By Nick Pinkerton
I’ve heard it said that James Woods is a very, very talented improviser. Was there a lot of that on the set?
No, not really, because he really liked the script. So we didn’t do any improv that I know of. When we had to shoot the scene with Susan Tyrrell, she was utterly unprepared—she didn’t know her lines. We had to spend most of the day shooting her side of the scene, almost one line at a time. When we turned around to shoot Woods’s half, we had very little time left, but he knew all his lines. He helped everyone get through that day. He knew his lines perfectly, so he never made any mistakes. In the middle of a summer heat in the valley with hot lights on him, he never slipped up. So he didn’t do much improv, which he's very capable of doing, but he was a tremendous help, that’s why I wanted to work with him again in Cop.
Charles Weldon, the fellow who played his sidekick—in the story, he was to get Robert Hooks out of the prison, he’s the one who’s going to be assassinated, and they have to disguise him as a prison guard. And I learned something about casting black actors. Some black actors, black people are much darker than others—they’re tan, they’re dark, they’re black. And so we had to find some actors whose hue wasn’t so different, since one was going to have to be substituted for the other. It’s funny, because we had to turn down some actors who were terrific, because they didn’t have the right hue. But Hooks was great—his son went on to become a director, he directed Passenger 57 with Wesley Snipes.
Oh, Kevin Hooks?
Yeah! And his sister, Maxine Weldon, is a terrific jazz singer. Quite the family. So we had a terrific cast. Hooks and Weldon were terrific, and Tim McIntire, too. The only trouble with Tim was that he was mostly high in the afternoons, which eventually killed him. He just abused himself to death.
I wasn’t really familiar with him outside of Fast Walking. He has a sort of young Orson Welles thing about him.
You know why? Because he’s the illegitimate son of Orson Welles! Look it up in Wikipedia, you’ll see. I mean, I don’t know if you can verify it, but everybody says it, and the proof is in the pudding. His voice is exactly like Welles, his nose is exactly like Welles, he’s subject to the overweight thing, just like Welles. Welles made a picture with his mother, I forget her name—Jeannette Nolan. But so everything leads to his being Welles’ illegitimate son. And… he is. I spent so much time with him and I felt like I was talking to Orson Welles most of the time.
That brings us up to Cop. Unless I’m mistaken, it’s the first film based on a James Ellroy novel?
That’s right. I’m always looking for material, and I came across a book called Blood on the Moon, which was the second book in a trilogy that James Ellroy had written. It seemed like a terrific crime story, so I cornered the rights and got to meet Ellroy, and then we became friends. I always become friends with the writers. Once I acquired the rights to the book, I wrote the screenplay, and I showed it to Woods, and he said he wanted to do it, wanted to co-produce it with me. At the time he was represented by an agency called CAA—I think they’re still the biggest. Atlantic, this small company, was looking for a project like this, so they offered us ten percent of the unadjusted gross, which was incredible, because if this project took off, we could both make a lot of money—if the film grossed 50 million, we could make 2.5 million each. So we jumped at the idea of working for scale.
We made the picture for very little. We got everyone to cooperate, to work for reasonable salaries. It was Ellroy’s first film, and I don’t think he knew how to handle it when he first saw it. He said he didn’t care for the film when he first saw it. But later he said everybody told him that the picture was terrific, and he went back and reevaluated it and said he liked it now, in fact I think he took the film on a tour to England, through several cities, and he screened the film as an example of a good adaptation. As it turned out, we had a good relationship, and I ended up acquiring The Black Dahlia from him as well.
So we cast the film with people like Charlie Durning and Lesley Ann Warren and Charlie Haid. And the film got good reviews—terrific reviews, actually. Siskel and Ebert gave us two thumbs up, and that was the big thing to get in those days.
What was the core idea that drew you to this material?
I love the character of the cop who pushes the envelope, that could get suspended any time, works on his own, is so obsessed with successfully getting the criminal. That’s what appealed to me. And when I look at material, I look at scenes, the key moments in the book that I’ll have to dramatize. And I liked the scenes. Some books you read and you don’t see anything you feel you can dramatize effectively. This book had real scenes—like the moment where the cop tells a crime scene bedtime story to his kid. We got a really young kid, so that it would seem outrageous for her to be hearing these stories about breaking and entering and murder. That’s what attracted me to the material, the potential of scenes, the arguments with the wife, Lesley’s character calling him a “police person.” I wanted to make fun of all of that Women’s Lib shit that was so hot at the time.
The movie has one of my favorite scenes that you’ve done, the scene with Lesley Ann Warren and James Woods, where she’s pouring her heart out to him, and you can see in his responses this combination of incredulity and …
And yet at the same time he really wants to get her into bed.
I had to turn away from that scene while they were filming it, because it was being acted so well. I knew I was going to ruin the scene by laughing out loud, I couldn't control my laughter. Woods struck me as so funny with the way he was looking at his watch, and you could see the look on his face. I guess it’s my favorite scene in the picture, too. We just loved doing it. And were never quite sure that Lesley understood that her character was being made fun of. And we didn’t want to tell her because she was playing it just the way it should be played, so sincerely!
There are two other books in Ellroy’s Lloyd Hopkins series. Was there ever any idea to make the other two into films?
No. I never cared for the other two. I liked them to read, but I didn’t see a movie. So I just went on to The Black Dahlia. When he gave me that book to read, I thought there could be a good movie. I wrote the first draft of the script for Woods, I wanted Woods to play the main character, who Josh Hartnett eventually played. I put the deal together with a company called Capella, but I realized they were going to rewrite the script, and I realized I wouldn’t have final cut. I had just had a bad experience with Warners on Boiling Point where I didn’t have final cut, Canal Plus were changing things, and I realized that I was getting into the same thing all over again, and I walked away from that project. They were completely rewriting the script and they got Brian De Palma. It didn’t turn out too well. I saw it with Ellroy, we watched it together, and were both really disappointed in it.
It seems like you and Ellroy make a very natural match, in terms of your interests—obsessive heroes, relations between men and women, or the failure of those relations. Seems like a natural pairing.
Yeah, it seems that way.
You next worked from a Gerald Petievich book for the screenplay to Boiling Point. When did you start working on that adaptation?
That was early on. Way back, it was before anything, before Cop. James Woods mentioned that he came across a book that had two stories in it. One was called, One-Shot Deal, and the other was called, Money Men. So I read it, and Money Men was the one I was interested in. So I wrote the script, I acquired the rights from Gerry. I had met his brother, who is a cop, John, who has a small part in Cop. He was a technical advisor as well.
Anyway, I acquired it. I showed it to Woods, but he was busy working on something. The film got put together, actually, in Europe, because a person that had worked in France for Cannon Films, who distributed Cop in France, became a friend of mine, and wanted to be a producer. I showed my friend Leonardo De La Fuente the Boiling Point script. He attended the Cannes Film Festival that year and Dennis Hopper was there as well. Leonardo called me and said, “Would Dennis Hopper be a good heavy in the piece?” And I said, “Yeah, he would be terrific. Why?” “Well, he’s here at the festival and I can get the script to him.” So I said, “Go ahead.” He gave the script to Dennis. Dennis read it overnight, and the next day he said he’d love to do it. With that, Leonardo took the script and Dennis Hopper’s commitment to Canal Plus, who’s over in France. Canal Plus said they’re going to open an office in Beverly Hills and finance films over here, because they had just been participating in films over there, but now they were willing to actually make the film. That’s how the deal came together. They came over here, opened an office in Beverly Hills, and they suggested that maybe Andy Garcia would play in it. Then they said CAA has Wesley Snipes, what would I think of that? I said, “He’d be fine. He’d be terrific. He’s going to be a star. He’s up and coming.” And so we got Wesley Snipes and Canal Plus put up the money and we made the movie. That’s pretty much the nexus, pretty much how the whole film got put together.
Then they had to sell it to Warner Brothers. They wanted to distribute it in North America. Once they went to Warner Brothers, Warner Brothers wanted to do a picture like Passenger 57, which they had success with. My picture was not that kind of a movie. It was more cerebral. I was trying to do a picture that explored the difference between the cop and the criminal. There’s a fine line between them, and they’re very much the same. They wanted an action movie, so they changed the name to Boiling Point, they designed the ads that looked like Wesley Snipes was going to blow away the whole police force or the whole criminal world. The ads promised something that the picture didn’t deliver. The picture was not made for the same audience that went to Passenger 57. They were trying to drive a round peg into a square hole. It was just ridiculous. I think that’s what caused the lack of response at the box office. Even though it got some good reviews, it just misled them. It was very disappointing. That’s how I got out of <em>The Black Dahlia. I didn’t want this to happen again, and I knew it was heading in that direction.
It’s a movie that I have a great fondness for, but it’s very out of step with the moment that it appears when a flippant, casual violence is very au courant. It’s a very bittersweet, even somber kind of movie. One of the things I like so much about it is the way that you observe Hopper gliding along the street. You’re so attentive to actors in motion, in the balletic scenes in Some Call It Loving, or in just watching the way that James Woods moves through a room with his limber strut.
I think you'd like the picture even more if you could see the director’s cut. They were cutting scenes in half. The scene with Dennis Hopper in bed with Valerie Perrine, where he confesses that he tried to make it with a prostitute and he couldn’t perform, that scene was trimmed against my better judgment. There was nothing I could do about it. I wanted an orchestral score for that movie. They insisted on a score which cheapens it, makes it sound like a television movie. There are so many things about it that would make it better, because it had a good base, it still played fairly well, and it got some pretty good reviews. But in my mind… maybe because I'm a director who thinks everything is precious, I'm overreacting to having things taken out. I do think that the picture would've been even more entertaining if it had been left alone. We previewed it with my cut and we previewed it with the cut that they insisted on, and the results were exactly the same. So you'd think that at least they'd let my cut go out, particularly in foreign. They insisted on the cut that I had to do for them. But anyway, you tell me that you enjoy the film, then it makes it all worthwhile because, at least it's there. I didn’t quit. I staked a price for the few things that I could protect, otherwise left to their devices they would've really ruined it.
Does your version, your cut still survive somewhere?
Yeah. After a while, after a year or so, Warner Brothers called me out to the studio, and said that I could do whatever I wanted to for the TV release, for syndication, not the network. ABC network played it the way it was cut for the theaters. But they said for syndication they would make a version where I could put back the scenes I wanted. The syndication put back the scenes I wanted. I got a ton of the stuff back in. I’ve never seen it on syndication. I guess when it plays on HBO or Showtime or one of those, they run the theatrical version of it. It’s probably buried, but it does exist. But you gotta move on to the next thing.
You mentioned a project called Alex earlier?
We’re not prepared to make any real announcements, but I can tell you what’s already been on Wikipedia and places like that. It’s a good book of a trilogy in French written by Pierre Lemaitre. Another book he’s recently written which won the equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize in Europe, the Prix Goncourt. It’s the most prestigious literary prize you can get. So he’s a really incredibly renowned author. It’s the story of a French detective named Camille Verhoeven. He appears in all the books. We feel it’s going to be a franchise. Alex is a female in the story that he's pursuing. Something that's always interested me is when a cop becomes obsessed with a criminal, particularly when it’s a beautiful woman. I’ve worked together with the author on the screenplay, which has been completed. We’ll soon be able to make an announcement as to who’s going to distribute it, who’s going to finance it, and all of that, which will probably be in the next month or so. That’s pretty much it. I don’t know where we’re going to do it. The story takes place in France, and I assume we are going to do it just like Paths of Glory, American actors playing French people, which we discussed before. Hopefully, we’ll get a substantial budget for the picture. More than that I can’t say at this time.
Are you still drumming at all?
Yeah. Well, I’m not playing any gigs or anything like that. But I still have the drums up here at the house, and I still practice. It’s a good hobby at this point. The best I could’ve been was an itinerant musician. You want to do what you can do best in life. I wanted to play center field for a major league ball club, but I wouldn’t have gone anywhere, because I was too small, although I had opportunities for college scholarships in baseball, and I played baseball in the Army… But I don’t think I could’ve ever been better than a minor league player.
As a New York guy, were you Dodgers, Yankees, or Giants?
Football Giants. New York Knicks for basketball. But strangely enough, I’ve always rooted for the Cincinnati Reds in baseball. Only because when I was growing up and I was nine, ten years old, my brother was a Yankees fan. And if he likes the American League, I have to root for the National League. And that year, Cincinnati was the best team in the National League, and I thought I could at least latch on to a team that could give my brother fits. Unfortunately, the Yankees beat the Reds in four straight in the 1939 World Series, and now I was hooked on Cincinnati. So I’ve spent my whole life rooting for a losing team, except for a few years here and there, like in ’75 and ’76, when they beat the Yankees in four straight, and I got my revenge. This year I think it’ll be the same old story, but I can’t worry about it anymore.
I must say that the three things that I’d want to do the most would be play centerfield for a major league ball club, play drums in a big jazz band, or make movies. Whatever I do, I want to be in the major leagues. I want to be a professional, and I really couldn’t be in any category except making movies. I never would have succeeded at being a professional as a musician or a ball player, but I think I’ve managed to be a professional and play in the major leagues in film.