Interview: George Armitage
When, a few months ago, I set out to write something about George Armitage, who’d directed a few of the finest American genre movies of the last 40-odd years, I was surprised to learn that practically no one had done so already. Aside from a mention in an article in a 1977 issue of this magazine by Dave Kehr, titled “Four Auteurs in Search of an Audience,” there was no in-depth critical discussion of the director of Vigilante Force (76), Hot Rod (79), Miami Blues (90), and Grosse Pointe Blank (97), and not a single interview readily available online; the trail went cold after his last film to date, The Big Bounce (04).
Shortly after my column on Armitage was published, someone in the comments section repeated an apocryphal report that Armitage had suffered a stroke on the set of The Big Bounce. Below, a commenter calling himself “George Armitage” chimed in: “Just for that I’m going to make another movie! No stroke. Sulking.” This was, as it transpired after a couple of e-mails, the man himself, who was gracious enough to give me 90 minutes of his time to speak about his career in movies, which began in the 1960s with Roger Corman. “I was thinking about all the movies we were making for Roger and New World,” Armitage wrote me recently, “Kaplan, Demme, Dante, Arkush and me… We were making little 45 RPM Rock ’n’ Roll movies. Same subject matter as early rock songs and same lack of respect until… This is what made us different even from Roger, who was half a generation ahead, a liberal but no Rocker.”
Now, Armitage’s Rock ’n’ Roll movies will be easier to see than ever before. His adaptation of Charles Willeford’s Miami Blues, starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Alec Baldwin, and Fred Ward, is available on Blu-ray from Shout! Factory as of today, and Kino Lorber has announced the release of Vigilante Force, with Kris Kristofferson and Jan-Michael Vincent, in September of this year. So, to cap this annus mirabilis for fans, here are a few words from George Armitage.
Can you tell me something about your background?
I’m from Hartford, Connecticut. Left there in 1956, moved to Beverly Hills, then later moved over to the Baldwin Hills area of Los Angeles, a racially mixed neighborhood, near the park. Now I live up in the Beverly Glen canyon, in West L.A.
So you were in Southern California from your teen years on?
<p>Yeah, in ’56 I was 13. What a culture shock, by the way—I’m still reeling. In Connecticut there wasn’t a hot rod in sight. Out here it was people racing up and down the street, building their own cars—it was teenage paradise, the kids were running everything.
Were you involved in the racing scene?
Yeah, I got into everything. I surfed, and we did some street racing, a lot of cruising, listening to music, it was a great time, an amazing time to be a teenager. And of course the drive-in, where I came across Roger Corman.
I had a ’55 Pontiac. I wasn’t a mechanic, but the mechanics who built their cars were a little too gentle with the cars and kept losing, ’cause they didn’t want to rebuild it, so they gave me $100 to race—they raced for $500 or so in those days—and I just drove the hell out of the things, broke a lot of them, but we were able to win a few that way.
You mentioned the drive-in—were you already at this point thinking about making a career in movies?
No, I hadn’t figured out what I was going to do. I had a friend who said to me: “I think I’m going to go make movies,” but I don’t recall having that notion at the moment. I went to UCLA with a political science/economics co-major. Afterwards I was looking for work, waiting for my real-estate license to come through, and I got a job in the mail room at 20th Century Fox. It paid $53 dollars a week. I thought, “Well, I’ll wait for my license”—but it was such fun, the Fox lot at the time. They’d just come off the disaster of Cleopatra [in 1963]—at least the budget was a disaster, I don’t know if the movie should be called a disaster—and so the movie section was pretty near closed down, but TV was supporting it.
Within a year I was associate producer on Peyton Place [64-69] and I had my own unit. We had two half-hours of the Peyton Place television show to do each week. It was two units, and we shot two episodes in six days—in fact, we each shot one episode in six days, both units working at the same time, waiting for the visible cast members to go from B Unit to my unit. It was an incredible experience. There was a producer there named Everett Chambers who would work on a number of films with John Cassavetes, he was usually helpful. This was just at the time when the fortysomething producers who were kind of hip and jazz-oriented were coming in… I was 21, 22, something like that, and if you were young, if you had an opinion, were kind of hip, knew what was going on with your own generation, you were very valuable. So I went from producer to producer all over the lot pitching ideas, I created series, I wrote a couple of things for television and, about that time, started writing screenplays.
How did you go from Fox and Peyton Place to Roger Corman?
I met Roger when he was there… The commissary was a place called the “Gold Room” where the producers would go. They were all sort of mothballed, but they still had energy enough to snob the television people, who were making High Noon, Lost in Space, Batman. The movie producers would sit on the other side of the room from the TV people. This left the TV people with nobody else to snob, so they would snob Roger Corman, who was there making St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. And that really pissed me off, because I was a fan of his. So I began to visit him on the set and the whole thing, and told him about the conflict that was going on, and he got a kick out of that.
I left Fox in ’67 to try to write and direct movies. I didn’t see Roger again until… I wrote a script called—it was called either Carrot Butts or A Christmas Carrot—which had animated cartoon characters, Bugs Bunny and so on, coming to life. It was about the studio systems and all this stuff. My agent gave it to Gene [Corman, Roger’s brother], who gave it to Roger, and he loved it, so they submitted it to UA [United Artists] where they had a deal—Mike Medavoy was just taking over there and he was younger than I was. From there, Roger said: “Well, that didn’t work, why don’t we try something else?” Usually he has a title or something and he’ll say: “Go ahead, write something, just keep the title.” With Gas-s-s-s it was just the concept: “Everybody over thirty died.” I think that’s what he had, a sentence, and that’s what we went with.
He gave you that and from there you were on your own?
Yeah. He let you make it your own, and I did. UA greenlit it, we went back in ’69 to shoot in New Mexico and Texas. I was the associate producer as well, and we were writing it as we went—which is something that Roger liked to do and something I do too—and I was also in the movie, I played Billy the Kid. Mostly, though, in observing Roger there, and then on Von Richthofen and Brown , which he shot in Ireland, where I was simply an actor, I really observed Roger’s style of approaching a film. He was absolutely brilliant. He would shoot a scene completely in two hours, cover everything, and then, if he had time, he’d go back and do little bits and pieces of things. So he would get his day in, and then he would play. And that was very fun, allowing the actors to improvise. It’s the way I approach filmmaking today.
And within a year you had a movie of your own to direct.
Peter Bogdanovich and Francis had left working with Roger, so there was an opening there for directors, I asked him if I could direct, and he said sure. He said: “Would you like to do a nurse movie or a stewardess move?” I said I’d like to do a stewardess movie, and he said: “Okay, well then you can do the nurse movie.” Okay! Anyways, I got into it, and I wrote the script, and I got Everett Chambers, from Peyton Place, a crew of some TV guys that I’d worked with, and some young commercial crew. This fellow called Fouad Said had invented this thing called Cinemobile—they did the Culp/Bill Cosby show [I Spy] with it—and I used it to film on location. I did everything on location; in fact I’ve never shot on a stage in my life. I shot the whole movie in the South Bay, Manhattan Beach—it’s exactly the same place and time period that Paul Thomas Anderson used in Inherent Vice.
That’s one of the things that’s so interesting about the movie, the way that it functions as a time capsule of that moment.
A little while before Quentin [Tarantino] moved in. He was working at the video shop there [Video Archives], where I went many times for the four or five years he was there.
Private Duty Nurses
You said that you’d been given a one-sentence description to work around on Gas-s-s-s—what were the requirements or expectations on Private Duty Nurses?
My favorite scene is the let-down sex scene near the beginning, where Paul Hampton takes Pegi Boucher back to his place…
I was talking to the girls and they said: “Hey, why don’t you do a guy who’s just a lousy lay. Sometimes you run into that.” And I thought that’d be perfect for the South Bay, because it was a pretty crazy culture going on down there at the time, so that’s what we did.
Paul’s fabulous, by the way. He was quite a well-known country-and-western songwriter before that. He wrote a great song called “Sea of Heartbreaks”: [singing] “Lost love and loneliness / Memories of your caress…” It’s a chestnut. He did Lady Sings the Blues around that time, did a lot of stuff around that time, but I think he just got sick of Hollywood and left. I haven’t run into him in a little while. When I was in Paris, I ran into some friends of his from Oklahoma City, where he was from, and they knew all about him, but I haven’t seen him in years.
Another big element is the band Sky, who are prominently featured.
Where did I find them? I don’t think they had a recording out… somehow I came across them, I went out to see them play at a high school. Doug Fieger, who later went on to record “My Sharona,” was the lead singer, and there were a couple of other guys. I noticed you singled out the line “How’s that treat in your mouth”—there’s another song where the lyric is “I don’t wanna go down on a burning ship when I could go down on you.”
Masters of the single-entendre. There’s a lot of au courant social issue material in the movie, too.
Corman left that up to me. He wanted us to do whatever we felt, what we were thinking of poetically, socially, culturally at the time. So I tried to look at it from a woman’s point-of-view, adding my own feelings about what was going on. Corman and I got along very well. I didn’t like the way Hollywood treated him—he was kind of an underdog and I loved the fact that he would just say, “Here, go make the movie.” He never came to the set, he totally allowed us to do what we were doing. And in my seven movies, I’ve never been a day over schedule, and have probably come in $20 million under budget, total, for the entire career. So he had no problem, ever, with me. And Private Duty Nurses was done in 15 days.
How did your next movie, Hit Man (72), come about?
I had never seen the first movie based on the book, Get Carter. Gene [Corman] gave me a script with no title on it and said: “MGM owns this.” He didn’t tell me that the movie had already been shot. But I took it, rewrote it, and placed it in the African-American community. I gave it to my agent, and he said: “Hey, this is Get Carter!” So I said: “Gene, c’mon, let me know!” So that’s how that started.
I didn’t feel at the time that a white director should be directing it. So I met with Bernie [Casey, the film’s star], who wanted to direct it, and campaigned for him with Gene, and he said: “I don’t want to take a chance on someone who hasn’t directed.” So he wasn’t going to make the picture, and at that point there was a lot of crew and cast involved, and they were friends, so I said: “Okay, I’ll do it.” There was a great deal of improvisation by the actors, who were bringing me dialogue from the African-American community, and it really worked. Growing up in a racially mixed neighborhood, like I did in Baldwin Hills, I knew a little bit about the culture, but the actors brought so much in terms of dialogue and honesty.
Not unlike Private Duty Nurses, the movie is grounded by its sense of place, the Los Angeles of motels and porn theaters…
We were all over Los Angeles. I was just thinking about Miami Blues this morning, and remembering that when I went down there, the first thing, Jonathan Demme and I went off in a car, and we totally went everywhere in Miami. He had lived there, and he showed me everything, and the same thing was true—when he moved out here I took him around Los Angeles and showed him everything, and I realized that I did know the city pretty well.
The Colonial Motel up on Sunset worked beautifully for us, and we also shot at a funeral home in southwest L.A., we shot all over there, with a crazy police escort holding traffic on every location. And between locations I’d get in a squad car with these crazy cops and drive 150 mph to the next location, I thought: “God, Roger would be so thrilled with that, that’s the way to travel.” And I’m so glad we were able to shoot in the Watts Towers, right down there at 103rd.
And then the next movie that you have a hand in that goes into production is Darktown Strutters (75), which has a very strange relationship to the Blaxploitation—it’s almost a parody of the tropes and symbols of Blaxploitation.
I wrote Darktown Strutters in three days, and the script form is all one sentence, the entire script is one sentence. I just did it to have fun. I was going to direct it, but I had another script that I sold called Trophy, which was about two police departments who end up in a shooting war, and it was really a labor of love, so I asked Gene to excuse me to work on that, but it never got made, unfortunately. So Joe Viola came in to direct Darktown Strutters, but then he left the project and William Witney came in. And he was fantastic—I was an old Roy Rogers fan and he’d done so many of those. Roger Moseley, who was in Hit Man, was also in that.
When it was done, Gene said: “You know, we could punch this up a little.” He had a screening after it was first made and was taking suggestions, and he’d invited Richard Pryor to come. And I remember about three-quarters of the way through I looked down in the aisle, and Richard was crawling out. He obviously didn’t care for the film, but was crawling up the aisle so nobody would see him, and he escaped. So he didn’t contribute much to the movie, other than giving them a reason to say: “Hm, maybe there’s some work to be done here?” Still, I enjoyed that movie, I thought Witney did a good job, and it’s a lot of fun.
His serials have a lot of crazy, breakneck stunt-work, which is also something I love in your next film, Vigilante Force, which starts off with these almost suicidal stunts.
Well that’s all Buddy Joe Hooker. You know the film Hooper [1978, starring Burt Reynolds]? That was originally titled “Hooker.” And it’s about Buddy, who’s an amazing character, he’s been on all the films since—I guess Vigilante Force was the first—but he’s been in every film I’ve done since. That was a 30-day film, but it would be 60 days today because of the stunts and the pyrotechnics. We had Roger George, who was quite a well-known special effects man. It went really well, though we had one little mishap that wasn’t really our fault—in the final shootout we blew up a blue van that was parked over an oil pipeline, so after the initial explosion the oil pipeline caught fire. I’m a little suspicious of Gene Corman on this, he always knew how to get a little something extra. I’m kidding, of course.
Were you repurposing any of the material from Trophy into Vigilante Force, or was this a whole new movie?
Yeah, again it was Gene with a title: Vigilante Force. And technically what’s going on in the town is not vigilantism. I suppose when the Green Mountain Boys respond that might be vigilantism, but… And Bernie Casey wasn’t a hit man in Hit Man, either. Another title that was available before the script was—they were worried about pre-sales, and titles could sell a picture.
So you’ve got the two brothers, Jan-Michael Vincent, the good brother, but he’s named Ben Arnold, which has to be Benedict—
Oh, good, I’m glad you got that. And Kris Kristofferson is Aaron, as in Aaron Burr.
The entire movie is full of these very slightly coded reference to the Revolutionary War…
It was going to be released during the Bicentennial extravaganza, which was a pretty crazy time. There’s one more, Judson Prett’s Harry Lee, that’s Lighthorse Harry Lee, who was Robert E. Lee’s father, who was a general in the Revolutionary War. Not many people picked up on it.
The final shoot-out is almost an assemblage of all these different pop signifiers: the band in redcoat gold braid, the Green Mountain Boys in tricorner hats, and then Kris doing his Cagney in White Heat death scene…
What I was really doing there was Vietnam. What would it be like if people took over your town, as we had been doing to the hamlets of Vietnam? What if we brought Vietnam back to America, what would that be like? That’s kind of what we were going after, but since the Bicentennial year was coming on and bringing a lot of revisionist history with it, I thought I’d include a little Revolutionary War in the recipe. I’ve always tried to include something subversive, not hidden from anyone, just for my own interests.
Your production designer was Jack Fisk, who also worked on Darktown Strutters, went on to an illustrious career. How did he influence the look of the movie?
He went out and did most of the location scouting—and we always looked at every exterior with a mind to be able to use the interior as well. The oil field where they are is not far from my old house in the Baldwin Hills. Where the shooting range is up there among the oil wells is the old lovers lane that we used to go and park in, so that was kind of fun to be back there. We were out in Simi Valley for Corriganville, we were everywhere. We had absolutely no money, no budget, but Jack did extraordinary things—and Sissy Spacek was our assistant art director on that.
Jan-Michael Vincent and Kris Kristofferson are both fantastic.
Kris is very interesting, not a trained actor, but he’s extraordinarily smart individual, and a very natural actor, where he comes from is very much “What would I be doing, what would I be like?” He was going through something personal in his life that was rough at the time, but in recording the commentary for Vigilante Force, I was just amazed in thinking about how hard he’d worked. Though I think, in seeing it again, that the picture is almost more Jan-Michael Vincent’s than Kris’s. It wasn’t intentional, he’s just really very good in this. As soon as Kris came on board, everybody else followed. Bernadette [Peters] wanted to work with him, Victoria [Principal], and Jan-Michael came over, he’d been shooting with some of our people; Don Heitzer, who was the production manager, had been on White Line Fever. It was a good shoot, but it was rough. It was 30 days, it was 108 degrees in the Simi Valley, so a lot of it was tough to do. But we worked through it, finished on time and under budget.
Your next movie, Hot Rod, was made for ABC. How did you wind up there?
They had a movie division called ABC Circle films which was a prestige outfit. And for some reason, again, they had just a title: Hot Rod. And I went over there and talked to them, they said: “Yeah, go ahead.” It was a street racer movie, that’s what I came up with, and we shot that in 15 days—TV was not generous with their time. We shot that up in Northern California, in Calistoga, wine country, and at the Fremont drag way.
Again you’re working with iconographic figures, though here it’s Fifties rock ’n’ roll, car culture, against this creeping Seventies corporatism.
Yeah, you noticed that Gregg Henry wears the Rebel Without a Cause red jacket, but did you happen to notice that Owen [Wilson] wore a red jacket also in The Big Bounce? We made one, then finally they found one that was nylon, like that. He wore that, and he loved it, too. I don’t know what the James Dean thing was, but it was fun for me.
Again, when I first came to California I saw kids who were 15 years old building cars that were beating Detroit. I mean, Detroit started making cars after what these kids were doing: A ’57 Chevy, with 287 injectors in it, it was really fast, it was amazing what these kids were doing, going so fast. Then all those muscle cars started coming out later in the Sixties. We raced down at La Cienega and Centinela, near the airport. There was a walkway over La Cienega there, so kids could walk from the housing over to the big schoolhouse, on the other side. So what we would do, we’d line up, everybody would run and stand on the top of the walkway, which was exactly a quarter-mile from the corner. Four cars would come, the two who were going to race, and two behind them to hold traffic so nobody else got involved. The people who were racing would go off, they’d go past the school and the walkway, and the people above would call the winner, and then everybody would run and get out of there, because the police were going to be there in 15 minutes. So 15 or 20 cars would show up, everybody’d run out and hop up on the runway, boom, boom, boom, the two guys on the corner would go off, race, then they’d continue east on La Cienega so they were pretty well out of sight, then we’d all run back to the cars and get out of there before the sheriff came.
So you were drawing on a very vivid and direct memory of this scene?
Oh, yeah. That’s what I grew up doing. There were four, five, six drive-ins around southern California, and on Tuesday nights everybody’d drive around to all of them: there was Bob’s Big Boy in Van Nuys and Smokey’s in Downey and The Wich Stand up in Baldwin Hill. And so people would race for $100, $200… Nobody ever raced for pink slips, I don’t know where that came from. I never drove a ’41 Willys, but I drove a ’40 Ford with an Olds in it… This would go 120mph by the time you finished the quarter mile. There was a long, long, long onramp called the Imperial Onramp. You’d go down there and stop again, there’d be cars holding the cars, then loop around and boom, boom, boom, outta there. No spectating at those kind of venues. There were no accidents. It’s just part of the culture—I mean, Howard Hughes used to race cars around there. It’d been going on a long time.
The philosophy that we hear from the Gregg Henry character seems remarkably close to what we find in your other leading men, from Bernie Casey in Hit Man all the way down to Owen Wilson in The Big Bounce. Independent-minded guys who stay out of the fray, stay to the side of the action and bide their time before making their move.
I think generally they’re all outsiders, all coming from somewhere, to somewhere, going somewhere else. I really… I guess there is a great similarity, I hadn’t really thought of it, though. When I sit down to write, those are the kinds of characters I find interesting. The line you quoted in your article: “When it breaks you build it again… Gotta fix it faster.” That’s the philosophy of street racing. Overall, I’d say it’s independent, decent people who are forced into some kind of action against what they consider to be an incursion on their way of life.
The movie is very, very well loved by not only movie lovers, but car enthusiasts, racing enthusiasts. Will it ever have a DVD release?
I only have it one three-quarter tape, a VHS U-matic. It played around for years under another title, called Rebels of the Road… but I don’t know. I would love to have it come out. About four or five years ago a guy who builds Willys sent me his e-mail, I don’t know how he found me, and I was thrilled to find out how many people in the car world loved it, I had no idea. He wanted to raise money for a sequel, but it never happened. I went to a car club reunion about a year and a half ago out at one of the old rag strips and I couldn’t believe how many people had seen it.
The principal character, Brian Edison, is based on a friend of mine called Bob Edelson, who was an incredible mechanic, not much of a driver. He didn’t want to break his car, so he had me break it for him. He is a CPA—he’s retired now—but it’s really his story, a really interesting cat. So the night that it’s playing in L.A., he is in Chicago, trying to get on a plane to come back and watch it with a bunch of us on TV, he can’t get on his flight, gets off one plane and on another, that plane is held up, meanwhile the plane that he got off of crashed that night in O’Hare [American Airlines Flight 191], in 1979.
One detail I love in Hot Rod is that the villain of the piece is a root beer magnate. Where did that come from?
On the cruising circuit we would start at The Wich Stand at Slauson and Overhill, then we’d go out to La Brea, which became Hawthorne Blvd., to the A&W root beer stand out there where more car people would meet and go race. And so that’s where it came from. The name “Munn,” that belongs to the root beer family, is a character that went to high school with all of us. Robert Culp and Pernell Roberts, I really enjoyed working with those guys—they all had contracts at ABC so they encouraged me to use them, “Could you take Pernell” and so on. Grant Goodeve was from Eight Is Enough, for example.
Can I ask what the name of your car club was?
The Judges. As in “Sober as a judge.” We had our plaques in the back of our cars—a hot rod with a big ball-and-chain on it was our graphic. People would put their plaques on the package tray, in back of the back seat, people would put their plaques there so people driving by could see it, but we were so cool that we laid ours down so people couldn’t read the name of the club.
And then we have a good ten years where your name doesn’t appear on anything. I’m imagining a little script doctoring, a little pre-production hell, maybe?
After every movie, it’s a year where you’re off the planet. I don’t like to be off the planet that long. So when they’re over, the next year I’m just sort of oof, y’know? I go and live. And then I start over again. I write constantly, I’ve written at least a hundred original screenplays and probably, God, five thousand drafts, God knows how many passes. So I’m constantly writing. Some of them nobody ever reads. I was in a meeting with Michael Douglas one time and he said “What happened to the Eighties?” And I said: “I just thought I had to get better as a writer, and that’s what I tried to do.” And luckily, along came Miami Blues.
Had you met Charles Willeford when Corman was making Cockfighter?
No, unfortunately he passed away before I could meet him. I did see Cockfighter, I saw it with Warren Oates, though I don’t quite know where I saw it. But by the time Miami Blues was in pre-production, he had passed away. His wife, Betsy, who was the editorial writer for The Miami News, she was very helpful while we were down there. It’s one of the regrets of my life that I never got to meet him. I love his definition of a psychopath in Sideswipe: “I know the difference between right and wrong but I just don’t give a shit.” And he said fully 50 percent of the people who were in the Army with him were psychopaths.
Was it Fred Ward who owned the rights and initiated the project?
What happened was, Bill Horberg, who was associate producer, brought the book to Fred, and Fred said: “Oh, this is great.” I don’t know if Bill had money or not to option the book, but Fred did, and he optioned it. He brought it to Jonathan [Demme] and Gary Goetzman, he wanted Jonathan to direct it. Jonathan had just finished Married to the Mob, which hadn’t been released yet, and he had shot in Miami, and he said to Fred: “Why don’t you give it to Din? Give it to George.” And he did, and I loved it. He said “Do you want to write the script and direct it?” I said “Absolutely, let’s go.” I had worked for Mike Medavoy, who was now head of Orion Pictures, on Vigilante Force, and he said: “Sure, good.” Fred, Jonathan, and Gary—who would go on to produce a number of wonderful things for Tom Hanks’s company, though this was his first film—were amazingly helpful.
I’m sorry, the nickname is “Din”?
Yeah, Brandon is my middle name, and that’s what I went through school as, though for some reason when I got to the Fox lot I changed it to George. I have no idea why. “Din”—my brother called me that because he couldn’t pronounce “Brendan.”
The script, at least as filmed, is such a smart streamlining of the novel. The major difference, of course, is that the Hare Krishna that Junior kills in the airport is revealed to be Susie Waggoner’s brother in the book, whereas the movie omits this.
It took 10 or 15 pages to explain that relationship, and it bothered me—that kind of serendipity. And we were just sitting there talking: “Why do we need to have that anyways?” It really was just a matter of economy. In early drafts it was in. In the novel it works beautifully, because it’s Willeford.
I’ve heard that Fred Ward initially wanted the Junior part that went to Alec Baldwin?
He was kind of undecided but he was sort of leaning towards the Junior part. What happened was when Alex came in to read for us—sorry, Alec. My next-door neighbor for a number of years was Alex Van Halen, and I always mix the two up. When Alec came in and read, he knocked us out, so I said: “Fred, what do you think?” He said: “He’s Junior. I’ll be Hoke.” And Alec was extraordinary. It rained a lot during the shoot, which would shut us down because you could hear the rain on the roof, it was too loud, so we’d have to wait it out. One day we were sitting around Junior and Susie’s house, and Alec gets behind the camera and does about a five-minute impression of Tak Fujimoto. Then he moves over to the electrical department and does spot-on impressions of all of those guys. Everybody was awestruck. He also did an impression of me that was rather insulting, and very funny.
What I wanted to do in that was have the audience go on that ride with Junior while he was running around and playing cop, and to really enjoy it—and the audiences I saw it with did—but then slowly I wanted to take it away from them, so that by the end they would feel a little bit guilty about having so much fun earlier on in the picture. However, it kind of backfired—we did a preview in New Jersey, and the audience was horrified when Junior died, they practically rioted when Alec was killed.
Well, a lot of that is a tribute to how good Jennifer Jason Leigh is, the gravitas that she brings…
She’s the glue that held it together, just extraordinary. Alec… I’m a Richard Lester fan, I love understatement, and all the great British comedies are so beautifully understated. Alec had a little problem with that—he wanted to be a little broader, I was afraid he was commenting on the character, but I must tell you: he was right. We didn’t really agree on set, but then he gave me a call, he’d been shooting in Chicago, and saw Grosse Pointe Blank, which he loved—and which I’d tried to get him into, but he couldn’t—but he called me and said: “Hey, I’m glad you made me do this and that.” I said: “I’m glad you did what you did, too.” It was a little broader than I would’ve asked him to play it, but I really like what he did.
It’s one of the only films from that period that hints at how funny he is.
He did Married to the Mob just before that with Jonathan, though there wasn’t so much humor with that character. But that’s where I saw him, I thought “Oh, this guy’s great.” Incidentally, at one point Gene Hackman was interested in playing Hoke—it would’ve been Gene as Hoke and Fred as Junior.
Was there ever an idea that you would film more of the Hoke Moseley books?
My son, Brent Armitage, wrote a draft of Sideswipe, but we couldn’t get that made—Gary and Marshall Persinger worked on that. I don’t know if you know, but they tried to do a TV series called Hoke, Scott Frank and Curtis Hanson. They didn’t use any of Miami Blues because that’s still owned by whoever owns Orion. But I was stunned they couldn’t get that on with that talent, though I’m not crazy about Paul Giamatti as Hoke. I just don’t get cop from him. But then if Jonathan had listened to me he wouldn’t have cast Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs—I didn’t think she looked tough enough. Fortunately he didn’t listen to me, and she was brilliant.
Could you say something about the great Shirley Stoller, who plays the pawn shop owner who lops Alec’s fingers off?
The Honeymoon Killers! An amazing film. I guess it’s sort of a tribute to that film, and also a way of saying that the film we were making is following in its footsteps. Again, I really like understated comedy, deadpan comedy.
The Honeymoon Killers
Grosse Pointe Blank is the first film that you directed that you don’t have a screenplay credit on?
I probably could have, but I didn’t want to, because I was afraid… There was an initial writer who did a great job, then John Cusack and Steve Pink, who now directs, and because the Writers Guild is insane with the way they handle the credits, I decided that if I threw my name into the mix, the percentage would drop for everybody and they’d get screwed out of it. But I did as much as anyone did in terms of writing.
The script, when I met with John [Cusack] and the writers, was 132 pages. I said: “Look, I’m not doing anything over 100 pages.” They said, “Okay,” and they did a re-write, and it came back 150 pages. So I said “Okay, you guys are fired,” and I spent most of pre-production re-writing the screenplay, getting it down to 102 pages. Then we would improvise, and I noticed that some of the stuff I’d cut out was in the improvs, they were bringing back stuff that I’d cut out, but we had a good time with it.
It seems to me less rooted in a recognizable social reality than your previous films. A guy from a posh suburb like Grosse Pointe becoming a contract killer is pretty fanciful.
Well, it’s about an outsider returning home, so there’s some similarity there to my other movies. If you look at what we’re dealing with there, he was a hired killer from the National Security Agency, so we’re dealing with, really, stuff that went on later, with the second Bush administration. That was what we were particularly interested in, showing that this was his background. The movie is just a shade under my second favorite, it was so amazing to work with those actors and do the movie the way we did—we shot 750,000 feet of film over 45 days.
Grosse Pointe Blank
You were using the Corman method? Getting everything in the can, then using whatever time was left over to embellish, mess around?
Yes, absolutely. With Grosse Pointe Blank I shot three movies simultaneously. We shot the script as written, we shot a mildly understated version, and we shot a completely over-the-top version, which usually was what was used. We cast that movie—and I’ve cast most movies—by having the actors come in and read, then throwing the script out and saying: “Okay, let’s improvise.” That’s what I was comfortable with. I say to the actors: “You are creating the character. This is written, these are the parameters, this is the outline. Now you take this, make it your own, and bring me, bring me, bring me.” Most actors will stay within the written word, some will go off, like Paul Hampton in Private Duty Nurses, who would improvise and bring Pegi along with him. I’m very fond of Grosse Pointe Blank because of that, the insanity of it was trying to keep things working with three different registers to choose from.
It’s also an outlier in that it has a relatively straight romance in the center of it—or at least a little less warped.
I’m usually rather rough on studio heads in terms of creative help, but after seeing the audience so angry at Alec dying in Miami Blues, I decided that on Grosse Pointe Blank, this time, dealing with another psychopath, another sociopath, John’s character—I just wanted him to survive. And we shot so many different endings. They were so generous at Disney, we had Ovitz and Joe Roth were running the place, they were really great with us. We shot two or three different endings, the two of them getting together, talking about things, and everything didn’t work. And Joe Roth said at one of the screenings: “When the father says ‘You’ve got my blessing’ in the bathtub at the end, after the shoot-out, just cut to the two of them leaving.” I thought, “Let’s give it a shot,” and it worked beautifully.
The comedy is very different in Grosse Pointe Blank. Miami Blues, true to Willeford, is so deadpan, matter-of-fact.
I consider both of them comedies. Willeford is a great comic writer; I put him right up there with Elmore [Leonard]. I had great conversations with Elmore about Charles. Evidently Elmore told Charles, about making film adaptations: “Just take their notes, put up with their bullshit, and try to make it good.” And Willeford wouldn’t, he just fought back, broke deals, wouldn’t play ball. Another reason to admire him.
So talking about Elmore brings us up to The Big Bounce…
Steve Bing gave me Sebastian Gutierrez’s script, which was still set in the pickle fields of Michigan. It’s a funny story—Ryan O’Neal was on Peyton Place when I was there, and we were good friends; I went to his wedding, we went to see boxing together. And he did the first movie from The Big Bounce , which Elmore considered better than mine…
The Big Bounce
I think he’s alone feeling that way.
What happened is, The Big Bounce, the book, when you break it down, is basically an act and a half. It’s not a real three acts. So you’re going to have to add half of the picture. So right away you’re in trouble with somebody like Elmore, who I considered to be an absolutely brilliant writer. So he worked on the script with me, he gave me notes, and the notes are classic, they’re great.
The first time we showed the film, it came in at an NC-17 instead of an R. And it was unreleasable in that form. So I said: “We’ll make it an R.” Grosse Pointe Blank was an R, we made it for $7 million and it probably made $45 million lifetime, all in. But they said: “You can’t make an R-rated comedy, they don’t make money.” That’s what they were saying in 2004. Since then, of course, a lot of R-rated comedies have done beautifully. So I said: “Look, I’m not going to oversee the destruction of my own movie, there’s no way. If you go to a PG-13, you’re going to eliminate Elmore Leonard from this movie.” The language, there’s some incredible love scenes… But the decision was made—they felt that they had to do that, so I said: “Goodbye.” I left the picture after my second cut. We’d already had two very, very good previews: in the 80s, up to the 90s. I don’t think I’ve even looked at the release print. I do have a cut of my own on DVD, I’ll have to get you a copy. I was really pleased that you liked what you saw in the movie…
Some of the material that I like best, it feels like there’s meant to be more of it, like the poker scene with Willie Nelson and Harry Dean Stanton and Morgan Freeman…
You’re right about that scene. My God, I could still be shooting that.
There’s a sense of this laid-back, hang-out movie that’s been squeezed into a different shape.
Yeah, yeah. A lot of the cuts were language and nudity. Owen and Sarah were good sports, very generous with themselves. But when people ask to see my last movie, I show them my cut of The Big Bounce, I don’t show them what’s out there. It isn’t absolutely complete, but I think it could have been a far, far better film.
The Big Bounce
You had to shut down production briefly, as well?
Yeah, on the first day of pre-production shooting, we were up in a helicopter, getting some stuff and getting everybody broken in. And as I got out of the helicopter I got hit in the eye with a piece of lava rock. And there was some kind of virus on the rock. They treated the eye, and it was fine, but they didn’t realize that there was an infection. So with nearly two weeks left in the picture, I had to go into hospital, I was flown back to L.A. and the whole thing. Fortunately it was right at Christmas, so it turned into a Christmas break that we hadn’t planned on, and I completed the picture afterwards.
Everyone who worked on that film has said to me that it was the greatest experience of their lives. Now, being in Hawaii was probably a great deal of that. But it was just an extraordinary experience, and I credit the producer, Steve Bing, with that. He put up his own money, and I think he had $250,000 in bar bills, just picking up drinks for the crew and cast for all that time. So he couldn’t have been more wonderful. But the wrong decision was made. He was getting advice from people who’re in the money business, and he felt that to have a chance to get his money back, he should go PG-13. It was very difficult for some people to understand that when you take away the reality of these people, the way they speak, what they do—these are important elements of the movie that make it work. Whether they would’ve made it a financial success I don’t know, but they make the movie work, and if the movie works, you have more of a chance of more people seeing it.
Do you have any projects in the offing right now?
What I do primarily for fun and money is I do a lot of script doctoring. I’m able to help people who think their picture should be made for $30 million but have only $25 million, I show them how to do that. The first speech is: “Get your picture made. Don’t be sitting around for 50 years whining about it, get it made.” Then I show them how to cut days. They’ve got 40 days, you go down to 35 or whatever, you show them how to combine locations, break characters into roles for different actors so you don’t have to keep an actor on hold and pay for thirty days. It’s kind of anonymous, but it’s great to see the films get made.
The first speech is “I’m telling you, get your picture made. Don’t sit around for 50 years whining about it, get it made.” And then I show them how to, basically, cut days. If you’ve got 40 days, I get it to 35. Talk to the production manager find out where you can shave money. How to combine locations, to create different characters from the same character, so you don’t wind up holding an actor from day one who you’re only going to use again on day thirty. I’ve done this on seven or eight films over the last seven or eight years.
Now I’m working on two things. I also have a script called Hollywood, which is about a crew that goes off to make a picture about aliens invading, and they’re abducted by aliens, the entire crew. What it is, is a love poem to Hollywood crews and the incredible talent that they have… I’m introducing something I haven’t seen yet, which is alien reenactors—you’re familiar with Civil War reenactors and all of that? I have alien reenactors. I’m having fun doing that.
The second thing—are you familiar with the term agnothology? It’s the study of the cultural production of ignorance. So I’m trying to find a proper vehicle for that. I’m overcome by the amount of absolute stupidity that’s being spewed out there, not just politically, but everywhere now. It seems like anybody can say anything at any time about anything and somehow somebody legitimatizes it. It’s just beyond bizarre.