Part 1 can be read here and Part 3 here.
Can you talk about your first feature, BLAZELAND?
It was a super low-budget feature that still sits in my garage and, like Tarantino's unfinished film MY BEST FRIEND'S BIRTHDAY (1987), I don't think the world needs to see it. It would only be a disappointment for anyone who has enjoyed my other films. It never got completed in post-production and it was just a horrendous experience. After I'd made THE COOLER, a DVD company reached out to me by email and said "Hey. We just did the Final Cut of the Richard Stanley movie DUST DEVIL (1992) for DVD. Are you interested in us doing the same for BLAZELAND?" I said to him "You'll probably need about $1 to $1.5 million to get the film to the point where it's even viewable." That was the last I heard from him!
I promise you BLAZELAND is not on the level of DUST DEVIL. The world's not missing anything by not seeing it. There are a few touches in it that are interesting. We shot it down in Fullerton in Orange County (California). I was very inspired by Brian De Palma's PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE (1974). It was sort of in that vein.
What was the story of the film?
Why do you consider it 'a horrendous experience'?
It was a nightmare to make. I didn't cast the film properly and the producer, like myself, was inexperienced. We started out raising $30,000 and pretty soon we were begging for more money – and I think we eventually spent about $100,000. We lost the entire first week of photography due to an incompetent cinematographer (the first of three who worked on the film) - everything was out of focus and over exposed - and if I was smart, I would have pulled the plug after that first week. I think with the right production team behind me and the right budget, it could have been a cool film. The financiers never saw a dime back. I still feel terrible about that. There was some good music in it as well. We had six original songs written for the film.
What did you learn from the experience?
BLAZELAND was a disaster but it proved to be the greatest film school. I don't think you know how to make a film until you make one. You just can’t be taught it in a classroom. There are better ‘film schools’ than film school. Go and become a director's assistant or an intern on a film set. You'll see what filmmaking is really like. The artistic energy you utilize as a filmmaker is probably 25% and the other 75% of your energy is spent waging war. You have to fight for the great stuff you see onscreen. You have to fight for everything. To get the money to find the time to block a beautiful Steadicam shot. For techno-cranes to get some of the cool shots that you see in RUNNING SCARED. To cast the right actors. To hire the right composer. To afford animated end credits if you want them. It's horse trading from Day 1 to the end. You don't make a lot of friends amongst the executives or the
producers because you're constantly pushing them and pushing them until the elastic band is about to snap.
What are some common misconceptions of filmmaking?
People see filmmaking as very glamorous but it isn't for the most part. It's a grind. I storyboard and pre-visualise my films months ahead of time and it's lonely work. It's just you and the script, drawing up the camera moves. Because the film hasn't been greenlit at that point, you're doing it on a leap of faith. When the production designer and cinematographer come aboard you start to tweak the storyboards, or you find real locations and have to figure out how to adapt a shot for the location. The visual design of the film is a part of the process that I really love. Whether it's figuring out the colour schemes with the DP, working with the production designer to create the sets or orchestrating very specific camera moves. The filmmakers that I admire the most are the ones who really use the camera in a very specific, original way.
How difficult is it to make sure that the intense nature of your films is maintained throughout the shoots?
When people tell me they like my movies or that I'm a good director of actors, I refer back to the script, because that's where it begins. Being a writer-director you have a complete understanding of your script and you can communicate that to your actors. It's about guiding them to hit those notes and removing all the barriers from their performance. If there's an intense scene, I'm not going to go to an actor and say "You said 'fuck' five times too many." It's about having them authentically communicate the tension of the moment and not putting the brakes on them so that it goes where it needs to go. Having game actors who can get there is invaluable. There's been little improvised dialogue by actors in my movies. It's been more improvisation of the physicality of a scene.
After the success of THE COOLER, did Hollywood approach you to make similar films?
I was getting lots of offers from the indie sector to do quirky, low-budget dramas centred on gambling and con-men. The studios were offering me thrillers. I was going to do this thriller for New Line called 'Westward'. I liked the script but it didn't ultimately happen. In a way, I'm glad it didn't happen because I could continue to be the writer-director that I am. I'm more comfortable writing and directing my own material. There's just a more organic flow of ideas and it's better for me when dealing with actors. Everybody puts more faith in you as director and the direction you're taking them if they know you're also the writer.
How was the experience of making THE COOLER?
Great from beginning to end. I was fully supported by the producers, especially Ed Pressman, who incidentally also produced De Palma's SISTERS (1973) and PHANTOM OF THE PARADISE. The cast was great. Everybody turned up and did their best. We had a very short schedule and very little money but we pushed it. It had a good release. The world got to hear about it. Although, it seems to have fallen off the movie radar these days. It has never appeared on Blu-ray (despite my efforts to interest Lionsgate in releasing it on Blu), which mystifies me. I get more interest directed at RUNNING SCARED now. RUNNING SCARED is one of those films that, for whatever reason, people really respond to now (although it still has its detractors) but didn't go and see when it came out.
Why do you think that was?
Well, for one thing, the marketing was very restricted in the US because they wouldn't allow us to show children in jeopardy. The trailers didn't accurately represent what the film was about. I think teenagers and young adults when they discovered the film later on thought "Wow! This isn't what I thought it would be like at all!" When it came out on DVD, word of mouth gave it a new life and now a
lot of people have seen it.
Do you ever write roles with particular actors in mind?
Sometimes, and it does help you find the voice of a character. But it's difficult because there's a specific speech pattern that every actor brings, and it almost always never works out that you get the actor you want. In RUNNING SCARED, there was kind of a Mark Wahlberg quality to the lead character, Joey Gazelle. I don't know if we ever approached him. We might have tested the water.
Usually, when an actor has done a role for me I can't see anybody else having done it. For example, I cannot imagine any other actor bringing the same level of commitment to RUNNING SCARED that Paul Walker did.
RUNNING SCARED was a real turning point for Walker's acting I felt.
I know that Paul considers that role to be one of his favourites, and he really connected with it. He loves that kind of intense material, and unfortunately it doesn't come his way that often. The thing I remember saying to Paul is "This is a very hysterically pitched performance." Just imagine if it was exhausting for the viewer, what it must have been like for Paul, doing ten takes for each scene! He was a great partner in crime. I'm not even sure if another actor could have gone as far as he did in maintaining the pitch of his performance. Every day we would be conspiring and having a blast while the rest of the crew was just mortified! We were shooting in Prague and they had no idea what we were making. I think they thought we were making a snuff movie or something. Paul and I are pretty close and we're still looking for those kinds of opportunities to do another movie like RUNNING SCARED that is super-intense, and has a ticking-bomb plotline.
I like how in your movies, RUNNING SCARED included, the sex scenes always reveal character.
It was important to show Paul and Vera's characters being very much in love because later in the film Vera had to have a lot of faith in him during the course of the night. She had to believe that he wasn't going to do the worst thing she could imagine him doing - killing the kid who stole the gun when he got hold of him. She told him "You're not evil because I know what real evil is. I've just seen it." I wanted to contrast all kinds of messed up characters against each other - there's bad, there's worse, and there's the really fucked-up in this world. Playing that against a Grimm's fairytale template was fun to do in the execution of the production design. I wanted to feel like everything had real stakes. There's no brakes to Joey - he's in a tail spin fearing for his own and his family's life as the shit continually hits the fan.
What are the chances of your director's cut of CROSSING OVER ever being released?
I don't see my cut being released any time soon because it's controversial with regard to the Sean Penn scenes and after my experiences in post production on the movie, I don't have a good relationship with Harvey Weinstein. It's a shame because it was a really good film at one point, and they just cut the guts out of it. The director's cut was a different animal, a whole different movie, although I wasn’t allowed to finish it. It's one of the heartbreaks of my career. It's really difficult for me to look back on the movie with any kind of fondness, given how altered the theatrical cut was.
As a director, I'm a very exacting filmmaker in the way I design my films. I spend a lot of time in post production ensuring that every cut and every moment is the best that it can be and the best for the story I want to tell. Then you get someone saying, "We don't need that scene." If you don't have the power of final cut, you don't have the power to stop your film from being damaged.
What material was taken out?
All the storylines were edited down. Sub-plots were just taken out or edited down. The entire resolution of the Jim Sturgess/ Alice Eve story was cut out. They get back together after the fight in his apartment. He is actually there when she gets arrested. There was a scene where the Korean teenager is put through an initiation ceremony where he has to kill a dog. There was more stuff to do with his girlfriend. Sean Penn played a border patrol agent and his scenes were an important framing device that revealed itself to be a ghost story in the end. When Sean’s storyline was removed, we also lost pretty much the entirety of Alice Braga's performance. You see her in the movie now for about twenty seconds. Even Harrison Ford's storyline was changed in places. There was a backstory to him that had to do with his daughter.One of the cuts that rubs me the wrong way is the loss of a scene where we see Harrison Ford doing detective work and going to the motel where his partner’s sister was murdered. He deals with a motel clerk (played by M. C. Gainey, who isn't even in the film anymore), and asks for the surveillance tapes. In the theatrical version, they used this little Band-Aid of voice-over to explain that, which seems so hokey to me. Even the music score was fucked with. John Murphy composed a beautiful score that they rejected.
Was your version more sexually explicit?
Yeah. A big sex scene between Alice Eve and Jim Sturgess didn't make it into the movie. The sex scenes between Alice and Ray Liotta were way more explicit than you see in the final movie, including full-frontal nudity from Alice. I was really upset that we lost a lot of the dialogue in the scene where they negotiate the terms of their deal. Once Alice’s character realised the bind she was in, she tried to protect herself by telling him what sexual acts she would and wouldn't do - for example, she wouldn't put a bag over head, she wouldn't do certain kinky acts, etc. They cut out all that interesting dialogue. Harvey was constantly trying to make her character more sympathetic, and I thought it was a mistake.
How longer was your cut?
My cut was about twenty minutes longer. It really has a different and more epic feel to it. You felt like you moved across this entire canvas of the stories and struggles of the characters.
Why were Harvey Weinstein and others unhappy with your cut?
I think he wanted to make a more ‘commercial’ version of the film, or arrived at that mindset later in post because I didn't get a single note from him during the shoot. I've always been pretty much left alone to shoot the film I want to make. For me as a director, post-production is always the most treacherous period. This is when people start whispering in each other's ears - "This is too violent. This is too dark. This is too long." And then you become vulnerable to these attacks from financiers or producers who are now trying to make the most commercial product out of a movie that probably wasn't that commercial to begin with. People who suddenly decide they're going to be the director in post-production become a real problem. Nobody who sees a film gets to witness the behind the scenes battles. It's tough making a film. From my point of view, If you just roll over and say "Sure, whatever. Let's do it that way" you're never going to get a good film out of it. It might be more ‘commercial’ due to safer choices being made. Maybe.
The film was what it was. I tested my cut three times and I got a decent score for a dark, R-rated film. it tested at 70% three times. That's an above average score which indicates the film is not for all audiences - which was true. By cutting out all the sex and additional scenes, Harvey Weinstein got the score up into the 90s, but with significant harm done to the quality and tone of the film.
In the case of the theatrical version, you can cut a movie so tight that it feels long, because nothing seems to hold you. So much material was cut from the movie that you almost feel indifferent to what's happening onscreen. It becomes a film that starts to drag as opposed to being compelling throughout. There's just so much more to it that would have fleshed it all out and added texture. Even including the metaphysical framing device with Sean Penn would have made it feel more distinctive than the CRASH (2004) clone it was reduced to.
How was the shoot?
It was a good shoot, actually. I have always had good relationships with my cast and crew. Everyone got on well. It wasn't one of these shoots where all the actors are at each other's throats or having issues with the script.
It must have been difficult promoting a movie that you were unhappy with in its released version.
I had such ill feeling towards what had been done to my cut that I couldn't bring myself to promote it. I just didn't think I could fake it.
How did you feel about the negative critical reaction?
The film has a 16% 'rotten' rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which is crazy. As disappointed as I am in the released version, it's still professionally put together, all the performances are strong, and it's well shot and well scored. I usually only read a few reviews of my films to see which way they're heading, and then I just switch off, so I don't have the deepest analysis of how the film was reviewed. But I do think many critics tended to jump on the hate bandwagon, and I felt all the reviews were heading one particular way. CROSSING OVER was an insider's point-of-view of the immigration system and most of the stories played out in an emotional way. The majority of critics felt that the movie was pedantic and overly melodramatic. Aside from the cynicism of the critics, I just don't believe Americans are interested in seeing a film that is critical of the country itself.
People from outside the US seem to embrace the film more. But in the US, critics were so antagonistic. Perhaps it was because rumours had been going on for about eighteen months that that we were having problems in the cutting room. There was also an Iranian group that lobbied Sean Penn to get certain scenes changed or taken out (none from his storyline) because they were angry with the 'honour killing' plotline, when in truth, it wasn’t really an honor killing, as depicted in the film. This happened in the middle of production, and it all leaked out there.
Do you think that many critics or audience members perhaps agreed with Summer Bishil's teenage Muslim character (Taslima) being deported for expressing what they felt were extremist anti-American views?
The character was always intended to be very ambiguous in terms of how you could come down on her. She was not an innocent and had an extreme point of view regarding the 9/11 hijackers, but at the same time she did have the right of freedom of speech as someone living in the United States. The character was based on a real teenager who was ultimately deported. I was always fascinated by how easily her life was destroyed. If the authorities had kept her in the country, they could have kept an eye on her if they wanted to. I think it was more of a teenage phase with her. By deporting her to Bangladesh they almost guaranteed that she would become an extremist and possibly even a terrorist. I wouldn't be surprised if
she has nothing but hatred for the US. It's like a textbook example of how to make a terrorist.
The film was based on a short film you made with the same title. How different was that film?
The film as you see it today has nothing of the short film in it. It was really the Sean Penn/ Alice Braga storyline that was cut from the film. I think we filmed the original short film it in 1995. Jacqueline Obradors gives a good performance in the Alice Braga role. She played the FBI agent who arrested Taslima in the feature film version. It was shown on PBS TV out of San Francisco, and was on some sites in the early days of the Internet, but it's imposible to find now. The original plan was to put it on the DVD, but I don't think anyone was interested after the film flopped.
What was funny or disturbing was that on the film version, before any of the extreme re-editing had taken place, I was told by the Writers’ Guild that I couldn't have a 'Written & Directed By' credit because the script was based on previous material. I told them that the short film accounted for maybe seven minutes of a 2 1/2 hour movie, and I reminded them that the likes of BOTTLE ROCKET (1996) had been based on a short film and had gotten the credit I wanted. But they still said no. When the film was re-edited and the Penn/ Braga scenes had been taken out, there was now nothing of the short film left. The Writers’ Guild still refused me the credit because the film was based on previous material. It was absolutely absurd.
I spoke to Wayne by telephone on 31st March 2013 and would like to thank him for the kind use of his time.
Paul Rowlands is a Japan-based writer. After completing a BA Humanities course (majoring in English and Science) at the University of Chester, he moved to Japan in 1999. He writes for the James Bond magazine, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, has had articles published on Press Play and has had an almost lifelong obsession with cinema, something the advent of DVD only increased. Paul is also a writer of so far unpublished short stories and novels, and is planning his first short film.