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 final part of a three part interview. I talk to him about various topics close to his heart.
You can read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here.
Do you always try to go in a different direction for each film?
I don't really look at it like that. Everything is based on its own merits. I'm not someone who has a problem being typecast as a director of crime stories or dark, intense films. I'm certainly not the guy Hollywood comes to when they need someone to make something like THE HANGOVER (2009). I've been offered bigger Hollywood films - franchise sequels to films like UNDERWORLD (2003). I just didn't think I could bring anything distinctive to films like that. The characters and the look of the worlds have already been created. I'm just not a gun-for-hire kind of guy. I have to feel very passionate about a project in order to take the journey because it's going to be hugely stressful upon my life. After I walked off BULLET TO THE HEAD (2013), a project that I was going to be well compensated for, I ended up doing PAWN SHOP CHRONICLES, my new film, for no money. I put my fee back into the production just so we could get some production value on the screen. It was kind of a palate cleanser. It's all for the love of making films. I have a hard time faking anything. If I did a film that I had no interest in making, where everything was a slog, it would turn out to be a bad movie. The excitement and the vitality of a director has to be felt through the entire process and communicated to the actors. I can never see myself cashing a paycheque and making a film I would never go see.
What can you tell us about PAWN SHOP CHRONICLES?
It's the first film I've directed and not written myself, and is unlike any film I've done. It's written by Adam Minarovich from TV's 'The Walking Dead'. I just loved the sensibility of the script and I felt like that could've been my voice. lt's very darkly humorous, very black, and is going to upset a lot of people. Many people are just not going to get it. It's very transgressive. It's closer in tone to some of the early Coen Brothers film like RAISING ARIZONA (1987) or THE BIG LEBOWSKI (1998). It's very quirky but it has some crime film elements to it as well. It has a sort of redneck, PULP FICTION (1994) structure to it. You'll get to see actors like Paul Walker, Elijah Wood, Vincent D'Onofrio, Matt Dillon and Brendan Fraser doing stuff you've never seen them do before. It was a very stressful production because there was never enough money. Anchor Bay is releasing the film later this year.
Do you think there's a section of the audience that would really like you to return to the edgy, romantic, character-driven drama like THE COOLER?
I think so, yeah, and I'm not against that. I have a project that I'm hoping to shoot next year. It's a futuristic love story called ECSTASIA. I think it will satisfy both fans of THE COOLER and RUNNING SCARED. The film is very romantic and heartfelt like THE COOLER, but every bit as intense as RUNNING SCARED.
How has Hollywood changed since you made THE COOLER?
For one thing, I don't think there is an independent theatrical model anymore. If I was making THE COOLER today it would probably be straight to DVD or Video On Demand. Nobody is willing to spend the marketing dollars for these small, artistic movies. I think the independents have been decimated. The only notable independent theatrical release of last year was BEASTS OF THE SOUTHERN WILD. Even ARBITRAGE with Richard Gere and Terence Malick's TO THE WONDER, although highly regarded, got a Video On Demand release at the same time as a small theatrical release. Just because a film is independently financed, it doesn't mean that it shouldn't be experienced on the big screen. I think all of my films, for example, benefit from being seen on a big screen. A lot of effort has been put into those sweeping techno-crane moves and Steadicam shots. I feel bad that most of the fans of RUNNING SCARED never got to see it in a theatre. Even on a 65" screen the effect is diminished. It's sad that the theatrical experience is really reserved now for just the comic book or franchise movies.
Has the rise of PG-13 rated films made it hard for you to get films made?
Yes, extremely hard. You always read fans complaining on message boards about films being edited down to a PG-13, but when quality R-rated films are made, audiences don't turn up for them, which mystifies me. Recently there were a couple of terrific R-rated pictures that did little box-office. It makes it harder for filmmakers to make the case for an R rating. I remember when all the big action films were R- rated - LETHAL WEAPON (1987), DIE HARD (1988), POINT BREAK (1991), TERMINATOR 2 (1991), SPEED (1994), THE MATRIX films (1999 - 2003) . It wouldn't happen now. My favourite Walter Hill film, 48 HRS (1982), wouldn't get made today as an R-rated film. You have to wait for the DVD now to see films as the director intended - the 'director's cut' or the 'unrated cut'.
How do you feel about the proliferation of alternate cuts of movies?
I will support a director bringing out his own cut 99% of the time, except when he's butchering his own film, which is a rare case. Tony Scott is a director I love. MAN ON FIRE (2004) is easily one of my favourite films. But he released a director's cut of REVENGE (1990), and he cut the heart out of it, literally gutted his own film. Walter Hill did a similar thing when he added an opening voice-over and comic book panels to THE WARRIORS (1979). I don't think directors should be allowed near their material again if the original cut has entered the popular consciousness and been embraced. I'm not against tweaking bad special effects, but for the most part these films are products of their time, time capsules. You end up muddying the marketplace by releasing so many versions of a movie. Oliver Stone did three or more cuts of ALEXANDER (2004). I mean who the hell knows which version to watch of BLADE RUNNER (1982)? I love the original version and I miss the noir-ish narration in the other versions, although I do prefer Ridley Scott's ending.
Which films have you been enjoying recently?
I watch a lot of international films. Right now South Korea is kicking the rest of the world's ass with almost every film - OLDBOY (2003), THE CHASER (2008), MOTHER (2009), A BITTERSWEET LIFE (2005), THE YELLOW SEA (2010).
I love the crime films from the UK and have been discovering or rewatching stuff recently. Guy Ritchie kind of hijacked the genre a bit, and made it more of a comedic thing, but I've always been knocked out by the style of LOCK STOCK AND TWO SMOKING BARRELS (1998) and SNATCH (2000). The likes of GET CARTER (1971), THE LONG GOOD FRIDAY (1979), MONA LISA (1986) and SEXY BEAST (2000), are some of the best crime films out of any country. I don't think it gets any better than Michael Caine's performance in GET CARTER, or that film's Roy Budd score. I have so much love and respect for the film, and I revisit it all the time. I love to bookend it with Caine in HARRY BROWN (2009), which not many people saw, but I thought was terrific. It's like a more resonant DEATH WISH (1974). I also loved VILLAIN (1971) and THE SQUEEZE (1977), and I recently saw a film called PAYROLL (1961) that was really good. Very hard-hitting movies. I like Danny Boyle too. He always does interesting stuff.
The French are making great movies too. I saw Jacques Audiard's RUST AND BONE (2012) twice in the theatre. Marion Cotillard, (2012) gave one of the most beautiful, subtle, brave performances I have ever seen. She and Michael Fassbender in SHAME (2012), which I also loved, were robbed of Oscar nominations. European actresses like Marion and Monica Bellucci are so bold. RUST AND BONE is actually the kind of movie I want to be making, with even more of a crime angle to it. That film just sucks you in with its authenticity and its unconventional structure. Jacques Audiard is a fantastic filmmaker.
The sex scenes in that film reminded me of those in THE COOLER between William H. Macy and Maria Bello.
Yeah, I can see that too. We're both not trying to pass the scenes off as Hollywood fluff where everyone's having sex in their bra and panties and the actress is covering her breasts with an elbow. When that happens, it just pulls me out of the movie. The artifice of what I'm watching becomes obvious to me, as opposed to a fly-on-the-wall scenario where you're just watching a couple having sex as it would naturally play out with all its awkwardness and humour. It's tough because you need actors who are game and willing to trust you. I won't cast certain actors when they tell me they love the script but they won't do the nudity. They don't really understand what I'm going for tonally. Agents and managers tend to convince their talent that it's a bad idea to be naked in films. It doesn't help that it gets reinforced when Seth Macfarlane sings 'We Saw Your Boobs' at the Academy Awards. Every actress who was highlighted in that reel or any new actress coming up is thinking "I don't want to be mocked like that." Even worse, you have sites on the Internet that start exploiting scenes when an actress goes nude in a movie. They've messed it up for all us who are trying to make authentic cinema.
Do you think mass audiences are uncomfortable with nudity in films?
People have become enormously uncomfortable with it. Nudity is so alien to modern American audiences that such scenes are now relegated to arthouse films and pay TV. And in the case of SHAME, for the media it all becomes about the size of Michael Fassbender's penis. I saw the same mentality in the preview process we had for CROSSING OVER. All Harvey Weinstein had to do was severely cut down the sex scenes and the preview scores jacked up 15 to 20%. Audiences came out of the film wondering if they really needed to see that degree of nudity. I remember all those great movies from the '70s like STRAW DOGS (1971), NIGHT MOVES (1975) or ALL THAT JAZZ (1979) where if a woman woke up in bed in the morning, she was naked. It was naturalistic, and the actresses accepted and understood why they were doing it. Maria Bello in THE COOLER and Vera Farmiga in RUNNING SCARED were completely game. That should be a lesson for a lot of actors out there. Actresses like Kate Winslet and Naomi Watts will do whatever is necessary for a scene. But then you have actresses like Jessica Alba and Scarlett Johansson who say they will never show their breasts on camera. Well that's fine, but then you're not going to be giving an honest depiction of a sex scene. Don't pick projects that are going to have sex scenes if that’s your attitude. And in the case of Jessica Alba, don't play a stripper in SIN CITY (2005) and keep your clothes on! Either go for it or don't go for it. Doing a sex scene authentically means simulating how you would actually have sex with a partner in real life. In DOWN TO THE BONE (2004), Vera Farmiga was willing to not only be physically naked but emotionally naked. I was blown away, and that's why I cast her in RUNNING SCARED.
Do you enjoy filming the sex scenes?
I actually hate doing them. They're the worst scenes to shoot. It's always very difficult, uncomfortable and intense on the set while doing them. Honestly, you just want to get them over with. You appreciate the actors’ commitment to their craft and the necessity of having such scenes, but there’s little joy in filming them.
Which filmmakers who have worked in the crime genre do you see as under-rated?
There are many, but at the moment I'm tired of people trashing Michael Winner as a director, who recently died. He had decent chops when he cared about what he was doing. LAWMAN (1970), for example, was a phenomenal film. It's wrong to compare his '70s films, which had that very '70s style with the zooms and so forth, with modern filmmaking styles. He did go downhill in the '80s with the DEATH WISH sequels and other films, but there are many other films one can look at at. For example, the original DEATH WISH (1974), THE STONE KILLER (1973), THE MECHANIC (1972) are very entertaining. Actually, DEATH WISH II (1981) is a guilty pleasure. It's so depraved. The uncut version of that film gives any of the '70s movies a run for their money in terms of content. I miss the '70s and early '80s. Things weren't so calculated back then. People didn't worry about whether a film was going to gross $150m or spawn a franchise. It was all about good stories - CARNAL KNOWLEDGE (1971), CHINATOWN (1974), THE LONG GOODBYE (1973), even the early Burt Reynolds films like THE LONGEST YARD (1974) and WHITE LIGHTNING (1973).
As a big fan of the James Bond series, would you like to direct one of them?
I would love to direct one but i don't have those action credentials or arthouse prestige to get me in the room. I wish they'd make an R-rated Bond movie, but there's too much money at stake for it to ever happen. CASINO ROYALE (2006) was in my opinion an R-rated Bond movie. If you had taken out the character of James Bond and replaced him with some generic action hero, I have no doubt it would have got an R rating. It's one of the most brutal studio movies I’ve seen. I loved it to death. I think it's probably the greatest Bond movie ever, save for maybe FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963).
What advice do you have for budding filmmakers?
If you have writing skills, write something that you think you think you could make for a low budget, like Quentin Tarantino did with RESERVOIR DOGS (1992). Try and find an 'in' where your voice can be heard. Remember that it's all about the storytelling. The visuals are super-important, too - but I can't tell you how many films I have seen with dazzling visuals that had a story that went nowhere. There are so many tools available to filmmakers today. Unfortunately, it's getting harder and harder to break into the business because the kinds of movies that the system wants to finance are franchise movies based on pre-established properties. But if you can show you have your own sensibility and a unique take on storytelling, I think someone's always going to recognise it. Growing up, we never had YouTube where you can go and make a film on the cheap, upload it and then have someone say "This is the next big director." Find your creative voice and cast the most talented actors you can. If you can sell a script and get financially independent for a couple of years, like I did with MINDHUNTERS, it's certainly going to help you make the right choices. The only guarantees you get from working in this business are failure and rejection. You have to see beyond that and put the sweat and commitment into refining your craft.
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.