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 second part of a three-part interview, I spoke to Steve about the making of his magnum opus, MIRACLE MILEPart three will focus on Steve's TV work and unmade projects.   

Part one can be read here.

Where did the initial idea for MIRACLE MILE come from?
It came out of the nightmares of my generation. I guess today people think the world is going to end from economic collapse or terrorism or something like that, but all those pale in comparison to the nuke threat of the Cold War. You had it drummed into you that you had to duck, roll and cover, and that we were going to be at war. We were going to brush
the radioactive dust off the cans and live to fight the Russians again some day.

I'd always loved the Miracle Mile section of L.A. and the tar pits, so they came into the idea. I also remember going to a 24 hour Preston Sturges marathon at the El Ray Theater and coming out at 4 in the morning. The marathon was great because Sturges always had the same cast. You could fall asleep in the middle of one movie and wake up during the next movie, and you'd see the same actors! That stuck in my head somehow. L.A. goes to sleep at 10 in the evening and it's hard to find a restaurant. The streets are empty. And I had been spooked by lonely pay phones ringing on empty streets. So that kernel lead to the 'You're Chicken Little and you're not sure if things are happening or not' main thrust of the film.

When did you write it, and how long did it take to get made?
I wrote the first draft in late 1979. It took eight years to get it made. There's a whole other career I could have had. 
(C) Steve De Jarnatt
It's surprising to hear you wrote it in 1979 before films like TESTAMENT (1983) and THE DAY AFTER (1983).
I don't think there was a single nuke movie when I wrote it. Mark Rosenberg, who was running production at Warner Brothers, was quite a character. He used to be in the radical underground group SDS - Students for a Democratic Society. He wanted to use MIRACLE MILE for The Twilight Zone or something, but he wanted the lead character to wake up at the end and it was all a dream. Everybody always wanted to change the ending.

How close did it come to production before it actually got greenlit?
It probably could have got made at Warner Brothers but they wanted me to work on it a lot more. After I bought it back from them, Mark Rosenberg offered me $400 or 500, 000, or whatever it was, to buy it again. I think this might have been 1982. That was top dollar, what Robert Towne or William Goldman was getting at that time. But I turned it down. I think I said if they could get George Miller, who had not long done THE ROAD WARRIOR (1981), to direct it, I would sit on the sidelines. But that didn’t happen, and I really saw no other choice. I didn’t have any money, never had. I didn’t know what it would mean. I just had to make my baby. Warner Brothers was very generous in giving it back. I remember that Tony Bill was the producer at Warners, and he was the guy who found new film-makers coming up, like Marty Brest who did GOING IN STYLE (1979) with him.

What were some of the influences on you whilst writing and making MIRACLE MILE?
Like everyone else I was influenced by Hitchcock. Not so much his artifice, where he wanted to control it so much and it could be a bit stilted, but the whole idea of a guy being over his head and not sure what is going on. I'm not a big fan of going out there and shooting in a shaky, fake documentary style. Something like THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971) is brilliant, but real documentarians don't make their cameras go out of focus and slop their cameras all over the place. I definitely like clean, hard-lit films, with elegant, well planned camera moves.

Was there any significance to BIRD OF PARADISE (1932) being on the TV?
Kathy Orrison, who was married to Sherman Labby, the BLADE RUNNER storyboard artist, told me about the film. It's a love story set against a volcano, as opposed to a love story set against an impending nuclear attack. I always like to put little background bits in there. The character speed reading the Cliff Notes version of Gravity's Rainbow always gets a

At what point when you were dreaming up the story did the love story aspect come into it?
I went in and pitched it to Mark Rosenberg. I said ''It's the middle of the night. Someone calls the wrong number. You pick up a pay phone … They're calling from a missile silo and they say they're going to shoot their missiles off in ten minutes. After that it'll be seventy minutes before the Russian warheads arrive.'' It was always going to be a real time movie from that point in the story. I can't think of anything worse than the world ending and being alone. Running off to Antarctica with the guys from the diner to ''fuck penguins with Jacques Cousteau'' was not something the audience would believe was going to be any better. From the phone call to the end was always in the script, but we shot a whole other version of the opening 'meet cute'. The stuff we used was stitched together in the filmmaking process, and I'm still unsure of parts of it. We did a lot of reshoots. It's a little bit montage-y and telling you, not showing you, that they are in love. In an ideal world they'd have some more scenes to build on. We would have taken more time. There are some glimpses of an alternate version in the out-takes on the Blu Ray.

Why did you want to mix genres in the film?
I wanted people to just be stunned and affected by the end. It's a very frustrating movie. The guy doesn't save the day. He's flailing a gun around for quite a bit which is a bit
preposterous. He makes some wrong choices. He doesn't get away and he drowns in tar, luckily with the one he loves. Some people just hate the movie because he does so many frustrating and stupid things, but he's just a trombone player, an average guy – not a Bruce Willis character.

There was a critic in England who thought the film had the biggest lurch in tone ever. It starts off as a sappy romantic comedy and it turns into something less fluffy. Back then you could get away with it. Nobody today would expect that ending. You're not allowed to have things so bleak. I fought for eight years to get that ending but today I don't think anybody would make it.

(C) Paul Chadwick
How would you describe the film?
I try to get people to watch it without knowing anything about it and I implore them to stick with it past the 80s love story! It's supposed to operate as if it could be a dream to some degree, but then on another level it's definitely real. You're treading that line. In the middle of the night it's always a dreamscape. You're not sure if it's really happening. In the department store too much time has gone by and he comes to the point where he is a faux Chicken Little. He's going to be in big trouble but at least the world isn't ending. Then we dash that ‘out’ - and pull you back into doom.

What message were you trying to convey with the film?
I was absolutely thinking ''What can I do to scare the world to death about a nuclear war happening?'' People think the Cold War is quaint nowadays but I remind them that a nuclear attack is much more likely to happen tonight than it was back then. Everyone was totally attentive and on top of it back then. The missiles are still pointed and ready to go
today. All it could take is some Russian down in the missile silo, drunk on vodka after his girlfriend has broken up with him, being unpaid for a while, hitting that button. I don't think nuclear disarmament will ever happen until a city gets blown off the map.

In what ways is the film autobiographical?
Not at all really, but in the original draft, the lead character was in his 40s or 50s, like a Gene Hackman figure. There was once a Paul Newman possibility for that version actually. Harry Washello hasn't seen his ex-wife in fifteen years and barges into her home in the middle of the night. There was a kid involved too. It wasn't two people meeting and falling in love, and then the world ends. In some ways, that version had stronger emotion, and
some people didn't forgive me for changing that character in the script. I changed that willingly though, and nobody made me do that. I did it for personal reasons I think. A long relationship had ended, and new love was of more interest than going back for the old. The reconciliation factor though, was transposed to the grandparents, which is a bit autobiographical, and was inspired by my mom’s parents in Denver.

(C) Paul Chadwick
Other than that did the script change much over the years?
No, it was always the same structure, starting and ending at the tar pits. The same scenes were always there. I think in a very early draft I might have written 150 pages before the phone rings, which was way over the top. That was never turned into to the studio. It was just part of my process. I sometimes write 30,000 words now before boiling a short story down to 8,000 words.

Why do you think the film took so long to get made?
The ending. To not have it work out, well, that wasn’t done then - and would never even be conceived of today. But 70s movies did that. I was forged in that era, so I thought that is what you went for in films. When people offered me the money, I wouldn't compromise. I tell young filmmakers now ''Don't be that pigheaded. Play the game. Do one for them, and one for you. A la John Sayles. Make some money, work the system and then you can make more movies.'' I think people had respect me for not compromising, but they also wanted to know that I was going to get in the game and play it. Back then there were a lot of interesting indie films being made. Today it's so limited. There are the big comic book movies. Even the indies are pretty expensive, unless you are going to make something for $150, 000. It's not that independent.

Once quite a few nuclear dramas became popular were the studios more interested in MIRACLE MILE or in letting you have your complete vision?
My heart kind of broke when THE DAY AFTER (1983) went huge and TESTAMENT (1983) proved to be a a good movie. MIRACLE MILE was already regarded as one of the ten best
unproduced scripts on the first such list in American Film (now we have The Black List, which gets published), and there was definitely a flurry of activity after THE DAY AFTER, but they still wanted it to have a happier ending.

Did you have to make any small compromises to get the film finally made?
John Daly at Hemdale was a tough character but he really should be more appreciated. He won the Best Picture Oscar two years in a row with PLATOON and THE LAST EMPEROR (1987), and he made a lot of good movies like HOOSIERS (1986) and RIVER'S EDGE (1986). He had good instincts. He was also a good guy - to me anyway. John would often come in and take films away and re-edit them, but when he saw that I had put every penny I owned into the movie he said ''If you care that much about the movie, I'll leave you alone.'' He gave James Cameron a second chance after PIRANHA II (1982) and made THE TERMINATOR (1984) with him. He gave Oliver Stone the chance to make SALVADOR (1986) and PLATOON (1986) after THE HAND (1981). If you ever want to get paid or see some of the profits, you can forget it, though! That's why the company went bankrupt. There are only two cuts that he made in the film, and they are pretty minor. One was the Wilson character carrying his sister at the top of the elevator, all bloodied. And we had done a version of the ending where the white light at the end sort of coalesces into two diamonds and floats away. John said ''That's too upbeat! Let's cut that out!'' It didn't really matter though, as I was ambivalent about that particular ending anyway.

What was the final budget?
It was $3.7 million, below the line, and $4.4 million above the line, total. I'm sure Hemdale sold it for $8 or 10 million and claimed it cost that much or more!

How was the shoot?
(C) Steve De Jarnatt
It was a very hard shoot, but great. There was a lot of pressure. The completion bond company was sympathetic to me but they said ''This is impossible to do on this budget. When you get two days behind, we will fire you.'' There was a director, I don't know who it was, waiting in the wings to come finish the film. But somehow we managed to stay on schedule. On CHERRY 2000 I had been refereeing actors and the DP made things a miserable experience, but MIRACLE MILE was the opposite experience.

The actors were all you could ask for. The DP, Theo Van De Sande, was fantastic. I had wanted him on CHERRY 2000. I had seen his reel, and it was very eclectic. He didn't just work in one style. I have used him on a TV pilot and many other things since. He's the guy to have with you in the trenches. You need someone fighting as much as you to get everything onscreen.

It was seven weeks, all nights, with usually a dawn shot to be gotten each morning before we wrapped. I then went and did a lot of second-unit shots on my own dime. I would go spend amounts up to $25, 000, and sometimes John would reimburse me, but I would just go and spend it on doing more shots. At the end, I was $150,000 in debt, owing labs and vendors, and credit cards etc. I did not go bankrupt though. I paid back every dime.

How did you decide on the look of the film?
I storyboarded it many times over the years with Paul Chadwick, who now does graphic novels like Concrete and The Matrix. I looked at every film that had been shot at night. We didn't wet the streets at night, and we used no smoke, only a little neon. So we managed to somehow avoid the typical 80s look. We would be inside shooting an interior and then at the end of every night when dawn broke we would be getting shots of the lead character running around LA with the sky changing.

(C) Donald Burghart
Was the look of the film influenced by THE TERMINATOR (1984) at all?
I guess a little bit but THE TERMINATOR was using that filtery, blown out look and I wanted something cleaner and more dream-like. Certainly the kinetic, cinematic cutting of TERMINATOR was great at the time. Probably that and THE ROAD WARRIOR were the best action templates at that time and something to try and emulate.

What would you change about the film if you could?
I think the main thing would be the 80s hair styles! I would like to CGI them all. I cringe every time I watch the film! I wish I had been more particular about the hairstyles and clothes, but at the time – these actually seemed cool believe it or not.

How did you come to cast Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham?
After TOP GUN (1986) Tony had a lot of heat and so it was possible to get a low-budget film financed with him in the lead. Tony knew Mare, and though the studio wanted to go with a more glamorous bombshell, they seemed like a real couple and were tremendous to work with. You couldn't hope for anything more. Anything I asked them to do, they were there. I kept doing all these little pick-up shots for like a year after and saying to them ''Hey, we're shooting on the weekend. Can you come down and shoot this bit?''

Is Tony proud of the movie? I know you have done Q and As together over the years.
I know it was his favorite of the films he had done for a long while. I actually got to do some E.R. episodes with him, and I am developing some projects with him too. Interestingly, after being friends for many years, and having children in their marriages, he and Mare recently became a real couple. I was astounded. Life imitates art! So happy for them.

How did you assemble such a great supporting cast?
(C) Donald Burghart
Lauren Lloyd was the casting director, and she did an amazing job. Alan Rosenberg, Mark Rosenberg's brother (also SAG President for a few years), played the young streetsweeper and he was sort of playing a version of his brother, a political guy. We got some really good actors: Claude Earl Jones (also in CHERRY 2000), Earl Boen (THE TERMINATOR), Mykelti Williamson (later Bubba in FORREST GUMP), Robert Doqui (ROBOCOP), Kurt Fuller (who went on to do a million things), Denise Crosby, Jenette Goldstein (Vasquez in ALIENS). We rehearsed the diner scenes like a one-act play. There is a glimpse of that on the Blu Ray extras, and recently we were able to get eleven of the supporting cast together at Johnnie's after 26 years. It's unchanged from how we art directed it, and left it.

How did Eddie Bunker end up in the film?
Yes, Eddie with the sawed off shotgun. He knew how to use one. He was a wonderful guy. He came in and read. I still have his audition tape, and many others, and I will be putting them up on a MIRACLE MILE website later this year. Theo van de Sande's wife, Michele O'Hayon, was developing one of his books, Little Boy Blue. I wanted to do a TV project with Eddie about a halfway house with prisoners coming out and going back in, but nothing much became of it.

How did Tangerine Dream come to score the film?
I remember writing the script in the middle of the night, endlessly listening to their SORCERER (1977) soundtrack. Their music is very connected to how the film came out of my head. Tangerine Dream is always this one guy, Edgar Froese, and then one or two or more other people. For MIRACLE MILE it was just Edgar and Paul Haslinger, who is scoring films now but who was a classical music prodigy at the time. I got to work with them and it was a wonderful experience. Sadly, Edgar passed away unexpectedly this year. A huge loss to the music world. Paul and he were discussing trying to put out the true underscore on a limited issue vinyl (the CD score has added instrumentation to supplement the film score) but not sure if it could have happened anyway.

Was the film well received at film festivals?
Yes, it did well at Toronto and Montreal. It was the first big year at Sundance and people liked it there, but it got swept away in the tsunami of SEX, LIES AND VIDEOTAPE (1989). The paradigm of independent film was being changed for the 90s. There was HEATHERS (1988), APARTMENT ZERO (1988) and others. There were about eight independent movies at the festival that were really good, and MIRACLE MILE had its fans but got a bit lost in the shuffle.

Were you happy with the reviews the film got?
It got some great reviews, especially from New York critics, but it got trashed by others. It was very well liked in England and other countries but it didn't play long there either.

How did the film do commercially?
They sold it as an action movie, an end of the world film, and a bit of a love story. It opened wide in New York and L.A. It did good business for two weeks. I think it held its own against ROADHOUSE (1989), but then INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE (1989) came out and FIELD OF DREAMS (1989) and some other films, and they just wiped us out of the theaters. But people found it on VHS and DVD and I'm very happy for it to be a cult thing. Contrary to popular belief, the film did not lose money - except at the box office. But between foreign territories and VHS it made $10-12 million I think. I was owed $400, 000 in residuals and a deferred salary, but I only saw a fraction of that many years later after the Hemdale bankruptcy settled out. No complaints. I got to make it.

What was the impact of the movie on your career?
It was perceived as not making any money, although it was profitable. I was still offered movies afterwards, and I arrogantly turned down them down. I did end up going into television. I wrote fifteen pilots for the networks, and four of them got made. I was very close to getting my own show on the air. I worked on the staff of The X-Files (briefly), American Gothic and others and then directed and produced about 50 shows. So, I sold out and played the game in the end, but it was time to go out and make some money. After MIRACLE MILE, I owed something like $150, 000.

How does MIRACLE MILE impact upon your life now?
The film seems to have found an audience out there who appreciate it. Along with my lesser film CHERRY 2000 it played at the American Cinematheque, and it also played at the Doomsday Festival in Tribeca and at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I have a list of about 30 places around the world it has played recently. So thrilled it still is something anyone wants to see.

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

Please respect the copyright notices and do not reproduce the photos without prior permission. The copyright holders and myself thank you. 

Thanks to Scott Bradley. 

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