Thunderbirds Are Go!

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Series That Earned Cult Status Hits The Big Screen, With Actors Instead Of Marionettes

LOS ANGELES--Chances are good that if you grew up in Japan, Great Britain, Australia, or Canada, you saw at least one episode of a children's science-fiction TV series called Thunderbirds. Featuring marionettes, it was originally filmed in England in the mid-1960s and was eventually syndicated in several countries.

One country where the series was not shown was the United States. However, a live-action movie based on the series will be released in more than 3,000 theatres in the U.S. and Canada on Friday (July 30). The film's director, Jonathan Frakes, says he learned from his experience as a star and director of the Star Trek movies that films have to attract their own audience. Since it is expected that the film will also find a cult audience in other countries, he had to make sure that there were several references to the TV series.

"It's like the Star Trek movies in that you are making a movie that happens to be called Thunderbirds and is a big family action-adventure fantasy," he says in a Los Angeles hotel room. "That should make it popular for people looking for that kind of movie. At the same time, you honour all those iconic images so that when the fans of the series get to it, they will say, 'Oh, there's Lady P,' and 'There's Parker,' and they will follow along with the cast when they say, '5-4-3-2-1, Thunderbirds are go!' The task we set was to create this new franchise for people who don't know about Thunderbirds and yet still base it on this thing that is part of popular culture in so many countries. The plan was to honour it [the popularity of the series] but not to live and die by it."

The film stars Bill Paxton as Jeff Tracy, the widowed head of a family of boys who spend their own money performing good deeds. Their planes and rescue equipment can appear on the scene at natural disasters in any part of the world, thanks to a sophisticated computer system designed by family friend Brains (Anthony Edwards). They are aided by the senior Tracy's British girlfriend, Lady Penelope, and her butler, Parker. Not included in the business are the youngest Tracy son, Alan, Brains's son, Fermat, and their friend Tintin. However, they get their chance to help out when the evil Hood (Ben Kingsley) takes over the island on which the rescue team is based.

Being an American, Frakes had never even heard of the series when his agent told him about the movie. When he was sent tapes, he immediately saw an easy way into the movie for both himself and the American audience.

"My agent sent me the tapes and said, 'You had better look at these if you want this job.' For me, not being from a place where it had cult status, the only Thunderbird was a car from Ford. I could see from the first minute of the first tape that this show was really quite camp, but I felt it had a place, post 9/11, with its theme of heroism and altruism and international rescue. Cops and firemen are heroes again, and that is what these guys do. So it fit nicely into the movies."

Frakes was fortunate to be able to make the movie in the country where the series had originated. He says he was surprised to find that he had the pick of the British crews until he realized that most of them had grown up with Thunderbirds. "Everything went well from the day I arrived. The top people wanted to do it because they knew the show. I had the luxury of working with all the best people up and down the line."

Kingsley was also a fan. "When my kids were growing up, we sat and watched the reruns together," he says. "It was a bonding experience and so it had a special place for me."

"When we first went to talk to him [Kingsley]," Frakes says, "we didn't know if he would throw us out. But his kids encouraged him. Apparently they said, 'Dad, you have to play the Hood.' So I have his kids to thank. In addition, the timing, coming right after [Kingsley's roles in] Sexy Beast and House of Sand and Fog, meant he was ready for something like this. He is a real actor, so when he goes for it he goes for with it guns blazing. The same was true of Tony Edwards. After all those years of Sturm und Drang and dying of cancer on ER, he was looking for something lighter. And, again, he wanted to do something that his kids could watch."

Although Frakes had the crew and the actors behind him, he was still concerned that the international cult audience would be unhappy that their campy television series, shot in the technique of what became known in the 1960s as SuperMarionation, would suffer as a serious film about international rescue. He decided to add a few references to the series in the hope that the cult following would appreciate the movie.

"I think that the core audience probably is not thrilled with the idea that it is live-action. The SuperMarionation was fabulous for what it was. So we have taken the characters and the look and we have given a few winks to that group. Every actor in the movie wanted to do an imitation of their puppet, but we had to turn them down. However, we did get a shot of one of the operators where there was one real hand and one puppet hand on the controls. There are a couple of other things that allow us to wink at the idea that there was an entire international rescue mission made up of marionettes."

The only other concern Frakes had when he was making the movie was that he might be stereotyped as a director. He admits that moving as a director from two Star Trek movies to the special effects-driven Clockstoppers to Thunderbirds isn't much of a stretch, but he says he would rather do what makes him feel comfortable.

"Producers have a comfort zone with me because they can say, 'He is the guy who has done special effects and he can bring it in under budget, and the stories are good and he can use the camera.' I am thrilled they feel that way, but it is hard for them to get their head around anything else. I do think the familiarity with shooting spaceships has paid off. Certainly the largest of the ships, Thunderbird Five, felt like the bridge of the Enterprise. I felt comfortable putting a camera through there and blocking scenes because I did Star Trek [films and TV] for 15 years. I had such a huge experience of working on spaceships, which sounds silly but it's true. When all the elements are in place, it can be overwhelming, but I had done all of that, so it was very comfortable."