Steven-Charles Jaffe is the director of the acclaimed documentary GAHAN WILSON: BORN DEAD, STILL WEIRD (2013), but he has also been producing important and commercially successful films since the '70s, including THE WIND AND THE LION (1975), DEMON SEED (1978), WHO'LL STOP THE RAIN (1978), THE FLY II (1989) and GHOST (1990). He has also enjoyed fruitful collaborations with directors Nicolas Meyer (including TIME AFTER TIME, 1979 and STAR TREK VI - THE UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY, 1991) and Kathryn Bigelow (including NEAR DARK, 1987 and STRANGE DAYS, 1995). I spoke to Steven about some of the highlights of his remarkable career, and his fascinating new documentary.
How did you get
involved in the film industry? Since your father was involved in the film
industry, was it always something you wanted to do?
Originally, I didn't want
to be in the movie business. When I was a child growing up in the '50s, my
father had a very successful literary agency in New York. He represented some
very impressive clients: Mario Puzo (THE GODFATHER, 1972), Irwin Shaw, Reginald
Rose (TWELVE ANGRY MEN, 1957), Paddy Chayefsky (NETWORK, 1976; THE HOSPITAL,
1971), Margaret Bourke-White (Life Magazine’s first woman photo-journalist),
Martha Gellhorn. I wanted to be a writer or a novelist. When I was very young I
wrote a very short story about fear at night, which got some attention that
served to encourage me. As I got older I wanted to be an architect, but that
didn't work out because I couldn't do drafting to save my life. The irony is
that since that time I've befriended architects and they've told me that most
good architects cannot draft either! I wish they had told me back then as I
agonized over it for years!
My father didn't enter the film industry
until I was in high school. He became a motion picture executive with United
Artists after selling his literary agency to what was to become ICM. But even
then I was more interested in linguistics and that's what I majored in. That
said, I was really interested in foreign films by Truffaut, Buñuel, Kurosawa,
Antonioni, Polanski. Later, when I got into the film business, I realized there
were so many great American filmmakers that I had to study.
How did you
get the job making a behind-the-scenes documentary for John Huston's FAT
The producer, Ray Stark had established a scholarship in the name of
his son at USC, and my father suggested I contact Stark and see if he had any
job openings for film students.
How was the experience?
I had a
terrible communication problem with Ray Stark, and he fired and re-hired me
about six times! This taught me at an early age that there is no job security in
Hollywood! Ray wanted me to produce a promotional film for FAT CITY, but the
idea was to intersperse behind the scenes footage with footage of real boxers.
So there were two agendas a promo film and a boxing documentary. Unfortunately
there was an intermediary who kept insisting that I should just focus on the
boxing part. I was young and naive and didn't know who to believe. Ray would get
upset and keep telling me to go back and film behind the scenes material on FAT CITY.
I did get to watch John Huston directing and to listen to him talk
about how to make documentaries. After he screened each day's dailies, John
would show the amazing documentaries he made during World War II; films such as
SAN PIETRO (1945) and LET THERE BE LIGHT (1946), which was the first film made
about Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. The Army banned it because they thought it
would scare the living daylights out of soldiers. It was the best film school on
documentary filmmaking anyone could get. An extraordinary experience that was
useful when I made my own documentary, GAHAN WILSON: BORN DEAD, STILL WEIRD
(2013) many years later.
What are your favourite anecdotes from working
on FAT CITY?
My first day on location was at the Stockton Civic Center in
California, which they had converted into a boxing ring/auditorium. This was the
first film set I had ever been on. It was 10 in the morning, but nothing was
happening. It was so quiet you could hear a pin drop. Ray Stark introduced me to
Huston, one of my first director heroes, who was sitting with the great
cinematographer Conrad Hall. John told me "Kid, I want you to go to the Holiday
Inn and get the new pages from Leonard Gardner. We've been waiting all morning.
Go now, and bring them back." As I eagerly knocked on Gardner’s hotel room door,
I was greeted by a less than enthusiastic ex-prize fighter turned novelist who
was presently engaged in an extremely animated discussion with a group of
boxers. Let’s just say that I was not important nor was my mission to get the
"new pages." As I pondered my options, an insulting remark from Gardner to one
of the boxers quickly escalated into a donnybrook, which allowed me to escape
and return to the set empty handed. I tried my best to explain the situation to
Huston, who simply puffed on his cigar, turned to Conrad Hall and said, "Well
Connie, I guess we’ll just have to shoot the old pages…" That was my intro to
I also had an unusual and great introduction to the
great cinematographer, James Wong Howe on the boxing side of the documentary. We
had hired a news cameraman who had limited experience lighting, and found
ourselves in this huge beautiful hall in downtown Los Angeles inside the Elks
Club building. Every couple of months a boxing ring was set up inside and
veteran boxers would tell young boxers the value of health insurance as many of
them ended up 'punch drunk'. Hmm. Sounds relevant today. In any event, it was a
great set and very dramatic, but we had three lights and very slow film. I had
heard James Wong Howe speak at USC and had gotten his phone number from a
friend. When our cameraman freaked out and said he couldn’t shoot anything, I
called JWH, who surprised me by saying he would meet me nearby to have lunch and
discuss my problem. Of course this was great but time was running out. I could
barely contain my anxiety and excitement - here I am having lunch with one of
the great cinema legends but I need to get back to the Elks building before
everyone left. JWH sensed my nervousness and after we left the restaurant, we
stopped in a drug store where he told me to buy several Styrofoam ice chests.
When we arrived at the set, my cameraman nearly fainted when he met JWH. With no
time to waste, JWH broke up the ice chests and strategically placed them around
the ring and then bounced the three lights on them in a manner that miraculously
did the job. JWH then thanked me for lunch and left!
How did you end up
working with your father on THE WIND AND THE LION?
I was about to be
drafted, and I had one semester of school before graduating. I bought the
cheapest ticket to Amsterdam to have my last fling. There was also a movie job
opening there on a movie with Klaus Kinski called LIFESPAN (1975) - no pay just
great experience. I ended up being an assistant director. Fortunately, while I
was in Amsterdam the draft ended and I was at the tail end of the lottery
system. I stayed in Amsterdam for about a year and the director (Alexander
Whitelaw) was friends with Polanski and Bertolucci, which might have led to
possible job opportunities as their assistants. My father was radically opposed
to anything resembling nepotism, so it's funny we ended up working together. He
left United Artists and told me he was going to produce a film with John Milius,
whose work I knew. When he asked me to join him and Milius, I replied
"Absolutely not!'' I had done everything on my own, and I wished him all the
best of luck with the picture. We had some very strained conversations for
several months. Eventually, I realized that I had proved to him I was in the
movie business. So I thought "What the hell. I've never been to Spain. Sean
Connery is in the movie. This could be interesting."
What are your
strongest memories of working on the film?
THE WIND AND THE LION has a
special place in my heart. I love the movie and it was a real adventure to work
on. Milius and I became friends. One thing we had in common was that we had both
worked for John Huston. Milius had written THE LIFE AND TIMES OF JUDGE ROY BEAN
(1972). Huston was hired as an actor in the film which was a nice reunion of
There were some very special people on the crew. We brought David
Lean's script supervisor, Barbara Beale, out of retirement for the movie, and
that was quite amazing. Her knowledge of filmmaking was astounding. On
occasions, I'd hear her whispering in Milius's ear things like "John, if you
don't mind me saying so, David would lay out a dolly shot like this...'' From
then on I thought this was what all script supervisors did, but later I realized
she was the exception!
I also met my wife on the film. She was the
production co-ordinator. A difficult and often thankless job. We've been
together for 38 years now, and we've worked together on several projects,
including recently writing scripts together. I fell in love with a great woman
and also a great country - Spain and it’s culture.
What did you learn
from working with your father?
I learned that you find out a person's true
colors once the director says "Action!" It was true back then, it's true now and
it will always be true. People have a certain social gregariousness before the
first day of shooting. Once you start shooting, you're in movieland battle mode
and that's when you find out who will be honorable and function efficiently
under pressure. People's agendas and ambitions come out and it can be a real
My father had a reputation of being a man of honor and a gentleman.
I learned the value of that, even though historically it looks like the people
that really get ahead don't give a rat's ass about honor or integrity. The only
question they ask themselves is "What can I do to further my career?" I think,
in general, the world has become a much more selfish place. The people that are
altruistic and actually help others are rare.
You worked with Karel
Reisz on WHO'LL STOP THE RAIN.
It was a great experience. I thought we had a
great cast in that movie - not only Nick Nolte but also Michael Moriarty and
Tuesday Weld, who were amazing in the film. I was a huge fan of Karel's from
MORGAN! (1966) (with the great David Warner and Vanessa Redgrave) and SATURDAY
NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING (1960). I loved all the films of Lindsay Anderson, Tony
Richardson, Jack Clayton and Joseph Losey, who was actually one of my father's
clients. Karel was interesting because he was really a kind of editor-director
in the sense that he got more set-ups and more takes than just about anybody I
ever worked with. I hadn't realized the editorial abundance of choices that he
was giving himself by doing this. If you look at the movie, Karel broke so many
editorial rules, jumping the axis 180 degrees, for example. He was a genius at
cutting to another angle that another director would think wouldn't possibly
match. At times Karel did drive the actors crazy. I remember one time we were in
Cuernivaca in Mexico and it was 5 in the morning. Tuesday Weld was meant to
finish this day. Karel had asked her to get in and out of this Land Rover about
seventeen times until finally she told him "This is the last time I'm doing
this, and then I'm leaving."
I remember after we made the film, I was
walking around San Francisco and I found myself outside Francis Coppola's
Zoetrope building. He happened to walk out through the door in front of me. i
was so thrilled because I had never met him, although we were both friends with
John Milius who had written APOCALYPSE NOW (1979). I told him all about WHO'LL
STOP THE RAIN, how it was a Vietnam movie and how happy I was he was making
APOCALYPSE NOW. He was very nice and friendly about it, but he must have thought
"Who is this idiot talking to me about Vietnam movies?"
As the producer
how did you feel about the last-minute title change?
No one was happy with
it. We bought Robert Stone's award-winning novel 'Dog Soldiers' (1974), and that
was the title until UA had a major administration shift and suddenly there were
marketing people talking about changing the title. The list of alternate titles
was atrocious and since we had several Creedence Clearwater songs on the
soundtrack, we went for the best title - 'Who'll Stop the Rain'.
you admire the most about working with Nicolas Meyer?
He and I are really
close. My two best friends in Hollywood are Nick and Kathryn Bigelow. I'd do
anything for them and the feeling seems to be mutual. I made a number of
projects with both of them, and I have so much fondness and love for the films
we made together. I helped them early in their careers and the nice thing about
our relationships is that they've both been incredibly supportive to me as I
reinvent myself as a writer and a director.
Anything good about screen
writing I learned from Nick. He is one of the smartest and most literate people
anywhere, but certainly in Hollywood. I wish he'd keep writing novels because
he's so good at it. Nick is like a laser beam in the way he can quickly assess
what's wrong with a scene and what needs to be done. Sometimes it can just be a
line of dialogue. He never imposes himself on material. There are a lot of
'script doctors' whose main concern is getting their name on the movie. Nick
doesn't play those games. He's there to help the filmmaker. Sometimes he does
his work so fast that when we were working together I used to tell him to sit on
the script for a while because studios or producers would never believe his work
was any good if he wrote it so quickly!
And how about Kathryn
I am amazed by Kathryn's absolute sense of vision when she decides
she wants to do something. She only compromises when it's absolutely necessary.
I admire her energy and her creativity. I've always known she was a special
filmmaker and it's really nice that she's gotten the acclaim for THE HURT LOCKER
(2008) and ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012) she so deserves. I think the reason I made so
many movies with Kathryn and Nick is that there was an equal respect under
battle conditions, and we'd always listen to each other's ideas. Even if we
disagree, there’s value in the ''loyal opposition.'' Early on in my career there
were some directors who really didn't want to listen to what my opinion was.
Producers invest their lives and money in their movies and it's nice when the
people calling the shots at least consider your suggestions. I do think that
making movies is like war. It brings out the best and worst in people. Kathryn,
Nick and I have been battle tested. We know and trust each other, so well that
if we're making a movie together we don't have to be looking over each other's
shoulder all the time.
Did you ever have any inkling that GHOST (1990)
was going to be such a blockbuster?
There are a lot of producers who would
lie to you and say ''Of course I knew it was going to be that big." But I really
didn't. The reason I signed on to do it was that I really loved the script and I
thought it had commercial appeal. You can't ask for more than that. You may have
the ingredients for a blockbuster but it's a falsehood that you know when
something is going to hit big.
Why do you think it connected with
audiences in such a phenomenal way?
I once asked cartoonist Gahan Wilson,
the subject of my documentary BORN DEAD, STILL WEIRD, "What do you think are the
ingredients for success as an artist?” He replied that you’ve got to have all of
those attributes but at the end of the day you'd better have luck and timing on
your side. You can be the best artist in the world, like Van Gogh, but nobody's
going to look at your work until you're dead if you don't have luck and timing.
To some of the studio brass, we were not their big expected hit. That was Tony
Scott's DAYS OF THUNDER (1990) - but we had luck and timing on our side, as well
as a great movie.
The film was cancelled and re-started several times. A
lot of the stars at the time turned it down. The fact it was many genres at once
- a thriller, a drama, a comedy and a romance - scared off a lot of people.
Studios think you can't mix genres. It has to be one or the other. I actually
think the fact it crossed genres was one of the things that made it work so
well. But the lynchpin was Whoopi Goldberg. Telling the story through her eyes
made the film accessible - and of course, Jerry Zucker’s unpretentious, funny,
and serious direction. Patrick Swayze, Demi Moore and Tony Goldwyn all did great
jobs, but without Whoopi it would have been a totally different movie. I'm very
proud to be associated with GHOST. It was a really enjoyable
On the other hand, which commercial failures have hit you the
Well, talking about luck and timing, it didn't work for us on K-19:
THE WIDOWMAKER (2002), a film I made with Kathryn Bigelow. It was a terrific
film but it was put out by the studio a couple of weeks after 9/11 occurred,
which I thought was a terrible mistake. The studio should have delayed the
release, even though it would have been expensive to do so. We had a film where
Russian submariners have to battle with the possibility of a nuclear disaster on
their submarine. There were no American characters in the movie. At that time,
audiences simply wanted to be distracted and have some laughs.
you to make the Gahan Wilson documentary BORN DEAD, STILL WEIRD?
ago I made a career decision to take some time off from producing Hollywood
movies, which I was becoming disenchanted with making, and get back to my
filmmaking roots. I wanted to make a documentary about the cartoonist Gahan
Wilson and I thought it would only take three to six months to make. I have a
background in photography but I wanted to prove to myself that I could shoot and
direct it. Once I had made a commitment to Gahan that I was going to do this, I
had to go all the way. I had this huge responsibility and the line from
APOCALYPSE NOW came to mind: 'It was inevitable that I would become the
caretaker of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz's memory.' Now I was taking on the
responsibility of telling Gahan’s story. I became obsessed with shining a
spotlight on this extraordinary man and introducing his work to a new generation
of fans. I turned down a lot of lucrative, award-winning projects to do the
film. I had no idea it was going to take seven years to complete. I have no
regrets, but I wish I had known what was going to be at stake for me personally
and professionally. It's put me in a place that is extremely
Were you influenced by any particular documentaries?
One of the things that pushed me over into making the film was seeing Terry
Zwigoff's CRUMB (1994). I was never a big fan of Crumb's art, but I loved the
personal story that came out of the film. I wanted to bring out something
similar with my film. Zwigoff found something in Crumb's relationship with his
brother that was extraordinary. Once I started interviewing Gahan I realized
that although we'd been friends for twenty-three years I was really going to
have to dig deep and peel under the layers of protection to find the demons -
you really do learn a lot more about a person once you document their life, even
if you were good friends before. It's been a long journey for the both of us,
but I've learned so much from the man. I admire him more than I ever did
What attracts you to his work?
When I was ten years old it
was his bizarre Charles Adams-on-steroids cartoons. As I got older I realized
that the Gahan’s cartoons had a lot more to them than just jokes. He did
political cartoons about nuclear proliferation in 1957 that are still
astonishingly current today. He was doing ecological cartoons about the
environment and global warming before Al Gore was ever doing his slideshows. The
funny thing is that we sent Gore one of Gahan's more famous ecological cartoons
and it's hanging in his office at home!
What was the idea behind
getting some famous faces to talk about Wilson?
I knew I had to get
important guest stars to help sell the film. I prepared a wish list and went on
a fishing expedition to find out if these people were fans. I picked people who
I thought had similar sensibilities. Luckily, almost all of them
enthusiastically responded to my interview requests, which just floored me
because these people are top political and artistic icons, people like Stephen
Colbert, Neil Gaiman, Guillermo del Toro, Stan Lee, Randy Newman, Lewis Black,
and others. I was so moved by how Gahan had influenced their lives.
must have been quite an experience winning Best Documentary at Comic Con.
was such a thrill. I accepted the award in front of all these kids under 25 who
had never heard of his work before but were now suddenly fans of his. They gave
us a standing ovation. I was so moved I started crying. Crazy. I don't think
anyone has ever cried at Comic Con before!
What have you learned from
Wilson that you have applied to your own life?
I am in awe of his discipline
and his productivity. Gahan is 83 years old now but he still does a cartoon
every month for Playboy and almost every week for The New Yorker. There are not
that many artists who have been doing extraordinary work for so long without
stopping. He gets up at five every day and he comes up with a subject. He just
works and works until he has a cartoon that pleases him and then he's done. That
kind of work ethic really had an influence on me because I'm an independent
filmmaker and I have a number of projects that I have to nurture and sell. Now,
I too get up at five and I make my daily 'To Do' list of things that are
important and I keep going until I get them done - or make a new list. My hero
became more than a hero to me. He's an extraordinary human being.
to Steven by telephone on 27th August 2013. I would like to thank him for his
Check out the site for GAHAN WILSON: BORN DEAD, STILL WEIRD.
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.
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