo would have despised such an item. His chronometer, I can tell you, is still keeping perfect time beneath the surface of whatever far-flung seas he’s currently navigating.

And that’s my life as a steampunk, if I can use the word in that sense. Sorry that this has been a fairly personal take on the subject. I can’t tell you what the movement means or predict how long it will last, although I hope it’s a long time. In my mind Steampunk is not a movement of any sort; it’s something that happened to me.  

JAMES P BLAYLOCK, Steampunk pioneer and Word Fantasy Award winner, is author of more than two dozen novels, including The Digging Leviathan, The Last Coin, All the Bells on Earth and The Knights of the Cornerstone. The term “Steampunk” was coined in a 1987 K W Jeter letter published in Locus: “I think Victorian fantasies are going to be the next big thing, as long as we can come up with a fitting collective term for Powers, Blaylock and myself. Something based on the appropriate technology of the era; like ‘steampunks,’ perhaps...”

Stump The Scientist

“Where did the moon come from?” It’s a good question. I’m glad I know the answer.

“The moon used to be part of the Earth.” This gets the class’s attention. “Four-point-five billion years ago, before there were animals or plants or even oceans, an asteroid—a huge rock from outer space—came crashing into the Earth. It hit the planet so hard that a big chunk flew out into space. That chunk started revolving around the Earth and became our moon.” They seem satisfied with the answer. Twenty-four wide-eyed first graders now eagerly raise their hands, each hoping to ask the next question in our weekly “Stump the Scientist” challenge. I pick another student.

“When a tree falls in the forest with no one around to hear it, does it make a sound?”

I’ve gotten this one before. “Scientifically, no. It makes vibrations in the air. For it to make a sound, those vibrations would have to enter an animal’s ear.” I’m guessing that one came from Maddie’s dad. Six year olds rarely come up with questions that originate from an 18th century denial of materialism. The hands go up again. I choose another, and they go down.

“What’s light made of?”

“Light is a type of energy—radiation, actually—that’s different from matter. Light doesn’t have mass, but it behaves like both a wave and a particle, which is something scientists are still working to fully understand.” The explanation is probably a little much for Jonah, but there’s no time to elaborate. The sea of right hands is already at high tide.

“Why do giraffes have long necks?”

I get that at least once a week. “Giraffes have long necks so they can reach fruit and leaves that are high up in trees.” That’s as deep into evolutionary biology as I want to get with a classroom of elementary schoolers. I try to leave it there, but they’re not satisfied.

“But how come?”

“Scientists believe that over a very long time, giraffes adapted long necks, which let them reach high-up plants that other animals could not. It helped their species survive.” “Scientists believe” is how I begin a lot of answers. Technically, I’m not allowed to teach evolution; there’s some rule that says Darwin has no place in my elementary curriculum. I’m not sure if it’s a rule set by the district or by the education company I work for. It doesn’t really matter to me—I’ve found a workaround.

I can’t say, “Giraffes evolved to have long necks because it gave them an evolutionary advantage,” but if I tack “scientists believe” onto the sentence, I’m not stating a scientific theory; I’m stating an indisputable fact about scientists. If you don’t want to agree with the men and women who spend countless hours researching these things, that’s your problem. I can say, “Scientists believe in anthropogenic climate change,” “Scientists believe the universe was created in a big bang 13.7 billion years ago,” and “Scientists believe human beings evolved from apes,” and their parents can’t disagree with me.

Luckily, the word scientist is one most of these kids hold in high regard. By virtue of wearing a lab coat, I’m universally respected—they don’t know or care that my scientific qualifications consist solely of a 15-credit environmental science minor at a small liberal arts college—I have a pair of safety goggles on my head, so I’m an expert. If I were holding a beaker in my hand, I could probably convince these kids that earthquakes are caused by unicorn farts. But I try not to abuse my perceived infallibility.

It’s time for another question. Oh no. I’ve called on Kaitlin. Here it comes. “Why can’t I see God?”

Every week Kaitlin asks me something about God. It was only a matter of time today. I tell her what I tell her in every class. “Scientists generally don’t try to answer questions about God. That’s something you should ask your parents about.”

The thing is, I don’t really want her to ask her parents about God. Chances are they’ll just tell her exactly what they believe with out any explanation. Sometimes I hear kids talking about religion on the playground.

“Jesus is our savior,” Mason tells his Hindu classmate, Dhruva. “He died to save us. He’s saving me right now.”

“Saving you from what?”

There’s a pause. “I don’t know. Lots of stuff.”

“But how do you know?”

“It’s just true.”

Hearing things like that almost hurts. I can understand the value of faith, but without really understanding what you believe or why you believe it, that value disappears. These kids can barely tie their shoes, let alone understand the theological underpinnings of belief in a higher power. I guess that’s how it works, though—get in there and indoctrinate before they learn to think critically. That rejection of critical thinking makes my job much harder. Questioning beliefs and challenging assumptions is what science is all about. When religion comes up I try to steer us back towards non-God-related inquiries as quickly as possible. “Who has another question?”

As I’m about to choose another student, I check the clock and realize my time’s up. The kids’ regular teacher is ready to take them to lunch. While most of the class lines up at the door, a few of the more curious students rush me. As always, I’m barraged with queries. “How do bees make honey?” “What are my clothes made of?” “Where do rainbows come from?” “Why is it colder in the winter?” “How do our bodies make bones?” I quickly answer what I can and send them back to their line. They leave the classroom and I begin to tidy up.

I don’t doubt that by the time they reach high school my students will have forgotten most of the facts I’ve taught them. I’ve accepted that, because remembering facts isn’t what’s important. What’s important is that these kids understand the value of curiosity, imagination, and critical thinking. Somewhere along the way to adulthood, though, most of us lose that constant desire to know more about our world. I only hope that through their efforts to ‘stump the scientist,’ my students will be able to hold on to theirs.

BEN DEEB writes and lives in Los Angeles. For some reason, he is trusted with the future of today’s youth.