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.

‘Alita: Battle Angel’ Introduces Us To a Hero Unafraid to Be ‘The One’

Alita Battle Angel movie poster

Alita: Battle Angel” is a movie which is at once familiar but unique. It’s another post-apocalyptic film in which Earth has been laid waste by war and where humans survive any way they can, with or without the limbs they were born with. Hovering over them is a city in the sky much like the one in “Elysium” where the wealthy survivors live in what looks like infinite luxury. Yes, there are many familiar science-fiction elements at work here, but this movie still feels unique in the way it looks and how it is told. Just when I thought it would be the same old genre film which I have seen far too many times, I was surprised at how invigorating it was as it introduces us to a heroic female character who is not afraid to back down from a fight.

This movie brings together filmmakers James Cameron and Robert Rodriguez, and you can tell the pride and enthusiasm they had in bringing Yukito Kishiro’s manga series “Gunnm” to the big screen. With all the visual effects and 3D tools at their disposal, and this is the first 3D movie I have looked forward to watching in ages, they have created an imperfect but highly entertaining cyberpunk adventure which mixes live action and computer-generated imagery to brilliant effect just like in “Avatar.”

The year is 2563, and the Earth has been devastated by a war known as “The Fall.” As the movie begins, we see renowned scientist Dr. Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) sifting through a junkyard in Iron City when he comes across a disembodied female cyborg. Her body is part of the trash thrown down from the wealthy sky city of Zalem, but what its residents didn’t take into account is this cyborg still has a fully intact human brain. Dyson ends up taking her back to his office and rebuilds her, and the next morning she wakes up with a new set of artificial limbs and a pair of eyes which look like something out of a Margaret Keane painting. From there, she goes on a journey of endless discovery which will show her enjoying the simple things and eventually embracing her true identity.

Just like with “Avatar,” it is hard to distinguish what is real and what is CGI in “Alita: Battle Angel” as both worlds mix into one another in a wonderfully creative way. This movie also utilizes 3D in a way which reminds us how the extra dimension can make us feel like part of the action instead of just letting us sit back in our comfy seats. Hollywood really burned us out on 3D as it became nothing more than a gimmick and another way to take an extra dollar or two out of our pockets. But in the hands of Rodriguez and Cameron, filmmakers who have successfully mastered the extra dimension (the jury will excuse “Spy Kids 3-D”), it is a reminder of what an effective tool it can be when placed in the right hands.

Speaking of Rodriguez, this is easily the best movie he has made in a long time. His last few films like “Machete Kills” and “Spy Kids: All the Time in the World” had him repeating himself to tiresome effect, and I was begging him to try something new. His attempts to made good-bad movies completely missed the point of why such movies were enjoyable in the first place, and his many gifts were wasted as a result. But with “Alita: Battle Angel,” he gets his biggest budgeted movie yet, and you can feel his joy at playing around with tools he never got to play with before. The look of the movie is astonishing, and his filmmaking skills get reinvigorated as a result.

And, of course, you can feel Cameron’s influence over this project as he co-wrote the screenplay with Laeta Kalogridis, and his mastery of storytelling is on display here as he weaves in various themes dealing with pollution, corruption and endless greed to very strong effect. Hugo (Keean Johnson), Alita’s love interest, is infinitely eager to buy his way into Zalem, but like John Leguizamo trying to get an apartment in Dennis Hopper’s luxury high-rise which sits high above a zombie-infested city in “Land of the Dead,” the odds will never be in his favor. The rich live in safety while the poor live in squalor and, just like in the real world we inhabit, the division between the haves and have nots is far too big.

And yes, Cameron’s weaknesses as a screenwriter are on display as well. Ever since “Titanic,” he has shown a tin ear for dialogue, and hearing the villainous characters sputter out lines such as “looking for me” is dispiriting as I have heard this phrase far too many times. Also, the arcs of certain supporting characters are not resolved in a satisfying manner, and I had to look at the movie’s Wikipedia page to figure out exactly what happened to them. I still wait for the screenwriter of “Aliens” to reappear. Remember the classic line of dialogue Cameron came up with when Sigourney Weaver talked to Paul Reiser about the difference between bloodthirsty extra-terrestrials and human beings? It still stays with me:

“You know, Burke, I don’t know which species is worse. You don’t see them fucking each other over for a goddamn percentage.”

As for the actors, they help breathe life into the computer-generated landscape. It’s great to see Christoph Waltz play someone other than a devious villain, and he makes his scientist character a deeply heartfelt man who is more complex than we were first led to believe at first. There’s also nice supporting work from Oscar winners Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali who lend their charisma to enigmatic roles. And it is nice to hear Jackie Earle Haley’s voice as the enormous cyborg and assassin Grewishka as you can always count on him to create an ominous presence in a movie which calls for it.

But let’s face it, “Alita: Battle Angel” belongs to Rosa Salazar who portrays the title character. The actress, best known for her roles in “Parenthood” and “American Horror Story: Murder House,” gives this movie the heart and soul it deserves, and it was immense fun watching her discover the simple things in life to such a wonderfully enthusiastic degree. And when Alita embraces her role as a fierce warrior, Salazar sells it for all it is worth as she is not about to be held back by anyone. Without her, this movie would not have been anywhere as effective.

For a brief time, I thought this would be yet another movie where the main character struggles with whether or not they are “the one.” “Alita: Battle Angel,” however, is not interested in asking such time-wasting questions, and it did not take long at all for me to be fully engaged in her quest. I cannot begin to tell you how thankful I was for that.

“Alita: Battle Angel” ends on a note which serves as a set-up for a franchise filled with sequels. This will more than likely annoy many audience members as every other motion picture looks to be starting a franchise which serves to keep studio executives happy. Still, I found it to be a self-contained movie which never felt like an overlong advertisement for future installments. I am eager to see where Alita’s future adventures will take her, and I have a strong feeling we will find out before the first of several “Avatar” sequels are released. Heck, has filming on the first “Avatar” sequel even begun yet? Stop leaving us hanging Cameron!

* * * ½ out of * * * *