A 4-foot-tall boy became an 800-foot-tall lizard in a Near Northwest Side production studio Sunday, battling monsters and wreaking havoc on a miniature Chicago.
Five-year-old Maddex, aka "Madzilla," stomped in costume through a meticulously designed set that volunteers built last week as part of a Make-A-Wish Foundation project. Cameras rolled as he roared, stomped and took directorial cues in front of a green screen.
Maddex — his parents asked that his last name be left out of this story for privacy reasons — was diagnosed with leukemia a year ago, and since then has been on a treatment regimen of chemotherapy, spinal taps, a half-dozen daily medications and other discomforts, his parents said.
Godzilla, whom the boy took a liking to after watching the 1950s Japanese original at 18 months old, has been an unlikely source of comfort for him since the April 2013 diagnosis. When he was asked to make a wish, his parents weren't surprised by the answer.
"I want to be Godzilla," he replied, said his mother, Tareen.
As his wish started to take shape as a 5-minute film, the boy made a set of demands. He wanted to star in his own movie, destroy buildings, take a bite out of a vehicle, breathe fire, scare people, come out of the water and fight Godzilla nemeses Baragon and MeccaGodZilla, said Jonathan Becker, the film's creative director.
With help from miniGorilla productions producer Mo Wagdy and an outpouring of support from the Chicago film community, Maddex's wish became a reality. Shooting started Wednesday in the boy's home. His parents feared that the intensive process of shooting a film might exhaust the sick boy, but Maddex remained full of energy at the end of the long day, they said.
"It was definitely the happiest we've ever seen him," said his father, Tony.
The days that followed included four helicopter flights, shots on a boat, location shooting downtown that shut down a stretch of LaSalle Street, and lots of cameos. Appearances included Mike Ditka as mayor of Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel as a taxi driver and television news reporter Maureen Maher as a news reporter, Becker said.
Becker estimates the production, which was funded with a relatively small Make-A-Wish contribution, would have cost close to $1 million without the volunteered help and equipment.
In the film, scheduled for release in late August, Maddex struggles to convince adults that he is not a young boy but in fact a scaly, fire-breathing monster, Becker said. He convinces the doubters after transforming into the monster and stalking Chicago, discovering two monsters that are also on the loose. After battling them in Grant Park, Madzilla — true to 5-year-old form — lies down for a nap, Becker said. He declines to share much of what happens after that.
Make-A-Wish selected Becker, of Becker Film Inc., after soliciting proposals from a group of filmmakers earlier this year, said Nikki Lester, a wish coordinator with the organization.
Maddex's request was unusual, Lester said. Most children wish for trips to Walt Disney World or Paris, or ask to meet celebrities such as Justin Timberlake, she said.
The level of support for Maddex's project has impressed her but not surprised her, she said.
"There are wishes that resonate more deeply with the general public," she said. "They want to be part of the support team that pushes Maddex through these trials and tribulations."
Lester declined to say how much Make-A-Wish had paid for the project. The organization normally tries to keep parents from knowing the amounts, she said. But the average wish costs about $6,000, she said.
Maddex has acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a form that is not as life-threatening as others, his parents said. When first diagnosed, doctors said he had a 90 percent chance of survival. After he went through initial treatments, his chance was raised to 95 percent, his parents said.
A child does not need to have a terminal illness to have a wish granted — only a life-threatening illness, Lester said.
Maddex's grandfather showed him the original 1950s Japanese film, his parents said. They tried to dissuade him from liking the monster, thinking that it was inappropriate for someone so young. But after his diagnosis, Maddex made it clear that Godzilla comforted him.
His father started getting him Godzilla toys every time he had to get a spinal treatment, a procedure Tony said causes the boy to scream in pain every time he goes through it. The toys, along with other Godzilla gear, began to take over the family home, Tony said.
British filmmaker Gareth Edwards, director of this year's Godzilla remake, sent a big box of toys and other Godzilla gear.
Now 30 to 40 figurines litter the house. Maddex has Godzilla-themed shirts, a mask, comic books, a lunch box, a messenger bag, lamps and about 20 Godzilla movies, Tony said. A giant Godzilla face greets people who walk down a stairway in the home. Most family photos taken in the home have a lizard somewhere in them, Tony said.
When asked whether Godzilla is good or bad, Maddex replies that the lizard is neither, his parents said. He says it is people who are good or bad.
Maddex has 18 months of treatment left, including four spinal tap procedures, his parents said. Tareen said she is afraid the boy's earliest memories will be of pain. But she hopes the Madzilla project might change that.
"When he looks back," she said, "hopefully this will be the prevalent memory in his mind."
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