Could this possibly be the best convention ever?
Two days in a five star hotel, with a schedule so jam-packed that the dealers were pleading with the organisers to ask us to visit them, and a guest list that comprised of not only the major stars on the screen but also the major players behind the scenes. Videos, photo shoots, guest talks, autograph sessions, makeup demonstrations, auctions, parties, fancy dress competitions.... If my head wasn't spinning from the Iron Maiden concert I had attended on the Friday night, it was certainly going to be after this.
By the time I had arrived on the Saturday morning, the registration queue had already stretched through the hotel lobby and out into the scorching sun of the UK's second heat wave of the year. After spending the previous night in a pit of a hotel (in an effort to save money for Buffy merchandise, you understand) the Radisson Edwardian Hotel seemed like paradise. I still can't understand how they put up with a crowd like us for a whole weekend - but I'm not complaining.
The weekend suddenly got four times better when I opened my registration pack and realised that extra guests had been announced. Anthony Stewart Head (Giles), James Marsters (Spike) and Greg Solomon (Optic Nerve's creature effects supervisor) were the only guests listed in the last update I had received from the organisers. However, the list had now grown with the addition of Julie Benz (Darla), Jeff Pruitt (stunt co-ordinator), Sophia Crawford (SMG's stunt double) and Robin Atkin Downes (Machidna). The weekend was getting better with every page I turned and it was only 9:30!
While Tony, James, Julie, Sophia and Jeff were engaged in the first day's photo session, Robin took to the stage at 11pm. I had caught him already in the dealers room and got an autographed photo from his brief but memorable Buffy appearance. To be honest, I hadn't a clue who he was, besides his Machidna character and he was pretty much unrecognisable in that role. However, he's someone I won't forget in a hurry and I'll definitely be keeping an eye out for him in the other roles I have since discovered him to have played.
He was a great speaker, either very natural or very experienced with fan conventions. I doubt half the audience could have named more than two of his characters but they grew to like him very quickly. He was born and spent some of his early years in England although his accent has definitely been influenced by the greater part of his life that was spent in LA. However, he never forgot where his roots were and was able to name the children's TV shows he had grown up with. Each show's title elicited a cheer from the audience as the nostalgia set in, except for the younger fans that only know a world without magic shopkeepers, flowerpot men and Bod!
When asked the usual question of how he became an actor, he told us a story about his earlier life in LA that confirmed an actor's usual response to someone looking for advice on following his footsteps - DON'T! He had taken the common approach of getting a job as a waiter while looking for work but like 99% of waiters in LA, things didn't go to plan. At one point in his life, he found himself without a job, got told that he was being kicked out of his rented apartment and to top it all off his uninsured car got stolen. There was no quick breakthrough either. It took him almost two years to recover from that situation but he eventually got back on his feet and landed a role on Babylon 5 as a character called Morann. He later returned as a different character, Byron, for which he is much better known and much more recognisable without the makeup. Unfortunately, I don't watch the show so many of the questions just passed over my head. Still, his graphic account of his first appearance on screen had me in stitches like the rest of the audience.
He also told us about an 'experience' he had making a werewolf film in Romania. After being attacked by huge dogs, being asked to jump through real glass, and a whole list of other no-budget B-movie horror flick requests, it was amazing that he was still around to tell us about it. The bottom line was that he should have listened to his friends who told him to get as far away from it as possible.
More recently, he's been seen as the Demon of Illusions in an episode of Charmed and, of course, there's his all to brief role as Machidna in Buffy. He was orginally written into three episodes as the snake demon but on the first day of shooting, the stunt man, who was suspended in a harness over the bottom half of the suit for several hours under the hot studio lights, passed out! Robin was taken aside by the producers and told that his character was getting killed of the next day. I always thought that scene was far too short and now I know why!
I'd love to see Robin on stage again because it seemed like an hour just wasn't enough. For someone who started off as just another actor who appeared for a few seconds in Buffy, he certainly left a lasting impression.
Julie, another of the weekend's surprises for me, was an awesome addition to the guest list. With the grand title of being the first vampire to appear on Buffy, even her death in the fifth episode couldn't keep her down. I don't have satellite or cable so I haven't seen her appearance in Angel but I gathered that she had a life-changing role to play in his character and it's not over yet!
Julie's petite frame is nothing like her character's appearance and, unfortunately for the audience, she made use of the chair that was provided for her on the low stage. However, the strained neck was worth it. She took to the stage both days and the audience immediately took to her. She seemed genuinely taken aback by the round of applause and the cheer from the crowd and extremely appreciative of the attention that she was getting. Nothing less than she deserved, we had decided.
With no stories to tell, she immediately jumped into questions and before long they had drifted onto the subject of the internet. She confirmed that she loves the net and she regularly browses the message boards and web sites to see what is being said about her character and the show in general. Then she hit on her favourite web site - Planet Darla - and remembered that it had been created by someone in the UK. Asking if the creator was in the audience, he was quickly pointed out by his friends and she brought him up on stage to thank him with a hug. Whatever effort he put into that web site, it was worth it!
She told us that she's a huge TV addict. An easier question to answer would be what shows she doesn't watch rather than which ones she does. She loves Buffy and Angel and never misses an episode, even the ones she's not in. She even appeared to have a fan-like knowledge of Buffy trivia from time to time when questions that weren't relevant to her character came up. That's a rare and admirable trait in any actor.
When asked about her background, she told us that she comes from a family of doctors and grew up with the intention of being the first female doctor in the family. However, that was turned on its head when her father let her watch an operation he was performing. She quickly realised that she was incredibly squeamish and now even has trouble with fake blood and special effects. Not good for a TV show about vampires!
One thing I'll remember when writing to Julie is something she told us when asked about the sort of fan mail she receives. She gets loads of mail and although she appreciates it all, one letter soon becomes the same as the next. What she'd really like is for people to send their picture with their letters so that she can see what they look like. That way she could associate a face to a letter and it makes it so much more personal.
If any of the actors were a far cry from the character they play then Julie was the most (besides Robin, of course, because that would be silly!) She had the sweetest personality imaginable. She told us that her character was supposed to be killed off in every episode she played in but the producers liked her so much that they kept asking her back. I can see what they saw in her and I can't believe it has taken them this long to see the error of their ways.
What can be said about James Marsters that a crowd of hundreds of screaming fans can't convey in a few seconds? Without any doubt, he turned out to be the favourite of all the weekend's guests, not only on the stage but also on the photo shoots, the parties and the closing ceremony. If Julie held the most distance between herself and her character then James was right next his. His hyperactive stage antics, smooth talking and sharp wit was everything you'd expect from Spike - in a good mood of course.
Sucking on a lollipop, he jumped on stage, looked at the ornate English chair, sat in it for all of three seconds and then threw it to the side to leave room for him to run around the stage. He was as excited to be here as we were! With an endless supply of raised hands, he'd point to one and ask "What's up?"
Within minutes, he was asked to say something in his English accent. He rhymed off a few lines in Spike mode to the loud appreciation of the crowd. Amazingly, he told us that since his appearance on Buffy, he's had problems convincing casting agents that he's not English. He's had to prove to them that he's an American actor before they'll look at him now! He admitted that Tony has been helping him with his accent since the beginning but Tony assured us that James was never far off the mark.
His dream project is to do Macbeth. He drifted back to the subject again and again over the two days so it seems like something close to his heart. He's working on a script for a film version of the play at the moment, and has been for quite some time. His background as a stage actor has taught him a lot and he eventually wants to try his hand at directing but, for now, he's content with acting and who wouldn't be with a role like that?
The mere mention of a Spike spin-off sent the audience wild. He frequently launched into a playful attack of David Boreanaz, making fun of him for getting his own series in one sentence but always confirming what a good friend and actor he is in the next. If there's one thing he hopes for in the upcoming series, it's to get another shot at Angel. He knows he'll never be able to kill him, and neither will anyone else, but he just wants to have as much fun as he can trying.
Any time the questions veered towards Drucilla, he'd drop his head in fake sorrow and sigh "Ah, Drew." He told us that Juliet had been asked several times to come back to the show but their schedules never matched and her film work always prevented her from being written into any episodes. He's hopeful that it will happen sometime in the future but he didn't advise us to hold our breath.
At Sunday's talk, he was eventually coaxed into playing a song with a guitar that was conveniently supplied by the technical crew. I didn't recognise it but I had no idea he could sing or play, never mind how good he was. It was certainly a crowd pleaser.
One of his last requests was from a fan who had brought a doll with her and she wanted him to smash its porcelain head in true Spike fashion, and he kindly obliged. A truly memorable guest who gave the impression that he could have held the convention on his own shoulders without any help. The audience loved him and he loved us for loving him! "I'm a star," he shouted under the strobe lighting of camera flashes and he couldn't have been more right.
Next up was the team responsible for bringing out the best in Buffy, if reducing vamps to a pile of ash after kicking some undead butt is your sort of thing. Jeff Pruitt, the stunt co-ordinator on the show who joined during season 2, wasn't someone I'd have immediately recognised. However, Sophia Crawford was a name I had heard of around ten years ago. I have been a Hong Kong movie fan for as long as I can remember and Sophia Crawford was a name that became a permanent fixture in my vocabulary since she started to kick her way onto the jade screen. She was one of the few western women to make it in Hong Kong and along with people like Cynthia Rothrock, Richard Norton and Karen Shepherd, she became a role model for all the western hopefuls who would give anything for the chance to square up to the eastern stars.
She began her career by arriving in Hong Kong, getting a copy of Yellow Pages and visiting every film studio she could find. She eventually got her break with New Kids In Town, getting the part by saying she could fight, not fully realising what 'fighting' meant in a Hong Kong action film! She was quickly killed off when the director realised the extent of her skills but that gave her the incentive to learn how to fight and her career took off from there.
In Story of the Gun, they were filming in a derelict building with rubble laying around everywhere. One shot required her to jump through a burning hole in a wall but because of the speed that films are made in Hong Kong, there was no time to properly prepare the stunt and when she jumped through she broke her ankle. However, she somehow managed to finish the film. They had to shoot her character on the leg during a fight on a boat to give her an excuse to limp!
Jeff learned his trade in Hong Kong also. He spent some time with the Jackie Chan stunt team and was the only western stunt man in the team at the time. He joined Buffy in season 2 and he and Sophia became the team that brought some of the best stunt work to the small screen.
They brought a 'behind the scenes' video with them, something Jeff is continually working on so that he can show the fans the amount of work that the stunt team has to put into making the show what it is. He spent a lot of time trying to give credit to stunt people, both on Buffy and on other shows, giving them names instead of 'Tom Cruise's stunt double' or 'Wesley Snipes' stunt double'. In fact, the stuntman who doubled for Wesley Snipes on Blade has worked on the show at times. He also assured us that Tom Cruise did not do all his own stunts on M:I 2. He made sure we knew what the stuntman's name was and conveyed his amusement at the promotional shots of John Woo choreographing a fight with Tom when he knew both the stunt co-ordinator and stuntman on the film.
One particular stunt that he wishes he had behind the scenes footage for was when Buffy gets hit by a car as she runs across the road. Because Sophia had to wear a dress, there was nowhere to hide padding so she was virtually unprotected when she performed it. Also, because of careful editing, it looks like she was just knocked back a few feet when in fact she ended up around 20 or 30 feet away.
Another particularly difficult effect to do was in Joss Whedon's episode Hush where he insisted that he wanted the demons to float the whole way down the street. It involved a lot of rigging and a huge crane but he managed to pull it off. He said that Joss likes to put that little bit extra into his episodes, just to make them stand out from the rest.
One problem they admitted to having is actors wanting to do stunts themselves. The producers have very strict rules about actors not performing even the easiest of stunts unless it is absolutely necessary for a shot, such as throwing a punch. There is too much risk involved if one of them gets a black eye or a thick lip. However, the only way to get them to stop asking is to let them fall a few times and when they realise that it really does hurt, they'll eventually call in their double. There's one scene in an Angel episode where David never moves from his spot while the camera is on him. This is because he twisted his ankle after insisting he could do a simple stunt while on a Buffy crossover episode.
Sophia announced that she would not be returning to Buffy for season five. They almost took a job on Steve Sears' new show Sheena, but work on the Buffy video game prevented that. She's going to pursue a film career again and she's going to start filming within the next few weeks. We can only hope that her replacement on Buffy will be nearly as good but I fully intend to continue following her career, no matter where that takes her.
As for Jeff, like fans of Ted Raimi have a pastime known as Ted-spotting, Jeff-spotting should be equally as popular. He has many appearances on Buffy as a vampire and also on various films such as Scanners and Martial Law.
Because of my love for Hong Kong movies, the fighting on Buffy was one of the many things that drew me to the series and Jeff and Sophia are the ones responsible for that. They were a great addition to the guest list and it was a definite highlight of the weekend for me to finally meet Sophia after so many years of watching her on the jade screen.
Anthony was never a definite guest for the whole weekend and the organisers spent the days leading up to the event trying to determine exactly which day and what times he would be available (due to filming commitments). They didn't realise he had arrived until he called them from the hotel car park! Luckily, his schedule allowed him to attend both days, much to the appreciation of the packed conference room waiting to see him each day.
He was, of course, asked about the coffee adverts and he told us that that was one of the reasons he decided to move from England to the US. Everyone here knew him from the adverts and producers didn't want an actor to appear on their show who would immediately have viewers reaching for the coffee jar!
One of his quirks as an actor is that he likes to associate a smell with the character he is playing so he spent the first couple of seasons walking around with mothballs in his pockets because that is how he thought Giles would smell. When asked about his car, he assured us that he was delighted to see it go. There were days when it had to be pushed along and other days when things like the breaks wouldn't work!
He was asked a few questions about the books in his library. It seems that they are all real books, just not the sort you'd expect. Most of them are fairly boring but they keep the crew amused while shots are being set up. He found one in particular that was pretty gruesome. It was an old medical book that included diagrams of various diseases and procedures. He has no idea how it ended up there.
When things moved on to particular episodes, he said that his favourite had originally been season two's Passion. He thought that it was the best written and shot episode he had worked on until it was beaten by season four's Hush, which is now his favourite. He loved playing the alternative Giles in Band Candy, although he admits to the obvious continuity problems of how Giles got his ear pierced and where he got his jeans from. He tried to partially explain the jeans by insisting that there be splashes of paint on them and assuming that Giles would have an old pair laying around for the odd bit of DIY. However, he does admit that there is a scene somewhere where he complete forgot to take out his earring and nobody noticed until it was too late.
He said that he was looking forward to playing a demon when he first heard about the upcoming episode but was a little disappointed when he read the script and realised that it wasn't a completely serious role. It was still fun to get all the makeup on though.
He was asked several times about his stint in Rocky Horror and begged to sing Sweet Transvestite, which he didn't do. However, he did play a couple of songs on the guitar. The first one I didn't recognise but the second he introduced as "The Watchers Song". Another one I haven't heard of, I thought, until he started playing.
"Every breath you take, and every move you make, every bond you break, every step you take, I'll be watching you - get it?"
Overall, Anthony proved to be an extremely entertaining guest. He even stayed along with the other guests for an extra hour and a half on the Sunday evening to ensure that everyone got an autograph, despite the fact that he had another engagement that evening. It always heartens me to see a guest go out of their way to keep the fans happy and I hope he realises how much we all appreciate that, not just the fans who got the autograph they would otherwise have missed.
Greg Solomon was last on stage on the Saturday and first on Sunday. He performed a makeup demonstration to turn a lucky attendee into a real Buffy vampire each day. The first day's volunteer was chosen by auctioning the privilege of being transformed and £300 became the winning bid. The second day was decided with a raffle. With almost two hours work, a little longer than usual because he told stories and answered questions throughout, he showed us what was involved in applying vampire makeup of a quality fit for TV.
During the demonstration, he told us about the process of taking head casts and full body casts for demons. He told us about other shows he has worked on, including Roswell and Alien Nation. After some thought, he decided that the most complex job he had on Buffy was on the makeup for Adam. He answered various questions from hopeful makeup artists but replied with the same sort of answer as actors give when asked about the potential for employment in their profession. Unfortunately, the ratio of working makeup artists to unemployed makeup artists is somewhat the same as that of actors. It's a very competitive profession, especially in Hollywood, and it takes as much luck as skill.
The two convention attendees got a taste of stardom for a while with cameras flashing in their faces at the end of the demonstration as they stood with Greg on stage. They also spent some time posing for photos with other attendees throughout the day. It's something I'm sure they won't forget in a hurry.
As if 8 hours of videos, guest talks and a makeup demonstration wasn't enough, Saturday night was seen out with a fancy dress competition and the vampire ball. Victorian vampires, modern day vampires, futuristic cyberpunk barbie vampires and just about every other sort of blood sucker you can think of were in abundance. There were plenty of Spikes to keep James amused. There were plenty of Drucillas to keep...well...James amused also. There were Buffys, Willows, Giles', a curious lack of Xanders, but it didn't stop there. We were also treated to a couple of cenobites, the crew of SG-1, and a chainsaw wielding Ash from Evil Dead.
As each contestant took to the floor, the group of guest judges made some comments and a few notes (with pens and paper they had to ask for!). Then they deliberated to make their decision. I can honestly say that they weren't just being kind when they said how hard it was to judge them. The standard was amazing and choosing three that were better than the rest was an impossible task. However, they made their decision and the results were:
Pinhead & Chatterer
My turn for the photo shoot and the autograph session came on the Sunday. The photos were being taken in the pool area, which could have doubled as a sauna with its glass roof on one of the hottest days of the year! I was one of the few who got a photo taken with all five guests and Jeff had to be called in especially, because he wasn't waiting with the others who were in front of the camera on a more regular basis. However I wasn't passing up the opportunity to get a photo with the people who work hardest to put the actors in the limelight. Being a martial arts instructor and a fan of Hong Kong movies and fight choreography, I can really appreciate Jeff's and Sophia's work.
The autograph session had a couple of disappointments in store for me, however. Because of large numbers, it was decided that nobody was allowed to ask for the autograph to be personalised - i.e. no "To Thomas". Worse than that, I discovered that the photos I had got taken earlier weren't ready by the time I was joining the queue so I couldn't get them signed. Jeff and Sophia recognised me from the photo session, because I was one of the few to want a photo with Jeff, and they told me to track them down if I got the photos later and they'd gladly sign them for me. It turned out that the photos had become available about ten minutes after I joined the queue and I was able to pick them up just after I left! Because of the number of attendees, nobody was allowed in a second time so I had to be content with catching Jeff and Sophia on the way out when they happily signed the two photos for me.
The closing ceremony on the Sunday night had a very different theme, as James discovered the hard way. Rocky Horror, in honour of Anthony who unfortunately wasn't present because of other engagements, was the theme of the evening and one huge guy made sure there was no mistake as to what that meant. I was running very short of film for my camera at this stage so the photos had to be rationed. That's what happens when you expect three guests and end up with seven! However, I was glad I had one left by the end of the night when I got the chance to have it taken with Greg.
Anyhow, the evening began with an auction. Everything from vampire bears signed by the guests to video box sets signed by Alison Hannagin were up for grabs. At one stage, a N2k application form that had been filled out by David Boreanaz on a recent UK visit was sold. Within fifteen minutes, word had got back to James and he quickly filled one in, demanding that it be sold for more than David's went for. It wasn't looking good for a while but it eventually topped it, something that James will be able to gloat about the next time he sees David.
Before they left for the final time, James got his hands on the mike and in his traditional hyperactive way told us how much he had loved the weekend and how much he wants to come back here next year. He wasn't even content with leaving us then and rejoined the Rocky Horror Party for a few song requests that had him on the dance floor with a very lucky minder. Julie could even be found in the video room watching the closing ceremony video with the fans.
I can't finish off with a summary because this review in itself is a summary that just scrapes the surface. It was one of those weekends that you'll remember vividly for years and you hope that the next convention you go to will be even half as good. These are the three people that made the weekend possible, along with a small army working behind the scenes also. No matter what complaints people have about the weekend, I doubt anyone left wishing they had spent it anywhere else. Before Sunday was out, I had booked for next year's event and, fingers crossed, I hope I was in time to make it into the early numbers for the Friday night cocktail party as I know a lot of other people had the same idea as me.
I'll leave the final words up to Julie. It's something few people attending the convention will have heard her say because it was said in the corridor of the fourth floor. I was privileged to overhear her say it to one of her minders as I was on my way back to my room and it can't be summed up any better.
"Everything after this is going to be a letdown because this has been so much fun."