Between wrapping photography on The Basement and the Kitchen and finishing post, a little movie came out called The Blair Witch Project. The handicam-horror smash changed the conversation in Hollywood, and suddenly, David Fickas’s independent feature – which he had gone to great effort and expense to shoot on 35 mm film – looked “too good” to sell to distributors. So, that was one variable. (Bear with us, this will all be relevant.)
At the same time, Fickas was impressed by his friends at USC, Tim Dowling and Joe Nussbaum, who had received lots of attention and praise for their short film, George Lucas in Love. The clever mashup supposes that young Lucas, like his counterpart in the Oscar-winning Shakespeare in Love, might have drawn inspiration for the Star Wars universe from the people and situations around him… including one special girl with big side-braid-buns. This smart and funny concept had opened more than a few doors for the filmmakers straight out of college. So, that was another factor.
Thirdly, Trey Parker and Matt Stone inked a deal to produce their own animated TV series after sending a VHS “Christmas card” all over town, featuring characters we would all come to know as the cast of South Park. So, that was something to consider as well.
Finally, in 1999, Lucas had released the first of his Star Wars “prequels,” and there was much speculation about who would play the grown-up Vader-to-be in Episode II.
All of these ingredients combined in Fickas’s brain and gelled into a recipe for success: Anakin Auditions.
Using the offices of Quality Film Entertainment on Wilshire Blvd. (a company run by Gary Bryman, Steve Hein, director Trevor Sands, and Eric Kripke, the future creator of Supernatural), fake auditions for the role of Anakin Skywalker were held by the equally fake GKB Casting Unlimited. Fickas’s improv friends were handed atrocious sides written by Ric Barbera, then asked to give the worst reads they could muster to “Ginger” (Megahn Perry), “Kenny” (Kenn Michael) and “Billy” (Fickas). But the ace in the hole (SPOILER ALERT) was that Eduardo Cisneros had figured out how to do lightsaber effects. 😵 Since this was before Adobe After Effects was readily available to any editor with a laptop, that dazzling detail had the potential to captivate a wide audience.
A 14-minute video was cut. Fickas set up a second business line with an answering machine (yes, we still used tangible machines) to take incoming calls to our fictional casting office. Ric Barbera wrote a cover letter from “GKB intern Terry Linderman.” And with that, 300 “bootleg” VHS tapes were “leaked” to producers and studios across the industry, to everyone we could think of… even Lucasfilm.
To say that the prank worked would be… an understatement, but also a tad misleading. Calls began flooding in. Some people got the joke. Some people were confused by the unsolicited package and feared legal repercussions. Regardless, Anakin Auditions made the rounds. We would be asked to show it at parties; one screening at Renée Zellweger’s house had now-head-of-Paramount Wyk Godfrey in attendance. We saw Namey Dropperson there too.
It wasn’t long before someone said, “You guys have to put this online!” This was a suggestion that hadn’t occurred to us, mainly because watching videos online was not a thing yet. Those of you who are old enough may recall waiting 48 minutes to download a 2-minute trailer for The Phantom Menace the size of a pixelated postage stamp. Still, internet video did seem to be the wave of the future, so we gave it a shot. Fickas secured a domain, Eldon and Michelle Asp built us a website, and Anakin Auditions was available to watch on screens around the world.
When Chris Gore from the web-zine site, Film Threat, reached out to say they were doing a story on Anakin Auditions, he warned Fickas to “get ready.” Fickas did not know precisely what he meant by that. But, oh, did he find out. As soon as the story hit, Anakin went what we now call “viral.” MILLIONS of people visited anakinauditions.com, and the insane internet traffic caused the site to crash repeatedly. Trying to keep the lightning in the bottle, Fickas frantically called his hosting company, only to find out that the increased bandwidth required to stream video to that many visitors had jacked his bill up somewhere in the neighborhood of $3,000! Considering the whole movie had been made for less than $50 (literally the cost of three mini-DV tapes and dinner for Kenn and Megahn), Drama 3/4 did not have money in the budget for this kind of overage. Fickas screamed at the service rep to “TURN IT OFF!!”
Luckily, although we were still years away from YouTube or Vimeo, the first few proto-video-hosting sites began to pop up within weeks of Anakin‘s release. iFilm and Atom Films were the Blockbuster and Hollywood Video of the internet at that time, and Anakin eventually landed at iFilm, where it had a pretty successful run.
The little movie that broke the bank would pave the way for many of Drama 3/4’s future endeavors. Nearly everyone in the cast became regular members of A.S.S. (Another Showcase Showdown) when it took the stage in 2000. A sequel was made a couple years later (Pearl Harbor Auditions, also available below). The GKB concept was revisited during development talks at VH1, and elements of it went into the D34 digital series Chestnut Casting. Then, for the very first Offline Movie Night, Drama 3/4 went back to the galaxy far, far away with a supercut of “screen tests” for the as-yet-untitled Episode VII, this time teaming up with the Schmoes Know crew, and featuring a few cameos, including stuntwoman extraordinaire and Quentin Tarantino’s favorite Kiwi, the incomparable Zoë Bell. We’ve posted those below for your viewing pleasure as well.
It just goes to show, sometimes the simplest ideas are the farthest reaching. May the Force be with you, Darth Steve.
FOOTNOTE: Bringing it back around… The premiere of The Basement and the Kitchen at the Seattle International Film Festival introduced Fickas to fellow filmmaker Matt Leutwyler. Once back in Los Angeles, their social scenes began to overlap, and they soon found themselves playing at poker nights with a handful of Hollywood pals. One night, mutual friend Tove Christensen brought along his kid brother who’d just come down from Canada… his kid brother Hayden.
After shooting Anakin, but before sending out the tapes, Fickas and Leutwyler were stunned to hear that Hayden had actually booked the role of Anakin Skywalker. Fickas lobbied to shoot a cherry-on-top tag for Anakin Auditions, with Hayden showing up to deliver a pizza only to catch the eye of the casting associates. But alas, Lucasfilm wasn’t having it. Hayden was not allowed to appear in anything Star-Wars-related apart from Star Wars, and pop culture perfection slipped from our grasp. Even so, it’s fun to marvel at the meta moment that might have been, and the one degree of separation between Anakin Auditions and Anakin himself.