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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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Michael Mann’s Collateral

I love Michael Mann’s Collateral so much. Few other films evoke the detached, hypnotic atmosphere of a metropolitan city, the thrum of a single night passing by, the hard bitten nature of a city whose main brand of social interaction is usually crime. Mann has a way with restless urban nocturnes and the weary, resolute characters who drift through them, personified here by Jamie Foxx’s shy, plucky cab driver Max and Tom Cruise’s lupine, charismatic hitman Vincent. They’re on odd pair to spend a murky, digitally shot Los Angeles night with, but the two actors make it a clash, confrontation and ironic companionship for the ages. Max is veering close to being a career cabbie, his dreams of entrepreneur enterprising fading fast in the rear view. He’s meek and soft spoken but we get the sense that somewhere in there is the capacity for violence and unpredictability, if prompted by the right catalyst. Speak of the devil with Vincent, a whip smart apex predator who hijacks Max into helping him make several high profile stops before a 6am flight out of LAX, each one leaving a cadaver in its wake, all related to an interwoven criminal syndicate that DA is trying to bring down. It’s high concept done on slow burn, with action taking a backseat beside Vincent, while story, character and brilliant dialogue command the forefront, a technique rarely employed in the big budget Hollywood blockbuster, but always a surefire way to success. Mann captures the pulse of LA almost better than he did with Heat, albeit to a smaller scale and constricted to one night, a nervous time-sensitive mood-scape that gives the proceedings a haunted aura. Cruise has never been better, sporting a silver fox get-up and enough scary micro-mannerisms to more than make us believe he’s an expert at his profession, until jaggedly unravelled by Foxx’s presence, who goes from unassuming hostage to razor sharp thorn in the side real quick. Jada Pinkett Smith is brilliant as a lawyer who Max picks up in the opening scene, their extended conversation set against the dreamy LA backdrop serving as a neat, Elmore Leonard-esque way to set up shop. The supporting cast are like easter eggs hidden throughout, they’re never obvious or given key monologues, but exist in harmonious flow to the chamber piece unfolding mostly in the taxi. Mark Ruffalo shows up in his coolest role to date as a detective who gets wise to Cruise uncannily quick, Javier Bardem has a showcase scene as an angry mob boss, and watch for Bruce McGill, Debi Mazar, Wade Williams, Klea Scott, Paul Adelstein, Peter Berg, Irma P. Hall, Emilio Riveria, Jason Statham, Richard T. Jones and the always excellent Barry Shabaka Henley as a jazz club owner with a few skeletons in his closet. My favourite scene is a wordless one, in which Vincent and Max see a lone coyote loping across the freeway in the hazy night. Each of them reacts, the sight of the beast meaning something different to them, internally, they share the moment, and move on. Taken out of context it could mean anything, stand on its own as a fifteen second short film, or be injected into a crime drama masterpiece like this to make it all the more atmospheric and special. It’s moments like this, along with a few other key scenes, one set on a subway train and the initial conversation between Foxx and Jada, that inject a surface level genre film with something intangible, something elemental. Mann gets this, every frame of his urban crime epics are filled with that kind of energy, and this stands as one of his best.

-Nate Hill

Michael Mann’s Miami Vice


Michael Mann’s Miami Vice is a lot of things. Hypnotic, sedated mood piece. Thrumming, rhythmic action picture. Deeply romantic. More going on underneath it’s surface than what you see onscreen. Masterful crime piece. Showcase for digitally shot film. Restless, nocturnal urban dream. One thing it is decidedly not, however, is anything similar to the bright ‘n sunny, pastel suited 80’s cable TV show of the same name, also pioneered by Mann, at a more constricted and likely very different point in his career. A lot can be said for the show though, it’s instantly iconic and was one among a stable of crimeprimetime™ (The Equalizer and Crime Story did their part as well) to give many actors their break, actors who we take for granted as stars today. Mann’s film version is a different beast entirely, a likely reason for the uneasy audience reception. Let’s be clear: it’s one of the best films of the last few decades. Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx make a deliberately moodier, more dangerous Ricardo and Tubbs, and their high stakes undercover work is set against an austerely fatalistic Miami that bares little resemblance to travel brochures, let alone the tv show many were used to. Their story starts one of two ways, depending on whether or not you view the extended director’s cut, which is the version I’d choose as it sets up tone before throwing you into a hectic nightclub sting operation they’ve got going, which is hastily interrupted by the exposure of a CI snitch (John Hawkes in a haunting cameo). This sets them on course to take down a powerful Cuban drug syndicate run by a scarily calm Luis Tosar and hotheaded maverick John Ortiz. Farrell gets involved with a girl from their fold, of course (Gong Li is a vision), a romance that has grown on me over the years, while Foxx is involved with beautiful fellow cop Naomie Harris, yielding heart wrenching moments in the final act. Darting in and out of the story as well are Tom Towles, Justin Theroux, Isaach De Bánkole, Eddie Marsan, Barry Shabaka Henley, Tony Curran and Ciaran Hinds, all vital cogs in a well oiled, momentous machine that doesn’t drop it’s pulse for a second. Composer John Murphy piles on the mood with his mournful score, highlighting evening boat-rides, shadowy shoot outs and outdoor nightclubs with a top tier soundscape, while cinematographer Dion Beebe works tirelessly to get shot after shot looking mint, not an easy task with a film this energetic and particularly lit. From start to finish it’s to the point as well, Mann has no interest in useless exposition, mapped out play by plays or cheesy moments. Everything careens along at a realistic pace and you’re on your own if you can’t keep up or make sense of the off the cuff cop jargon. There’s stillness too though, in a torn up Farrell watching his love disappear on the horizon, Foxx looking on from beside a hospital bed or simply either of them glowering out at the skyline from a rooftop pulpit before things Heat up. Like I said, do the extended version and you’ll get that terrific opener to set you up, instead of being thrown in the deep end right off the bat. Either way though, Miami Vice is one for the ages. 

-Nate Hill

“Your name’s Baby? B-A-B-Y Baby?” – A Review of Baby Driver by Josh Hains

“You’ve never seen anything like Baby Driver before”, the major critics say, and everywhere you look online the average movie goer agrees to the tune of a $30 million dollar opening weekend haul. They’re right you know, you really haven’t seen *anything* (and I do mean a-n-y-t-h-i-n-g) like Baby Driver before. Don’t believe me? Keep reading.

Sure, we’ve all seen countless of westerns and crime thrillers where the main protagonist claims they’re done with that brutal life after the fateful “one last job”, only to get sucked back into that world like Michael Corleone in the Godfather Part III. “Just when I thought I was out…they PULL me back in.” That storyline seems to have been done to near death, hell, even Logan used it earlier this year, and yet here it is once again in a totally refreshed way.

We’ve seen intricate car chases before, like Frank Bullitt roaring down the streets of San Francisco with sly hitmen on his tail, or “Popeye” Doyle weaving through chaotic traffic trying to keep up with a a sniper aboard an elevated train (The French Connection), or Ryan O’Neal’s the Driver outrunning cops in hot pursuit of the thieves in the back seat of his getaway vehicle (The Driver). Don’t worry, I may not mention about a dozen other worthy titles, but they’re here in spirit. We’ve seen plenty of amazing car chases, but have you ever seen one synchronized to a song before? I didn’t think so.

And we’ve seen many an A-list cast deliver snappy dialogue that Quentin Tarantino could bathe in, and the kinds of edgy, tongue planted firmly in cheek performances one might expect from a pulpy neo-noir fantasy conjured up by Tarantino himself. But just when we think we’ve seen it all, someone like Edgar Wright shows us we haven’t. baby_driver_ver15_xxlgBaby Driver follows the titular Baby (Ansel Elgort), a young getaway driver who works for Doc (Kevin Spacey) to pay off a debt he owes him for trying to steal his car years ago. Baby lives in a crappy apartment with his deaf-mute foster father Joseph (CJ Jones) while Doc makes a pretty penny using different crews to rob banks and post offices, including the unpredictable psycho Bats (Jamie Foxx), sexy couple Darling and Buddy (Eiza González and Jon Hamm), and Griff (Jon Bernthal), and Baby is always his lucky charm getaway driver. Baby has severe tinnitus from a childhood car accident which gave him a hum in the drum that he drowns out with an endless barrage of ear-worm inducing catchy songs, from The Commodores’ Easy, Barry White’s Never, Never Gone Give Ya’ Up, to Queen’s Brighton Rock, and yes, even a song or two with Baby in the title. I happen to have no less than six of the songs stuck in my head including Tequila by The Button Down Brass and Golden Earring’s Radar Love, thanks to a viewing of Baby Driver last night. I’m not complaining. Baby meets Deborah (Lily James), a sweet waitress working a cozy diner he frequents, and of course falls head over heels in love with the girl and vice versa. Baby wants out and fast, but alas, dirty work calls and he goes, but before he knows it things have gone south and fast, thrusting Baby into a desperate race to get outta dodge before things go from bad to way, way worse.

To say anything more about the plot would be downright stupid of me for obvious reasons, but especially because Baby Driver is definitely one of those “the less you know, the better” type movies, though not because of plot twists (though there are quite a few, and you probably won’t see all of them coming from a mile away), but because of the way Wright lets the entire movie unfold completely synchronized to that catchy, finger snapping, foot tapping soundtrack. Yes, the visuals timed with the music and how that affects you as a viewer overall is best left to the imagination, the surprise well worth the admission cost. The film opens quite magnificently with a heist that moves to the eclectic beat of The Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s Bell Bottoms (Spencer himself has a brief cameo), with Baby singing and wildly groovin’ along in the car to the stellar tune before he pedals to the metal for the next several minutes to evade a rather large entourage of cops. It’s a fine example of the synchronicity I’m talking about, the masterfully blended fusion of stylish visuals, raw 100% practical stunts, and perfectly picked songs. It sounds good on paper, but it plays as wonderfully as any musical number in La La Land, and immediately sets the tone for the rest of the movie. A foot and car chase later in the film nearly had my jaw on the floor as I tried to wrap my mind around how Wright had so perfectly choreographed the entire thing. Of course, simply talking about this stuff doesn’t do it any justice, you truly have to see it to believe it. 

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By now you’ve noticed I haven’t critiqued Baby Driver in any way, and there’s a good reason for that: I can’t think of a single thing worth complaining about. I’ve run over the entire movie in my mind and there’s not one thing I saw in the movie that would register as a flaw of some magnitude. Nothing, not a single thing. A death sequence felt just a tad bit too silly, but is that a big enough complaint to warrant my bitching about it? Hell no, I forgot that ultra minor quibble while writing this review, so that can’t be that important to me. Does that mean Baby Driver is what you might call a perfect movie? Not necessarily, I know some people wish it allowed a deeper look into the psyche of the totem pole-esque Baby, some dislike the brief screen time of a beloved actor, and I’m sure others have nitpicks I don’t even want to think about…but from where I’m standing I don’t see why it couldn’t be classified “perfect”.  

Support original film making and go see Baby Driver the first chance you get, and don’t forget to buckle up, it’s one helluva wild ride from the very first second until the final frame snaps to black. baby-driver-movie-5.png

MICHAEL MANN’S COLLATERAL — A REVIEW BY NICK CLEMENT

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Collateral is a laser-precise action thriller, that as per usual for macho auteur Michael Mann, also stops to pause for the introspective moment from time to time, certainly more than your average studio shoot ‘em up. This was a theatrical five-timer for me, and it’s a movie I’ve revisited numerous times on DVD and Blu-ray; Mann knows this rough, urban terrain better than anyone else at the moment. Breathlessly written by Stuart Beattie (with uncredited rewrite work by Mann and Frank Darabont), this was one of the key films to bust down the gate for big-budget studio actioners to get the digitally-shot treatment. Cinematographers Paul Cameron and Dion Beebe collaborated with Mann on the intensely stylish visuals, with nocturnal Los Angeles giving off a totally unique vibe that’s dangerous and exotic and alive with endless possibility; I love how digital cinematography allows the viewer to see far off into the distance. Tom Cruise gave one of his most magnetic performances as Vincent, a hitman made of steely discipline and possessing seemingly air-tight internal logic. Jamie Foxx, as Max the cabbie, made for an unexpectedly great co-star, with his initial timidity turning into reluctant bravado by the final act, in an arc that felt honest considering the circumstances. The dynamite supporting cast has showy turns from a greasy Mark Ruffalo, the always commanding Bruce McGill, a priceless Javier Bardem doing some excellent storytelling, a sharp Jada Pinkett Smith, edgy Peter Berg, the soulful Barry Shabaka Henley, and the sagacious Irma P. Hall, with awesome cameos by resident ass-kicker Jason Statham and the spunky Debi Mazar.

The Statham bit at the airport, in particular, is a real hoot; Mann isn’t known for being a “fun” filmmaker, and in this one wink-wink moment, you get the sense that he was enjoying himself in a way he normally doesn’t. James Newtown Howard’s moody score pulsates with electronic-synth-sexiness, with all of the physical locations choicely selected for maximum atmospheric effect. And honestly, enough can’t be said about the downright hypnotic cinematography in this film; shot after shot is absolutely striking in ways that are hard to describe. Memorable moments include a roaming coyote shambling across a lonely Los Angeles city street, a phenomenally staged and extra-lethal Korea town night-club shootout, and that fantastic encounter between Cruise and Henley at the jazz-club, which culminates in both verbal and visual poetry which highlights the chiaroscuro quality of the dimly lit interior. The back and forth dialogue between Cruise and Foxx during the various cab rides sting with acidic bite, with both actors getting more than one moment of serious emoting amidst all of the violent showdowns and confrontations. This was an extremely disciplined effort for Mann, and however minor some people may find it amongst the rest of his sensational filmography, it’s one of those endlessly re-watchable films that paid attention to all of the aspects of the medium, resulting in a rock-solid genre entry that feels a cut above from the norm.

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