Sacramento’s master of horror
Our writer spends the weekend on a shoot with Bob Moricz, the region’s premier underground filmmaker, and gets a tutorial in blood, guts—and art.
Saturday, February 18, 2006, 11 a.m., rendezvous at Costco
“Well, here’s the deal. I lost my hooker. But I found a replacement. She’s still getting hookered up, so we’ll meet in another hour.”
Local underground auteur Bob Moricz is explaining why the Costco parking-lot rendezvous with the cast and crew of his latest Sacsploitation film project has been delayed with a change of venue.
It’s back to the filmmaker’s house to regroup.
12 p.m., Epiphany Sink headquarters
Replacement hooker Magdalena Jones arrives at Moricz’s house and apologizes for the bright green fitted jacket, tight jeans and 4-inch stacked heels. Her closet wasn’t exactly full of “hooker clothes,” she says. Moricz is just happy she’s there. When asked why she canceled her own plans and agreed to play a grisly murder victim on such short notice, she just shrugs.
“It’s Bob,” she says.
Through his one-man production company, Epiphany Sink Motion Pictures (http://epiphanysink.com), Moricz has produced locally three feature-length films and more than a dozen shorts featuring various tales of murder, mad scientists and flesh-eating viruses. His ultra-low-budget horror movies have been featured in film festivals from Spokane, Wash., to the Philippines.
Last year, as a 32nd-birthday present to himself, Moricz wrote a 126-page feature-length film script called Palace of Stains—a gothic and bloody soap opera about three warring families. It was largely shot in a single weekend and had more than 40 speaking parts, one for every person who requested it. More than 50 cast and crew members, many friends affiliated with Sacramento’s homegrown entertainment scene, gathered at Moricz’s house to help him achieve his vision for the film. (For details and disclosures on this intertwining scene—one that includes multiple SN&R employees—see the sidebar “Six degrees of Moricz separation.”)
To pull off Palace of Stains, Moricz had three co-directors and seven digital video cameras working in four separate units simultaneously throughout Sacramento. The Palace shoot was such a spectacle it inspired a “making of” documentary, Happy birthday, Bob: Behind the Stains, by two participants, Sarah and Damian Sol.
But this weekend, Moricz is taking a break from editing Palace to work on something small—i.e., the one with the replacement hooker. He’s shooting an entire short movie on a pair of borrowed Super 8 cameras with a small cast and a crew of four. As the title suggests, Spree! All the Way to Mexico tracks a pair of spree killers on the lam murdering their way to the border. Moricz calls it “a gory allegory for the seedy society in which we all live.”
This description could apply to Moricz’s whole catalog.
His films acknowledge the unseemly fallout of the culture we live in, relying on tone and intensity rather than finely structured plots. By making art out of the scary, violent and disturbing aspects of life, Moricz creates something absurd, outrageous and funny. Many view his art as a tool for change and a way to get people back in touch with myths and archetypes that, he said, “center us and keep us on track.”
“I hate post-modernism,” Moricz wrote on a blog site. “It is cynical and limited. … We are hyenas if our only artistic possibility is ripping up stuff that’s already there and rearranging it into new Frankenstein creations.
“I want to make something new and fresh that still connects to the stories handed down in our very DNA. … I do believe that something beautiful (or hideous) can unite us all and save the world. I believe in Super-Modernism!”
12:30 p.m., friends and lovers
Moricz walks quickly through the small, beautiful Midtown bungalow he shares with his wife, Irina Beffa, and their one-eyed cat, Stinky. Beffa is friendly and enthusiastic. Her dark hair frames an eager, wide-eyed smile that hints at mischief. She kisses him sweetly and disappears into the office to continue the graphic-design work on the promotional materials for Palace.
Moricz and Beffa met at a mutual workplace seven years ago and quickly formed an artistic partnership. She pursues painting for herself but often works as art director, prop designer and set decorator on Moricz’s films. It’s an understatement to say that Beffa is an active part of Moricz’s moviemaking life. “She can see right through my bullshit,” he said. “She’s my most valuable critic. She gets it.”
At a recent retrospective screening of his earlier works, Beffa said it felt almost like watching a series of home movies—a documentation of their life together.
For this weekend, two friends and fellow filmmakers have come up from San Jose to help with the Spree! shoot. Cinematographer Eric Ipsen and “star” Orlando Furioso have been collaborating with Moricz since they went to high school together in Redwood City.
Moricz says that Ipsen “always has an idea of how to frame something to be even more twisted than I would have thought of.” And Furioso, Moricz says, “has been with me since the beginning. I love him in everything I put him in.”
Right now he’s in drag.
Furioso has submitted to the latest humiliation for Spree! and poured his 6-foot-5-inch frame into a beautiful black satin Chinese-print dress and a full face of makeup. He had the costume custom-made by his mother and then had to make two trips to Sacramento from San Jose in one night because he forgot to bring it with him the first time.
12:50 p.m., horror hotel
In an upstairs room at the Canterbury Inn off Highway 160, Quenton Hamlin and J. Greenberg join the crew and start unpacking boxes of lights, gels and props. As much as he likes the rich look of it, Moricz can only shoot on film once a year because of the cost restrictions. Between the $15 sticker price for each three-minute roll and development fees ($15 per roll), the cost of Spree!, in film alone, is about $10 per minute.
When asked what he would do if given a pile of money and a Hollywood contract, Moricz quickly backs away. The height of his aspiration is “50 people in each state that like my movies.” He’s content to trade favors with friends and support the network of local amateur filmmakers.
As a favor to his replacement hooker, Jones, he decides to shoot all her sex and death scenes first. He starts by politely asking all the nonessential personnel to leave the room. He’s actually a bit embarrassed by what he’s about to do.
1:30 p.m., waiting around outside
As Moricz and the camera crew shoot the replacement hooker’s scenes inside the hotel, Angela Hansen arrives outside and shows off a sexy costume she’s prepared for her role as a bounty hunter. This is her third outing for Moricz. In addition to Palace, she was part of a pack of zombies walking through the streets of Midtown in various states of self-applied decomposition for his previous feature, The Midnight of My Life.
Out on the walkway, Hamlin tells Hansen that Palace looks great. “Bob edits really well. We won’t have to hide in the back [of the theater].”
Moricz hides out at the back of his house in a tiny red-walled closet to do his editing. A small desk, a 12-inch television and a MacroSystem Draco editing unit take up most of the available space. A chair is wedged between a guitar amplifier and the permanently open closet door. Moricz has spent the past four months here paring more than 20 hours of raw footage down to the 90-minute version of Palace that will premiere, along with the Happy birthday, Bob documentary about the film, at the Crest Theatre on March 24.
Editing is the bulk of the work on any film project. Back in the bad old pre-digital days, he used two VCRs and a lot of patience. The Draco is a low-fi compromise to expensive and virus-prone computer equipment. Moricz says, “Editing is the most fun. These are the moments I live for: the surprises, shocks and instabilities that come with filmmaking on the fly. That’s where the magic is.”
1:50 p.m., walkway confessions
Greenberg bursts out of the hotel and asks the nonessential personnel for all the cash they have on them. He needs to pay the hooker. He disappears quickly with the greenbacks.
A half-hour later, some applause is heard from inside, and Moricz strolls out. “That was intense,” he says.
Greenberg hands back all the borrowed cash, and then Jones comes out in rumpled clothes and with purple makeup on her face and throat, looking like the recently strangled. Moricz whirls around to his replacement hooker with genuine gratitude. “Thanks again for bailing my ass out.” Jones smiles widely. “That’s the most anti-feminist thing I’ve done all day,” she says. She laughs, gives him a hug and leaves.
Moricz grins. “I’m having so much fun.”
But the origin of inspiration for Moricz’s film obsession was not so fun. When he was 4 years old, he witnessed an awful car wreck on the street where he lived in Redwood City. It was terrifyingly loud. An injured toddler was pulled out of the wreckage, head covered in blood and strangely quiet. According to Moricz, the incident started a lifetime of macabre and weird nightmares.
Over time, he said, he’s learned to mine those nightmares for film ideas.
He said the car wreck also set the stage for his love of horror films as he sublimated his angst into images of blood. Horror became a way to confront and conquer his fear while still acknowledging the unconventional, ugly, raw side of life in a way mainstream movies rarely do. Later he understood the metaphors of societal injustice and hidden agendas. And he came to understand the vicarious thrill of fear, as played out with serial killers, ineffectual authority figures, and stalked victims desperately running away from the evil thing. Now, he makes his own films, he says, “to quell the psychic terror.”
An only child of Hungarian immigrants, Moricz was raised as a bilingual latchkey kid, spending hours at home alone with the VCR for company. As a first-generation American, he was always a little out of step with his peers. Moricz says he was “always the kid with the weird food in my lunch. I talked funny, my parents were older, and they didn’t speak much English.”
Moricz says his real interest in filmmaking started around the same time as the car accident. His father was a camera nut who owned a Super 8 and bought one of the original bulky home VHS cameras. He made a movie with young Bob “that made me disappear like in Bewitched. I saw that, and I couldn’t believe it.” On some level, he understood that “you could force people’s perceptions into a different place.”
At age 10, Moricz started making movies of his own and never looked back. “It’s what I live for and love the most in this life.”
2:30 p.m., mentor madness
While waiting for a second unit to finish shooting outdoor scenes, Moricz takes a break and confesses, “This is the most pleasant shoot I’ve had in a long time.” On previous films, he’s been a control freak. But after the logistical nightmare of shooting Palace forced him to get help, he found giving up control of some things (like the camera) has broadened the scope of what he can do and actually made the experience more fun. He is still the director with a clear vision of what he wants, but he also leaves plenty of wiggle room to adapt.
It’s something he learned from his friends and mentors, the legendary ’60s/’70s underground filmmakers George and Mike Kuchar. Contemporaries of Andy Warhol and Kenneth Anger, the Kuchar brothers influenced and inspired much of the underground movie scene for decades.
Reading the Kuchars’ book, Reflections from a Cinematic Cesspool, allowed Moricz to let go of his frustration with video by embracing the “tawdry qualities of the medium.”
When Moricz realized George lived in the Bay Area, he decided to look him up in the phonebook and give him a call. George invited Moricz to hang out in his film class at the San Francisco Art Institute, where they hit it off immediately and showed each other their work. “George always had the nicest things to say, and that really kept me going when I was feeling misunderstood and rejected by the world.”
George introduced Moricz to the Draco unit and convinced him to look for the soul and vibrancy of a work rather than obsess on the perfectionism of technical proficiency. When Mike Kuchar complimented The Midnight of My Life, Moricz said it “was one of the happiest moments of my movie-making life. To me, the godfather of camp’s seal of approval is way more meaningful than an Oscar!”
4 p.m., another death
Back on the set, Furioso clutches a bedsheet close to cover his not-naked body and slyly pulls a plastic gun from the bed-stand drawer. Hansen, the bounty hunter, throws herself back, simulating the impact of a bullet. With the bloody makeup applied, she does her best cold-eyed dead stare to make a convincing corpse.
At some point farther down the line, the shooting will be set to a soundtrack.
Indeed, Moricz intends to score Spree! himself. In addition to writing, acting, directing and editing, Moricz wrote the theme song for Palace of Stains. He’s played his own guitar compositions around Sacramento as his alter-ego, Bob Barango, “the Devil’s Troubadour.” But he’s focusing on movies for now. The copy at www.bobbarango.com says, “For the time being, Bob Barango is taking an extended hiatus from performing his gut-wrenchingly passionate songs to a bunch of drunks.”
5 p.m., brown stuff
Moricz is using a lighter and a chocolate bar to give a rubber George Dubya mask a “shit-eating grin.” It’s simultaneously disgusting and funny. When he puts it on, his character becomes a twisted acknowledgement of the national frustration with dirty politics.
The entire crew buzzes, meanwhile, about the upcoming premiere of Palace of Stains. Furioso says Palace was an “amazing feat.” Moricz humbly shakes his head and says, “What’s amazing is that it doesn’t suck shit.”
Sunday, February 19, 2006 11:15 a.m., red balloons
Greenberg has brought his 4-year-old daughter, Maya, to Southside Park for a small scene in Spree! Maya is engaging and articulate and watches everyone closely. She quickly warms up to Moricz and tells him he looks funny. Amused, Moricz gently talks her through the simple scene of handing a balloon to him. Maya keeps turning around to look at the camera. Eventually she gets it right. Moricz is right on cue, “Perfect! Beautiful! You’re the best actor I’ve worked with today.”
In fact, Moricz has honed his ability to connect with kids by working for the last five years as a high-school English teacher in Sacramento’s south area.
He prefers to keep his filmmaking life very separate from his teaching. The overlap is in his ability to see and appreciate people as themselves and guide their enthusiasm.
“Bob has an excellent rapport with the kids,” says fellow English teacher Tracy Williams-Anderson. “He knows when to kid around with them and when to be serious. He has a really good understanding of why we are here and what our purpose is as educators.”
The students think Mr. Moricz is weird in a good way. They tune in to his self-deprecating style and seem to bolster their own egos on the back of his. When asked what she thinks of Mr. Moricz, one student replies in a pitch-perfect imitation of Moricz himself, “He’s evil, and he must die.” Then she bursts into giggles.
12:20 p.m., loving the landfill
Hamlin chases Moricz at a full run, splashing through shallow rain puddles on a wide expanse of pavement at Sutter’s Landing Park near the landfill at the far northeast corner of Midtown. They don’t slow down until they surpass Ipsen catching it all on film.
“How’d the puddles look?” Moricz asks between deep gasps. Ipsen says, “This might be the money shot.”
Near the entrance to the paved lot off the access road, Hamlin’s cop character is about to get gunned down by Furioso. For the first time in the entire shoot, Moricz seems agitated that the scene is not going like he wants it to. He’s frenetic and frustrated with himself and knows he’s giving mixed messages.
A squad car drives by and ignores the scene. A park ranger right afterward turns his vehicle around to investigate. Hamlin runs out to meet him. Moricz and Furioso quickly stash the plastic shotgun and try to give the impression of just hanging out, reminiscent of teenagers caught smoking. Ipsen has faith in Hamlin’s ability to sweet-talk. He’s done it before, when he and Moricz were pulled over after shooting a risqué scene for Palace of Stains. The actress looked younger than she really was, and a concerned bystander had called the police. After seeing the woman’s ID and talking to Hamlin, the officer politely let them go.
Sure enough, Hamlin jogs up a few seconds later. “It’s all good,” he says. “He just wanted to make sure it was fake.” The ranger drives off, and the guns come out again.
Moricz is intensely happy. “Sacramento!” he shouts. “My kind of town.”
“Sacramento has been very kind to me,” Moricz says. “As soon as I went to a Trash Film Orgy, I knew I had found my new hometown. Sacramento has the best locations, and people aren’t stuck up and snotty here.”
Moricz particularly enjoys Sacramento for its buried underside, farming-town gothic overtones and creepy history. He casually lists off a string of local serial killers, including the vampire of Sacramento—Richard Trenton Chase—and, of course, Midtown’s own Dorothea Puente, who, a decade ago, murdered her tenants and buried them in the yard.
1:10 p.m., too much bleach
After reassuring the proprietor that the crew is not shooting porn, Moricz secures a dark hole of a room at the Golden Tee motel on Auburn Boulevard. The place has an overpowering smell of bleach, an indeterminate carpet color and walls yellowed by years of cigarette smoke.
Everyone in the group is finally starting to show signs of fatigue, but they’re buoyed by the fact that this reeking room is their last location. They are waiting around for Keith Lowell Jensen (a mad psychiatrist in The Midnight of My Life) to arrive and be the last body in the count. After Jensen’s priest character dies, they have some driving shots around town, and then all the filming will be done.
On a Moricz project, there is no promise of money, fame or glory, but a guarantee of outrageous and offensive antics almost always involving death and stage blood. It’s a singular kind of fun that seems to become addictive for the participants who continue returning for more.
Moricz says, “I’ve been very lucky with my actors. They are very generous with what they give me. If someone is a pain in the ass, I find it a fascinating experiment. Will I be able to bend this person by sheer force of will, or will I explode in a melodramatic fit of vainglorious fury? It keeps things interesting.”
So far, no fits of fury. Moricz can go back to his editing closet tomorrow ready to transform his next slice of nightmare into a fast-paced piece of art.
Full disclosure! Jennifer Greenman, who wrote this story, played a zombie in The Midnight of My Life. She also let Bob Moricz use her backyard to shoot parts of that movie and Palace of Stains.