Back in March 2010 Bill Black and Nicola Rae participated in an interview for the Fawcett Collectors of America section of Alter Ego #94. This issue is available online at the TwoMorrows Publishing website. Click here and this link will take you right to it. At the time of this interview we had no plans to film a sequel to The Return of Nyoka the Jungle Girl… let alone two!
The Return Of Nyoka The Jungle Girl Director Bill Black & Actress Nicola Rae Discuss Nyoka’s Prevailing Perils by P.C. Hamerlinck
Comics publisher Bill Black’s new film, The Return of Nyoka the Jungle Girl, celebrates the venerated Republic/Fawcett adventurer in a sincere homage to the Saturday matinee cliffhanger serials of the 1940s. The briskly-paced 30-minute single “chapter” from an imaginary serial has a grandiosity all its own – while playfully establishing its reflective bridge to the past. The screen’s new Nyoka, Nicola Rae, delivers a genuine, spirited performance as she is put through the numerous perils and predicaments that come with the job.
Part I – Back With Black: Nyoka Director Bill Black
FCA: Bill, you acquired the rights to Nyoka in 1987 from Charlton, the publisher which had obtained the property after the demise of Fawcett’s comics line in the ’50s. How did your transaction with Charlton come about?
BILL BLACK: I had a history with Charlton earlier in the decade …drawing covers, participating in Charlton Bullseye… and assistant editor Bill Pearson was a buddy of mine. In 1983, he set up the deal for me to have rights to the Charlton super-heroes for that year, which was instrumental in my getting AC Comics off the ground. So when Charlton folded and sold off their assets, I was one of the publishers they contacted. I had no idea I’d be obtaining Nyoka. Frankly, I had never thought much of the comic book series. To me, it had always just been a back-up feature in Master Comics. Nyoka certainly was not the “hottest” jungle girl… yet it was very appealing to me to “own” a Golden Age character, especially one with such a long publishing history. But I was much more drawn to the Republic movie serial versions, especially Kay Aldridge’s Nyoka Gordon. I had met Kay Aldridge circa 1978 when she was about 60 years old, and I was smitten.
FCA: You went on to reprint many “Nyoka” comic book stories over the years – both from the original Fawcett run to later Charlton appearances.
BLACK: The Fawcett “Nyoka” stories were bland – and the Charlton version even more so. At Fawcett, I thought Harry Anderson (who drew the first issue) did the best art on the series; Bernie Krigstein’s early work on “Nyoka” was before he really blossomed as an illustrator. Maurice Whitman was probably the best artist on the Charlton stories, but those tales were routinely only five – sometimes even only four or three (!) pages long. Conversely, earlier Fawcett yarns may have been book-length in page count, yet still managed to impart minimal storytelling. The Fawcett writers had this odd penchant for stretching time: they’d turn a 10-second peril of Nyoka falling off a cliff into two pages of panels.
FCA: In addition to being a publisher, you’ve been producing and directing your own independent films since the ’60s. What prompted you to make a Nyoka movie?
BLACK: Producing Nyoka last year was a natural because we had an actress who was perfect for the part and because Florida, where I live, is a natural jungle—or at least it used to be… hard to find land now that hasn’t been covered in asphalt.
FCA: In the late ’80s, in an issue of the AC Nyoka comics series, you reported that you had written a screenplay with the working title Nyoka and the Secret of the Sacred Skull, which was to involve Kay Aldridge. What became of that project?
BLACK: I had partnered with Hollywood producer Mike Frankovich, Jr., to try to get our properties made into movies. I wrote Sacred Skull and threw it into the mix. My idea was to include roles for jungle-connected actors I’d met, such as Jock Mahoney (Tarzan), Irish McCalla (Sheena), and Kay Aldridge (Nyoka). It would have been a dream come true, but that script was too high-budget for our level of filmmaking. By the mid-’90s, Mike and I gave up on Hollywood and decided to strike out on our own, mostly making films just for the fun of it. Jock Mahoney died in 1989 and Irish and Kay are gone, as well. Even Mike passed away a year or so ago, never getting the chance to see the films I finished in 2009.
FCA: Did you have any plans to have then-17-year-old Laura Stafford (featured in your Nyoka comics) to portray “Young Nyoka” in a film?
BLACK: Oh, no. Laura is my daughter. She was a model at the time—but getting her to do that was like pulling teeth. She’s never really showed much interest in “the family business” – but she did like my new Nyoka movie.
FCA: The Return of Nyoka the Jungle Girl has been one of your most ambitious films. How did the project come about?
BLACK: Even though I deal in the fantastic, our projects come about by being anchored in reality. In this case it was the reality of needing to produce and release a film quickly, without being slowed down by time-consuming special effects. Nyoka… a pretty girl… a jungle setting… a couple bad guys… piece of cake. But no project ever goes as planned. I’d done another film back in the ’70s that was only the fifth chapter of a non-existent serial, so I had some experience in doing that type of action film. Since 1970 I have collected serials and become well-versed in how to assemble such a film.
My collaborator, JohnJG, was new to chapterplays but was a quick study, absorbing Perils of Nyoka, Spy Smasher, and other serials as fast as I handed them to him. It was his idea to put a gorilla in our movie; he felt there just couldn’t be a Nyoka movie without her old ape adversary, Satan. As luck would have it, Femforce artist Brad Gorby introduced me to gorilla actor Chris Casteel. Neither Brad nor Chris knew I was producing a Nyoka movie. Chris had constructed an absolutely perfect gorilla suit guided by his mentor, Hollywood gorilla man Bob Burns (of TV’s Ghostbusters series), who was happy to pass the baton to Chris. Then John found the pendulum set, and suddenly we had a movie.
FCA: In this “fifth chapter,” Nyoka is up against The Crimson Skull (played by Pierce Knightley as another tribute to the Republic serials) for control of the mystic amulet of Vultura (Nyoka’s foe from the 1942 Perils serial). Since you’re an artist, did you draw storyboards for the film?
BLACK: Nyoka was planned to be a single chapter from the get-go, and nothing from a larger project was omitted. Normally I draw storyboards, but I didn’t do any for this project. On top of normal production rigors, with Nyoka we had the additional difficulty of filming a man in a gorilla suit in near 100-degree weather. He could not keep the head on for any longer than ten minutes or he would collapse. We’d shoot a couple of gorilla takes, then Chris would retire to his air conditioned car to rest while I filmed something with other actors till he was ready to go again. By the afternoon we were all close to succumbing to heat prostration, though I don’t think it shows in the finished film. I shot the whole film with the hand-held camera. Dealing with a tripod would only have slowed me down. I never stopped to rest: while the cast took a break, I’d grab an actor and shoot a couple more takes. My goal was to keep the camera moving throughout and to make the camera motion add to the excitement. Working with an adrenalin rush keeps me going until the last scene is in the can. John and I were driven by the heat and the desire to get out of it as fast as possible, so we worked at a dizzying speed.
We filmed on a nature trail near John’s home. It’s a splendid location with gullies and streams. Everywhere you point the camera there would be an interesting background. Much of the action was filmed within 50 feet of a busy street. We were constantly contending with lawn mowers, leaf blowers, and airplanes creating unwanted background noise.
FCA: You have 6-foot-tall, brown-haired Nicola Rae portraying the new Nyoka—granddaughter of the 1942 jungle girl. What led to her being cast for the role?
BLACK: I had worked with Nikki in several earlier productions of mine. She is the epitome of a Femforce woman, the camera loves her, and she is stunning as Nyoka. This is the kind of film I had always wanted to make… the heroine should be beautiful and sexy but not overt, as in a Russ Meyer movie. It’s the right mix of action and sex appeal and is what I always wanted to see in a movie when I was young, but I never found one that delivered the goods (except for The Legend of Frenchy King). Nikki’s a real trooper and enters every project with zeal. She shares the same excitement as John and I do about making these movies. I did put her through hell in one scene: Nyoka is tied to the tree only briefly in the edited film, but it took an excruciatingly long time to film it. The heat was oppressive enough, but the rough rope cutting into her skin and the feeling of entrapment was tough on Nikki.
FCA: Were you happy with Chris Casteel’s portrayal of Vultura’s pet gorilla?
BLACK: In this modern day of CGI miracles, men in gorilla suits are all but a thing of the past. Chris’ performance was impressive. I was really moved at how he was able to segue from violent attack mode into gentle flower-bearer mode and convey the different emotions with only his eyes and body language. Bob Burns was very proud of his gorilla brother, and Chris’ portrayal of a gorilla ranks with the best of them.
FCA: Music from 1942’s Perils of Nyoka was skillfully used as your movie’s soundtrack, adding to the surge of nostalgia.
BLACK: John had to go through all 15 chapters time and again to find clean cuts of the music—then he would cut the film to fit the music. That’s doing it the hard way, but he succeeded and it really works. Also, all the gunshots heard are Republic sound effects. And if you study closely the main titles you will find many other similarities. We went all-out to make this as close to the real McCoy as we could.
FCA: The CGI-produced ancient ceremonial chamber, with Nyoka chained to a stone slab beneath a giant descending, swinging pendulum blade, made for a rousing cliffhanger. Did you outsource these scenes, or were they done “in-house”?
BLACK:We did everything; John created the pendulum effect. We filmed over 30 different camera angles of Nyoka on the altar because we wanted it not to be a static scene. Matching up the 3-D environment with each camera angle took John about two months. Our original goal to make the film very quickly was trumped by those special effects, but it worked and made for an exciting conclusion. I think Kay would have loved it.