John McNaughton is best known as the director of two very different films: the unforgettably disturbing and brilliant HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1986), and the irresistibly entertaining erotic thriller WILD THINGS (1998). McNaughton has always shown a diversity and breadth to his filmmaking. Amongst his films are the comedy drama MAD DOG AND GLORY (1993) featuring Robert De Niro and Bill Murray playing against type as a sensitive cop and tough mobster respectively; sci-fi horror THE BORROWER (1991); crime drama NORMAL LIFE (1996); Eric Bogosian stand-up concert movie SEX, DRUGS, ROCK & ROLL (1991); romantic comedy SPEAKING OF SEX (2001), and horror thriller THE HARVEST (2013) with Michael Shannon and Samantha Morton. McNaughton has also excelled on TV with films like GIRLS IN PRISON (1994) and LANSKY (1999), and shows like Homicide: Life on the Street, Without a Trace, and Masters of Horror. In the second part of a three-part interview, I spoke with McNaughton about making MAD DOG AND GLORY and WILD THINGS, the challenges of filming SEX, DRUGS, ROCK & ROLL, and his experiences directing for TV (including the Sam Fuller-scripted GIRLS IN PRISON)  

Part one of the interview.        

Did you feel pressured to do another horror movie after HENRY? 
Yes, I did do another horror movie, THE BORROWER. I had no choice really. I got every bad horror movie script in Hollywood, believe me, but that was a good script. 

How did you come to direct MAD DOG AND GLORY for Scorsese? 
From the time I saw MEAN STREETS (1973), Scorsese was always my favorite filmmaker, and I had heard he had optioned the Jim Thompson book The Grifters (1963) and was going to produce it. I was a huge Jim Thompson fan and I kept saying to my agent Scott Yoselow in New York, ''Send him HENRY, Send him HENRY. '' So he sent it to Scorsese's office and it got as far as his assistant, who after she saw the film called him back and basically said something to the tune of ''How dare you send me something like this?'' She was just appalled. And that was that. Stephen Frears got the assignment and did a very nice job. Well, that assistant finally moved on and Scorsese got a new assistant named Melanie Friesen, who somehow came across HENRY and loved it, and when she showed it to Scorsese, he loved it too. They called me up and sent me this script called MAD DOG AND GLORY. 

I bet that was an amazing call to take. 
I was sitting there and I get this call. The lady on the other end says ''Hi . I'm Melanie Friesen. I work for Martin Scorsese. He saw your film and loved it. Will you be there in ten minutes if he calls you back?'' You never know what's going to happen in life. I figured that everything that was bad had happened and I had survived it with some level of magnanimity, so when something incredibly good happened I was like ''Don't get too excited. '' I probably should have been a lot more euphoric and grateful. I thought this was the balance for all the negative. 

Did you immediately feel that this project was in your wheelhouse? It required such a delicate balancing of tones. 
Well, it was character and I can do character. It came to the day when it was ''Who's going to be in the movie?'' And it was Robert De Niro and Bill Murray with Scorsese producing. It was numbing in a way. Was I afraid? Of course I was afraid, but what was I going to do? Not do it? You just put one foot in front of the other and hope for the best, and hope a safe doesn't fall on your head while you're in the middle of a scene! 

What was the experience of working on the film like? 
If there was an asshole in that process, you're speaking to him at the moment. I was young and full of myself and probably a little cocky and arrogant. Scorsese couldn't have been kinder or more generous. Bob De Niro was just a pleasure to work with every day. I got along with Bill Murray quite well. Uma Thurman was lovely. I hate to leave her out and she was indeed lovely to behold and to work with. Robby Muller was a pain in the ass and I'll leave it at that. He's a great cinematographer and he did a great job, but he was a miserable person to work with. Aside from him, everyone was pretty cool.

Like most of the films I make, once the people who funded them see them, they're not sure what they are, and they just sort of get nervous and don't know how to market them. Six months after the film came out, Tom Pollack, the head of Universal, told The Hollywood Reporter that the guy who was in charge of the marketing department was fired for incompetence. Nobody puts that in print unless the guy was a trainwreck. Normally it's ''He wants to spend more time with his family. '' So the film wasn't a supremely huge hit but the reviews were good. The problem was that nobody could really get a handle on whether the film was a cop movie, a buddy movie or a romance. It was all those things, but at the same time, not really. 

How do you feel about the ending that was decided upon? 
Originally, De Niro took one punch at Bill Murray and didn't knock him down or knock him out, but at that point Murray's character has an epiphany – ''I'm the CEO. What am I doing scuffling in the street with this idiot?'' That caused him to say ''I'm out of here. This is stupid. '' When we tested the film with that ending, the audience wanted to see the RAGING BULL get his revenge, and I can't say I blame them. It was more emotionally satisfying. We reshot the fight and I still like it. I like the crane shot that goes up the building and shows you the city of Chicago over the top of the roof. After the fight, we first had De Niro and Uma Thurman going upstairs and he dances for her. It was one of those things. On paper it was great but on the screen it didn't work. So we all went back and forth and the ending is what we came up with. To me, it is what it is. They go upstairs and you don't know what happens to them. We did have another ending, but we never shot it. It was where Uma Thurman gets on a bus and goes home, and De Niro goes back to his apartment alone.

It's hard to come up with a good ending. Years ago I used to read a lot of scripts, more than I do today, and you occasionally would find one that was really good, but a lot of the first-time writers would take a good story, take it all the way, and then just kill everybody at the end. It was emblematic of the time. Originally, THE HARVEST ended before the baseball scene. They are sitting there on the creek and she says ''Are they gone yet?'' And little Natasha says ''I think so. '' The End. I felt that we had spent all this time with these two great kids and you wanted something less bleak. I call it the Fake Happy Ending because he's playing ball, but where did he go? Back to his family? He's been gone for twelve years. But I felt the audience was owed something. When you're very young, you can just have an ending where everybody dies, and Fuck You, The End. But it's like spitting at your audience. I went to see Iggy Pop in concert and he spat at the audience, and it was cool. But I was young then! 

Was it a learning experience making MAD DOG AND GLORY? 
Oh yeah. I learned how to work with a crew of the highest calibre and have that level a budget, and I learned how to treat movie stars when you're working with them. 

You've worked in a variety of different genres. Does this stem from restlessness at all? 
I'm not restless now, but I was before THE HARVEST, not having made a film for many years. If a story attracts me, I am interested. I also don't like to get pinned down. I worked on the Masters of Horror for Showtime, and there were a lot of really good directors that worked on that show. We'd have these dinners and you sort of come to realise that the horror genre can become a terrible ghetto where you can't get out, if you're not careful. 

How did you come to direct the Eric Bogosian stand-up movie SEX, DRUGS, ROCK AND ROLL? 
MAD DOG AND GLORY was originally going to be shot in New York, and I was there prepping the movie with my producing partner Steve Jones. Already I have Scorsese producing, and the script is by Richard Price, and is amazingly written. Scorsese calls me up and says ''Listen, Bob De Niro has read this script and he really likes it. I'm not trying to push you or anything but do you think you'd like to meet him?'' He was so polite about it. So we had a meeting in Scorsese's office in the Brill Building. It was me, Scorsese and De Niro. They told me another actor was coming along who might be interested in playing opposite Bob. Bob wasn't sure which part he was going to play – the cop or the gangster. There's a knock on the door and in walks Al Pacino. So I'm now sitting there with Scorsese, Bob De Niro and Al Pacino, having a grand old time, just cracking jokes, and talking about this, that and the other thing, and there's another knock at the door. And who else could it be but George Lucas? He just dropped in because he was in New York. So he joins in and we all start talking and laughing it up some more. Eventually the meeting finished and as I was leaving I started thinking ''You just sat in a room with Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and George fucking Lucas. You are the King of the Universe, pal!'' I got back to my hotel room and there was a call from Casey Silver, the Head of Production at Universal Pictures, saying ''John, I have some rather alarming news. '' Before I got to that meeting, Bob and Marty were talking and they decided they were going to do CAPE FEAR (1991) and they put our project on hold for six months.

When I made HENRY, I got three fan letters. One from Eric Bogosian, one from John Waters, and one from David Mamet. Since then I have worked with all three of them. My agent arranged a meeting with Eric, since he had sent me the fan letter, and it turned out he was getting ready to do a film of his show, Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll. It snowballed into him asking me if I would be interested in doing it, and I said yes. We made the film with Fred Zollo and his partner Nicky Paleologos, who had produced the stage show. Eric and them had all grown up together in Woburn, Massachusetts as kids. 

Was it a completely fresh challenge for you filming a live show? 
To me it was like doing the Superbowl because there's no ''Cut! Let's go again!'' Ernest Dickerson, Spike Lee's cameraman, was our Director of Photography, and we had three cameras running. We shot two complete performances of the show. On the first performance we shot the odd numbered characters one way, and then moved the cameras for the even numbered ones. On the second performance we did vice versa. Each night we sat there with three monitors, and there was no going back. I was drenched in sweat with the tension because once the show started there was no stopping and we had no control once it was in motion. 

How did making the TV film GIRLS IN PRISON from a Sam Fuller script happen? 
I was asked to be on the jury at a film festival and I had no idea until I got there that the chairman of the jury was Sam Fuller. He had been a crime reporter before WW2, and he told me that the law that established the criterion for criminal insanity in the United States was the McNaughton Law. That was kind of the icebreaker and we got to be friends. Lou Arkoff, the son of Samuel Z. Arkoff, who used to run American International Pictures, was making this show called Rebel Highway for Showtime. He got ten directors and we got to choose which one of the old AIP titles we wanted to remake. We could do the film any way we liked. We could do it as it was originally done or we could throw the old script out and start over, which was what we did. I got Sam and Christa Fuller to write it. 

Did you try and shoot it like a Sam Fuller film? 
To some degree, yes. I tried to homage Sam in numerous ways. 

You said you originally thought you might be a television director, and aside from the many films you've directed you have directed television episodes and television movies. How have you enjoyed these experiences? 
My first television experience was Homicide: Life on the Street. It was shot by a guy I went to graduate school with named Jean de Segonzac, who is now a major director of episodic TV himself. He was probably one of the finest hand-held cameramen that ever worked, and I used him to shoot my movie NORMAL LIFE. Normally TV episodes are shot in eight days but since they were shooting all hand-held in Baltimore, Homicide was always shot in seven days. I think all young directors should go and do some episodic television and learn the discipline of moving that fast, where you don't have time to endlessly fuss over things and decisions need to be made in a hurry. In one episode we were doing, a character had a pen fetish and when the cops finally broke into the place where he lived, there were strings and strings of pens hung everywhere. The production designer was Vincent Peranio, who like most of the people on the show came up from working with John Waters on his films in Baltimore. It was a great and wild bunch of people. Vince said ''When we were making our movies, we'd work as long as we needed to and we would agonize as long as we could. If we had to put a pen on a desk, we would bring out a hundred pens and try to decide which color would be best. Once you get into TV, it's ''Grab a fucking pen, put it on the desk, shoot it, and let's go, we're moving on. Right, next ... '' '' 

Do you think your TV experiences improved you considerably as a director? 
Yes, and I don't think I'd have been able to make THE HARVEST on the schedule I had, had I not done television like that. 

WILD THINGS was a departure for you. Did you immediately know what kind of tone and approach the film was going to have after first reading the script? 
I knew I wanted it rewritten by Kem Nunn. Stephen Peters, who wrote the original draft, is brilliant on plot and we didn't change any of it, but I felt Kem Nunn was stronger on texture and character and place. The producer, Peter Guber, sent us off to Florida, where none of us had spent much time and we spent ten days there getting shepherded around to places and meeting people who were like people in the story. When I read the script I thought ''As crazy as it is, I do believe it could happen in the world that we live in.'' Once I believe that a story can happen in the real world, then I know how to direct it. 

Did you quickly see the commercial appeal of the film? 
I was at a point in my career where I needed to do a commercial picture, and that was one of the key reasons I chose the film. I really liked the script, but it was also me asking myself ''What sells? Sex and violence. You want sex and violence? Well, here you go. How much can you take?'' 

Was the level of humor present in the original script? 
I received Stephen's script whole. I had never met him before. But I know Kem Nunn quite well. We had worked together on a couple of things. He's the co-creator of John From Cincinatti and he worked on Sons of Anarchy, but he's a novelist and his first book was nominated for the National Book Award. He's a really wonderful writer and we share a really dry, cynical sense of humor, so we worked together on the script, adding humor. When the studio read one of his early drafts, they weren't sure of the dialogue, but fortunately one of the executives, Jason Blumenthal, stuck up for it. The dialogue is the kind of the dialogue that is not good in an obvious way. You need to hear it played. 

Was Kevin Bacon a producer on the film from the beginning? 
Because of the lurid nature of the script, it was difficult to get actors, and so he came on as a producer. When he saw the finished movie he called me from an airplane that was getting ready to take off and said ''I saw the movie last night and I loved it, but let me tell you something that I never told you before. When I first read the script I said to myself that in the wrong hands this could really be a piece of shit. '' It was hard getting the first actor in the pool. Peter Guber is nothing if not generous with money and his time and they paid Kevin more than he had ever been paid before, and they gave him a producer credit as well and a little bit more money to try and attract other actors. To his credit, Kevin never took his producer role too seriously or try and impose his will in any way. 

Did you find the sex scenes easy to direct? 
I don't think sex scenes are ever easy to direct. There is always a lot of tension around them. The schedule goes out, and every actor knows what day their sex scene is. The tension builds as you get closer to those days. It's not so much fun to have two actors take their clothes off in front of a crew and pretend to have sex, and for the actors more than anyone. 

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


John McNaughton is best known as the director of two very different films: the unforgettably disturbing and brilliant HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER (1986), and the irresistibly entertaining erotic thriller WILD THINGS (1998). McNaughton has always shown a diversity and breadth to his filmmaking. Amongst his films are the comedy drama MAD DOG AND GLORY (1993) featuring Robert De Niro and Bill Murray playing against type as a sensitive cop and tough mobster respectively; sci-fi horror THE BORROWER (1991); crime drama NORMAL LIFE (1996); Eric Bogosian stand-up concert movie SEX, DRUGS, ROCK & ROLL (1991); romantic comedy SPEAKING OF SEX (2001), and horror thriller THE HARVEST (2013) with Michael Shannon and Samantha Morton. McNaughton has also excelled on TV with films like GIRLS IN PRISON (1994) and LANSKY (1999), and shows like Homicide: Life on the Street, Without a Trace, and Masters of Horror. In the first part of a three-part interview I spoke with McNaughton about the early years, his first documentary film DEALERS IN DEATH (1984), and the making of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER.     

Part two of the interview.    

What were some of your most memorable experiences watching movies growing up? 
I probably watched a lot more television than movies, but when I was a very little boy my mother took me downtown in Chicago to see Walt Disney's PETER PAN (1953). In those days they would show the first-run movies in downtown Chicago first. We lived way out on the south side, and the movies would work their way out to the edges of the city. So you'd have to wait for it to get to your neighborhood. Over the course of its run I think I made my parents take me back about ten times. I loved that film. I used to dress up as Captain Hook on Halloween and go trick or treating. When people think of me they think of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER and WILD THINGS, and excess, but that was probably the most formative film that I had ever seen. 

Some of your previous jobs included being a carnival worker, a silversmith, a factory worker, and a builder of one-off ocean racing sail boats. Did all these experiences come in useful for when you became a filmmaker? 
Oh, absolutely. I don't mean to denigrate him in any way but someone like Tarantino makes movies that are basically about movies. To me, that's just a post-modern approach. I look to Godard as the first person who planted that flag. I like to approach from life. To me, a lot of young filmmakers go to film school and come out and go to work in the film business and their life experience is very limited. I grew up on the south side of Chicago and if I had never done anything but that I would have had an amazing set of experiences! When I'm on the set and things start getting slow, I'll start telling stories about what my neighborhood was like growing up and invariably whoever is listening just looks at me and says ''That never happened. '' And I'll say ''Believe what you will. But I guarantee you it did. '' Someone compared my life experiences to a novelist's resume where you try to do a lot of different things in order to become a good writer, but I didn't do these jobs or have these experiences so when I became a filmmaker I'd know all about it. These jobs were what was in front of me. I worked in the steel mills, for example, because that's what everybody did where I lived. I've had very different experiences like hanging out in Princess Caroline's house in Monaco with my friend George Condo, the painter. I also spent time with my old friend Slim Scanlon, who stole his first Harley Davidson when he was 13. He was a nefarious character but one of the best guys I have ever known. These experiences come in handy when you are rendering characters. Being from the working class I am often amazed at how caricatured characters from the working class tend to be in film. I'm sure if you're African-American you feel the same way often. I've hung around with some of the world's biggest movie stars and the lowest criminals, and everyone in between. 

One of the things that strikes me about your films is that the characters seem so real and their worlds so lived-in, so that when they act out their dark impulses, it's all the more effective and disturbing. I'm thinking especially of HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER. 
Michael Rooker, who grew up in a town called Jasper, Alabama, came up very hard and because he was so gifted, he got a scolarship to the Goodman School of Drama here in Chicago and got a college education and studied acting. One time I asked him where he got his inspiration for playing Henry and without a beat he said ''Oh, I have an uncle who is just like this guy. '' 

When was it that you decided filmmaking was what you wanted to do? 
I was in art school at the University of Illinois, and I had this epiphany that the art form that had been most influential on my life and was the prime influence for me growing up, as much as I loved painting and sculpting and all the standard forms of art, was television. I was an only child, and if you quiz me about any TV show from the 50s to the 70s, I can tell you a lot about it. So I left the art school and transferred back to Columbia College in Chicago, which had a film production department and I studied television production and still photography. I expected to make television shows and not films necessarily. 

How did your first film, the documentary DEALERS IN DEATH, come about? 
Ray Atherton, the guy who gets the TV over his head in HENRY, is long deceased but he was one of the first video pirates, and a genius in his way. That is why we made him a dealer in stolen merchandise in HENRY because in one sense, that's what he had been. In the early days of video he had been a print collector and he knew where all the best prints of any film or TV show were and who was holding them. If you had the best prints then you could duplicate them and you would have the best looking videos. A lot of stuff had fallen into the public domain, and he was sort of a jailhouse expert on that. NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), for example, was improperly registered for copyright for some reason, and back in the days of video everybody was selling it. Ray was up on 42 felony counts on the first video piracy trial in Los Angeles, and he beat 40 of them. Roddy MacDowall and Rock Hudson were also defendants in that trial. That's where they set the Fair Sale doctrine and determined the rules of what you could sell and couldn't sell. Ray kind of went broke defending himself and he came back to Chicago and went to work for the company that would become MPI. That's where I met him. He had the idea to do DEALERS IN DEATH because he knew where a lot of footage of gangsters was, and I had a contact at the Chicago Historical Society who worked in the photo department. Between the still photos we got from him and the footage Ray had access to, we made a series of documentaries. We got Broderick Crawford, who was still alive, to narrate them for $2500, I believe, in cash. 

MPI also financed HENRY. How did the film come together? 
I used to work in a bar in the far side of the south side of Chicago and this guy came in and got pretty drunk. This guy was repping for MPI. This was before there was home video, and they were renting projectors to hotels for presentations. This was as close as there was to a film business in the south side of Chicago. He gave me his card and I went to see someone at MPI and they hired me to run prints in these Super 8 loop machines that they had installed in pizza joints and burger restaurants around Chicago. I became friends with the guys that owned the company - two brothers named Waleed and Malik Ali. They were originally from Jordan, and they were just in this little business, trying to make a living, and working out of their parents' basement. Waleed was a very brilliant and visionary guy, and we talked about how someday we would make a movie. In the meantime the video business was born and they got into it and started making money. Ray Atherton was bringing them all these prints that were in the public domain and they were dupicating them and selling them. Then they started buying the rights to B-grade horror films and they were doing very well with those but that market took off and the rights kept going up and up in price. They decided that if they could make their own film and own all the rights in perpetuity, then that would be the way to go. Waleed agreed to give me $100, 000 to make a horror film, undisclosed as to what subject. The choice was mine. 

Why did you choose the topic of a serial killer? 
We did those DEALERS IN DEATH films, and they made some money. There were some people in Chicago who were selling footage of professional wrestling from the old days, way before the WWF, when it was really pretty crazy and low rent. We were going to buy that footage and cut some documentaries out of that. I drove from the city to the suburbs to meet Waleed and talk about it, but when I got to the office he said ''John, you know what? We're not going to make those documentaries. The people who had the footage quoted you $10, 000 and the minute they knew we had the money, they doubled the price. I won't do business like that. '' I was somewhat disappointed because that was going to be my living, but then he said ''I'll tell you what though. Let's do what we always said we would do. Let's make a movie. I'll give you $100, 000 to make a horror film. '' I was sort of in shock because that was the dream of my life. We talked for however long we talked and I left, and walked down the hallway to leave the building. Down the hallway there were numerous offices, and one of them was occupied by someone I had grown up with, a guy I had played in rock and roll bands as a kid with on the south side of Chicago named Gus Kavooras. Gus was actually there because I had gotten him a job working there. I walked into his office and I was still in shock. I was like ''Gus, Waleed just offered me $100, 000 to make a horror film. I have no fucking idea what will be the subject. '' He said ''Here, look at this. '' And he took a videocassette and he popped it in his machine. He was a collector of the weird, the arcane and the strange, and he would sit at a table in his office with some VCRs and stacks and stacks of odd stuff he had found. Gus put on the video and it was the television documentary show 20/20. It was three segements and each was a different story. One story was a 20 minute segment on Henry Lee Lucas and Ottis Elwood Toole. I watched it for five minutes and I thought ''Here is genuine horror. Here's my story. '' 

What was MPI expecting from the movie? 
They wanted a B-grade exploitation slasher film. They were a little taken aback when they saw what we made. They put it on the shelf. They didn't think it was saleable. 

Why did you decide to go deeper and make a more substantial film than they expected? 
You have to give a lot of credit to the late Richard Fire, who co-wrote the screenplay. I put together the basic outline of the story but I wasn't an accomplished writer at that time by any means, and I needed a writer to work with. Stuart Gordon had been the Artistic Director of the Organic Theater Company here in Chicago. Richard was a writer and an actor in the Company, alongside people like Tom Towles, who would become Ottis in HENRY, Joey Mantegna, Dennis Franz, Dennis Farina, Meshach Taylor, who I used in NORMAL LIFE, and others. They were a superb company of actors. They had a play in Chicago called E/R. If you want to know where that show started, it's with this group. They started hanging around the periphery of an Emergency Room. They would find a subject that interested them, go research it, and then bring it back to the theater and improv it until they had a script. The play became a huge hit in Chicago and it did get bought by one of the TV networks. There was an E.R. TV show based on their play before the big hit series, and it starred Elliott Gould, and it ran for one season. It was bought from them and they had operated on a completion string in poverty. They each made a little chunk of money from the sale and soon thereafter the Company dissolved. Stuart went off to make RE-ANIMATOR (1985), and the rest of them found their way as best they could. Richard was at loose ends. My long-term producing partner, Steve Jones, had done some video work for some of their plays, and he said ''I'll talk to this guy Richard Fire, and see if he's interested. He's very talented. '' Richard was interested in making a living, so he agreed to write the script. But at any rate, his background was in the theater, and when he read what I had written, which was much more towards typical exploitation, his exact words were ''No, no, no, no, no, no, no.'' He insisted we make something of a higher quality, and we hopefully did. 

Given the subject matter, what was it like making the film? 
When we were ripping Otis's head off, and stuff like that, it was so funny. Obviously some of the scenes weren't funny. Some of the scenes were intense. We had a crew of three so there was a lot of hard work and long days, but a sense of camraderie. We got along reasonably well most of the time and it was a grand adventure, because not many of us had made a film before. I had done commercials before but the first movie set that I was on, I was the director. 

Is it true that Michael Rooker stayed in character throughout the shoot? 
You would have to ask him, but I know his wife was having a less than grand time because he did stay in character to some degree. She was pregnant with their first child, a daughter, and she wouldn't tell him about it until we were done shooting. 

What is your favorite memory of Tom Towles? 
Oh, I have so many. We had a memorial service for him here in Chicago after he died, and I got to see some photos of him in these amazing costumes in plays he had acted in in the theater, which were so unlike his movie roles. Tom was in the Marine Reserves here in Chicago when he was a young man. He also had asthma and he was a huge bicycle rider. When he was a young man, he was always in good shape. He wore the spandex pants and all that, and rode his bicycle all over the city. He also loved guns. Some cab driver cut him off and knocked him off his bicycle somewhere in the city of Chicago, and Tommy managed to catch up with him, pull him out of the cab and pistol whip him for the offence. He was a gentle giant. You wouldn't want to piss him off but he was a very benign guy and very lovable. 

Were you surprised by how good the film was when you first saw it? 
No, because it was my first film, so I didn't really know how good it was. It was also two and a half hours in the first cut of the movie! It wasn't nearly as great as the 83 minute version. Elena Maganini, who cut it, was always very maternal, and before she got married and had a child, the films we made together were sort of her babies. Every frame was precious. I took the long cut of the film out to L.A. to show to Walter Shenson, who produced the Beatles movies. The Ali brothers had gotten the video rights to A HARD DAY'S NIGHT (1964) through charm and making him a deal he couldn't refuse. That was their first big title. They got associated with The Beatles, which is as about as good as you can do in this entertainment business. They became friends with Walter and worked on various projects with him. Walter sat patiently and watched the whole two and a half hour cut. He said ''Yeah, kid, pretty good. But you gotta be ruthless. '' So we took it back and we cut it and cut it and cut it until it was 83 minutes. When it's your first film you think you can't cut anything out until you show it to strangers who are yawning and nodding off, and you realise that you have to cut it down. 

It was written in 1985, shot in October and November of that year, and edited in 1986. It was put on the shelf by MPI until 1989. How did it eventually get released? 
MPI had a young man working in the publicity department named Chuck Parello. In those days you had to transfer your negative directly to a 1 inch video. These days that's no longer done. The first video duplication lab that opened here somewhere up in the suburbs was of a very high quality. They used some kind of Bosch machines and ran in real time as opposed to high speed, which would reduce the quality. While they were using that lab, that first batch of VHS cassetes were really nice-looking and of a really high technical quality. I would make up lists of various critics and people in the film business that I either knew or knew of, and Chuck would send out VHS copies of HENRY with cover letters. Eventually we hit a few influential people who actually watched it, and there started to be talk and some buzz. Then it was shown by Joe Coleman, who did the painting that was on the first poster, at one of the little screenings he used to do in his screening room in New York. He liked to show extremely weird and crazy films. He showed HENRY to a small audience and one of the audience members was a critic for The Village Voice named Elliott Stein, who then wrote a full page piece in The Village Voice saying ''This is the best film of the year. '' That was the critical mass. It was shown at the Chicago Film Festival, which was its first festival screening, and it also played at Telluride and took off from there. 

After MPI shelved HENRY, did you worry your career was over before it started? 
No, because I was too young and stupid to think that was going to be the case. In most lives, not everything turns out as you expect it would. I always felt it would gain some momentum and some reputation, no matter what, and that it had the power to walk on its own legs, which it turned out that it did. But there was only so much I could do to make that happen. We almost sold it to Vestron. My friend Steve Hager lives in Manhattan but went to the University of Illinois, and he was the editor of High Times Magazine for many years. He had this big, beautful old apartment up on the Upper West Side of New York, and I would stay there if I went to New York. Steve used to have a roommate who worked for Vestron Video back in the day, and we had a party one night and invited the Vestron people over and screened HENRY. They decided they were going to buy it, but they sat on it for months and then reneged on the deal. They said the reason they backed off was because of legalities, and because we had used the names of the real characters. I found out many years later from a person that worked in the company that that was a lie. They were just afraid of the movie.

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


The release of the new Oliver Stone film SNOWDEN, which tells the story of the CIA whistleblower Edward Snowden, is a timely reminder of the director's importance as a filmmaker. Prior to SALVADOR and PLATOON, both released in 1986, Stone had directed two horror films, SEIZURE (1974) and THE HAND (1981), but had found more success as the Oscar-winning screenwriter of MIDNIGHT EXPRESS (1978), and also CONAN THE BARBARIAN (1982), SCARFACE (1983), and YEAR OF THE DRAGON (1985). Starting with SALVADOR, Stone embarked on a non-stop journey of filmmaking that would see him tackle topics such as US involvement in Central America (SALVADOR); the experience of living through the Vietnam War as seen through the eyes of American soldiers (PLATOON, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, HEAVEN ND EARTH) and a Vietnamese woman (HEAVEN AND EARTH), and their struggles to adapt to 'civilised' American society; the murder of John F. Kennedy and its cover-up (JFK); the life and legacy of Richard Nixon (NIXON), and the media's culpability in the rise of serial killers (NATURAL BORN KILLERS). The lack of comparitive interest in his NIXON biopic effectively slowed down Stone's output, but his work since has been as politically-charged, epic, aggressive and ambitious. Stone is a filmmaker impossible to be ambivalent about. Despite the success his films have enjoyed (including Oscars for Best Picture for PLATOON, and for Directing for PLATOON and BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY), he has been heavily criticised throughout his career for some of his artistic decisions. Stone will always be a genuinely controversial, exciting, provocative artistic figure, whose bravery in telling it like he sees it gives his cinema that unmistakeable Stone-like frisson of danger. As James Woods would agree, he is not capable of compromising his artistic vision.

Matt Zoller Seitz's new book, The Oliver Stone Experience, will be received as a dream come true to those who love the man's work. Like Stone's films, it's epic, beautiful, and passionately put together. It is bursting to the seams with ideas, opinions, observations, reminisces, questions, and anger. Seitz's book, which he describes as 'a tribute to him', is a coffee table book running to near 500 pages and spreading out over nine lengthy, copiously illustrated pages. The photo selection is fascinating – as well as posters and stills and background photos, there is  material from Stone's personal collection and from his production archives; extracts from scripts (including unmade or much-revised ones), and contextually appropriate screengrabs from his films. The introduction is by Kiese Laymon, and there are also thought-provoking essays by Jim Beaver, Kim Morgan, Michael Guarnieri, Walter Chaw, and Alissa Wilkinson that looks at various aspects of his work. The book covers his whole life, focussing on the all the films he has made, including those he wrote but did not direct; his novel A Child's Night Dream, and his documentaries. Each chapter is a question and answer session covering a certain era. Seitz is an excellent journalist and his questions come from a desire to understand more deeply the man and his films. His knowledge and high level of research is quickly evident.

As one would expect, Stone's personal journey is as wild, exciting and eventful as any one of his films; especially so in the chapters that deal with his wartime experiences, backed by his private photographs, where the effect is of an even deeper cinematic Oliver Stone experience. These are the real stories, the real blood, sweat and tears that created the films that have affected so many. You won't look at the films the same way again.

The opening chapters, detailing his upbringing and the road that took him to Vietnam and then to filmmaking, are also particularly vivid and powerful, immediately putting into context the themes, concerns and anger that propelled his early work. They also bring to light how Stone's artistic impulse came at least partly from a desire to find his place after his Vietnam experiences, and a need for his audience and for himself to understand what the country went through. As Seitz notes, ''He wanted to make movies that changed both himself and others. '' A running theme is the struggle of Stone, as a man, to reconcile the different parts of his being, and to find his calling and his voice, and of Stone as an artist to try and get the films made in versions that mostly closely resemble his vision, something hampered by the tumultuous nature of the film business, where there is never enough money, too many cooks, and where political stories are not deemed good business. 

We get to learn about his working relationships with his key collaborators, and he also talks about how certain producers allowed him to further his vision or influence the style or scope of his films. We also get to see how Stone has developed as a filmmaker, including his representation of women, and Seitz asks him some philosophical questions that inspire some revealing responses. Seitz occasionally brings up material or quotes that Stone has not seen, or not seen for a while, and Stone's immediate responses are fascinating.

The book also affords the reader the opportunity to revisit the films placed against their original historical context and to see what events helped shape them, and how the films were received at the time. We get reminded of the motifs, tropes and themes running through the work, and of the charges made by his critics that crop up again and again. Stone's answers throughout are candid, detailed and reflective. (He's not shy to tell Seitz when he disagrees with his line of thinking. ) Absorbing, thought-provoking and hilarious details come to light that linger in the memory of the reader. We also get to hear about the Stone projects that frustratingly and sadly never came to be.  The book is meticulously footnoted and the appendix is extensive, allowing for further outside reading.

Fittingly, somehow, despite all that we learn about Stone, he comes off as an even more fascinating, complex, and elusive figure than when we began the book. One comes away feeling that Stone is highly intelligent, driven, and passionate. He is a man with a great sense of anger when it comes to injustice in particular. He can be ruthless, aggressive and uncompromising in the pursuit of his vision, but can be hurt by criticism and by being misunderstood. He is proud of his achievements, but is honest about his failures. Stone is a man who will always be searching and pursuing new knowledge and modes of thinking and seeing. He can see the strengths and flaws in everyone he meets, and his love for the rogues, the eccentrics and the brilliant people is palpable. 

As with the best of the man's films, the book is as intellectually inspiring as it is aesthetically beautiful. It's an Oliver Stone film in book form. You'll understand the man and his films better, and have more empathy for the struggles behind his achievements. It's a book you'll want to revisit a lot for its visual beauty and for the emotional journey the photographs take you on. You'll also want to revisit the text over and over again for the stories they tell, the humour, the candid answers, and the information on the making of the films. It will make you want to go back and revisit the films and see them through different eyes. For the price of a couple of Blu-rays of his films, with this book you'll have a uniquely brilliant Oliver Stone Experience. 

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

All images from The Oliver Stone Experience (Abrams), and courtesy of Oliver Stone and Ixtlan Productions. Photo from the set of SNOWDEN © Open Road Films.

The Oliver Stone Experience by Matt Zoller Seitz, foreword by Ramin Bahrani and introduction by Kiese Lymons, published by Abrams, can be ordered from the US site or the UK site.


Peter Craig is one of the busiest, most in-demand and talented young screenwriters currently working. Before his success as the co-writer of Ben Affleck's THE TOWN (2010), Peter wrote three acclaimed novels - The Martini Shot (1998), Hot Plastic (2004), and Blood Father (2005). All three share an interest in exploring the complex but loving relationships between fathers and their offspring. Peter, with Andrea Berloff, adapted the latter novel into the excellent 2016 Mel Gibson thriller of the same title. Peter also co-wrote the HUNGER GAMES two-part MOCKINGJAY finale (2014-15), and has worked on scripts for a TOP GUN sequel and a third BAD BOYS film. Amongst his forthcoming projects is the submarine thriller HUNTER KILLER (2017) with Gerard Butler, Gary Oldman and Billy Bob Thornton. In the final part of our two-part interview I spoke with Peter abouthis experience co-writing the MOCKINGJAY films; working on BLOOD FATHER with Mel Gibson; and his work on upcoming films HUNTER KILLER and HORSE SOLDIERS, plus his work on previous drafts of Top Gun 2 and BAD BOYS 3.    

Part one of the interview.        

How did you get involved with the THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY films? 
I knew Nina Jacobson a little. I had been working on something that had just fallen through at the last second. Danny Strong had done a draft of each part of MOCKINGJAY and was jumping off to do his TV show, Empire. Nina called and asked if I would be interested, and I definitely was. I'd never done a big movie like that. I was up against two other writers. I remember, I just got really into it in the interview, and I came up with a lot of little world-building scenes. I also really connected with Francis Lawrence and Nina off the bat. I got the job, and right away I went to Atlanta because they had such a tight production schedule. I was doing all I could to write Part 1. I didn't think much about how they had split the film into two parts -not until I came on. But soon enough, I was writing Part 2 while I was on the set of Part 1. I was there every day and got to be friends with everybody. It was a ride. I'm still incredibly close to everybody from that time. I remember doing story meetings all weekend, then shooting all week. Lionsgate has some pretty strict release schedules and you get the movie made, no matter what. 

Did you have to do a crash course on the mythology of THE HUNGER GAMES, or were you already a fan? 
I had to do a bit of a crash course, although my daughter had read the books. So I knew them a little bit. The author of the books, Suzanne Collins, was an executive producer on the movies and was involved in every story meeting. We didn't do anything without her blessing. She's a really smart lady and she really cares about the world she has created and all of her fans. You have to come with a bunch of ideas and see what she is inspired by. She let me have a certain amount of freedom, but every now and then, she'd clamp down. I don't think we argued about much. I thought Elizabeth Banks was great and I wanted her in the movies as much as possible. We had a really brief argument about where to include her in the first MOCKINGJAY. That was one of the few times where she said ''OK, you guys are right. Include her more. '' Usually we came to some kind of compromise. I knew she had more power going in, and it makes sense because people are going to these movies to see her creation. You don't want to mess with that. You want to do all you can to service it. And she knows what she's talking about in the writer's room. She came up as a TV writer herself. She's collaborative and incredibly nurturing and supportive to the screenwriters. You just don't go off the map and throw anything you want on the page, because that is not what anybody wants in this case. 

Was it a big challenge adapting the book into two distinct parts? 
It was, yeah, and we didn't really know where we were going to split it until the editing room. We had a couple of good ideas. Suzanne Collins definitely did not conceive MOCKINGJAY as a two-part story, and I think some of the critical and fan response was justified when they talked about the monetary cynicism in making two movies from one short book. Our job was to service that decision as best we could and I think we came out in a good place. I'm really proud of the work Francis did on MOCKINGJAY PART 1. 

I hadn't read the books, so I was devastated and wowed by the ending of PART 2. 
It's brutal, yeah. Suzanne doesn't pull any punches. She really wants kids to confront all these issues. It's a different kind of Young Adult literature, that's for sure. 

How was working with the extraordinary Jennifer Lawrence? 
She's an incredible actress. I've never seen anything like her, and I grew up around a lot of actresses. Francis would give her a note like ''Do that again, but with slightly more melancholy, and a little more anger at the end. '' And then she would nail it. Her emotional intelligence is like you're looking at the greatest athlete you've ever seen. She has to deal with all the exhausting baggage of stardom, and that was really starting to happen around the MOCKINGJAY movies, but she feels very safe on set, and she has this pure, incredible talent. Katniss is a difficult role to play. She doesn't talk much, and shows emotion through subtle facial expressions. Jen can do anything, though. The dial goes in every direction with her. She's so smart too, and such a good read of character. She can walk into a room of thirty people and tell you what everyone is thinking. She just gets all the colors. That was one of the most fun things, just to get to watch her work. 

How did you get involved with adapting your own book for BLOOD FATHER? 
It has been around as a project for a long time. It had been the first thing I had ever sold, actually, and the money helped me move to California from where I had been teaching at the time in the midwest. It had gone through a lot of iterations, and had been set up a few different times with different directors and different actors. Finally Jean-Francois Richet came back on the project with Pascal backing him financially. I loved the idea of Mel doing it because he WAS this guy. I had a couple of great meetings with Mel, one with Jean-Francois and one without him. I remember I went to Mel's place once and just wrote all day. I was on MOCKINGJAY PART 2 at the time, and we got all the financing in place and a start date in New Mexico. We had 28 days to shoot it. We just went for it. It was a crazy experience but I'm glad we took the leap. 

Was it an odd experience adapting your own book? 
So much time had passed, and I had written so many drafts of the script and Andrea Berloff had done her drafts. I had gone back and forth on it for so long that it had become a different thing for me at that point. I was more willing to change things from the book than anybody. I remember that Jean-Francois went back to the book and found all these things that he wanted in the film. He put back a lot of little scenes I had taken out. 

Did Mel coming on board require any retooling of the script? 
Not that much. He was into it all. He was willing to play this guy. The only difference is that his character wasn't as in shape in the book. Mel got in the best shape he's been in twenty years to do the role. Anything I needed to change was simply because we didn't have enough money or time, or when things just got dropped on the day of the shoot, like if the weather was terrible or there were dust storms or rain that came out of the blue. Then you have to quickly rewrite just to get through the day or the night. There was an awful lot of scrambling in that regard. We lost an awful lot. You have to make a movie out of what you have. And everybody did a good job. 

Was Mel keen to avoid some of the tropes he is famous for in his action films? 
I don't think so. I think we all had a sense that at times this film was a bit of a tribute to him. We were consciously playing into both who he's been in other movies and the public's perception of him now. We definitely wink at the audience sometimes. We talked about Martin Riggs and Mad Max kind of stuff, and joked about it. I don't think we were openly borrowing from those characters but we were riffing on them a little bit. We were happy to have him, and he is such an encyclopedia of ideas from all the movies he has seen or made, that we absorbed it all. We felt we had an expert around. 

I loved the way the film starts off feeling like a departure for Gibson then it morphs naturally into a vehicle for him. 
That's what it felt like for us too. He reclaimed himself with this movie. Mel is always thinking about everything. And every day he would arrive with a good set of ideas with him. 

What can you say about your new movie, HUNTER KILLER? 
It's an interesting project. I came on later in this movie - and it's gone through a lot because of the Relativity bankruptcy. I was on and off of it a few times - but I'm usually around the process a little bit at the finish line these days. Jamie Moss was on it for a while, and Arne Schmidt before him. It's from a book called Firing Point by Don Keith, and is a submarine action thriller with Gerard Butler. They're shooting it right now in London. I've done a little more work on it since it's been shooting. I'm not as deeply in the mix on this one, but I still talk to Gerry on the phone sometimes to work through a scene. 

I have a project that I really like called HORSE SOLDIERS that starts shooting in mid-November. We'll be in New Mexico again. It's about the first few months of the war in Afghanistan when we sent in twelve Special Forces guys to fight with General Dostum in the North, who was a warlord and is now the Vice President of the country. He was a tricky figure and the twelve Americans were there completely covertly, before we knew the war had begun. They were fighting on horseback while calling in air strikes to try to clear paths to get the Taliban out of there. Chris Hemsworth is the star. A Danish commercial director named Nikolai Fuglsig is directing - and Jerry Bruckheimer is the producer. 

What can you say about Top Gun 2? 
I was on the project for a really long time. When Tony Scott passed away, I didn't want to continue. It went into hibernation for a little while. Now I believe Justin Marks, who is a really good writer, has come onto the project. I think he's taking it in a new direction. That's a good idea. We don't want to just do what Tony would have done and not do it as well. It's best to start over with a new spirit. 

Did your drafts have huge parts for Tom Cruise? 
Yes, and huge parts for Val Kilmer too. Mine had most of the characters coming back from the original. We didn't have Kelly McGillis in it, but we did have a brief scene with Meg Ryan, although only one. I can't really say anything more than that. 

How much of your work can we expect to see in BAD BOYS 3? 
I think they kept some of the comedy and relationship stuff from my scripts, like their lives as older cops, and some of the Martin Lawrence family stuff. I think they've also further developed a character that was in my script. They've totally redone the villain plot and a created a whole new scenario. It sounds like they've done quite a few passes since I was on it. 

The BAD BOYS films are famous for having a lot of writers onboard. 
I think this has had less than the others. I was the first, and I think they've had four writers. I was on the project for three and a half years. We had scripts ready to go, but it was partly about people not being available. I think they were right to change the villain because mine would be really dated now. It was eight years ago when I was working on it. 

What's it like to work on a script when you expect Michael Bay will be directing? 
He never gave me any notes beforehand at all. He waits until it's closer to ready before he tells you very much. He would say what you would expect Michael Bay to say – he'd say ''Just make it cool, man. '' He didn't like the cars I had people driving in one draft, which was hilarious. Once he's on board and thinking about how he's going to shoot something, then I believe he's amazingly detail-oriented, but in that phase of development where I was, he just let me do my thing. 

You can think as big as you want when you're writing for Michael Bay, right? 
That's true. I remember I had some crazy chases in there. I don't know how many of them have survived. I'll be interested to see what Joe Carnahan does with the film. I'm excited about it. 

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