In 2005, actor John James was asked by Vermont-based, low-budget filmmaker David Giancola to produce the director’s next movie. James enjoyed enormous fame in the ‘80s playing the character of Jeff Colby in Dynasty and had subsequently appeared in a number of TV shows and movies, including three directed by Giancola. But the actor was keen to try his hand at producing and so was all ears when the filmmaker made his pitch. “He said, ‘I have two movies,” recalls James. “One is a kids film called Robo Dog and the other is Illegal Aliens.’ I said, ‘Let’s do Robo Dog.’”
There would be many, many times in the subsequent years when Giancola wished he had followed James’ advice. Instead, the director decided that Illegal Aliens, a sci-fi spoof about shape-changing extraterrestrials, was a better bet than a movie about a mechanical mutt. Giancola cast Playboy centerfold-turned-reality show star Anna Nicole Smith and wrestler Joanie “Chyna” Laurer in leading roles and principal photography on the movie commenced in the late summer of 2005. The production was a disaster thanks in large part to the troubled Smith’s erratic behavior on set and a tardiness which only worsened after it was announced that her legal battle with the son of her ex-husband J. Howard Marshall was headed to the Supreme Court. Much worse was to come. On September 10, 2006, Smith’s son Daniel died just days after Smith gave birth to a daughter and the following February Smith herself passed away. Both deaths were the result of drug overdoses. “As it started out, it was terrific,” says James. “[Then] two people are dead and we’re in the s—.”
Giancola and James found themselves swept up in the media frenzy which preceded and followed Smith’s death but eventually came to regret their TV appearances as talking head Anna-experts. And while Illegal Aliens received huge amounts of free publicity as a result of Smith’s participation the film’s release was delayed because of the tragedies and ultimately crept out on DVD.
Now, more than half a decade on from Smith’s death, Giancola has directed a documentary called Addicted to Fame. The film details the troubled production of Illegal Aliens – on which James was ultimately credited as executive producer – and the events which followed. Below, Giancola and James talk about Addicted to Fame – which is being released to theatres and on VOD from this Friday – and their time at the center of the Anna Nicole Smith media storm.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did the two of you meet?
DAVID GIANCOLA: We met on this action movie called Icebreaker. It was Die Hard in a ski area: Bruce Campbell, Stacy Keach, Sean Astin. John came in and we hit it off. We just had similar sensibilities. I ended up putting him in a movie called Peril, where I tortured the crap out of him. He spent most of the movie in a wetsuit in a culvert that was filling with water with a broken leg. He said he wanted to produce and that’s what led to this.
JOHN JAMES: [David said] “It’ll be fun, it’ll be cheap to make, it’s a b-flick, and hopefully one day it’ll be a cult film.” I wasn’t quite sure about the material but I love b-movies. So I decided I wanted to make this.
What was the original idea behind Illegal Aliens?
DG: I was sitting on a lot of footage of car chases and explosions and whatnot and we were looking for a way to put these together in a kind of tongue-in-cheek, Roger Corman-esque way. I really wanted to kind of poke my finger into the fact that a-movies were becoming b-movies with bigger budgets. That was just something that I wanted to mess with and [then] Anna came along and she was looking to mock her own image. There was this very creative vibe but it slowly deteriorated into a gigantic mess. It didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to be. It wildly didn’t turn out the way I wanted it to be. Illegal Aliens – the patient was dead on the table.
How quickly into the shoot did you realize that Anna Nicole Smith wasn’t really going to be able to deliver what you wanted?
DG: Within the first couple of days. The idea was to kick out the windows and see what happened. But from day or two or three of shooting that dream was going bye-bye. By the last night of shooting, I was vomiting in the alleyways. We soldiered on but that dream really died in production.
What was her problem?
DG: I don’t know. In the Q&As [at screenings of Addicted to Fame] audiences will say, “Well, she was high all the time.” But when someone is on drugs you don’t see them use drugs so you don’t really know. It came out that she overdosed on drugs. But I don’t have any idea about what she was taking.
Next: “This is kamikaze filmmaking. We are on fire and we are crashing.”