Monday, August 29, 2016

AN INTERVIEW WITH PETER HYAMS (PART 2 OF 2)

Peter Hyams is one of the most talented, under-rated and versatile directors of the last few decades. He has worked in many different genres, making his mark in all of them, and has worked with some of cinema's most brilliant actors and most loved stars: Sean Connery, Elliott Gould, Michael Douglas, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Michael Caine, Gene Hackman and Jean-Claude Van Damme, for example. Peter always manages to put a unique spin on any genre he tackles, and his films always emphasise characterisation, action, location work and entertainment value. His impresive filmography includes  BUSTING (1974) with Elliott Gould and Robert Blake, one of the earliest examples of the buddy-buddy cop comedy/ thriller; CAPRICORN ONE (1977), a mix of paranoid politics and action/ adventure; the sci-fi thriller OUTLAND (1981), with Sean Connery; 2010 (1984), the sequel to Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968); RUNNING SCARED (1986), a buddy-buddy cop comedy thriller with Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines; TIMECOP (1994), the first of so far three films with Jean-Claude Van Damme; and END OF DAYS (1999), an apocalyptic sci-fi movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the final part of a two part interview, I spoke with Peter about OUTLAND, and working with Sean Connery; THE STAR CHAMBER (1983) and working with Michael Douglas; the challenges of making 2010; working with actors in general; his approach to remakes; shooting his win films; his feelings about his son John becoming a director; working with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gene Hackman and Jean-Claude Van Damme; producing THE MONSTER SQUAD (1987); and how he views his legacy as a filmmaker.   

Part one of the interview.  

How did OUTLAND come about? 
I very much wanted to make a Western. I was working with a wonderful, extraordinarily bright guy named Richard Roth, and he said ''You can't make a Western. No-one will make it. '' I kept on saying ''It's the longest, most enduring genre in the history of the movies, starting with THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY in 1903. '' I remember waking up in the morning, and a lightbulb had turned on. Like George Lucas before me I had realised that the Western hadn't gone, it was that now it was in outer space. That was the propulsion for OUTLAND. ''What would a Western be like in an environment as hostile as outer space?'' I went off and I did a lot of drawings and paintings showing what the world would look like. 

What did you enjoy the most about working with Sean Connery on OUTLAND and later on THE PRESIDIO (1988)? 
He is one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met. It was one of the great privileges to work with him. Sean was up to every expectation you could ever have. He is one of the straightest, the biggest, truest, most honest, most un-full of shit, talented people I have ever met. He is a movie star the moment you first meet him and shake his hand, with a wrist that's the size of the Lincoln Tunnel. The only way that you can get into trouble with Sean is if you're not honest. If you're straight, and if he asks you a question and you go ''I don't know'' or ''I don't agree'', you're okay. If you think you can bullshit him, you're making one of the biggest mistakes you'll ever make in your life. My process with Sean was having to prove myself and get his confidence as a filmmaker. It took a while. He used to say ''Hello, boy '' when we first started, and then when our relationship changed it would be ''Hello, cock'' . I love him. To then make another film with him eight years after OUTLAND was a blessing. I've never worked with anybody who had the same effect on 15 year old girls and 65 year old women, and everything in-between. There wasn't a female who wouldn't get moist just seeing him. Sean had such a presence that when we were editing OUTLAND, if we weren't sure if something was working, we'd just cut to a close-up of that face. 

Did you ever have any interaction with Duncan Jones? He has said he was influenced by the film when he made MOON. 
He said some very kind things and I think I sent him a note or called him. I thought MOON (2009) was incredible. He's a talented guy. 

What attracted you to THE STAR CHAMBER? 
I had been sent the script and I thought it was a fascinating idea. But I said to Sherry Lansing, who was the head of Twentieth Century-Fox and is a woman I will love till the day I die, ''I'll make this movie but I gotta re-write it from page one. I have to change it from a Donald Trump Republican script to a left-wing, anti-vigilante movie. '' My idea was to whip everyone up into a vigilante frame of mind and then pull the rug out from under them, and tell them that they're wrong. 

What was it like working with Michael Douglas on this film and the later BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT (2009)? 
I love him. Whatever fights Michael and I have ever had , were only ever to do with the movie we were making. It was never to do with movie star crap. It was always about how to make the movie better. He is wonderfully funny, and a really serious, pure, wonderful guy. 

What is your process with actors? 
It's thrilling working with the likes of Michael, and Sean, and Catherine Deneuve (on THE MUSKETEER). I really mean this – I love actors. I don't have the courage or talent to be an actor. I think directing is creating a place where actors feel good and where they feel brave. The braver they feel, the bigger the chances they take, and the bigger the chances they take, the better the work. I tell my actors when I work with them ''I can't make you better than you are, but I can make sure you don't look like a complete asshole. '' Once they know that, they'll take chances.

I remember on CAPRICORN ONE, I was choreographing this very complicated scene involving this very talented actor named Bobby Walden and Elliott Gould playing pool. Firstly, I violated Rule 1. I didn't show the fucking table. I should have put the bottom of the frame above the table so it didn't matter what the balls did, but I was too stupid to have understood that, so the actors had to make all these shots and it all became much too complicated. When we were preparing the scene, Bobby came up to me and said ''What do you think if I put a Band-Aid on my glasses?'' I said ''Terrific. '' As he walked away I thought ''Who the fuck cares if he puts a Band-Aid on his glasses?'' I shot the scene, and I was in the editing room six months later and a shot came up of Bobby with the Band-Aid on his glasses. I realised ''Holy shit. What a great idea.''

I describe directing as conducting a collective myopia. You want everybody to think that it all centers around them. You have to somehow push it and shove it a little bit so that it goes closer to the way you originally wanted it. I don't care who the director is, 90% of directing is casting. You think you can tell Michael Douglas how to act? I've only ever said two intelligent things to an actor in my life, and I have been directing movies for over forty years. One was early in my career when I was making PEEPER (1975) with Natalie-fucking-Wood. It's late in the day, I'm laying down all this dolly track, people are getting tired and the crew want to go home. Natalie comes out of her trailer and she says ''OK, what are we doing?'' So I say ''Well, we start here and you walk to here, and when you get to here, you turn and you say your line. '' Natalie says to me ''What's my motivation for saying it there?'' And you can see the whole crew go ''Oh, my God. '' I said to her ''That's all the track we have. If you keep on walking, you're out of the shot. '' And she said ''I think I feel it!'' And we went and did it. And the only other smart thing I ever said to anybody was when I was making THE STAR CHAMBER and we were shooting the first scene on the first day, between Hal Holbrook and Michael Douglas in a Chinese restaurant. Hal came to me and said ''I'm having trouble saying this dialogue. What should I do?'' I don't know what possessed me but I said ''Think Jewish. '' He went ''Oh, got it. '' And that was it. You can't tell actors like these how to act. You just have to create a place where they feel safe and then let them work. 

Were you apprehensive about taking on 2010? 
When MGM asked me to do 2010, I didn't want to do it, for the obvious reasons. For me to be compared to Stanley Kubrick, it would be like a midget being compared to Shaquille O'Neal. I read the book, and I told MGM that there were two conditions in which I would undertake the project. The first was that I would have to be approved by Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick. The second was that, because of my background and the fact the book was about Russians and Americans joining together to make a space voyage, I wanted to make it more about the Cold War. I wanted things to be less happy and less peaceful down on Earth while they were up in space. This was during Reagan's administration. MGM said fine.

I had a long-distance call with Arthur C. Clarke, who was in Sri Lanka, and he was great. He said he agreed with what I wanted to do. I told him that I wanted to closely collaborate with him, and that as I wrote the script I would send him the pages and get his comments. This was around the time of nascent computers. K-Pro set up a computer in my office and in Arthur C. Clarke's house. Every day I would write, and then send him binary transmission of what I had written. In the morning I would get his comments.

We set up a time to talk with Stanley Kubrick. I remember I was in my office and my secretary walked in and said ''Stanley Kubrick is on the line. '' I jumped to my phone and literally stood up. I was standing the entire time I talked to him. I said ''Hello, Mr. Kubrick. '' And he immediately said ''In OUTLAND, how did you do that shot where ... '' He started asking me all these technical questions about photography – how I did this, why I did that, what lenses I used, what f-stop, and so on. About an hour and a half into the conversation I said ''Listen, do you approve me doing ...'', and before I could even get the sentence out he said ''Oh, yeah, fine. You'll be great for it. '' And then he went on with his technical questions. Before we got off the phone he said ''Here's what I want to tell you. Make it your movie. '' And then we hung up. I sat down, and my secretary came running in and

asked ''What was it like?'' I said ''Well, we spoke for almost three hours, and I told him everything, and he told me nothing. '' A couple of months later I was working with Arthur C. Clarke, and I said ''Tell me about the first time you were with Stanley. '' He said ''Well, we were in London, in Hyde Park, and we sat on a bench. We talked for two or three hours and I told him everything and he told me nothing. '' The most I can tell you about Stanley Kubrick was that he was as kind, as unpretentious, as supportive, as sweet as a guy could be. He was wonderful. He said some nice things to me afterwards about the movie, and he's not known for bullshitting. 

When you were developing the film, did you ever have any temptation to homage 2001 or attempt doing things in a similar way? 
The opposite was true. From the beginning I said ''I have to make a film that is so completely different in tone, in look, in sound, in everything, so that you can't honestly compare it to 2001 (1968) or compare me to Stanley Kubrick. Because if there is any comparison between me and Stanley Kubrick, it's unfair to me, because he is one of the greatest filmmakers that ever lived. '' If you look at 2001, it's not the most accessible and warm film. When I made 2010, I tried to do the opposite. That's the only defence I have. 

What impressed you the most about Arthur C. Clarke? 
To say that Arthur C. Clarke is smart is like saying a whale is big. He radiates a kind of intelligence. I've dealt with three people in the movie industry who are the brightest people I have ever met. One is Arthur C. Clarke, one is Jim Cameron, and one is Michael Crichton. They're so smart that if you get too close you can get burned. It's the kind of intelligence that makes you realise when you should shut up. 

What prompted you to make the switch to also being the cinematographer on the films you direct, beginning with 2010? 
It was no switch. I had always been the cinematographer on my films from the beginning. The relationship between me and the Cinematographer's Guild turned out to be a very contentious one. What I used to do was hire a guy and have them on standby, and I would do everything. Then they swooped down on the set of THE STAR CHAMBER and sued for, I think, 11 million dollars. They were saying what I could and couldn't do as a director. They said I couldn't have a light meter and I couldn't talk to the DP. It was just bullshit. It was ugly. When it came to 2010, I had sat for over ten years and let others take the credit for shooting my films, and as much as it saddened me, I was okay with it. But I told them ''I'm not going to do that anymore. I'm going to to be the DP. You can tell that to everybody, and while you're at it, you can tell it to the Teamsters. '' The Guild said ''OK. We'll figure it out. '' And that was that.

Almost every cinematographer who has one-tenth of my credits is a member of the ASC, the American Society of cinematographers. I wasn't a member and after a few years, Conrad Hall called me and said ''How come you're not in the ASC?'' I said ''They hate me. '' He said ''That's ridiculous. If Haskell Wexler and I sign your application, will you join?'' These two guys are two of the important and celebrated cinematographers in the world. They signed it, and I went down for the interview at the clubhouse. 48 hours later I got a letter saying ''You've been rejected. But you are free to apply again at another time. '' I got my wife to get it framed for me. I remember she told me the framer called her and asked ''Are you sure your husband wants to frame this letter?'' It's on my wall, next to my desk. I have a lot of respect for the profession of cinematography, and no-one has more passion about photography than I do, but I don't have a lot of respect for those organisations. 

Was it difficult to convince Arnold Schwarzenegger to die in END OF DAYS? 
It was the first movie he had done since he had had heart surgery. He was a little cautious, but he was game. I had this idea that his character should die, and it was not in the script. When a major actor says ''I think we should do this'' and I say ''Well, I think we should do that'', my answer has always been to shoot it both ways, then take a look at it. Sometimes they're right, and sometimes I'm right. Arnold agreed after watching my version that it was the right way to go. He was terrific. 

What did you admire the most about working with Schwarzenegger? 
I admired his discipline. He was never unprepared. He was strong-willed but willing to duke it out, and to try both ways. I adored making the film with him and would make another one with him in a flash. 

You've worked with Jean-Claude Van Damme on TIMECOP, SUDDEN DEATH (2005) and ENEMIES CLOSER (2013), and you shot UNIVERSAL SOLDIER; REGENERATION (2009), which your son John Hyams directed. How is working with him? 
I think Jean-Claude respects good writing and good choreography. On the last film I did with him, ENEMIES CLOSER, he was involved with the project before I was. He and the producer asked me to do it. I read the script and I said I would only do it if Jean-Claude agreed to play the bad guy. It took a real deep breath on his part. I told him I wanted him to be this flamboyant villain, an absolute maniac who goes from happy and sweet to lethal at a right angle and then back again. He embraced the nuttiness of it. 

How do you feel about your son John becoming a filmmaker? 
He has all the talent I wish I had. He first exhibited it as an artist and is ten times better than I ever was. He writes and directs. I think he's incredible. 

What do you think is the best advice you have given him? 
One was a quote from Richard Brooks who said ''Get comfortable shoes. '' The other was from me. I said to him ''The only mistakes you will ever regret are the times where you didn't go far enough and you pulled back. You will never regret going too far. The worst that can happen is that you might say ''I took a big swing and I missed.'' The times when you pulled back are the ones where you look back and you want to commit hara-kiri. ''

What is usually your approach with remakes? 
I want to make something that is completely opposite to the original. I also want to remake something that is not that well known. I see people doing remakes of fabulous movies, and I find it strange. If someone offered me $100 million to remake BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969), I'd say no. But when it comes to BEYOND A REASONABLE DOUBT (1956) or NARROW MARGIN (1952), the originals weren't famous films. 

What was it like working with Gene Hackman on NARROW MARGIN (1990)? 
It was a dream. I think he is one of the greatest actors in the history of American cinema. He taught me a lot more than I taught him. I love Gene. He's also a very talented artist, by the way. 

How did you get involved with producing THE MONSTER SQUAD? 
Jon Zimbert, who I first had as my assistant and kept on promoting until he got to be a producer, came to me with this screenplay by Shane Black and Fred Dekker. He said the studio would make it if I signed on to it as a producer. I said ''OK'' and agreed to be there as a kind of godfather. 

It's become a cult classic. 
It's amazing, yes. It's like another film I made called STAY TUNED (1992). People are still talking about that. I guess kids grow up with these films and don't forget them. There is a real lasting relationship that I have because of THE MONSTER SQUAD, and that is with Shane Black. 

Do you feel like your films have themes that you have often returned to? 
I have no way of objectively looking back, other than seeing the things that I want to fix. To be honest with you, I don't think I'm good enough to have anything thematic in my films. 

How do you feel about your legacy? 
You fall madly and passionately in love with a project and you have the excitement and exhilaration of doing what you're doing, and then you have the terrible deflation of ''It's finished, and the film is all mine. '' I had on my wall for almost thirty years a quote from Carol Reed: ''Making a film is all work and all worry and all fear and all heartache. Not making a film is worse. '' So, for me, making a film is a process of failing. But it's true that ''A man's reach must exceed his grasp, lest what's Heaven for?'' You try to make a film better than it can ever be because what's in your head is absolutely a perfect film. But it has to pass through you and it is the vast gulf between you and perfection. I don't find the gulf is closing, in fact, I find it growing, because now I can see better and I know more. 

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2016. All rights reserved.