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“I’m not scared at all. I just feel kind of … feel kind of invincible.” : An Interview with W.D. Richter by Kent Hill

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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 with Banzai 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’s Q & A whose guests were Weller and 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.

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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.

KH: I also love Needful Things. What was it like to adapt King?

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.

WDR: Thank you, Kent. Take care.

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Who would your wife rather go to bed with, Stallone or Goldman…? An Interview with Paul Power by Kent Hill

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“Power Pack” as he was dubbed by director Peter Berg (The Rundown, Hancock, Battleship) is a more than appropriate substitute of a name for an electric personality that has done it all when it comes to the trade of an illustrator.

The Australian born lad who started out drawing comics for newspapers soon found himself becoming a fully fledged commercial artist, working within the music industry, designing album covers. From there he would come to the City of Angels and at Hanna-Barbera he would work, animating some of Saturday morning’s finest cartoons.

The film industry would become his next conquest. He has credits as a storyboard artist and conceptual illustrator are numerous, to put it simply. He was there when Richard Donner blew up at Spielberg, he and Arnold Schwarzenegger retooled the ending of Predator, he was working on a sequel to The Last Starfighter that never took flight, he was stuck in transit and drawing cartoons for sushi when he was set to act in Anthony Hopkins’ directorial debut, Slipstream.

Paul has pissed off a few people off in his time, but he continues to speak his mind and states that if people don’t like him, or if his work is not good enough then he’ll walk, moving on to the next adventure. That could very easily be one the screenplays he is at work on now as I type these words. One is a film adaptation of his awesome comic East meets West.

He was as inspiring as I had hoped to chat with. His devotion to his work is a lesson to all who have dreams of glory whether they be cinematic or artistically inclined. I find myself forgoing things that used to take me away, easy distractions if you will, from my work till my work is complete in the wake of our conversation. It’s not enough to will things into existence – you must strive for excellence, pay your dues, give it all you got and that might get you half way. The rest of the journey is built on hard work, of which Paul Power is the personification. When he’s not doing impersonations of Schwarzenegger or talking wrestling with David Mamet he is ever busy.

If you have a few minutes now, hang out, have a laugh, be inspired. Have pencil will travel.

PTS listeners, I present the irrepressible Paul Power.

http://www.paulpower.com/

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Doom: A Review by Nate Hill 

Despite not having a whole lot to do with the video games, Doom is still a rush of schlock and awe silliness, getting more fun and ridiculous in equal amounts near it’s nonsensical ending. Karl Urban and The Rock are the tough guys for the job when it comes to scoping out a Martian research base that’s accidentally opened up a portal to hell, unleashing all kinds of lovely things. Rock is Sarge, stoic commander of this unit, and Urban is John Grimm (he lives up to his last name) a battle scarred badass who has personal stake in fighting these monsters. His sister (Rosamund Pike) is a scientist on the base, and is now in a great deal of danger. After a neat Google Earth type zoom in on the Martian surface (ironically the only shot in the film that suggests they’re even on the red planet), it’s off to dank corridors, vast bunkers and beeping control panels, an Aliens-esgue siege on horrors of the dark that quickly goes sideways on them. It’s run of the mill stuff save for one stroke of brilliance: a pulse racing first person shooter sequence that showcases a POV of Urban shooting, slashing and chain-sawing his way through alien flesh. It’s a bold move that pays off immensely and is quite fun. The rest of their team is forgettable except for Richard Brake as Portman, the loudmouth A Hole of the bunch, a refreshingly animated performance in a roomful of muted, grim characters. The monster from the game shows up, a hulking hell pig nicknamed Pinky that tirades it’s way through everything until Urban gives it what for. This ain’t no great flick, but as far as video game movies go, you could do way worse. There’s definitely enough gore for the hounds, and it’s adequately stylish in presentation. 

Faster: A Review by Nate Hill

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Faster is an action film with an eerie aura and a darkly unnerving bite to it. Don’t get me wrong, it’s action through and through, a genre effort right to its marrow. And yet, there’s something oddly esoteric about it, an obvious extra effort put in by the filmmakers, namely first time action director George Tillman, to give every character an off kilter, bizarre cadence to ensure we won’t forget them. There’s clichés, no doubt, but they’re eclipsed by the strange, full moon weirdness of the rogues running about the film’s story. Dwayne Johnson fires up a furious protagonist in his first action role after a long and ridiculous stint in insufferable family comedies. He plays a quiet, hulking dude known only as Driver, reluctantly released from prison by a watchful Warden (Tom Berenger). Upon exiting the gate, he runs. And runs. And runs. He arrives at a small town junkyard where he tears a tarp of a vintage Chevelle which seems to be left there for him like a care package. From there he launches a bloody crusade of revenge that knows neither mercy nor discretion, and whose reasons we are only slowly allowed to know. He’s a one man wrecking ball, the murders piling up before we really have any idea what this guy is about. He’s been greatly wronged in the past, the culprits of which should all be running scared, as he comes looking for them one by one and with the juggernaut pace of a boulder tumbling down a mountain. Pretty soon there’s two cops on his trail, intrepid Cicero (Carla Gugino) and mopey sleazeball ‘Cop’ (Billy Bob Thornton), a dilapidated piece of work who mainlines heroin and clearly has a murky past. Soon there’s one hell of a hitman (Oliver Jackson Cohen) skulking around looking for Driver, an extreme sports enthusiast who has ‘beaten yoga’ and is avidly looking for the next big thrill. Johnson jumps from one ultra violent encounter to the next with all the corrosive ferocity of the grim reaper, tallying up the corpses until we’re all but sure he’s an inhuman elimination machine. Then.. the film curveballs us and throws a glint of humanity into the mix with some late third act emotion that only goes to show the filmmakers set out with more than a one track mind. Driver has been unspeakably betrayed, and his rampage is undeniably justified, but there’s a complexity to his quest that he didn’t see coming, and neither did those of us who expected pure action without a moral conundrum in sight. I say good on it for grasping something besides the thrills. A terrific cast populates the almost Oliver Stone – esque proceedings, including Maggie Grace, Moon Bloodgood, Mike Epps, Jennifer Carpenter  (always superb), Matt Gerald, Xander Berkeley, Buzz Belmondo, Courtney Gains and more. It’s got the depth of a well written graphic novel and a level of thought out characterization that heaps of stale action entries wish they possessed.

The Rundown: A Review by Nate Hill

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Ahh, Peter Berg’s The Rundown. What a sun soaked galavant of action fun, a purely cinematic exercise in excitement and joyous fun, a rollicking genre exercise that’s free from the  rides of intellectual expectation. No, it’s nothing but playtime  here, and one of the rare cases where a PG-13 rating actually doesn’t hurt an action film. It’s so lighthearted and affable that the extra bloody punch of an R rating probably would have been a jarring, unnecessary distraction and offset it’s tone. For the record, you will almost never hear me advocate that in this genre, but I suppose every issues has its extreme exceptions. Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson plays Beck, a rough and tumble dude who coyly disguises the title of bounty hunter by calling himself a ‘retrieval expert’. He’s essentially a big teddy bear with the ability to rip out your stuffing and kick the ever loving shit out of anyone whose demise will earn him a pay cheque. He doesn’t like using guns, and every cent he makes goes towards a dream of opening up his own restaurant. Pretty much the most adorable action hero you can imagine. He is sent by an Miami crime lord (William Lucking hamming it up royally) to retrieve his wayward son (Sean William Scott) who has run off to an unspecified tropical country. Beck jumps a plane and runs off to said country to give us one of the most pleasently riotous action/comedy/adventure of the 00’s. His pursuit of Scott leads him to endless picturesque jungles, horny baboons, invincible native Kung fi warriors and more. Scott turns out to be an elusive wise – ass who is nothing but calamity for both Beck and himself. The scenes where they try the dodgy local fruit are rewind worthy. He really shines here, bringing the same burn-down-the-house attitude he did as Stiffler. There’s also a priceless artifact that everyone is trying to retrieve, including a tough local bartender (Rosario Dawson). There’s also a villain, as there must be in any action film, a bugnuts local tyrant named Hatcher played by the one and only Christopher Walken. Hatcher is a wonderful Walken creation whose attempted menace is constantly undone by his penchent for silliness, a winning combination that super-charges every scene he gets. That lanky Scotsman Ewan Bremer is wicked funny as a deranged bush pilot who assists Beck in unintelligible endearance. Hearing him vivaciously recite Dylan Thomas’s ‘Dying Of The Light’ right before a big old gunfight kicks off is absolute gold. Dwayne makes nice work of the action hero archetype, bringing an almost adolescent buoyancy to his vibe that he may even have not seen coming when he got into the craft. There’s a surprise cameo from a genre titan early on in the film that is essentially a passing of the torch symbol, so eyes should be kept peeled. Director Berg knows how to wow an audience in many a genre, this being my favourite excursion of his thus far. It’s loud, scenic, unapologetic and has fun six ways to fucking Sunday. 

RICHARD KELLY’S SOUTHLAND TALES — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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How can one accurately “review” Richard Kelly’s mind-bendingly crazy and divisive film Southland Tales? Kelly, whose debut was the incredibly enjoyable cult classic Donnie Darko, totally shot for the moon and back with his second directorial effort, which is filled with an insane amount of ambition and spontaneous sense of creativity. A sprawling, Los Angeles-based head-trip, Southland Tales feels like one of the most expensive experimental films ever made, bowing to zero concessions, devised by a mad scientist who often times feels like he’s making up new rules as he goes along. For some, Southland Tales will inevitably be a maddening viewing experience, especially upon first glance, but over the last few years, I’ve grown to absolutely love the movie, and I constantly feel compelled to revisit it. The film’s extra-packed midsection, at first, seemed purposefully meandering, but I’ve realized that it’s just extra dense, and requires some careful dissection. While some may feel that Kelly possibly bit off more than he could chew overall, it’s impossible to dismiss this film the way a majority of critics did, if for no other reason than it takes serious chances as a piece of storytelling, and because it’s a surreal, distinct vision that could only have come from a filmmaker with immense talent and a high level of chutzpah.

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The film starts off in 2005, at a backyard, Fourth of July barbeque in Texas. Home video camera footage shows families playing with sparklers and eating hot dogs. Then, the unthinkable—a mushroom cloud can be seen in the horizon. An atomic bomb has been dropped in Abilene. The world is forever changed. We then jump three years into the future to Los Angeles; again, it’s July 4, but the world we knew is gone. Society stands on the brink of social, economic and environmental disaster. A fascist government is in control with big brother lurking everywhere. Boxer Santaros (Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson) is an action-movie star who’s stricken with amnesia. He crosses paths with a calculating porn star named Krysta Now (a sassy Sara Michelle Geller), who, among other things, is developing her own reality television project. The two of them concoct a movie idea that has Boxer set to play a cop. Meanwhile, good-guy police officer Ronald Taverner (an excellent Sean William Scott), agrees to allow Santaros to shadow him so he can get the feel for police life in an effort to turn in a convincing performance. But, it turns out that Taverner may hold the key to a vast conspiracy that nobody is ready to comprehend. There’s a lot more to Southland Tales than that. Radicals are stirring up a political uprising, using Venice beach and Santa Monica as their staging ground, while much of Los Angeles has been reduced to a DMZ. Armed soldiers monitor the beaches and streets with itchy trigger fingers. Then there’s the finale with two Roland Taverners, time-portals that open up into new dimensions, a floating ice cream truck, rocket launchers, and an exploding, futuristic zeppelin. There’s more…much more…but I’m at a loss to know how to summarize all of it. It’s a massive piece of filmmaking, going off on tangents and filling the frame with tons of visual detail (Kelly’s regular collaborator, the versatile Steven Poster, handled the aggressively stylish cinematography). This is a film that takes elements of political satire, post-apocalyptic nightmare, science-fiction fantasy, romantic drama, and movie-musical and throws them all into a blender and swirls them up into a wild smoothie of a movie.

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Making all of these seemingly disparate threads add up to a cohesive whole had to have been a herculean task. This is a staggeringly original piece of work, filled with homages to classic films, while still operating as a unique vision all its own. While narratively stuffed at times, and with performances that veer this way one moment and the other way the next, Kelly’s film is never boring and is fascinating on many levels, mostly because Southland Tales is satirizing a world that doesn’t totally exist. Kelly created a frightening political and social landscape, one that in fact may not be too far away for all of us in reality. But by not basing his vision in any sort of fully realistic setting, the audience isn’t in on the joke as much as Kelly; he’s poking fun at a world that is removed from our own, and as such, the satire sometimes feels a bit esoteric. But that’s because Kelly truly KNOWS this world that he’s created. The performances are broad, and in many respects, over the top, but that was likely the directorial intention. The true acting surprise of the film was easily Sean William Scott, still best known at the time for his immortal role as “Stifler” in the American Pie franchise, and here, give the chance to be someone totally different from the lovable and immature clown that he so memorably portrayed. Granted, his character (much like the audience), spends most of the film in a fog of confusion, but the charm and ease that he brings to this zany movie is very effective and emotionally engaging. I always had the sneaking suspicion that there was more to him as an actor, and throughout much of Southland Tales, he makes good on that promise.

As Southland Tales moves towards its fiery climax, the film really ups the momentum and becomes something truly fantastic. The last 30 minutes are awesome in a deranged, Terry Gilliam-esque fashion, with bracing moments of chuck-it-all abandon, which makes for some delirious fun. Kelly and Poster conjure up one fantastical image after another, using the widescreen space as their ultimate surrealistic playground, riffing on commercialism, surveillance tactics, and filmmaking in general, all in effort to yield something as different as possible. Kelly re-edited his film extensively after the initial three hour cut was derided at the Cannes Film Festival, which in retrospect, as he mentioned in interviews, was likely the A-1 worst place for this film to debut, especially in an unfinished state.  He snipped about 30 minutes from the run time, got rid of entire characters (Janeane Garofalo was a cast-casualty), and added some special effects; I’d love to see his initial cut for the sake of comparison. A film this creative, unique, and brazen could only come from an individual with an enormous imagination, and in today’s cookie-cutter Hollywood landscape, Kelly deserves points for making a film as out there as this one, which easily ranks as one of the most ambitious if at times perplexing films I’ve ever come across, one that has aged extremely well over time as our social landscape continually changes.