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Theater of the absurd

Sunday, January 16, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:37 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008

On a December afternoon, two white trucks were parked on the east side of MU’s Engineering East building. “Quiet, please. Filming in progress” was scribbled onto a piece of paper tacked to the back door of the building. Empty pizza boxes were piled at the doorstep, and the smell of smoke wafted down the stairs.

Up four flights of stairs, the crew was putting in a 19-hour day turning an unused room into an Aztec burial chamber. There, the Aztec Mummy, surrounded by potbellied henchmen, would use his jeweled scepter to control minds — all part of his plan to conquer the world.

To shroud the burial chamber in mist, the team used a fog machine. Torches contributed smoke and an aroma so pungent that crew members put on masks. The actors couldn’t, so even the mummy was unable to stifle a cough during a long maniacal laugh.

It was just another day on the set. Or you could call it a peculiar meeting of art and science — in Columbia, which can call itself the birthplace of the first Mexican wrestling film shot in English.

The genre is known to its loving fans as lucha libre, and this film is called “Mil Máscaras vs. The Aztec Mummy.” The plot: Mil Máscaras must save the world.

“There’s an Aztec mummy that is resurrected, and he needs to play a revenge on Mil Máscaras and his ancestors; and pretty much he needs to battle him and the world,” Hollywood producer Chuck Williams says. “The Aztec Mummy must be destroyed, and of course Mil Máscaras is the one that can destroy him.”

Headquartered at Gumby’s Pizza on Broadway since mid-November, “Project 1000,” as it was first called, began filming Dec. 6.

Fliers popped up around town in mid-November. They read: “Wanna be in a movie? Here’s Your Chance! Extras needed.”

It all started when MU professor Jeffrey Uhlmann persuaded a colleague in the engineering school, Kannappan Palaniappan, to help him resurrect the dying film genre, which was in vogue in the 1960s and ’70s in Mexico and featured popular masked wrestlers fighting evil creatures such as Dracula and the Werewolf.

Uhlmann, 42, a professor of computer science and a lucha film aficionado, has had the script since 2000, although he won’t say he wrote it.

“The script includes all the unique aspects of lucha films,” he says.

Some of them would sound silly to someone unfamiliar with the genre. For example, he says: “Why would the mummy turn into a bat?” And then there are the vampire women.

But those are the elements that Uhlmann loves about lucha films. Although he has long been a fan of the old monster movies such as “Dracula” and “Frankenstein,” he says he and his three kids think lucha films are better because every scene has a monster or a character in a mask.

He’s one of them in this production. The man with the doctorate in robotics from Oxford University isn’t just the organizer and producer; he’s the man inside the robot and the Aztec Mummy.

“How can you beat that?” he says. “I’m basing my robot acting off Matt Damon.”

His brother, Scott Uhlmann, created the robot suit from molded plastic with a glass dome helmet that screwed onto the suit. His brother had him sign a waiver to wear the outfit, which didn’t have “access to outside oxygen,” Jeffrey Uhlmann says.

Suffocation and “losing all the feeling in my left arm” are some of the inconveniences of being a robot. In short, he says, “life as a robot sucks.”

A few days later, though, there he was, playing the Aztec Mummy. That task wasn’t pleasant, either. He had to wear the hot latex mask and suit for 10 hours.

But he wasn’t alone in making sacrifices. Williams had his back shaved, and the crew members, many of whom were volunteers, endured 18-hour days.

Palaniappan, who helps act as a liaison between the university and the production team, has also taken a part in the film, playing Officer José, a Mexican policeman.

“On a low-budget film, everyone has to do double-, triple-duty,” Uhlmann says.

TAKE ONE

Financing for the movie, which has a budget of less than $1 million, came from private investors, and MU provided the locations. Making it at that price wasn’t easy, Williams says.

“I will never forget anything about this movie,” says director Jeff Burr, who has worked on such B movies as “Night of the Scarecrow” and “Straight into Darkness.”

What makes this lucha movie different from others is that it will bring Hollywood production values to “this kind of cheesy genre,” says Dan Golden, assistant director.

“We are going to be shooting in high definition, which is a much higher quality medium than previous lucha films,” says Colin LaVaute, one of the producers. “(The) camera we’re using is the same camera that George Lucas (used) in the last couple of ‘Star Wars’ films.”

The producers acknowledge, though, that the movies are by their nature campy. Even the fans know that.

“The films are so bad, they’re good,” says Janet Marsh, a lucha libre fan.

She wore the mask of El Santo, one of the most popular Mexican wrestlers, for Halloween. Ninth Street Video, where Marsh works, has 10 lucha films on its shelves.

“They’re a hoot,” she says. The movies’ low production value and the fact that the wrestler-superheroes will “for the most inane reason stop and have a wrestling match” make them funny.

For Uhlmann, the draw of the lucha project was its market appeal and cult fan base. The popularity of the Warner Brothers’ cartoon Mucha Lucha, live shows such as Lucha VaVoom and lucha DVD sales, prove there’s a big following for the genre, he says.

“It’s very new; it can be marketed to selected markets as a carnival experience,” says Keith Rainville, publisher of the lucha magazine From Parts Unknown. “It’s very compatible with American subculture genre.”

Willard E. Pugh, who starred in Puppetmaster 5, compared the cult fans of lucha libre films to horror movie enthusiasts.

“There’s somebody out there that loves that stuff,” Pugh says. When he told some of his Hispanic relatives about his role as a police officer in the Mil Máscaras movie, “they acted like I was doing a movie with Elvis.”

Uhlmann said he hoped the film will be finished this year and will enter the film festival circuit in anticipation of a theatrical release, including a premiere in Columbia.

THE HERO

In James Bond style, the wrestler in a lucha film isn’t just a hero who saves the world; he’s also an object of desire. And among lucha heroes, Mil Máscaras — “the man with a thousand masks,” — is a heavyweight.

“Mil Máscaras is probably the most known ambassador of lucha in the U.S.,” Rainville says.

He was the first lucha character to be created specifically for the movies. The brainchild of film producer Enrique Vergara, the luchador has made 17 films since the character’s birth in 1965.

As a character, he’s something of a Renaissance man. He knows “many languages, including that of the Aztecs,” writes music in his free time and does research on centric physics.

“These masked wrestlers are portrayed … in the same way as a character like Indiana Jones is portrayed,” LaVaute says. “They are the man about town, cultured, they’re artists, they’re musicians, they’re very intelligent people that just so happen to be wrestlers at the same time. They’re well-revered people in society.”

Mil Máscaras, who is 65 and still wrestles, claims to have more than a thousand masks. He designs most of them, and all bear his signature “M.” One of his many outfits also includes red and gold boots and a maroon velvet cape with gold fringe.

In real life, Mil Máscaras’ wife, his second, hasn’t yet seen his face, he says. And if after his retirement as a wrestler he follows through on plans to go into politics, he will continue to wear his mask.

It’s a little weird for Burr.

“I’m working with this leading man, and I will never see his face,” he says.

“It’s like meeting Superman and Hulk Hogan at the same time,” says Jonathan Rocha, whose character rips out his heart in the film to revive the mummy. “These are like every little kid’s heroes.”

THE CREW AND THE COMMUNITY

After researching the film industry and making a few trips to California, Uhlmann’s new contacts led him to Burr. After agreeing to be part of the film, Burr flew to Columbia, bringing Williams and Golden in to the project. After a whirlwind, three-week preproduction period, the film was set to go.

Williams and Golden made use of local production company, Rain Moon Productions, which LaVaute and Marcus Batton founded in September 2003. This is the Columbia production company’s first experience with a full-length feature. Previous projects include two short films and a few commercials.

Kathy Murray, MU assistant director of Student Life, helped the team scout for locations, and helped them “navigate the university structure.”

MU allowed the producers to film on its campus, including Jesse Hall, Engineering East and the Museum of Art and Archaeology, in return for footage that can be used by in the College of Engineering’s IT program (see related story).

“The campus has been extremely cooperative with working with us, giving us locations and whatnot,” LaVaute says.

Says Murray, “The project has been an extraordinary collaboration of professionals in the field, students and faculty on campus.”

LaVaute says, “We really just want to get the community involved and interested in what we’re doing. Mid-Missouri has so many resources available.”

Melissa Osborn, the female lead, was discovered when she was sweeping at Sofia’s restaurant, where she is a waitress. She has dark hair and dark eyes, and the producers were looking for someone with that look.

“I’m a waitress, not an actress,” Osborn says, laughing.

Other local participants include Kurt Mirtsching, owner of Shakespeare’s Pizza, who plays Professor; Sandra Keeney, a local designer, who is in charge of costumes; Missy Cooper, an MU student in marketing, who is prop master; and Sabrina Braden, co-owner of Maude Vintage, who played La Torcha, a female luchadora, with a red cape, boots and pigtails.

Six computer science students were involved in the production.

Merrel University, a college of “beauty arts and sciences” in Jefferson City, provided hair and makeup support, which included removing body hair and applying bronzer to turn American wrestlers and actors into Aztec henchmen.

“(It’s) extraordinary that in any town there is such a native creativity,” Burr says.

After wrapping up filming in Columbia in mid-December, the crew began preproduction in Mexico, where it will shoot the exteriors.

“This whole adventure has been an adventure,” Pugh says.

For Mil Máscaras, 40 years after his creation, movie after movie, monster after monster, it’s just the most recent installment in his lifelong mission: to save the world.


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