AN INTERVIEW WITH WAYNE KRAMER (PART 1 OF 3)

Wayne Kramer is one of the most distinctive voices to have emerged over the last couple of decades. Favouring the crime genre, he's an uncompromising writer-director whose films are exciting, authentic, provocative and challenging. Kramer's first film THE COOLER (2003) drew acclaim and commercial success, and secured Alec Baldwin an Oscar nomination. RUNNING SCARED (2006) is now a huge cult film, and a once-in-a-lifetime blending of grindhouse crime movie thrills and Grimm's fairytale storytelling. CROSSING OVER (2009) is an ambitious drama focussed on the trials and tribulations of various immigrants in the sprawling city of L.A. Kramer's new film PAWN SHOP CHRONICLES (2013) is due to open soon. This is the first part of a three part interview. I talk to him about his experiences growing up in apartheid era South Africa, and his formative filmgoing experiences.  

Part 2 can be read here, and Part 3 here.

What are some of your strongest moviegoing memories from growing up in South Africa?Every film that came to South Africa up until the time I left was heavily censored and they weren't cut in any subtle way. They'd cut the film physically. You'd feel the frame jump and see that the content had changed. We didn't have television until I was 11 or 12 years old. Everybody saw their movies either in a theatre or if they had money (which we didn't) they rented 16mm film prints and projectors. I remember that the first film in South Africa to get away with the word 'fuck' was Al Pacino's ...AND JUSTICE FOR ALL (1979). Until then any nudity, blasphemy or profanity was just cut out.

The most extreme example of seeing a film in South Africa and then seeing a very different version that the rest of the world saw was the James Bond film LIVE AND LET DIE (1973). They cut out all of Gloria Hendry's scenes because Roger Moore was romancing a black woman. The only reason I suspected there might be more to the film was because I had a View Master film as a kid and there were pictures of Roger Moore and Gloria! At first I thought they might just be publicity stills. When VHS came on the market, we got the PAL system, which is the same as the UK, so we got tapes recorded from TV broadcasts smuggled into the country. This is how I saw the complete version of LIVE AND LET DIE. I didn't expect a James Bond film to be censored!

Another interesting example of censorship was THE OMEN (1976). South Africa was a religious country at the time, dominated by the Dutch Reform Church, who decided what was and wasn't socially acceptable. The whole ending where Damien survives was omitted, and the movie ends with Gregory Peck raising his arm to stab Damien at the altar. THE OMEN was also restricted to anyone under 21!

It was the most absurd way to watch films and grow up. The older movies suffered less because they were more suggestive. You wouldn't believe the films that got banned - Walter Hill's THE WARRIORS (1979), THE WANDERERS (1979), THE EXORCIST (1973) and A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971). THE ROCKY HORROR PICTURE SHOW (1975) was released but they withdrew it after a couple of weeks.

Your own films present violence, sex and language authentically. Do you think there's a link to your moviegoing experiences in South Africa?
I definitely think there was some kind of reaction in me that made me want to go to the US and become the kind of filmmaker whose films I could never see or never see uncut in South Africa. It wasn't an absolutely conscious goal of mine, but it lingered in me and motivated me to make films that were audacious enough to have been a threat to the South African government. Although today it's completely lax there and they probably have less censorship than the US.

Was there a particular film that you were obsessed with growing up?
From the youngest age I was obsessed with A CLOCKWORK ORANGE. I had heard a lot about it from people who had travelled overseas and seen it. It just seemed like the most fascinating movie of all time. It was a 'forbidden fruit' to so many people. When I finally got access to a VHS player, I picked up a bootleg for about $50. It must have been fifth-generation quality but it still blew me away. It was crazy that I could go to a music store and look at images from the film on the sleeve of the soundtrack album, but not be able to see the film legally.

Was there a particular filmmaker you were obsessed with?
Brian De Palma was the filmmaker for me when I was growing up. A new De Palma film was always an event for me, even though I would always be seeing heavily censored versions. He has a beautiful, operatic style in the way he moves the camera. It somehow never pulls me out of his movies. I actually like CARLITO'S WAY more than most of his other films because it's in the crime genre, which I truly love, and he did an amazing job at using his skill set. I'll always remember seeing a bootleg of SCARFACE (1983) in South Africa. The critics just tore into it in America. I absolutely loved it at the time. Now all the reviews are revisionist and it's seen as a landmark film. I also remember going to a different country to see BODY DOUBLE (1984) which had also been banned.

You have said that James Ellroy is one of your favourite authors. Were you reading him back in South Africa?
No, I wasn’t familiar with his work at that point. I think he had written 'Blood on the Moon' (1984), but I hadn’t read it yet. I discovered him by chance when I picked up 'The Big Nowhere' (1988) in a supermarket in Orange County because the cover fascinated me. The book blew me away. The next one I read was 'The Black Dahlia' (1987), and that just did my mind. I love the stylistic approach he takes to his prose. The hardboiled quality of his writing is so unapologetic. I think his best book is 'L.A. Confidential' (1990). After that book I declared him a genius.

Given your love of De Palma and Ellroy, how did you feel about the BLACK DAHLIA movie that was released in 2006?
Let me just say it wasn’t the movie I would have made of the book. I had wanted to direct DAHLIA and I had had some conversations with the producer about it. David Fincher was attached to it for a very long time and the producer said they'd
come to me if Fincher ever stepped away. They didn't and went to De Palma. I thought "Fine. It wasn't meant to be."

Your love for John Barry’s music has been well noted. Why do you think Barry didn’t score any films for the last ten years of his life?
Barry had his era where his sound was right in step with the sound of movies but when film scoring went in a more Hans Zimmer direction, his music just didn't evolve like Jerry Goldsmith’s, who would redefine his sound every decade. It was still beautiful music. I would still rather have gone see a movie that had a John Barry score than any other composer, but the movie had to be able to wear the score. There were less and less films that could handle a John Barry score.

I came to Roy Budd's music a little later and I really love his work too. He did GET CARTER (1971) but I think that if you want to listen to the best John Barry score that John Barry didn't actually write, you should listen to Budd's score for FEAR IS THE KEY (1972).

Is it true you tried to get Barry to score some of your films?
I actually tried to get Barry to score THE COOLER and CROSSING OVER. I temped the opening scene to THE COOLER, where we travel over the Vegas skyline, to a track from his album 'Eternal Echoes' (2001) called 'Fred and Cyd'. It's a beautiful big-band jazz piece. When I tried to get him to score THE COOLER, he passed on it because he was busy with THE INCREDIBLES (2004) - which didn’t work out for him. He apparently composed some demos and they were rejected by Brad Bird. I don't know if he ever saw THE COOLER (his agent said he did), but I know he did see CROSSING OVER because I spoke with him about the film. He passed on that one because he said he didn't connect with the movie. I later heard from his agent Richard Kraft that in the last ten years of his life he would flirt with projects but just couldn't pull the trigger on them. That's not to say he didn't find fault with CROSSING OVER. It didn’t speak to him and I accept that. Although I would have thought it would have been a great project for him, given his own immigrant status. Both Harrison Ford and Harvey Weinstein also wanted him. It was still interesting to talk to him because we had a long conversation before and after he saw CROSSING OVER. I also had lunch with him and his music editor many years earlier when he was mixing his score to the short film, THE WITNESS (1993). But he didn’t remember that lunch when I reminded him of it – and why would he? He had no point of reference for me back then. But I have about fifteen signed Barry CDs from that day (I brought the covers with me), so it was significant for me.

As a kid I never really noticed the credits to the movies I was watching, but every time I would be blown away by a music score it would always be a John Barry score. It's interesting that nobody has ever been able to replicate those low, dissonant chords and melancholic sound. I'm not saying no-one has tried. It's a sound that will be forever lost. I think every Barry fan was hoping for one last great score but unfortunately we never got it.

Did you experience any culture shock coming to the US from South Africa?
It was all very positive in terms of finally getting to the US. I'd wanted to live here since I was a small kid. I'd tell my parents of my plans and they just thought it was a phase and that when I was older I wouldn't care anymore. I didn't enjoy living and growing up in South Africa. It was under apartheid and it was a very repressed country. In the films I saw, whether they were from the US or the UK, the world seemed to be a more progressive place and people were treated as equals no matter what colour they were. Of course that was all a cinematic illusion borne out of watching films and TV shows (on 16mm) like 'The Mod Squad'. There was, and still continues to be, a huge amount of racism in the United States today, although it’s a lot more subtle than the institutionalized racism I grew up with in South Africa. Back then I never saw black people driving cars or having a first-class or middle-class lifestyle. It was ridiculous. It never sat well with me. I would always get into political arguments with my parents and family saying "This isn't right." The last straw for me was when I got conscripted into the military for two years. After that I was like "Get me the hell out of here." My brother was the smart one. He kept putting it off and putting it off until they finally did away with conscription.

Do you have any anecdotes from your time in the military?
It was a miserable experience, but hey, it was part of my life, I lived it and it was formative in some way. But the amount of stupid people you saw in the South African military was unheralded. I got into a Film and TV Unit which used to make training videos. These officers down in Pretoria were so bored with their lives that they wanted to earn 'danger pay'. At that time they could earn extra money by being assigned to the Angola/ South Western African border where there were still ANC incursions into the country. So they flew us all up there to make a training video that could just as easily have been filmed in somebody’s backyard in Pretoria or Johannesburg. And of course they didn't give us malaria tablets and out of the entire group I was the only one who contracted it. I actually ended up getting it twice. We were also doing these training videos of soldiers clearing trenches, working with live grenades and live ammo, with the equivalent of M16 automatic rifles being fired just off to one side of us as we ran backwards filming these soldiers, with live rounds passing within inches of us. It was nuts! We could have tripped at any moment and been riddled with bullets.

Did you ever write a script incorporating your experiences?
No, I haven't written anything on it. It's hard for me to look back but I also don't feel that the world has a fascination with South Africa unless it's something like DISTRICT 9 (2009). When you sit down from the POV of a writer/ director and start to think "What am I going to do with my next two or three years?", you want to invest your time in something that you feel people will have an interest in seeing.

Did you ever run into fellow filmmaker Richard Stanley in South Africa?
When I was about 16 or 17 years old, the South African Broadcasting Network held a short film competition. It might have been in it's second year. Richard and I were in the same competition. I think he won it. We made all our films on Super 8, and Richard's film was a STAR WARS (1977) like effects piece – really well done. I did a documentary on an African bodybuilder that worked at the gym I used to go to. It shows you what an insular community it was way back then in South Africa. Only a few people were making films. I loved HARDWARE (1990). I thought it was a fantastic film when I saw it in the US. I was trying to get into the business myself at that time.

How did you manage to break into the movie business?
It took me a long time. I arrived in the US in 1986 at the age of 21.  I took the approach of breaking in through writing. I was just writing script after script, hoping to interest someone and sell one. My goal was that if someone liked one of my scripts enough, I would attach myself as director or they wouldn't get to make it. I thought I was going to do that with MINDHUNTERS (2004). But then they offered me a lot of money for it (this was in 1997) and I was broke and newly married at the time. I never had any real earning potential until that point. I didn’t want to lose the deal, which would have happened had I stuck to my guns about directing it, so I took the money. I knew the next time I found myself in a similar position I could afford to insist on directing. Which is what I did with THE COOLER. People weren't open to me directing it and wanted a name director. They wanted to buy me and the co-writer Frank Hannah off. I said "It's not going to happen and I don't need the money." I was now in a good position to stick to my guns, even if it took four years for the right financier (Ed Pressman) to come along.

I spoke to Wayne by telephone on 31st March 2013 and would like to thank him for the kind use of his time.

Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. He writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has had articles published on Press Play and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased. Paul is also a writer of so far unpublished short stories and novels, and is planning his first short film.

1 comment:

Chad Armstrong said...

Here are some behind the scenes pics from the set of Kramer's Blazeland
http://s1346.photobucket.com/user/leglesscorpse/library/Bazeland