AN INTERVIEW WITH RICHARD RUSH (PART 1 of 4)

Richard Rush is the celebrated director of THE STUNT MAN (1980, Academy Award nominations for Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Actor: Peter O'Toole) and FREEBIE AND THE BEAN (1974). A true cinematic rebel, Rush broke his teeth directing exploitation pictures for American International Pictures in the 60s, and began exploring characters who are multi-faceted and capable of being different things at different times, and live on the outside of conventional society. His debut TOO SOON TO LOVE (1960) was described as the first American New Wave film, and featured one of Jack Nicholson's earliest appearances. In films like HELL'S ANGELS ON WHEELS (1967) and PSYCH-OUT (1968), Rush helped to develop the persona that made Nicholson one of Hollywood's most iconic and acclaimed actors. Rush also directed the counterculture comedy drama GETTING STRAIGHT (1970) with Elliott Gould, and the erotic thriller COLOR OF NIGHT (1994) with Bruce Willis and Jane March. In the first of a four-part interview, I spoke to Rush about the road that led to his debut, his experiences working for AIP and working with Jack Nicholson, Adam Roarke and master cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs, the kinds of characters he likes to explore, and his connection to EASY RIDER (1969).        

Growing up, what were some of your most memorable experiences watching movies? 
I remember there were some early Humphrey Bogart movies that got me. One began to learn how to dress, how to smoke, how to talk to people. I think so much of who we become is a result of what one learned from watching movies. I saw MILDRED PIERCE (1945) fifteen times when I was working as an usher at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles. It played there for a couple of weeks. It was about a woman who opens a successful restaurant after fighting to become successful. There were a lot of affairs and intrigues. That's where I learned how to make movies, watching good movies over and over again and realising how they were made. When I saw A PLACE IN THE SUN (1951), it was such a powerful experience. I was struck by the huge close-ups George Stevens put up on the screen, where you could actually read what a person was thinking. It was so much more powerful than just having dialogue.

When you started on the UCLA Film Program, what did you find yourself the most interested in pointing your camera at? 
Strangely enough, I was there for the very beginning of the Program. It started in wooden bungalows. It was easily the most beautful campus I had ever seen. This was an experimental program, and there was barely any equipment. I can say clearly I didn't learn a damn thing about film, but the Theater Department was wonderful. I really learned about film later on after years of trying to find a crack in the great theoretical world of Hollywood. After graduating I made propaganda TV programs about the Korean War for the Military, and after that I started up a production company and made commercials.

Was making the TV programs for the Military a particularly useful experience in your development as a filmmaker? 
It was certainly of some use. It was an opportunity to go out with a camera and shoot things. But the most interesting part of the whole experience was when the TV unit sent us out to watch the big classic, three camera live television shows and we got to watch a lot of them being made. It was a valuable experience spending time in the booth and on the floor. Although I never made a three camera TV show, the experience came in handy. I sometimes used up to five cameras on my films when I was shooting action sequences.

What did you learn from making your first feature, TOO SOON TO LOVE? 
Everything. I learned that all the things I had been thinking about and planning to do really worked! After I finished it and and it was in the theater, an old-timer said to me ''I've got to tell you a couple of things. You've got to match your close-ups. '' I've been so meticulous about that ever since with my cameramen. 

TOO SOON TO LOVE was described as the first American New Wave film and Truffaut was a fan of your work. Did you ever meet him? 
Yes, I met him briefly many, many years later. When I met him, it was a rushed brush by each other with a quick "Hello" and time for a passing smile and nod that said, silently, "I really love your work". That's all. I had an important experience with him, though. He was in New York being interviewed and he was asked ''Who is your favorite American filmmaker?''. He said ''I don't know his name but last night I saw his film THE STUNT MAN. '' That quote did me more good than I could possibly imagine. It was used by the Head of the AFI when she introduced the film to the Congressional Affiliate in Washington, and it's always used to advertise the film. It gave me a status that I hadn't had up until then.

Was Truffaut someone you looked up to? 
Oh yes, I certainly admired his films.

Where do you think your rebellious and anarchic streak, that can be seen across your work, comes from? 
I'm really not sure, but I certainly think that's why AIP, which distributed teenage films, was attracted to me as a filmmaker and made and distributed my early films. They recognised rebellion as the trademark of the American teenager. He's fighting society and his parents and the world, as I was as a teenager. I don't know if I ever stopped.

How important was your time at AIP to improving your craft? 
All of those films were made in 13 days for around $100, 000, and that meant we were working 24/7. It was just about what a human could stand! It was mind-bending , back-breaking and soul-scorching, but I guess it was character building. It certianly gave us all a familiarity with the tools and the language of cinema. 

How much do you credit your cinematographer on six films, Laszlo Kovacs, for the success of them? 
He was extremely instrumental. He was very good at what he did. Laszlo was not only a great Director of Photography. He was also the best handheld cameraman in the world. He could hold a huge camera on his shoulder and handle focus changes, all the time being quiet, which others couldn't do at all. He could get into intimate, close situations like no other. He had never made a movie when I hired him. He had escaped from Hungary with the footage of the Russian tanks invading his country. The footage was extraordinary. I liked him and thought I would give him a shot. We did a number of pictures together and we developed as filmmakers together. I was very demanding of him, and my editors too, because I set up all the shots and I make all the cuts, and still do. I need great cameramen and great editors.

One thing that is remarkable about your films is that you seem to favor characters who are multi-faceted and neither good or bad. Do you like such characters because they reflect how you see people in general? 
I think it probably is. It's interesting that you say this because I met the actor Larry Bishop, who had appeared in my film THE SAVAGE SEVEN (1968) and he said ''I'm working with Quentin Tarantino right now and you are his favorite director. I'm working with him because SAVAGE SEVEN is one of his favorite movies. He has a poster of the film in his home theater. '' When I met Tarantino I was sure he was going to say THE STUNT MAN was his favorite of my pictures but no, he said SAVAGE SEVEN. He said he liked it because the characters switch from White Hat to Black Hat, like you just said. I thought that was a fascinating observation so I went home and screened the film and saw some things in it I hadn't seen before. I began to respect it much more than I had. It's about the head of a motorcycle gang who on the one hand was helping a businessman destroy an Indian village but in the end he really had a heart of gold and did good deeds.

Adam Roarke's character was fascinating. You never knew whether you liked him or not, but he was so compelling. You never knew where he was coming from or what he would do next. 
Yes, and neither did he!

What did you like about working with Roarke? You did four films together. 
He was a very genuine actor who had a very solid background with the Actors' Studio. He was very real and very good, and had both lightness and a heaviness to his character at the same time. It gave him stature. It made him perfect to play the leader of a gang in SAVAGE SEVEN and HELL'S ANGELS ON WHEELS. He comes across as a guy who would rather rule in Hell than serve in Heaven.

You also worked with Jack Nicholson on three films. Before his success with EASY RIDER (1969) he worked with such extraordinary filmmakers as yourself, Roger Corman, Monte Hellman, and Bob Rafelson, and wrote and produced pictures as well. Are you surprised that, as well as becoming a hugely acclaimed actor, his directing career never really took off? 
I'm not, no, because one day he came up to me, and he looked depressed. He said ''Well, Dick. I guess I'm going to have to settle for being an actor. '' He had had aspirations to write and direct but Roger Corman had put him under contract as an actor. He was a very good writer. I don't think he really had a chance to show he could direct, but he was a really bright guy.

During this time, how well did you know the likes of Corman, Rafelson, Hellman, Bogdanovich and the Schneiders and others? 
I knew them, but we weren't really close. Bert Schneider came to me once and said ''I'd like to borrow your Biker Trilogy'', which was HELL'S ANGELS, SAVAGE SEVEN and PSYCH-OUT. PSYCH-OUT really wasn't a biker flick but it was the same cast and the hero rode a motorcycle. He said 'I'm going to make a biker picture and I'm modelling it after yours. I'd like to show your films to my old man to see if I can get him to back the movie. '' His father was Abe Schneider, who at the time was the Head of Columbia. The film got greenlit and was made as EASY RIDER. On the day before the cast and crew left on the buses to go to the first location, they invited me to a cast and crew screening of my Biker Trilogy. They also used a lot of my crew, including my cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs. I was flabbergasted when Bert said ''I'm going to make a Dick Rush film. '' I wished him luck. I have no other connection with it. He made a movie that turned out to be a phenomenon. I didn't like it much when he first showed it to me but after they continued to edit it it improved a lot. 

Rush's THE STUNT MAN site. 

Interview by Paul Rowlands. Copyright © Paul Rowlands, 2017. All rights reserved.

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