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Richard Elfman on his freaky, fabulous Forbidden Zone

It's nearly impossible to describe Forbidden Zone to the uninitiated. It's a musical, a surreal fairy tale, an avant-garde live-action cartoon, and a strangely alluring jab at the boundaries of good taste. It's black-and-white and nutty all over — and has become a cult sensation since its 1980 release. A film as singularly odd as Forbidden Zone obviously has one hell of a backstory. Fortunately, I didn't have to sneak through any basement portals to track down director and coscripter Richard Elfman. Now the editor of Buzzine — an entertainment and pop culture mag with a bustling Web site, — Elfman e-mailed and chatted with me over the phone about what's possibly the strangest movie ever made, featuring the first film score by his brother, Danny Elfman.

Surprisingly, Richard revealed quite a few San Francisco ties; he lived in the Haight and in Berkeley in the 1960s and '70s, playing in an Afro-Latin percussion ensemble that later gigged in Las Vegas. He also spent some time working with the Cockettes, who introduced him to Max Fleischer's Betty Boop cartoons, a Forbidden Zone influence. A fateful trip to a Toronto theater festival introduced him to the Grand Magic Circus, a French troupe that encouraged his eclectic theatrical tastes.

SFBG How did you move from the Grand Magic Circus to form the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo?

RICHARD ELFMAN Shortly [after the Toronto festival], the Magic Circus opened a major show in Paris. I was invited to join the company, which I did, and soon brought my younger brother Danny in. I married the leading lady, Marie-Pascale — Frenchy in Forbidden Zone. The show was billed as an avant-garde musical, but in fact much of it had roots in both turn of the century absurdism and French classical comedy.

After a year of touring Europe and beyond, I, along with Frenchy and my childhood friend Gene Cunningham [Pa in Forbidden Zone], formed the Mystic Knights of the Oingo Boingo back in Los Angeles. My brother Danny, who went from the Magic Circus to a year in the African bush — I'm not joking — joined us shortly thereafter. The Mystic Knights incorporated absurdist comedy with an eclectic mix of great older music, pieces [by Cab Calloway and others] that could no longer be heard live elsewhere, along with original avant-garde pieces by Danny. As the '70s moved along, I went off to other projects; under my brother's direction, the Mystic Knights were ultimately bent into a rock band, Oingo Boingo.

SFBG Obviously, several of the performers in Forbidden Zone were from the theater troupe — but how did Susan Tyrrell and Hervé Villechaize get involved?

RE Well, the film had Frenchy [who starred and was the production designer], Gene, my brother, and all of the Mystic Knights, along with Danny's childhood friend and original Knight, Matthew Bright, who played Squeezit and René Henderson. He also cowrote Forbidden Zone and went on to write and direct films like Freeway [1996]. Matthew's roommate at the time was Hervé Villechaize, the king. Hervé's girlfriend was Susan Tyrrell, the queen. Et voilà!

SFBG What were some of the challenges you faced during filming?

RE I didn't know what the fuck I was doing when I started, but I eventually figured things out and got — over three arduous years — something that gives the sense what our Mystic Knights shows were like. The music was easy, as I had experience staging and choreographing musicals, and my little brother is Mozart. The animation bankrupted me, however. We inked things cell by cell, the old-fashioned way.

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