A little over a year ago, Claire McKenna, best known as a prolific short story writer, suddenly switched focus and started working on a low-low budget Sci Fi movie based on one of her own short stories, ‘The Liminal’. I’d been getting excited emails from her occasionally with shooting photos attached. A couple of rubber tentacles turned up at a party at my place once â€“ and good quality tentacles they were too. Yeah, sure, Iâ€™ll be in it, I promised at some point. Well, the point finally came and so I caught the 6.30am 36-seater plane from Albion Park airfield and flew to Melbourne last weekend.
The pieces of the script I’d seen looked interesting. My character was called Melusine and I had dialogue. I was also set to get a cephalopod beak and flail about in the surf wearing latex tentacles, which sounded pretty neat. I am not an actor. I have no talent whatsoever, but Claire insisted that I was the one to play Melusine so naturally I said yes. Several other SF writers and fans have parts in the project too.
Miranda Siemienowicz plays Naiala, the Liminal love interest of Arkady, who is played by Stephen Gleeson, one of the few participants in this project with any kind of acting talent or experience.
Miranda drove us out to Claire’s place in Point Cook, one of those new land release suburbs full of kit homes and young families. Nicknamed ‘Maralinga’ because of its post-apocalyptic vibe, it was used in the film and acted as Claire’s base of operations. The crew consisted of Claire, her partner Eric, friend Edgar, his daughter Jane and Claire’s mum. The house was strewn with the detritus of a year’s filming. Tentacles here, tripod legs there, gaffer tape and boxes and boxes of weird unrecognisable stuff. We waited for another actor to turn up â€“ she was scheduled to play an squid warrior woman too — but she didn’t show, so eventually we hit the road without her.
We piled into several cars and drove to a lonely stretch of seaweed-strewn beach lined with weathered wooden holiday shacks. No sand to speak of, just shells and blobby purple seaweed. The waves were suspiciously brown tinged, and the water looked very cold. I was supposed to be getting into that water, and I wasn’t looking forward to it.
Claire handed me a wetsuit that looked to be sized to be worn by a 12-year-old child. “You’ll fit into that, no worries,” she said. With much heaving and huffing, I did manage to squeeze into it, but oh no! I had the darn thing on backwards! I’ll bet that never happens to Nicole Kidman! With assistance, I peeled it off and squished back into it the right way ’round. Zipped up, I found that I was almost completely flat-chested, something I am seriously not sans wetsuit. I couldn’t breath either, but the good news was that it cut out the chilly wind blowing in across the water. Or maybe it was just that I had no circulation in my arms and legs. Whatever.
Edgar and Claire’s mum covered the wetsuit in black plastic and gaffer tape. I then got to watch the “grotto” scene being filmed. This involved Claire’s mum and Jane, swathed in black plastic and sprouting multiple tentacles, sitting like, well, shags on a rock, while at their feet Naiala underwent the painful transformation from Liminal to human form. Naiala (Miranda) was wrapped in white raincoaty-stuff. On cue, Edgar chucked a bucket of blue slime all over her legs and Miranda howled in transformational agony. She did a good job of it. Very convincing. I started to wonder if maybe I was the only one in this film who couldn’t act after all. Once the filming was complete, Miranda strode gracefully into the surf, trailing lengths of semi-opaque white raincoat in the breeze in an attempt to wash the blue yuck off her legs.
Meanwhile, Stephen had been wandering up and down the beach looking for a decent stretch of water for us to film in. I found a jellyfish on the seaweed. I froze. Jellyfish freak me out completely. I didn’t want to go in the water. I really should have read the script before I said yes.
Claire said we were doing my land scene next. This involved more squishing and squeezing. The pants part of the squid suit looked way too small, but somehow I managed to fit my big butt into them with the help of Claire’s Mum, Edgar and a roll of gaffer tape. I also got long rubbery octopus tentacles. I wet my hair, lay in the seaweed, got more seaweed dumped all over me, in my hair and behind me propping me up into a lounging position.
But all attempts to affix a cephalopod beak to my nose failed miserably. I wasn’t monstery enough. So Claire got out her emergency makeup kit and started drawing all over my face. I couldn’t see what she was doing, but the looks on everyone else’s faces convinced me my humanity was fading.
Finally I was ready so Claire told me to act. All I had to do was look tragic and point ahead to the grotto where Naiala’s transformation scene will be edited in. Uh, thatâ€™s more easily said than done when wearing five-metre rubber tentacles. I flung one of my tentacles limply in the appropriate direction a few times.
“Yeah, that’ll do,” said Claire. “Get those legs off and get into the ocean.”
The ocean was looking browner than ever. Here goes nothing, I thought. I put on plastic flip-flops and waded into the waves with Stephen, flailing my octopus arms wildly just because I could. Claire got into the water too, her camera protected by underwater housing. She filmed Stephen’s scenes first. He was supposed to go underwater, then burst out, look around, realise where he was and freak out. Or something. But the water was far too shallow. He couldn’t get far enough under it. They had to shoot this scene several times. We all waded further out, but the water wasn’t much deeper. It was, however, rougher, and soon all three of us were being knocked all over the place. Claire’s tripod floated away. It headed for shore so she didn’t bother to chase it. She filmed the scene where I, mighty Liminal warrior woman, attack Stephen. I tried my best to look menacing and throttle him with my tentacles, but those things were so damned hard to control, and the waves were knocking both of us all over the place.
Finally Claire decided the footage we had was as good as it was going to get. We were knocked over a few more times, then dragged ourselves back on dry land where I was released from the corset-like constriction of the wetsuit and resumed my true human shape. Claire’s mum gave me a Mars bar. I like Claire’s mum.
So we dried off and headed back to Maralinga for a BBQ. I wanted to go to the bottle-O, then someone pointed out that I had blue makeup and black lines drawn all over my face, so Steve volunteered to go instead. Back at Claire’s place I found a tube of foot exfoliant in her bathroom cupboard and I used it to scrub the blue muck off my face. Took me a few goes, but eventually I was human Caucasian-coloured once more.
Some other people came round, we had BBQ, chatted, drank and watched Team America on Claire’s whopping huge back-projection screen. I tell you, those puppets had it completely over me, acting talent-wise.
I have only tedious memories of past film-making endeavours, but ‘The Liminal’ shoot was so much fun! Even though I didn’t get to wear a cephalopod beak after all, deliver dialogue or keep the tentacles.
Claire McKenna’s film ‘The Liminal’ will premiere at Convergence 2: The 46th Australian National Science Fiction convention, 8-11th June, 2007.
For more pictures, check out Cat Sparks’s Melusine Flickr set. A small sample follows:
Cat Sparks and her tentacle tippet
Cat and Stephen Gleeson shortly before the tragedy at Vic Market
Miranda Siemienowicz, all smiles because she got the wetsuit that fits
Experience the terror!