Steve De Jarnatt is the director of two of the great cult movies of the 80s: MIRACLE MILE (1988) and CHERRY 2000 (1987). He has also led a fascinating life, from assisting Terrence Malick in the projection room of DAYS OF HEAVEN (1978) and directing the rarely screened and semi-legendary noir short TARZANA (1977), to a prolific and impressive career in television, and his current career as an acclaimed writer of short stories and his post as Assistant Professor at Ohio University's MFA Film Program. In the first of a three-part interview, I spoke to Steve about his early days, DAYS OF HEAVEN, TARZANA, the documentary EAT THE SUN (1975), STRANGE BREW (1983) and CHERRY 2000.  

Part two can be read here
Part three can be read here

Growing up, what were some of your most memorable moviegoing experiences?
I grew up in a smallish lumber town – Longview, Washington. I wanted to be a scientist, but I had zero math acumen, so I was pretty much just a daydreaming jock, playing all sports but ending up specializing in track. Movies to me were nothing special. I probably only saw a couple of films with the family per year – BEN HUR (1959) is pretty vivid from my youth, but not much else, though I remember going to see THE NIGHT OF THE IGUANA (1959) and being really pissed that a giant radioactive lizard never showed up! TV was a far bigger influence – I wanted to be Steve McQueen on Wanted Dead or Alive, and Twilight Zone and Outer Limits were and still are all time faves. I also miss those staples of 60s TV – where there is weird magic down the block of the normal neighborhood (The Munsters, I Dream of Jeanie, Mr. Ed, Bewitched, My Favorite Martian). It wasn't until the late 60s and drive-in fare like EASY RIDER (1969)and the Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns that I started to notice film making.

When did you first begin thinking that being involved in film was something you wanted to do?
I had some success in track. I was the fourth in the nation for high schoolers, and I was the state champ. I ran the 440 in 47.2 seconds. All this got me college offers. I very nearly went into Oceanography at Oregon State, and I actually turned down a full ride to Stanford. I luckily ended up going to Occidental College in LA and the first friends I made there were movie addicts and film makers. Amongst them where Jim and Ken Wheat, who wrote PITCH BLACK (2000) and wrote and directed the STAR WARS spin-off, EWOKS: THE BATTLE FOR ENDOR (1985). I got the ‘disease’ of cinema obsession big time – and that fever lasted for the next 35 years.

How was your experience studying at the American Film Institute?
I didn’t get all that much from AFI. But is was mostly my doing - being young, aloof and arrogant contributed to that I think. At the time I didn’t appreciate the opportunity or even the luxurious Doheny estate grounds in Beverly Hills. (THERE WILL BE BLOOD was based loosely on the life of oilman Doheny – and that bowling alley at the end of the film was a real place we’d sneak into sometimes.) It was a long drive from Highland Park, where Occidental was. It's now a hipster neighborhood, but it certainly wasn't back then. I was only a Screenwriting Fellow and so I was never going to get to make a film there. I dropped out before the end of the year. I’d also decided to not be my weird self for once – and so was kind of sans personality there.

Is it true you had some pretty impressive talents in your class?
Stu Cornfeld (producer of THE ELEPHANT MAN, THE FLY and ZOOLANDER) was probably the guy I remember most. He is always the hippest cat around, wherever he goes. He was the one who cajoled Mel Brooks into hiring AFI grad David Lynch for THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980). Looking back, my class was pretty amazing. There was John McTiernan (PREDATOR, DIE HARD), Ed Zwick and his future producing partner Marshall Herskovitz (GLORY, THE LAST SAMURAI), Ron Underwood (CITY SLICKERS), and Rick McCallum (George Lucas’ producer on the STAR WARS prequels). Marty Brest (BEVERLY HILLS COP) and Amy Heckerling (CLUELESS) were in the class ahead of me.

How did your short film TARZANA come about? What inspired it?
I had gotten the noir bug bad - John Alton lighting and Raymond Chandler hard-boiled prose. I watched CHINATOWN (1974) three times in a row on the first day it played in theaters. I wanted to live in the film I think.

TARZANA is a pastiche/homage with some humor, but I tried to play it straight and do something that would look like it was actually made in 1958. (Note the Edsel police cars ! ) Though the plot can be followed somewhat (a la THE BIG SLEEP), it is more an exercise in aping a style. We shot mainly on 35mm Plus X, which was very slow film, and needed a ton of lighting, but all that silver really glows! We used big old Mitchell BNC studio cameras and prime lenses.

How was working with the legendary Timothy Carey?
What can you say about Timothy Carey? There was only one. A brilliant, extremely complicated and odd performer and human being. Some say Tim, who was in PATHS OF GLORY (1957) and THE KILLING (1956), was the reason Stanley Kubrick moved to England, and I sort of know why. Tim would call me a couple times a week after the film was shot and talk (or perform) for an hour- it could be a freaky sort of thing – and poor Stanley probably couldn’t take it. This is how Tim would roll with someone he trusted. Now I just regret I didn’t record all those rambling Dali-esque monologues of his. When I got my first professional gig in the 80s, directing the Alfred Hitchcock Presents episode Man from the South with John Huston and Kim Novak, Tim called up Universal and said he was my manager and was supposed to get 50% of everything I made. (In truth, my entire salary went to joining the DGA on that one). I sort of drifted off from contact with him, but when I was casting for my first feature, CHERRY 2000, Tim began to hound me for the part of Six Finger Jake. I did go to bat for him, but the studio and producer nixed it. I was very fortunate to get Ben Johnson, but Tim never forgave me. I had betrayed him. Ah well.

How were the other actors, including Eddie Constantine from ALPHAVILLE?
Getting Eddie Constantine hardly seems possible, even today. I think we paid him 50 bucks and it was his first film in English in years. He’d been visiting his sister in LA, and somehow we found out and just asked and he said yes! Also to get Charles Knapp, the coroner from CHINATOWN (''Middle of a drought and the water commissioner dies – only in L.A.'') and Kate Murtaugh, the madam from FAREWELL MY LOVELY (1975), were huge coups.

Michael C. Gwynne, my lead who plays the dick, is also as hip of a cat as they come. His dad was a Canadian big band leader, and Michael ran away from home at 14 to be a DJ in the South. He was great in films like PAYDAY (1973), THE TERMINAL MAN (1974) and others. Michael’s voice and gravitas make the film work. I wouldn’t have had a career without his performance. Edie Adams came down to do a small bit, and her then husband Pete Candoli was on set that day, so we invented a jazz room scene for him to be in. (Pete played in several big bands and Michael C. had real chops as a drummer).

Reni Santoni (DIRTY HARRY), another actor in the film, was drinking buddies with 'The
Goose' – Robert Mitchum. Reni had gotten him to agree to be in the film, as just another dick on the case, slumped over at the bar in the background of the jazz club scene, which would have been stupendous, but we had to switch shooting dates and he was out of town.

What was the shoot like?
We planned on shooting ten days and after three days, Tim Carey had used up all the film. Well, that’s not true, I did. I sat there agape and watched him riff in these crazy improvs that had nothing to do with the movie. One of the improvs is it’s own little cult film, CINEMA JUSTICE (1977). We had to shut down production and look for more money. 
After that first shoot crashed and burned, it looked like the end of cinema for me. We’d shot (without a permit) in the San Pedro DA’s office, after befriending a guard who let us in for the weekend – just as long as we were out by Monday morning. We had fish crates in there that stank to high heaven, we’d set the rug on fire and broken glass was everywhere. As dawn was approaching, the production manager took all the gear back to the rental house without telling me, and everything was stuffed into vehicles and everyone split. But there was no room for me, so I went to sleep in the park across from the building. I hadn't slept in days. I woke up to see all the suits and cops in the DA building pointing down at me. I ran off and wandered around Pedro all day. This was after an all night shoot and I could not stay awake. I was rolled for my wallet when I nodded off on a bench – and it wasn’t until late the next evening when friends found me babbling in a Vietnamese restaurant, talking to my soup.

But we shot three more times, with two more DPs (but always the same gaffer, Chris Tufty) and after two years, it was done. That’s how you made films back then. You just willed them into being somehow. Go out on a limb and start sawing it off – see where you fall.

What kind of success did TARZANA have?
It played at Filmex, which was on a par with what Sundance is today. It was a great film festival run by two guys named Gary. It played as the opener for Marty Brest's film HOT TOMORROWS (1977), which he had made at the AFI. Much of my crew had worked on that too. Everyone in Hollywood had come to see that, and TARZANA was like an opening band that held its own. A dozen agents wanted to sign me the next week, just like in THE BIG PICTURE (1989). I milked that heat for years, doing nothing really but a few writing jobs and turning down stuff. The film used to play on noir bills at a lot in retro houses, but is pretty much forgotten now.

Why is it so hard to see the film?
Tim Carey’s kid, Romeo has a print and also the CINEMA JUSTICE out-take, and he runs it at events. My one print is held by the Academy Archives, which also has my best MIRACLE MILE print. So in 100 years, the films will still exist on film. The problem is that the music I used – old 60s TV cues (Jerry Goldsmith, Bernard Herrmann et al) was originally only cleared for student/film festival usage, and I have to re-clear that for any extended exhibition or online showings. I just found the cue list though, so that is in the works).

You worked with Terrence Malick on DAYS OF HEAVEN. What was that experience like?
I was a projectionist in the screening room next door to the DAYS OF HEAVEN editing room, and I got to work filing trims (35 mm footage of alternate takes etc). Sometimes it would be just him and me running the film all night. A few times he said ''See what you can do editing a scene'', and I’d try that on the KEM. They edited for two years, so it was a long, 'try everything' process, removing much written dialog. I got to run all the voice overs from Linda Manz through the moviola with Jacob Brackman. He was a brilliant, strange guy. He wrote THE KING OF MARVIN GARDENS (1972) and also co-wrote the song 'You're So Vain'. He’d be in the bathroom, recording his thoughts into a small recorder.

This was all happening at what had been BBS Studios, the company that had made The Monkees' TV show, EASY RIDER, FIVE EASY PIECES (1970), THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (1971) and others, though the comedian Redd Foxx had just bought the building as I started to work there. But what a great, heart of the film world place to be, huh? That experience probably influenced me on MIRACLE MILE. 
How so?
Just being in that epicenter and witnessing Terry’s total dedication to his movie. That it was your prime purpose in life to make the film the best you could with the means at your disposal. He was so relentless and locked into making it a lasting work of art. He's a very private guy but I will say he's a true artist. I am so happy he's back making movies again because we need the Terry Malicks of this world. He has this mystique about him but he's a regular guy who likes to tell funny stories.

Do you have any favorite Malick anecdotes?
I would go fetch him food around the Hollywood area. Huston’s Pit BBQ was a favorite I remember. (The taste of Texas, perhaps?) Once he caught me eating his left over food out of the trash can, and he gave me some dollars.

What can you say about Jim Cox, with whom you codirected EAT THE SUN?
Whilst I was working on DAYS OF HEAVEN, I was also finishing up TARZANA. We had shot it in 35mm, so being able to run it for tons of people after it was done, for free, was a huge boon. Jim Cox was my friend, and the projectionist prior to me. He went on to be Terry’s right hand man, doing a lot of the special sound effects for DAYS OF HEAVEN, and getting ready to help him make the next opus, which was probably an early version of what became THE TREE OF LIFE (2011). I was part of the circle, but not of the inner sanctum, and I do remember telling them that there was going to be a total eclipse of the sun, in the Columbia River gorge, and that in Goldendale, Washington there was a full scale replica of Stonehenge. They got very excited. But a few months later, they were all packing up to head out of town, as was I, and I asked where they were going. They said ''It's a secret.'' I asked them ''Is it to Stonehenge for the eclipse?'' And they freaked, til I reminded them that I was the one who told them about it in the first place. I think Jim still has the footage in his freezer. A jet flew through the shot, as I remember.

Can you talk about the film EAT THE SUN?
It's a great 'quasi' documentary, and an odd artifact of the 70s that is deserving of a re-look, as it’s a true document of a little known cult. It is more Jim’s film than mine. We share co-writing and co-directing credits, but Jim edited it too and really stuck it out and made it work. He was benevolent enough to give me a shared credit. We made it at Evergreen College in Olympia Washington. Our class-mates were Matt Groening and Lynda Barry, and Lynda Weinman (founder of Also, it's where Riot Grrls, Nirvana, and SubPop all emerged from later on.

Was the 70s a special era for filmmaking?
I think it was the golden era of American filmmaking. Back then you had BBS, but today, unless you can find a Silicon Valley billionaire who gives you money, it's just a nightmare trying to get a picture off the ground. Unless you shoot it digitally for $40,000 or something. There are some great filmmakers out there now – but who are the visionary filmmakers we had back then like Bogdanovich, Friedkin, Scorsese and Coppola? As good as they were starting out, Lucas and Spielberg ruined it all by making those blockbusters. The studios could never go back to making small movies again. They want giant tentpole movies that can have four sequels.

How did you come to work on the script to STRANGE BREW?
John Belushi had just died. Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas were depressed and didn’t feel like they could face doing a Bob and Dough movie because they were going to go back to work on SCTV. Joel Silver actually put the whole project together. He was working as head of development for Larry Gordon's company. He sent some of my scripts to them – MIRACLE MILE and a script about logging that was a vehicle for Burt Reynolds. I remember they wouldn't give him a producer credit unless he left 48 HRS (1982). We all got together and brainstormed many ideas for a month or so. We came up with the idea of 'Hamlet in a brewery', with Rosencrantz and Guidenstern as hosers. Then there was an edict from MGM that they wanted the script in two weeks. I wrote the first draft in ten days. I blasted out a script, and the story of that was 85 % of what was later filmed. I was asked to direct, and had a contract for that, but ultimately it went as a Canadian production and they ended up paying me not to direct it! Anyway, my plans weren’t in sync with the line producer (''Just shoot it cheap. It doesn’t matter what it looks like.''), so the two stars ended up directing it. I gave all the money I made on the picture to Warner Brothers, to buy back MIRACLE MILE. I had brought on board two people from BLADE RUNNER (1982) as possibilities – the art director David L. Snyder and Steven Poster, the 2nd Unit DP. I had imagined doing a trailer that was a riff on THE SHINING (1980), with beer instead of blood pouring out of the elevators.

How did the opportunity to direct CHERRY 2000 come about?
I was getting ready to make MIRACLE MILE with Nic Cage. He was turning down everything after VALLEY GIRL (1983) to do it, and Mike Medavoy, who ran Orion (where I had a three-picture deal) called up and said ''I’m sending you a script. You have to do it. It's called Cherry 2000. It’s shooting in two months, and we have a release date already set. '' I think Irvin Kershner had just fallen out as the director. I told him I couldn't do it as John Daly of Hemdale was in Amsterdam doing the banking for MIRACLE MILE, and we were a go. Then an hour later Nic’s attorney calls me and does a big bluff that they’re pulling Nic out of MIRACLE MILE for a year or two while he does PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED (1986) and some other things. I couldn't get a hold of Nic as he was in Catalina without a phone supposedly, so I called up Mike Medavoy to send me the script. I read 20 pages, and it was weird, great stuff, so I signed on. But it was always playing catch up. I had jumped on a train that had already left the station. John Decuir had already been hired as the production designer (HELLO DOLLY, CLEOPATRA, GHOSTBUSTERS), but then he disappeared.
Did you rework the film much?
Other than wedge in a big crazy action set piece, when we found a great location, the script was shot as is. I didn’t ask to rework it. I shot it word for word.

How was working with Melanie Griffith?
It was a very arduous shoot. Melanie had a baby just before production. (Interestingly, on my only other feature, MIRACLE MILE, Mare Winningham was nursing a new born as well!) The shoot was very tough on Melanie. Plus, we were shooting in every toxic location in Nevada. And let’s just say her and her leading man, David Andrews, did not get along famously. The physical stuff was tough, but getting the actors to cease quarreling was harder on the soul. And what prep I had done (storyboarding etc) was often thrown out, just to cover a scene somehow and make our days.

Were you influenced by the MAD MAX films at all?
To me, THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981), is among the greatest films, and atop the heap for action films particularly. We were doing a lighter, almost Corman version. In fact, it would all probably have been better to be ultra low budget – DEATH RACE 2000 (1975) style – rather than have a budget to construct rotting casinos half-buried in the sand and so on.
How do you feel about the film now?
I didn’t ‘own’ it for a long while. It was barely released, and certainly hurt my stock. I was no longer a hot new film-maker. I’d gone to bat, and struck out. I redeemed myself with MIRACLE MILE, at least critically. I am very happy it has it’s cult revival. HBO used to run it constantly – and it got discovered by many that way. It is a very odd, quirky film with ideas and a lot of charm. I think Basil Poledouris’s score, Julie Weiss’ costumes and the character actors really make it work. It recently played at Harvard in a gender roles symposium . E. Johnson (Melanie’s character) really is the male lead – and Sam Treadwell (David Andrews' character) is the demure fish out of water being taken into the badlands. I think Caldecott Chubb the producer is trying to re-make it with Dakota Johnson, Melanie's daughter with Don Johnson.

NB. TARZANA will be running Nov 12th at The Royal Theater in Toronto, Jan 7th at a Seattle Film Festival event and there are plans for a show at American Cinematheque in LA, and maybe the BAM Cinematek in Brooklyn. Some Alamo Drafthouse theaters are also running it along with MIRACLE MILE.

I spoke to Steve by teleephone on 18th September 2012, and via email during October 2015. I'd like to thank him for his time.

Thanks to Scott Bradley. 

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