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The Krone Experiment Saga II: the movie

Further adventures in 'astro lit'

Craig Wheeler 9 September 2013

Losing control: detail from the trailer

There were some flashback scenes where I got to act. This amounted to running around the Tokomak with my glasses off and everything blurry. I got great lines, my favorite being “More lead! Bring me more lead!”

Editor’s note: We are pleased to present the second of a three-part series about one author’s adventure in getting his “astro lit” story out into the world. To catch up with Part I, please follow the navigation links on the top right.

My son, Rob, grew up fascinated by movies. Besides going to theaters – Star Wars when he was seven – we did the Spielbergian thing, and made our own little special effects movies with a hand-held film camera. We did scenes where the costumed hero would jump though a solid wall. One of my favorites was a scene when Rob’s mom appeared from within a golden box in a cloud of colored smoke. These were great fun, despite the amateur ineptness of the photographer, me.

In later years, Rob and I debated the advantages and disadvantages of film versus writing for telling a story. I maintained that one could do things in a written story, for instance getting into a character’s thoughts, that you could not film. Rob would rejoin that if you could imagine it, you could film it.

I had published The Krone Experiment in hardback in 1986 and in paperback in 1988. As I related in Part I of this series, I had made a little money that helped send Rob and his older brother to college. By 1994, Rob had finished his undergraduate work and a couple of years of graduate film school. I half-jokingly suggested that we should write the screenplay of The Krone Experiment. When his car broke down driving back from LA, Rob started to sketch it out. He tells his own version of this history here.

In the fall of 1994, we started our active collaboration. This was a great adventure. For all my earlier faux debate, film is a great way to tell a story, but it is a very different medium than a novel. I had to think of just what to keep and what to throw away to pare the novel down to the confines of a screenplay. I found this a very enjoyable challenge. Rob had his own strong notions of how to make various scenes cinematic. We updated the setting to be more contemporary in post-Soviet times, but with lingering tensions (has much changed since then?). We invented a new climactic scene in which an earthquake induced by the black hole threatened to knock California into the Pacific Ocean.

By early 1995, we had been through several drafts. We put out feelers. I talked to Anne Dickson who had published the hardback, and she introduced us to Elizabeth Hayley, author of A Woman of Independent Means that had been made into a TV mini-series. Elizabeth in turn introduced us to producer William Allyn who had done Rich and Famous and Cousins with real stars (Jacqueline Bisset, Candice Bergen, Ted Danson, Isabella Rossellini). Allyn liked the screenplay and optioned it for $100. I still have a copy of the check framed on my study wall. This was a nervous time involving lawyers. We wanted to sell the script, but were worried that somehow advantage would be taken of us. In any case, Allyn was not able to sell it, and the option lapsed.

All during this period, Rob harbored the dream of doing the film himself. This was quite a stretch because, in principle, the film needs to be heavy on special effects: damaging an aircraft carrier, blasting a satellite with lasers, that California earthquake. On the plus side, the digital revolution came with, specifically, the advent of the Canon XL-1 digital video camera. In 1999, Rob decided he would try it. He enlisted a friend, Ben Pascoe, who became co-producer of the film and played the starring role of the scientist and rake, Alex Runyan. Rob bought a Canon, produced and directed. We were off to the races with lots of enthusiasm and no money.

This was an intensely interesting period. I was fully involved in my day job as a college professor, working sporadically on a sequel to The Krone Experiment, dreaming idly of a TV series based on the book (the black hole running amok in various sites around the world in each episode, reminiscent of Quantum Leap), and watching the young folk make this movie.

What they lacked in funds, they made up in energy and imagination. Rob has a special skill in this regard. In his role as director, he had the scenes fully developed in his head, how they would be set up, how they would be filmed, before anyone showed up on the site. On the other hand, working with catch-as-catch-can locations, volunteers on the cast and crew, and little budget meant that often things had to be invented in real time on the set. I would frequently stand behind the scenes, totally fascinated, watching this organic process play out.

There are so many precious memories. A limousine company liked the idea of supporting the film and gave us use of the car that chauffeurs the Russian ambassador. The Dean’s meeting room became the cabinet room in the White House. Several of our Chinese graduate students made up posters and dialog in Chinese for the Chinese mine scene filmed in a local freight elevator. I still don’t know what they actually said. My Japanese graduate student played an over-weaning supervisor in the chlorine leak scene. She also made up the dialog in Japanese, aided by a friend of Rob’s who is part Japanese, knew a little of the language, and managed to memorize the dialog phonetically. One of our Korean graduate students got gassed in that scene. Another scene in the Kremlin required some real Russian penned phonetically by a visiting Ukranian and recited wonderfully by the actors. In the same scene, the actor playing a Russian general had misunderstood the request to bring suit pants. Beneath the medal-bedecked jacket we had manufactured, he wore shorts. His departure from the room had to be filmed with some especially artful camera angles.

The casting called for a large number of “mature” actors. We got an excellent turnout of volunteers. Tom Wierich and Darbi Worley were the CIA leads. Robert Graham, a Shakespearean actor, played ex-KGB agent Grigor Zamyatin and ate up the scenery every time. Rich Simental played the Moroccan shepherd Abd Ar-Rahman in the opening scene, giving his lines in Arabic. Rich was also sound man, second assistant director, and associate producer. Multiple roles were typical.

We needed a black-hole-making machine. We got access to the huge defunct tokomak, a plasma containment device, in the basement of the physics building. We got a model of the tokomak and put that in our living room, which we converted to the study in Paul Krone’s mountain aerie. For several weeks, access to the kitchen via the living room was blocked as the crew rehearsed and filmed.

We needed to destroy a building. I contacted a demolition business that was scheduled to tear down buildings on a local college campus that was moving to a new location. Our presence irritated the demolition crew, but the young man who ran the company did us proud. There were delays while he worked with the city to move power and telephone lines. We would set up and then have to cancel. Finally the day came, but I had a doctor’s appointment and had to miss it. The head of the company got into his immense bull-dozer like vehicle and without saying a word explicitly, drove to the back side of a two-story dorm and knocked down the building, right toward our camera! The same young man, frustrated by the city delays, later ran unsuccessfully for Mayor of Austin.

We needed to sink a destroyer. Rob’s location producer, Morganna Thomas, discovered that the superstructure of an aircraft carrier was embedded in the ground in a memorial on the Texas coast. The crew went down there for the day. Fortuitously, a group of young cadets from a military academy was also visiting. They were invited to participate, which they did with relish. While our actors played the captain of the destroyer and other speaking characters, these young men were manning the wheel as destruction approached.

We came that close to filming aboard the space shuttle. There is a mockup of the shuttle at the Johnson Space Flight Center near Houston. Normally they charge outrageous fees for access. Morganna managed to work out a deal where for a small fee they would give us access to the mockup from 5 pm when the tourists left until early the next morning when the display opened for business again. We struck that deal in late summer 2001. On September 11, disaster struck the World Trade Center in New York. Security clamped down, and our deal was canceled.

Rob and Ben persuaded me to play the bad guy, Paul Krone. This was an interesting exercise, since Krone is alive but catatonic through most of the film. I basically just adopted a “thousand mile” stare. The young folks told me I played brain dead very well. There were some flashback scenes where I got to act. This amounted to running around the Tokomak with my glasses off and everything blurry. I got great lines, my favorite being “More lead! Bring me more lead!” At the end of one scene when the black-hole-making machine was breaking down, I thought the camera was off. I ad libbed “This ****er’s coming apart!” That got edited into the final version.

The opening scene of the movie involves a sheep in Morocco being killed by the rising black hole. We went out to a friend’s farm armed with fake blood. We learned that it is difficult to get a sheep off its feet, but once on its side, it will tend to stay there to be filmed. My job was to grab the sheep by the legs and get it tilted enough to fall over. I ended up with several credits in the movie. By far my favorite was “sheep wrangler.”

Rob describes The Krone Experiment as the world’s greatest microbudget indie film. For all the low budget, it was a very ambitious project. There were on the order of fifty people in the cast and crew, all working as volunteers for snacks and juice. My version is that however much it cost famed local director Robert Rodriguez to make El Mariachi, his ground-breaking first film, ours cost less. That is discounting that first Canon camera and another one to replace the first when it was stolen out of the trunk of Rob’s car.

After the film was in the can, or on tape as the case was here, Rob had a long slog post-processing the film. He did all the visual and sound editing with inadequate facilities. He composed the music and recorded it on the piano in our dining room. He created the special effects and developed the web site. He produced a DVD with the film outtakes, interviews with the filmmakers, and even some “easter eggs.” All this took long hours alone in his room for a couple of years, a process that brought him close to burnout.

From there, the story slides downhill. Austin is the live music capital of the world, but also a film-crazy town, home to Rodriguez and Richard Linklater and the amazing Alamo Draft House, a showcase for all film great and outrageous. Despite that, we got very little support. Rob was turned down for a development grant from the Austin Film Society. He offered the film to several festivals, and was even invited to submit to some, but was universally rejected. Being rejected by the Austin Film Festival that focuses on writers was especially painful, although by the time Rob applied, it was a big deal and very competitive.

We have thought a lot about this. The film clearly shows its low budget birthright, but many people have liked it. I think one factor is that people expect first-time film makers to produce some coming-of-age product and are just not prepared for a first film to be a full up, two-hour, action mystery science (astro lit) movie. I thought that despite its rough edges, the film would surely show Rob’s talents for writing, directing, and skills at all the ancillary work, and that it would serve as a portfolio leading to bigger and better things. Nothing that a hundred million dollar budget would not fix. So far, that has not come to pass.

Rob did produce the DVD. The first order came with a glitch in the sound track in the earthquake scene. He had fixed that once, but it found its way back onto the master disk he sent to the company that reproduced the disk. In the intervening years, he has sold several hundred DVDs over the website and to friends. There are now services that will allow downloads of film, rather like ebooks, but for film. Amazon demands that the films on their site be closed captioned, so Rob is working away to add closed captions. This is tedious, but also has some amusing aspects. One never sees the black hole, only hears the associated sucking whistle. Rob has enjoyed rendering that onomatopoeia for potential hearing-impaired viewers.

Check out the project’s website. The official trailer is there, but here is a bastardized version on YouTube.

The film is in the can. It is ready for a producer with the budget to do it right. Steven Spielberg or George Lucas can contact us through

To be continued. In the final part of this series, Craig will tell us about the ins and outs of producing and marketing an eBook.