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.

The Stars of ‘Repo Man’ Drop By New Beverly Cinema

Repo Man poster

More than 30 years after its release, Alex Cox’s cult classic “Repo Man” still holds up with its truly authentic punk attitude and black humor. This was proven to be the case when a special screening of the movie was held at the New Beverly Cinema which brought out many fans eager to see some of the actors who starred in it. Among them was the great character actor Harry Dean Stanton who plays Bud, the Mr. Miyagi or Yoda to Emilio Estevez’s Otto. Also there was Tracey Walter who played the philosopher of mechanics, Miller, Olivia Barash who played Otto’s would-be girlfriend, Leila, and Del Zamora as Lagarto, one of the Rodriguez brothers.

“Repo Man” is so defiantly punk and proudly refuses to fit into the realm of regular mainstream entertainment. Never politically correct, it delves into a highly exaggerated, not to mention intense, depiction of the life of a repossession agent. Watching it makes you realize there are not enough movies like this these playing at the local multiplex. We need something to balance out all these watered-down blockbusters which comes to us like McDonald’s Happy Meals from the world of corporate cinema. This movie was actually intended to be a UCLA student film, but somehow it managed to become something much bigger.

The actors came out immediately after the end credits concluded, and they looked really happy to be at the New Beverly. Stanton, however, looked like he was three sheets to the wind and occasionally spoke about things not really related to “Repo Man.” At one point he even asked, “Can I smoke in here?” The other actors sympathetically told him they weren’t sure the theater would allow him to smoke. “We can’t smoke in here?” Stanton said, “That’s fucking nonsense!” The crowd couldn’t help but laugh as Stanton looked like he was perfectly prepared to keep smoking for the rest of his days.

Stanton said he couldn’t remember exactly how he got involved in “Repo Man,” and added this lack of memory up to being one of his “senile” moments. Walter, however, said he got his role after having previously worked with producer Michael Nesmith on “Timerider.” Barash said she was originally encouraged not to do the movie on the advice of her agents as they didn’t know the people involved in it very well, and they thought it might be dangerous for her to even go to the audition. But Barash was and still is a huge punk rock fan, and she got immediately sold on “Repo Man” upon seeing that bands like Black Flag were going to be involved. She even told us Iggy Pop, who composed the movie’s theme song, was her neighbor in the apartment building she lived in back then.

Zamora didn’t say exactly how he got cast, but he did remember how Cox got Nesmith involved as a producer. Simply put, Nesmith’s car had gotten repossessed, so he could relate to those car owners who were not paying up on what they bought. Zamora also talked about how Cox got both Stanton and Estevez involved in “Repo Man.” Basically, Cox caught up with Estevez and told him Stanton was already connected to the movie even though he wasn’t at that point, and then he went to Stanton and told him Estevez was connected to the film even though he wasn’t. Suffice to say, both actors did become involved.

Stanton then went on to say he and Cox didn’t always get along. During the shooting of “Repo Man,” Cox got so sick and tired of Stanton telling the actors what to do and threatened to fire him on the spot. To this Stanton replied, “Kiss my ass! Fire me so I can get paid!” Later on, Stanton asked Zamora to let Cox, whom Zamora is still in touch with, know he’s not mad at him anymore and that he would welcome him as an honored guest the next time he saw him.

“Repo Man” also had an abundance of generic food and drink items on display, and the audience couldn’t help but laugh at just how openly generic they all were. Product placements are usually reserved for big budget movies which are more likely to be bland and inoffensive. Zamora said they really had no money so they did talk with companies who were willing to do product placements in the movie. And then they read the script… What they ended up using was a generic brand from Ralphs Supermarket, one of the most dominant of supermarket chains in Southern California today. Of course, had “Repo Man” been made today, Ralphs might not have been as inclined to be involved.

In the end, Zamora and Walter said the art directors did the majority of the work and succeeded in creating the world of the movie which was very convincing despite the low budget. Then Stanton spoke up again and asked who Zamora played in “Repo Man,” and Zamora told him he played Lagarto, one of the Rodriguez brothers, to which Stanton replied, “How many brothers were there?”

 Speaking of the Rodriguez brothers, Stanton’s character of Bud has this intense confrontation where he wields a baseball bat which he threatens to bash the brothers with. Stanton said Cox gave him a rubber bat to use, but he wanted to work with a real one instead, and this led to a fight between the two of them. Zamora remembered this moment on set and said Stanton was under control, but Stanton, who was starting to remember more of the filming, made it bluntly clear he was really crazy and didn’t have any idea of what he was doing.

Walter was asked about his famous “shrimp monologue” scene, and he said it was originally meant to be just an audition piece. It was never intended to be in the film, but Walter fought for it. Indeed, it makes for one of the most memorable moments in “Repo Man” as his character of Miller describes the way he sees things:

“A lot o’ people don’t realize what’s really going on. They view life as a bunch o’ unconnected incidents ‘n things. They don’t realize that there’s this, like, lattice o’ coincidence that lays on top o’ everything. Give you an example; show you what I mean: suppose you’re thinkin’ about a plate o’ shrimp. Suddenly someone’ll say, like, plate, or shrimp, or plate o’ shrimp out of the blue, no explanation. No point in lookin’ for one, either. It’s all part of a cosmic unconsciousness.”

To this day, Walter says that every once in a while he runs into someone who utters one of his signature lines from “Repo Man” like, “John Wayne was a fag!” But of course, the real signature line of “Repo Man” belongs to Stanton’s character of Bud who says, “The life of a repo man is always intense.”

One audience member asked the actors if they still talk to Estevez after all these years. Zamora and Walter said Estevez still works, but more as a producer and director these days because that’s where his passion lies. Estevez still acts occasionally, but it apparently doesn’t interest him as much as it used to.

Wrapping up the evening, the actors were asked if they knew they were making something special during the filming of “Repo Man.” Some of them believed they were, but Stanton bluntly said, “I didn’t give a shit if it was special while making it.” Despite his apparent demeanor and not being able to remember his entire experience on this particular movie, Stanton still had us laughing hysterically. Not once did he try to ruin the fans’ appreciation of “Repo Man.” Whether he realizes it or not, no one could have played Bud better than him.

Many were in agreement when Stanton said both “Repo Man” and “Sid & Nancy” were truly the peak of Cox’s directing career. We haven’t heard as much from him since then, but Barash said he just finished making a quasi-sequel called “Repo Chick” which she has a cameo in it. However, this has not stopped Universal Pictures from sending Cox cease and desist letters as they insist only they have sequel rights to “Repo Man.” Still, Cox has been showing it at festivals, so it looks like nothing is going to stop him.

Before everyone got up and applauded, another audience member asked a question which brought to mind one of Bud’s great lines from “Repo Man,” “Is there any good place around here to get sushi and not pay?” Stanton left us with his best answer of the evening, “That’s where we’re going right now.”

 

 

 

Jonathan Demme’s ‘Something Wild’ Takes Us on an Irresistible Journey

Something Wild movie poster

I got to revisit “Something Wild” recently at New Beverly Cinema, and it quickly reminded me of what a unique filmmaker Jonathan Demme was back in the 1980’s. He had a wonderfully offbeat approach to making movies few others did at the time, and they functioned as parties he gleefully invited us to time and time again. This style of filmmaking disappeared in the 1990’s when he made “The Silence of the Lambs,” and while it is one of the best movies ever made, it marked the beginning of his work having a darker and less playful look to them. This is not to take away from his resume since as it includes such great movies as “Philadelphia,” “Rachel Getting Married” and a number of Neil Young documentaries, but watching “Something Wild” made me realize how much I miss Demme’s earlier style of filmmaking as it was more joyous and anarchic than much of what he has made since.

Jeff Daniels stars as Charles Driggs, a conservative looking banker whose wife and kids have since left him. We catch up with him while he is eating at a diner in the urban part of New York, and he suddenly decides to leave without paying his check. However, he is caught in the act by Lulu (Melanie Griffith) who confronts him about his felonious act and sees a rebellious side in him she is eager to exploit. From there, she offers to drive him back to his office and ends up kidnapping him on an adventure which flies in the face of everything considered conformity.

When Lulu gets a hold of Charles’ pager (yes, this movie was made a long time ago) and throws it out her car window to his utter shock, we are along for the ride as she brings out a side of him he has not exercised for quite some time. What I love about “Something Wild” is that, while Lulu essentially kidnaps Charles against his will, it tapped into something deep within me to where I would be open to her taking advantage of me. What Lulu does is force Charles to abandon his normal lifestyle and engage in something adventurous, and there’s a point in all our lives where we want to break out of a lifestyle which eventually becomes much too stifling for our own good. Granted, common sense usually kicks in as we can’t afford to get into the kind of trouble they get into in this day and age, but this is why we go to the movies: to experience things we have the knowledge to avoid in real life.

We are with Charles as Lulu takes him on an adventure no one could easily prepare for, and it makes what we watch in “Something Wild” all the more exciting. The movie digs into our deepest desires as these two engage in an unexpected road trip which has the two of them falling in love. Things, however, take a sharp turn when Lulu’s husband, Ray Sinclair (Ray Liotta), comes back into the picture and threatens to destroy their newfound coupling with his Svengali and violent ways.

It’s fun to watch Daniels in this role as he makes the squarest of human beings appear more charismatic than what was on the written page. This could have been a thankless role in the hands of another actor, but Daniels makes Charles’ transition from a conventional banker to a love-struck man determined to save the woman he has fallen in love with very believable to where we are with him every step of the way. Daniels’ career had nowhere to go but up from there as he went on to deliver brilliant performances in “The Squid and the Whale,” “Steve Jobs” and “Dumb and Dumber.”

Griffith’s career was at its height in the 80’s as her performances in “Working Girl,” “Body Double” and “Stormy Monday” showed us she was an actress who did not back down from a challenge. Her performance as Lulu, who is later revealed to be Audrey Hankel, is one of her best as she fearlessly portrays a character who is as free-spirited as she is reckless in her law-breaking ways which allow her to live life on the edge. At the same time, Griffith gives Lulu/Audrey a vulnerability which makes her performance all the more fantastic as even she comes to see her fling with Charles has become much more than that.

But then along comes Ray Liotta as Audrey’s violent ex-husband, Ray Sinclair, who steals the show. The audience at New Beverly Cinema applauded loudly when the actor made his first appearance in “Something Wild,” and it’s not hard to understand why. From the moment he arrives onscreen, Liotta gives us an infinitely charismatic villain we can’t take our eyes off of. We know he’s dangerous, but like Daniels’ character we can’t help but go along with him on a ride. You know he’s bad for you, but Liotta’s unpredictability keeps us pinned to our seats. He is mesmerizing as he fights to get Audrey back into his life even as she struggles to break free of him once and for all, and he makes it easy to see why it is not at all easy to get rid of him.

Demme pulls off the impossible here as the screenplay written by E. Max Frye starts off as a road movie and then turns into a domestic thriller. Such a shift can be jarring in a movie, but Demme keeps everything running smoothly even as the story heads into darker territory. By the time we are introduced to the devious Ray Sinclair, we have come too far with Charles and Audrey to just give up on them.

The director also works with a colorful palette which keeps things feeling light even as we head towards a violent conclusion. He also provides us with a terrific soundtrack with choice tunes from Fine Young Cannibals, New Order, Oingo Boingo and David Byrne. This is not to mention Demme’s usual cast of actors he has worked with constantly like Charles Napier, Tracey Walter, Sister Carol and Gary Goetzman who bring their unique energies to the roles they are given, and they make us remember their characters long after we have left the theater. There are also some inspired cameos from filmmakers John Sayles and John Waters, and Waters’ cameo is as priceless as the expression on his face when Audrey offers him a bribe.

Looking back at “Something Wild” makes me realize what a uniquely talented filmmaker is as he cheerfully invites us on a ride which goes against what’s normal and becomes all the more exhilarating as a result. Some filmmakers try to keep you at a distance from their characters’ exploits, but Demme instead offers you a front seat to the action, and it results in a truly irresistible time at the movies. In addition, his casting choices here are perfect, and you can tell the actors are having a blast with the material they have been given.

I find it good to see a movie like this every once in a while as it makes me question whether I have become too complacent in my life. Granted, I wouldn’t be that quick to jump into a car with a complete stranger behind the wheel unless it was a Lyft ride I requested, but to be taken on a ride which allowed me to break out of the routine of life feels absolutely necessary as time continues to speed up as we get older. Demme understands this, and he makes “Something Wild” into an invitation we movie buffs would be foolish to turn down. It remains as entertaining today as it did back in 1986.

* * * * out of * * * *