Peter Hyams is one of the most talented, under-rated and versatile directors of the last few decades. He has worked in many different genres, making his mark in all of them, and has worked with some of cinema's most brilliant actors and most loved stars: Sean Connery, Elliott Gould, Michael Douglas, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Harrison Ford, Michael Caine, Gene Hackman and Jean-Claude Van Damme, for example. Peter always manages to put a unique spin on any genre he tackles, and his films always emphasise characterisation, action, location work and entertainment value. His impressive filmography includes  BUSTING (1974) with Elliott Gould and Robert Blake, one of the earliest examples of the buddy-buddy cop comedy/ thriller; CAPRICORN ONE (1977), a mix of paranoid politics and action/ adventure; the sci-fi thriller OUTLAND (1981), with Sean Connery; 2010 (1984), the sequel to Kubrick's 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968); RUNNING SCARED (1986), a buddy-buddy cop comedy thriller with Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines; TIMECOP (1994), the first of so far three films with Jean-Claude Van Damme; and END OF DAYS (1999), an apocalyptic sci-fi movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger. In the first part of a two part interview, I spoke with Peter about his early years and breaking into the industry, BUSTING, RUNNING SCARED, and the road that led to CAPRICORN ONE. 

Growing up, what films made an impact on you the most? 
I was certainly influenced by the French New Wave. THE 400 BLOWS (1959) was a picture that really affected me. LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) was and is pretty close to the Holy Grail for me. 

How did they affect you? 
My family was involved in the Broadway theater, and I grew up with the theater all around me. I was an art student by the time I could walk, and I was classically trained. When I saw things like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA or THE 400 BLOWS as a teenager, I would sit there and think ''You can't paint this. You can't put this on the stage. You can't perform this. You can't do this in Carnegie Hall. This is film. '' It ignited in me a kind of absolute passion for the medium itself, and to me those two films personified different polarities of the medium. As an art student, looking at the paintings of say, Michelangelo or Picasso, they stretched the boundaries of the canvas. Those two films stretched the proscenium that I was used to from the theater. It was submersive and you kind of fell into the screen, or were overwhelmed by it like I was.

How did you get into the film industry? 
I majored in Music and Art when I was much younger. I began writing, self-impressed, completely full of shit stuff that only a kid could do - a lot of lower case poetry with stuff like ''I seek'' – two spaces – ''In my life'' – two spaces – ''Frailty.'' At the High School of Music and Art, that stuff could get you laid.

There was a point in my life where I felt that the amalgam of design, art, photography and music was documentary film. So I went to work for CBS Reports, which was the Cadillac of documentaries. I was the personal gofer for Fred W. Friendly, who alongside Edward Murrow, is one of the gods of television journalism. I was with CBS for almost seven years in various capacities and I reached a point where a photograph being artful was more interesting than a photograph being accurate, and where writing being factual was less important than writing being interesting. So I left and I wanted to make films, where I could write the way I wanted to write and photograph the way I wanted to photograph. The difference between documentary directing and feature film directing is a great documentarian learns how to capture an event and a feature film director creates the event. That became more of what I was looking for than anything else. 

What led to your first film as a director, the TV movie GOODNIGHT, MY LOVE (1972)? 
I loved film noir and I wanted to make a film that was an homage to one of the most underrated writers in America, Raymond Chandler. When I first came out to Hollywood, I had written this script called T.R. BASKIN (1971), and through this odd set of circumstances, it got made. It had a good cast and was done well, and although they wouldn't let me direct it, I did produce it. A very big director at the time, Herbert Ross, was the director. After that I was very sought after to write and produce for other people. I said ''No, I won't write for somebody else again. '' This was the period when television was seen as this vat of sulphuric acid. If you put your foot in it, you'd come out with a stump. But I thought ''Fuck this. I'm going to see Barry Diller at ABC. '' Barry was in charge of the Movie of the Week at the network. ABC used to make one or two of these films a week. Barry is one of the smartest guys I ever met in my life. We sat down and I said to him ''You have all these guys who make these movies for you. And you know, bottom line, that they'll get them done in twelve days. You don't know me. You don't know the bottom line with me, or the top line. But I'll write and direct a film for you in twelve days. '' I knew all the technical things about filmmaking. Barry said ''Well, what are your ideas?'' I told him ''I have two ideas. I'd like to make a movie about an attempt by the United States to fake a space shot. Or I'd like to make a movie about a detective and a dwarf in the 1940s. '' He said ''We're already doing something about space. Why don't you do the detective one?'' And that's what I did.

Do you think your first theatrical feature BUSTING benefited from your documentary and journalistic experience? 
It came in handy in terms of my years of research. Before I wrote BUSTING I spent six months on the road going to L.A., Boston, Chicago and New York, talking to cops, hookers, pimps and the real people. The fact is that every single episode in BUSTING was based on something that actually happened. Whatever training I had as a self-impressed asshole reporter, the most important thing I learned was research. There was a great satirist called Tom Lehrer who wrote very funny and perverse songs. One of his quotes that I always remember was about Nicolai Lobachevsky. He said ''I'll never forget the time I met the great Lobachevsky. It was he who taught me the secret of great writing -plagiarise. Only don't call it 'plagiarise', call it 'research'. '' My approach to a story is always research, and then try to make drama out of it. 

What fascinated you about the world of vice cops to make the film? 
An esoteric and artful thing – I was asked to write a movie about vice cops. The producers were Irwin Winkler and Robert Chartoff, who had done a very successful film for Columbia called THE NEW CENTURIONS (1972). They caught me at that point where I was about to break into features. GOODNIGHT, MY LOVE had gotten more attention than it deserved and was incredibly highly praised. Irwin came to me and said ''We would like you to make a movie for us. '' Irwin was spellbinding and terrific, the greatest film school a young filmmaker could ever attend. The charter was to make a movie about vice cops. 

Was it difficult to cast the leads? 
Elliott Gould was at his apogee, and he wanted to do it. He had made MASH (1970) and GETTING STRAIGHT (1970). United Artists was a dream studio. Once they thought the script and the people making the film were good, they really didn't intrude. They were very encouraging, and fabulous for filmmakers. David Picker was head of UA at the time. 

How close did Ron Leibman come to playing the Robert Blake part? 
Pretty close. We weren't sure if it was going to be Ron or somebody else. It turned out the contrast between Ron and Elliott Gould was not the same contrast between Robert Blake and Elliott, so it was suggested we go with Robert and I listened.

Was the shoot-out in the market a learning curve for you? It's one of the great action scenes. 
I spent a lot of time plotting that thing out. This was not the days of Steadicam, where you could run around and do what you wanted. You had bigger cameras and all those movements on dolly tracks where things were upstairs and downstairs. I just drew out the way I wanted to do it. 

How long did you spend filming the scene? 
The whole film was a 35 day schedule. We spent maybe a day or two on the shootout. The more you're prepared and the more everyone else is prepared, the quicker things go. 

How much was BUSTING on your mind when you were developing RUNNING SCARED, another buddy-buddy cop movie? 
Both were products of their times. My consciousness in 1985 was different from the way I was thinking in 1974, and they are different kinds of movies. One was literally supposed to be a comedic movie, and one was more of a film that just had a sense of humor. When I was asked to do RUNNING SCARED, I wanted to make sure it was unlike anything I had ever done before. I thought one way, among other things, to do that was to cast it completely differently. When I said Billy Crystal, you could hear the 'thud' as the guys in MGM fainted. Billy had to do a screen test in order to do it. When Billy and I suggested Gregory Hines, we didn't get the friendliest reception in the world. The script was originally about two elderly New York cops who retire and I said ''No, I want to make it about two young cops in Chicago who don't retire.'' Alan Ladd Jr became the head of MGM when we were putting together the film and he was ultimately the guy who said 'yes' to what I wanted.

I've never gotten an Oscar. I've never been nominated. I have never been given, nor do I deserve, a Lifetime Achievement Award. However, there are two things that place me different from any other directors in the world. Number one is that I am the only director to have two leading men tried for the first degree murder of their wives – Bobby Blake and O.J. Simpson, who was in CAPRICORN ONE. And I am also the only person who made Alan Ladd Jr's first film for two different companies. His first film for the Ladd Company was OUTLAND. And his first film for MGM was RUNNING SCARED. Laddy and I had a good relationship. It was bumpy in the start and great towards the end. He forged a career by nurturing people who made film. In the end, he was my saving grace. 

What is the background behind your use of 'Spota' in your films? 
It's my wife's maiden name. It's just a bouquet, really, a way of saying ''I love you. '' It's nothing more important than that, other than my father-in-law and his brother Nick, who I used a couple of times in my films, are the two nicest, sweetest, most specific people in the world. My father-in-law passed away and I delivered the eulogy. It made Mahatma Gandhi look like a mugger. Using their names as murderers was funny to me. 

You wrote the Charles Bronson film TELEFON (1977). How come you didn't end up directing it? 
To be totally honest, people's careers are like the sea. They've got waves and troughs, and waves and troughs, and I was at my absolute bottom after PEEPER (1976). The guy who was head of MGM at the time, Dan Melnick, told me he wanted me to write and direct TELEFON, but he knew there was no way he was going to let me direct it. I wrote the script, and they seemed to love it, but then they said ''Richard Lester is going to direct the film. '' I was used to getting to direct my own scripts, but I had to go through a period of rejection. I had written CAPRICORN ONE, and the response wasn't ''Wow!'' It was ''Can you get your car out of the parking lot?'' It was the most abject and direct rejection you could ever get. So I put that script aside and wrote HANOVER STREET (1979). That was a script that got a lot of attention and people wanted. I was offered an absolute fortune to sell the script but not direct it. I was running out of money and I had a wife and two babies. I came home and said to my wife ''All our troubles are over. We have enough to move out of our house. We're going to be okay. I've just been offered a lot of money for the script. '' She said ''They don't want you to direct it, huh?'' I said ''No.'' She said ''Oh, OK. '' She walked out of my little study, and came back about twenty minutes later and said ''I just thought you should know that if you sell that script I'm going to leave you. '' Then she walked out, closing the door. That's my wife. I didn't sell the script. This was during the time I was writing TELEFON and after all this, I had to go through the agony of doing a rewrite for Richard Lester. Lester left, and then Don Siegel came on board. I met with him, but I thought ''I can't do this anymore. '' Then, out of the blue, the sky cleared. A producer named Paul Lazarus said to me ''Whatever happened to that CAPRICORN ONE script?'' I told him ''Nothing.'' He said ''If I put it together, can I produce it?'' I said ''Sure. '' Right around the time that all this shit was going on, Paul called me and said ''I think we've got a deal to make the film. ''

CAPRICORN ONE is one of your most loved films. 
It was a movie made under the radar. Jim Brolin, Sam Waterston, Hal Holbrook and O.J. Simpson, who I didn't want but they wanted. Somehow or other that movie and the times, which was the late 70s, combined. There's a certain moment at the end of the movie where the audience would stand up and cheer, and it wasn't because it was a particularly great movie. There are better movies. It just happened with that movie at that particular time. My buddy told me that people were watching it on an airplane and he came out of the bathroom and everyone was cheering. He immediately looked to see if his flies were open!

I was at a screening of the film in L.A., and when people got up to cheer at the ending, I realised that horrible trough I had been in was over. There's that brilliant line by Hemingway from For Whom the Bell Tolls, after the couple make love: ''The earth moved. '' Somehow or other, things were different. I remember sitting on the film cans outside of Room 12 at Warner Brothers, my cheeks totally wet with tears. David Picker put his arm on my shoulder and said ''Kid, tomorrow you're gonna have a whole lot of new best friends. You'd better learn how to handle it. '' Literally, the next morning, a guy who wouldn't return my phone calls for two years suddenly called me and started talking to me like we had been talking the whole time. Nevertheless, Ted Ashley, who was the head of Warner Brothers, said to my friend Andrew Fogelson, who was Head of Marketing, ''Hyams has a lot of friends in L.A. Maybe that's why people are standing up and cheering. '' So they tested it in Seattle, and the same thing happened. Andy called me from a payphone and I overheard him saying ''I don't think Hyams has this many friends in Seattle. '' We previewed it around the country and the same thing would happen every time. 

It was a huge hit. 
I was filming HANOVER STREET in London, and Andy called me and said ''How does it feel to be the luckiest Jew in London?'' I said ''What are you talking about?'' Andy said ''Dick Donner suddenly told Warner Brothers he can't deliver SUPERMAN for summer. It's going to be Christmas. CAPRICORN ONE is going to be the summer release for Warner Brothers. '' I said ''What does that mean?'' He said ''You're going to get all the advertising budget and all the theaters that were booked for SUPERMAN. '' I said ''What was going to happen if Dick Donner and SUPERMAN had not been late?'' He said ''You would have opened in two theaters in Atlanta. ''

Did you ever get to shake Dick Donner's hand and say thanks? 
Oh, I know him. He's one of the dearest and most wonderful guys in the world. I owe whatever success I have gained to Dick Donner and also H.R. Alderman and Richard Nixon! 

Was it a strong reaction to Watergate that inspired the script? 
I come from a generation of people who believed that if you read it in a newspaper, it was true. And then we found out that newspapers didn't always tell the truth. My generation thought that if it's on television, it's true. I was sitting there one day watching TV and CBS News was covering the space shots. They would cut to a simulation in St. Louis, Missouri of what was going on with the Apollo missions. I realised that the whole story was being fed to America by one camera. That's kind of how I got the idea for CAPRICORN ONE. If one camera can lie, then just because you're seeing it on television, it doesn't mean it's true. 

The film presents NASA as the bad guys. How did you get them to help you with the film?

We did the film in spite of them. I wouldn't say they were helpful in making the film. I had the actual mission books. These huge, multi-hundred loose leaf books. I had saved them from my time as a reporter. NASA was helpful in giving us the plans to build what was the most accurate reproduction of the lunar ascent and descent stages in the world. It was an amazing thing. The photographs had come in, so we knew exactly what the Martian surface looked like. I can't think of a more impressive day of my life than the first day we were going to shoot on this stage where we had reproduced everything. The NASA guys came to see it because it was quite a sight. It was correct to a quarter of an inch. It was as close to the photographs as anything could ever be.

The production designer was a wonderful ally named Albert Brenner. We walked around the stage for an hour and a half or two hours before the crew were called. We turned the stage lights on, and there was Mars. In front of us were the ascent and descent stages of the space shot on the Martian surface. My chest filled with pride and I was tearful, and then Albert motioned to me and said ''Come here. '' I walked over to him, and in the middle of me congratulating myself, I looked down and saw paw prints on the Martian surface. We followed the paw prints over to the ascent and descent stage and there by the ladder was a turd. That was my lesson and introduction to my importance. A cat had taken one look at the stage and thought ''I am gonna take a dump right here. '' 

Did NASA read the script at all? 
I don't think I sent it to them. A couple of guys from NASA did visit the set. They looked at what we had built and they were just swooning. We were going to donate the set to the Smithsonian but we couldn't get it out of the door.

One of the NASA guys taught me a great lesson. If you watch the real ascents and ascent stages, on the descent stage the bottom part of the spacesuit is gold milar and its very billowy. Its not form-fitting or anything. In the ascent stage its silver milar, and it stretches perfectly over the skin. I asked one of the guys from NASA why this was. He said ''In the ascent stage, that's where the people are. In the descent stage, that's where there are no people. Gold milar is much cheaper. '' It makes sense. That's the mentality of the United States Space Program. One of the greatest quotes ever was from the astronaut John Young. They asked him ''What were you thinking before the launch?'' He said ''Well, you're on your back, 360ft in the air, above 6 million lbs of parts of fuel, all submitted by the lowest bidder. '' I remember crawling around the gantries and it was all pipes that just looked human and nothing like Star Trek. 

Part 2 of the interview.  

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

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