Local director brings Hollywood talent to Santa Cruz for a kids’ TV pilot
Directing a movie or TV show with child actors is always a challenge, since kids can only work for a limited amount of time every day, and it takes hours and hours to get a few good minutes.
But local director Craig Comstock faced even bigger hurdles as he worked on his first children’s feature, a pilot for a TV series called The Adventures of Catty Wompus, based on Pebble Beach author Julie Howe’s books. The pilot is being filmed and edited in Santa Cruz this summer.
During the first week of production, Comstock’s Mercedes station wagon got stolen from his Westside driveway. He lost clothes, golf clubs and a prop for the show—an eagle kite one of the actors was going to carry.
Then, when he had scheduled a day’s shoot at the Seabright Beach cave, he showed up to find that someone had tagged it with graffiti. Forging ahead, the crew relocated to Natural Bridges State Beach, where Comstock had also gotten permits to film—a move that in Los Angeles would have cost much more time and money, he says.
Comstock, who has worked on 43 movies and began his career by cutting classes at Santa Cruz High School to be an extra on a Huey Lewis music video, knew he had to remain positive. A smile and an upbeat attitude are as important for a director as a steady hand is for a cameraman—even when he opened his front door to find his car missing on one of the first mornings of production.
“That was the worst day,” says Comstock. His wife Pamela had been standing right behind him with eight quiches she’d baked for the early-rising crew. He knew the theft would mean hours of talking to police and insurance agents, time he didn’t have.
“I was numb,” he says. “Then I had to go put on my happy face in front of the kids and direct this whole thing.”
The car was found by Santa Cruz police by the end of the nine-day shoot.
For the Kids
Comstock turned down several big projects to take a chance filming Catty Wompus, and to forge a new vision for a children’s series, a kids’ show not just for kids—one that will blend fantasy with life lessons.
“It’s a mix of Pee Wee’s Playhouse and Sesame Street,” says author Howe, who is producing with Comstock. “There’s something in it for everyone.”
Howe’s books take on moral and ethical issues. The first episode is about keeping beaches clean and chasing away litterbugs. Others deal with bullying and protecting the environment. The themes are geared for children, but there are details that will amuse adults, too, like the lead singer of an underwater band’s resemblance to Janis Joplin.
Howe says fantasy comes easy to her. She’s had the ideas for Catty floating around in her head for years. The name comes from an old-timey word she heard growing up in the Midwest, “catawampus,” meaning off-kilter.
“What I’m trying to get across in the book, especially as it relates to kids, is the importance of human kindness and compassion; taking the time to see beyond one’s outward appearances or actions,” Howe says. “In my humble view, that’s even more relevant today in our society as we get farther and farther away from face-to-face connections. The other theme is more simplistic: what it truly means to be a friend. There’s so much joy in just having genuine, solid, honest friendships.”
Howe says the biggest thrill for her is watching her characters come to life. The biggest hurdle for her has been managing the intricacies of a big-budget production, she says. Eight hours of filming results in only a few minutes that make the screen. Then there are weeks of 16-hour days spent editing it to a perfect half an hour.
“It is a grueling, stressful process,” says Howe.
Starring Santa Cruz
One of the big differences between Catty Wompus and lower-budget kids shows is that they did a lot of outside filming, giving the beaches and parks of Santa Cruz a starring role, and the show a cinematic look, rather than limiting it to a stage set.
For the pilot, the crew turned the gym at Pacific Collegiate School on Swift Street into the inside of a giant sandcastle, with truckloads of sand bought at Home Depot. They hired James Durbin, the local American Idol finalist to sing and act. Local artist Andrew Ward donated his ceramic fish for an aquatic feel on the set and sandcastle. Bill Lewis, who earns a living building exotic sand castles, made one for the film.
Comstock is hoping his show gets picked up and will be based in Santa Cruz, helping the economy and keeping him home with his family. For the pilot, he hired 45 actors and crew people, many local and the rest from Hollywood, whom he put up at Hotel Paradox.
He’s brought in some top-level talent, most of it under 12. Jet Jurgensmeyer, 11, from Tennessee, has appeared on the big screen as Spanky in The Little Rascals Save the Day and was in American Sniper. He’s played in the children’s show Bubble Guppies and hosted one called Jet’s World. Carolyn Dodd, 11, from Kentucky, who stars as Catty—braces and all—has done musical theater since she could walk and has a pro’s poise and grace. She says Meryl Streep is her role model. Hannah Spiros, 11, of San Jose, was in Glee, Terminator Genisys and the “I am stuck on Band-Aid Brand” commercials, she says, back when she was a budding 4-year-old model.
A fourth-generation Santa Cruzan, Comstock and his family pay a lot of attention to community service. His wife Pamela Comstock is a city councilmember, while also working full time with the software company that created Auto-Tune. She was also one of the first board members of the neighborhood group Take Back Santa Cruz. Craig’s father, Chuck Comstock, was in city government since 1977, serving as an accountant in Watsonville, an auditor for the county and city manager of Scotts Valley for 17 years.
Comstock’s first break was working as a lighting stand-in on a 1986 Keanu Reeves film called The Brotherhood of Justice filmed in Santa Cruz.
He studied film at Cabrillo but ended up in a string of production assistant jobs in San Francisco—his version of film school—including the Sharon Stone shocker Basic Instinct.
Comstock worked his way up to assistant director on a long list of movies including 42, Must Love Dogs, Chasing Mavericks and Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2. He’s shot in Moscow, on the Amazon and at the White House, where he met Bill Clinton while filming Deep Impact. (He got invited inside by someone he used to work with at Marini’s in Santa Cruz.)
Television networks around the world are already showing interest in seeing the Catty Wompus pilot, and Comstock plans to translate it into other languages.
“People are clamoring for quality children’s content right now,” he says. “There just isn’t enough out there. And this one is different from anything else. This is not a soundstage show.”
See a video interview of all the actors on the Good Times Santa Cruz Facebook page.
KID STUFF Child actors Hanna Spiros, Carolyn Dodd and Zachary Brown Sullivan filmed the pilot for ‘The Adventures of Catty Wompus’ at Pacific Collegiate School’s gym in Santa Cruz. PHOTO: BARRY BLANCHARD