It has been the summer of the superhero at movie theaters. First, the freaks from the X-Men comic mutated into a box-office bonanza. More recently, the computer-generated Hulk flexed his muscles and showed Universal Pictures the green.
Now, Dirk Factor, star of Superhero Excelsior, wants to join the fray. But no one is counting on him to save the day — not even the movie’s producer, Mark A. Moss, who describes his main character as a "totally inept superhero."
See, Dirk’s powers are limited, and he travels with a robotic sidekick who violently flails around as if the stars of Jackass programmed him.
However, Dirk Factor’s main mission is not to rescue the damsel in distress or save the earth from a head-on collision with a comet. Leave that to Clark Kent.
Dirk is here to make you laugh — and, if he has time, thwart the plot of evil mastermind Fare Vanity to control the world.
Superhero Excelsior is the first feature film from Felmark Entertainment, a company started three years ago by Moss, of South Philly, and his friend Felix Diaz.
Last month at Chestnut Street’s Prince Theater, Superhero was one of the hit productions of the FirstGlance Philadelphia Film Festival, drawing the largest crowds of any movie at the event and capturing the prize for third-best feature film.
"It’s a low-budget film and you can tell, but it’s well-made. The comedy is broad. It’s Leslie Nielson-kind of comedy," Moss says, but warns, "It’s not everybody’s cup of tea."
Behold, for example, the extraordinary powers of another of the film’s superheroes, Crackers. True to his name, Moss says, Crackers is known for eating them — and letting the crumbs fly from his mouth whenever he speaks.
"At the screening, kids went bananas for that," Moss notes.
Moss, 40, grew up near 11th and Ritner streets, and still lives nearby on the 2400 block of South Jessup Street. He graduated from St. John Neumann High in 1981 and later studied film at Temple University.
The producer thought he wanted to be an actor when he was younger. He performed in local theater productions and found work as an extra in feature films. Moss had a small part in 12 Monkeys with Bruce Willis, and an even smaller role in Age of Innocence with Daniel Day-Lewis.
But he tired of being in front of the camera.
"The thing with acting is they call you to the set," Moss describes. "You work two minutes and they send you to this holding room and you sit there for three hours. I just couldn’t sit there."
Instead, he would escape to watch the crews and directors work behind the scenes. Eventually, he found a job as a producer for Time-Warner cable.
Moss met Diaz in 1993 while taking an acting class. Shortly after it ended, Diaz offered Moss a role in a horror film he was shooting. Diaz ultimately cast another actor in Moss’ part, but asked him to stay aboard the film’s crew.
"The film never came about," Moss says, "but we started doing other things — short films, experimental things."
In 1998, after both men had spent several years working on independent films around Philadelphia, they decided to focus on their own work. They narrowed their search for screenplays to two that Diaz had written — Superhero Excelsior and a horror script. Moss admits he’s not a comic-book fan like Diaz is, but neither wanted their first movie to be a slasher flick. Too many first-time filmmakers make horror movies because they can be produced inexpensively, according to Moss.
Although he says he didn’t get most of Superhero‘s jokes the first several times he read the screenplay, Moss agreed to produce the movie. "Felix’s passion alone sold me on it," he says.
Filming took 39 days, all on location in South Philly. Many of the scenes were shot on sets built inside the former Viking clubhouse at Swanson and Wolf streets, and local audiences will recognize other backdrops — FDR Park, South Broad Street, Marconi Plaza.
An anonymous benefactor bankrolled the film, Moss says.
"She had recently divorced or broke off an engagement or something, and she didn’t want her fianc� to know about it," he says, "although she worked on the whole entire film as crew."
Total production costs were less than $100,000, but Moss would not say exactly how much less.
When all the scenes had been shot, the film was sent to a lab in New York for processing. The lab lost eight minutes of footage. Almost simultaneously, one of the lead actors moved to Australia, and Felmark ran out of money for the project.
Frustrated with the setbacks, Moss was ready to junk the whole thing. Superhero Excelsior sat unedited for two years, until Felmark acquired the computer software to convert the film to digital video and edit it in-house — renting time in an editing studio cost around $250 an hour.
And Superhero was revived. Moss and Diaz even worked around the problem of the missing footage.
Following its success at FirstGlance, Felmark pitched the movie to Fox and other networks. Fox has expressed some interest in making it into an animated series for kids, Moss says.
In the fall, Superhero Excelsior will be shown as part of the New York Independent Film and Video Festival in Manhattan, but before that it will play at a comic convention and film festival in San Diego. Moss and Diaz plan to travel to the West Coast for the premier, but Moss says he wouldn’t consider a permanent move to California to advance his career.
Instead, he’s determined to make a living as a filmmaker in Philadelphia, where he can be close to his friends and family, including his 11-year-old daughter, Taylor.
"If you become enough of a success, you can make a living in Philly as a filmmaker. You can make a good living, like M. Night Shyamalan," he says. "Or you can be someone smaller and still make a decent living here."