Land of the Kroffts
No, you're not trapped in a 1970s time warp: Veteran TV producers Sid and Marty Krofft are launching 'LOTL' as a $100m movie with dinosaurs and Will Ferrell
For an awful lot of 40-somethings, the names Marshall, Will, and Holly are instantly familiar.
Like prehistoric critters in amber, the three are hermetically sealed in memory as the family of GPS-less river rafters stranded among the dinosaurs of "Land of the Lost," a Saturday morning television staple from 1974-76. But there are two more behind-the-scenes names identified with the show: brothers Sid and Marty Krofft.
The overachieving kid-TV producers created and boldly stamped their logo on "H.R. Pufnstuf," "The Bugaloos," and other fondly remembered flights of low-tech fancy from the late '60s and '70s, in which puppets, costumes, and a can-do spirit always seemed to transcend allowance-size budgets.
The Kroffts were a brand as recognizable as the companies pushing sugar cereal during commercial breaks. They were prolific enough that they even produced prime-time's "Donny and Marie" and a short-lived variety show spinoff of "The Brady Bunch." And now, a good three decades after the brothers' creative heyday, they're grabbing featured billing all over again, thanks to a $100 million, comically overhauled movie version of "LOTL" starring Will Ferrell.
"When we originally did the shows, we didn't really know what we were creating," says Marty, 72, who traditionally took point on the business side of the pair's producing efforts, while Sid, 79, oversaw the artistic side. "But today," says Sid, joining in on a recent conference call from LA, "I can go to Topeka and hand somebody my credit card, and they'll start rattling off names [from 'Pufnstuf']: 'Oh my God, I grew up with Jimmy and Freddy the Flute and Witchiepoo.' Or they'll sing the theme song from 'LOTL.' They just freak out." Laughing, he adds, "They freak me out."
The Kroffts first conceived "LOTL" as a way of delivering some new intensity to young viewers who'd loyally watched - and grown with - their previous four series, from "Pufnstuf" through the Johnny Whitaker-starring "Sigmund and the Sea Monsters." Sid hoped to re-create the same youthful thrills he'd gotten from watching Victor Mature in 1940's "One Million B.C.," and tether them to a Swiss Family Robinson framework. "We knew that every kid on the planet was fascinated by dinosaurs," he says.
Still, this no-brainer formula makes it all the more surprising that the show took such pains to craft a fairly involved mythology. When they weren't fleeing from stop-motion dinos cutely nicknamed Grumpy and Alice, dad Rick Marshall and his kids were ducking zombie-like lizard men called Sleestak, or stumbling inside mysterious golden pylons that manipulated the weather or sent them skipping through time. (No wonder the series' early working title was "Lost," according to the Kroffts.)
The brothers shrug off such analysis, attributing the show's trippiness simply to their well-established creative reputation, and the writing talent this allowed them to attract. A number of the writers on "LOTL" had previously worked on "Star Trek," including Walter "Chekov" Koenig. (For the record, the Kroffts have firmly asserted that the psychedelic flavor of their shows - notably "Pufnstuf" and "Lidsville," with its cast of anthropomorphized hats - was in no way a product of them puffing anything behind the scenes.)
"I marvel at the elements that were mashed up in LOTL," says director Brad Silberling ("Casper," "Lemony Snicket"), who worked on the new redo and, like many on the crew, had followed the series as a kid. "I was always obsessed with the idea that they had a banjo in the theme song, so when I first met Sid, I asked why it was there. And without any sense of irony, he said, 'Well, I had just seen the premiere of "Deliverance," and I thought it was a really exciting sound for an adventure' - forgetting all the darker scenes.
"I thought that was so funny," Silberling continues. "I think they really did just work in this sort of unfiltered way that connected with all of these young imaginations."
While the Kroffts had been working to make a "LOTL" movie happen since 1994, it took some time before they realized that to connect with a new generation, they'd have to think radically. The comedy plan jelled when they landed at the same management firm as Ferrell, whose affinity extended to playing a fed named Marshal Willenholly in Kevin Smith's fanboy comedy "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back."
"This isn't the 44th episode of the original series," says Marty. "That's why we made it. Although if we had gotten people who said, 'Let's throw out the Sleestak and start new,' I think the audience would have booed."
In the feature, Rick Marshall is recast as a blowhard "quantum paleontologist," with Will (Danny McBride) as a redneck souvenir hunter, and Holly (Anna Friel) as Rick's adoring assistant. And while the dinos are very much CG, the Sleestak still feel tech-lite, with performers donning costumes designed by the same creature effects house employed for "Hellboy."
"It's a little clichéd to say Sid and Marty were the fairy godfathers of the movie, but it's very accurate," says Silberling. "To their credit, they embraced this as a contemporary way of addressing this really genius world they created."
Chalk it up to the same adaptability of imagination that has marked the Kroffts' long, varied career, from their TV work to stage and theme park ventures to their early years as puppeteers opening for Judy Garland and Liberace in the '50s. Remember the scene when comedian Joe E. Lewis played Boston's Latin Quarter? They do, first-hand.
The brothers' roots in the old club-and-casino circuit are evident all through their conversational patter, particularly when they're reminiscing. Ditto for a charming, apparently ageless sibling interdependence, from the kidding to the sniping to finishing each other's sentences. Take Marty's story about their friends and Flamingo Hotel marquee-mates the Andrews Sisters:
"They were Greek," he says, as Sid starts to chuckle in the background, knowing exactly where this is headed. "And Laverne Andrews said that when she got married, her husband called her a Greek goddess. Two years later, he called her a [expletive] Greek."
"Marty, who writes your material?" laughs Sid.
"No," insists Marty, "true story!"
The Kroffts hope to give their act another encore or two, eyeing plans for further big-screen adaptations. "Simpsons" writer Dana Gould is currently scripting a "Sigmund" feature for Universal, which is releasing "LOTL," while Marty reports the pair are also close to a movie deal on "Pufnstuf."
"Our dream for Witchiepoo - and it's just a dream - is to get Johnny Depp," says Sid, eagerly making the casting leap from Willy Wonka androgyny to the screechy "Pufnstuf" villainess.
"Well, that's Sid's dream," Marty mock-grumbles, already crunching the contractual numbers in his head. "I'm not making that one come true."