Nearly ten years ago, I began working on the film In the Land of Merry Misfits. The experience would ultimately change the course of my life. It was the winter of 1998, I was in college and I had just become a double major - adding Film to coincide with my studies in Broadcast Journalism.
Many years before then, when I was age 13 to be exact; my cousin Anthony spoke volumes about this" creative genius" friend of his from Winchester High School who sewed his own Batman costume, built his own Bat mobile and then, in full Bat regalia, did things like crash parades and scale buildings. This friend went on to become Head Writer for MTV's "Singled Out" and Anthony promised he'd introduce us. So, by the winter of 1998, when this friend had moved back to Boston to write, direct, produce and finance a film of his own, Anthony made good on his promise and got me a job as a Production Assistant on it. And thus my journey with Keven Undergaro and "In the Land of Merry Misfits" began.
From the moment I began, I was thrust into a "film" crew comprised of construction workers, carnies, ex-cons and special education students. Keven and this motley crew didn't just have to produce an independent film - they had to produce independent film's first fairy tale and, per the script, somehow create a million dollar, fable-like universe-with no money. All they really had to do was build fourteen bat-mobile-esque prop cars and twenty some odd sets as well as sew several dozen costumes. The script was inspired by Keven's colorful adventures and unique characters he encountered while working as a Carnie.
I learned quickly that my cousin's friend Keven was every bit as crazy and every bit the creative genius he had said he was. He worked, masochistically, twenty hour days, seven days a week sketching, building, painting and sewing with obsessive attention to the minutest detail. Every color and every pattern seen in the movie had to mean something. Likewise, he argued that every frame of the film, and the production design within each frame, was an opportunity, equal to the words of dialogue within the body of the script and to the actors who spoke them, to help convey the story.
If and when you see the film, if you pay close enough attention, you'll feel this. And for someone who was so gifted and so hard working I had never met anyone so generous and so dedicated to helping others and seeing them succeed. He had the uncanny ability to see in others the talents which they did not see in themselves.
So when Keven told one particular special education student with a troubled past that he could perform weekly on one of MTV's number one shows - without a day's worth of actor's training or experience - he did. I learned that Keven not only cast him but flew him, put him in his apartment and paid his bills. He did the same for a half dozen others - putting them on TV and breaking them into the business as well. Along with his tireless efforts on the film, he was constantly supporting, nurturing, guiding and caring for those around him. I knew my cousin had put me in the right hands; not just someone with talent but someone who had great ideals...someone who had a great heart. And since I didn't learn to speak English till third grade and got picked on all the away to high school, I felt, in many ways, like a misfit myself. In short I couldn't have been more at home on the production. At this point in the story, I wish, for Keven's sake, I could say that we had a great shoot and wrapped production where all graduated toward our next respective career steps. Unfortunately, production did not go well.
Incredibly, the negative for the film was stolen. Keven endured an eight month battle to recover it and endured mind games, slander, acts of vandalism and even death threats from the thief in the process. Yours truly received several death threats as well all the way up to the year 2000. By the time the negative was returned, Keven's name and reputation were ruined. He was left with nothing but debt and a giant stack of favors to repay. "Actors", most of whom Keven had financially carried for years and even put on MTV when they had never ever performed in any capacity before as previously mentioned, turned their back on him, too. Here was this visionary artist who should have been basking in some three picture deal. Instead, he had to work three jobs in a capacity I have never before seen or seen since. He worked construction by day, tended bar by night and on weekends he went back to working as a carnie to pay off every one of those debts. To repay favors, he, personally, refinished something like five houses, one nightclub and two warehouses. Luckily, one of those homes had an unfinished basement and that's where Keven and two remaining misfits, Joe Gear and Orji Walflauer, now slept with makeshift sheets separating throw mattress on a cement floor next to a burner. An artist of this magnitude...better, a friend and human being of this caliber deserved better.
But in the midst of it all, he also managed to do one little thing. He cut a reel for me when he heard that Channel One News was looking for anchors. Even with nothing to offer, he found a way to offer something. Well, I got the job but there was no way I was gonna allow a talent like Keven's go to waste. Those other "actors" whom Keven made weren't merely leaches - they were dumb. My God were they dumb. Not this Greek. I knew what and who he was and I wasn't about to take it for granted. I asked him to guide me in the rest of my career and, what a surprise, here I am: his intensity and brilliance was invested solely into me. I achieved success beyond my wildest dreams. For all the injustice Keven incurred he never showed it as the years passed. Quietly, he buried his writing and filmmaking side but I knew this was the greatest injustice of all. After he did my deal at NBC, I told him to finish his old film. My dreams had all come true and now it was time for the favor to be returned. He reminded me that the lead actors had refused to return in 1998 for reshoots and that parts of the negative were damaged when it was stolen. I told him you can't have come this far and not have the ability to figure out a way. With that, the mad genius returned. He sifted through hours and hours of old tape. He cast himself and Joe Gear as the new lead actors - knowing he could always count on himself.
He went back to work on the film as if he had never stopped. The funny thing was that the actors who did return ALL looked the same. The ones who had originally turned their backs on the production had all gotten gray, bald or fat. Coincidence? Keven had reshoot after reshoot, re-edit after re-edit... even I began to fear he was going too far.
He made such bold changes, too. To join ageless Misfit stars Doug Sherin and Randal Malone, he cast Danielle Weeks, star of the Oxygen cult hit "Campus Ladies" as his new female lead. Friend and Production Designer AJ Lekowski - designer of the amusement park ride "Jurassic Park" for Universal - loved the project and hopped on board to create a higher end fairy tale setting. Frank Toby Chi - creator of the legendary "Jackie Brown" poster series for Quentin Tarantino - provided a cartoon animation element that is prominent throughout the film. Color correction was no short order as Keven demanded a most distinct look and vividness.
No one was better suited to the task than expert colorist, Joseph Parisella. Parisella not only restored many of the Bond films such as "Goldfinger" and "From Russia with Love", he had also served as chief colorist on umpteen masterpieces including "Bronx Tale", "Alladin", "Beauty and the Beast" and "Joy Luck Club" - just to name a few. Sound came from old Misfit allies, Kyle Shember, Ryan Stuit and Greg Morgenstein ("the Breakup"/"Moulin Rouge") and music came from Boston legends Sir Richard Wentworth and Mike McQuilkin and Chicago boys, Erik Sluga, Joe Labelle and Jay Labelle. In keeping with the quirky nature of the film- and following in the casting vein of Keven's inspiration and idol, John Waters, Undergaro attached TV stars Josie Davis ("Charles in Charge"), former WWE pro wrestling world champion Bob Backlund (USA network's "Monday Night Raw", Spike TV's "TNA") and Fred "Rerun" Berry ("What's Happening") in what would ultimately be Berry's final film appearance. The final, and perhaps most fitting piece to the puzzle, arrived in the form of legendary filmmaker, John Waters. Mr. Waters viewed a rough cut of the film and commented how much "Misfits" reminded him of the films he used to make. So much, in fact, that he agreed to lend his talents as film's Narrator! The collective works of this eclectic bunch and the stalwart efforts of original Misfits' Producers, John Comerford and Joe Gear, as well as new Producer Aaron Strongoni, helped to complete a ten year journey that ended with our World Premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival.
The epilogue to this happy story is that CAA loved the film so much that they urged me to put an ad in Variety comparing Keven to Kevin Smith and the aforementioned, John Waters. Now Keven is developing a sitcom with NBC and Ben Silverman as well as producing another for our production company.
"In the Land of Merry Misfits" is one of the most colorful independent films ever produced with originality that will, no doubt, inspire others. But the backstory is an inspiration of another kind. To other filmmakers out there who are struggling, take heed of Keven's story. He has his negative stolen, his name ruined, his actors abandoned the project and his various rough cuts were rejected by every major festival. Ten years later he is at one of the greatest festivals in the world. Never, ever, abandon your dream. Do everything you can to achieve only the best cut of your film.
The rest I leave to audiences of "In the Land of Merry Misfits."