It’s interesting to me how the best Disney films, or at least the ones that I connect with most anyways, don’t get talked about too much. Atlantis: The Lost Empire is always one I was kind of dimly aware of, I had the McDonald’s toys as a kid even though I never saw the film and always thought of it as just another rote Princess storyline from the studio. How wrong I was. This is an absolutely sensational SciFi adventure fantasy on all levels, boundlessly imaginative, strikingly mature as far as Disney goes and the kind of intricately designed experience you can get lost in. In the early 1900’s young scholar Milo Thatch (Michael J. Fox in a lovely, exuberant turn) dreams of finding the lost city of Atlantis as his peers and superiors at the Smithsonian mock his efforts. When an eccentric and very rich tycoon (the late John Mahoney) agrees to fund an elaborate deep sea exploration with Milo spearheading the research aspect, it’s off to the races as a beautifully designed mega-craft descends into the Atlantic Ocean with our hero and a whole team of ragtag experts, grunts and grease monkeys onboard. The film is very realistic and fair with its characters and we get an entire fleet of fascinating individuals including an African American former civil war surgeon (Phil Morris) with indigenous roots, a cantankerous cook (Jim Varney), a Mediterranean explosives guru, a vivacious French geologist and the crew’s mercurial captain Rourke, given the commanding, affable yet vaguely menacing voice of James Garner who does a terrific job of the villainous arc. There is a Princess here but she isn’t doe eyed, sing-songy or cloying for romance every second. Her name is Kida (voiced wonderfully by Cree Summer), she’s the daughter of the Atlantean King (Leonard Nimoy, of all people) and she’s assured, strong willed and cares deeply for the plight of her race, who have fallen on hard times. There are eventual romantic sparks between her and Milo but they feel organic, earned and born out of a genuine, character development based relationship as the two get to know each other and she shows him around her striking world. The visual design and animation here is something else, even before we see Atlantis there’s a steampunk vibe to their equipment and vessel, and when we see the otherworldly biodiversity, detailed architectural splendour and tattoos/costume design it’s an atmosphere like no other. Not to mention the ballistic gong show of a climax, born out of capitalist fuelled betrayal, the very fate of Atlantis and every living thing in it at stake. This isn’t your average Disney flick and while there are the usual beats like comic relief and romance etc, it all feels far more down to earth than I’m used to from this kind of output. I’m reminded of another Disney one that has a similarly grounded, spectacularly imagined world, the wonderful Treasure Planet. I think the studio has never been as good or as inspired as their work with that one and now Atlantis too, it has to be up there as my favourite.
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.
This film might not seem like a big deal to you. It could merely appear as another throwaway action flick on your regular streaming service – one that you glance at out of curiosity, and then move on. But I really loved SHOWDOWN IN MANILA, and here’s the reason why . . .
Once, a long time ago, in the age of wonder, they were these glorious palaces that we called, Video Stores. They were a veritable treasure trove for cineastes of all ages to come and get their movie-fix. They housed the cinema of the ages and best of all, there would be movies you could find there, that hadn’t played at a cinema near you.
These were the titles that were made specifically for this new medium of VHS. Like the drive-in before it, these stores needed product. Thus a new genre was born, and it was called Straight-to-Video. What arose were glorious movies, some of which, sadly, died along with their era. Awesome were the sci-fi, the horror, and specifically speaking now, the action movies that would appear on the shelves. And such action. Real, intense, dynamic and always in frequent supply. It was good versus evil in all its glory – the villains wore dark shades and the heroes carried big guns. So, it was while watching SHOWDOWN that I was hit by this wave of nostalgia, engulfed by memories of the golden age of home entertainment.
The plot of the film is simple. But isn’t that true of the best action flicks? The package is a beautiful cocktail of old and new, peppered with filmmakers wishing to deliver a splendid throwback, mixed with the stars that climbed to the dizzying heights of VHS stardom.
For those who know what I’m talking about, and even those that don’t, I say, go check out this little gem that is cut from the past, and at the same time, is polishing by the future. So, here now, I present a trio of interviews with the film’s stars Alexander Nevsky(The man on the rise), Matthias Hues(The action legend), and the man responsible for that important seed from which all great cinema grows, the script, Craig Hamman(the veteran screenwriter).
Alexander Nevsky is a Russian bodybuilder, actor, writer, producer. His life changed when he saw Arnold Schwarzenegger in Pumping Iron and that spark would light the fire which continues to burn bright. In 1994 Nevsky graduated from State Academy of Management (Moscow). In 1999 he moved to California. He studied English at UCLA and acting at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute. He has risen from a bit-part-player to an international action star the cannot be ignored. With his imposing intensity, versatility and personal drive, Alex, I believe, is poised to enter the arena of formidable action superstars – its only a matter of when.
Matthias Hues is a German-born actor and martial artist as well as being an action movie icon. He came to L.A. not knowing how to act or even speak English. The fateful moment would come when he joined Gold’s Gym and the establishment’s manager received a call from a producer who had just lost Jean-Claude Van Damme for his movie and needed a replacement. Matthias tested for the role, and he managed to convince the producers to give him the part despite having no prior acting experience. The movie, No Retreat, No Surrender 2, was a moderate success, but it opened the door. He is, of course, most recognized for Dark Angel, but has also played everything from a gladiator turned private investigator in Age of Treason to an aging hit-man in Finding Interest to a bumbling idiot trying to kidnap a rich kid in Alone in the Woods to a dancing lion tamer in Big Top Pee-wee. He’s even played a Klingon general in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country.
Craig Hamann came up alongside another young aspiring filmmaker whose work would go on to define a generation. When he and Quentin Tarantino embarked upon the journey to make their own movie, My Best Friend’s Birthday, there was no telling then, where the road would lead. Well we all know where Quentin ended up, but Craig too has enjoyed a long and prosperous career that has been anything but ordinary. He’s a writer, former actor, that has watched the industry ebb and flow. He’s directed Boogie Boys, had encounters with Demonic Toys and of course, of late, he’s been a part of an action-thriller in Manila. Craig has other projects in the works, and with the company he keeps, these efforts are, I’m sure, set to explode and entertain. Yet he remains a humble gentleman with a passion for his work and a dedication that has seen him endure as a great veteran of the movie business.
I’ve never really been a trekkie my whole life. Didn’t grow up with the television series and haven’t actively explored it later in life. When the announcement came that wonder-kid JJ Abrams would be taking on the lofty overhaul of a remake, I didn’t freak out or anything. In fact I waited quite a while before seeing it in theatres, dragged along by a buddy who talked it up quite a bit. Well, it was amazing, and still is. Nothing gets you pumped and makes your heart ache quite as much as that epic ten prologue, starring an intrepid Chris Hemsworth who selflessly saves the lives of everyone onboard his ship, including his newborn son, James T. Kirk. When your eyes flood with tears in the first few minutes of a film, it’s always a good sign. Abrams ushered in Star Trek for the new generation, and I imagine strived to keep core elements like friendship, cameraderie and wonder alive as well. Chris Pine makes one hell of a Kirk, but then he’s one of the best in his age group these days. Cocky, belligerent, dysfunctional, impulsive and recklessly brave, he’s the perfect opposing force to Zachary Quinto’s calculated, logical, no nonsense Spock, who goes through quite a wringer when his entire world is decimated by rogue Romulan extremist Nero, played by a sensational Eric Bana. Both Kirk and Spock are no stranger to loss, being affected and reacting to it in different ways. Their initial rivalry tangles into the beginning of a friendship, hinted at by Leonard Nimoy’s Spock Prime, visiting Quinto from far in the future (time travel, baby). The plot and character motivations are in fact mostly about loss and anger; Nero himself is driven by grief which has morphed into poisonous hatred, willing to inflict hurt a thousand fold in return for what happened to his people. Bana finds the wounded areas of Nero, and uses the trademark Romulun leer to cover them up in violent fury. There must always be comic relief too, and when the banter between the two heroes gets too dark, the spotlight shifts to chipper Scotty (Simon Pegg) and a brilliant Karl Urban as Leonard ‘Bones’ Mccoy, the ship’s neurotic doctor. Urban is cast heavily against type in the liveliest role he’s ever been thrown, and clearly loves every antsy second of it. John Cho makes a formidable Sulu, and the sadly departed Anton Yelchin charms the pants off of everyone with his priceless russian accent. Clifton Collins Jr. and Jennifer Morrison are great as well. Abrams loves to cast beloved actors from bygone eras in these things (I peed a little when Peter Weller showed up in the sequel), so keep a look out for terrific work from Ben Cross and Winona Ryder as Spock’s parents. Bruce Greenwood is nobility incarnate as Commander Pike, the kindly captain who sees the potential in Kirk and paternally attempts to clear the wreckage of his personality, dust it off and make something out of him. The special effects and set pieces are a dizzying dream of nonstop adrenaline. The opener I mentioned before, a show stopping fight scene atop a giant chain miles above the surface of a planet, the hair raising arrival of Nero’s ship (it looks like some horrific giant space beetle) and a chase across a snowy tundra pursued by an evil Yeti Muppet thing are highlights that demonstrate how effective and useful CGI can be when implemented properly. For all its razzle dazzle though, Star Trek is ultimately about relationships between different beings (human or other), the ways in which they deal with tragedy, love one another, learn to coexist, help those in need and most importantly, explore the wonders of the universe around them. I admire the fact that in a huge Sci Fi blockbuster such as this, those kind of themes and qualities come first. We are all made of stars, and inward exploration of the ones that reside in us and how they make us what we are is just as essential as the world’s that lie millions of light years away, awaiting our arrival. JJ understands this, and I offer him a well earned Starfleet salute for it.