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The Farce Awakens: The Origins of Hardware Wars 

Wednesday, Dec 16 2015
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The entire shoot took three days for interiors and two days for exteriors. It was predictably low-budget.

"We had constant mechanical failures left and right," Mathews says, recounting the Hardware Wars shoot. "The fog machine put out so much it could have filled New York. It took forever to clear the air, and we were all slamming into each other and the equipment."

"Ernie was constantly on task as 'Mr. Fix-it,'" Mathews continues. "Repairing anything and everything that broke down resulting in him being extremely rushed because of these crazy side shows, yet ultimately always getting the shot he wanted."

"The things that went wrong worked even better," Wiese says. "When part of the set would fall down, it was great."

The inevitable spoof of the cantina scene was filmed at the Palms Café, a now-defunct, gay-friendly music club that was once adorned with murals painted by Michael Cotten of The Tubes. Unfortunately for Fosselius and Wiese, none of their cast made the early Sunday morning call time. Things looked to get even worse as a pair of cops walked into the venue to see what was going on.

"I swear to God, we gave them donuts and they said, 'We'll get you some people,'" Wiese says, still laughing over this after so many years.

"They went out and started finding people on the street and they sent them to us," Wiese continues. "We put blond wigs on them to make them look like Farrah Fawcett."

The country tune in the bar scene was recorded in the basement studio in Bernal Heights where Fosselius, Mathews, and Nagle first met. Fosselius himself provided the lead vocal, crooning, "I'm proud to be ol' Obi-Wan Kenobi" as the camera pans by the bleary-eyed bystanders that the cops had yanked in off the street.

"They were all the people who were still partying from the night before," Cindy Freeling quips.

"That's part of its [Hardware Wars'] charm," Wiese says. "It's cheesy, it's sloppy, yet it's got such attitude."

With the bulk of the cast's compensation pumped out of a keg, Mathews made sure to earn "a princely sum by drinking as much beer as possible." In some scenes, he looks like he's holding back barf. His wig also slips off half the time. This, his first acting foray, is so good (by his own estimation) that, afterwards, he gladly retires from film.

"I'm going out on top, baby!" Mathews exclaims.

In those days before YouTube and Funny or Die provided a ready-made means of distribution for kooky short films, Fosselius and Wiese took their film to anyone and everyone they could think of who might get it out to its target audience. Fosselius even screened it at Star Trek conventions, despite his friends' warnings that sci-fi fans would wring his neck.

"The Star Trek people, the Star Wars people, they loved it," Fosselius says in Back to Space-Con. "They got all the jokes. It was their world. They had a sense of humor about it."

"It was so funny and so unusual at that time that everybody who saw it supported it," Wiese explains. "Every distributor I took it to wanted to distribute it."

Even the Star Wars makers enjoyed it.

"We got it into Industrial Light and Magic and those guys were all cracking up about it, and they told their friends," Wiese continues. "We sent Lucas a print and he saw it, and was supportive of it, and got me a meeting at 20th Century Fox with the president. We were hoping that they'd show it as a theatrical short with their movies, which they didn't. They didn't think it was so funny."

While Fox was one of the few studios that passed on Hardware Wars, Wiese found a more receptive audience with Pyramid Films, a short film distributor that had previous success with Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969), a two-minute cartoon where (spoiler alert) the giant Japanese lizard stomps on Disney's beloved fawn. With Pyramid pushing the movie to film festivals, school districts, and even the U.S. military, as well as placing it as in-between filler on HBO — a surprisingly strong outlet for short films back then — Hardware Wars eventually grossed $800,000, making it one of the most successful short films of all time.

"The word of mouth was probably more powerful than something going viral today," Wiese reflects.

The theatrical market for Hardware Wars petered out in 1983, with the release of Return of the Jedi, the last film in the original Star Wars trilogy.

Despite its cult following, Hardware Wars enjoyed only about a decade of being the Star Wars spoof of note. In 1987, director Mel Brooks released Spaceballs, whose marquee-name cast and big-budget special effects — remember MegaMaid sucking up the planet Druidia's atmosphere? — overshadowed Fosselius' ramshackle production.

Except, in a way, it didn't.

Brooks hired Fosselius to do sound effects on Spaceballs, a perhaps not-so-sly homage to Hardware Wars, as well as an attempt to channel some of that film's slapdash charisma. It worked, but a Hollywood studio movie, no matter how endearing, could never quite replicate the charm of props fashioned from kitchen appliances. That charm was in some ways inextricable from the era: the period before Star Wars became a corporate cash cow, when a parody made on a shoestring budget could be shared by aficionados and embraced as a measure of fandom.

The 1997 release of Lucas' CGI-altered special edition of the original trilogy rekindled interest in Hardware Wars. Wiese seized the moment by releasing his own special edition of Hardware Wars on DVD, with more Home Depot bric-a-brac digitized into each frame. Although the new version lacks Fosseilus' approval, it still drew a packed screening at the San Diego Comic-Con.


About The Author

Bob Calhoun


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