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Emerging from the river of wind: Remembering Slipstream with Tony Kayden by Kent Hill

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Slipstream was alluring from the moment I saw the poster in the front window of my local theater. From the producer of STAR WARS and the director of TRON was the proclamation, and I was sold. The film, even then, delivered, as far as I am concerned. It offered a different world, an intriguing premise, great performances and . . . yes, I’ll admit a disjointed viewing experience. Still, I love the movie and have always been curious as to the production and what elements combined to bring this fascinating story to the screen.

At length, I finally made contact with Tony Kayden, a veteran screenwriter and the credited scribe of the film (as well as a man with his own amazing set of adventures in the screen trade). And it didn’t take long to learn that the narrative irregularities of Slipstream were the result of no one really knowing what kind of film they wanted to make.

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With the money in escrow, the movie was being made, that was definite. The script that Tony was brought on to rework was, at its heart, a stock-standard Star Wars rehash. Enter producer Gary Kurtz. After enjoying success serving alongside George Lucas and Jim Henson on the Dark Crystal, Kurtz came to the project seeing another unique film on a grand scale and an adventure born in the wind. The director tapped to steer the ship was Tron director Steve Lisberger. His work on Tron was extraordinary, original, and one could only imagine what he might do with a larger canvas combined with thrilling aerial action, accompanying a compelling human story. But then then problems began. The Producers wanted action and more sexual interaction where possible. Kurtz wanted something cleaner, no graphic violence and something more Star Wars. Lastly there was Lisberger, having just become a father, and wanting to make something for kids.

Then you have the poor writer. Only hired for four weeks, Tony ended up residing in England for three months, trying in vain to mix this maelstrom of indecisiveness into a cohesive plot. Kayden saw the movie as a kind of post-apocalyptic version of the The Last Detail. You can see the surviving elements of this in the interactions between Bill Paxton and Bob Peck’s characters of Matt and Byron. One a fugitive being taken in for the reward, the other an opportunist looking to make a quick buck. But, ultimately they become friends and seek to merely flow with the slipstream they are, for better or worse, traveling along.

These two are chased by Tasker, Mark Hamill, in a platinum performance as the mustache-twisting law man whose faith has been replaced by devotion to duty and routine whilst maintaining order here in this desolate society. He harbors a Javert/Valijean type relationship with Peck’s curiously, emotionally-distant accused killer – who just so happens to be an android.

The journey down the stream brings Matt and Bryon into contact with fellow adventurers/survivors Sir Ben Kingsley (who after a chat about the script in the commissary with Tony, sought out a part in the movie), and eventually, another Oscar winner in the person of F. Murray Abraham, the caretaker of one of the last sanctuaries – a literal museum to the past, complete with all its folly and decadence.

But the movie ends in tragedy and triumph. While the evil pursuer is vanquished, Bryon’s hopes for happiness are dashed. He is forced to leave his new found friend and seek out his own kind, wherever they may be.

That all might come across as a little confusing? Like I said before, the film is disjointed. This doesn’t prevent it, however, from being fun. The the actors give solid performances, the photography is brilliant, the locations amazing, Elmer Bernstein’s score magnificent – it is just a shame that the powers behind this movie couldn’t seem to agree.

As Tony told me, “the writer often takes the blame.” Though that is not the case here. If anything he should be commended for fighting the good fight in a losing battle.

Still, my fondness for Slipstream endures. In part for what it is, but also for the possibility of what it might have been. Like I said to Tony, in the age of the reboot, there might be a second life yet for Slipstream. Now all we need to do is get Dwayne Johnson on board…

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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.

JACK DETH IS BACK . . . AND HE’S NEVER BEEN HERE BEFORE: An Interview with Tim Thomerson by Kent Hill

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I was mid-way through my interview with C. Courtney Joyner when Tim Thomerson’s name came up. Joyner of course, had directed Tim in Trancers 3, and cooler still, he had just had him round for breakfast earlier that day. You might call it an imposition, but I mentioned that if there was even a remote possibility that he could put me in touch with Tim, I would be forever grateful. Courtney told me he was seeing Tim again on the weekend and would put forward my proposition. Soon after, I received a message with a phone number.

Now, I’m usually in the habit of arranging an appropriate time and day to call, but Courtney had left it open. I remember for the first time, in a long time, being nervous to make the call. After all this was Tim Thomerson who was going to be picking up the phone; a guy, a legend that I had watched for years. So I summoned my moxy and dialled the number. The familiar international ring-cycle began and then . . . “Thomerson,” the voice on the other end of the line said.

I’m going to come off as an idiot here, but I.D.G.A.R.A. “Damn,” I remember thinking. “He sounds exactly like he does in the movies.” Stupid, I’m well aware. But the moment was profound, and I was instantly transported to that time when I sat in the theatre watching Metalstorm, and that glorious afternoon I first sat down to watch Future Cop (aka Trancers). Here was Jack Deth now, on the end of the line and talking to me like we had been buddies since forever.

I did kinda wish we could have jumped into our chat right there. Tim was at once disarming, candid and as cool as i had expected him to be. He was off to his retreat in the desert to do “old man shit” as he put it, and, while I realize he is an aged gentleman now, that voice, the larger than life character that he is still packed all of the vitality, swagger and youthful exuberance that very much belies his years.

I didn’t have to wait long before we would talk again, and when we did, the conversation picked up right where it left off. I would take a significant amount of time to go through the length and breadth of his career, so I restricted myself to personal favourites among his credits. We talked about his beginnings, his great friendships, his bumping into Mel Gibson at the doctor’s office, him working with his idols, Australian Cinema and his meeting with the legend that was Sam Peckinpah.

For those of you who regularly check out my stuff here on the site (God bless you), I fear I might be starting to sound like a cracked record. A number of times in the past I have found myself gushing about the opportunities I have enjoyed whilst writing for PTS, and how humbled and indeed awe-struck I have been as a result of these encounters with the folks who make the movies. Sadly I’m now going to do it again. Tim Thomerson is a hero of mine and it was at once spellbinding and an indescribable treasure to have had the chance to shoot the breeze with an actor I have long held in high regard . . .

. . . and an equal pleasure it is, to now share it with you.

Enjoy.

Just wild about Larry: An Interview with Steve Mitchell by Kent Hill

Steve Mitchell has been on quite a ride. Having begun in the world of comics, he has the distinction of inking the very first book by a guy you might have heard of . . . Frank Miller. But being in New York with all his friends heading west, Steve, after forging an impressive beginning to his career, took a phone call one night from his another friend and filmmaker Jim Wynorski. Jim wanted an opinion on an idea that, if he could make it work, they might be able to get the picture made. From that conversation a film would be born. It was the cult classic Chopping Mall.

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So like Horatio Alger before him, he went west and continued writing for both the worlds of film and television. The fateful moment would come one day while looking over the credits of the legendary maverick auteur, Larry Cohen, on IMDB.  Astounded by the length and breadth of Cohen’s career, Steve saw an opportunity to possibly make a documentary that would chronicle the life and exploits of the successful filmmaker.

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After receiving a blessing from the man (Larry) himself, Steve set about the mammoth undertaking of  not only pulling together the interviews with Cohen’s many collaborators, all of the footage of his many works , but also the financing to bring these and the countless other elements together to form KING COHEN: The Wild World of Filmmaker Larry Cohen.

This truly insightful and utterly entertaining look at the, thus far continuing, career of Cohen is the passion project of a man with whom I share a kinship. Not only for the stories behind the men who make the movies, but also how the films we know and love were pieced together with money, dreams, light, shadow and the technical tools which help capture and refine the many wondrous adventures we as cinema goers have been relishing since our very first experiences.

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KING COHEN is a great film made by a really great guy, and it is my hope, as it is Steve’s hope, that you enjoy the story of Larry Cohen, but also come away from watching the film wishing to then seek out and discover the movies contained within that you may have only experienced for the first time as part of the documentary. The films of the filmmaker that inspired Steve’s film in the first place. (that’s a lot films)

Enjoy…

It’s good to be the King: An interview with Larry Cohen by Kent Hill

There is a quote attributed to Robert Rodriguez (another independent maverick filmmaker) that states:

“If you are doing it because you love it you can succeed because you will work harder than anyone else around you, take on challenges no one else would dare take, and come up with methods no one else would discover, especially when their prime drive is fame and fortune. All that will follow later if you really love what you do. Because the work will speak for itself.”

It is the always interesting, ever-changing, always inventive, ever professional life and work of Larry Cohen that really personifies the above quotation. King Cohen has been out there in one form or another in an impressive career spanning multiple decades. He has been the director of cult classics; he has been the writer of hot scripts that have incited Hollywood bidding wars. His work has been remade, imitated, venerated.

These are the hallmarks of a man and his movies whose personal voice rings out loud and clear, high above the commercial ocean of mainstream cinema that carries, beneath its shiny surface, schools of biodegradable blockbusters that are usually forgotten about only moments after having left the cinema.

This is not true of the films of Larry Cohen. For his work is the stuff (pardon the pun) that came before, the stuff the imitators latch on to, the stuff from which remakes and re-imaginations are conceived. This is the fate of the masters. The innovators come and bring forth art through trial and error. They are followed by the masters who take the lessons learned from the innovators and make them, shape them by sheer force of will. But, then there comes the imitators who stand on the shoulders of these giants and take home the glory.

Still, when there is an artist that is in equal parts innovator and master; this causes the imitators to stand baffled.

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Rather than accepting my humble oration, I urge you to seek out Steve Mitchell’s most excellent documentary KING COHEN. Watch it, marvel, rejoice, and remember that there are great filmmakers out there. They may not be coming soon to a theatre near you, but they did once, and their work still stands, silently, waiting to be discovered.

Until you get to see KING COHEN please, feel free to bask in my little chat with the king himself, Larry Cohen, a gentleman of many parts, many stories and of course . . . many movies.

Ladies and Gentlemen . . . Larry Cohen.

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Conceptually Speaking: An Interview with Sylvain Despretz by Kent Hill

 

Sylvain Despretz really is the personification of honnête homme. And he has been a man of the world since an early age. Travel was a part of his life; the other constant being his love of the cinema.

He is an artist of great style and skill and after his schooling he worked as an art director for a top Madison Avenue agency then moved on to illustrating Graphic Novels in California under the mentoring of the internationally famed artist Moebius. From there he would set out upon what would become and astonishing career as a story board artist and conceptual designer.

 

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His work you’ll have seen, gracing the screen in a myriad of films in a variety of genres. Movies like Gladiator, Alien Resurrection, Panic Room, The Fountain, (Tim Burton’s) Planet of the Apes and The Fifth Element. These including work on Don’t tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead and the coming Luc Besson sci-fi extravaganza: Valerian. He has worked with  and on films directed by the true masters of the screen including Ridley Scott, Stanley Kubrick, David Fincher and Jean-Pierre Jeunet.

But, as you will hear, Sylvain has become disenchanted by the current repetitive nature of Hollywood’s cookie-cutter output. He is now driven by the notion that the only way to usher in change, is to be part of a creative revolution that places an emphasis on original voices instead of corporate responsibility.

 

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To this end he is now embarking on a journey that will see him stepping away from the drawing board and moving behind the camera; bringing his own visions to life using that mysterious blending of industrial light and storytelling magic.

He is a learned Hollywood veteran who has seen the Dream Factory from the inside, and his stories and wealth of knowledge and experience was and is fascinating to experience.

The designer behind the scenes and the future man in the director’s chair, proud am I ladies and gentlemen to present this interview with the one and only, Sylvain Despretz.

VISIT SYLVAIN’S OFFICIAL SITE:

http://www.metaprogram.net/

Walter Hill’s Tomboy: A Revenger’s Tale


Walter Hill’s Tomboy: A Revenger’s tale went through a few different titles, first Tomboy, then (Re)assignment, and has been quietly released this week under the simple and bland ‘The Assignment’, which tells you nothing of how batshit crazy it is. It’s a film I’ve waited to see a long time, partly due to its controversial, bizarre premise (it’s been boycotted already), and partly because it marks the return of action guru of yesteryear, the great Walter Hill. I’m sad to say the final product is somewhat underwhelming, aside from a few key elements that shine through the dour mood, the best being star Michelle Rodriguez, in her first leading role since 2000’s Girlfight. Here she plays Frank Kitchen, a scumbag of an assassin who takes his orders from wiseguy mobster ‘Honest John’ (Anthony Lapaglia, quite fun in the film’s only other decent performance). Frank is a creature of brutal instinct, a street rat and cold blooded killer with a taste for bullets, booze and blonde bimbos, basically the finer things in life. So, Michelle Rodriguez as a man. This could have gone either way, and she herself, always having a somewhat masculine presence anyway, does fairly well. She can only do so much with the makeup and prosthetics she’s given though, and let me tell you, they are horrendous. Sporting a ponytail, goat’s pube beard and plastic looking Ken doll torso, she’s a shining beacon of amateur hour from the effects team, for the first third of the film, impossible to believe as a dude. Anywho, ‘Honest’ John proves to be anything but trustworthy, double-crossing our Frank and delivering him into the hands of a rogue plastic surgeon played laughably by Sigourney Weaver, who has quite the bone to pick with him. Here is where it gets nuts: Weaver forcibly performs a gender reassignment surgery on Frank, turning him into a woman to release him from his ‘macho prison’. Frank wakes up with brand new lady parts, the prosthetics all gone and Michelle in her final form, ready to dole out vengeance on both John and the surgeon. This is all told in retrospect of course, as Weaver sits in a padded cell and blathers on and on to a wormy psychiatrist (Tony Shaloub), about the philosophical nature, the lofty how’s and why’s that fuelled her actions, while the audience is sitting there going, “Nah bitch you just crazy.” It’s all the sleaziest fare, and doesn’t work as well as a premise like this should, but there’s something about the gritty sight of a post surgery Michelle wandering around in a hospital gown, tits loose and waving a gun around that has potential and may have done well in a better film. As far as the concept itself goes, anyone who arches their back or (lol) boycotts this film is expending unnecessary energy; it’s a down n’ dirty B movie throughout, never meant to be taken seriously one bit. It’s just a shame it wasn’t more fun. 
-Nate Hill