Ben Affleck’s Argo tells the true-life tale of a CIA agent who posed as the producer of a science fiction epic to rescue six Americans trapped in Iran in 1979. Now, another filmmaker wants to tell you a different part the story – but he needs your help to finish it.
For six years, Judd Ehrlich has been working on a documentary called Science Fiction Land, and the Emmy-nominated filmmaker just launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $50,000 to complete the project. The non-fiction flick takes its title from a proposed theme park that would have been spun out of the success of a would-be sci-fi blockbuster, and profiles the unrealized ambitions of an idealistic Hollywood dreamer named Barry Ira Geller. Says Ehrlich: ”My documentary explores the real life sci-fi story that’s truly stranger than fiction.”
A New York native who came of age in the sixties reading Marvel Comics and other geeky lit, Geller went from being a bohemian vagabond who hung out with Allen Ginsberg to an inventor-futurist who wanted to change the world with a movie. In the mid-seventies, he acquired the rights to one of his favorite novels: Roger Zelazny’s influential 1967 sci-fi classic Lord of Light. Geller wrote a script, then embarked on a quest to produce an independently financed $50 million space opera a la Star Wars. He wanted to shoot on elaborate sets in Colorado, then turn those sets into a $400 million, 1000-acre theme park called Science Fiction Land. The far-out entertainment destination would also be headquarters for a foundation of scientists and artists devoted to developing world-improving technology.
It was an extraordinary vision – and Geller came close to making it into some kind of reality. By 1979, he had enlisted author Ray Bradbury and architect/designer Buckminster Fuller as consultants. He had recruited a creative team that included Oscar-winning make-up artist John Chambers (Planet of the Apes; Star Trek: The Original Series); another well-regarded make-up artist, Maurice Stein, who invested $25,000 of his own money into Lord of Light; and comic book legend Jack Kirby, co-creator of Captain America and many other Marvel-ous superhero icons. He had also gotten into business with a stuntman turned producer named Jerry Schafer, whose primary job was to find the money to pay for everything. In November of 1979, Schafer and Geller brought Chambers, Stein and Kirby to Colorado to help hype the project at a press conference filled with strange razzle-dazzle, like actors decked in alien costumes and an appearance by former NFL star-turned-actor Rosey Grier, who was there “looking for work,” according to newspaper accounts of the event.
And then, almost overnight, Geller’s next-gen tomorrowland became a thing of the past. In December of 1979, weeks after the Science Fiction Land press conference and amid press reports questioning the viability of the theme park, Schafer and an associate were accused of scamming investors and charged with theft, conspiracy, and securities fraud. Geller was initially implicated in the wrongdoing, as well, but the charges against him were dropped. Still, his Lord of Light dream was extinguished. He’s been trying to rekindle it ever since.
“I was pretty screwed up from the whole thing that happened,” says Geller, 65, who now runs his own software and technology firm. “I really had a vision to alter things. I was sort of living in this strange world afterwards. It took me a while to really readjust to reality, or whatever we call reality. I’m not sure I have readjusted at all.”
As Lord of Light was flaming out, a spy named Tony Mendez asked make-up man Chambers – who moonlighted as a CIA consultant – to help brainstorm a scheme to rescue six Americans trapped and hiding in revolution-rocked Iran. The plan: Mendez would go to Iran posing as a Canadian movie producer and bring the Americans out by claiming they were members of his crew. To imbue the cover story with credibility, Mendez and Chambers worked with other Hollywood associates to set up a production company that claimed to be mounting a sci-fi opus called Argo. Chambers provided key props. The script? Geller’s screenplay for Lord of Light, albeit with a new title page. The concept art? Kirby’s Lord of Light and Science Fiction Land illustrations. (You can see a selection of them here.)
And Geller? Oblivious. He tells EW that he didn’t learn about the Canadian caper until 20 years later, when a researcher for the Bravo documentary series First Person called and asked for permission to use Kirby’s drawings for a segment about Mendez. But Geller did know that Chambers worked in some capacity for the CIA. Geller recalls a Lord of Light production meeting in which he and his colleagues were discussing actors for the lead role. “I was thinking Marlon Brando,” says Geller. “Someone said, ‘Yeah, but he’s a little old.’ So John says, ‘Not a problem. I’ve invented some makeup that makes [people] look a lot younger. I’ve been using it for the CIA.’ I went: ‘What?!’”
The part that Lord of Light played in the real-life Mendez/Chambers black-op goes unacknowledged in Argo. The acclaimed drama, which opens Oct. 12, is based on Mendez’s 1999 book The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life In The CIA and a 2007 Wired magazine article by Joshuah Berman, and presents a fictionalized version of the Hollywood cover story that’s true in essence, but not faithful to all the facts. Instead of appropriating Lord of Light materials for their fake “Argo” flick, Mendez (Affleck) and Chambers (John Goodman) are shown finding a script for a defunct movie production called “Argo” and deciding to use it for the ruse. The name “Barry Ira Geller” and the words “Lord of Light” are never uttered or seen. Actor Michael Parks was cast as a character named Jack Kirby (even though Kirby wasn’t involved in the mission), but he’s not identified in the finished film by name, and the “Argo” concept art shown in Argo is not Kirby’s Lord of Light work.
Yes, Geller feels slighted by the omissions and tweaks, but perhaps the Science Fiction Land can offer him the recognition and validation he desires. Ehrlich – whose other documentaries include Run For Your Life (airing next month on ESPN), Magic Camp and Mayor of The West Side – has been working on the movie since 2006, ever since taking over from another director, Diane Bernard (the aforementioned Errol Morris researcher), who began the project in 2000. The film includes interviews with Geller, Mendez, a few of the Americans that Mendez rescued from Iran, and key figures in the scandal that doomed the Lord of Light movie and Science Fiction Land theme park. Ehrlich hopes to raise $50,000 through Kickstarter for graphics, animation, models and re-enactments and have the doc completed within a year. “Barry is a dreamer who has always been ahead of the time,” he says. “He was on the cusp of realizing his monumental vision, but it all came crashing down overnight. And yet, Barry’s vision did [help] alter the course of history: Science Fiction Land led to six lives being saved. Perhaps this was its true purpose.”