TALES FROM LOS ALAMOS

The character of J. Frank Parnell, played by Fox Harris in the original REPO MAN, was an invention. I’d read enough about the Neutron Bomb to make me speculate on the sanity of its creator, and to create a fictional dramatic character based on that person. But I didn’t know Sam Cohen at the time, and Parnell and Cohen were distinct in numerous ways, while being just as insane.

Now an email from Robby in Los Alamos arrives, to relate the following strange tale…

“I’m writing to tell you thank you for creating Repo Man so many years ago. I grew up in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and when your film came out in 1984 it showed at the Los Alamos movie theater. Half of Los Alamos High School were beyond thrilled that our town was featured in the opening map scene, and the portrayal of the scientist in the film was beyond perfect. Your film came out at a time when we were just getting introduced to punk rock and all that (information moved slowly up to the mountains in New Mexico), so it was just perfect for us.

“I’ve read online about your call from Sam Cohen, the father of the Neutron Bomb, and that’s really interesting. We had some really amazing characters in Los Alamos, oddball scientists and their weird families and all (I’m probably included in that!), but when your film was released, we all thought it was based on a Los Alamos scientist named Ken Ewing. By most accounts he was legally blind, and would walk around town talking to himself, wearing a fannie-pack and had these thick, crazy taped-up glasses. He’d go to all the art openings and gorge himself on the free food, and would have that same 1000-yard stare and freakish demeanor that the scientist character you portrayed in the film had. It was beyond uncanny. When the film premiered in town, all of us yelled “Ken Ewing!! when the scientist character first appeared. it was just too coincidental how similar they were.

“Ken was a neighbor and my parents knew him from the amateur archaeological society they were all volunteering for. For his daytime job, Ken was an explosives expert. He never mowed his lawn (much to the consternation of his neighbors), to make sure the horned toads could have a good habitat. He lived with his mother until she died, and kept on living at the run-down house. He was an avid hiker, I don’t think he drove, and to get downtown it was a good 5-mile walk up and down canyons and stuff, he’d chug along talking to himself, wearing an old parka and a fannie pack…”

I never knew about Ken, but am sure he fit right in with the nuclear labs crowd. And to his credit he supported the horny toads! Robby reports that the Los Alamos High School almost voted REPO MAN their 1984 Class Film, but it lost to RISKY BUSINESS. Instead, they arranged to have the film re-played in the cinema on graduation night, at midnight.

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TO LOS ANGELES

It’s always a pleasure to visit the Pearl of the Pacific and at the end of next week I’ll be in Hollywood CA to present four fims at the American Cinematheque: EL PATRULLERO (HIGHWAY PATROLMAN) and WALKER on Friday 15 March; and REPO MAN and TOMBSTONE RASHOMON on Saturday 16 March. Both screenings start at 1930hrs at the Egyptian Theater.

This is the LA premiere of TOMBSTONE RASHOMON and also of the new 4K transfer of EL PATRULLERO, which got a very nice write-up from J. Hoberman. I’m hoping that Lorenzo O’Brien, who wrote and produced EL PATRULLERO and produced WALKER, will be there on Friday, if his NARCOS duties permit.

The REPO and TOMBSTONE screening may be of interest since it’s a double bill of my first feature – released 35 years ago; US rights just reverted to me! – and my most recent one. An opportunity to see if I’ve improved, or only got worse.

There will be a Q&A between shows on both evenings. (UPDATE: The first evening was attended by my dear friend Zander Schloss, composer of EL PATRULLERO and Strummer’s partner on the WALKER soundtrack. Dick Rude and Olivia Barash from REPO MAN and Eric Schumacher and Rogelio Camarillo from TOMBSTONE RASHOMON were present the following evening, as were Lorenzo, and Merritt Crocker, producer of TOMBSTONE. Thanks for your presence, and to the American Cinematheque for two great evenings.)

10000Ways-1.1Also! Entirely unconnected, I’ve completed the second edition of my Italian Western book, TEN THOUSAND WAYS TO DIE, which will be coming out from Kamera Books later in the year. Just received this attractive piece of cover art, in my favourite colour.

TWO GOODBYES

Sad news from the diaspora of REPO MAN. Robby Muller, the cinematographer, and Martin Turner, the stills photographer, both died last week. Robby’s passing was noted by the MSM, and he was rightly celebrated for some of the wonderful work he did. Our hiring him for REPO MAN was strictly fortuitous: Michael Nesmith, our executive producer, had rejected my first choice of cameraperson. Peter McCarthy told me, “Take this as an opportunity. Now you can ask for anyone you want!” Having been awestruck by his work on THE AMERICAN FRIEND, I asked for Robby Muller. Nesmith was all in favour, and we got him. It was his second American film.

Robby was a genius of lighting, and of composition. He didn’t like closeups, preferring wider shots which celebrated the performances of all the actors in the frame. He wasn’t much interested in camera movement when we worked together. On his other American film he’d been given a Steadicam. He and his crew took it out of the boxes, marvelled at how heavy it was, put it back in the boxes, and used them to sit on.

Robby was a great artist – as was Martin Turner, though he’s perhaps known to fewer people. “Stills photographer” doesn’t do justice to his work on REPO MAN, as he was also a supporting actor and – together with Jonathan Wacks – came up with the concept for the film’s finale. I met Martin at film school – what was then the Radio, Film and TV Studies course at Bristol. He and David Hutt made a highly ambitious student film called NEARLY WIDE AWAKE, based on Knut Hamsen’s “Hunger.” (We paid no attention to things like Copyright! We were students!) I acted in it.

Martin worked for Lindsay Anderson in the art department on THE OLD CROWD and BRITANNIA HOSPITAL. He was responsible for the slide show which the guests in THE OLD CROWD enjoy, and which causes the death of “Tottie.” THE OLD CROWD greatly offended the London critical fraternity, and is rarely seen. I don’t know if a DVD exists. [Update — THE OLD CROWD does exist on DVD! A friend has found it in a set of TV Dramas by Alan Bennett, available on the Network label: Network clearly have good taste since they also distribute THE PRISONER.] But it is a wonderful film – perhaps Anderson’s best work of all, part Buñuel, part Brecht – and Martin had a lot to do with its insane inventiveness.

Back in the days of a government quango called “British Screen” Martin wrote two very good feature screenplays: THE BATTLE OF TORREMOLINOS and INTO A DESERT PLACE (the latter was an adaptation of Graham Mackintosh’s book about travelling Baja California on foot; I was to direct it). I thought them great scripts. But times were increasingly conservative, money was said to be scarce, and if you didn’t have a TV personality from The Young Ones or The Comic Strip pre-cast, it was hard to get a British film going. Too bad! Because they were great stories – especially TORREMOLINOS, an original script in which Martin pitted the English hooligan class against itself, and everything else, in a Spanish seaside tower block.

Martin was also a painter and sculptor. He painted a number of canvases depicting dreadful scenes from THE BATTLE OF TORREMOLINOS, and received a commission to display them at the Torremolinos Festival of Comedy, some years later. Martin and our mutual friend Karl Braun hung all the artwork, and went around the corner for a beer. In their absence the President of the Festival arrived, saw Martin’s art works, and ordered the building locked until the offending paintings could be removed.

Somehow Martin’s stories seemed to end that way: a great idea, a great piece of creative art somehow uncreated, or unseen, or banned, or – in the case of THE OLD CROWD – completed then mercilessly disparaged by clowns. No matter! Martin did his work. in the footsteps of Derek Jarman he moved to Dungeness, where he bought a lighthouse and renovated it, with his own hands. His wonderful partner, Brenda Morris, died a few years ago. Martin died at the lighthouse, at the end of last week. He’s survived by an ace daughter, Kathryn.

drunken turner Picture of Martin in his nautical days, by David Hutt.

VANISHING POINT

VANISHING POINT is a road movie made in 1971. I saw it years ago, and had a brief and enlightening email exchange with the original author of the tale, Malcolm Hart. On my shelf of DVDs sat the Japanese “King Records” double disk version, assembled by the great Japanese cineaste Katsumi Ishikuma… So I took it down, peeled off the shrinkwrap and opened it up.

There are two versions – the American release version, and the UK version, which is a little longer and contains a splendid scene in which the taciturn protagonist, Kowalski, picks up a hitchhiker, played by Charlotte Rampling. Like the beautiful lady who tells Toby Dammitt “I’ve been waiting for you for a long time” it is pretty clear that she is Death. It seems like the American producers really didn’t get the film. For Richard Zanuck, the child studio head, it was a low-budget way of showcasing a muscle car and paying off some debts to his pals. But Zanuck’s parents fired him during the production – according to the director, Richard Sarafian, whose commentary is spendidly disgruntled and old-school – and took over the studio to make it safe for HELLO DOLLY and their real films.

Which was unfortunate, since VANISHING POINT is a very good picture, which – if Sarafian is correct – was the first road movie to feature the extreme telephoto shot of cars approaching out of the heat haze, a shot now de rigeur in all road movies made since, including DUEL, ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE, and my own EL PATRULLERO.

MORE THOUGHTS —

The authorship issue… Malcolm Hart, who wrote the original screenplay, is credited with quite a demeaning title card: “Original Story Idea by…” Instead, the screenwriter is identified as one Guillermo Kane. In his commentary, the director recalls Kane as creating the Super Soul character (who was supposed to be a Latino disk jockey named Super Spic – an idea which didn’t go far). One of his pursuing policemen makes a joke about Kowalski taking the car to Cuba, which perhaps might be attributed to Kane – who was in fact the Cuban author Guillermo Cabrera Infante.

VANISHING POINT was green-lit by 20th Century Fox in order to do “some people” favours. One of the recipients was Barry Newman, who wasn’t the director’s choice: Sarafian wanted Gene Hackman. Newman is fine in the role, but he wasn’t a big star and Sarafian is adamant that his casting was done to please some associates of Fox… The car itself – a Dodge Challanger – was imposed on the picture. Chrysler/Dodge had been in the habit of loaning cars to the studio for a dollar a day. The director didn’t get to choose the Challenger: it was a done deal.

I think the presence of Cabrera Infante falls into the same category. The author, recently defected from Cuba, had been the Revolution’s Minister of Culture. He was a big catch for the Americans. Political defections may occur for various reasons, and one is the desire for a better material existence in the United States. When a high-ranking politician jumps ship there’s plenty of negotiation as to the pay-off they’ll receive. English wasn’t his first language, and he has almost no other script credits. But so what? A writing credit on a Hollywood movie would be a good way for him to receive one of his CIA pay-offs…

Go on, tell me it isn’t so! CIA and the Pentagon would never involve themselves in Hollywood movies, would they?

But my main thought about VANISHING POINT is how great it might have been. It’s a good film, of course, particularly in its beginning and at the end. Barry Newman and the Challenger carry the film. It is buoyed up by some fantastic stunt work and the splendid photography of John Alonso. And it is weighed down by a series of encounters with eccentric, unbelievable characters.

The vice of VANISHING POINT is its failure to follow through on its premise: that Kowalski is all alone. Kowalski, as we are shown him, has no friends he can rely on (other than to score him drugs). He is literally only about speed – in the sense of the amphetamines which keep him awake and kill his judgement, and in the unbeatable velocity of his white muscle car. This makes him a very, very interesting character. The flashbacks which fill in his back story (girlfriend dead in surfing accident! the only honest cop on the Venice police force!) are unconvincing and unnecessary. So are almost all his interactions on the road – with gay stickup artists, with an old prospector, with a revivalist minister, with a naked woman and her goofy boyfriend – who cares about these?

If you’ve seen the film, imagine it without them – yes, even without the nude biker girl. Imagine Kowalski all alone, with just his car and the voice of Super Soul on the radio. Imagine all those interactions and sideshows gone — just Kowalski, pursued from state line to state line by different armies of cops, escaping all of them — headed for his meeting with Charlotte Rampling, the hitchhiking Angel of Death.

What a film that would have been!

How many talking pictures had an entirely mute protagonist? I can only think of a couple – IL GRANDE SILENZIO (what if Corbucci had directed this film?) and COCKFIGHTER (where TWO-LANE BLACKTOP director Monte Hellman directed Warren Oates in an almost-entirely silent role). Both pictures are excellent – as is the first act of PARIS TEXAS, which Harry Dean Stanton plays in a similar vein.

Malcolm Hart told me that Kowalski didn’t die in his first script. Facing a road block of police cars and bulldozers, Kowalski put pedal to the metal… and drove right through ’em. The last shot was of Kowalski at the wheel, smiling to himself as the muscle car flies on through the stratosphere.

(Years later, that would be the ending of REPO MAN, of course… But did Otto and Bud follow Kowalski to the Other Side? Or will they return? We’ll have to wait for REPO MAN 2, in 2019, to figure that one out…)

Fascinating in addition to the film itself was the map included with the Japanese DVDs — for it is the map of my commute from Oregon to Colorado – via Highway 50 (“Loneliest Road in America”) and the Interstate through Green River and Glenwood Springs. In 1971 there was no Interstate though Glenwood Canyon, just a two-lane highway, and it’s tremendous to see how that iconic canyon looked before all that concrete got cantilevered in there. Whereas Austin, Nevada, home of the Serbian International Hotel, looks exactly the same.

I’ll be taking that commute one more time, soon, even though I’m no longer teaching at CU Boulder — for the launch party of my next film, TOMBSTONE RASHOMON.

What (I hope you ask) is TOMBSTONE RASHOMON? All will be revealed on 27 August, when the new crowdfunding campaign goes live. Unlike BILL this will be a commercial feature, and we plan to pay the cast and crew (imagine that!). And it will be quite unlike any other film about certain events in Tombstone, AZ, as you’ll see…

For now, if you’re around at the end of August, I’d like to invite you to join me and my esteemed producer, Merritt Crocker, in Boulder for a beer to celebrate the launch of the campaign. Venue and date of this exciting event to follow…

And if you ever felt an urge to tear the t-shirt of the director’s back, rewards this time will include my personal collection of production t-shirts from REPO MAN on…

My Way t-shirt from REPO MAN

Love Kills London t-shirt

Love Kills London t-shirt

THE REPO MAN BLU-RAY

Michael Nesmith, executive producer of REPO MAN, played here two nights ago. I didn’t get to see him since his show began at the Boulder Theater at 6.30pm (rock’n’roll shows seem to start earlier and earlier) and I teach screenwriting till 7.30pm. Which is a pity (not the screenwriting part — it’s a great class and my students are more literate and inventive than you could possibly imagine) because I wanted to hand him a copy of the Criterion Collection BluRay disk of REPO MAN, which had arrived that day.

First let me praise the package! Criterion’s artwork is simply lovely, particularly the cover art. This is the very best graphical representation of the film I have ever seen: even better than the old English poster of the smoking boots. The illustration is by Jay Shaw:

Image I don’t need to go into the contents of the box, since they are described in amazing detail at the DVD Beaver site, which compares the original Anchor Bay NTSC DVD with the Universal NTSC DVD, with the Masters of Cinema ‘Region B’ BluRay, with the new Criterion ‘Region A’ release.

The original Anchor Bay was sparse in additional elements, inevitably, since Universal Pictures had refused to create any. Instead, Jay Douglas of Anchor Bay paid for an audio recording in which Nesmith, I, Sy Richardson, Zander Schloss, Del Zamora, and  Vicky Thomas all participated. He offered us each a $2000 bonus if Harry Dean Stanton came to the recording session! But Harry declined to attend. Still, the Anchor Bay DVD was popular, so popular in fact that Universal demanded the rights back — terminating their contract with Anchor early, and giving them the DVD rights to EVIL DEAD 2 in return.

Universal, well aware how much money Anchor Bay had made, wanted a piece of that REPO DVD action. But now they faced a problem. Other than the audio recording we had made there were no additional elements. All but eight of the production stills we had delivered had been lost. A solution came in the form of Rick Finkelstein, formerly Nesmith’s attorney and, suddenly, CEO of Universal Pictures. I contacted Finkelstein and suggested Universal bring out a decent DVD of REPO MAN, rather than a vanilla one. Thanks to Rick’s intervention, Universal gave me a budget to create elements for the DVD: I shared the dosh with the film’s producers, Jonathan Wacks and Peter McCarthy, and we created three new elements — Peter’s interview with Harry Dean Stanton, Jonathan’s round-table chat, and the “missing scenes” interviews with Sam Cohen and Zander Schloss.

Rolling Stone magazine decreed the result their DVD of the year. At which point Universal should have swallowed their pride, contacted Nesmith, Wacks, McCarthy and me and offered us $20 million to make a sequel. Unfortunately they didn’t: instead they re-branded one of their unreleasable flops as “REPO MEN” and sent a letter threatening to sue me if I ever made a movie with the word REPO in the title.

Charming, aren’t they? I talk a bit about Universal’s weird threats and the studio’s attempts to own the word REPO on the Masters of Cinema BluRay: for some reason, this element doesn’t make it onto the Criterion Blu-Ray disk which is, otherwise, entirely complete. The DVD Beaver site goes into extraordinary detail comparing the visual aspect of the two Blu-Rays. Both look damn good to me. In any case, which one you watch has already been decided for you, depending on where you live, thanks to the MPAA’s regional censorship and profit regime.

Thanks very much to Criterion for this lovely new release. And under no circumstances should you watch the outrageously-offensive, almost certainly untrue hidden additional element created by a pair of Colorado cowboys named Hafnor and Powers. I have no idea who these varmints are, but they’d better watch out, telling such subversive stories about the real origins of REPO MAN. As Hanging Judge Jeffreys said, the fact that the libel may be true, just makes it worse!

By the way, the rights to the original screenplay of REPO MAN revert to me in just a few years’ time. If anyone wants to remake the original script, or do a sequel to it, get in touch with me in early 2015…

UPDATE

The Blu-Ray got a very nice writeup from the LA Times but when I tried to post a comment I was unable to (it seems you have to sign up for a subscription first, which is a bit extreme. Or maybe my browser’s broken…) so here is the comment I wanted to post:

Thanks for that very nice analysis of my film REPO MAN. I do have to correct one misapprehension, though. REPO MAN is not a critique of Reagan policies, because these policies, sad to say, were systematic, whatever party was in power. It’s true that we saw a massive increase in the homeless on our city streets when Reagan came to office (I’d seen the same thing happen in England when Thatcher’s government took power). But it’s wrong to ascribe agency to either politician.
It was generally assumed that George H.W. Bush ran the show during the Reagan years. Bush was a highly intelligent man, fluent in Mandarin, and the former head of the CIA. Reagan was… an actor.
In terms of international politics, the Central American holocaust and the disastrous blowback of Islamic terrorism in Afghanistan were the invention of Jimmy Carter, as CIA chief Gates observes in his memoir, From The Shadows.
So REPO MAN isn’t a critique of any individual, no matter how detestable. Its analysis is systematic: it’s a little clearer in WALKER, which perhaps explains why the studio expended more efforts to suppress that film.

MORE THAN HALF WAY…

A nice write-up about the BILL project in the Boulder Weekly was picked up by USA Today, and with 22 Kickstarter days left, we’re more than half way to raising $100,000 to make the film of Harry Harrison’s immortal science fiction novel.

What is very noteworthy is that in the crowdfunding world none of the caveats of “film finance” seem to apply. For as long as I’ve been making features I’ve been told I can’t shoot them in black and white. “Audiences won’t stand for it” is a refrain film directors and cinematographers have been subjected to since the 1970s. “Television won’t accept it” was another frequently heard claim. Both were always demonstrably untrue since commercials and pop promos continued to be made in monochrome, and their only destination was the telly. Yet the caveat, for studios and British film funders, remained written in stone. Whereas not one of our 500+ backers has complained about the monochrome stock, or suggested we shoot the film in 120-fps 4K 3-D video instead. It’s almost as if Kickstarter backers have a clearer idea of what a film is, and what they want it to be, than Hollywood studio execs… Could this be so?

I have had a couple of enquiries about the student aspect of the production. One person is worried that the term “student film” has a negative connotation which could put supporters of the project off. This might be a valid point, but it isn’t something I’ve felt. I was a film student, at Bristol in England and at UCLA, and had a great education and a great time. At UCLA our role model was Charles Burnett, who had made, as one of his student projects, a black-and-white feature: KILLER OF SHEEP. When we shot REPO MAN I re-enrolled at UCLA so that we could use the video studio and the sound stages. Much of the work done at CU Boulder is technically and creatively of a very high standard: check it out here. So I reckon this attempt at making the biggest student film of all time is a plus, rather than a minus.

The other query was as to the ethics of getting students to work without pay on a feature film which may one day make money. This, too, is a fair point. No one working on BILL will get paid. The budget will be spent entirely on film stock, processing, props, costumes, visual effects materials, food, travel, and shipping out Kickstarter rewards. Most sane people in the middle of their lives cannot live this way. They need to be paid, to support their families, and homes, and cars. Only students, and those with a vocation, or a vacation, can create art without hope of pay.

What if BILL makes money? Let’s raise the budget first, and make the film, and hope it’s good and blessed with great fortune. Everyone who works on the film, as a crew person or an actor, including me, will receive one producer’s point. What will this be worth? Who knows? There are so many stages in the progress of a film. Finishing it is just part of the process. Getting it out and seen by an audience is another part. Happy retirement in a sunny fishing village is probably something else. Right now, one must concentrate on fundraising, and making the best film possible.

And on other things unrelated. For, as Harry wrote, “I know of no serious writer who does not need his solitude, his sitting and thinking time, in addition to his writing time.

BILL, THE GALACTIC HERO

So, in honour of my dear friend Harry Harrison I embark upon this new site, and a new project: the feature film version of BILL, THE GALACTIC HERO – Harry’s immortal science fiction novel, which I first optioned and tried to make into a film way back in 1983! This was right as I was finishing REPO MAN: I met Harry at his hotel in Hollywood – the one where everybody used to stay, with the famous diner attached, long bulldozed now – and he plied me with gin and limes, and I optioned the rights to the book for six months. My attempts to make BILL my second feature didn’t succeed: “Too expensive! Too anti-war!” So I ended up making a picture called SID & NANCY, instead.

But BILL, the great, transgressive riposte to STARSHIP TROOPERS, remained unmade. Heinlein’s right-wing tract got made into a picture, and many, many, many bad science fiction films were shot. Harry’s MAKE ROOM, MAKE ROOM! had been filmed back in the 70s, as SOYLENT GREEN. He was a popular writer in Russia, and over the years I helped him try to get DEATHWORLD made there, as a superproduction funded by Gazprom, and also WEST OF EDEN, his dinosaurian alternative history, as a cartoon film. Splendid projects which did not materialize.

And then, as luck would have it, I found myself teaching film and making movies at one of the world’s premier universities, and the thought occurred to me, now, at last, I can make BILL, THE GALACTIC HERO the way it should be made: not as a hundred million dollar studio picture, but as a hundred thousand dollar student picture, shot and acted by my esteemed students, working for free! I tried the idea out on Harry, who was all in favour. He persuaded his agent, Nat, to grant me an academic license to direct BILL … a non-exclusive license, so if you’re reading this, George Lucas, you can still direct your own hundred million dollar version, simultaneously.

Meanwhile, I embark on the thrilling prospect of a Kickstarter campaign… Image