Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now is one continuous bad dream in the best possible way, a chilly European nightmare that begins with a couple (Donald Sutherland & Julie Christie) losing their young daughter in a drowning accident and the subsequent mental trauma, bad luck and eerie visions that plague them one year later as he works to restore a Venice church for a malevolent Bishop (Massimo Serato) who notices his strange behaviour and she refuses to let go, taking up with three odd clairvoyant sisters who can apparently communicate with the dead. This is a moody piece to its very bones, the story itself could be told in several clipped beats or so but the real substance lies in the moments in between dialogue, the spectral apparitions they see running about the cluttered, labyrinthine Venice streets and their collective inability to let go of their shared tragedy manifested in the physical realm as terrifying apparitions. We sense this pain lingering over them both in a sex scene that is too strange to describe, a montage of sorts that feels sweet and awkward and carnal in a primordial sort of way, like a Lite version of the ferocious, voodoo tinged Mickey Rourke & Lisa Bonet sex scene in Alan Parker’s Angel Heart, but no less unsettling and otherworldly. There’s a subplot about a serial killer in a little red jacket running loose, a jacket that looks suspiciously like the same one their kid was wearing when she drowned, which doesn’t help their overall mental state and provides one of the most frightening, heart attack inducing scenes I’ve ever seen in horror. Sutherland and Christie are both phenomenal here, the former adopting a feverish workaholic denial to avoid facing his pain and the latter stuck in a hyper-emotional terrain of manic and depressive episodes, hopeless hills and valleys of grief, confusion and despair. Venice has never looked more menacing here, the edifices, ancient structures and sentinel churches standing austere watch over these two lost souls, like a meticulously carved dream world of chilly fog, dead ends and kaleidoscopic stained glass backdrops. I can see why this has become such a classic and gone on to influence so many other great artists in horror pop culture, I can imagine everyone from David Lynch to the creators of Silent Hill were inspired. Dark, brooding, atmospheric meditation on loss and grief shot through the disorienting, beautiful and frighting prism of a ghost story, absolutely great film.
Once upon a time, fifty one years ago to be exact, long before the block programming of post-Carson syndication would lull my generation to sleep with the overly familiar, brassy theme song “Suicide is Painless” before drifting into the recorder-driven opening for Taxi, M*A*S*H was a third-priority Korean War film about which the suits at 20th Century Fox barely cared. For their eyes were collectively on both Tora! Tora! Tora!, a multi-helmed, transcontinental production and Patton, a star vehicle for George C. Scott. Over the hill in Calabasas, California and amongst the knotty hills of brown and olive was Robert Altman and a ragtag bunch of nobody actors making a picture about a war that was already mostly forgotten. He brought it in on time and under-budget so the suits were happy.
Well, they were happy until they saw what Robert Altman had done to Ring Lardner Jr’s adaptation of Richard Hooker’s novel about Army surgeons. A structureless mess of anarchy one would have to have been a detective to recognize as “not Vietnam,” M*A*S*H was everything the aging brass at Fox would have rather avoided. In fact, to drive home the point that it was set in Korea, the suits demanded Altman include a post-credit crawl making explicit that THIS was a film about a PREVIOUS war, implying that this was not at all to be misconstrued as to be sending up the current administration and our involvement in the conflict in Vietnam.
I mean… ok. But it’s Vietnam. And that’s probably a good thing because the core audience that lifted M*A*S*H to its dizzying heights of financial and critical success was the cynical Boomer generation who was more than ready to pick up what Altman and company was putting down. The late and lamented father of a buddy of mine used to speak about seeing M*A*S*H in the theater in tones so reverent, they were probably better suited to stories about the birth of his son. “We had to go back and watch it again immediately to pick up the stuff we missed,” he said.
And, of course, M*A*S*H is really where Altman’s style blossomed which caused one to want to go back and watch it again. And maybe that’s not by choice but accident. After all, his previous three films all seemed much more tightly bound by story and plot. Regardless of whatever the screenplay was or the source material from which it sprung, Altman decided M*A*S*H was a mood and not a story and all but chucked the script; something that made Lardner none too pleased until, ironically, he picked up an Oscar for his troubles. Bracketed by the arrival and departure of Col. Hawkeye Pierce (Donald Sutherland) and Duke Forrest (Tom Skerritt) to and from the 4077 Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit which is mere miles from the front, M*A*S*H zips through its running time dividing itself between the zany antics of the irreverent surgeons and the horrendous detail of their gruesome work. When the film settles down into the operating rooms, the film turns shockingly gory and, additionally, gets awash in so much overlapping dialogue regarding surgical procedural and other ephemera that the audience never once thinks that Sutherland and Skerritt (and Elliott Gould who shows up as ace chest surgeon “Trapper John” McIntyre), aren’t actual doctors.
It is in this busy canvass of toil and work that Altman can let his focus run free and drift in and out of clusters of people, all engaged in their own private worlds. The multi-tracked soundtrack he’d perfect in Nashville gets its first workout here as stacked conversations force the viewer to choose one and stick with it only to realize you’ve drifted into another conversation that somehow seemed adjoined to the other. That Altman could do this at will and almost any film was pure magic and the biggest reason his films have such long legs in terms of their conduciveness for revisiting. And M*A*S*H is Altman’s first film to have the wide and warm tapestry of supporting players who fade in and out of the scenery in half-measures but all of whom we feel as if we know by the time the closing credits run. It is around this time that Altman begins to toy with building communities within his films. A practice that would run to the release of Popeye (and non-release of HealtH) in 1980, Altman’s productions became something of a communal experience with actors being chosen as types and then asked to flesh them out on the screen while using the script only as a loose framework (most notably in the following year’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller). In M*A*S*H, we come to adore secondary characters such as Major Frank Burns (the extra dry Roger Bowen), Father Mulcahy (Rene Auberjonois, having a ball), Painless Pole Waldowski (John Shuck, making history by dropping the very first instance of the word “fuck” in a scripted motion picture by a major studio), and Corporal Radar O’ Reilly (Gary Burghoff, the only cast member to make the transition to the television adaptation).
The film might have a cruel misogynistic streak by today’s standards and there are plenty of people who will impose all the current social values and norms to a fifty year old movie without applying much context to the discussion. But while it would be silly and irresponsible to cancel it outright, M*A*S*H shouldn’t be let off the hook completely. For it is true that the kind of cruelty heaped upon Major Margaret “Hot Lips” O’Houlihan (Sally Kellerman, bringing a fire to the role that nabbed her an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actress) is of an aggressively sexual and misogynistic nature but Altman wants to make sure that it’s not entirely at the hands of the hands of men. In what is seen as the most overtly crude humiliation (namely the shower scene), it’s clear that the other women in the camp have as much disdain for her as the men and are likewise in on the prank. In M*A*S*H, the camp isn’t simply a “boy’s club,” but a “club for open hedonists.” Nobody cares that the aggressively hypocritical Frank Burns (a terrific Robert Duvall) and O’Houlihan are having sex, what they care about is Burns and O’ Houlihan’s attitudes about everyone else who are having sex. But, all of that said, that women are in on the prank in the movie cannot erase the fact that none of the filmmakers were women. In this world, O’Houlihan is tasked with the binary choice of dumbing down and shutting up or resigning her commission which everyone knows means everything to her. This is where the film’s aim to drag all authority down to a very low level, strong career women like O’Houlihan become collateral damage and its hard not see the the undermining of similar women characters of the era as a feature and not a bug. Luckily, Altman would get much better at this in a very big hurry.
So, for certain, M*A*S*H is a product of its time but it’s hard to overstate what a dynamite product it was. Nothing seemed scared after M*A*S*H. Hell, even the holy game of football, as American as war, gets pulled through the ringer in the film’s final act (with some footage courtesy of future trash auteur and Wide World of Sports pioneer, Andy Sidaris). At a time in which norms were crumbling by the second, M*A*S*H took dead center aim and laughed all the way to the bank as it stomped through all that we took seriously as a nation. The combination of our cathartic exhale and the film’s black humor proved quite therapeutic. And while the film launched a whole cottage industry of similar comedies in which anti-authoritarianism is taken to a sophomoric and perverse level, (it’s difficult to watch something like National Lampoon’s Animal House without seeing much of M*A*S*H’s DNA), Altman, now a superstar director with a monster hit under his belt, would be displaying his brand of fully-committed anarchy by the year’s end as the next trick up his sleeve would both equally dazzle and confuse and put on full display the fearless maverick that he truly was.
I have not read Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot nor have I seen the 70’s film adaptions but damn I have to say this 2004 TNT miniseries version is one lazy pile of garbage. It’s one of those shows that they released onto DVD as one movie and as such it has a runtime of like three hours not separated by episodes. That length of time seemed empty and devoid of story, they could have just as easily told this in a 90 minute slot, but that’s the least of its issues, really.
Rob Lowe is a weird choice to play an introspective, lone wolf writer who returns back home to a small town under threat from a malevolent force. That’s not to say he’s incapable of more intense work that shirks his pretty boy image, it’s just that someone less flashy and obvious would have made more sense here. He also narrates the thing like he’s casually reading a teleprompter over coffee, I didn’t think anyone would be able to make Stephen King’s rich prose sound like stereo instructions but his inner delivery is flat and soulless. He plays Ben Mears, a disgraced journalist researching domestic trauma in his childhood burg, but discovers something way worse. A spooky old antiques dealer (Donald Sutherland) has some backhanded deal with ancient vampire Kurt Barlow (Rutger Hauer) and is flooding the area with unspeakable evil. This is in amongst a tangled cobweb of stupid subplots, atrocious acting from the no name supporting characters and just an overall murky, lazy, drab feel.
I mainly tracked this down for Hauer, who is reliably fine as the supernatural villain but isn’t given nearly enough screen time and just somehow feels like a cameo, as does Sutherland who hams it up a bit but still can’t raise a pulse for this thing. James Cromwell has enough grit to play vampire slaying preacher Callahan who I fondly remember from the Dark Tower novels. Andre Braugher and Samantha Mathis are not bad as other townsfolk swept up into the incomprehensible threat but the acting pedigree stops right there, they hired some seriously deplorable people for the rest of the roles and at times it’s hard to watch. I will give the music some props though, it’s an atmospheric composition with beautifully eerie lyrics from Lisa Gerrard (Man On Fire, Gladiator) that honestly deserves a way better outlet than this mess. One of the only good things I can say about it is that it has the mid 2000’s cozy late night cable TV feel to it, and I have some mad nostalgia for that but even then it’s kind of my bias and that compliment can’t be accredited to the success of the project itself, which is largely nonexistent. Boring, mumbly, not even remotely scary, overcast and rainy but not even in the cool ambient way, awkward, shitty bargain basement CGI, clunky, about an hour and a half too long, man the list of shit just goes on. Avoid.
I never bothered too much with the TV version of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and didn’t even know it was based on a movie until I saw that it’d be playing on the big screen this week. Slight, silly and saturated in 80’s style, this was an absolute blast, a ton of fun and a totally hilarious culture clash between brooding gothic bloodsuckers and mouthy, fashionista valley girls. Kristy Swanson is Buffy, an attitude driven high school chick who spends her days at the mall, planning dances and hanging around with her jock boyfriend. That all ends when the mysterious Merrick (Donald Sutherland) recruits her for a centuries old battle against immortal vampires that’s about to play out right in the valley. She’s cynical, skeptical and reluctant as most teenagers are to do anything outside their usual bubble but rises to the occasion and discovers she has badass hidden talents for kicking vampire ass. Joining forces with moody bad boy Pike (the late Luke Perry), she goes head on with the evil vampire king Lothos (Rutger Hauer) and his goofy henchman Amilyn (Paul ‘Pee Wee Herman’ Reubens) in a deadly battle that spills into the senior prom dance for hilarious results. I really didn’t expect to like this as much as I did but the thing is just so damn fun. Swanson has way more charisma and beauty than Sarah Michelle and really gives a good turn as someone who is outwardly insufferable and spacey but reveals that’s all an act, something we all remember doing in high school at some point. Sutherland plays it grave and serious and as a result comes off as hilarious but has terrific exasperated paternal chemistry with Buffy. Hauer is a typically implosive and intense but here he’s having an extroverted ball, playing this debonair vamp like a pimp from hell in a smoking jacket and swanky white gloves. Reubens is straight up silly and gets one of the most inexplicably bizarre and hysterical death scenes that’s so melodramatic it needs to carry over into a post credits scene. The cast is stacked and includes early career work from Hilary Swank, a loopy David Arquette, Sasha Jenson, Natasha Gregson Warner, Stephen Root, Candy Clark, Sasha Jenson, Slash, Thomas Jane, Ricki Lake, Seth Green, Alexis Arquette and Ben Affleck. Wow. I loved this and loved how I didn’t expect to be so hot on it but got blindsided. Beautiful production value, wicked sharp comedic scrip, fun performances and an appropriately synthy 80’s score. Oh, and watch for the Mystery Machine from Scion Doo too.
James Gray’s Ad Astra. It’s difficult for me to get my thoughts out on this one while still dodging spoilers but here goes. This was kind of a disappointment for me, not because it’s a particularly weak or mediocre film but rather it was something wholly different from what I was expecting. That too isn’t necessarily a cardinal sin but when your trailers and marketing campaign suggest one thing and your film blatantly does another, that’s a problem. In any case this wasn’t the ‘reach for the stars’ mysterious, ponderous SciFi epic that I got the impression of off the bat, but perhaps that’s just me.
Brad Pitt gives a grounded, meditative, cleared eyed performance as Roy McBride, earth’s most accomplished astronaut save for his missing father (Tommy Lee Jones), who has taken up residence somewhere near the rings of Neptune and caused quite a bit of trouble in a decades long campaign to contact extraterrestrial life. So begins Roy’s voyage out past the moon, Mars and towards the edge of our solar system to locate his dad’s research project, put a stop to the havoc it’s causing and set to rest the personal turmoil raging inside him, which is my fancy way of saying considerable daddy issues. There’s many diversions and they’re all handled nicely including an attack from vicious baboons in swooping zero gravity, a politically fuelled mutiny aboard a transport craft and a moon rover chase that feels comfortingly like Mad Max. Others provide supporting talent including Donald Sutherland as his dad’s ex pal hired to babysit part of his journey until that arc is cut disappointingly short. Liv Tyler is wasted on the thankless wife role that has no depth or vibrancy beyond looking worried, while Ruth Negga, Loren Dean and John Ortiz fare better as others he meets along the way.
So where does this falter? There’s a type of science fiction film that expands outward as characters explore their universe and reach for the great unknown while also feeling inward, finding themes of love, relationships and intimacy through something so grand as a journey into space. Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar and Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris are probably the best example of this. This one ultimately fails at that, or at least going all the way and achieving something as profound as the examples I’ve given. Many elements work, including Pitt’s impressively centred, soulful performance, a beautifully atmospheric original score by Max Richter, stunning visuals and clever world building (somehow the fact that Virgin Atlantic does commercial flights to the moon in the future seems hilariously on point). But there’s an absent nature to the overall arc that can’t be overlooked. It’s sadly ironic that a film whose title translates to ‘To The Stars’ falls so, so far short of actually reaching them. You take this trip with Roy, experience everything he does and just when the penultimate moment approaches and you prepare for some soul nourishing pay off… your grasp closes on emptiness, and what’s worse is that was what Gray was actually intending, in a way. I get what he was going for and appreciate the effort this is the wrong film to pull a stunt like that with. Didn’t work for me overall.
Many adaptations of John Grisham’s work have shown up in Hollywood, some great and others not so much, but for my money it doesn’t get any better than Joel Schumacher’s A Time To Kill. There’s something fired up about this story, a heartfelt and desperate aura to the high stakes moral maelstrom that Samuel L. Jackson and Matthew McConaughey find themselves in here. Jackson is Carl Lee Hailey, husband and father in America’s Deep South who opens up an AK-47 on the two redneck crackers who raped his eight year old daughter and left her for dead on the side of the road. McConaughey is Jake Brigance, the slick attorney hired to defend him who first seeks the limelight, then wishes he didn’t and finally becomes so morally invested in Carl’s case that it begins to unravel both his own life, not to mention stir up racial tensions all over the county.
Was Carl justified in these murders, given the situation? Should he be set free? Will the trial be a fair, civilized event given the fact that he’s a black man from the south in a time where they were not treated justly or as equals? The answer to that third question is definitely not because soon the Klan gets involved, the entire judiciary system itself gets put on trial and the whole state erupts in hot blooded anger over the situation. Jackson is fierce and vulnerable in the role, Never defaulting to the trademark detached, noisy brimstone that has become his thing but letting the hurt and righteous fury emanate from within organically, it’s probably his best work. McConaughey gets the sweaty desperation right and you begin to feel the uncomfortable nature of the situation creeping up on him until before he knows it there’s a burning cross on his lawn and his wife (Ashley Judd) is ready to leave him. Sandra Bullock does fine work as his legal assistants who, being an idealist, works for free because she believes in the cause rather than money or notoriety, the latter of which she receives whether she likes it or not. Kevin Spacey lays on the sleazy attitude as the loudmouth prosecuting lawyer who, naturally, hits below the belt in his tactics. An unbelievable roster of supporting talent shows up including Chris Cooper, Kiefer Sutherland, Brenda Fricker, Oliver Platt, Kurtwood Smith, M. Emmett Walsh, Anthony Heald, Charles Dutton, Raéven Kelly, Patrick McGoohan, Nicky Katt, Doug Hutchison, Beth Grant, Octavia Spencer and Donald Sutherland as a charismatic old alcoholic lawyer who serves as Jake’s mentor and voice of reason.
This film can sort of be used as a barometer to measure moral dilemmas and see through the weak spots of the justice system, of which there are many. Were Carl’s murders justified? I think so, given the heinous nature of the crimes against his daughter. But the ensuing racial turmoil, petty battle of legal wills and outside-the-courtroom power struggle sort of clouds that until the film reaches a barbaric fever pitch of violence and terror, until Jake calmly and directly cuts through all of that and turns the mirror on a whole community with his heartbreaking final address to the jury, after which it’s so dead silent you could hear a pin drop. It’s a bold, fantastic piece of acting from McConaughey and some of his best work also, in a brilliant film.
I’m not so much for political films but Oliver Stone’s JFK is an engrossing, obsessive, feverish and altogether brilliant piece of clandestine intrigue and I loved every minute of its impossibly long runtime (the director’s cut runs well over three hours). It might be excessive to take such an indulgent amount of time for one story to play out but Stone is fixated on every single aspect and detail of his narrative, scrutinizing the dark corners of shadowy politics, leaving no stone unturned and the result is a film that draws you in so close that at times the effect is breathless, a surging momentum full of moving parts, characters and secrets all unfolding in a mammoth production.
Stone has taken the real life investigation of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison, used it as a launching pad and blasted off into his own theories, queries and plot turns. Kevin Costner is excellent and uncharacteristically vulnerable as Garrison, an idealistic family man determined to shine a light on the truth until he realizes he and his firm are in over their heads. This thing has one of the most jaw dropping ensemble casts I’ve ever seen assembled, right down to supporting turns, cameos and walk-ons populated by recognizable faces. Costner and his team are the constant, a dogged troupe that includes varied folks like Laurie Metcalf, Wayne Knight, Jay O. Sanders, Gary Grubbs and the always awesome Michael Rooker. We spend the most time with them as they discuss theories at length, argue in roundtable fashion, interview witnesses and it all feels eerily as if every discovery they make leads to ten more even more unnerving ones. Others show up throughout the film and when I say this is a cast for the ages I’m not even kidding. Jack Lemmon does paranoia flawlessly as a nervous informant they visit, Gary Oldman is a super creepy Lee Harvey Oswald, Joe Pesci impossibly rambunctious as oddball David Ferrie, Tommy Lee Jones and his poodle wig are icky as a corrupt US Senator and that’s just the start, there’s great work from everyone under the sun including John Candy, Walter Matthau, Sissy Spacek, Vincent D’onofrio, Kevin Bacon, Martin Sheen, Pruitt Taylor Vince, Edward Asner, Frank Whaley, Brian Doyle Murray, Bob Gunton, Lolita Davidovich, John Larroquette and more. Donald Sutherland is pure showstopper as a mystery man who has an epic, sixteen minute long tinfoil hat monologue that is so well delivered and perfectly pitched that we don’t even really notice what a massive enema of exposition it is simply because he and Stone keep up the energy levels and, in turn, us riveted.
That’s the thing here, I went in expecting perhaps something intriguing but maybe a little dry in places or bits that might lag because it is, after all, a three plus hour film revolving around politics. This is Stone though, and the way he films it is taut and immersive the *entire* way through, which is just so fucking impressive. He plays rogue agent with the facts, using established suspicions to draw one wild conclusion after another until we aren’t sure if everyone we see onscreen perhaps had something to do with JFK’s death. That’s his goal here though, he seeks not to provide concrete answers (how could he) but instil the kind of creeping dread, mounting uncertainty and fear that I imagine gripped the nation for years following this event. Conflicting conspiracy theories, clues that lead to nothing, unexplained and admittedly suspicious witness deaths, it’s all here and it all makes for one damn good mystery film.
Among the multitude of heavy, doom laden war films that Hollywood has produced, its always nice to find a more lighthearted one like Kelley’s Heroes, an old Clint Eastwood vehicle that plays like Ocean’s Eleven during the fog of WWII, a peppy heist flick that has always been an old favourite of mine and features a specifically chosen, idiosyncratic cast of perennial old school tough guys. Eastwood leads a ragtag platoon of renegade allies through torn up France, and as soon as they get wind of a potential stash of ample nazi bullion somewhere in the region, their course turns in favour of the biggest payday of their lives. That’s pretty much all there is in terms of plot, but with a group this charismatic there’s never any downtime or boredom. Telly Savalas fills in the second in command tough guy role, Don Rickles inhabits his uniform like a little gold hungry gremlin as their explosives expert, but it’s Donald Sutherland who really steals the show as Oddball, a hippie who lives up to his name and serves to personify the film’s reckless, cheerful anti-establishment persona. Eastwood has fun with the material, letting a knowing grin sneak through that stoic visage, it’s an awesome rebel leader role for him and he clearly has a blast. There’s battles, chases, shootouts and it all culminates with a spectacular showdown in a small French village, in whose bank the gold is stashed. Two German tiger tanks stand guard, Kelly & Co. slowly trundle through the village and up to the doorstep, an apprehensive silence fills the air and it’s the perfect calm before the storm setup for the warfare to follow, almost like something Sergio Leone dreamed up. This plays like The Dirty Dozen on a lazy Sunday, violent but not too gritty, fast paced but never too kinetic, funny but never outright parody, it’s one of the best in Eastwood’s canon and a solid war flick. I enjoyed the recurring song ‘Burning Bridges’ by Mike Curb Congregation, a breezy tune that serves to remind us that although this is set during wartime, we’re here to relax and have fun.
John Flynn’s Lock Up is a great early Sylvester Stallone prison flick, back in the late 80’s heyday of the action genre where envelopes were pushed, no punches were pulled and rough, brutal scripts were green-lit on the daily. Stallone plays Frank Leone, a genuinely likeable guy who has a few weeks left on a sentence that resulted from a trumped up charge to begin with, and he’s ready to get out. Donald Sutherland’s Drumgool, the new warden, has other plans though, as the two of them have a rocky past and he has nothing but contempt for Frank. This spurs an onslaught of ruthless, bloody prison violence, yard fights, shankings, betrayal and riots as sneering sociopath Sutherland does his best to ensure that Stallone never again breathes free air. The film is so charged up and cold blooded it’s almost comical at times, but always enjoyable and hard hitting. Director Flynn is responsible for stuff like the Steven Seagal bone cruncher Out For Justice and notorious 70’s exploitation flick Rolling Thunder, so grit and machismo are par for the course and then some. Sutherland just goes above and beyond as Drumgool, it’s one of the great under-sung villain performances in the genre, the guy is fucking evil personified and the legendary actor eats up every frame of screentime, demolishing scene partners left and right with that leering glare and slate granite drawl. John Amos scores as the incredibly stoic captain of the guard, there’s great work from Sonny Landham, Darlene Fluegel, Frank McRae, Larry Romano, Danny Trejo and a stunning film debut by Tom Sizemore, already a scene stealer as a fast talking con who plays sidekick to Stallone. You won’t often hear this mentioned in the prison flick round table discussion but it’s really one of the best out there, rough and ready to brawl, with a galvanized steel veneer over the fight sequences, hard bitten performances, nice moments of fleeting humour and no shortage of breathless, pulverizing violence.
To talk about W.D. (Rick) Richter, is to talk about one of my all-time favorite films, Big Trouble in Little China. It is, to put it simply, one of those films that comes along (not so much anymore) once in a generation. As we know in this age of remakes, reboots and re-imaginations, there is a very good chance that this film, because of its staying power and built-in fan base, will more than likely resurface with Dwayne Johnson playing Jack Burton. Just like Hansel in Zoolander he is, as far as the Studios are concerned, so hot right now!
And you can be your bottom dollar that it will try like hell to recapture the magic of what was – and more than likely – crash ‘n’ burn in its attempt to do so. I might be wrong. Because, BTILC, was and is what is often referred to as a “happy accident”. What began as a seemingly awkward combination of a western with a plot that involved Chinese black magic became, thanks to my guest, a glorious blending of genres that there is really no recipe for.
I rarely get nervous doing interviews, but I was glad to be sitting down for this one. When the person on the other end of the line had a hand in creating a couple of the seminal film of one’s existence . . . it is tough to play it cool, plus for the first time in a long time, I found the need to have my questions written, rather than merely see what the conversation would provoke. Primarily because I knew I was only going to have a limited time, and secondly because during our email exchanges prior to the chat, I found Rick to be extremely matter-of-fact and, wishing not to have the interview published in audio form, he merely wanted to be concise and not ramble on as, he says, has happened in the past.
So I sat and pondered questions. Having read other interviews with him in the past, before he’d stepped away from the business, the focus was on the films he had released at the time and didn’t really get below the surface. Off the record, we spoke about a few of the things that were beneath the polished exterior of the press kits, but that was not all that interested me. There have been many books and articles on his films, as well as many having excellent special features and commentary tracks which mine their depths – so I wasn’t going to waste time there.
In the end I waited till the last minute and scribbled down the first questions that popped into my head. Some of course are elementary, but one or two I’ve had on my mind for a while.
Well, it took a long time, but sometimes, good things do. It was well worth the wait and the frustrating silences in between messages from Rick’s friend who very graciously made the introductions, and I, as a fan first, was humbled, honored and thrilled at the prospect of speaking to yet another film-making idol of mine.
While Rick, early in our email exchanges said, “I prefer to let he films, for better or worse, speak for themselves.” I am and will be forever grateful he took the time to talk a little about his work. In the end I wasn’t nervous or scared at all . . . I felt kind of invincible.
KH: Did you always want to work in movies and if so what were the films which influenced you?
WDR: First I wanted a paper route. Then I wanted to run a circus. Then I thought about pursuing a career as an English teacher. Then I thought, “Why not aspire to become an actual tenured English professor?” But, by the time I got to college, graduate film programs were springing up here and there. Having loved movies since childhood, but never imagining there was a route available into the business, I suddenly saw a way to pursue a career in film in a structured, sensible way.
I went to a lot of movies of all kinds as a kid, but mostly B horror films from the mid-fifties through the mid-sixties. In 1964, I saw DR. STRANGELOVE and in 1965 THE LOVED ONE. They suggested a new direction and deeply influenced me.
KH: How did you break in to the business?
WDR: I wrote screenplays at USC, and one of them secured me an agent. I then worked as a reader for Warners and wrote on the side and continued to do so when Warners and Irvin Kershner let me work as his assistant while he was prepping DIRTY HARRY for Sinatra. That project fell apart, but a spec script I’d written, SLITHER, got to the director Howard Zeiff, and he set it up, odd as it was, and we shot it. Presto! I was a produced screenwriter.
KH: Your early career was full of greats like Dracula,Body Snatchers and your Oscar nod for Brubaker. How much does momentum play a factor in one’s career (films coming out and performing well) as well as recognition for one’s talent?
WDR: Actually, none of those films did perform well, but they were respected, and, as a result, I was respected as a young writer with perceived potential. You must remember that during the seventies and eighties eccentric characters in unusual, small stories were nothing Hollywood ran screaming from. That came later.
KH: You are a part of two of my favourite films of all time withBanzai and BTILC. How do you feel as an artist to be remembered for singular works rather than your entire body of creativity?
WDR: I’ve never given much thought to being “remembered”. After all, sooner or later, this whole planet is going to be forgotten.
KH: If people want the skinny on Banzai, you have already provided an excellent commentary. What I would ask is, did you ever see Kevin Smith’sQ & A whose guests were Wellerand Lithgow, and how did you feel about possible versions of the continuing story of Banzai?
WDR: I thought Kevin did a spectacular job that evening, and it was nice to learn how much the movie shaped him. As long as Mac Rauch is involved, I feel quite confident that a “new” BUCKAROO could be as startling as the original.
KH: BTILC was ahead of its time, in my opinion. What I’ve always wanted to know is, what the “western version” was like prior to your work on the script, and how much of the finished film remains your work?
WDR: The “western version” just didn’t work for anybody, sad to say. It all seemed too distant…the Old West and the Asian occult, etc. So I proposed moving it to a modern, familiar setting and swapping the hero’s horse for a big rig. The pitch went over well, and, with a writers’ strike looming, I dug into the challenge of creating a contemporary script in about seven weeks, choosing to do that with a somewhat dim but hopefully lovable hero at the center. The finished film stayed absolutely true to my screenplay, apart from the inevitable ad libs here and there. Jack Burton’s John-Wayne cadences, though, are definitely nothing I wrote or endorsed. John and Kurt settled on that themselves.
You asked me prior to this conversation: “Did you write the line or was it improvised: I feel pretty good. I’m not, uh, I’m not scared at all. I just feel kind of… feel kind of invincible?”
Turns out I did write it. I wrote the whole script furiously in longhand in several spiral notebooks, and a typist transcribed them into script format.
KH: There was a significant gap between Home for the Holidays and Stealth. I have interviewed many writers who talk of these periods. They say, it’s not that I wasn’t writing, it’s just my scripts weren’t getting made. Was that true of your career at the time?
WDR: Definitely. I had movies actually green-lighted then cancelled when directors went over budget in pre-production.
KH: I understand Stealth was a troubled production.
WDR: STEALTH was just a bizarre and massively unpleasant experience. Directors and location scouts shouldn’t rewrite writers, if you want my opinion. Kind of like Presidents shouldn’t tweet.
KH: Did your involvement end after the writing?
WDR: The “writing” never really stopped. I was removed from the picture several times when my revisions failed to please the director. But I was repeatedly brought back by the studio to pull the script back from the brink after the director (who shall remain nameless) had worked it over again in his spare time. It’s the only film I’ve had made that, with great care, I kept my distance from during production and through release.
WDR: Crazy. The book is 690-pages of single-spaced prose. My script was 124 pages, and you know how much “air” there is on a script page. I figured that if one were to retype the novel in a crude screenplay format, it might easily hit 1000 pages. So I lost roughly 876 pages while trying to keep King’s story and mood intact. I have no sense of how that worked out because I’ve never reread the book, but I always imagined a looser, grittier, less-arch movie.
KH: Any advice you would give to a struggling screenwriter – not unlike myself?
WDR: Write. Write. Write. But always try to imagine the movie itself playing to paying strangers. Why would they — or you! — want to watch it?
KH: Sir it has been a profound honor to converse with you. I cherish the moment and humbly thank you.