Before the Marvel Cinematic Universe and Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy, comic book movies had a spotty reputation at best. There were hits like Superman, misses like Daredevil and total disasters like Batman & Robin, but one thing they all had in common was that they got a chance to rise or fall on their merits.
The Fantastic Four never got that chance. Not the pair of Fantastic Four films with Jessica Alba, Michael Chiklis and the future Captain America Chris Evans but the 1994 version from veteran film producer Roger Corman (Death Race 2000) and starring a host of veteran TV bit-players. This film was never officially released but it's infamy as a rare superhero movie from that era has made it a staple of comic book convention hall bootleg VHS/DVD tables nationwide ever since it leaked under unknown circumstances.
The rumors about what happened to The Fantastic Four are comic-dom's equivalent of Bigfoot sightings or UFO conspiracies, but now with the twentieth anniversary of its production comes DOOMED!: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s THE FANTASTIC FOUR, a feature length documentary directed by Film Studies professor and independent filmmaker Marty Langford and executive produced by LA-based casting director/witness to the The Fantastic Four's 1994 filming: Mark Sikes.
Langford promises that all of the secrets, stories and legal shenanigans that have kept The Fantastic Four a ‘lost’ film will be revealed through in-depth, investigative interviews with the cast and crew of this legendary lost movie. As the first trailer for DOOMED! has hit the internet, Newsarama caught up with the director, who claims to own eight different copies of the 1994 film, and talked to him about superheroic cinema and the reality of movies in 1994 and in 2014.
Newsarama: What got you interested exporting the story of Corman's The Fantastic Four?
Marty Langford: I've always been interested in the translation of comic superheroes to the screen. Whether it was the Captain America serials from the 40's, or DC/NBC's Legends of the Superheroes from the late 70s, I was a fanatic collector of costumed superhero stuff. I'm also a film geek who would become obsessed in getting alternate versions/uncut prints of everything from [Jerry Lewis' infamously unreleased] The Day the Clown Cried to Johnny Depp's The Brave to Orson Welles' The Other Side of the Wind. Corman's FF was the definition of both. When I first heard of the production, I HAD to see it; when I learned of its shelving, my life seemed to depend on it.
Nrama: How willing did you find the principals involved in talking to you about their experiences?
Langford: With no exceptions, the key principals were more than willing to oblige us. Some of their enthusiasm had to do with the fact that I was an East Coast guy willing to fly in for principal photography (so I think they recognized that I was serious about producing a film). The other key was that executive producer, Mark Sikes, was the guy contacting them for interviews. Mark was the casting assistant on the original film, he is LA-based, and he is a lifelong friend of mine. Mark is also an active casting director in Hollywood, so when he reaches out to actors, they tend to take his call. Oley Sassone, the director of Corman's The Fantastic Four, and Jay Underwood, who played Johnny Storm don't reside in or around LA, but when we offered to fly them in to the interviews, they jumped at the chance.
Nrama: There are many theories as to why this movie was never released, the supposition is that your film explores the most likely reasons, what's the most 'fantastic' reason you've heard?
Langford: Just that the movie was "unreleasable" because it was "so bad". I honestly think, and this is based on research, interviews and first hand accounts, that the quality of the film had little to so with the decision to shelve it.
Nrama: Is there a lesson that the story of Corman's The Fantastic Four could teach filmmakers everywhere?
Langford: I'd say the cliche that we should "never give up" is an appropriate lesson. The fact that here we are, twenty years later, and the cast and crew are still getting heat and attention from a movie that was never released is telling. If a film has worth, it will find an audience.
Nrama: Do you think The Fantastic Four could have seen success if it was distributed in the modern age of independent films and digital distribution? Or would it have even been made?
Langford: It would never had been made, except as an ambitious fan film, in which case, it would never be released. No, the film happened at a very specific time - when comic properties were still undervalued, and the the idea of relegating a brand like The Fantastic Four to independent status would be unthinkable. Hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, have been generated from the Fantastic Four franchise, no way in hell that Marvel, DC or any other comic book rights holder would tread in low return, independent waters.
Nrama: Have you shown DOOMED! around? What has been the response from the comic book community, the fans and the creators to the project?
Langford: The response has been overwhelming. And while the comic fan base is integral to our film being successful, we recognize that we have to created a narrative that is universal. This film will be engaging, enlightening, frustrating and ridiculously entertaining to both the comic geeks and to those who have never heard of the Corman original. Heck, our hope is that people who have never even heard of The Fantastic Four will find our doc of interest.
Nrama: Today every comic book fan seems to be an armchair intellectual property lawyer, as a filmmaker yourself, what is your option on the culture of sharing/piracy and fair use?
Langford: Fair use and piracy, while sharing attributes, are completely different animals. For documentary filmmakers, fair use can be integral to creating a well rounded narrative. Piracy, though? Hate it. I teach college students, and the entitlement many feel to access, own and trade other people's creative work is staggering. Pirating and/or sharing copywritten hurts the industry and it hurts the creators and while I recognize the new audiences that pirated works may find, quite frankly, that's an audience that will garner us as creators no to little benefit.
We're actively selling pre-orders for our documentary and other cool swag on our site, and the idea that some yahoo buys a copy of DOOMED! and then rips and torrents it, kind of makes me sick. I know it will happen, but my hope is that people will realize that that practice will hurt us, the filmmakers, and will literally lose us money. If we don't support the little guys making movies like DOOMED!, we're simply not going to see movies like DOOMED! in the future.
Nrama: Ultimately then what would you say if a copy of DOOMED! was burned onto every future bootleg Corman's The Fantastic Four?
Langford: I guess I'd be both flattered and pissed. The point of our documentary is NOT to celebrate the fact that illegal copies of The Fantastic Four may be what has kept it relevant throughout the years. We deal with this in the doc, of course. But rather to illustrate the never ending battle between commerce and art. Many profited from Corman's The Fantastic Four, but none of the them were the people that actually created it. That's a real shame. And that's what we want to investigate and, if possible, to rectify.
Nrama: Now that Disney controls Marvel Comics, what effect do you think that will have on the future The Fantastic Four?
Langford: With the fairly unhindered release of Escape From Tomorrow [an independent film shot guerrilla-style inside Disney theme parks while they were operating], I'd guess that there's no less chance of The Fantastic Four finding a release. We're hoping that it someday will get the official treatment it deserves.
DOOMED!: The Untold Story of Roger Corman’s THE FANTASTIC FOUR is set for release on DVD and Blu-Ray in early summer 2014.