George Armitage might just be one of the most underrated filmmakers of the last fifty years. His most well-known films - MIAMI BLUES (1990) and GROSSE POINTE BLANK (1997) are regarded as cult classics that saw Armitage deliver his most fully realised work yet. But all of his work displays a filmmaker interested in the cheerful loners, outcasts and criminal elements who couldn't join 'straight' society even if they wanted to. His films, ranging from the Roger Corman-produced sexploitationer PRIVATE DUTY NURSES (1971), the blaxploitation thriller HIT MAN (1972, a remake of GET CARTER), the Vietnam-minded action film VIGILANTE FORCE (1976), the amiable racing comedy drama HOT ROD (1979), to the compromised but still fun Elmore Leonard adaptation THE BIG BOUNCE (2004), are all irreverent, fast-paced, funny and human tales that are irresistible. In the final part of our three-part interview, I spoke to George about making VIGILANTE FORCE with Kris Kristofferson and in the year of the Bicentennial, the dramas and joys of making THE BIG BOUNCE, his approach to filmmaking, and his passion project Machine. 

Parts one and two of the interview.  

 What was it like working with Kris Kristofferson on VIGILANTE FORCE? 
It was a little rough because he wasn't a trained actor at that time. He would get nervous at times, but he did his best and did a great job I felt. Kris is a very interesting character. 

What were your objectives when you sat down to write the script? 
It was around the time of the Bicentennial. There was lots of flag-waving nuttiness and I thought I would remind everybody of what we had just been through with Vietnam and to not be so self-congratulatory. All of the characters are named after revolutionary war figures. It was my 200th anniversary present to America that they did not open! 

Did you enjoy putting the action scenes together? 
Yes, that was great. That was the first time I had a stunt gaffer and the first time I worked with Buddy Joe Hooker. He was fantastic. I gave him a part in the movie too, which I've done in all my movies since. 

How did THE BIG BOUNCE go from an R rating to a PG-13 rating? 
We had a screening of my cut and it went well. It was in the 80s, which wasn't bad. We had a wonderful producer named Steve Bing, who put up $70 million of his own money, but unfortunately he was told by too many people that it would be difficult for him to get his money back with an R-rated comedy. R-rated comedies are a lot more common now than they were then. Cutting it to a PG-13 completely destroyed the film. I resisted and refused to be any part of it. There was nothing I could do about it. Even the head of the studio told Steve ''You should listen to George. '' I've since taken my cut of the movie to festivals and shown it to critics, and it is always received much better by far than the released version. I've been encouraged to try and get my cut released on DVD. 

 What are the main differences in the two cuts? 
The director's cut plays better. It's not just the language or the nudity, it's an ambience that is changed. The PG-13 version that went out plays like something on television. You need everything. You need a sense of reality and characters that are real people. Nothing really works in that version. It was an unfortunate mistake. I can say that I don't hold any grudges against Steve. He felt he was doing the right thing for the film. 

Was the narration by Owen Wilson in your cut? 
No, it wasn't. Whenever I hear narration for the first time in a movie, I think ''Uh-uh, we're in trouble. '' Somtimes narration can be good, but I never use it. I usually use a radio in the background as narration and cheat that way. I did it in HOT ROD and in GROSSE POINTE BLANK, where Minnie is the DJ. You can do some little tricks like that that can be fun. 

I thought Owen Wilson was perfect casting for a George Armitage movie. 
Oh, I love him. Such a sweet guy. I remember he sat down with me in Hawaii and gave me his notes. I usually write stuff down but we were busy talking back and forth. His notes were so interesting that I remembered them all, and added them to the first half of the script. Everything he said made the script work better. When I asked for his notes on the second half, he said ''I'm not going to give you any more notes! This is great!'' So I said ''OK!'' He's a fabulous character, and so was Morgan Freeman. Charlie Sheen was really fun too. 

How did Willie Nelson end up in the film? 
In my cut, Kris Kristofferson is also in the film. I gave the script to Harry Dean Stanton, and in it is a reference to a Kristofferson song. Harry got confused and thought Kris was going to be in the movie and called Kris up and said ''Hey, we're going to be in a movie together!'' So Kris's wife, who is also his manager, called Steve Bing to find out what all this was about. I said to Steve ''Well, let's get him in the movie then!'' I got on the phone to Kris and said ''Sorry that VIGILANTE FORCE didn't work, but we had a great time. Let's do it again!'' He said ''Sure!'' I had him play Sara Foster's father, sitting on the beach hitting on Brazilian girls. He was wonderful in the scene but they cut it out of the released version. I don't know why. We wrote something up for Willie Nelson to do because he was a friend of Kris's and they both hang out in Maui. 

What was the experience like of working in such a great location as Oahu?
It was the most extraordinary experience of my life in filmmaking making a movie there. The light was such that we could only work from 9 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon, which is perfect! The local cast and crew were beyond spectacular. We made sure we were respectful to the people and nature of Hawaii in the script. 

Your films are notable for their on-location filming. Is that important to you? 
Yeah, I love to be on location, wherever we are. The location becomes part of the film and not just the scenery. I love the location scouting. On GROSSE POINTE BLANK, we didn't shoot any of it in Michigan. Apart from some helicopter footage, most of it was shot here in California. In California, everybody came from somewhere, and they brought their architecture with them, so it's useful when you want to fake a location. I remember one time standing in the park and someone asked me where Lake Michigan was, and for a moment I really thought we were in Michigan! In fact, I even fooled Elmore Leonard. And one newspaper in Detroit said ''Wow, what a wonderful shoot they had here. We didn't even see any trucks or anything. '' 

How did you get involved with working on the script to the TV movie THE LATE SHIFT, about David Letterman and Jay Leno fighting to host The Tonight Show after the departure of Johnny Carson? 
I was a guest of CBS on a flight to the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer and I ran into the TV exec Ron Perth, who figured prominently in the wooing of Dave and Jay. He suggested I read the book that had been written about it. I read it, loved it and as a longtime late night TV fan, I let HBO know that I'd like to write and direct. My take was that the whole thing was self-parody and much ado. I was hired, and wrote a script satirising the self importance of it all. I missed that the execs saw the story as a Valentine to themselves. I left.    

What did you think of the finished film?     
I thought that it was pretty good, but was happy to hear that Dave thought my script was a much better take than the way it went. I also wanted Dave and Jay to play themselves!
Your films always have strong roles for women. Are you always mindful of that? 
Yes. I'm a product of strong women. My mother was strong, and all the women I know are strong and interesting. Starting in the 60s and 70s, women became more powerful in society, and as a trouble making left winger I thought ''Let's do all we can to support them. ''

How much of your own world-view do you think is in your films? 
It's in there, depending on the character. I don't think of any of these characters as me but they do speak for me. 

Your characters are usually upbeat, optimistic people who are flawed but are trying to improve their circumstances. They're usually people who couldn't really fit into polite society even if they wanted to. 
Yeah, they're outsiders, looking in. I'm interested in the Americana aspect of telling stories.

Sometimes you have been given a basic idea on which to write a script, and sometimes you originate your own scripts. Which do you prefer? 
I like to generate my own material, but I think I have been hired on all the films I have made. I've written some 120 scripts. There are a lot more available! 

Which is your favorite of the scripts that hasn't gotten made yet? 
There's a script that I wrote in 1974 called Machine. I was living here in Beverly Glen and there was a fella across the street who was a Computer Arts Major at UCLA. I asked him what he was working on and he said ''Why don't you come on down and I'll show you?'' So I went down there and there was this soccer pitch sized underground area where they had all these cooling towers and computers. I said ''What are you doing?'' and he said ''We're working on something called the Internet. '' This is where it was developed. He showed me what they were doing. So later, I wrote a script called Machine. The premise is that everything we see and hear in our lifetime is collected. Between your eyeball and your cerebral cortex a system intercepts everything you see or hear and has the information on file. In effect, everyone is a movie camera. There's a guy that busts into the System and he decides the best way to find who is behind it all is to go on the run and have them find him. So he gets a dirt bike, out here in California, and just starts racing across the country, and eventually smokes them out. My agent got it to Steve McQueen, who loved it and said he would do it. Bob Evans was going to produce it, and Kate Jackson from Charlie's Angels was going to co-star. She was dating Evans at the time. Steve and I both liked riding dirt bikes, so we got along, but eventually he said ''I'm a little leery of science fiction. '' I was thinking ''Oh no. '' I said to him ''What do you mean? I loved you in THE BLOB!'' He said ''See what I mean?'' It was really funny! But he didn't make the film in the end. 

What is the status of Machine now? 
I am still trying to make it, and I have a deal now where I am going to novelise it in almost script form. It's such a visual concept, the idea of being able to record and play back what you see and hear. The story covers not only the present but the past and the future. I'm trying to cover the history of the world and keep my edge. I'll be focussing on the events in history that are not considered to be important by most people. It should be a hoot. I'm hoping to be able to do three films and perhaps a TV series of it. I'm not sure if I'll direct anymore, but if they do it like we did THE BIG BOUNCE in Hawaii, from 9 to 3, I'll be there!

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


George Armitage might just be one of the most underrated filmmakers of the last fifty years. His most well-known films - MIAMI BLUES (1990) and GROSSE POINTE BLANK (1997) are regarded as cult classics that saw Armitage deliver his most fully realised work yet. But all of his work displays a filmmaker interested in the cheerful loners, outcasts and criminal elements who couldn't join 'straight' society even if they wanted to. His films, ranging from the Roger Corman-produced sexploitationer PRIVATE DUTY NURSES (1971), the blaxploitation thriller HIT MAN (1972, a remake of GET CARTER), the Vietnam-minded action film VIGILANTE FORCE (1976), the amiable racing comedy drama HOT ROD (1979), to the compromised but still fun Elmore Leonard adaptation THE BIG BOUNCE (2004), are all irreverent, fast-paced, funny and human tales that are irresistible. In the second part of our three-part interview, I spoke to George about the making of his two cult classics, MIAMI BLUES and GROSSE POINTE BLANK, his friendships with Jonathan Demme and Quentin Tarantino, Gene Hackman's original involvement in MIAMI BLUES, the improvisation process on GROSSE POINTE BLANK and filming the memorable fight scene, and how his school reunion went!     

 Part one of the interview. 

 Jonathan Demme was a producer on MIAMI BLUES. How far back does your friendship and association go? 
I was an actor in VON RICHTHOFEN AND BROWN (1971), and Jonathan was the United Artists publicist in London. He interviewed me on the set of the film and we hung around a little bit. I came back to LA after the picture, and he was living down the street on Beverly Glen. He came up and said 'Hi' one day and he came in and we smoked a doobie. We've been good friends since. Later on he threw me a lifeline with MIAMI BLUES. It was great to get going on a picture again.

What did you like the most about the Charles Willeford's original novel of Miami Blues? 
I loved the book. It was wonderful. It was sardonic and funny and goofy enough and heartwarming. It's the girl's story in a funny way. It's really about relationships. The film was great fun to make, and it was great having Jonathan there. It was my second time working with the DP, Tak Fujimoto, and he was fantastic. 

What kind of set was it with that powerhouse trio of Alec Baldwin, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Fred Ward? 
Jennifer totally understood her character and the film. I'm not sure Alec really got the film, but that doesn't mean anything because nobody really 'gets' the film. But he definitely got the character. He did many interesting things on the film. He was really the first actor who interested me with improv. He would come up with stuff all the time. I remember we were shooting in a tin house and it rained for a long time, and Alec, to entertain the cast and crew who were huddled together, did an impersonation of every one of us, from me to Tak to the grips. It was extraordinary. I wish we had filmed it. We've tried to do a couple of things together since the movie. 

Was he challenging to work with in any way? 
He was a little, yeah. It was probably from being abused by other directors. I would rewrite stuff for him and change lines, but I told him ''It's your character. Just go for it!'' And he did, and he was wonderful.

Was there a lot of improvising on the film? 
Alec and Jennifer both thought highly of the script so we pretty much stuck to it. The improvising was in the actions between them. They were very comfortable in that respect. 

Did you speak a lot with Gene Hackman about playing Hoke originally? 
Fred Ward was going to play Junior, and Gene was going to play Hoke. I met with Gene, and he was wonderful. I really enjoyed spending time with him. Jonathan Demme and I were sitting around talking about Alec's audition and how tremendous he was, and I said ''What are we going to do? Should I write another character for Alec?'' Fred was one of the producers, and he brought us the script, and he wanted to play Junior. We started thinking that Fred would be perfect as Hoke, and Jonathan and I kicked that idea around a bit. We told Fred our idea to have Alec play Junior and for him to play Hoke, and he agreed. He thought Alec was great too. I remember Fred saying ''I'll call Gene. '' Gene was fabulous about it, and we thanked him in the credits. There are actually one sheet posters of some of his films in certain places in the film. There's one in the scene where Junior robs the coke dealers with the Uzi squirt gun, for example. 

What footage didn't find its way into the final cut? 
There was more of Hoke and his family but we found it slowed down the thrust of the film, which Fred agreed on. I don't remember any great scenes, but it's always painful to cut scenes out. As I said, I like my films to be 100 minutes and to move. They can't dawdle. The editor, Craig McKay, was wonderful to work with on that film. He was a big help. 

Was GROSSE POINTE BLANK more of a collaborative film than usual? 
I am always collaborative with the actors and the crew, and I like to make it comfortable so that they can do their best work ever, with me protecting them. GROSSE POINTE BLANK might have been more collaborative because I had other writers and we had everybody improvising. We shot so much film on that movie. Everybody was so into what they were doing. 

What were some of the gems that came out of the improvising process? 
There were so many great moments that it is hard to pinpoint them, but it was wonderful for me because I wasn't expecting it. I had to hold in my laughter. I just turned John and Minnie loose for their PG-13 sex scene in the nurse's office, for example, and that was completely cool. The dancing at the reunion was wonderful. We had a great time. There were some insane moments that unfortunately didn't quite fit and we had to leave out.

Did all the actors take to the improvising process easily? 
Most of them did, yeah. One actor said he felt pressured to improvise and I staggered away in disbelief because most actors look forward to improvising. On THE BIG BOUNCE, Owen Wilson would improvise all over the place but Morgan Freeman would always stick to the script. It was so interesting to see how professional he was. He would never have a clue what Owen was going to do. Owen is an Academy Award-winning writer, so he was as wonderful as you can imagine. There were several scenes between them that were just amazing. Morgan was never uncomfortable, but he had rehearsed with himself and he knew what he was going to do. It was beautiful to watch two pros working. 

How did the project find it's way to you? 
John sent me a copy of the script and I read it and loved it. We got together and I loved what he wanted to do with the character. It was great to work with him.

John actually suggested Alec Baldwin for Grocer in the film. We talked about it but he was ultimately unavailable. As soon as we heard Dan Aykroyd loved the script and was available we went nuts! He was absolutely brilliant in the role and delightful to work with. He went with the script and created a wonderful screen character.

To what extent was GROSSE POINTE BLANK a political satire or a parody of an action film? 
There were quite a few political jabs in the film. I think, like MIAMI BLUES, it's a bit of a satire but I don't think I was consciously commenting on other films. We did do a little homage to POINT BLANK, the film we stole our title from. I love the title we went with. I thought it was hysterical. A lot of people thought it was hokey. 

Did you draw at all on your own high school reunion? 
Not really. I only ever went to one reunion. I was expelled from my Jesuit High School in the third year for satirising the Reserve Officer Training Corps, which was a post-WW2 paranoia scheme to keep everybody crazy. I refused to be part of it, and got thrown out. I went to the 50th year reunion and they gave me my Diploma. I got a mock standing ovation which I consider one of the high points of my life! 

What was it like filming the celebrated fight scene at the prom? 
We had three cameras on that, and rarely did I have to show the DP Jamie Anderson where to go. We would do two or three bits in a certain space with a camera, and then move along. It was really astonishing the way that scene came together. I was working with Buddy Joe Hooker, who I've been working with since VIGILANTE FORCE.

It has to be one of the best fight scenes ever put on film. 
There was a British film magazine that named it the Best Fight Scene Ever. It really was a good scene. John is fighting Benny the Jet in the scene, one of the great kickboxers of all time. John had been training with him, so they had worked on stuff already. Buddy Joe came in and gave them great stuff to do, and we had a ball doing that scene. 

What did you enjoy the most about working with John Cusack? 
He's really a wonderful actor, and I had always wanted to work with him. He's very very particular about what he does, and he's very funny. I like the fact that he's understated. He's very interesting. 

Was the editing process long, given the amount of footage you shot? 
No, nothing unusual actually. I would bring John in from time to time and he would take notes. He was also a producer on the film. We sat down together at the end and went through the cut, and he had ideas of stuff he wanted back in. Whatever worked for us, we cut in to the movie. Unfortunately there were a couple of things we weren't just able to get into the film, but generally John was very pleased with GROSSE POINTE BLANK. We had a preview of it and the movie was running 112 minutes or something. I could see that we were losing the audience. You want to keep them 'up, up, up' and then bring them back to where they were. I explained that to John and everybody and they were a little afraid we were cutting some good stuff out, but after we had edited it down and we had had a great screening in New York, everybody was happy. For once, I had done something that pleased executives! Joe Roth was a terrific studio head when we made that film. He knew what we we were trying to do, and let us go. 

With the success of Tarantino's films around this time, did you feel confident that your film would find an audience? 
I always feel my films will find an audience, but sometimes I have been wrong. I thought it would work with audiences because it was very funny and it was very hip and it was not dumb. The performances were good. I thought Minnie and John had a chemistry. I felt we had been able to get into that post-high school angst. The movie wasn't huge, but it had a good audience. 

Have you ever felt the influence of your work on other films? 
I know Quentin gives me great credit for MIAMI BLUES and breaking through with that kind of film. I know him and love him and he's an absolute genius, but I told him ''The only thing we have in common as filmmakers is that we love the same kinds of films, but I saw them first-run and you saw them on video!'' 

Part three of the interview. 

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


George Armitage might just be one of the most underrated filmmakers of the last fifty years. His most well-known films - MIAMI BLUES (1990) and GROSSE POINTE BLANK (1997) are regarded as cult classics that saw Armitage deliver his most fully realised work yet. But all of his work displays a filmmaker interested in the cheerful loners, outcasts and criminal elements who couldn't join 'straight' society even if they wanted to. His films, ranging from the Roger Corman-produced sexploitationer PRIVATE DUTY NURSES (1971), the blaxploitation thriller HIT MAN (1972, a remake of GET CARTER), the Vietnam-minded action film VIGILANTE FORCE (1976), the amiable racing comedy drama HOT ROD (1979), to the compromised but still fun Elmore Leonard adaptation THE BIG BOUNCE (2004), are all irreverent, fast-paced, funny and human tales that are irresistible. In the first part of our three-part interview, I spoke to George about his early years on the TV series Peyton Place, working with Roger Corman on GAS! (1970), making his directorial debut with PRIVATE DUTY NURSES, the challenge of making the blaxploitation film HITMAN, writing his other blaxploitation entry DARKTOWN STRUTTERS (1975), making HOT ROD, and more.     
Growing up, what were some of the most interesting films for you? 
THE BOY WITH GREEN HAIR (1948) really knocked me out when I was young. It's a very interesting British post-War film, directed by Joseph Losey. I also loved Westerns, John Ford's stuff, the Martin and Lewis comedies and everything really. The first film I saw in the theater was during WW2 and my uncle took me. It was a re-release of THE ROARING TWENTIES (1939), and I remember James Cagney's incredible one and a half minute death scene, staggering down the street. My mother and father used to take me a couple of times a week, and then I would go with my brother at the weekend and see four or five films. This was the late 40s through to the 50s, and in the 60s I started to go to the drive-ins, when we moved from Connecticut to California. My favorite film is DR. STRANGELOVE (1964). I'm a big Kubrick fan.

Were there any particular films from this period that influenced your own work? 
I really did like what Kubrick was doing in terms of playing absurdity almost straight. I really love doing that, and it took me four or five films, with MIAMI BLUES and GROSSE POINTE BLANK, before I felt that I really got it right. Before then, I kind of missed it, but I wasn't displeased with the films because of that. I didn't know what I was doing or what I was trying to get, but I finally got it. It was all because of casting and having actors that could do it, and who could understand what I was trying to do. 

When did you first start entertaining the idea of working in film? 
I was quite a fanatic of films, and one of the things that I did, of all things, was to memorise the names of make-up artists. My mother was a writer and had written plays. We moved to Beverly Hills because she really wanted to be here in California and be in the movie business. I went to a school where the children were all sons of actors. It was pretty amazing. When I took a job in the Fox mailroom in early 1965, I wrote a screenplay in the mailroom and really started thinking about getting involved in film then. It was such an interesting time on the Fox lot. The counterculture movement had begun, and the people running Fox, especially in the television division, were these 30-ish hipsters, kind of jazz guys. Suddenly I was a person, being 20 or 21, who could explain to them what was going on, and I became very valuable on the lot. That made me think I should write more screenplays, and I ended up on a TV series called Peyton Place. I did 350 episodes of that show, and I learned everything you could possibly learn about television. THE SOUND OF MUSIC (1965) had just been made by Fox, and Robert Wise was on the lot making THE SAND PEBBLES (1966) with Steve McQueen. There was a beautiful woman in the cast on that, Candice Bergen, so I used to go over there a lot.

Then Roger Corman was on the lot making a studio picture for Fox called THE ST. VALENTINE'S DAY MASSACRE (1967). CLEOPATRA (1963) had just about busted the studio so the movie division was becoming dormant and the television division was supporting the lot. There was this room called The Gold Room where all the movie executives and the producers would eat. They didn't want TV people in there but we came in anyway. They snubbed us completely. They sat on one side of the room, and we sat on the other. Roger would show up and the TV people would snub him because he was making exploitation movies! It was a wonderful education in Hollywood hierarchies. I got to know him a little when I began watching him work, and after I explained to him what was going on in the Gold Room. He thought it was hysterical. 

How did you start working with Roger? 
I didn't see him for a while and then he read an outrageous script of mine called The Christmas Carrot. He almost made it, which would have been the most insane thing in the world. Then he came up with the idea for GAS! I wrote it, he directed it, and we had an absolute ball. He gets a lot of credit for discovering people, but I tell you, I'd take ten of his best films and put them up against anybody's. He'd come out very strongly. Roger did one of the best PR moves of all time. He established himself as the cheapest guy in Hollywood, which was not true, and because he had that reputation, nobody ever asked for a raise! I always tease him about that. But after GAS!, he gave me a wonderful bonus and everything, and swore me to secrecy. Whenever I see Roger, I give him a twenty, and he takes it. It's hilarious. He's a great guy and I love him dearly. It was an amazing time. Lots of great people showed up at the same time – Jonathan Demme, Jonathan Kaplan, and all the others.

In what ways were you most influenced by Roger whilst making your first film as director, PRIVATE DUTY NURSES? 
I think just in the way he would set up things and plan the day. I was an associate producer on GAS! , so I was there with him at all times. He was very open to rewriting as you go, so I continued with that. He's very loose, and he has that attitude that you are only there once, so if you have an idea, work it into the take and see how it goes. We did a lot of that. I shot down in Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach because I had surfed there through the 50s, 60s and 70s. I knew the culture and the lay of the land. It was a terrifying experience in that I had no idea what I was doing, even though I did really. I just learned to relax, which took years but it was always incredibly exciting and fun. 

What stipulations did Roger give you regarding nudity or sex on PRIVATE DUTY NURSES? 
It was kind of a joke around the Corman office that there had to be some sex or nudity every ten pages. He never came to the set. We were never a minute behind schedule. In fact, I have never been over schedule on any movie. I am sure if there had been any problems or anything, he would have come to the set. 

What kind of atmosphere did you establish on your first film set as director? 
I have only ever raised my voice on a movie once on seven movies in forty odd years. I just have a nice group of people, and when you're not a crazy man, everybody is so relieved. I had a problem with a second AD once, but that was it. Initially there was a problem on my first film because the crew was working for the producers and not me, but as soon as I was able to fix that, and bring in some of my own people, everything went smoothly.

Written by George.
What were some of the most important lessons you learned while working on Peyton Place that were useful whilst making your first film? 
I had a wonderful producer named Everett Chambers, who also produced PRIVATE DUTY NURSES, and had produced films for John Cassavetes. He was also a writer and a director, but he was producing for television at the time. Working with him was like going to school. It was amazing just watching everybody do what they did on Peyton Place. I remember some of the directors setting up shots that were like something out of a ballet. Today in television they just call 'Action!' and they don't do anything bizarre because it's the showrunner and the head writers who are calling all the shots. I learned how to keep moving, how to make the day, about casting and how to make the actors relax and enjoy their work. 

How did you find your approach to working with actors on PRIVATE DUTY NURSES? 
When you write a script, you hear the dialogue in your head and it's very clear. I don't talk to the actors and tell them what to do but I like to hear their ideas and interpretations, and in that process I always find that the way they read the dialogue is far superior to how it sounded in my head! The difficulty was in incorporating that and letting go of what I heard in my head. When someone comes in and knocks you out with something, you have to go with it. Often in films by writer-directors who have come from another medium, the performances are terrible, and I know what they are doing – they are practically giving the actors line readings to make sure the dialogue comes off the same way they heard it in their head. I was so glad I was able to get rid of that early. 

I think that is one of the great qualities about your films. You have actors who are always great in films, but in your films particularly, they always seem so in character that the dialogue seems to be natural. 
In GROSSE POINTE BLANK, for example, we started with a script by John Cusack and the other writers that was wonderful but was 132 pages long. I never shoot over 100 pages, because I have plans with what I want to do with the time. I said to him ''Let's cut 12 pages out. '' And he came back with a 154 page screenplay! I didn't rewrite it, I just showed them how to cut it down to 100 pages. I promised John that I would let him and everybody improvise, and it was astonishing what we achieved every day on that picture. We would do a take of every scene as it was written so that when the suits saw the dailies they would see we were shooting the script. We would stay within the same set-up and then we would do a broad version, a very understated version and then a version where I would turn everybody loose. I would notice that some of the dialogue I had cut out of the two previous drafts was seeping back into the production! It was really quite an experience to see all that going on. We had a long, long rough cut but I was finally able to get it down to 107 minutes. Pieces like GROSSE POINTE BLANK are hard to sustain over two hours I think. We had a great time making that picture. 

Your films always manage to sustain their unique tones, which is remarkable. 
When you shoot a film, there are a massive amount of takes, and you lose the tone, but you are able to find it again, which is really wonderful. The whole process of filmmaking is extraordinary. It's just perfect. In pre-production, for example, you cast and you do location scouting and rewriting. It just sets you up beautifully to do the film. And then you shoot the film and then there's post-production and the editing begins. The only problem is that you are off the planet for a year and during that time there is nothing else you can think about. That's why I have enjoyed my time off between pictures. 

I also like how you don't patronise or judge your characters. Is that important to you? 
Yes, I try to understand them and accept them as people with all their flaws. 

I am a huge fan of GET CARTER (1971). How familiar were you with the movie before you remade it as HIT MAN? 
I worked with an editor who knew Mike Hodges, and he told me Mike said I had copied his film frame for frame. I wrote back to him and told him it was impossible because I have never seen the film. Gene Corman gave me a script, and said ''We own this. '' It had no title page on it or anything. He then said ''Let's make it a black movie. '' I was pissed off when I gave the script to my agent and he said ''This is GET CARTER. '' 

Did you have any trepidation about being able to make a blaxploitation film that felt authentic? 
Absolutely! I rewrote the script, and Bernie Casey loved it. I did come from a racially mixed high school, and had some great black friends. I kind of knew the neighborhood and everything from living there too, but I said to Gene, ''This is ridiculous. I can't be doing this. '' Bernie wanted to direct it, and I said I would come on the set and assist Bernie in directing it in any way I could, but MGM said they wouldn't make it with a first-time director. Bernie said ''Let's make it. I want to make the picture. '' I definitely think a black director should have directed it. I just wanted to see it, and I am glad I did it. It was an extraordinary experience. I got so much help from the cast, who were fabulous. Again, there was a great deal of improv going on. There was some language in that film that made its first appearance in a film! 

With DARKTOWN STRUTTERS, which you wrote but didn't direct, were you aiming to poke fun at the conventions of the blaxploitation genre? 
Yes, I had fun doing that. The script, by the way, was one uninterrupted full sentence with no punctuation. I think I wrote it in three days. I was going to direct it, but Warners wanted to make a script I had written called Trophy, which was about two police departments getting into a shooting war. Unfortunately I still haven't been able to get it made. I thought the DARKTOWN STRUTTERS script was good. Roger Moseley, who was in HIT MAN, was in the film. Joe Viola started as the director, but he felt the production was too loose and there was almost a terrible accident. He left, and they brought in a famous Western director named William Whitney, and he finished the picture. I thought it was a fun film. I remember we had a screening and we invited Richard Pryor because we thought we might be able to get him to punch up some of the dialogue. I looked over at the aisle and Richard was crawling out of the theater! I took it that he was not totally crazy about the movie. After the movie was over we went outside and he was driving away in some sort of Ford Land Rover thing, wild eyed because he thought we were going to try and stop him. 

How did HOT ROD end up being made for TV instead of as a theatrical feature? 
ABC called me up and asked if I wanted to write and direct a movie with the title HOT ROD. A couple of guys over there had seen some of my films. I had done a lot of street racing as a kid in the 50s, so I knew a lot about that world. I based my script on people that I knew and events that I had seen. My move from Connecticut to California was an astonishing thing because I had never seen a hot rod before. They all had MGs and it was really preppy. I get to California and here are these 17-18 year old kids building the fastest cars in America in their garages. I wasn't a good mechanic but I was a good driver so I would sometimes drive these cars. When you do weeks of work on your car, you want to take it out. You'd take it to a drive-in where there would be other racers, and you'd end up racing somewhere for a ten dollar bet or something. The guys that built the car would be scared they were going to break it, so they'd let me drive it. I could drive it a little faster than they could and it was fun. 

Was the film an opportunity for you to comment on how that world had changed decades later? 
Yeah, I wanted to show how they were commercialising the heck out of it. The film plays at all the hot rod conventions, and I get letters and invitations to all kinds of events. It got voted one of the top ten car movies, even though it was a TV movie. I was really pleased with the film.

Gregg Henry is known for his dark, twisted roles in films for Brian De Palma and in films like PAYBACK (1999), but in your film he's very charming. 
Yeah, he was wonderful. He was great to work with, a good actor. I didn't realise what a great Brooklyn accent he was throwing down there in the film. Gregg's character, Brian Edison, is based on a friend of mine, whose name is Bob Edelson. He was actually in Chicago on the night the film premiered on television, which was May 25th 1979 on ABC. He was catching a flight, but he missed it. And it ended up crashing. The film was delayed that night because the news was covering the crash. A bizarre coincidence. 

How was working with Robert Culp? 
He was a character. I had a good time with him. He improvised quite a bit, and unfortunately I had to cut much of it out just for time. He came in to do some re-recording and he said ''That was a 2-minute scene and now its eight seconds!'' Parnell Roberts was great too. He was a big star on TV at the time and played the police chief. I was given these guys, and Grant Goodeve too. I didn't have any choice, they had contracts with ABC. But I would have died to have gotten them anyway. We shot the whole thing in fifteen days, and with the racing and the craziness, we were lucky that it came out as well as it did. 

Part two of the interview. 

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


Jeffrey Alan Fiskin is the writer of CUTTER'S WAY (1981), a film now regarded as a masterpiece, and which won Fiskin an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America for Best Motion Picture Screenplay. He also wrote the Tony Scott action thriller REVENGE (1990), which starred Kevin Costner and has now become a cult favorite. His first credit was the biker exploitation pic ANGEL UNCHAINED (1970), and his other credits include Louis Malle's heist caper CRACKERS (1984), and the action comedy THE PURSUIT OF D.B. COOPER (1981). Fiskin's work for TV includes episodes of From the Earth to the Moon (1998) and Faerie Tale Theatre (1983), and the TV movies THE '60s (1999) and THE '70s (2000). His work is fascinatingly textured, melodramatic and resonant, and in the final part of our three part interview I spoke with him about writing REVENGE and some of the themes and approaches of his work. 

Parts one and two of the interview. 

How was the experience of writing REVENGE? 
The beginning of it was quite wonderful. Tony Scott had read something that I had done, and he called and told me that he liked it but that he couldn't make it, and that we would have to work together some time. He called me again, around December 20th, and says ''I've got something that I'd like you to read. It's a novella by Jim Harrison, and it's in a book called Legends of the Fall. It's called Revenge. '' I said ''Well, I've read it. I always thought the Legends of the Fall story would make a great movie. '' He said ''Yeah, but what about Revenge?'' I said ''Well, I don't know, sure. I guess that could make a great movie too. '' He said ''Can you write it?'' I said ''Yes'', but he told me ''It's a little bit of a dicey situation. Ray Stark has the rights to it right now but they're going to be lost in January. He feels like none of the scripts so far have been good, and he's basically gonna let the rights pass. But I wanna make it. And I bet you can make it filmable. But the thing is, there's no money in it, not unless Ray says yes to the script you write. '' I said ''You're saying you want me to write this for free and depend on the goodness of Ray Stark's heart in order to get paid? I've heard enough Ray Stark stories to know that doesn't exist. '' Tony said ''He's a businessman. If we write the right script, it'll be fine. '' I realised I had to write this thing in the next twelve days before the option lapsed. Anyway, I said ''OK. I'll do it. '' And over the Christmas holiday I worked my ass off. 

Given that the story was there to some degree, I figured it would be easy and that it wouldn't take long to write. So I wrote the script and there was only one scene that Tony didn't want in there. There was a family circus I had ran into in Northern Mexico. Like a real circus, but scaled down to five people. Surreal and kinda crazy. But Tony said ''I don't do this kind of stuff. What you do is give me normal, and I jack it up until it's like this. '' So we lost one of my favorite scenes, but he said ''We'll leave it in, because nobody will ever know I'm not going to shoot it. '' We gave the script to Ray and he couldn't believe it. He kept saying there was something nobody was telling him. ''Nobody would be stupid enough to write a script on spec that somebody else owns the rights to and that they hadn't been asked to write. '' Finally he said ''OK, we'll make a deal. '' I called my agent and I told him ''You can charge him anything the hell you want. We can jack my price up to three times normal. '' My agent said ''You've never made a deal with Ray Stark, have you? That's never going to happen. ''

Then Kevin Costner came on, and from the day we met I think he already had in mind that he wanted Ron Shelton to do a rewrite at some point. I don't blame him because I know they had worked together and understood each other. Kevin and I started having disagreements. I don't like telephone scenes in movies. I will go to the ends of the earth to avoid writing a telephone scene for a movie. He loves them, and there are a couple of long telephone scenes in the movie. There was a writers' strike and although I couldn't prove it I think somebody who shouldn't have been down there writing on it probably was. I shared the credit with Jim Harrison because Jim needed the money. He had written a draft earlier on but he had very little to do with the script that was written and shot. Jim called and I just felt like ''Hey, you created this beautiful piece of work. I did something else with it but it wouldn't exist without you. So, yeah, if you need a little credit on it, that's fine with me. '' So, on the one film that I did share credit on, I didn't really share credit on it. Ron Shelton did a little bit here and there but if you compare the script I wrote with the film that was shot, you'll see it's the same movie. 

How do you feel about the finished movie? 
There are parts of it that I really liked. Usually, that's about all I can say about any movie that I have ever been a part of. It's never been the case of ''Gee, that's what I was seeing. '' CUTTER would probably be the closest on that front. In this particular case, there were some things that Tony did that took it so far away from the grit that I think was essential to it. There's this beautiful little scene in the lean-to in the Sonora Desert. There were like 6, 280 candles burning. It looks like a scene from BARRY LYNDON (1975), but it's a little crap hole in the middle of the desert. It's kind of unbelievable and a little silly. There's all this gauze floating around, but where is the wind coming from? But then there are things like when Tiby picks up the dog and heaves him, which are great because nobody saw them coming. There's wonderful stuff in it, but because of the strike, I wasn't on the set so I didn't feel as close to it as I did on other films. Years later I was in some fancy hotel and I saw Anthony Quinn, so I went over and introduced myself. I have never been praised the way he praised me. ''You gave me words. Nobody gives speeches anymore. Everybody fucking mumbles, you gave me words. '' I was thinking ''You gave me a great character and it couldn't have been easy at your age picking up that dog!'' 

Were you surprised when Tony took out the shot of Tiby heaving the dog for the Director's Cut? 
I've never actually seen the Director's Cut, but from what I have read, it was a disappointment. I know that he should have kept the original temp track. It was the most violent thing I have ever heard in my life. When there was a fight, you could hear ribs breaking and flesh scrunching. It was disgusting. And perfect. But the studio said ''No, we're not using that. It's too violent. '' Tony knew about himself very well. He was right about the circus scene. If he had filmed it, he might have had more candles than he had in the lean-to! Tony was this weird blend of artist and macho frat boy. Both sides were pretty great. He had this absolutely stunning girlfriend at the time who was like the great great great granddaughter of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. She was beautiful and so I thought ''She doesn't need to be anything else'' and I foolishly presumed that was it. I remember she sat down at a piano and she played like Vladimir Horowitz! It was amazing. She stopped and she gave me a look that told me she knew she had just blown me away! 

Tony shot a more sexual film than the version that was released in theaters. Was your script as sexual? 
The woman was as sexual as she was in the script, but the sex was more in the way the actors would play it rather than there was a bunch of sex scenes. You had to believe that this woman can walk into a room and have the attention of your lead guy. 

Your scripts have dealt with mentor figures. Did you yourself have mentor figures? 
No, I think probably those characters in the films are the mentors that I wished I had! I think everybody wants a Yoda or Obi-Wan at least. Jean Renoir was the one I looked up to while watching his films. I got a chance to meet him at Robert Ryan's house. Robert Ryan's son Tim was a college friend of mine and I put him in ANGEL UNCHAINED because they had Joey Bishop's son and Jon Daly's daughter Tyne in it. Later Tim changed his name to Walker T. Ryan and became a scratch acoustic bluesman in the Robert Johnson - Skip James tradition. 

Another theme is the importance and enjoyability of male friendships. Are they something you hold dear? 
Yes I do. Right now I'm working with David Ward, a superb screenwriter. He wrote THE STING (1973), SLEEPLESS IN SEATTLE (1993), THE MASK OF ZORRO (1998), CANNERY ROW (1982), and THE MILAGRO BEANFIELD WAR (1988). He's an old friend and we decided ''Let's see if it really is the Golden Age of Television, and see if we can do something together. '' One of the things that we always argue about is that he feels that power relationships are the be all and end all of relationships, and that that is how human beings operate. I think friendships happen out of love and connectivity. He's probably right. 

How has that collaboration been? 
It's a wonderful rapport and relationship, and we're having a good time. I think both of us feel that if we write something and the other rewrites it, it'll always come back way better than whatever the other person wrote. David can keep details in mind that I will not worry about until the third or fourth draft. It's not a terrible thing to not worry about it until later, but it's interesting to be around someone who works differently and who happens to be brilliant.

It's interesting that all of the films we have talked about end with friendships surviving great difficulties. 
''Louie, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. '' CASABLANCA (1942) has always been a huge influence on me. 

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