The idea for A Thousand Deaths came to me in a Las Vegas video arcade, which is probably no big surprise — the arcade part, that is. I had become quite fond of a game called Time Crisis, which is sort of your typical stand-up, coin-op, plastic electronic gun, shoot the bad guys to save the day affair. Or, in the case of this game, save the damsel in distress.
During one particular game session I was doing fairly well, racking up a pretty impressive body count of cyber-terrorists, when I caught sight of a young lad out of the corner of my eye. He, too, was playing a similar shoot-em-up and seemed utterly hypnotized as he mindlessly blew away each human simulation. It really made me stop to think about what I was doing. On one hand, I was simply playing a game similar to those I had played all my life (to date I have yet to mount a clock tower with a high-powered rifle as a result of this activity). But the bad guy images I was splattering, soulless as they were, were still of people. I really had to wonder if activities such as these can desensitize a certain few individuals to a higher reality. I also knew there was a story in this somewhere.
Prior to my weekend sojourn, we on staff had been deep in discussion on how to integrate an organization called The Buckaroos into a script. This is the same club of historic re-enactors who we hired for Way Out West” The group, in their own old west guises and accouterments, were that episode’s background players. The Buckaroos were inexpensive because they provided their own costumes and props, were extremely dependable and professional, and were just a lot of fun to have around. It’s groups like these that can add a lot to the production value of a show and make it seem much bigger than the budget will allow. The Buckaroos are also involved in Civil War recreations and David wanted to make use of them in that capacity. The trouble was we had no story to put them in. After a number of brainstorming sessions we failed to come up with a premise that we liked. We eventually put the notion aside.
That is, until I came back from Vegas. I quickly wrote out a three-page synopsis for the idea, which I had hashed out on the trip home, and forwarded it to David. The basic concept was, “What if video-game characters were really living beings?” It hit the marks and he quickly approved it. A good thing too. We were in a script crunch and needed something in less than a week. I managed to write a pre-production draft in five days. A new record for me.
Despite its dark tone, “A Thousand Deaths” proved to be a lot of fun for cast, crew and especially yours truly. Among other things, it gave me a chance to put in the “fast-food war” gag. Sort of a throwback to some of the first-season alternate-world vignettes, I had been saving it for just the right episode.
There were very few major changes made to the final version of the script. The aforementioned fast-food-war sequence had to be whittled down from four scenes to one. And Mr. Einman’s trade character, Roadkill Rabbit, was eventually replaced by Lisa Leopard and Melina Mouse. We didn’t have time to make a full-sized rabbit suit and we couldn’t find one ready-made that wouldn’t require a licensing fee. The gag turned out to be just as funny, if not funnier. It’s always a pleasant surprise when those misfortunes turn out for the best.
Being originally from the Detroit area, I grew up on Motown music. As such I really enjoyed any opening to build on Rembrandt’s backstory, particularly where his career was concerned. This script provided me with a chance to explore a television opportunity for The Cryin’ Man. One that could have been but wasn’t. Plus, as a general rule of thumb, it’s always a good practice to try to occasionally put your main characters in a situation that will show them in a different light. In this episode our actors rose to the challenge. Cleavant made a superb ’70s cop. Kari and Robert were great Civil War soldiers, and the male members of the staff were all quite taken with Tembi’s very convincing hooker.
Rembrandt’s cop-scenario scenes turned out to be a lot of fun to produce. From the costuming down to the style of the music, it was pure ’70s. My favorite moment occurred in pre-production, when I first laid eyes on Remmy’s “ride.” In the script I indicated that Fred’s car should be something along the lines of a Starsky and Hutch hot rod, citing that famous vehicle as more of a reference than anything else. Imagine my surprise when our transportation coordinator Gary Hellerstein showed up with the Starsky and Hutch car! Actually, it was one of several that were still around, but the fact that Gary could put his hands on one so quickly reinforced my already high opinion of our crew’s resourcefulness and tenacity. It also instilled in me a sense of power. “Hmmm,” I thought to myself, “what should I ask for next?”
Cleavant and Kevin West, the actor who portrayed Fred, took the 70s sequences and made them their own. Like some kind of wacky sliding Laurel and Hardy, the two of them really clicked. They even went on to ad lib a couple of new bits into the scenes. Between the improvisations and their own take on the script, they had us all in stitches.
For “A Thousand Deaths,” our production company seemed to be all over the place, with three different and very diverse locations planned. A rarity for us. The Civil War scenes were actually shot at Tapia Park, a public facility in Calabasas just a few miles from my house. The Arcade exteriors were shot at the Universal City Walk, a touristy outdoor mall affair that is part of Universal Studios but is outside the theme park. Ironically enough, our streets of New York scenes were not shot on the New York Street part of the Universal back lot. We had been bumped by Arnold — Arnold Schwarzenegger, that is. He was on the lot shooting his next film End Of Days and the street sets were unavailable to us.
I found it strangely curious that the only time that we needed to use New York Street as an actual street in New York (rather than L.A.) we couldn’t. It worked out for the best, though. We found an area in Downtown L.A. that looked better than our own artificial New York Streets, and the episode benefited because of it. The strangest location, though, was the Siphoning Room. It was actually shot in one of those motion ride/movie theater contraptions located on City Walk. During our initial scout of the facility before selecting it as a location, the manager treated the entire production staff to the Street Luge show. Good thing we did the scout before lunch.
Principal photography on “A Thousand Deaths” was completed on February 12, 1999. Little did I know that, several months later, after a rash of public shootings, the episode’s subject matter would become tragically topical. It begs the question: Does life imitate art, or vice-versa?
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