IN SEARCH OF DR. RUEHL! Director Jim Carbonetti Discusses the Sci-Fi Channel’s ‘Mysteries from Beyond the Other Dominion’!

Photo © Jim Carbonetti.

Mysteries from Beyond the Other Dominion debuted on the Sci-Fi Channel in 1992 when the cable channel was just getting launched. The TV series covered a bevy of paranormal topics, including UFOs, ghosts, and various cryptids. These topics were presented to the audience by the show’s quirky host, Dr. Franklin Ruehl, whose enthusiasm for the material made even the most preposterous claims worth considering. Jim Carbonetti was there from the beginning, directing the show’s first several episodes. In this March 2022 interview with Brett Homenick, Mr. Carbonetti recalls what it was like to work on one of the Sci-Fi Channel’s first and most unique programs.

Brett Homenick: First, please tell us about your early years. Where did you grow up, and what interests did you have?

Jim Carbonetti: My dad worked for Mobil Oil as a salesman, so we were transferred around Upstate New York every two years. The final two-year stint was on Long Island. Then by 1969 he was transferred out here to Los Angeles where we planted permanent roots. One interesting note: My dad was out in the L.A. area scouting for houses in August 1969 the weekend the Tate/LaBianca murders occurred. He told us how eerie it was to be looking at houses then.

My dad had his Bell & Howell Super 8mm movie camera and took tons of film of the family. We would all gather to watch on many Sunday nights. I also had a great 5th grade teacher who taught the class frame-by-frame film animation. So I kind of got the filmmaking and visuals bug from that point.

But as I went through high school I got deeper into graphic arts and printing, creating nifty silk-screen T-shirts and prints that other students would actually pay me for. I loved advertising and figured I’d focus on that in college. I went to nearby Pasadena City College [PCC] mainly because they had a great printing department. But, once I arrived on campus, I got intrigued by all the broadcast equipment they had for their TV production department. It was at that point I convinced myself that television production was really just a bigger form of printing — getting the message out electronically instead of transferring ink to paper. So I started taking radio and TV production courses, learning to direct, work the cameras, switcher, audio — the whole enchilada.

I then transferred to Loyola Marymount University’s communication arts program where I continued my education. It was while there in the summer of 1981 [that] one of the LMU professors told me about internships at Goodson-Todman Productions in Hollywood and that he felt I would be a good fit. A handful of us became the interns for that summer, helping specifically on the Family Feud game show, answering mail, processing families for tryouts — anything they needed. I was a game show nut, so of course this was a terrific opportunity for me. They allowed us to watch tapings at ABC Studios, hang out in the booth with the director during the show — they gave us access to everything since we were helping them out on a non-paid basis!

BH: How did you break into the entertainment industry [as a professional]? 

JC: In my senior year, I was hired full-time as Jonathan Goodson’s production assistant/runner. Luckily, most of my classes were in the evening, and G-T was flexible with my hours. One of the reasons they hired me was because I knew their in-house video-editing system. It was a 3/4″ tape convergence edit system that I had learned for TV projects at LMU.

I soon became more involved with editing and TV pilots for G-T, working on numerous game shows at all three networks. I was kept on staff to work on shows such as The Nighttime Price Is Right, Child’s Play, Family Feud, the Match Game-Hollywood Squares Hour, Blockbusters, Trivia Trap, Body Language, To Tell the Truth — I did a lot of run-throughs with celebrities as we honed show ideas. It was in 1982 during the production of a new CBS game show called Child’s Play that I met Todd Stevens, who would become the executive producer/co-creator of Mysteries from Beyond the Other Dominion. He had been initially hired as a runner, then moved up to a production assistant position on the show.

By 1988, I had left Goodson-Todman and worked as a PA [production assistant] on a sitcom called Throb. I really wasn’t happy, so I soon decided to try to get into Walt Disney’s Imagineering group, the division making the theme parks. I got on as a semi-permanent temp, working on Euro Disney Park, later renamed Disneyland Paris. During this period, I had gotten married to a girl I had met at Goodson-Todman, and in 1991 we had our first daughter.

BH: What led to your involvement with Mysteries from Beyond the Other Dominion?

JC: Here’s a very critical moment: Because we wanted to show our relatives back east our newborn daughter, I thought about sending out a bunch of VHS cassettes with our home movies. But I had a crazier idea: There was a new hit show on ABC Network on Sunday nights that was cleaning up in the ratings. I thought, if I could just get a clip on that show, all our relatives could see our baby in one fell swoop. I got together with my good friend Christopher Olson, and we came up with a concept to spoof the 1950s Bert I. Gordon classic The Amazing Colossal Man (1957). This would be called “The Amazing Colossal Baby.”

I would shoot it with my Hi8mm Canon, do all effects in-camera, do basic VHS-to-VHS crash edits, then submit the VHS to ABC for their show called America’s Funniest People. Dennis “Michaels” Miller and his partner Jason Cardwell were already creating shorts for this show. Shortly after delivering the tape to ABC in Hollywood, the producers of that show called me to say they unfortunately weren’t interested in running the clip, but they had given it to their sister ABC show called America’s Funniest Home Videos, starring Bob Saget, thinking they might be interested. The next day, I received a phone call from a Vin Di Bona [Productions] producer, saying they wanted indeed to run the clip — not only that, they wanted my family in the studio audience for the taping — because we would be a finalist for their grand prize! The next thing I know, they are announcing the winner. [Here’s a link to the aired clip.]

Jim Carbonetti and his family pose with America’s Funniest Home Videos host Bob Saget in the green room after winning the show’s grand prize for “The Amazing Colossal Baby.” Photo © Jim Carbonetti.

A few months after seeing “The Amazing Colossal Baby,” I was contacted by Todd Stevens, whom had gone on to produce the CBS sitcom Major Dad at Universal Studios, about a low-budget series he was developing for a new cable channel owned by Universal Television called the Sci-Fi [Channel]. After giving me the pitch, he asked if I would be interested in being the director on the series. It sounded pretty fun, so I agreed. He said I would just have to meet with the Universal TV head to convince her I was worthy. After some back-and-forth banter, she asked about my “Colossal” clip and [talked about] how much she loved it; I walked away with the gig.

We had a very low budget and had to make things look decent for next to no money. Our very limited staff was enlisted to serve as our “Re-creation Players,” as I called them. We’d get our crew to portray that week’s characters in any Dr. [Franklin] Ruehl story. I’d purposely shoot it in such a way to look smeary or other-worldly because our cameras were just Hi8mm format.

We recorded the show on Panasonic’s MII broadcast format, which was their failed answer to Sony’s Betacam. We also used some early Avid equipment. But what really got me excited was the computer animation gear we used. Our graphic artists Mark Stross and Ken Wilder had brought in a Commodore Amiga computer with NewTek’s LightWave and Video Toaster to create the show open animation and for creating segment titles and commercial bumpers. I asked Mark and Ken if they could create kind of an Amazing Stories look for our opening. Well, yes, but in a chintzy way.

I learned a few fun tricks, was dazzled, and we ultimately experimented with various looks and effects created with the Toaster. Because Mysteries debuted on the air in September 1992, we believe it’s the first show to use NewTek’s LightWave 3D animation and Video Toaster for TV production. I was so impressed with what that computer could do [that] the following year after my Mysteries work I bought my own system and taught myself how to animate, deciding to pursue that as a career!

BH: Do you have any specific memories of the Re-creation Players and their performances?

JC: For one segment, I had one of our Re-creation Players, Martha Fainberg, pouring “blood” on herself in our studio. I remember thinking how creatively we shot it: the lighting, the film look — and, at the end, Martha gives a “sultry” look straight into the camera. It looked really convincing, and it’s in the show.

Also, Dennis [Michael Miller] was one of our Players when he came back from the road. You’ll see him playing a motel clerk, a lounge singer — he was always ready for any role. Remember, we just used staff members to perform. Our production assistant, Roger Baker, even played Superman/George Reeves because he kind of looked like him!

BH: What about the series’ roving reporter, Dennis Michaels?

JC: I first met roving reporter Dennis Miller — changing his name to Dennis Michaels for Mysteries — when I was taking a film class at PCC. He and his partner started producing mini movies for ABC’s America’s Funniest People. A couple of times, he asked if I could shoot some scenes of him with my Steadicam JR. When looking for reporters for Mysteries, he was the first one I thought of. We sent Dennis and Jason out for several extended cross-country stories. These were very talented guys that did it all themselves — perfect for our low-budget weekly series. Another guy I wanted to work on the show was Arthur Maturo, whom I had worked with at Goodson-Todman Productions. He was a very methodical segment producer and researcher who had a similar taste for quality as me. 

Here’s a rare alternate opening to Mysteries I shot with Arthur Maturo on his Triumph. I wanted a gritty, B&W British Prisoner feel. Our original associate producer Bob Hartman was the stand-in for Dr. Ruehl. At the end, I originally wanted the helmet removal to reveal a blond woman rider!

BH: There was another roving reporter named Dennis, who covered the notion that John Wilkes Booth might have lived well beyond 1865. Do you remember anything about the other Dennis?

JC: Boy, I’m not recalling the other Dennis. I’ll have to look at the John Wilkes Booth segment.

BH: Were you interested in the paranormal as a youngster?

JC: I was never interested much in the paranormal. The scariest thing I can remember as a kid was seeing a photo in a book that purported to show an alien in the background of an unknowing group of smiling faces. That, and I’ve always been interested in UFOs and government connections. Recently, the scariest things to me are the Paranormal Activity films — too close to reality for me, and apparently for Steven Spielberg, who once stated it was the scariest thing to him!

BH: What were your initial impressions of Dr. Franklin Ruehl, who hosted the show? Dr. Ruehl remains something of an enigmatic figure. It’s hard to know how much of his onscreen persona was an act, and how much of it was really him. What’s your take on Dr. Ruehl?

JC: When Todd Stevens showed me the local cable clips of Dr. Ruehl, my first impression was “What the hell? They want to give this guy a series?” Once I met the doctor, he was the nicest guy and very passionate about his persona and work – and it was not an act, which blew my mind! He lived a very simple, dedicated life, was very professional with his work, and was very fair and affable.

BH: How did the staff come up with material to cover on the show? Were there any ideas for Mysteries that ultimately weren’t included in the show?

JC: Many of the ideas came from Dr. Ruehl — that’s why we always focused on dinosaurs and believe-it-or-not bizarro stories. We also didn’t research the Ruehl-generated stories, relying on the doctor for legitimacy. A sample genesis of a story would be if I thought we could go out and shoot a fake UFO and make it look believable. I took Arthur Maturo, had him throw car hubcaps in the air, and I would shoot them. We purposely shot near train tracks and power line towers for scale and vibe — and it pretty much looked real! With that footage, Ruehl turned it into a “debunking UFO sightings” segment. So I think we could do whatever we wanted; I don’t recall any blowback from Universal.

BH: What were your duties on the program, and how did they change over time?

JC: I was hired by Todd Stevens and the Universal TV division as the show’s director, both for the in-studio Ruehl segments and the local field-produced segments. I was in that role for the first ten shows, then they brought in another director for the in-studio segments, so I worked as the segment director for the remainder of the series. The show had a total of 25 produced episodes, then the series was cancelled by Universal. Another Todd Stevens-produced show came out in 1994 called Weird TV, which featured a Dr. Ruehl segment. Some of the same crew was on that — Todd Stevens, Arthur Maturo, and editor Paul Marshal.

BH: The first season of the series was quite low-budget and was sometimes openly silly, with Dr. Ruehl dispensing advice to his audience about how to give unwanted house guests the brush. The second season felt more polished, and the presentation was much more earnest. What led to these changes?

JC: Well, there were only 25 episodes for the Sci-Fi Channel run.

BH: Overall, how tongue-in-cheek would you say the show really was?

JC: Ruehl treated and presented it seriously but with quirkiness and focus. He refused to use any cue cards and would recite from memory only. He would lighten up on certain stories or would remain serious, depending on topic. I think he kind of was in on the gag that we all were just caught up in the bizarreness.

BH: Do any of the stories covered on the show stand out for you in any way?

JC: The Halloween show was pretty fun because we traveled to Northern California to shoot witches, crop circles, and earthquake predictions. I purposely shot segments using Canon’s smeary film mode to give a more creepy feel. I enjoyed coming up with neat background effects for the live onset screen when we had to time the tape roll-ins perfectly with Ruehl’s ever-changing banter.

Just me alone shooting Dr. Ruehl in front of his Glendale apartment showing the proper method for photographing UFOs was a hoot, and we both had fun. The Area 51 segment with Sean David Morton was one of my favorites. We actually gave it some nice production value for no money. Some of the raw tapes I have include an early trip to Death Valley in the heat of August to see if there was any truth to the saying, “It’s so hot you could fry an egg on the sidewalk!” We couldn’t.

Episode 6 was our Halloween episode, so we had Dr. Ruehl start the show away from his desk in low-angle lighting. I liked that episode because we had shot a genuine witches segment using my smeary film look. I really liked that look!

BH: Did you shoot the interview with Frank Stranges, author of Stranger at the Pentagon? While his story might be questionable, I felt he came across quite well on TV. What did you think of his account?

JC: I don’t recall shooting that one. Perhaps Arthur Maturo remembers.

BH: Robert Sprayberry’s music was genuinely good and was one of the show’s highlights. Did you interact very much with him?

JC: Robert was terrific, underrated, and underpaid! I later used his services to create a commercial jingle for the West Coast Fosters Freeze chain of restaurants. Great, talented guy.

BH: Throughout the show’s run, what was it like dealing with the executives at the Sci-Fi Channel?

JC: It was the middlemen/women that we mainly dealt with. Midway through the production of the series, Universal brought in a new studio director and producer. The new producer really tried to impose himself on the series and staff, so I don’t think the staff liked him much, and I don’t think Dr. Ruehl liked the changes. The “mom-and-pop” vibe of the show was getting lost. And, by December, Dennis Michaels was let go before he had a chance to edit his latest batch of segments. Welcome to Hollywood, er, Sylmar!
 
BH: Could you share your memories of working with producer Todd Stevens?

JC: As I mentioned earlier, Todd and I first worked together at Mark Goodson Productions. He was very funny and a good worker. We continued the craziness on this pet project of his; he fully believed in the charm of Dr. Ruehl. Since he had a stressful “day job” working at Universal on Major Dad, he would race to our studio in Sylmar in the early evening where he could advise and recommend as needed. 

BH: Why was the series ultimately cancelled?

JC: I just think Universal didn’t want to spend what little money they were spending for the quality product they were getting. Also, I think they just wanted some quirky, original content to get the Sci-Fi Channel up and running on the air. Remember, they were showing reruns of The Prisoner and other non-original content to fill out their initial schedule.

BH: Do you have any interesting behind-the-scenes stories about the making of the show?

JC: We were based in an industrial complex in Sylmar, California, just off the 210 Foothill Freeway. Our “studio” was really just a converted office space — no high ceilings or any soundstage features. We would look forward to the roach coach — now called food trucks — coming so we could all grab lunch and snacks. I have a rare behind-the-scenes tape from one of our studio cameras, which shows us taping Ruehl at his desk. You can see and hear me directing him. You can also hear Todd on my headset in the control room, giving notes.

BH: When did the series start production, and when did it cease?

JC: We started producing field segments in the middle of summer 1992. That Death Valley trip also included going to Las Vegas, the Rhyolite [Nevada] ghost town, Mojave Desert, [and the] Hoover Dam, just to get us started for stories. We then quickly got Dennis and Jason on the road with actual scheduled stories.

By the beginning of September, we were shooting in the studio, then rushing to edit and deliver. The Sci-Fi Channel went live Thursday, September 24, so our debut episode must have hit the air Sunday, September 27. The run was for 25 episodes, but I don’t know how many the Channel re-ran.

BH: Did you stay in contact with Dr. Ruehl after the series ended?

JC: I did not. He went on to create segments for Weird TV and kept the Ruehl persona going, and I focused on digital computer production.

BH: What was your favorite part about Mysteries from Beyond the Other Dominion?

JC: It was definitely a fun, crazy experience. Even with our chintzy budget, we were able to make a quirky series that made it onto a major Universal Television cable channel. That’s a feat by itself.

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