Space Truckers (1996) Retrospective

SUMMARY
At a corporation’s base on the Neptunian moon Triton, mercenaries are setting up a defense perimeter to try to hold off an unstoppable cyborg warrior. The commander Saggs and scientist Nabel seal themselves inside the control room. The cyborg destroys the soldiers’ tank and then attacks a helicopter, which crashes into the control room. The soldiers are killed one by one, until Nabel finally deactivates the cyborg with a remote control. The remaining corporate employees discover that the cyborg was created by Nabel for company owner E.J. Saggs. Saggs takes the remote from Nabel. He reactivates the cyborg and orders it to kill Nabel.

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Meanwhile, John Canyon, one of the last independent “space truckers”, drops off his cargo of square pigs at a “truck stop” space station, but becomes embroiled in a brawl with the trucking company head, Keller, who is sucked out into space. He and his two passengers—Cindy, a waitress who has promised to marry him in exchange for a ride to Earth to see her mother, and Mike, an up-and-coming trucker working for the company—take on a deal to transport alleged sex dolls to Earth. Chased by police investigating Keller’s death, John takes his rig into the “scum zone”, a region controlled by pirates. The rig takes damage, leaving them adrift; they are soon captured by the pirate ship Regalia, commanded by the company-hating Captain Macanudo. Cindy agrees to have sex with him if he would take the cargo and let them go.

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The captain is revealed to be Nabel, who rebuilt his grievously injured body and went into piracy as revenge against Saggs for betraying him. The cargo that John’s rig is carrying is in fact a full supply of the cyborg warriors Nabel designed and built for Saggs’ company. One of the cyborgs comes alive, kills most of the crew, and severely damages the ship. John, Cindy and Mike take their rig and escape as the Regalia explodes. As they make their way back to Earth, John and Mike find a mortally wounded Macanudo in the hold, who reveals the true nature of the cargo to them. John releases Cindy from any obligation of marrying him, and tells her and Mike to take the escape pod while he releases the cargo in the atmosphere, where it will burn up on re-entry. Cindy and Mike land safely, but the rig is unable to return to space and explodes in the sky; however, John is able to safely escape before the explosion.

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John, Cindy and Mike go to the hospital to see Cindy’s mother, who became sick twenty years earlier and was frozen until a cure was found; John is smitten with her at first sight. Meanwhile, Saggs—now President of Earth after the government was privatized—visits John, Cindy and Mike in the hospital, where he offers John a new rig and gives the trio a suitcase full of money to keep them quiet about his cyborg invasion plan. John agrees to the deal, but Mike angrily throws the suitcase out the window. Below, Saggs re-enters his presidential limousine; having planted a bomb in the suitcase, he triggers the detonator just as the suitcase lands on his limousine’s roof, killing him. With Saggs dead and Earth safe, Mike, Cindy, John and Cindy’s mother blast off in their brand new rig.

DEVELOPMENT/PRE-PRODUCTION
Unlike a lot of studio pictures, SPACE TRUCKERS had only one screenwriter, Ted Mann. “Ted and I just knocked out the scenes of the story together, and he would go out and write a draft,” Gordon explained. “We would go over it together, and make changes. It was done very much in tandem. We were both frustrated astronauts, so we were on the same wavelength.

We had to start dealing with the budget and realized that certain sequences as written would not be affordable, so Ted and I would go back and think about how could we do this simpler. Instead of having five locations, could we do the sequence in two?”

According to Gordon, the solutions he and Mann found often improved the sequences. “For example,” he said, “in the earlier drafts, the InterPork henchmen hijack John Canyon’s load, and there was this elaborate scene of him having to couple his rig to the back end of their booster and work his way across the cargo, break into the tow truck, where there’s a fight, and it ends up with one of these characters getting sucked out through the window.

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Once the film was written and designed, it needed to be cast. Gordon selected Dennis Hopper to play John Canyon because he was a fan of Hopper’s work and because he needed someone who conveyed the impression of being a veteran of life, a quintessential maverick. Hopper proved interested in playing a sympathetic character for a change. “Dennis Hopper has really been quite wonderful,” said Gordon, “because what he did from the very beginning is made it very clear that he wanted John Canyon to be a real person. I felt that his decision was right on the money. He felt that there was so much stuff in the movie that was strange and funny and weird, that there had to be somebody in there who grounded it. He really underplayed him and made him a very real guy and resisted getting too big with him, because if you do that, it’s like a parody of a parody and you end up with nothing. He wanted to be someone who the audience could relate to and think, “This is me in this situation.’ It’s a very rich portrayal. The fear in something like this is that it could turn into something like SPACEBALLS. In order for there to be real tension, there had to be characters that you cared about and were worried about, and Dennis was able to do that.

“He contributed a lot of things,” Gordon added. “The hat he wears is something that Dennis came up with. The costume designer had come up with a whole bunch of hats, and one of the hats that he made had a brim that would snap off so that you could wear it inside a space helmet. Dennis took a look at it and just unsnapped it and wore it like that, and the result is a hat that looks very much like a rebel soldier’s in the Civil War when he wears it with the short brim, which I think really set up the sense that John Canyon was an independent trucker, a postmodern rebel.

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“One of best lines in the movie is something that Dennis came up with right on the set, that was not scripted at all: after they have made a daring escape Mike says, “That’s some of the best driving I ever saw.’ Dennis just turns to him and says, “Pedal to the metal and played footsie with fate.’ The whole crew just sat there with their mouths hanging open, which was great.

“He was very much there for us. He was also supportive of the whole process when there were those delays. Other movie stars would have gotten nervous and gone with another project or bailed, but Dennis stuck with us. Dennis brought in Stephen Dorff, and Stephen really idolizes Dennis. Stephen had some questions whether a film called SPACE TRUCKERS would be a good career move, and Dennis said to him, “You can have fun with this,’ and they really kind of bonded in a kind of father son relationship.”

Stephen Dorff plays Mike Pucci, who makes a deal with Cindy the waitress that if he can get her to Earth, she will marry him. “Dorff is like a young Dennis Hopper,” Gordon said. “In the story his character starts out wanting to work for the big corporation, but by the end of the movie he is an independent trucker. He becomes a young John Canyon. There’s even a line in the movie John Canyon says, “I don’t want you to end up like me. ‘Stephen Dorff says, ‘Heaven forbid.’ At that point you know he will.

“Stephen Dorff is like Dennis in that he approaches things very realistically. If he can’t believe it, he can’t do it. He took what was a very sketchy character in the script and fleshed him out to make him real. He caught on to what we’re going for. “White trash in space’ is how he put it, trailer park guys who are in space.”

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Cindy is played by Debi Mazar. Claimed Gordon, “I could actually say the part was written for her. Ted Mann and she worked together on a TV series called CIVIL WARS, where she played a secretary in a divorce attorney’s office. I used to watch the show and became a big fan of hers. When we were working on the first couple of drafts, the part was very bland and uninteresting, and Ted and I were talking about some ways to develop the character, and at one point, one of us mentioned why don’t we make it to Debi Mazar and from that point on, the part just took on a life of its own. She came in and read the part. There were no doubts that she should play that part.”

Gordon originally went with Ron Houser for the part of Captain Macanudo, who has been partially disintegrated and rebuilt, his inner workings visible through a transparent plastic shell. But the actor was replaced partway into shooting. Explains Gordon, “He is a wonderful actor, but it was one of those situations where his style of acting was at odds with what everyone else was doing. While everyone else was trying to ground their performances for the audience, Ron went in the opposite direction a bit.”

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To replace him, Gordon went with Charles Dance, who had also been under consideration for the part. “Charles Dance was a happy accident, in a way,” Gordon recalls. “We were staying at the same hotel as he was, in London, and ran into him in the lobby one day and described the movie, and he said, ‘Let me look at the script. About a week later, I got a call from him that he wanted to play Captain Macanudo. I found out later that he had liked the script but wasn’t sure as this character was very different from anything that he had ever played before, and he showed it to his teenage daughter who said, ‘This is great, Dad. You should do this.’ That convinced him. No one has ever seen him play comedy before, and he’s wonderful. He had to undergo four to six hours of makeup every day to play the part, but again, he found a way to humanize a character who could have been just a cartoon, and there is this almost sexy quality about him as well, even though he’s half man and half machine. There is still a charisma that comes through all that makeup. By the end of it, you really like him. It’s funny, he saw the movie in Spain, and his wife said it was just terrible the character was not going to be around if there’s a sequel. I said, ‘Well, in this kind of movie, being blown up does not mean you won’t be around for the sequel.”

Also on hand is Barbara Crampton, who starred in Gordon’s first few features. “Barbara Crampton is an old friend,” he said. “We were trying to find an actress to play a very small but pivotal role, and we needed a sense that she and Debi Mazar were related to each other. Barbara is a wonderful mimic, and after spending a little time with Debi, she was able to get the accent down, so the two of them seemed like they were two peas from the same pod.”

With script, pre-production and cast apparently in place, Gordon went to Ireland to shoot—when disaster seemingly struck. “We went to Ireland because we were promised half the budget from our investors provided we shot there,” Gordon explained. “Then less than half a month before we started, it turned out the Irish producer who had promised us £7 million had only £2 million.”

Gordon credits his American producers, Peter Newman and Greg Johnson, for not abandoning the project. “I assumed that was it,” said the director, “but they went out and scrambled and found other producers and the movie never even had to shut down. The Irish government helped the film, which was made under Section 35, by which the Irish government would put up a portion of the film’s budget in exchange for filmmakers using Irish facilities and labor. But this was the first time that the government ever granted two Section 35s. For the first Section 35 we did not meet the terms, because the producer had not provided the correct amount of money. So the Irish government said, ‘We will allow you to post a second time for new investors to help you complete the film. ‘A new producer, Morgan Sullivan, came on board, one of the most renowned Irish producers, and he straightened out the mess and got us back on track, along with Peter Newman and Greg Johnson, and Guy Collins brought Goldcrest in with a lot of investors. Goldcrest would only come in if we did all the post-production work in London, so this is the first movie where I had to do the post-production as well as production away from home. What was originally to have been a three-month stint became over a year abroad.”

Regarding working in the U.K., Gordon reported, “I like Ireland very much, and the crew was sensational. This was not an easy movie to make. Every single shot had some level of difficulty—if it wasn’t zero gravity, it was creatures or prosthetics or pyro. It was never just simply two people sitting in a shot. The schedule was not that different from an ordinary film. We had an eleven-week period, which is still pretty tight for a normal movie, and our crew was very disciplined and quick and had wonderful attitudes. There never was any grumbling or complaining.”

Murton remembers it a little bit differently. “There were a lot of moments when we thought it wasn’t going to make it,” he said. “I had to send out letters for me and my crew saying, ‘If we don’t get paid, we’re leaving.’ That happened a couple of times, because sometimes we were three weeks in arrears, and they were trying desperately to bring money in. It certainly wasn’t a very smooth road, but we fought hard enough and it came through. My hat goes off to the American producers who kept it going, when we thought, “Well, that’s it.’ What they went through would send a lot of other people into the looney bin.”

Initially the production rejected Ireland’s Ardmore Studios because it did not have a stage large enough to encompass the scope of the production; however, it soon became apparent that Ardmore was the only true studio set-up in the country. Production designer Murton wanted a large stage for the Regalia interior. “I’m a great believer in using light to build a set,” he said. “If you can’t build it physically, we can use some good old theatrical tricks to make it work, and sometimes you need the space to throw light through stuff, and we didn’t have that (at Ardmore). We started looking in other areas. The only thing that was big enough was these old ex-meat storage places; unfortunately, they ended up being a very dangerous site because they have all this insulation that was highly flammable. Someone should have booked up Ardmore just in case, but we didn’t because we thought we were going somewhere else, so time was wasted.”

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Gordon became concerned that if production did not begin on time, he might lose his cast. “Our start date would have to be pushed back about six months,” he recalled, “and our first reaction was, “We have commitments to people to start at a specific time,’ and so we explored other ways of making the film. One was converting a warehouse into a studio, and the space available was a huge meat carving facility with these gigantic refrigerators, which were about the size of a large sound stage. Unfortunately, the costs of converting it would have been the whole budget of the film; also, the time to get it ready would take up the six months that we’d be waiting anyway to get into Ardmore, so we decided to use the extra time to work and plan some more.”

Filming in Ireland proved a fairly copacetic experience. The shore of Dublin Bay ended up filling in for White Sands, New Mexico. The Dublin Civic Center, considered an eyesore by the inhabitants because its modern design clashes with the pastoral countryside, proved an ideal location for a hospital scene. The Irish and English crew members largely got along, but the resumption of hostilities during post-production created some nervousness on the part of the director.

As Gordon noted, “I was there when the truce was on, and it was really some of the best feeling between England and Ireland, and then right as we started post-production, the bombings started again. It was done outside of Ardmore in Ireland and also in London, and I was going back and forth between the two on a regular basis. There was a bombing about a block away from where the post-production house was in London, which was nerve-wracking. There were a lot of discussions because half the crew was Irish and the other half English, and they had all been able to work together as a team, and all of this broke out again, and there were a lot of discussions how to solve this problem. As an American, this seemed like something that should be settled fairly easily, and they would look at me like I was an idiot. It is very complicated and there doesn’t seem to be any easy answer.”

PRODUCTION DESIGN
Once the story was in place, Gordon elaborately planned out how to visualize it unlike any previous space opera. То achieve this, he brought in a variety of artists like Ron Cobb, Berni Wrightson, Hajime Sorayama, and Bruce McCall.

Bringing these visions together and designing the overall movie is first-time production designer Simon Murton. “We deliberately did not want to use other films as references,” Gordon explained. “Instead of going with a sterile, white NASA feeling, we went the opposite, into bright colors and a commercialized feel. In 2001, they built the wonderful set that spins 360 degrees. In our film that became the diner which looks like a Bob’s Big Boy, so there’s the juxtaposition of science fiction and the familiar.”

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Another important element in the design of the film came from costume designer John Bloomfield. According to Gordon, they started by looking at the actual spacesuits. “We have a book called Space Gear; it went through the whole evolution of the space suit from a study point,” he said. “We also wanted the suit to look-rather than a real high-tech perfect suit like a beat-up, used suit that John Canyon got with his used truck. It’s like, when you change a tire: the gear you’ve got in your car is not pristine; it’s well used and some of the pieces are missing.” The result is a cross between a spacesuit and an old diving suit. “It’s really a kind of clumsy, bulky looking thing,” Gordon recalled, “and then he did a more modern, spiffed-up version for what the new models are like. They’re the slimmed-down, high-tech version.”

Bloomfield did a lot with plastic. “We moved away from natural materials and went for a lot of bright colors and corporate logos,” said Gordon. “The t entire costume is covered in logos, kind of taking this idea about how people wear logos on their clothes. Basically, the logo becomes the clothes. In this futuristic world, we are walking billboards.

“He’s a very witty designer,” Gordon continued. “A lot of the things he did were strange but familiar at the same time. You s see a lot of things like cowboy hats and baseball caps and 1 things that have been with us : for a long time and will probably be with us a few years from 1 now, so that you can look at these guys and recognize them immediately as truck drivers, 1 but they don’t look exactly like any truck drivers you’ve ever seen before.”

One of the key members of the SPACE TRUCKERS staff is Simon Murton, an experienced art director making his debut as production designer with this film. In addition to previously working with Gordon on FORTRESS, Murton has provided designs for such films as THE CROW, STARGATE, and JUDGE DREDD. His father is English production designer Peter Murton, but Simon forsook England to come to the U.S. because of the greater opportunities offered here.

“My basic premise for what we did is that human beings—especially Americans—don’t like change too much,” explained Murton. “For example, the [space station’s] diner, which was a plagiarism of 2001 the big circular set, but of course we couldn’t do that, so we built just over a third. It was kind of funny to have this circular set with everyone strapped in and the food stuck down. By the side of the set you would have stunt men walking down these rubber mats, almost horizontal and walking down to vertical positions. It was very weird to watch, but it was nice to actually recreate a Denny’s or a Bob’s Big Boy-only it’s in space—and use the same colors, the same kind of feeling for the whole thing. Let’s face it, truckers, if they are driving across America or driving through space, are still going to be the same type of people.”

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Murton likes to research his work, and so he and Gordon went to truck stops and examined books detailing spacecraft interiors and such. “I like to have a good reference around me because usually truth is stranger than fiction,” Murton claimed. “I always like to try and keep a certain logic in there, so the background is very believable. Everyone is getting sick and tired of things like in 2010, where everyone is inside of the Russian spaceship and every surface is covered with buttons. Let’s face it, even though it’s (visually) boring, there’s going to be a lot fewer buttons. One pushes oneself to make it look interesting and to make it look believable.”

That believability was abetted by pre-production “field trips,” according to Stuart Gordon, who added, “Simon likes to do a lot of research, so before we started working on the movie we went to a truck stop, to a guy who sold trucks, and we went to watch them unload container ships, what some people call ‘seafaring trucking’ and ‘offshore trucking.’ The containers that they bring are essentially truck trailers. What we discovered is that whole system, now accounting for 90% of all cargo, was invented by a trucking company.

“The idea is that the unit for transporting goods is the trailer of a truck. So we decided in our movie to do the same thing. We said that these trailers are not going to change; they are going to be the same in space as they are on earth, and instead of being pulled by ships, they’ll be pulled by rocket-powered trucks. Watching the loading and unloading of them, the different colors of the containers, the enormous cranes and so on-it really helped us get a sense of the size that we were dealing with. Simon started doing the drawings based on that research.”

Set 200 years into the future, when mankind is colonizing the other planets and moons of the solar system, the film presents space as a frontier, like the old American West, and it’s the truckers who bring in the much-needed supplies. Gordon felt that the controls should be kept low tech, because these are just working class joes doing their jobs. “The truck, for example, has all the controls of a truck,” said Gordon, “steering wheel and pedals on the floor for acceleration and breaking. We wanted an audience to look at this thing and say, ‘I could drive that, it’s not that far out.””

Gordon added, “One of the things we noticed about the way people deal with the future is that they want things to be recognizable and familiar, and to certain degrees, they will just make themselves feel more comfortable. Even though in space there is no up or down, we want one and we have to have one. You have to create those things just to maintain a sense of well being.”

In designing Canyon’s trucker’s cab, Murton explained, “I was trying to use the technology of the space shuttle and mix it in with what someone’s cabin was going to look like after three months in space, how it would be personalized and trashed. Would he wear clean socks, or would he wear socks at all? It was quite fun that way.

“There was also a problem in shooting it in that you have three actors and a film crew in this small, cramped kind of area. I seem to remember the d.p. complaining bitterly about it, but I didn’t feel like for one space trucker-making the starship Enterprise bridge.”

The space trucks in the film are rocket rigs that haul enormous loads throughout the solar system. “Apart from 2001, nobody has really shown the solar system. Everyone has conveniently gone out a bit further. I would like to see more space movies that actually take place within the solar system,” said Murton. “Originally, it was going to be traveling across space, but we all thought, ‘Let’s face it: even 300 years in the future, that was going to be ridiculous.’ Stuart wanted it to be 300 years in the future, and we brought it back to 150 years in the future.

“We took inspiration from the big, long freight trains out here,” Murton continued. “I went for the three-tiered container in the Y. shaped configuration, because it made the interiors and the exteriors kind of interesting—we could do a trick where we turn the camera on its side and the actor looks like he’s walking on one of the sides. It was a bit of a bother to work out the continuity sometimes. You can design all these elements, but the character’s got to go from A to B to C, and whatever way they cut it, it has to be in a kind of logical progression.”

Gordon also wanted to explore the idea of the future of private enterprise in space. “A company is not going to spend that kind of money on exploration and settling space without putting a corporate logo on everything they touch,” Gordon declared. “Rather than the silver and white sterile worlds you see in so many science fiction movies, you get just the opposite. We’ve made it colorful and tacky.

“Another thing we learned,” Gordon continued, “is that people get starved for color in space, because you look out your window and all you see is black. One of the things we talked about is when they had the Skylab, the astronauts got so starved for color that they began watching the color bars on the TV screen. We decided to go with some really bright colors and that commercialization that they would be selling stuff so when you’re flying into the space station, this is what you’ll see, a clutter. Not a well-designed space station, but a modular mess where stuff has just been added on and stuck on.

“I also think it’s the way it would be in space, with everything modular. You would constantly send things up which would be added on, so it’s not like it’s just been designed by some master architect. It probably starts out as a much smaller thing they did. This is the first section that was there, and then all the rest of the stuff was added on to it and just stuck together and built onto it.

“It’s funny, because we had some great designers on this movie, and I would have to say to them it should be badly designed, like the Mount Lakemore projects—a mixture of styles, and there are different places in the movie that you go to that each has its own style to it.”

Bernie Wrightson Conceptual Art
Bernie Wrightson Conceptual Art

Former advertising and National Lampoon artist Bruce McCall designed most of the film’s satirical billboards and advertisements. According to Murton, “We ended up really using Bruce for the signage and advertising and stuff, because he used to be a very big advertising art director. He came up with some really funny stuff. ‘Laxigo-Go, go, go with Laxigo.’ It’s nice having someone come in and just do that kind of stuff. He also came up with the Captain Macanudo look. Bruce throws these wonderful, crazy ideas together; he’s fun for that kind of look. It’s like driving along the highway with billboards, but we wanted to do it in space. Stuff like that made it work quite well. I would like to have seen more of it.”

“The thing about creating a movie like this is that you are really creating a whole world,” explained Gordon. “You get down to all the little details of that world. Some of the details I don’t think really make it into the film because they are so small, unless you do a macro-closeup of a label on a packet of cigarettes. They put a sign that said, *These cigarettes will kill you. What do we have to say here?’ Or there is a sign in the hospital that says, ‘If you can pay, we can care.’ Little details like that.” For example, on the thousand dollar bills, the designers added a sticker good for a burger and fries at McDonald’s. The money is also labeled, “The United States of America, a Subsidiary of Tokyo Bank.”

Bernie Wrightson Conceptual Art
Bernie Wrightson Conceptual Art

One of Murton’s important design challenges was designing the interior and exterior of the space pirate ship, the Regalia, which was rendered in CGI by Electric Image. “I wanted to make this huge radical space liner that ends up looking like a massive U-boat. I felt very strong about doing it like a very retro, old rusty ocean liner type of thing. We know that things don’t rust in space, but at that point I didn’t care, I just thought it was a very good looking design,” said Murton. “It was a really difficult design to do, because of what Ted Mann had written or what Stuart had come up with. This is the problem with a lot of shows: the director wants a parameter; it is written as another parameter; and confines of the budget or time are another parameter; and you have to try to punch them together and see what you come out with. Like Stuart always wanted this rotating gravity type of thing; plus we needed to get the space truck into the Regalia, and the truck is two miles long with all-its containers, so it’s like ‘How the hell are we going to come up with something that’s going to work out and visually look good?’ Eventually we came up with an Eiffel Tower on its sidethat kind of rationalization.”

Still, Murton has found designing SPACE TRUCKERS to be both a unique, enjoyable experience. “I had a lot of fun with the movie,” he said. “I could do different things. It didn’t have to be the normal sci-fi look; I think everyone is getting sick and tired of hardware—it’s been done to death. 2001 and ALIEN still did it better than most people. This is why films like CITY OF THE LOST CHILDREN are so refreshing. That’s a bit industrial, but it had a certain style and look which was very cool. Unfortunately the story failed a bit, but the visuals and the action was pretty wild. I don’t know if SPACE TRUCKERS does look like any other sci-fi movie, but it’s pretty wacky. The story itself, about a space trucker hauling strange cargo, gave us the inspiration of doing normality here, but throwing curves and just doing some wacky stuff.”

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Hajime Sorayama, famed as the designer of sexy robots, was having his first show in Los Angeles at the Tamara Bane Gallery in the spring of 1994 that director Stuart Gordon contacted him on opening day and asked him to design SPACE TRUCKERS’ biomechanical robot warriors. One of the key images in the film is the moment when Captain Macanudo and his companions encounter the as yet unfully formed menacing being for the first time: the embryonic warriors-created by Dr. Nabel to be phenomenally lethal, capable of wiping out legions of highly trained and well-equipped space marines adorn the sides of the cargo hold like obscene crosses, from which mechanical tentacles sprout and upraised thighs quickly become legs.

When asked what inspired his conception of the bio-engineered warriors, Sorayama responded, “I imagined nautiluses. They have about 90 tentacle-like feelers and with these feelers they catch their food. When you think about that, isn’t it amazing? I explained to Mr. Gordon how I came up with the idea when I drew the design of the Bio-Mechanical Warrior: In the past three to four years, I became very interested in the forms of plants’ roots, branches, organs of insects, tentacles of sea anemone, and their similarity to blood vessels such as arteries or veins. If they have their own wills and energy and move on their own, how amazing it must be! When I was drawing this, I was imagining armory which is a combination of the organic body of plants or insects and high-tech metals and plastics. These tentacles work like radar or sensors. If there is some sound in the direction of four o’clock, one tentacle moves in that direction.”

In creating his design, Sorayama had to keep in mind the rapid, fluid movements that were expected of the BMWs. Indeed, by using female dancers in the roles, the film does manage to create menaces which are both graceful and lightning quick in their lethalness. Still, what is drawn on a page cannot always be reproduced on a soundstage, particularly if it has to be inhabited by human beings. “The image can’t always be reproduced in 3-D,” Sorayama explained. “One hundred percent of the realization of my idea is almost impossible, so we have to find a way to compromise in the best way. The process of realization of the design came as a result of continual compromises during its creation.”

Makeup surrealist and artist Screaming Mad George was given the difficult assignment of bringing Sorayama’s concepts to life. Sorayama commented on George’s efforts, saying, “Screaming Mad George felt from the beginning that building a perfect realization of my design was just physically impossible, so he put great effort to make me realize this.

The reality is you have to learn to compromise, because it is almost impossible to reproduce two-dimensional designs into three dimensions exactly how we wish. I think Screaming Mad George did an excellent job, and I really appreciate his proper advice to me during the course of this project. I really would like to work with him again.”

Sorayama has long held an interest in making films and relishes the challenge of working on future film projects. “It makes me very excited and gives me ecstacy to have all those other people’s help in making my fantasy come true,” he noted. Originally, he intended to have a more hands-on approach to the production of the BMWs, but he realized that it would be better to leave make up effects to specialists who know that field while restricting his labors to what he does best: design.

Overall, in assessing his experience on the film, the artist noted, “There are many things I experienced for the first time. The whole experience was very new and fresh to me. Although I enjoyed the process of making it very much, I realized that the reality of it was a lot of physical labor, a lot of sweat.”

Regarding the film itself, Sorayama noted, “I saw the premiere of the movie SPACE TRUCKERS in Tokyo in September. I enjoyed it very much and I am pleased so much. There are many details that made me enjoy it. Mr. Gordon’s own world of retrospective reality in sci-fi movie-making is so unique.”

PHYSICAL EFFECTS
A key member of the SPACE TRUCKERS production team was Paul Gentry, an experienced effects man with films such as MUPPET CHRISTMAS CAROL, ADDAMS FAMILY, and THE LAST ACTION HERO to his credit. He had worked with David Allen on DOLLS and ROBOT JOX, and also worked previously with Gordon on FORTRESS. I introduced him to certain things which he didn’t know the camera could do, just little tricks of the trade, such as the use of lightning strikes, which is a very basic tool of the industry, but it’s interesting to use it in a battle scene. Traditionally, lighting strikes are used to create lightning effects. Of course, you can change the color of it, which makes it more the color of a gunflash, so you can have several lighting strikes going off in the background, and then you have soldiers firing in the foreground, and it makes it appear much bigger than it is because you have flashing all over the place. It creates a lot of excitement, and it’s something Stuart hadn’t used before, and on top of that you throw in white frames in editorial.”

One of the biggest problems faced by the special effects crew in SPACE TRUCKERS was zero gravity, which, Gordon notes, “is something you don’t see in too many space movies any more. It’s expensive and very time consuming, but we felt that it was important enough to spend the time to do it. Unlike Ron Howard, we couldn’t afford to send people up in the Vomit Comet and get real zero gravity, so we had to find another way to do it. Some of the solutions were very simple. Sometimes we used string; other times we would turn things upside down. The best solution sometimes was to have the actors play weightlessness, and we were able to convincingly portray weightlessness just by the way they moved their bodies.”

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To assist with the weightless wire work, Gordon hired a stunt coordinator from A CHINESE GHOST STORY and POWER RANGERS, Koichi Sakamoto, who had done work in Hong Kong, Japan, and the United States, and who spoke English. Many of the stuntmen on the project were Asian martial artists and acrobats. “We had a perfect stunt team: Apple Stunts it’s called,” said Gordon. “They did some amazing things. We had a sequence where a guy takes a punch and flips end over end for 30 feet into a wall. This was all done right there live on the set. As a matter of fact, in terms of the zero gravity, there was very little in the way of optical effects.”

Recalled Gentry, “Koichi and I did these augmented scenes of this whole battle going on. We had limited time, only four days, and we all realized we needed two weeks for this elaborate sequence because it’s so difficult setting up these stunt shots. One guy (Tatsuro Koike), absolutely the most fearless stunt guy I’ve seen, was slamming into this or that. He looked like he’d just broken his neck. You’d yell, ‘Cut! Tatsuro, are you all right? You’d think he’s dead, and he’d just look up and smile. “That OK?’

“It’s going to be hard to watch SPACE TRUCKERS and not see the same faces scene after scene, doing any stunts that are going on. Tatsuro we had in any costume imaginable-it was funny. You do things safely, and with a certain amount of care, it takes time. These things can’t be rushed; it’s counterproductive. We barely got through them by the skin of our teeth.”

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Since there was not a lot of money left over for wire removal, most of the wire work had to be hidden by the cinematographer while on set. “I think it’s a testament to Mac Ahlberg, our cinematographer, who’s an expert at this,” said Gordon. “Part of the solution was built into the set design. Simon Murton was aware we’d have to hide wires, so he designed the set to have all kinds of strips on it. It fakes your eye out, allows the background to camouflage the wires.”

“I wanted the lines in the set going the other way to make the sets look wider,” said Murton, “but they had the problem that they weren’t going to have enough money to do wire removal. Stuart wanted to do realistic space freefall, and in reality, we should have had the set on a gimbel, but we never had the money nor the time to do it properly, so we came up with something like the space shuttle where they have these velcro pads absolutely everywhere so they can stick things like cameras or paraphernalia to the walls to keep them from floating around and bumping into things. We just did all these vertical lines to help camouflage the cables. I’d say 70% of the time it works. The other 30% it didn’t. Sometimes you see it; sometimes you don’t.”

Gordon employed simple misdirection to prevent viewers from spotting the wires. “When you’re looking at somebody floating, the audience always looks above him for the wires,” the director explained, “but if you shoot it upside down, tilting the camera in some strange way, the wires are below, where you’re not expecting to see them. There are a couple of shots in the movie where the wires are clearly visible—they are not hidden at all—but nobody has ever spotted them because they are looking in the wrong place. There are places where we did have to do some wire removal, but I think the total number of wire removal shots in the whole movie was something like three, thanks to Mac and Simon’s ingenuity, which saved us a fortune.”

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MAKEUP EFFECTS
On SPACE TRUCKERS John Vulich was brought in at the production design phase of the project. “At that point I was talking to them about doing all of the effects on the film,” he recalled. “We broke it down into three really major categories. There were dummies, all the dead bodies of the characters killed by these creatures, body effects; there were the creatures; and there was Macanudo, who was the main bad guy.”

It was decided to break up the makeup effects chores. Greg Cannom, who won the Academy Award for BRAM STOKER’S DRACULA and MRS. DOUBTFIRE, was selected to head the Macanudo design team, with his associate Scott Oshita taking care of all the on-site chores. Screaming Mad George wound up executing the Bio-Mechanical Warriors designed by Hajime Sorayama.

All other makeup effects for the film were handled by Vulich’s Optic Nerve, with the on-site chores executed by technical makeup supervisor Mike Measimer, assisted by John Snyder. “Stuart knew we did the best gore in the business, so we ended up doing a lot of the gore-type stuff,” said Vulich. “He wanted something that had never been done before, and he also wanted to get away with a lesser rating. He wanted the visceral impact of serious gore, but he wanted it to be almost pretty in a way. So we had to figure out a way to make that work.”

One bizarre effect created by Vulich was the genetically engineered, box-like, stackable swine that John Canyon transports for UniPork. “That was always Stuart’s joke,” he said. “Wouldn’t it be funny if they were like pig boxes, so you could stack and maximize their storage space, which I thought was a brilliant idea.

“We made these pigs kind of square, going back and forth design-wise. Simon Murton came up with his version of it, and then we sculpted it and sent Stuart off some Polaroids. He wanted everything to be squared, the nose, the eyes; he just wanted everything to echo the square shape, and since it was a cartoon film, I think they work fine. We tried to make the pigs as realistic as possible in texture and detail and paint job, with wrinkles and all that, but ultimately, they are square, and it’s a little bit of a cartoony concept and there’s only so far that you can go with it. There’s a little bit of that aspect, but I think in the context of that film, every project has its own requirements, and on this one, anything goes. It’s OK for them to be that way.”

Originally, Optic Nerve planned to manufacture some 40 or 50 of the cubist porcine creatures, but in the interests of economy eventually settled for between 25 or 30 exteriors with four mechanically operated boars for closeups.

“One of them was a fully mechanized puppet with a lot of different lip snarls, tongue wiggling, nose, eye blinks, ears and all that,” explains Vulich. “Then there were two that maybe just had eye blinks and maybe another one that just had ear wiggles. There were different ranges of organization. The way it was storyboarded, you really only see one where I think he’s supposed to be feeding it a hot dog, which is another Gordon joke. We had one that had to be really intricate to hold up for that.”

Another makeup handled by Optic Nerve was the scene in which Keller gets sucked out a hole that gets blown in a window. “We had to do a head cast of George Wendt, and he actually wasn’t available at the time, so we had one of the guys sculpt this agonized face going through the hole,” said Vulich. “That was one of those real quick cuts, so it was a simple puppet that didn’t require any mechanization or anything like that. It was one of those puppets that is really ideal because its eyes are closed, it’s making an expression, and there’s already some dynamics there. One of the hardest things to do in our business is doing a mechanical puppet of a living person. It is very rare, it’s ever been done right, and it’s phenomenally expensive. There is just something about the character of the eyes that is really hard to replicate, so it was one of those things where it was a good situation for us. You had a great expression, the eyes are closed, there are just some quick cuts of him slamming through there, so we designed this beanbag-like dummy of him, with a really rough armature and this material that collapsed in on itself and pulled through there.

“We planned on doing it two different ways,” Vulich continued. “We wanted to start off with him and actually cut the set away, to make it look like he went through a small hole. Actually the hole is cut bigger than it is, but his clothing is hiding that. There’s a beat where he’s trapped in agony like that, and there’s a second beat and he gets sucked all the way through it, and at that point, it’s our dummy being pulled through it. It was just a matter of playing with the right materials we could get to collapse right and design the understructure of the clothing that would just pull through with this collapsible armature. It was a little scissor-like thing.”

Vulich has become a great believer in working with silicon rather than latex to achieve a more lifelike look. “We did the head in a silicon-type material because it has a more life-like texture, and punched in the hair, did a lot of detail,” he said. “As usual, we end up putting two or three months of work into something you see for seven frames, but whether it’s seven frames or seven hundred, it has to hold up for that moment; otherwise, it’s useless. There are only so many shortcuts that you can take. In this case, the shortcut was we didn’t have to worry too much mechanically about what was going on, those expressions, but cosmetically it had to look like him.”

Silicon is a much more lifelike material for makeup effects, but there are still problems in terms of finding appropriate adhesives that will adhere to skin and silicon. “I think it’s got to be the next step in technology-makeup to get out of using foam latex, which is a wonderful material but also has a lot of limitations,” said Vulich. “Silicon, however, is more expensive, definitely, but you also find a lot less of a reject rate. The cost of material in any project is nowhere near as extensive as the cost of the labor involved. For what you’re getting out of it, I certainly think it’s worthwhile. You paint them with silicon and silicon chalking, like what you use to seal an aquarium. You thin that out and mix colors into it. It’s better than something like vinyl—they are really comparable lookwise, but vinyl when you paint it sometimes tends to bleed through after a few months.”

Nevertheless, vinyl proved to be exactly the right material for one of the film’s more startling effects. “The dowager, the woman in the bathroom that’s a robot, that’s the other effect we did that’s similar to the George Wendt thing,” said Vulich. “That head we did in vinyl, because we needed it to stretch 300-400%, so we pushed the envelope as far as plasticizing it as far as we could plasticize it before it just wouldn’t work anymore. For that, silicon would have been a little trickier. Silicon is more durable in a denser state, it’s actually better lasting than vinyl, but vinyl is more flexible. You can’t plasticize the silicon because it tears a little easier.

“This woman had a wonderful face, just really great,” Vulich continued. “We sculpted it with the eyes open, took a lot of great care to try and capture the character and all that. She already had a nice big mouth to begin with. We also came up with a keypad. The keypad actually worked—you could hit a button and things would go off. Stuart even wanted to make a sound on set-he knew he’d replace the sound later-just something to lend a reality. We put a little beeper in it, a little Radio Shack kind of thing. We played around with different modes of plasticity. and I was amazed at how wide you could do this before it would rip apart. It seemed to work pretty well.”

Optic Nerve was also assigned the task of depicting the victims of the Bio-Mechanical Warriors. “Stuart wanted something visceral but not gory,” recalled Vulich. “He wanted to go for—not necessarily a family picture, but something a little bit more wider in appeal. He knew he had to come up with something not bloody but almost pretty in a way. Somewhere, I came up with the idea of opalescent colors. I just theorized off the top of my head: let’s say it hit your atoms; it does something so different to your atoms that it disembodies them and all of a sudden you see these opalescent colors, almost like what happens when you burnish metal and it has a blue opalescence, like tempered steel-almost like the reaction steel would have, but on your flesh, just something totally different happens, so you don’t see blood pouring out, you see all these kind of golds and greens and all these weird colors.

“We did all these tests,” continued Vulich, “and it sounds like a ludicrous idea, but it actually looked interesting, like something weird and molecular was going on, and Stuart seemed really pleased with that. It was just a matter of working with metallic powders and opalescent powders, all these different kinds of almost garish colors, and then we also experimented a lot with mixing these powders with things like Alka Seltzer and different foams and stuff like that to get it to foam up almost like it was disintegrating. They also did some tests with computer graphics to mix in this look like everything is breaking up into balls, something similar to LAWNMOWER MAN, that whatever cell structures that make up the body break up and keep getting smaller and smaller into this dust or foam. So instead of shredded meat and tissue, it was more like balls of green and metallic things, like we’re disintegrating these things. I think with the tone being a little bit more comic, these ideas work fine with it. It’s hard to say if it would work in a different context or not. It was just another example of trying to do something different than what’s been done before, which is really typical of Stuart’s work.”

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VISUAL EFFECTS
British CGI company Electric Image, building on its 13-year reputation for commercial advertising and broadcast work, takes a leap into the feature arena with SPACE TRUCKERS. The assignment came about because the company’s digital effects supervisor Paul Docherty had a working relationship with the film’s special effects supervisor Brian Johnson. Docherty said, “When Brian landed the assignment, there came the opportunity for us to quote on it. We looked at it from every angle and realized it was unique in that it involved a certain amount of original 3-D work plus a lot of composites like blue-/green-screen effects, lasers, people being blasted, morphed and melted. Our proposal also included a communications system between ourselves and Ireland. So we were able to answer problems in terms of the kind of work we’d done before but also with the right kind of communication between all factions.”

Originally, director Stuart Gordon wanted as many of the effects done in-camera as possible. But, Docherty noted, “The reasons for moving into the digital area are because the advanced technology can solve a lot more problems than ever before. The level of detail and believability is much greater as the software improves on a month-by month basis. The argument that digitals have a cartoon look is receding as the technology inexorably moves towards a greater realism. Now you can allow an image to spend a longer time on screen without sophisticated audiences ‘spotting the wires’ so to speak. Most directors, especially those with no special effects knowledge, are turning towards digitals because it’s fast becoming the best way to help them tell their story.”

Electric Image’s main task was to build the pirate spaceship, Regalia. “The Regalia lurks in this scummy sea of asteroids waiting to prey on anything that comes near it, like the pirates of old,” explained Docherty. “The Regalia crew-led by the bionic Captain Macanudo take over another craft, dismantle it, and reform it into something else. The visual reference point for us was the James Bond movie where the front of a boat opens to scoop up its prey. Halfway through, the story, trucker John Canyon and his pachyderm rig are captured by the Regalia because they are escaping from the TransGen company with an unusual cargo connected to Macanudo.”

Simon Haddocks, head of animation at Electric Image, came up with the design of the Regalia: “Basically, what I did was raid all the fantasy film magazines in specialist shops—your own included-took out those old STAR WARS books and made a whole portfolio of designs, ‘Let’s take a bit of this, a bit of that I like this detail’-and that’s how we got there. It’s Captain Nemo’s Nautilus with an even more Gothic feel.

“Scale was a bit of a worry,” Haddocks continued. “The Regalia had to look like a huge spaceship-one of those colossal mile-long numbers that soars over the audience’s heads. That meant we had to have smaller windows. You do tend to sit at your workstation for weeks on end adding detail and embellishing on textures. It had to look less computer. The good thing about the ship is it really does look better on film-it’s slightly more contrast in that medium. I like the fact that it looks like a vast bit of Victorian ironwork. That was an accident because of the old pirate feel we went for. For example, we’ve given the windows a yellowish glow rather than a white one to suggest the possibility of oil lamps lighting the interiors. There’s also this big skull design on the side, should anyone be in any doubt as to what craft it is. It’s also docked in a belt of dark shiny asteroids. That, more than anything else, made us decide to go the digital route as black shiny asteroids are impossible to build as models whereas computers can do it relatively easily.”

If any one image influenced the design of the Regalia the most, it was the Nostromo ship in ALIEN, admitted Haddocks. He said, “It’s hard to imagine building something like that on the computer because there is just so much detail on that model. To be perfectly honest, there is only just enough detail on the Regalia. There’s only one machine at Electric Image that can render the whole spaceship at once—and we need 400 megabytes of on-line RAM just to do that. To render close-ups of it takes 30 minutes a frame. If you take models from past space epics, it’s the stuff with all the barnacles that’s most fun. But we can’t simply stick more model kit pieces on the side. Modelmakers can add detail without penalty; the computer animator can’t. We always have to think in terms of how hard it is to render, but machines do double their speed every 18 months or so. A year ago we couldn’t have done this job. In a year’s time we could have done it far faster.”

In all, Electric Image’s 15 strong team had 100 different shots to accomplish. Because of this workload, Electric Image upgraded its Onyx multiprocessor super computer and brought in Descreet Logic ‘Inferno’ to add to the existing complement of high-end Silicon Graphics work stations running Wavefront ‘Explore’ software. Docherty said, “We decided to upgrade to ‘Inferno’ because of the higher resolutions and quality levels a feature film requires and because it is the best at providing us with a high-level multi-layer compositing system that not only runs in real time but also operates at resolutions for just about any large screen format.”

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CONCLUSION
Principal shooting finished in October, 1995, with seven months allotted to complete the special effects. To make things easier, the film was extensively storyboarded. Docherty said, “That way things could be prepared and started whilst the live action shoot was going on. We had enough skilled people to pre-plan every shot-so much so, in fact, we’ve had hardly any contact with Stuart Gordon we’ve dealt solely with Brian Johnson and the other special effects supervisor, Paul Gentry. The problem with working on most feature films is that decisions are left to the last minute. We evened that process out greatly because we were so well prepared.”

Both Docherty and Haddocks were watchful about not getting carried away by the latest technology. Haddocks remarked, “We are all still fascinated by the digital technology to a large degree, and the danger is to overdo it. As long as the Regalia looks authentic, though, I’ll be happy. We met the guys in the Dublin model shop recently, and they said how relieved they were about not building the spaceship because of the mechanics involved. There’s a revolving centrifuge in the ship which would be a nightmare to create as a mechanical model, whereas it’s a relatively simple process for us.”

Docherty continued, “The basic difference between computer work and miniature work is that we can build a model layer by layer to a very high degree of detail which can be seen pretty well at any angle necessary with complete control over lighting and texture. Traditionally, the miniature shop would have to build a series of different models for each shot, rig them separately, and then shoot them. What we’ve learned on our side is that in producing the Regalia as a computer model it’s very close to what it would take if you were doing it as a miniature, but the shooting is obviously easier than motion control. I feel we’ve used digital technology appropriately in SPACE TRUCKERS. It’s taking its place in the special effects canon as another tool to be used in completing the whole. And you still have to have artists at the work stations to give the technology the imaginative edge it needs.” Alan Jones


CAST/CREW
Directed
Stuart Gordon   

Writing Credits
Ted Mann
Stuart Gordon 

Music
Colin Towns

Dennis Hopper as John Canyon
Debi Mazar as Cindy
Stephen Dorff as Mike Pucci
Barbara Crampton as Carol
Charles Dance as Nabel/Macanudo
George Wendt as Keller
Seamus Flavin as Chopper 4
Jason O’Mara as Chopper 3
Vernon Wells as Mr. Cutt
Sandra Dickinson as Bitchin’ Betty

Makeup Department
Mark Alfrey  … special makeup effects artist
Rosie Blackmore  … chief makeup
Deborah Boylan   … makeup trainee
Greg Cannom  … designer and creator: Macanudo
Liz Dean … special makeup effects assistant: Optic Nerve
Rob Hinderstein  … special makeup effects artist
Mike Measimer    … special effects makeup supervisor: Optic Nerve
Tina Phelan  … makeup trainee (as Christina Phelan)
Dave Snyder  … special makeup effects technical supervisor: Optic Nerve

Art Department
Ron Cobb … conceptual artist
Bernie Wrightson … conceptual artist
Bruce McCall … conceptual art
Yasushi Nirasawa … conceptual artist
Hajime Sorayama…   conceptual artist
Tamara Conboy    … graphic designer

Special Effects by
Chiharu Akimoto  … lab technician: S.M.G. Inc.
Linda Benavente-Notaro    … lab technician: Cannom Creations (as Linda Benevente-Notaro)
Roland Blancaflor … lab technician: Cannom Creations
Evan Brainard    … mechanical design: Optic Nerve
Maria Bruce  … lab technician: S.M.G. Inc.
Brendan Byrne    … physical effects technician: second unit
Kevin Byrne  … physical effects technician: second unit
Neil Carr    … special effects rigger
Ron Cartwright   … senior special effects technician
James Conrad … lab technician: S.M.G. Inc.
John Crawford    … mechanics: S.M.G. Inc.
Jeff L. Deist    … lab technician: Cannom Creations (as Jeff Deist)
Eric Fox … lab technician: S.M.G. Inc.
André Freitas    … lab technician: Cannom Creations (as Andre Freitas)
Misa Uo Gardner  … coordinator: S.M.G. Inc. (as Misa U. Gardner)
Paul Gentry  … special effects supervisor
Screaming Mad George … special effects designer: Bio-Mechanical Warriors, S.M.G. Inc. (as Screaming Mad George [Joji Tani])
Asao Goto    … key effects: S.M.G. Inc.
Mimi Hagi    … lab technician: S.M.G. Inc.
Angela Hajianis  … lab technician: Cannom Creations
Shinobu Hamada   … lab technician: S.M.G. Inc.
Rufus Hearn  … construction: Optic Nerve
Chris Heeter … construction: Optic Nerve
David Hoehn  … special effects prosthetics: Cannom Creations
Stephen Hutchinson   … senior special effects technician (as Steve Hutchinson)
Bill Jacob   … lab technician: Cannom Creations
Brian Johnson    … special effects supervisor
Gerry Johnston   … physical effects supervisor: second unit (as Gerry Johnson)
J.P. Keating … assistant: Optic Nerve
Louis Kiss   … production assistant: Cannom Creations
Taishiro Kiya    … key effects: S.M.G. Inc.
Phil Knowles … practical senior effects technician (as Philip Knowles)

CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES/BIBLIOGRAPHY
Starlog#241
Cinefantastique v27n11-12
Cinefantastique v28n08
Femme Fatales v07n06

3 thoughts on “Space Truckers (1996) Retrospective

  1. Hi TMC,
    Space Truckers, if one can get past it’s title, was a better movie than might be expected. The acting was superb, yet, funny and reminded me of the updated campy version of Flesh Gordon, from the (I believe) 1970’s. Great article. I’m becoming a fan.
    L. Alegra Lee

    Liked by 1 person

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