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Diary of a Trainwreck

Producer John James and director David Giancola expected difficulties when they hired Anna Nicole Smith—but a new documentary details just how “craptastic” the experience was

by Shawn Stone on October 6, 2011

Anna Nicole Smith on the set

It’s a moment that sums up the entire experience of making a movie with the late Anna Nicole Smith. It’s not the weirdest moment in the documentary Craptastic!, but it’s emblematic of the struggles the film depicts.

After weeks of shooting on location in Vermont, after enduring medical and legal dramas that stretched from the Bahamas to the steps of the Supreme Court in Washington, D.C., and after being on the receiving end of interest from mass-media outlets all over the world, John James, the ex-Dynasty star turned movie producer, and David Giancola, a self-taught, Rutland-based filmmaker who had carved out a career for himself as an indie director on made-for-cable action/disaster flicks, were ready to screen their film. Then they get a call: Smith was skipping her own premiere.

Giancola and James know they’re screwed; the whole point of the event is Smith’s appearance. In the film of the event, James looks like someone just gut-punched him. The no-show makes the kind of headlines they don’t want.

This turns out, however, to be a minor disaster, as it is followed by a series of tragedies that culminate in the death by drug overdose of their star. Their film is a comedy. It stars pro wrestler-turned-actress Chyna (Joanie Laurer) alongside Smith; it is a deliberately goofy B-movie send up; and it’s titled Illegal Aliens. But no one was laughing.

Smith with John James

You will laugh, however, and a lot, if you check out Craptastic! at the Spectrum 8 Theatres on Oct. 13. The inherently depressing parts of the Anna Nicole Smith saga are balanced out by the sheer insanity of trying to make a coherent film under ridiculous conditions.

Reached by phone at his home in Chatham, John James still sounds amazed by the whole experience.

“It’s a true-life Ishtar,” he says. “Everything that could go wrong in this project did.”

Asked if, in his many years in the business (including his years starring alongside Joan Collins on Dynasty) he’d ever seen a similar firestorm of publicity around anyone, his answer is firm: “Never.”

The documentary captures this beautifully, as the craziness of Anna Nicole Smith’s world starts to creep into the usual intense, removed-from-reality world of a film set.

“As David says in the movie,” James remembers, “ ‘John, this will be easy to make, and we’ll flip it to DVD.’ I thought, ‘OK, I’ll get my feet wet as a producer.’ ”

James got more than wet. He took a bath. He’s philosophical about it, though.

“Even though I lost my shirt, David lost his shirt, and our investors lost their shirts, the education that I got out of making that movie turned me into an instant veteran producer.”

Craptastic! captures just how much this education cost. Smith was regularly late to set, and began to demand script and scene changes.

“It was incredible pressure we were under.”

Still, it seemed like the on-screen product was going to be exactly what the filmmakers wanted. Namely, a wacky comedy along the lines of a Date Movie that would be popular on DVD and cable.

“It was a really out there film. It was designed to be a cult movie. Eight months later, Entertainment Tonight makes a special announcement that they’ll be showing the exclusive world première of Anna Nicole Smith’s new movie. . . . I’m sorry, but that doesn’t happen with Raiders of the Lost Ark.”

David Giancola with James on the set

Then Smith died.

At the time, James was working on All My Children as an actor. After Smith’s death, he was, in effect written out of the show. He’d been talking with various major studios about distribution deals; as he puts it now, “The phones went dead.”

“Neither of us had any interest in doing anything in the business for a year,” James says.

But they did have all the on-the-set footage they’d shot as “insurance” when it became clear that neither Smith nor Chyna were insurable.

What comes through in Craptastic! is that the people involved knew that were making something crazy, silly, and stupid. And they didn’t treat it like it was crap; they all genuinely wanted to make good. Even—especially, at first—Anna Nicole Smith.

Craptastic! will be screened on Oct. 13 at 6:45 PM at the Spectrum 8 Theatres (290 Delaware Ave., Albany). John James and David Giancola will lead a Q&A after the film.