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.

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