Jason Reitman Talks With Dennis Christopher and Daniel Stern about ‘Breaking Away’

WRITER’S NOTE: This screening took place back in 2011.

Jason Reitman described the last double feature he presented as part of his guest programming at New Beverly Cinema by saying, “Whereas the last few movies I chose were sad in some respects, these two just make you feel good.” After dealing with the downfalls and missed opportunities which were major parts of “Shampoo” and “Boogie Nights,” he finished off his slate of favorites with “Breaking Away” and “Bottle Rocket.”

The first movie shown was “Breaking Away” which was directed by Peter Yates, the same man who made the Steve McQueen classic “Bullitt.” For years it has been considered one of the best sports movies ever made, and it’s also a movie where several young actors got their start together like in “Taps” or “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” Among those actors were Dennis Quaid, Dennis Christopher and Daniel Stern. We even got to see a teenage Jackie Earle Haley in it, and he has since gone from career oblivion to critical acclaim for his performances in “Little Children” and “Watchmen.”

Reitman asked how many people in the audience were seeing this film for the first time, and many hands, including mine, immediately went up. To this he replied, “I am so jealous!”

On “Breaking Away,” Reitman described it as a movie you associate with watching with your father, and one which captures the lives of twenty somethings very well in the indecisions of where to go from high school; unsure of what to do with the rest of their lives. It’s also a great story about class wars in society; of those who have everything and those who never have enough. Upon looking for trivia about “Breaking Away,” Reitman found the film was originally two screenplays. One was called “The Cutters” which became the name of the people from the working-class environment, and the other one was about the bike race the characters train for.

Joining Reitman for this screening were Dennis Christopher who played the endlessly obsessive bike rider Dave Stoller, and Daniel Stern who played Cyril. Reitman usually had his guests hidden from sight before introducing them, but they were already in the theater giving autographs and posing for pictures which got posted on Facebook. Both Quaid and Stern also said they were so envious of those who were seeing this for the first time.

Reitman started off by asking them if they knew they were working on something very special. Stern was the first to reply:

That was my first movie,” Stern said. “I had never been in a movie before, and so I thought they were all like that. There is a wonderful simplicity to the movie, to the script, to the way the movie was made and the way it comes across. It does have a lot of depth to it too. I look back at it thinking, that was just an incredibly unique experience. I didn’t know what I was doing, I didn’t know where the camera was, and I didn’t know anything about that!”

Christopher, on the other hand, had worked in movies before with acclaimed directors like Robert Altman and Federico Fellini, so he knew a bit about being on big sets. The experience of making “Breaking Away” proved to be a bit different though.

“The thing that really made it special was because after that horrible first day of being a big Italian impersonator, because they made me all dark and I had my hair slicked back, black shirt, a tight waistline, etc. He was supposed to look like a ‘Saturday Night Fever’ guy,” Christopher said. “He (Yates) wanted him to be that kind of Italian. And I thought, why the fuck did they hire me? I looked like Lily Tomlin would when dressed up like men! That’s exactly what I looked like! I was waiting for them to glue hair on my chest!”

“I was so shaken, and the next day I came onto the set and I just burst into tears,” Christopher continued. “I told Peter that I just can’t do this and he said I KNOW, I KNOW! And we had a big talk with Steven (Tisch, who won an Oscar for his screenplay) and Peter, and then the character evolved; the way he looked and the way he was. So for me that was the special thing of collaborating with a director who cared about what you thought. So, for me I thought whoa, this is amazing!”

Reitman then spoke for those who had this on their minds after Christopher spoke:

“So what you’re saying is that Robert Altman really doesn’t care…”

This got a big laugh from the audience.

After making all the changes with Christopher’s character and making it more like him, they reshot everything and had to wait three weeks to see how it all looked. For those who have seen this movie, you have to agree this was one of the smartest choices Yates made. If Christopher was forced to do an Italian impersonation, it probably would have wrecked the movie.

Reitman also asked Christopher and Stern what kind of bike riding they did before production began. Christopher replied he did the “regular kind” and was never involved in any bike competitions like his character. Stern, on the other hand, said he was not a bike rider which turned out to be perfect for his character.

This led Stern to tell everyone he didn’t even audition for “Breaking Away.” He came into the office to read for Yates, and he was on a phone call nearby and saw him. Once he got off the phone, Yates handed Stern a script and was asked to be on set in a short time.

Unlike a lot of the big productions he had previously been involved in, Christopher said this film was almost completely the opposite of them. They had a very small crew working on it, and there was no overabundance of trailers parked on every street corner.

Barbara Barrie played Dave Stoller’s mother, Evelyn, and she got nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. However, it turns out she was a little peeved when she read the script and found there was no big scene for her. Christopher even recalled her telling Yates quite loudly, “WHERE IS MY BIG SCENE?!” So Barrie, Tisch and Yates worked together and did an improvisation which led to that wonderful moment where Evelyn talks about getting her passport and how she always keeps it handy.

People did not expect much from “Breaking Away” while it was being made, but it turned out to be a surprising success which won many awards, and it even spawned a prequel television series in which Haley and Barrie reprised their roles for. Of course, like many movies adapted to television, it lasted only one season. Stern called it “the little engine that could kind of movie,” and he even came to this screening wearing his white “Cutters” t-shirt. Christopher said this and “My Bodyguard” were the first movies for kids which were taken seriously by adults, and he and Stern said people’s overall reaction to it today is still quite powerful.

Christopher also told the audience about when he took his dad, whom he was estranged from at the time, to see “Breaking Away” when it was first released. After it was over, he said his dad came out of it “ruined” and looked quite frail. His dad could not believe how great the movie was, and when people outside the theater asked Christopher for his autograph, he got in line with the others. His dad even acted as his security chief in getting people in the line to move along.

The Q&A ended with both actors asking Reitman, “Is this a good print of the movie we’re showing tonight?”

“We’ll see,”Reitman replied.

Reitman said he had previously seen “Breaking Away” on VHS and laserdisc, but seeing it with an audience was something else. The nearly sold out crowd at New Beverly Cinema really got into the proceedings and cheered loudly throughout. You came out of the theater agreeing with Reitman that “Breaking Away” was as good as reputation has long since suggested.

Ridley Scott’s ‘Alien’ Remains an Exceptionally Intense Experience

Alien movie poster

In regards to horror movies, “John Carpenter’s The Thing” ranks highest on the list of my all-time favorite movies in general. However, if you were to ask me what I consider to be the scariest movie ever, the first that quickly comes to mind is Ridley Scott’s “Alien.” Now considered a classic haunted house kind of movie, it freaked me out far more than I had expected it to. These days, if I come across someone who hasn’t seen “Alien,” I would be desperate to take the time and watch it with them just to see the look on their face. What may seem like a harmless old science fiction movie still has the power to unnerve and creep up on its audience when they least expect it.

Now when I say that this movie freaked me out more than I expected it to, there are a number of reasons why: I ended up seeing James Cameron’s sequel “Aliens” beforehand, so I already knew Ellen Ripley (played by Sigourney Weaver) was the sole survivor from the original. When I watched “Alien” for the very first time, it was back in the days of VCR’s and VHS tapes, and the one I obtained from my favorite video store was a fairly old copy which showed a bit of wear and tear. When it came to watching it, I got consigned to my parents’ bedroom as they had already called dibs on the big television in the family room which was connected to a “super cool” stereo system. The TV set in their bedroom was tiny by today’s standards. As I remember, it was a 13-inch set which was already on its last legs after years of use. This one didn’t have any surround sound system to enhance the experience, so I just tried to be happy I had a TV to view it on at all.

Having said all this, “Alien” still had my hairs standing on end throughout. Even though I knew who would live and die, the suspense and tension were extreme throughout, and you never ever felt safe on board the spaceship Nostromo. I can still remember hiding my eyes and would be turning the volume down at certain points because my heart threatened to stop beating a few times. Imagine if I had watched it for the first time on a big screen TV with surround system, or better yet, in a movie theater when it originally came out! I wouldn’t have slept for days! Some movies play better on the silver screen than on your television, but “Alien” appears to work on either format with the same degree of success.

There are many different reasons why Scott’s film remains such an effective sci-fi horror classic to this day. For me, it starts with the characters and how down to earth they are. While other outer space movies have characters who revel in the wonder of what’s out there, all the workers on the Nostromo treat their dark habitat as just another office job they take to get by. When we meet up with them, they are on their way back to Earth and just want to be home already. The writers also gave the actors dialogue which was never too heavy on the technobabble and hearing the characters talk about how they deserve full shares for the work they did defines them as blue collar workers. These are not brilliant scientists looking to discover new planets; they’re just people working for the man. The time Scott takes in introducing all these individuals pays off by the time we are given a visceral introduction to the alien of the movie’s title.

Now let’s talk about this alien which was designed by H.R. Geiger, a Swiss surrealist artist. I can’t really compare it to other movie creatures I’ve seen in the slightest because it looks so frighteningly unique in its construction. Its mouth hides an additional set of jaws that lunges out at unsuspecting victims as if they are “faster than a speeding bullet.” Furthermore, there is something quite phallic about that jaw in how it juts out at you without warning or of any thought of the damage it is about to inflict. Its lethal penetration is highly unnerving in how it reminds the viewer of what we all agree constitutes a serious and unconscionable violation to the human body.

But one of Ridley’s most brilliant moves with “Alien” was in not showing the creature fully. We only got glimpses of it throughout the film until the end, and even then we weren’t entirely sure of all that we saw. It was all up to our imaginations to figure out what kind of a threat this creature is. This added immeasurably to the film’s infinite suspense and unending tension. Plus, with the spaceship Nostromo designed to look all dark and shabby with not much light to be found in certain sections, this made it easier for the creature to hide. When it leaped up at the cast member about to meet his maker, it was completely unexpected and defined the jump out of your seat moment for me.

As the movie goes on, we get to an even more frightening aspect; of how corporations can put profits above their workers so coldly. When Ripley discovers the Nostromo crew was made to pick up an alien organism to bring back for further study and that they were expendable, it only further demonstrates just how much alone everyone is on the ship. To realize the company which has employed you couldn’t care less about your existence makes you fully aware of your immediate surroundings, and the instinct to survive becomes stronger than ever. Of course, are cynicism today has us expecting this from any corporation we work with, so we’re more prepared for this than the Nostromo crew was.

A lot of credit also goes to the late Jerry Goldsmith for creating a music score which adds subtly to the action, or at least until the film’s last half hour when the realm of outer space feels even smaller than before. His music touches on the tension inherent in each character without becoming melodramatic, and at times it sounds like invisible ghosts hovering over the unprepared crew waiting to strike. Also, the use of silence in certain scenes makes it even more frightening as we are reminded of how unsettling things can be when our surroundings become far too quiet for comfort.

All of this leads to one of the most intense climaxes in cinema history as we are fully aware of time running out. Just when you think the movie’s over, there’s still another horrendous challenge to overcome. It’s in the movie’s last minute where you can finally breathe a much-needed sigh of relief. Even if you know how of this movie will end, it is still an intensely riveting experience that never lets up for a second. The look in Ripley’s eyes as she makes her way to the escape shuttle perfectly mirrors our own emotions as she is forced into a situation which leaves her with no other options to consider.

I still have very vivid memories of seeing this movie on that unspectacular little television set in my parents’ bedroom while they enjoyed something on Masterpiece Theater with more advanced technology. As the beginning credits began to roll, I was convinced that sitting through this would be a piece of cake. Coincidentally, I also felt the same way about the original version of “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” when I rented it through Netflix. “Alien” remains one of the most truly terrifying experiences I have ever had watching a movie either on the big screen or the small one. To this day, it remains an effectively scary movie which has lost none of its power. Now if 20th Century Fox had fully realized how all these elements had added to make such a great movie, those hopelessly pathetic “Alien vs. Predator” films might have actually been worth watching.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

Veronica Cartwright Looks Back at the Chestburster Scene from ‘Alien’

Veronica Cartwright in Alien

While Veronica Cartwright was at New Beverly Cinema to talk about “The Right Stuff,” filmmaker Brian McQuery couldn’t help but ask her a question about another famous movie she starred in, “Alien.” Specifically, he wanted to know more about the “chestburster” scene which is one of the film’s most horrifying moments. The story behind this scene has been told over and over again throughout the years, but Cartwright was still willing to talk and clear up a few things about it.

Legend has it neither Cartwright nor the other actors in “Alien” had any idea of what exactly was going to erupt from John Hurt’s chest. Cartwright, however, said the actors had read the script and knew something was supposed to come out of there. Also, she and Sigourney Weaver had a scene where they were supposed to know what it looked like, but they had no clue what they were going to be talking about. As a result, they visited the studio where the infant alien was being built.

“A few weeks earlier we had gone down and seen the little mockup of that little penis guy with the tail, but it wasn’t working at that point,” Cartwright said of the alien. “It was sort of a gray thing and the artists were saying ‘oh his teeth will be like this and he breathes…’ It was just like a little puppet thing that came out.”

Then came the day when the chestburster scene was shot, and Cartwright described it as though she had just filmed it yesterday.

“We’re all upstairs in the dressing room and they take John (Hurt) down, and for four hours we never saw John. John was having his false chest made,” Cartwright said. “When we were told that we could come down to the set, the entire set was dressed in plastic, everybody’s wearing raincoats, and there were big buckets of this awful stuff that smelled like formaldehyde. It stank and you gagged when you first went in there.”

“So, here’s John packed in this thing, and they had four cameras so that they would get everybody’s reaction,” Cartwright continued. “What happens is that they cut the t-shirt so that the puppeteer could push the thing through, so we all start leaning forward because you’re just fascinated to see what’s going to happen. One of the effects guys told me, ‘oh you’ll be getting a little blood on you,’ and I said, ‘oh okay.’ Not thinking, I leaned right into it. I had a jet pointed at my face, and it just shot me square in the face. It was unbelievable, and then I backed up and (in the dailies, it’s the most hysterical thing) my knees hit the back of a set piece and I flipped upside down to where you can see my cowboy boots sticking up above. I did not expect to get shot with a full blast of blood.

Veronica gets sprayed in Alien

Cartwright pointed out that the scene was done in just one take, and McQuery replied how her reaction looked “really real!” The audience at the New Beverly laughed loudly in agreement with him.

“Years later I worked with that same guy and he said, ‘sorry about that!’ How rude,” Cartwright said.

Looking back, Cartwright described “Alien” as being a very “sweaty” movie because the cast would come on the set in the morning and get covered in glycerin from a pumper. She described this as being “so gross,” but that in the end it was an experience.

While she was primarily at New Beverly Cinema to talk about “The Right Stuff,” the audience was glad McQuery asked Cartwright about the making of Ridley Scott’s classic 1979 film. Just when you think you have heard the definitive story about a classic movie scene, one of its participants comes around to inform you of one or two details you might have missed.

Photos courtesy of 20th Century Fox