Trio of Spartans rallies Chicago to make ill boy’s wish to be in a Godzilla movie bigger than anyone imagined
On a steamy August night outside downtown Chicago’s historic Music Box Theatre, a trio of Spartan filmmakers—one with green helmet cufflinks peeking from his tuxedo jacket—waited anxiously for their leading man.
A flock of well-heeled admirers lined the sidewalk. When the star’s black limo finally pulled up, they craned their necks and stood on their toes, trying to catch a glimpse of the idol before his much-anticipated movie premiere.
But this was no ordinary star and no ordinary movie. The star was five-year-old Maddex, who is fighting acute lymphoblastic leukemia, and the movie was a dream come true through the Make-A-Wish Foundation. His family asked that only his first name be used for privacy.
Once Maddex arrived at the theater, looking sharp in a tiny tux and fresh haircut, roughly 500 moviegoers packed the house to seeMadzilla, a short film produced by the Spartan trio in which Maddex morphs into a humongous fire-breathing lizard, à lahis favorite movie monster, Godzilla.
The project began at Make-A-Wish Illinois. But it exploded beyond anyone’s expectations thanks to the Spartans’ sweat, ingenuity and seemingly countless, compassionate connections in the Windy City and beyond.
Maddex, now 6, is in his third and final year of treatments. The outlook is favorable. But he’s still facing more spinal taps, chemotherapy and daily prescription medications.
His grandfather got him hooked on Godzilla movies when Maddex was a toddler. His family soon began rewarding him with Godzilla paraphernalia after his excruciating medical procedures.
They also contacted the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Maddex initially wanted to attend the Los Angeles premiere of the 2014 Godzilla remake, directed by Gareth Edwards. When travel was rejected as too difficult, Maddex suggested making his own Godzilla movie instead.
He even dreamed up a shot list. He would rise from Lake Michigan, breathe blue fire, destroy buildings, frighten Chicagoans, take a bite out of a taxi and duel two of his monster nemeses.
Maddex’s family expected something akin to a home movie, but instead got a Hollywood-worthy production worth nearly $1 million and an experience fit for a movie itself.
Enter the Spartans: Director Jonathan Becker of Becker Film, Inc.; Producer Mo Wagdy of miniGorilla Productions; and Marty Flynn, a former actor and screenwriter- turned-pediatric anesthesiologist.
Though they’re all graduates of the Eli Broad College of Business, their paths on campus had never crossed.
Becker, who had relocated to his native Chicagoland after a decade of commercial film work in Los Angeles, said he’d been wanting to volunteer, especially to benefit children. So when Make-A-Wish put Maddex’s film project out for bids, Becker was thrilled to land the job. His budget? Less than $10,000.
“I figured, what a perfect opportunity. I want to work with kids. I love working with kids. I’d just moved back to Chicago. What a great homecoming project,” he said.
Becker then asked peer and fellow Spartan Wagdy, founding director of Mofest, a Chicago film and arts festival, to join him. Becker and Wadgy had worked together on various Chicago productions, and Wagdy said he knew they’d make a great team.
Meanwhile, two of Becker’s colleagues from L.A. suggested they bring in Flynn, to write the screenplay. Flynn, a former Chicago resident, had been seeking to rekindle his youthful interest in screenwriting andsaid he jumped at the chance to revive his writing skills to make people happy.
The trio's shared MSU roots instantly cemented their Spartan esprit de corps. “As soon as we realized we were all alumni, it was an: ‘Oh, well that makes sense’ moment and our friendship and bond instantly grew stronger,” Becker said.
Together, they orchestrated the largest wish ever granted by Illinois’ Make-A-Wish Foundation office. All told, it is the largest in-kind donation to the foundation in the nation.
Creating a Monster
As word of the endeavor got out, costume designers, make-up artists, special effects gurus, sound people, model builders, a helicopter company, a boat owner, catering companies and post-production outfits offered their services for free.
“People started calling us to see if they could help out,” Becker said. “They thanked us (for the privilege). It was a cool thing that people wanted to be a part of.”
Designers and artists spent more than a week meticulously building a replica of Grant Park and its surrounding skyscrapers in the studio—with the help of a 3D printer used to build architectural models—all so the boy could destroy it. Edwards donated some props from his Godzilla reboot.
All told, Wagdy said about 400 entities, from crew to actors to vendors, chipped in roughly 1,000-hours of their services.
The movie garnered cameo appearances from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel as a geography-impaired cabbie, former Chicago Bears football Coach Mike Ditka as “Da Mayor,” and TV news reporter Maureen Maher as herself. Maddex’s parents, sisters and grandfather appeared as themselves, too.
“Our currency was all smiles and hugs on this one. No dollar bills,” said Wagdy, who began using his own money to cover expenses when the project was running out. Word went out, and Flynn’s MSU Delta Chi fraternity brothers kicked in $3,000 to reimburse Wagdy.
Emmy Award-winning filmmaker Chris Olsen also got involved, contributing a behind-the-scenes documentary—Beneath the Scales. It follows Maddex as he learns about movie magic and features interviews with Maddex’s father and some of the crew.
A Little Fighter
As the documentary makes clear, the team made sure to keep the focus on Maddex. As Flynn said, “He was having things explained to him. He wasn’t having things done to him. He was being mentored. And that was critical.”
“We kind of made a film camp for this little boy,” Becker said. “We wanted Maddex to see, what does a storyboard artist do? What do set builders do? He’s going to be fighting a monster, you gotta know how to fall. We took him to the costume department, took him to the visual effects guy. We showed him, this is how a big fireball’s made.”
A professional stuntman even taught Maddex how to deliver fake face-slaps and stomach punches—after which “all he wanted to do between takes was to beat the pulp out of me,” Becker said, laughing.
From La Salle Street to the green screen, Maddex gave it his all.Filming spanned five days, and the film camp took another half day.
“He lightened up, and he had more energy than all of us,” Wagdy said. “He worked through 16-hour days, dressing up, putting face makeup on.”
The results, as Becker put it, “are pure magic.” And when Madzilla premiered, none other than Godzilla director Edwards flew in to be there.
The 8-minute movie begins with Maddex scaring other children on the playground and trying to persuade adults that he really is Madzilla (the name, of course, a mashup of Maddex and Godzilla). They don’t believe him until his parents go to his room the next morning and find an empty bed and a giant hole in the side of the house.
The scene shifts to downtown Chicago, where—as the boy wanted—the monster rises out of Lake Michigan and, through the magic of special effects, Maddex in a Godzilla costume marauds through the city. He scatters crowds, takes a bite out of a Emanuel's cab, and commits mayhem while Ditka attempts to reassure the public.
Madzilla then moves on to Grant Park, where he battles and defeats Baragon and Mechagodzilla.
The giant is finally felled by a nap before his family persuades him to become Maddex again and come home.
Beyond the Studio
The little boy’s bond with Becker was obvious on opening night. The two hammed it up outside the theater, and Maddex later hopped up on Becker’s lap and even took the microphone during a panel discussion after the credits rolled.
“A lot of trust is needed between an actor and a director. Especially when the actor is five years old and has never acted before,” said Becker, who describes himself asa five-year-old at heart.
Both of Maddex’s parents praised the Spartan movie-makers for keeping their son so much at the center of the project.
“They did a really fantastic job of catering to Maddex,” his father, Tony, said. “We were so worried that this would have a mind of its own. From right in the beginning, it was, ‘Maddex, whatever you want.’”
Tony looked back on the experience during an early October chat in the toy-strewn house on Chicago’s Northwest Side that is home to Maddex and his two younger sisters. “Maddex genuinely had the greatest time doing everything,” he said. “It was very gratifying, very satisfying as a parent to have that kind of high after this cruddy year. Anytime you see your child so ecstatic, so happy, it’s hard not to feel good about it and happy about how the whole thing went down.”
He continued, “The impact went far beyond the movie. That’s the coolest thing about it. It touched everyone’s lives. For him, I could see the empathy. That Sunday night when we got back here and it was about 12 o’clock, it was a long day of shooting, and he asked, ‘When is the next kid going to get leukemia?’”
The project continues to ripple across the country, and through the lives of those involved in it. In October, Becker was invited to speak and screen a clip at the national Make-A-Wish Foundation annual conference in Phoenix.
“A wish come true helps children feel stronger, more energetic, more willing and able to battle their life-threatening medical conditions,” the charity’s website states. “For many, the wish marks a turning point in the fight against their illnesses. Doctors, nurses and other health professionals say the wish experience works in concert with medicine to make their patients feel better emotionally and even physically.”
Wagdy said,“It was a real tear-jerking moment when you hear the parents say that it really turned Maddex’s attitude around. Here’s this little boy who has to face a lot of adult issues way too soon in life, he’s got to go through so many treatments and a lot of pain. The whole point of this project for his parents is they didn’t want his first memories to be of pain or of treatments. They wanted it to be of something great.”
Becker has become part of Maddex’s extended family; he and Maddex are brothers and friends for life, he said. And he’s become close to Maddex’s extended family.
“They are amazing, incredibly kind people,” Becker said. “We actually just went out for breakfast a couple of weeks ago. I got to breakfast early and put our name on the waiting list. When the hostess yelled ‘Madzilla,’ Maddex instantly spun around with a huge proud grin on his face.”
Reflecting on the magnitude and good will created by volunteers in the film business who “brought the best of their craft to bear, without compensation,” Flynn said, “It’s all about the child, the moment. It’s just amazing, the karma, the positive energy, it all clicked.”
You can watch Madzilla at madzilla.org.
You can view the documentary, Behind the Scales, at www.youtube.com/watch?v=u07Jt5RO8ow.