Remembering the past and a Milwaukee punk legend with "Time Trek"
Nearly 40 years ago, 14-year-old Paul McComas used his father's hand-me-down Regular 8 mm camera to make a collection of homemade "Star Trek" mini-episodes, complete with transportation effects and raging (toy) dinosaurs. Now, with the help of McComas' older self, the previously unseen voyages of "Time Trek" will hit the screen.
The 48-minute movie, the latest in the Milwaukee-raised writer/filmmaker's nationally and internationally recognized "No-Budget Theatre" film series, will be making its world premiere Saturday night at Shank Hall. The event, called "Requiem for Richard/Rover Rescue," starts at 8 p.m., with three screenings scheduled throughout the night. The film is goofy, kitschy and full of self-referential humor, but it also has an ingenious DIY charm that could only come from a kid – and an adult – madly in love with the movies.
"I believe in movies shot on film," McComas said. "I believe in the movie house. I believe in the big screen. I believe in the shared experience. I believe in what the film theorist Parker Tyler called 'the daylight dream.'"
It's a very personal project for McComas, digging almost four decades into his own past for material. When it first started, however, no one could expect how meaningful the final product would become and for how many people. But let's not make like Captain Bob Turner and the rest of his crew, and jump too far forward in time.
The project's origins travel back all the way when McComas, 11 years old at the time, received a Regular 8 camera from his father, who no longer needed it after upgrading to a Super 8 camera. Thus began a prolific filmmaking tear that would make even the likes of Woody Allen jealous.
"I immediately put all of my allowance money toward buying film, getting it processed, splicing and editing," McComas recalled.
Four years and about 20 short films later, the young McComas – in love with sci-fi, horror, monsters and therefore, logically "Star Trek" – began work on "Time Trek," a four-part journey through space and through time starring himself, his friends and his relatives.
The shorts – featuring names like "The Evolutionary War" and "Operation: Clone" – combine cheesy but brilliant homemade effects (many the result of trial and error, according to McComas) with stories that managed to anticipate future "Star Trek" plot elements, such as a friendly Klingon crewman, a female captain and a Borg-like creation called The Head.
"I won't sue Paramount if they don't sue me first for ripping off their entire franchise in the first place," McComas joked.
The chronicles of "Time Trek" proceeded to make the neighborhood festival rounds, with McComas making posters and charging 50 cents or a dollar for tickets. Eventually, the young Roddenberry-in-the-making grew up, and his early amateur films were put away.
But about a decade ago, McComas uncovered "Time Trek" and the 50 or so other movies that he made as a child in the basement of his parents' house. Still a massive movie buff, McComas decided to turn his old childhood projects into new cinema, re-editing the film and adding audio to create "No-Budget Theatre." After seven successful chapters, he took on his longest rejuvenation project yet: "Time Trek."
Starting in 2009, McComas began filming additional segments (on a Super 8 camera this time to keep the visuals somewhat uniform) with almost all of the movies' original cast members, albeit all grown up. He also added some extra special effects and a never-before-recorded audio track with the help of sound engineer Maya Kuper. Kuper also voices Capt. Jennings, played on screen by Julia Sackin, who sadly died in the time between its original filming and its rediscovery. In the end, McComas guesses the original film prints are still about 80 percent of the final product.
The new "Time Trek" allowed McComas to continue collaborating with his younger self, but also with one of his idols: Oil Tasters frontman and local punk icon Richard LaValliere. As a teenager spending his summers in Milwaukee in the '80s, McComas was a huge fan of the energetic bass-led punk rockers, mainly due to what he called "their sheer f*cking brilliance."
"It was clear to me once I engaged with (the Milwaukee punk scene), the most vital, exciting work was being done by Richard and the Oil Tasters," McComas said. "They had a unique sound. They were extremely exciting to watch live. Richard was a consummate showman in all of his bands. His lyrics were so damn clever, funny and relatable. You got them on so many levels, if your eyes and ears were open."
LaValliere made such an impact on McComas that when McComas wrote "Planet of the Dates," a 2008 coming-of-age novel set in '80s Milwaukee, he couldn't help make a reference to the Oil Tasters.
As it turns out, LaValliere found out about the shout-out a year later and reached out to McComas. The two became fast friends, sharing a bond for crazy punk music and kitschy old movie redubs (LaValliere made his own amateur films as well, snatching public-domain foreign films and stag films, dubbing over the dialogue with his own scripts and giving them ridiculous names like "Banana Nude Assassin" and "The Naked Nudes of Bare-Ass Creature Island").
"Richard and I found whatever opportunities we could in our three year period to get together and to work together," McComas said.
The two joined forces for "Time Trek," with Richard composing and performing the soundtrack (or "SoundTrek" as the CD calls it), as well as making a brief appearance as "Leader of the Cave People." Sadly, LaValliere passed away in February 2012 before he was able to completely finish the music. However, Richard did leave several raw recordings that McComas and Kuper were able to put together into a soundtrack.
"Richard gave us all this music," Kuper said. "Just hours of music that he had recorded that nobody had ever heard. Unreleased stuff that he just gave to Paul. I never got to meet Richard, but I had access to this stuff where we could hear him working through things, like, 'Here's the guitar for this part where they're coming up to the stairs,' and then he'd play some licks. It was kind of mind-blowing."
LaValliere's catchy guitar riffs, seemingly influenced by '60s era spy music, match the movie almost perfectly, while McComas' goofy lyrics (mostly sung by Kuper) capture his bizarre wit on songs like "Romulan Globule Creature" and "Anigavoid Attack!" It's a fitting final addition to the beloved rocker's resume.
"In a way, a collaborative project is the most fitting final work for Richard LaValliere because he worked with and inspired so many people over the course of his various bands," McComas said. "He brought everyone up toward his level – not to say to his level; that would be impossible. Everyone who worked with Richard worked better because they were with him."
To pay respect to both LaValliere's final works and his career as a whole, speeches in honor of the punk-rock legend will be scattered in between the three showings at Saturday night's event. The Taste Oilers, McComas' tribute band, will also perform, and all the profits gathered from the $10 door fee and purchases of the $15 two-disc "Time Trek" DVD/CD combo will go toward the Wisconsin Humane Society, one of LaValliere's favorite charities.
"Time Trek" may be a lot of rock-fueled sci-fi silliness, but it also comes with a great deal of heart, fondly reminiscing about the days and friends gone too soon.
"It's funny to say about someone that I only knew personally for three years, but he was one of my best friends," McComas said. "And before he was ever my friend, he was a role model."
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