Gentleman Broncos may be one of the weirdest sci-fi movies you'll see this year. If you haven't heard much (or anything) about it, it's an indie film by Jared Hess, the writer and director of Napoleon Dynamite. Although it will probably play in only a few theaters, it's worth finding one if you want to spend 90 minutes in a fan fiction wet dream.
The movie is about Benjamin (Michael Angarano), who writes sci-fi stories featuring a space hero named Bronco (Sam Rockwell). Benjamin goes to a writer's camp where famous sci-fi author Ronald Chevalier (Jemaine Clement) teaches the proper creation of sci-fi character names. Of course Chevalier steals Benjamin's story, and then the strange aliens-and-space-heroes madness starts.
We had a chance to talk to Hess, who gave us some highlights from the film:
Spot the sci-fi novels in the opening credits. Hess sets the tone right away by pasting his opening credits on the covers of random sci-fi novels. He didn't even remember the names of the novels whose titles he replaced, but he was drawn to the cover art of Frank Kelly Freas. "I'm sure that a die-hard science fiction reader would probably recognize them," Hess said. "It's funny, because when we were looking through all of them, the ones from the '60s were all real space-oriented, with planets and spaceships. Then when you got into the '70s, they got a little more trippy, a little more fantasy-based. We looked through a lot, because we didn't know what we were going to be able to clear."
Chevalier is the ultimate pretentious sci-fi author. Chevalier has some interesting theories on naming space characters with the suffix "onious" and barbarians with "axx." Hess said that was actually the theory of a Hess family friend. No real genre author would be that predictable, right? "I don't really know any science fiction authors, so I have no idea what they're like," Hess said. "Maybe they're all the opposite of Chevalier, or maybe they're all like him. I have no idea."
If you like Chevalier, check out Ronaldchevalier.com.The world of Ronald Chevalier goes beyond the film. The fictional Ronaldchevalier.com exists for die-hard Chevalier fans who need to know more about his seminal work, Cyborg Harpies. "On the Chevalier Web site we have an audio book, him reading an excerpt from Cyborg Harpies, which is a lot of fun," Hess said. "Also a lot of his instructional videos on how to relax yourself before you begin your creative process. The paintings that are on the Web site, like his original artwork. We kind of came up with a lot of the content when we were making the film."
Gonads, yeast and battle stags. There's something you don't see every day. You'll see three versions of Benjamin's story in Gentleman Broncos. Benjamin's hero, Bronco (Rockwell), wakes up on an operating table after an alien procedure has stolen his genitals. He takes them back and continues his quest for the valuable resource yeast, riding battle stags to elude the villains. In Chevalier's stolen version, Bronco becomes the fey, flamboyant Brutus (also Rockwell). Thirdly, a local filmmaker shoots a VHS version of Yeast Lords around town.
Yeast is worth its weight in gold. Yeast is the valuable resource that has Bronco fighting aliens. Lots of sci-fi stories have some generic resource that serves the plot. In Dune, they were mining spice. "This was our spice for this film, for sure," Hess said. "I think there's even spice in the Star Wars world, at least in the role-playing version of Star Wars, I think there's spice. It's funny, [my wife and co-writer] Jerusha's grandmother is a real big proponent of brewer's yeast. She thinks it's really good to eat. She says it's good for your brain. That's kind of where we decided to use yeast, was her big love for it."
No matter how you spin it, Broncos is cheesy. No version of Benjamin's story is a high-tech space opera. At best it looks like they used a soundstage, but an old original-series Star Trek soundstage. Then there's the VHS backyard version. It's kind of nice to see good old-fashioned cheesy sci-fi after years of Star Wars and Matrixes. "Things have increasingly had bigger budgets, and as technology has advanced, things have gotten real big," Hess said. "To me there's a certain charm where the effects were more in camera, back in the day. A lot of the newer films have lost that charm, I think, just because of how glossy and perfect they are. So, this being a comedy, we wanted to do that."
They reference real sci-fi too, not just their own. Hess didn't only create his own science-fiction satire. He modeled some scenes after pre-existing material, but even my Star Trek comparison was inaccurate. "One series that we referenced was this British TV series called UFO, which was really cool, that I think aired in the late '60s, early '70s," Hess said. "We definitely borrowed from some of the more cult science-fiction stuff that had limited resources. We borrowed a lot from that aesthetic."
Look for one big sci-fi reference. In the Benjamin version of the Brutus story, the space helmets may look a tad familiar. You'd still have to notice obscure details, though. "Yeah, the hats that they're wearing in the first Brutus sequence that we see are the ones that the flight attendants in 2001: A Space Odyssey are wearing when they're walking upside down on the ship," Hess said. "We borrowed a lot of wardrobe things from some of my favorite older science fiction films."
In the future, people will have flesh pockets. One of the crazy effects in the Brutus story is a character with flesh pockets. That's just what it sounds like: There are pockets in his love handles where he can keep things for later. "That was a prosthetic that our creature shop built over at Alterian," Hess said. "They took a cast of the actor and just made a flesh pocket. The idea came from Jerusha's cousin, whose theory is when everybody dies and goes to heaven, they're going to be naked, but he's like, 'Where do you put your hands?' Everyone's going to have flesh pockets."
Gentlemen Broncos means nothing. In an earlier interview with a group of reporters, Hess explained the obscure title. He got it from a chapter in a parenting book his mom had. The "Gentlemen Broncos" stage is the year or so of teenage life where boys start taking their shirts off, or something. He cribbed it because it included the name of Benjamin's hero character.
The film opens Oct. 30.