Ben Affleck Talks About Directing ‘Gone Baby Gone’ and ‘The Town’

WRITER’S NOTE: This screening took place back in 2011, not long after “The Town” was released in movie theaters everywhere.

Ben Affleck arrived amid throngs of fans and paparazzi at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica for a Q&A of his directorial efforts, “The Town” and “Gone Baby Gone.” Both films have received tremendous praise and given him a second wind to his career which at the time was in lousy shape. Upon being introduced to a standing ovation, he remarked, “This is nice! People are still in the seats! It’s always cool when people stay through the end credits!”

So why did Affleck want to direct? Having worked for some time as an actor, he said he was lucky to work with many gifted people, but he found himself becoming increasingly frustrated with the direction films he starred in went. Realizing film is a director’s medium, he decided it was time to give it a shot. With “Gone Baby Gone,” Affleck said he was determined to fail on his merits and succeed on them as well. He described his previous directorial experience as being comprised of “horrible college movies” which made him happy YouTube was not around when he worked on them.

“Gone Baby Gone” does feel like the work of a confident director, but Affleck said he felt “failure was around the corner” when he made it. He found shooting utterly difficult as he struggled to find things which worked, and he was forced to shoot take after take to bring the actors to a state of relaxation. The whole process apparently made him feel like jumping off a roof. Still, this film does mean a great deal to him as it allowed him to go after the core philosophy of what he called “acting making the movie.” It also dealt with themes he wanted to explore such as children paying for the sins of their parents and of how strong moral ideals are not always rewarded.

With “The Town,” Affleck succeeded in making both a genre film and a character driven motion picture by taking a drama and, as he said, “wrapping it inside the shell of a traditional action movie.” That it was set in Boston was appealing to him as well. “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” served as an inspiration for “The Town,” and Affleck said he wanted to make a modern film noir which felt real to where your brain was not telling you that it wasn’t. Editing it was painful though as the assembly cut was four hours long and he was unsure of what to take out. Test audiences did not help either as he remarked, “They liked the action. They didn’t like the talking!”

Affleck also talked about the Pete Postlethwaite who co-starred in “The Town” and passed away before the movie was released. Postlethwaite was sick during shooting, but Affleck said he still did the movie and came to work each day with a great attitude. Despite him playing such an unsavory character, Affleck said it was always wonderful to be in Postlethwaite’s presence.

With directing, Affleck said it gave him the appreciation he did not always have for what others did on set. He also confessed he had absolutely no idea of what the crew did to make movies a reality, and that actors always believed film sets revolve around them. Considering what he has been through before and after starring in “Gigli,” he considers himself “remarkably sane for winning an Oscar” back in his 20’s.

We have seen Ben Affleck go from making good movies to truly awful ones (even he admits this), but he still describes himself as being a “late bloomer” which is tricky if you have success early on in life. We all thank him for coming by the Aero Theatre on this particular evening, and he left us with this unforgettable piece of advice for all aspiring filmmakers:

“Don’t make any movies with your girlfriend.”

Michael Keaton on How He Came to Play Batman

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was written in 2011 when this screening took place.

One of the double features shown during American Cinematheque’s tribute to Michael Keaton was “Batman” and “Batman Returns.” When the actor was originally cast as Bruce Wayne/Batman, fans objected to it as he was primarily known for his comedic performances in “Mr. Mom,” “Night Shift,” and “Beetlejuice” among others, and they could not see him playing such a traumatized character. Of course, many forgot about his powerhouse performance in “Clean & Sober” which won him a Best Actor award from the National Board of Review. In retrospect, his portrayal of Batman is still the best in the movie franchise, and Christian Bale’s portrayal is a very close second.

While talking with Geoff Boucher at the Aero Theatre, Keaton said it was “Beetlejuice” director Tim Burton who wanted him to play Bruce Wayne and his alter ego of Batman. At that point, Keaton said he did not fully understand the comic book super world. It was through his introduction to Frank Miller’s books that he got some ideas as to how Burton’s vision would reflect Gotham City in a darker way than ever before. Keaton said Bruce Wayne turned out to be the key to getting into the character.

Michael Keaton: The coolest thing from the get-go is that he doesn’t have superpowers, there are no magical things. He is a hero of intuition and inventiveness and discipline. I always knew the way in was Bruce Wayne. It wasn’t Batman. It was never Batman. That was the key. The only reason to do it, really, was to come at all of this from this guy’s point of view.

When Keaton and Burton made “Batman” back in 1988-89, Keaton said there was nothing else like it before, and that there was no example for either of them to follow. Unlike the television series from the 1960’s, this was not going to be full of campy humor. The fact that “Batman” became such a landmark film in Hollywood history is something Keaton owes to Burton.

Michael Keaton: What Tim accomplished changed everything. It was hard. It was harder on Tim than anyone and he changed the way people look at those movies. That really is the case and the reason for that is the originality of Tim and the people Tim put together. Anton Furst was off the chart, Danny Elfman was perfect, bringing in Prince and Nicholson, all of it was just so right and so huge. The promotion of the movie was genius too. The look of the movie was a turning point too; you still see that around in different versions.

When it came time to start making “Batman Forever,” Warner Brothers wanted to take the franchise in a different direction. The executives wondered if everything really had to be so depressing, and Keaton said when he realized they were going to lighten things up, he dropped out along with Tim Burton. We all know what happened after they left, and no real explanation is needed here.

Keaton said he never really got around to seeing “Batman Forever” and “Batman & Robin,” but he said he did see most of “the one that starred Heath Ledger” (“The Dark Knight“). In describing Ledger’s performance as The Joker, he called it “crazy great,” and that the tone of the film is what he wanted the third one to be like. But by then the whole thing had become a big machine which was going to go on with or without him. Had he been in “Batman Forever,” Keaton is convinced he would have been horrible because he would not have been able to give the studio what they wanted. The sad thing is, he is probably right.

Billy Crystal Talks About Working with Jack Palance on City Slickers

While at the twentieth anniversary screening of “City Slickers” which was held at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica on August 12, 2011, Billy Crystal talked about working with the late Jack Palance in that film. Palance co-starred as Curly Washburn, the most authentic of cowboys, and it was a role which earned him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. In addition, it provided Crystal with one of the best setups in his Oscar hosting history; Palance’s one-armed push-ups which proved he was not too old to ever act in a motion picture.

One movie the “City Slickers” filmmakers viewed before they started shooting was “Shane,” the 1953 western starring Alan Ladd as the title character and Palance as Jack Wilson, and Crystal said this was the first movie he ever saw on the silver screen. When it came to casting Curly, he said they considered no one but Palance for the role. “Shane” marked the last time Palance got an Oscar nomination until he did “City Slickers,” and that’s a difference of 38 years!

Palance worked on “City Slickers” for a total of 10 days. Before he arrived on set, the crew kept saying, “the big cat is coming.” The director of the movie, Ron Underwood, was described by Crystal as the “sweetest guy” and a “puppeteer.” But when it came to the first day of shooting, Palance told Crystal he always got “nervous.” When Underwood asked him to do that “glare” of his one more time, Palance replied, “What glare?!”

After this, Palance put up a fit which had Underwood’s hair standing on end. No one was expecting this kind of tantrum from the former host of “Ripley’s Believe It or Not.” But after the first day, things got better even though Palance was never thrilled about being on a horse. Both he and Crystal continually ran lines with one another, and Crystal described the two weeks they worked together as feeling like nine months.

Crystal described Palance as a “real movie actor” in how he understood the size of his head. Palance owned the camera and his appearance in a way few actors can ever hope to. His role as Curly capped off a long and memorable acting career. While he sadly passed away in 2006, his legacy continues to live on from one generation to the next.

Amy Heckerling Looks Back at Fast Times at Ridgemont High

WRITER’S NOTE: This article is about a screening which took place back in July of 2011.

It is very scary to realize “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” is now at its 30-year anniversary. Although dated stylistically, what the students went through in this movie still feels very relevant to what today’s generation goes through on a regular basis. Based on the book by Cameron Crowe, who also wrote the screenplay, it follows a group of students during one year at a San Diego high school. Its director, Amy Heckerling, dropped by the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica to talk about the behind the scenes stories, and she was greeted by a sold-out audience.

“Fast Times at Ridgemont” is notable for its frank depiction of teenage sexuality and in dealing with highly sensitive topics like abortion. Heckerling said the movie was shot at a time when things were rapidly changing. The sexual revolution was ending and the era of Ronald Reagan was on the rise along with conservatism. Most teenage comedies deal with situations from the male point of view, but Heckerling was adamant about the audience seeing things from the woman’s perspective. The MPAA, however, forced her to cut scenes like when a girl talks to her mother about blow jobs in order to avoid an X-rating. After all these years, the hypocrisy of the MPAA never ceases to amaze me.

These days, the movie is known for having three future Oscar winners in its cast: Sean Penn, Forest Whitaker and Nicolas Cage, who is credited here as Nicolas Coppola. This is not to mention all the other cast members like Jennifer Jason Leigh and Phoebe Cates, both of whom went on to other successful efforts after this movie’s release.

Heckerling recalled coming into this movie at what she called an “awesome” time. Casting young kids in a movie proved to be tricky, but she loved how there was so much great talent to choose from. When asked if she thought all great actors could do comedy, Heckerling replied some have it in their makeup while others do not. In working with Penn, she said he is wonderful in everything he does, and his smile always lights up whatever room he is in.

In talking about the soundtrack, Heckerling wanted to fill it with 1980’s music and songs by Oingo Boingo and the Go-Go’s. While she got to include the songs she wanted in the movie, she was also forced to add in a lot of 1970’s rock music from bands like The Eagles. This was in large part due to one of the movie’s producers, Irving Azroff, being the personal manager of The Eagles at the time.

One audience member asked Heckerling if the studio proposed any sequels or prequels to “Fast Times at Ridgemont High.” She said when the movie was screened in Westwood, one studio executive suggested, “How about ‘Spicoli Goes to College?'”

There was a television spinoff but, like many of its kind, it proved to be short lived. There was also something of a follow up to “Fast Times” called “The Wild Life,” which was also written by Cameron Crowe and directed by Art Linson, but Heckerling said it was not strictly a sequel.

As unbelievable as it is that we are now at the 30th anniversary of “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” it only goes to show this particular movie’s staying power. It remains as raunchy and funny as when it first came out, and it is also one of the great time capsules of the 1980’s. This is the kind of movie which really does not need a sequel or a prequel at this point to justify its success or longevity.

Billy Crystal Looks Back at the Making of City Slickers

Billy Crystal was at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, California on August 12, 2011 when American Cinematheque screened “City Slickers” in honor of its 20th anniversary. Unlike other guests, Crystal actually sat through the entire movie with the sold-out audience and a few people involved in its making: director Ron Underwood, director of photography Dean Semler, actors Daniel Stern, Tracey Walter and Bill Henderson, and screenwriters Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. Afterwards, Crystal did a Q&A with Geoff Boucher of the Los Angeles Times, and he said the last time he saw “City Slickers” was at its premiere in Hollywood.

“City Slickers” was made with the invaluable help of Castle Rock Entertainment. Crystal said he pitched it and “Mr. Saturday Night” to the studio. Unlike “When Harry Met Sally,” which he did before this, “City Slickers” proved to be a logistically difficult film to make. However, the prep time he had with Stern and the late Bruno Kirby was the best ever, and Crystal described the training they had as being so much fun.

Prior to filming, Crystal, the writers and Underwood looked at the classic westerns “Shane” and “Red River” for inspiration. Crystal said it looked like they had 9,000 cows in the shots, and this made him think markets had no beef to sell as a result. Everyone involved felt everything needed to look real, so the production pushed those cows and trained those horses endlessly.

The movie’s opening scene in Pamplona, Spain, was shot there and not on some soundstage. Crystal said Ganz was the one who suggested the bulls running to the studio. An hour after hearing this, the studio had hotel reservations ready for the cast and crew. It was no surprise to hear Crystal say they would never be able to do this scene today as it would all have to be done digitally now.

One audience member asked if Norman the cow was still around. It turns out there were 10 or 11 different cows used as they got old very quickly and had to be replaced. As for Norman’s birth scene, Crystal said it was shot in three different states and that he and Jack Palance, while in the same scene, were not on set together for it. Crystal shot his takes in Colorado while Palance filmed his in New York. Other parts of the scene were shot in California near Simi Valley.

The river crossing scene was the toughest one to shoot in “City Slickers,” Crystal said. The cows kept mounting each other and he, Stern and Kirby were all wearing wetsuits underneath their clothing, as the water was about 50 degrees. This led one of the stunt coordinators to tell Crystal, “Pee in your wetsuit!” Now, as disgusting as this may sound, urine has a temperature of 90 degrees or more, so it sure must have come in handy during filming!

Crystal laments how Hollywood does not make movies like “City Slickers” anymore. While he did not want to sound bitter, he said there was a different sensibility back when it was made, and he hopes movies will come around back to it in the future. Picturing how a studio executive would see it today, Crystal felt they would probably say to him, “Can we get them to the ranch faster? I want those guys there by page nine!”

Still, 20 years later after its release, we were all in agreement with Crystal that “City Slickers” holds up very well and is just as funny and entertaining as it was when it first came out. Seeing it on the big screen where it plays best made this clear to everyone in attendance.

Corbin Bernsen on Stepping Up to the Plate in ‘Major League’

Major League Corbin Bernsen

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written back in 2012.

Corbin Bernsen’s role as Cleveland Indians third baseman Roger Dorn in “Major League” marked a big breakthrough for the actor who at that point was best known for playing divorce lawyer Arnie Becker on “L.A. Law.” The actor was one of the guests who attended a reunion screening of “Major League” at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica which brought out fans who were excited to see it on the big screen.

“Major League’s” writer and director David S. Ward talked said he only casted people who could play baseball, and he talked about how Bernsen had been a ballplayer for a long time. Bernsen played with the Hollywood Stars baseball league, and he also played in many MTV celebrity “Rock N’ Jock” softball games as well.

The movie was shot in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and one day had the filmmakers inviting 27,000 residents to portray Indians fans at the baseball stadium there. Grant Moninger, programmer for American Cinematheque and moderator of the “Major League” Q&A, asked Bernsen what it was like to play baseball in front of all those people.

Corbin Bernsen: The night that all those people were there was just one of the most exciting times in my life. You’re wearing the real uniform on a real field, and you’re playing it. I was a pretty good fielder in my day but I wasn’t much of a hitter. That last setup where I get the single and then Dennis (Haysbert) comes in and hits the home run to get me on base, I remember David saying, “I need you to hit the ball somewhere in left field preferably between shortstop and 2nd base.” And I’m thinking, you’re gonna be lucky if I just hit the ball man! I’m not a hitter. But he wants it directly there and it’s got to be a line drive at a certain height and all that. I kept thinking he’s going to fire me because I can’t do this, and the balls are coming in and I kept swinging and missing and swinging and missing and I finally, with all these people there, connect with one and the ball takes off and this fucker is flying to the wall! I’m standing there and I see David and he’s saying “RUN! RUN! RUN!”

Bernsen went on to say he still sees a lot of stuff on the internet about “Major League” which say “great movie, one of the best baseball movies, but Corbin Bernsen sucks and he can’t play baseball.” He ended up getting a hold of some guy from Philadelphia who had been dissing him and told the guy, “Hey! I’m not supposed to be able to play baseball in the movie you a-hole!” From there, Bernsen even challenged him to a throw off from centerfield every year and told the guy, “I will stand in Philadelphia on your field on the warning track and I will throw a fucking line drive to second base a-hole and then you shut up!” That guy from Philadelphia never took Bernsen up on this challenge.

To our surprise, it turns out Bernsen was actually not the original choice to play Roger Dorn in “Major League,” and he only got the part after the actor cast before him, whose name he couldn’t remember, ended up dropping out. Getting cast, Bernsen said, was one of the luckiest things which ever happened to him, and he was thrilled to be in it. He also made clear why he feels the movie holds up so well, and it is because of Ward’s excellent script.

CB: When you read a solid script, that’s like a blueprint that’s just gold. I would urge everyone, if you’re interested in film, to read the script for “Major League.” Everything that’s supposed to happen in a story happens on the exact page it’s supposed to happen on. Yeah, it’s a funny little comedy baseball movie, but I just think it’s one of the most solid scripts that I have ever read. Clean, lean and to the point. That’s all David Ward.

Tom Berenger Reflects on the Making of ‘Major League’

Major League Tom Berenger

WRITER’S NOTE: This article was originally written in 2012 when this screening took place.

Among the guests at a recent reunion screening of “Major League” at the Aero Theatre was actor Tom Berenger who played veteran baseball catcher Jake Taylor. It is still one of Berenger’s best known roles as we watch his character go through another baseball season which may very well be his last while trying to win back his ex-girlfriend Lynn Wells (Renee Russo in her film debut). And like his fellow co-stars, Berenger proved to the filmmakers he could play baseball.

Berenger did have some experience playing little league when he was growing up, and he played some more ball after that but never professionally. “Major League’s” writer and director, David S. Ward, also said “you could watch Tom swing a bat and you could tell he could play baseball.” Berenger said he played on third base and left field, but “Major League” had him taking the catcher position for the first time ever. What made the difference in preparing for this role was who he had to work with.

Tom Berenger: I had a great teacher which was (Steve) Yeager who had been a catcher for the Dodgers. Besides being a great player, he was also a great teacher which is important, and he worked with Charlie (Sheen) and I and we started probably six weeks before the other guys came in.

Berenger even talked about how he got Yeager and some of the cast to come back to his hometown in South Carolina so they could practice there. His thought was that practicing at Pepperdine University near Malibu with the “dry air” and “breeze coming off of the ocean” was “a little deceiving” as real ballplayers deal with more humid conditions.

TB: We raised a little team so we could do infield practice and drills and things like that, and it was all these guys who were on softball leagues that had once played baseball. They loved it. It was great. I had a friend that was head of maintenance for the public schools, and he got us a field at one of the high schools that was totally blocked off. It was just screened by Palmetto trees, Live Oaks and stuff. He gave us the key to the gate to get in and he brought all his equipment out there and he recut the field, he redid the mound, he gave us a pitching machine so I could practice pop-ups and we could do batting practice.

Berenger said this worked out great for everyone there because they all were forced to deal with humidity, and it was this same humidity which the cast and crew faced in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where “Major League” was filmed. The movie was shot in 1988 during the hottest summer in Wisconsin since 1938, and he remembered it being brutal to work during the day as a result. While the training done in South Carolina certainly prepared many for day shooting, Berenger looked more forward to working nights when it was cooler.

Watching the movie again had Berenger getting nostalgic for the old Cleveland as it appears in the movie’s opening credits, and it is one of the few parts of the movie which was actually shot there.

TB: I’m looking at it and I’m going wow, look at that industrial town. That’s what we used to be. And that makes me a little sad, you know? Chicago and Cleveland and Pittsburgh and Bethlehem and Allentown; all those towns were like that and they’re not there anymore, and I find that really sad because I think they were the backbone of this country.

“Major League” still holds a place in all our hearts thanks to its humor and deeply felt moments which have stayed with us long after the end credits are done. Even Berenger admitted the movie still has a profound effect on him more than 20 years after its release.

TB: I have to say that I just love this film. I cry at the end every time I watch it. It’s a comedy but it’s got so much heart and great writing and direction.

Savage Steve Holland Revisits ‘Better Off Dead’ and ‘One Crazy Summer’ at the Aero Theatre

Better Off Dead poster

The Aero Theatre in Santa Monica was sold out yet again when director Savage Steve Holland was there to talk about his two 1980’s comedies “Better Off Dead” and “One Crazy Summer” back in June 2008. But the big attraction of the evening was “Better Off Dead” as it still has a huge cult following 30 years after its release. Like many movies from our youth, it was a box office flop and got eviscerated by critics. Siskel and Ebert gave it two thumbs down, and Peter Travers tore it apart limb from limb, but it eventually found its audience on video, cable, DVD and Blu-ray. These days, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who hasn’t watched “Better Off Dead,” and everyone who has seen it loves it.

“Better Off Dead” follows Lane Meyer (John Cusack), a teenager with an obsession for skiing and an even bigger obsession for his girlfriend Beth (Amanda Wyss). But soon after the movie begins, Beth dumps Lane for the captain of the ski team, and this leaves him utterly devastated to where he tries to kill himself in order to get her attention. Throughout, he is forced to deal with a crazed paperboy who wants his two dollars, his mother’s bizarre ways of cooking food, his dad’s insistence on doing something about his Camaro which remains immobile on the front lawn, his kid brother who reads books on how to pick up “trashy woman,” and a lovely foreign exchange student who has the misfortune of staying with the dork heads, ahem, the Smiths next door.

After “Better Off Dead” ended, Holland came to the stage and was greeted with thunderous applause. Dressed in jeans, a white buttoned-down shirt and wearing a green baseball cap, he was so happy to see all these people who came out to see this movie which he made long ago. Along with Holland was Diane Franklin who played the French exchange student Monique, and Curtis Armstrong who plays Lane’s best friend Charles de Mar.

Holland said “Better Off Dead” was inspired by his own life experiences, particularly the one where a girlfriend dumped him for somebody else. One scene has Lane tying an extension cord around his neck in the garage, and Holland said he did the same thing and had attached the cord to a pole while standing on a plastic garbage can. Holland said he became terrified and couldn’t go through with it, and then the lid of the garbage can suddenly broke and he fell right into it. Then the pipe above him broke, water came out and he almost drowned as a result. His mother came into the garage to see what was going on, and she ended up yelling at him for breaking the pipe.

“Better Off Dead” did so well in test screenings to where Warner Brothers gave Holland even more money to make “One Crazy Summer.” The studio executives were so convinced they had a big hit on their hands, and they wanted to work with him again on his next movie. Unfortunately, “Better Off Dead” failed at the box office and, while he did get the opportunity to make “One Crazy Summer,” Holland said he was quickly consigned to what he called “movie hell.” This is the place you go to when your movie doesn’t have a big opening weekend, and all those friends you thought you had in Hollywood stop calling you as a result.

one_crazy_summer_xlg

One fan asked Holland what the difference was between making “Better Off Dead” and “One Crazy Summer.” With “Better Off Dead,” Holland said he had total creative freedom to where no one was looking over his shoulder, and this made it the best filmmaking experience he has ever had. With “One Crazy Summer,” it was very different because there was more money involved, and studio executives were on set watching his every move. A lot of this was due to their initial response following the first “Better Off Dead” screening as they came out of it horrified, thinking it was a sequel to John Water’s “Pink Flamingos.”

Franklin, as it turns out, is not French. She said her father is in fact German, so this may account for her looking like she is from another country. As for her French accent, Franklin said she took French classes in high school and became very good at speaking the language, and the accent came to her easily as a result. When she came in to read for “Better Off Dead,” Franklin was actually up for the roles of Beth and Monique. Franklin said making this movie remains the best experience she has had as an actress, and she remarked how Holland created a fun and comfortable atmosphere for everyone to work in. She also confirmed it was indeed a woman who did her skiing sequences in the movie and not a man as many assumed. Holland did say, however, that her stunt double looked almost exactly like her, and the only thing separating them was the stunt double’s tan.

Also up for the role of Monique was Elizabeth Daily who sang the movie’s title track at the school dance. But in the end, it was determined Daily was just “too hot” for the role.

Armstrong came up with some of the most memorable aspects of Charles de Mar. The scene where the ski captain asks Beth what her name is and Charles replies, mistakenly thinking he the one being talked to, was Armstrong’s idea. He also came up with the top hat Charles wears throughout the movie, saying it was inspired by his love for The Beatles and, in particular, George Harrison. It was also his idea to bring along the jar with the dead pig in it to school. However, Armstrong said he could not take credit for this famous piece of dialogue: “I have been going to this high school for seven and a half years. I’m no dummy.”

Armstrong also brought up a brief conversation he had with Kim Darby who played Lane’s mom. At one point during a break from filming, Darby came up to Armstrong, took him by the shoulders and said, “Watch out! They’re trying to destroy you!” After that, she never spoke to him again.

Holland also discussed some of the movie’s deleted scenes, and among them was one which showed how Lane’s mother belonged to the cult of Gumby and was collecting money for it at the airport. Other deleted scenes included Lane’s father (played by David Ogden Stiers) coming home to find his wife vacuuming the lawn, Lane trying to practice the theme song to “Flipper” on his saxophone, and there is a seal there which ends up applauding another person who ends up performing it better than him. Also, the scene of the paperboy falling off the cliff actually lasted a lot longer as Holland had about three minutes of it on film, but test audiences had a very sickened reaction to it, and it got shortened as a result.

If there was one thing which dampened the mood for “Better Off Dead” fans, it is the fact Cusack hates the movie. Holland said he got along great with Cusack while making “Better off Dead,” and he really wanted Cusack to like it as much as he did. Before they began shooting “One Crazy Summer,” Holland got the cast members to hang out with each other in Cape Cod so they could become comfortable with one another. While there, someone was presenting a screening of “Better Off Dead” which they all went to. Twenty or so minutes into it, Cusack walked out. Holland figured Cusack had to take a call or something, but the actor never returned. Holland later caught up with Cusack who told him he thought the movie was horrible and that he no longer trusted him as a director. Suffice to say, this really brought the audience at the Aero Theatre down.

Someone else asked how Rupert Hine came to score “Better Off Dead.” One of the companies involved in the movie’s making was A&M Records which had worked on soundtracks for other films like “The Breakfast Club.” Hine was a featured performer on that soundtrack but had never actually done a film score before. “Better Off Dead” was his first effort as a film composer, and the resulting soundtrack release for the movie is indeed awesome.

This evening was a lot of fun for everyone involved, and it says a lot about “Better Off Dead” that it remains so popular decades after its release. One fan proudly proclaimed it as being “bar none, the greatest movie ever made.” Such a fan this guy was, he got Holland to sign an authentic air filter for a 1967 Camaro, just like the one featured in the movie. Along with that, he also had the original vinyl release of the soundtrack as well as the movie’s original script.

“Better Off Dead” is truly one of the most entertaining comedies to come out of the 1980’s, and it is a movie Cusack really should be proud of. What else can you say about a movie in which Steven Williams utters one of the most famous lines in cinema history?

“Now that’s a real shame when folks be throwing away a perfectly good white boy like that.”

The article’s over… You can go home now.

 

William Friedkin and Guests on Making ‘To Live and Die in L.A.’

To Live and Die in LA

Director William Friedkin declared “To Live and Die in L.A.” to be one of his personal favorites of his career when he dropped by the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica. The film was being shown as part of American Cinematheque’s tribute to him, and it played as a double feature with “The French Connection.” But while Friedkin was scheduled to be there, he brought along two of the movie’s stars as surprise guests: William Petersen who played Secret Service Agent Richard Chance, and Darlanne Fluegel who portrayed his “girlfriend” and informant Ruth Lanier.

With “To Live and Die in L.A.,“ Friedkin worked with casting director Bob Weiner who had also worked on “The French Connection.” With this film, Friedkin didn’t want any stars and could only consider no-name actors as the budget was only $6 million. In a sense though, casting unknown actors was a plus for this film as the characters they play walk a thin line between good and evil, and having recognizable stars might affect how this came across.

Known these days for “C.S.I.,” it was a shock to realize that “To Live and Die in L.A.” was Petersen’s first lead role in a movie (he previously had a small role in Michael Mann’s “Thief“). Weiner discovered the actor when he was playing the lead in a Canadian production of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” Petersen said he hadn’t done any movies nor did he have an agent at the time. All he knew about Friedkin was the films he directed, and they met in New York to do a scene together. But Petersen didn’t ever get around to finishing when Friedkin interrupted him to say, “That’s good enough for me. You got the part!”

From there, Petersen said he didn’t know what to do. Excited as he was for the opportunity, he was already scheduled to be in another play soon and wasn’t sure how to go about negotiating with Friedkin or the studio. It didn’t even occur to him he would be making $400 a week! So, he ended up talking with John Malkovich, who knew him from Steppenwolf, to get advice on what to do. Later, Petersen went back to Friedkin saying he wouldn’t be able to play Richard Chance due to his prior theatrical commitment. To this, Friedkin told him, “No problem. We’ll wait for you.”

Now how cool was that?! Seriously, how many other directors, let alone movie studios, would wait on an actor who is not even an established name yet? Considering the sheer charisma Petersen exudes onscreen just from one look on his face, it makes perfect sense why Friedkin waited on him before he started production.

Although he was used to doing theater more than film, Petersen said he found making “To Live and Die in L.A.” a “freeing, fun experience” and thought all movies would be exactly like it. This, of course, got a good dose of laughter from the audience as we know they are not. Despite the long hours on set, Petersen was never tired at day’s end.

In researching his role, Petersen worked with Gerald Petievich, the former Secret Service Agent who wrote the book this movie is based on, and with criminals including actual counterfeiters. This led Friedkin to tell the audience how Petievich ended up getting a counterfeiter paroled from jail just so he could create the fake money they needed. Friedkin even admitted he passed so many fake bills to where he concluded the government’s money was worthless and only paper. Some kids of the special effects supervisor were not as lucky as they ended up taking some of the fake money to buy candy, and a Treasury Agent got called on them in ten minutes flat.

Fluegel was shocked about getting a part in “To Live and Die In LA,” and she created one of the film’s most unforgettable characters. She said working with Petersen was “so easy,” and they both agreed there never was a moment between them which didn’t feel real. We always hear these stories about how actors don’t like doing sex scenes and how awkward they can get, but Fluegel said they were actually easy to do. She also made it clear neither of them actually had sex onscreen even though it looked like they did. When they worked together, everything always flowed perfectly.

But one great behind the scenes story Petersen told was when they were at the airport and Chance was chasing down John Turturro’s character of Carl Cody. This had Petersen jumping on top of the moving walkway while in pursuit, but in rehearsing it, security came over and told him and Friedkin it was against safety regulations and didn’t want him to do that again. Petersen, however, was insistent as it was easier for him to jump on top, and it worked better for the scene. So, when security was out of hearing range, Friedkin told Petersen to jump on top anyway when he said action, and that after he said cut, Friedkin would yell at him not do it again, making it look like he didn’t forget what security said previously. Once again, Friedkin does movies his way regardless of the warnings others throw at him.

Like several of William Friedkin’s movies which came out after his heyday with “The French Connection” and “The Exorcist,” “To Live and Die in L.A.” was not a big hit when first released. It was only after its debut on video and DVD when it gained a cult following which has gotten bigger and bigger over time. Seeing it on the big screen was a blast, and it deserves to be ranked alongside the best movies of Friedkin’s career. Besides, this is much more preferable to watching him pick his feet in Poughkeepsie.

John Carpenter Looks Back at ‘Escape From New York’ and ‘Escape From LA’

John Carpenter Escape From New York photo

“Escape Artist: A Tribute to John Carpenter” continued with the exploits of Snake Plissken in the double feature of “Escape From New York” and “Escape from LA” at the Aero Theater in Santa Monica. These films featured some of the collaborations between Carpenter and Kurt Russell who first worked together on “Elvis.” They quickly became great friends and went on to work together on several other films including these two and “Big Trouble in Little China.”

The emcee warned us that the print of “Escape From New York” was pretty faded as it was an original print and the only one American Cinematheque could get their hands on. This was being generous as it looked like it had been slaughtered by countless film projectors, and the color was faded to where everything looked pink. It is astonishing it didn’t break apart in the projector. Still, the fans still enjoyed watching the film, one which they have seen hundreds of times before. They laughed when “1997 NOW” came up and when Lee Van Cleef speaks into this enormous cell phone no one would have today, let alone in 1997.

After “Escape From New York” ended, Carpenter came to the stage and was greeted with another thunderous standing ovation. Carpenter quickly acknowledged the crowd by saying, “Thank you for coming out to see the movie tonight, but I got to tell you this is the worst fucking print. My fucking God! There’s no color in it!” The audience laughed loudly as they were in complete agreement.

Escape from New York poster

The discussion started off with a question about the genesis of the project. Carpenter talked about writing the script back in the early 1970’s when there was a great sense of cynicism in America about our President and in response to the hostage crisis in Iran. He also admitted he was inspired by two of his favorite movies back then, “Dirty Harry” and “Death Wish.” Those two movies involved men driven to the brink emotionally and who took it upon themselves to wreak vengeance on those who wronged them. Like those characters, Snake Plissken gets the job done, and this brought a lot of satisfaction to audiences as nobody in the real world seemed to be accomplishing anything.

Carpenter said he initially wanted Clint Eastwood to play Snake Plissken. For one reason or another, it did not work out. He also said he had shopped this screenplay around to several studios which rejected it outright, but fortunately he had a multiple picture deal with Avco Embassy which had produced “The Fog.” Ironically, they wanted Charles Bronson for the title role. Somehow, everything came together when Russell got cast as Snake Plissken, and he portrayed the character as an asexual human being who cares about nothing more than staying alive. In the process, he created one of the most memorable anti-heroes ever seen in a movie.

Carpenter also talked about Lee Van Cleef, a favorite actor of his from Sergio Leone westerns, who played Police Commissioner Bob Hauk. Lee had seriously injured his knee during the filming of another movie and had never gotten it fixed, and as a result he was in constant pain while making “Escape from New York.”

With a budget of only $5 million dollars, “Escape From New York” needed to be filmed as quickly as possible. Carpenter said the rule of low budget filmmaking was to shoot as little film as possible and to make it as long as you can. In fact, there is actually only one real shot of New York in the entire movie which features the Statue of Liberty, and it pans from there and dissolves into a set in Los Angeles. A lot of what you see of New York in the movie are actually models and matte paintings done by artists from Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, among them James Cameron. Much of the movie was filmed in downtown St. Louis which had had a huge fire that destroyed several city blocks. The city let Carpenter and his crew film there in triple digit temperatures, and they even shut the power down for them when they filmed at night.

Escape from LA movie poster

When it came to making “Escape from LA,” Carpenter had a budget of around $50 million to work with. But while he and Russell had more time and money, Carpenter said he had the hardest time writing the screenplay for it because he felt that everything he was writing was “bullshit.” What got him to revisit Snake Plissken was that Russell was so keen on playing the character again, and they solved their script problem by moving the action to Los Angeles which was in a constant state of denial with all the earthquakes and natural disasters occurring there. They simply took the same scenario of the original movie and updated it to reflect the current state of the city while filming.

“Escape From New York” may have had only one real New York shot in the entire movie, but all of “Escape from LA” was filmed in Los Angeles. The sequel was shot over a period of one hundred and three nights, and Carpenter said he found filming at night to be very “soul draining” as it changes the way you see things and the darkness infects you in a very unhealthy way.

One audience member brought up how at one point it looked like Carpenter and Russell might do a third movie called, “Escape from Earth.” This never panned out because “Escape from LA” unfortunately bombed at the box office. There was also supposed to be a video game based on the movies, but the company involved with it ended up going back to the past by resurrecting Pac-Man. There was even talk of a television series which would act as a prequel to the movies and even an anime movie chronicling the further adventures of Snake Plissken, but neither of those projects became a reality. Despite the box office failure of “Escape from LA,” there are still many people out there who are intent on continuing the exploits of their favorite antihero.

These days, Carpenter said he is content to sit at home and watch the NBA Finals or play video games. He told the audience he had just finished playing “Ninja Gaiden 2” and would be moving on to “Metal Gear Solid 4” next. It doesn’t seem like he is in a big hurry to make another movie, but this could change if the studios pay him a lot of money. Carpenter feels the movie business keeps changing on him, and he does not appear to be as enthusiastic about making films as he once was.

Carpenter closed out the evening by saying he had to go meet with his drug dealer. Before he left, the moderator gave him a gift saying Carpenter had given so much to us that he wanted to give something back. This something was the “Escape from New York” board game which is, apparently, the most complicated board game ever.

After the discussion ended, he did take some time outside the theater to sign autographs and pose for pictures with fans who still see him as a big inspiration. If you look at movies of recent years, you will see Carpenter’s influence over many of them both in their visuals and the music. To this day, he remains one of the important directors of the sci-fi and horror genre, and his cult following remains as strong as ever.

As the evening wore on, many came back inside to watch “Escape from LA.” The print was in much better condition, but this didn’t stop it from breaking down during the movie’s last seconds. For those who know how this sequel ends, it only seemed comically appropriate as Snake shut down… Well, you know.