An Interview with Frank Delle – By Duane L. Martin

Frank Delle, his brother Marc and a very dedicated and talented group of individuals back in 1983 all worked on creating a screwball, no-budget sci-fi comedy called Beer Drinkers in Space. The film had a premiere at a local bar and then largely disappeared. Fast forward to 2006. Frank Delle decided it was time their little goofball comedy got some of the love it deserved, so he tracked down everyone involved in the creation of the film and put together one of the most incredible and heart-felt documentaries ever produced.

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 Let’s start off the usual way by having you introduce yourself to everyone.

Sure. And first of all, thanks for the 15 minutes! I’m Frank Delle and I’ve been involved in film and video production in one form or another since high school. My brother Marc and I made Super 8 short films together for awhile, and then we got into video. Marc got away from video and went on to become an artist for the Walt Disney Company for many years. I stayed with video and it became my profession. I produced commercials, marketing and promotional content for a long time. I work as a manager now helping several commercial production teams, but do not do any actual production work anymore. This documentary is my first piece of personal work since I made the comedy movie Brainlock in 1993.

Beer Drinkers in Space was made so many years ago. Why after all this time did you feel inspired to create a documentary about its creation? What triggered that inspiration?

2004 was the 20th anniversary of Beer Drinkers in Space and I thought it would be fun to put it on DVD and give it to everyone involved with the project. I still have the 3/4" master tapes and wanted to get it in a digital format before the tapes deteriorated to the point where they couldn’t be played. And I thought it would be fun to record a screen commentary. So I contacted my brother Marc to participate. I also called Patrick Brennan, who was the camera operator and editor on Beer Drinkers in Space. I hadn’t seen Patrick since 1984, so it was fun for the three of us to be together again. We had a blast recording the screen commentary and reminiscing about the project. Unfortunately, a friend of mine on the east coast of Florida was putting the DVD together and when the hurricanes hit Florida that summer, it took the roof off his building and the commentary tape was destroyed. So the DVD project was put on an indefinite hold.

But the three of us getting together again got me thinking about the project and in the winter of 2005 I bought my camera and edit system and wanted to shoot something about Beer Drinkers in Space. Ron Cookson, who played Pilot Tipsy, was in town on business and he, my brother Marc and I got back together to record a second screen commentary for a second attempt at an anniversary DVD. I brought my camera to the studio and recorded the first interviews for the documentary. I had a preconception of what I wanted the documentary to be. I wanted it to be funny and silly, because the movie was like that. But as I started finding everyone and interviewing them, they brought new insights and sincerity to the project that spun it off in another direction.

Once I started those interviews, I let them shape the documentary. I dropped my ideas of what the documentary should be and went with everyone’s true feelings and reflections, which ultimately made it so compelling. It was a great learning experience for me.

I also wanted to say that the people involved in Beer Drinkers in Space always referred to it over the years, especially quoting the dialogue from the movie. So that also got me interested in doing the documentary to explore why people still talked about it after all this time. I also always felt the concept and plot were unique, so I wanted an audience to have some exposure to it

In the documentary, Keep Drinking Men!, you talked to pretty much everyone who was involved with the creation of the film. Most were people you hadn’t seen much, if at all since 1983. How difficult was it to track down some of these people, and was there anyone you went looking for that you just couldn’t find at all?

I did track down everyone. At one point I felt like a private detective, going door to door, following up on leads, former addresses, old phone numbers. But I got all of them. One interview I did by traveling from Orlando, Florida to Asheville, North Carolina. Another person, Ralph Nielsen, was so busy, we just couldn’t get together, so he interviewed himself and mailed me his tape.

In November of 2005 we all got together at a sports bar for beer and wings and watched a rough edit of the documentary. That was the first time in 23 years we’d been together and it was like no time had elapsed. Amazing. What a great group of people to know. Everyone involved was very encouraging and supportive.

This documentary is for them, because we all worked so hard on the project and when it was over we just abandoned it and got back to our lives. It aired a few times on cable systems in Florida and Wisconsin, but that was it. We knew nothing about marketing or promotion. And it’s a shame no one ever got any attention for this accomplishment, so I’m hoping the documentary will give everyone some overdue recognition.

Your brother Marc, who played Captain Slosh in the film, has led a pretty interesting life as well. Tell us all about some of the great things he’s been involved with.

Marc is a great person and just an unbelievable talent. I wish I could do half of what he does. He’s a signature Disney Artist, so he has signed, numbered pieces he sculpts for Disney. You can search Marc Delle on the Internet and you’ll see a lot of his work. He sculpted the huge solid gold Mickey Mouse that was in the news recently. Disney is attempting to auction that piece. He was also a signature artist for Warner Brothers and sculpted some Star Wars toys for Lucas Films. And beyond the 3-D work, he’s a phenomenal 2-D artist and designer. He designed all the sets and ship models for Beer Drinkers in Space. Just think of what he could’ve done if he’d had a budget and was sober! Marc is also in the Navy Reserves and right now is deployed in the Middle East. If anyone wants to send him a greeting, just go to www.beerdrinkersinspace.com to send him an e-mail and I’ll make sure he gets it. He’d love to hear from folks back home.

While you were shooting the interviews for the documentary, did you find people talking about things that you had totally forgotten about?

When we shot Beer Drinkers in Space in 1983 we divided up the responsibilities, so when I heard Marc talking about the special effects and spaceship models last year, that was all new to me. I never even visited the studio where the ship models and special effects were shot. And Bruce Miller, who made the Leshinboon puppets and the Prohbe Commander headgear, shared some things I didn’t remember. For instance, he made the Prohbe headgear and came to the house to fit it on the actor who was playing the role, and I told Bruce he was going to play the role. So that’s how he made it in the movie!

When I first started the interviews I was asking silly questions and my subjects played along with silly answers. But at some point there was this transformation where people started sharing honest thoughts about what the project really meant to them. I had people calling me and asking me to interview them again. One said, “When you first interviewed me, I thought you were joking around, so I played it for laughs. But, I’d like to talk to you again because there are some things I really want to tell you.” They ended up saying some pretty profound things about how the movie changed their lives and that gave the documentary its emotional grounding.

Beer Drinkers in Space was supposed to be a story spaced out over 13 episodes for a television show. What caused you to decide that it worked better as a full-length film?

We were given the go ahead by the local cable company to create a half-hour variety show made up of comedy skits. The first continuing skit was to be Beer Drinkers in Space. I wrote it as 13 episodes, like a Flash Gordon serial. It took us nine months to shoot and edit Beer Drinkers, and when we were finished we just couldn’t do it anymore. I mean this project consumed our lives and we were burned out. So we decided to edit the episodes together and air it as a movie.

We also put together a 23-minute documentary about the making of the movie and the whole package aired in a 2-hour time slot. There’s a lot of the 1983 documentary footage used in the 2006 Keep Drinking, Men! documentary.

Where did the money…and the beer come from to create BDIS? It was very literally a shoestring budget wasn’t it?

It really was done on virtually no money. We shot the whole thing in a rental house we lived in. Marc was making the big bucks at Disney at the time, so he purchased all the set materials and made all the ship models. I bought the typing paper for the script. But we all helped with the set construction and painting. We incorporated our home furniture into the set and covered it with foam sheets and duct tape. Whatever we could scrape up around the house, we threw into the sets.

Fortunately, everyone was able to bring their own beer for the shoots. And we did drink real beer when we shot. I don’t know if that helped or hurt our acting. But we did have a lot of fun.

What were some of the hardest special effects to create for BDIS? Were there any that just didn’t work or caused some mishaps on the set?

I wish Marc was here to answer that one. Marc shot the effects in a studio owned by David Edgar. In my interviews, both of them talked about their inexperience with pyrotechnics and trying to set off these softball-sized squibs for this big tabletop model. They were using a model railroad transformer to set off the charge, but it wasn’t powerful enough. So they ended up plugging the charge wires into a wall outlet and the current triggered the squib, which blew the tabletop model about four feet in the air. The entire studio filled with smoke and they had to bail out of there until the air cleared. I think they made that mistake two or three times. Must’ve been the beer.

At the end of the movie, Pilot Tipsy had decorated the spaceship bridge with curtains, hanging plants, pictures and more, to give it that feminine touch. We were rolling, doing a take, and this hanging plant on the set suddenly dropped a few inches. Everyone saw it and someone said, “The plant’s falling.” And Patrick, who’s on camera, yells, “Go! Just go!” So Marc yells his line, “Shut up!” and the plant crashes to the floor and shatters. It’s a really funny clip, which is included in the documentary. We sent it in to Bob Booker Productions, which was producing ABC’s Foul-Ups, Bleeps & Blunders. We got a letter back from them saying they would air the clip, but then the show was canceled. We were so close to being TV stars!

 Of all the memories you have of that time when the film was being produced and had its debut screening at a local bar, what do you remember the most fondly when you look back at it all?

You know, I had to piece together the 1984 screening at the Ground Round from other people’s interviews, because I don’t remember much. I remember the layout of the bar and I remember people losing interest as the movie went on and the beer and peanuts flowed, but not much else. We all remembered they closed the Ground Round immediately after our premiere and tore it down.

But what I appreciate most is the friendship and camaraderie. All of us saw that project through from start to finish and no one was getting paid. It’s a testament to teamwork, creativity and ingenuity. What’s nice is that everyone wanted to participate in this new project and share their memories. It’s just a terrific group of grounded, genuinely nice people who worked on this project in 1983 and 2006 and I’m glad we were able to get back together again.

BDIS was originally around 90 minutes long, but the version you send out is a "Sober Edit" with a note saying that at its original 90 minute length it was just unwatchable. What sorts of things were cut out of the film and why?

Beer Drinkers was a lot like the movie Airplane. You’ll have to watch Airplane again to see what I mean, but there were a lot of funny situations set up, these sort of little side trips, that really didn’t have a lot to do with the plot. We did the same thing with Beer Drinkers. We would break in the middle of the action and have the three main characters talk about TV trivia or Gay westerns, for instance. The Gay westerns bit was ironic. This was 1983, years before Brokeback Mountain. One of the titles we discussed was We Ride At Dawn, We Shower at Noon. So these funny bits were meant to show the evil Prohbe Commander how oblivious the main characters were to their fate. It had something to do with the beer they were drinking, but also with how incompetent they were. So for the “Sober Edit” I removed everything that didn’t move the story forward. So now some funny lines and situations are gone, but it’s more watchable and has better pacing. Even with those pieces removed, it’s still obvious the main characters are idiots.

How has the documentary Keep Drinking, Men! been received so far by reviewers and other people who’ve seen it? Are you surprised by any of the reactions?

I really had no idea what I’d created or what it would mean to people. And it means different things to different people. Some viewers see it as inspirational and they want to shoot their own movie. Others see it as nostalgic and informational to see how low-budget movie making was done before digital effects and digital cameras. Others see it as educational. I had a high school media teacher come up to me after a festival screening to thank me for the documentary and to say he couldn’t wait to show it to his media class. He told me his students were obsessed with being the best at a particular software program or having the latest gear, but there was never any teamwork or collaboration. He wanted to show this as an example of what could be done with imagination and ingenuity.

The documentary is starting to go out to some film festivals. I’m personally involved with the It Came From Lake Michigan film festival and I know that BDIS and Keep Drinking, Men! are going to be shown back to back not once, but twice at the festival. Have you submitted the film to any other festivals yet and if so, which ones and when will they be taking place? If you haven’t, do you have any festivals in mind that you’re planning on submitting them to in the future?

Thank you so much for your support of this project. It really means a lot to me and everyone involve
. And when people see the documentary, they always want to see the movie afterwards, so the It Came From Lake Michigan Film Festival will be the first festival to show both pieces.

I’m learning a lot about the festival circuit and where to submit. The documentary is not really sci-fi, it’s not all comedy, and in some ways, it’s not like a typical documentary. So I really have to find festivals where it’s a good fit. And you never know what festival organizers are looking for until you hear back from them. That’s part of the fun, though. It’s been accepted at five festivals since May, so it’s starting to get some notice. Up after the It Came From Lake Michigan Film Festival will be the Backseat Film Festival in Philadelphia.

On a technical level, the quality of Keep Drinking, Men! is absolutely stunning and the editing was just superb. What camera did you use to shoot it and what editing system did you use to put it all together? What aspects of your whole shooting/editing setup were you the most happy with and was there anything you weren’t happy with that you wished that you could have changed when all was said and done?

I shot it with a Panasonic AG-DVC30 camera. It’s a 3-CCD camera with the same pixel count as the Panasonic AG-DVX100, which is used a lot in independent film. The AG-DVC30 was just used in HBO’s Baghdad ER documentary along with some Sony HDV cameras. I posted it on Adobe Premiere Pro and used some Magic Bullet Film Look plug-ins. The last time I’d really shot a lot of video was using Beta SP, so using the Panasonic was completely different when it came to lighting. I have a Lowell light kit and found I could really be more subtle with my lighting since the camera was so low light sensitive. Lighting and my interview set ups was the most fun. I used an Audio-Technica AT-897 short shotgun just out of frame and a Telex wireless microphone. I shot everything by myself, including my standups. I just flipped the camera viewfinder around so I could frame myself up and hit the record button. If I could’ve changed anything, it would’ve been to have a better wireless microphone, but I’m very happy with every other aspect.

You spent a long time editing Keep Drinking, Men! before it was released. At what point did you just say to yourself, enough is enough, this thing is done and I’m not going to edit it any more?

The documentary took approximately 18 months to edit. I knew the long interview of Marc and me together telling the story of the movie from start to finish would form the narrative and the backbone of the documentary. All the other cast and crew interviews would weave in and out of that narrative along with movie footage, behind the scenes footage, and still photographs. I tried to remain objective when editing, because I wanted it to appeal to a mass audience and have the documentary make sense to anyone who hadn’t seen the movie, which is everyone in the world except for the nine of us. So there was a lot of very good material that ended up cut out of the documentary because it meant something to those involved, but not to the general audience. The documentary is just under an hour, but could’ve easily run two hours.

Patrick Brennan did me a huge favor by scheduling a test screening with a group of six Disney Imagineers. We watched the documentary together and I mainly watched the audience. I could tell where sections were too long or confusing by watching their reactions. After the screening they gave me some objective feedback, and then followed up with more in-depth e-mails. That really helped shape the documentary. That’s the best advice someone gave me and that I could give filmmakers starting out; have people who are not your friends watch your project. They will give you the best and truest feedback.

You hit it right on the head with “enough is enough.” That’s the bad thing about nonlinear editing. It’s so easy to change things. You’re constantly tweaking and moving things. You could never be finished. Every time I watched it I saw something else I wanted to work on. But the last time I hit the Enter key to save the project was June 6th, my birthday. And at that point I said, “Enough is enough.” It has to be done. 6/6/06 is easy to remember it as the day the documentary was completed. Although I just saw something the other day that I could change…

 How hard was it for you to edit out some of the interview footage that you left out? (Just as a side note to the readers, there’s a deleted scenes sort of a thing on the DVD which includes a much of the interview footage that was cut from the documentary, so you don’t have to miss out on it.)

Editing is like writing. It’s better to have too much and then cut, than not have enough to start with. So, yes, it was tough to delete material, but it did make the documentary better by making it shorter. I cut so much out of the documentary I was almost able to duplicate the story of the movie in the More Beer! Extra Conversation about Beer Drinkers in Space extra on the DVD. But you really get to know more about what happened leading up to the creation of the movie and some thoughts on art and filmmaking today. I like the More Beer! extra and find it works just fine as a stand alone.

After all this time, how strong is the urge to get back in there and make another film? Do you have any plans to start working on one any time soon?

One of the important lessons I’ve learned over the last few years is to do what you’re passionate about. And for me, it’s writing, directing, shooting, and editing. I’m so thrilled to do this again and to have my first project in several years received so well. My goal has been to devote 2006 to Beer Drinkers in Space, then start a new project in 2007. I would like to direct another movie, so we’ll see what happens. I have a comedy script ready to shoot and a friend of mine is available to produce. We’ve had a few meetings so far and it’s what we’d both like to do.

Just a silly question in closing… How much beer was actually consumed during the making of BDIS, and how many re-takes did it cause you to have to shoot because of flubbed lines and what not?

You know, we did drink beer when we shot, because it was part of the script. But we never got drunk or made things difficult for each other. We really were just a group of creative friends who enjoyed each other’s company and believed in what we were doing. Let’s just say the beer took the edge off getting in front of the camera and maybe gave us some confidence we didn’t have otherwise.

Is there anything else you’d like to mention before we wrap this up?

This has been an amazing journey for me this last year, meeting these people again and having this work positively received. I’ve really learned a lot from the experience. I also wanted to thank you for your support and belief in this project. You really captured the essence of the documentary and the people involved in your August Rogue Cinema review. I hope in another year you’ll be able to take a look at my next project!

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You can find out more about Beer Drinkers in Space, the documentary Keep Drinking Men! and pick up a DVD copy of both for yourself by heading on over to the Beer Drinkers in Space website at http://www.beerdrinkersinspace.com.