Marc Sigoloffs last shot
Six scenes on the making of It Came From the Slurry Pond
SCENE ONE: SCREEN DREAMS
Marc Sigoloff has always loved movies. As a boy, he fell for Snow White and the Three Stooges, an unlikely pairing of concepts, starring 1960 Olympic figure skater Carol Heiss and the Stooges' final replacement for Curly, Joe DeRita. In 1967, at the age of 11, Sigoloff was "completely overwhelmed" by Bonnie and Clyde. The candy counter of the Lincoln Theatre in Decatur was decorated with bullet-hole decals. The next year, his father took the budding film buff to St. Louis to see Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. "For the first time," Sigoloff says, "I realized that directors were more important than the actors."
While most boys admire the latest superstar athletes, Sigoloff came to worship Kubrick. When the director died at the age of 70 in 1999, Sigoloff's wife, Micki, called him at work to break the news. "It was like losing a member of the family," he says.
The notion that he could possibly make his own movie first occurred to Sigoloff in 1974, after watching The Godfather II. He enrolled in college film classes and read books about screenwriting and filmmaking. About nine years ago, equipped with a friend's 16 mm Russian camera, Sigoloff started working on Godspeed, a satirical film playing on the idea of religion as a drug. It was inspired by director Guy Maddin's art-house hit about a smallpox epidemic in Canada, Tales From the Gimli Hospital. Springfield musician Tom Irwin was set to appear as Jesus. But when the friend with the camera moved to Chicago, Sigoloff had to abandon this project. He never gave up on the idea of making a film.
He has since gone on to write five unproduced screenplays. He's held a few regular jobs--at the former Sun Coast video store in White Oaks Mall and at Best Buy--yet he's never taken them seriously. He runs a small "advertising specialty" company, making buttons, coffee mugs, and other labeled items for businesses. He also earns money by selling off, piece-by-piece, his collection of political buttons, which he values at roughly $50,000. He has written a book on that subject, the now out-of-print Collecting Political Buttons. The trade group American Political Items Collectors simply lists his occupation as "iconoclast."
Then last year the dream of making a movie looked like it might finally come true for the 47-year-old Sigoloff.
SCENE TWO: CONNECTING THE DOTS
In October Sigoloff assembled a group of similar dreamers to plan the first day of filming a mock horror film, It Came From the Slurry Pond. The spoof follows two documentary filmmakers as they interview residents of a small central Illinois town who claim a monster lurks in an abandoned coal mine.
The meeting took place at the Springfield home of Dean Williams, who runs a photography and video business and is the closest thing to a Hollywood insider one can find here. In the late 1970s, Williams got into the entertainment business filling in for a photographer on the set of The Awakening Land, a TV mini-series starring Hal Holbrook and Elizabeth Montgomery. The series was shot at New Salem and the crew stayed at the Hilton Springfield, then called Forum 30, which housed a coffee shop where Sigoloff worked.
Out of The Awakening Land, Williams got a union card and other contracts. He's since worked as a still photographer on the sets of more than 80 movies and television shows. His company in Springfield also makes industrial, tourism, and wedding videos.
Sigoloff renewed his friendship with Williams last year, when they both served on a committee organizing the Route 66 Film Festival. Sigoloff was invited to help select films due to his status as a critic. In 1984, he wrote The Films of the Seventies: A Filmography of American, British and Canadian Films (McFarland & Company); a common library reference book, it continues to bring him small royalties. He also reviews movies for Illinois Times.
Through the festival committee, Sigoloff also got to know Bob Bartel, who had created a documentary about musician George Harrison's connection to the southern Illinois town of Benton. Before the Beatles arrived in America, Harrison visited his sister in the coal-mining town. The documentary, A Beatle in Benton, has become a minor hit and has led to bigger and better things for Bartel, a retired cop and private detective with the soul of an artist.
Bartel told Sigoloff about an abandoned coal mine in Bulpitt, a tiny town on Route 104, six miles east of Taylorville. It was a perfect location for a horror flick, he joked.
"I told him about this site," recalls Bartel. "We were just kidding around about urban legends, Mothman, Bigfoot, and the Blair Witch. He wanted to know more about the location."
When Bartel showed him the former Peabody Coal Mine No. 10, Sigoloff thought it was perfect: a desolate, industrial wasteland that closed in 1994 after its high-sulfur coal failed to pass Clean Air Act standards. It inspired him to start working on a script. He originally envisioned a horror story, but he changed course after responding to an e-mail about Citizen Kane.
"Randy Soland runs a film club based out of Lincoln Land Community College--one guy in it sent out an e-mail on Citizen Kane that was all wrong," Sigoloff says. Responding to that e-mail caused him to think about the unique structure of Orson Welles' 1941 masterpiece. In Citizen Kane, a reporter travels the country interviewing people who might reveal the meaning of newspaper publisher Charles Foster Kane's dying word, "Rosebud." In the process, the reporter learns a lot about Kane and his life. Sigoloff borrowed Welles' approach and changed his story to a satirical comedy based on the gossipy aspects of small-town life recorded by two documentary filmmakers from Chicago. His beloved Three Stooges appear in the guise of a small band of dumb Klansmen.
"I wrote the script in four months," says Sigoloff. "It was easy: It didn't require a narrative."
His lack of money made other decisions easy: The story couldn't require special effects or a whole lot of detail, and it had be shot quickly--perhaps over several weekends. Though the script is lighthearted, Sigoloff says, it also explores serious themes: pollution, the nature of belief, the effects of capitalism, prejudice, and the film industry itself. Bartel is serving as the producer, keeping a schedule and "connecting the dots."
In the summer of 2002 Bartel and Sigoloff approached Williams with the script, hoping for his help. Williams was more than receptive. He is loaning his expertise, video equipment, crew, and editing studio to Sigoloff and Bartel, saving them tens of thousands of dollars.
"With digital video and current technology, we can compete with the big boys," says Williams.
During the October meeting, Williams was all business. "Time is money," he told the crew, which included his small staff and a couple of actors. "For large crowd scenes, schedule them after lunch so you don't have to worry about feeding the extras. You need to do five to six pages of the script a day. Actors have to be rehearsed and get it right every time--if you have to re-shoot every scene two or three times, we're screwed."
The meeting was also attended by Sigoloff's sole investor, Pat Holstein, another member of the Route 66 Film Festival committee. Holstein, who manages the Hollywood Video store on Chatham Road, said, "There's definitely an audience for something like this. It would be what we would consider a cult classic." He likened It Came From the Slurry Pond to such low-budget hits as The Toxic Avenger. Holstein has a strange connection to the horror genre: his house once belonged to serial killer John Wayne Gacy, who sold shoes in Springfield from 1964 to '66. In 1965, the Springfield Jaycees awarded Gacy "Man of the Year."
"I didn't know he lived here until the late 1980s, early '90s," Holstein said. "There was a news story done about it on television and showed our house."
Holstein put up $1,000 for It Came From the Slurry Pond; that was supposed to pay for gas, videotapes, props, and food during shoots.
Williams' plan is to help the movie find a distributor--possibly at the Sundance Film Festival--who will take it straight to video. For Williams, Bartel, and Sigoloff, just making the film proves a point.
"Marc is very insightful to see that he can do this right here in Springfield," says Bartel. "I don't think people in Springfield really understand what an artist goes through. That's why I'm so supportive of this project. This is a tight little group. If the movie really does make it, we can all move forward."
SCENE THREE: THE EARLY YEARS
Sigoloff's previous efforts never went this far for a variety of reasons. His first script, War Crimes, was "an awful thing that I never tried to sell," he says. He wrote it while attending Sangamon State University, where he earned his bachelor's in communications in 1979. Next, influenced by The Sting, he wrote Chicago Beer War. "I'd like to resurrect that someday." He then penned a script called Banshees about women vampires who overtake a town and enslave its males. Mo and Lori (think Moe and Larry) is a dark comedy-murder-thriller he's still trying to sell. Damaged People is based on serial killers. One of the characters is named after a former boss he didn't like. "My two best friends read the script for Damaged People and told me I was sick," Sigoloff says. "It's very realistic, but it's also a serial-killer comedy."
Sigoloff was born in Saint Louis in 1955. His dad sold insurance, and the family moved frequently. When Sigoloff was six, his family relocated to Decatur; when he was 12, they went to Champaign. The Sigoloffs settled in Springfield in 1969. Marc was an only child.
His father, Bernie Sigoloff, now works for the Better Business Bureau. He recalls that early on his son displayed a gift for memorizing trivia.
"For grade school, his mother and I went to a teacher-parent conference. We were talking to one of his teachers who told us he had held up a map of Europe, but with none of the countries identified. He asked the class to name a certain country. Marc raised his hand with the right answer. Then Marc named another country, then another. The teacher had him come up to the front of class and Marc proceeded to name all the countries. He has, in a sense, a photographic memory. Once when we watched Jeopardy together, the contestants were asked to name the states bordering Mexico. Marc would look up at the ceiling and start naming the answers: 'I can look up there and see a map of the whole United States.' Neither my wife nor I have that kind of mind."
The Sigoloffs helped support their son after college, giving him the freedom to write his books and screenplays. His mother, Burnell, typed up all his drafts. It Came From the Slurry Pond was the last thing she typed before dying from lung cancer this January at the age of 73. She was fond of unfiltered Camels, Marc says.
"They were very, very close," says Bernie Sigoloff. "When he was little, I did a lot of traveling. My wife was the one who really raised him. I've not read all of Marc's script, but read some of it when she was typing it. 'It's funny,' she said to me."
"I just wished she had lived to see the movie," Marc says. "My parents gave me the opportunity to write."
Sigoloff's interest in collecting political buttons appears to have been an inherited trait: Burnell was an avid collector of stamps and postcards. For Sigoloff, political buttons have, at times, been a lucrative endeavor. He collected so many Ronald Reagan buttons he was able to sell all of them in the mid-1990s for $10,000. He bought a green Camaro with the money. His license plate: SLCKR 1.
He started collecting buttons seriously 23 years ago, during Reagan's first successful presidential bid. Previously he had collected campaign buttons for fun: Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon, George Wallace. In the 1980s, during an antique sale at the Governor's Mansion, then occupied by Jim Thompson, Sigoloff purchased a box of political buttons for $75 and later sold them, one at a time, for a total of $1,500. He claims to own the largest collections of Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis buttons. Collectors have offered him more than $1,000 for some items belonging to campaigns as recent as Bill Clinton's ("Clinton items are much more competitive than anything I had seen before," he says). He is an acknowledged expert in the field. Before his 1988 book on collecting buttons for Chicago Review Press, he wrote a regular column for the magazines Political Bandwagon and Political Collector. He's earned a reputation as a stickler for details. He often scours e-Bay to expose frauds.
One collector, writing in the newsletter "Buttons and Ballots," identified Sigoloff as "one of the most controversial people in the hobby today. . . . He delights in exposing the scenarios that run like this: A collector decides to make his own button. He has 500 copies printed up, and sends 200 as 'donations' to the candidate's campaign headquarters. The candidate wonders where the hell these buttons came from, but they [sic] go ahead and distribute them. The collector then sells the buttons [on] his own, capitalizing on the fact that the official campaign headquarters is distributing the button. The collector makes a good profit. [Sigoloff] has exposed this kind of scam a number of times."
"I enjoy collecting," Sigoloff says. "I feel more connected to my own lifetime."
SCENE FOUR: THE HOME AND THE WORLD
Sigoloff owns a small condo on the west side of Springfield. The walls are covered with political and movie memorabilia, revealing his "weakness for Stanley Kubrick." There are hundreds of vinyl records and stacks of DVDs, videotapes, and film books, as well as Micki's collection of clocks, mostly of the cuckoo variety. Besides Kubrick and the Three Stooges, Sigoloff cites as inspiration directors Robert Altman, Robert Bresson, and Luis Buñuel, whom he calls "a huge influence." The Spanish surrealist Buñuel was an atheist. "It figured very prominently in his films. Very satirical. My Damaged People is filled with references to his Un Chien Andalou, Viridiana and The Criminal Life of Archibaldo De La Cruz." Sigoloff is also a proud atheist. A new script, Bible Belt Boogie, has been shaped by Bruñuel's Milky Way.
He says he doesn't respond well to authority. His record collection backs this up. He regards the Beatles as the best rock band, but he has a particular fondness for groups borne out of the defiant British punk movement: Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, XTC, and the Residents, a surreal, somewhat grating cult band out of San Francisco.
Sigoloff cites three pillars of contemporary Western civilization: music, television, and movies. Each has produced its own masters, he says. In television, Seinfeld is greatest, though Everybody Loves Raymond is "a work of genius," according to Sigoloff. "They keep digging into the truth about the characters." Still, movies remain "the greatest art form of the 20th century," Sigoloff says. He also thinks it's the perfect forum for his unique talents. "I can't draw. I'm not musical. But I want to create something artistic."
SCENE FIVE: SIGOLOFF'S FIRST TAKE
In September Sigoloff and Bartel held auditions for It Came from the Slurry Pond at Lincoln Land Community College "About 15 people showed up," says Sigoloff.
There are 17 speaking parts, namely the two filmmakers, several Bulpitt residents, and a distributor who rejects the movie at the end. Most of the residents claim to have seen the monster or to have slept with it--or, in the case of one man, to want to sleep with it. Many of Sigoloff's scenes are inspired by his favorite films or incidents from his life. Some zooms are based on Altman's camerawork. "Altman would quite often cut to a character and slowly zoom in on his or her face while you might hear dialogue from other characters," Sigoloff says. In another scene, a cashier uses binoculars to check on the final price at a gas pump--something that happened to Sigoloff several years ago when filling up on his way to a button convention in Des Moines.
For the main roles, they looked for experience. The filmmakers are played by Rick Falzone and Dana Williams, Dean's son. Falzone, another Route 66 Film Festival connection, had recently moved back to Springfield from Los Angeles after starring in about 70 television and radio commercials, writing plays, and making a feature film, My Life as a Sheep, which played at the Route 66 festival. Falzone volunteered to read various parts at the audition; the more he read, the more he seemed perfect for the role of Bill Allen, a character Sigoloff created in his own image. Allen's partner, Greg Booth, will be played by Dana Williams, who was a stunt double for an actor in the 1982 Kenny Rogers comedy Six Pack. Williams works in his father's business and also has a lot of experience operating cameras and video equipment including for a few Eddie Murphy films. Thanks to Bartel's Benton connections, they tapped Danny Malkovich to play the part of the film distributor. Malkovich is the brother of actor John Malkovich and the editor of the Benton Evening News. "He sounds just like his brother on the phone," Sigoloff says. "Sometimes he calls his brother's office to scare them." They also hired Jacki Lynn, a young actress from southern Illinois to play the part of a waitress, and enlisted a couple of oddball characters from WQLZ radio.
On November 17, a frigid Sunday morning, Sigoloff was ready for the first day of shooting. He planned to film at least two scenes: One of the filmmakers arriving in Bartel's 1976 Checker Marathon while passing by a police car with a "For Sale" sign on it; the other, a conversation between Booth and Allen. For the first scene, Sigoloff needed a desolate town, but he underestimated Sunday morning traffic in Bulpitt. Cars frequently zipped by on Route 104, interrupting take after take. They couldn't film a walking conversation between Williams and Falzone because Sigoloff needed a steady-cam, a camera equipped with a shoulder harness that produces a smooth shot and one of the few pieces of equipment Williams doesn't have at his disposal. Other problems popped up. They borrowed a squad car from the mayor of nearby Kincaid but were interrupted by a Christian County cop and a state trooper wanting to know why they were trying to sell it. The "For Sale" sign on the police car was meant to illustrate the town's decay.
"The mayor of Kincaid never informed anyone about what we were doing," Sigoloff says. "The Christian County police received a lot of calls."
Except for a few seconds of film, Sigoloff says he won't be able to use anything shot that first day in Bulpitt. In the winter, they tried to shoot a few more scenes in Dean Williams' studio basement, but the space was too small. The death of Sigoloff's mother delayed the project well into the spring.
SCENE SIX: A FINAL SHOT
Filming resumed on Sunday, March 30, at Carpenter's Park. The scene was a complicated one: One camera would film Falzone and Williams as they filmed Bulpitt resident "Danny Bob," who claims to have cut off one of the Slurry Monster's "nads," or testicles. In the middle of the scene, Sigoloff intended to switch between the two cameras, showing the documentary footage within the movie. Playing the part of Danny Bob is Springfieldian Mike Welch, who also was an extra in Legally Blonde 2, which was shot at the state capitol late last year.
A number of problems arose. It was a partly cloudy day and the intermittent shadows were posing problems for cameraman Rick Unsbee, who works for Williams. Several takes had to be re-shot in order to remedy continuity problems: park visitors suddenly started their cars; doors were slammed in the distance; planes flew overhead. These sounds would mysteriously disappear and reappear when Sigoloff spliced scenes together. Falzone, who had to hold a microphone boom while reading his lines, kept getting distracted.
The crew started to offer suggestions that conflicted with Sigoloff's vision. Some began to get disgruntled.
"Nobody came to me directly," Sigoloff says. "I found out about this third-hand, through the grapevine."
By April, It Came From the Slurry Pond and Sigoloff's life were turning into fiascoes. "We had money problems," Sigoloff says. "That $1,000 was running out." Sigoloff and his wife, Micki, were also having troubles. The couple recently decided to divorce.
"I became aware that it was the end," Sigoloff says. "The movie had nothing to do with it. We had differences that couldn't be resolved. We were growing in different directions. We had discussed splitting before."
Micki, who's 27, married Sigoloff in April 2001. Now she and her eight-year-old daughter are packing up their belongings at the condo. They'll be moving to an apartment just down the block and will remain friends, Marc says. He's keeping their cats, Lucky, a spirited male, and Gimpy, a black cat with a deformed leg.
Sigoloff knew he'd probably never get another chance at making a movie and went to Dean Williams with a last-ditch effort to rescue his dying dream. Dean guided him to some independent movie contacts that led to Marc hooking up with John Specht and Jeff Attwater, filmmakers from St. Louis who have gained a cult following with their movies Insaniac and Last House on Hell Street. Specht will sign on as assistant director, Attwater as cinematographer.
Sigoloff also approached a new investor. The investor, whom Sigoloff doesn't want to reveal for fear of jinxing his chances, will likely provide more funds, enough to afford Attwater, Specht, a costume designer, a special-effects creator, money for extras, and a steady-cam. Sigoloff is drawing up contracts, but will have to start from scratch, conducting new auditions and rehearsals, and scouting for new locations. The old crew is still on board, and now might even get paid. Instead of shooting on weekends, Sigoloff says, he plans to do all the filming in one three-week stretch this fall--much better for continuity. Then on to the Sundance Film Festival in January.
"This whole thing has been up and down," says producer Bartel. "To be honest, I don't know where it's going. Marc is fighting his own tigers. He lost his mom, his wife, and he's dealing with those things and the movie. He's a very strong character. He is determined, talented. If he can get this first project under his belt, he can go on to other things. Part of his struggle is to convince the cast and crew that he can pull this off."
"I lost my marriage, but I saved my movie," says Sigoloff. "It's still a long shot. The odds are against it. Still, if we make the movie, we got a credit. Hopefully it's good enough to allow us to go onto other projects. I want this to be the start of something."