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 second part of our three-part interview, I spoke to George about the making of his two cult classics, MIAMI BLUES and GROSSE POINTE BLANK, his friendships with Jonathan Demme and Quentin Tarantino, Gene Hackman's original involvement in MIAMI BLUES, the improvisation process on GROSSE POINTE BLANK and filming the memorable fight scene, and how his school reunion went!     

 Part one of the interview. 

 Jonathan Demme was a producer on MIAMI BLUES. How far back does your friendship and association go? 
I was an actor in VON RICHTHOFEN AND BROWN (1971), and Jonathan was the United Artists publicist in London. He interviewed me on the set of the film and we hung around a little bit. I came back to LA after the picture, and he was living down the street on Beverly Glen. He came up and said 'Hi' one day and he came in and we smoked a doobie. We've been good friends since. Later on he threw me a lifeline with MIAMI BLUES. It was great to get going on a picture again.

What did you like the most about the Charles Willeford's original novel of Miami Blues? 
I loved the book. It was wonderful. It was sardonic and funny and goofy enough and heartwarming. It's the girl's story in a funny way. It's really about relationships. The film was great fun to make, and it was great having Jonathan there. It was my second time working with the DP, Tak Fujimoto, and he was fantastic. 

What kind of set was it with that powerhouse trio of Alec Baldwin, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Fred Ward? 
Jennifer totally understood her character and the film. I'm not sure Alec really got the film, but that doesn't mean anything because nobody really 'gets' the film. But he definitely got the character. He did many interesting things on the film. He was really the first actor who interested me with improv. He would come up with stuff all the time. I remember we were shooting in a tin house and it rained for a long time, and Alec, to entertain the cast and crew who were huddled together, did an impersonation of every one of us, from me to Tak to the grips. It was extraordinary. I wish we had filmed it. We've tried to do a couple of things together since the movie. 

Was he challenging to work with in any way? 
He was a little, yeah. It was probably from being abused by other directors. I would rewrite stuff for him and change lines, but I told him ''It's your character. Just go for it!'' And he did, and he was wonderful.

Was there a lot of improvising on the film? 
Alec and Jennifer both thought highly of the script so we pretty much stuck to it. The improvising was in the actions between them. They were very comfortable in that respect. 

Did you speak a lot with Gene Hackman about playing Hoke originally? 
Fred Ward was going to play Junior, and Gene was going to play Hoke. I met with Gene, and he was wonderful. I really enjoyed spending time with him. Jonathan Demme and I were sitting around talking about Alec's audition and how tremendous he was, and I said ''What are we going to do? Should I write another character for Alec?'' Fred was one of the producers, and he brought us the script, and he wanted to play Junior. We started thinking that Fred would be perfect as Hoke, and Jonathan and I kicked that idea around a bit. We told Fred our idea to have Alec play Junior and for him to play Hoke, and he agreed. He thought Alec was great too. I remember Fred saying ''I'll call Gene. '' Gene was fabulous about it, and we thanked him in the credits. There are actually one sheet posters of some of his films in certain places in the film. There's one in the scene where Junior robs the coke dealers with the Uzi squirt gun, for example. 

What footage didn't find its way into the final cut? 
There was more of Hoke and his family but we found it slowed down the thrust of the film, which Fred agreed on. I don't remember any great scenes, but it's always painful to cut scenes out. As I said, I like my films to be 100 minutes and to move. They can't dawdle. The editor, Craig McKay, was wonderful to work with on that film. He was a big help. 

Was GROSSE POINTE BLANK more of a collaborative film than usual? 
I am always collaborative with the actors and the crew, and I like to make it comfortable so that they can do their best work ever, with me protecting them. GROSSE POINTE BLANK might have been more collaborative because I had other writers and we had everybody improvising. We shot so much film on that movie. Everybody was so into what they were doing. 

What were some of the gems that came out of the improvising process? 
There were so many great moments that it is hard to pinpoint them, but it was wonderful for me because I wasn't expecting it. I had to hold in my laughter. I just turned John and Minnie loose for their PG-13 sex scene in the nurse's office, for example, and that was completely cool. The dancing at the reunion was wonderful. We had a great time. There were some insane moments that unfortunately didn't quite fit and we had to leave out.

Did all the actors take to the improvising process easily? 
Most of them did, yeah. One actor said he felt pressured to improvise and I staggered away in disbelief because most actors look forward to improvising. On THE BIG BOUNCE, Owen Wilson would improvise all over the place but Morgan Freeman would always stick to the script. It was so interesting to see how professional he was. He would never have a clue what Owen was going to do. Owen is an Academy Award-winning writer, so he was as wonderful as you can imagine. There were several scenes between them that were just amazing. Morgan was never uncomfortable, but he had rehearsed with himself and he knew what he was going to do. It was beautiful to watch two pros working. 

How did the project find it's way to you? 
John sent me a copy of the script and I read it and loved it. We got together and I loved what he wanted to do with the character. It was great to work with him.

John actually suggested Alec Baldwin for Grocer in the film. We talked about it but he was ultimately unavailable. As soon as we heard Dan Aykroyd loved the script and was available we went nuts! He was absolutely brilliant in the role and delightful to work with. He went with the script and created a wonderful screen character.

To what extent was GROSSE POINTE BLANK a political satire or a parody of an action film? 
There were quite a few political jabs in the film. I think, like MIAMI BLUES, it's a bit of a satire but I don't think I was consciously commenting on other films. We did do a little homage to POINT BLANK, the film we stole our title from. I love the title we went with. I thought it was hysterical. A lot of people thought it was hokey. 

Did you draw at all on your own high school reunion? 
Not really. I only ever went to one reunion. I was expelled from my Jesuit High School in the third year for satirising the Reserve Officer Training Corps, which was a post-WW2 paranoia scheme to keep everybody crazy. I refused to be part of it, and got thrown out. I went to the 50th year reunion and they gave me my Diploma. I got a mock standing ovation which I consider one of the high points of my life! 

What was it like filming the celebrated fight scene at the prom? 
We had three cameras on that, and rarely did I have to show the DP Jamie Anderson where to go. We would do two or three bits in a certain space with a camera, and then move along. It was really astonishing the way that scene came together. I was working with Buddy Joe Hooker, who I've been working with since VIGILANTE FORCE.

It has to be one of the best fight scenes ever put on film. 
There was a British film magazine that named it the Best Fight Scene Ever. It really was a good scene. John is fighting Benny the Jet in the scene, one of the great kickboxers of all time. John had been training with him, so they had worked on stuff already. Buddy Joe came in and gave them great stuff to do, and we had a ball doing that scene. 

What did you enjoy the most about working with John Cusack? 
He's really a wonderful actor, and I had always wanted to work with him. He's very very particular about what he does, and he's very funny. I like the fact that he's understated. He's very interesting. 

Was the editing process long, given the amount of footage you shot? 
No, nothing unusual actually. I would bring John in from time to time and he would take notes. He was also a producer on the film. We sat down together at the end and went through the cut, and he had ideas of stuff he wanted back in. Whatever worked for us, we cut in to the movie. Unfortunately there were a couple of things we weren't just able to get into the film, but generally John was very pleased with GROSSE POINTE BLANK. We had a preview of it and the movie was running 112 minutes or something. I could see that we were losing the audience. You want to keep them 'up, up, up' and then bring them back to where they were. I explained that to John and everybody and they were a little afraid we were cutting some good stuff out, but after we had edited it down and we had had a great screening in New York, everybody was happy. For once, I had done something that pleased executives! Joe Roth was a terrific studio head when we made that film. He knew what we we were trying to do, and let us go. 

With the success of Tarantino's films around this time, did you feel confident that your film would find an audience? 
I always feel my films will find an audience, but sometimes I have been wrong. I thought it would work with audiences because it was very funny and it was very hip and it was not dumb. The performances were good. I thought Minnie and John had a chemistry. I felt we had been able to get into that post-high school angst. The movie wasn't huge, but it had a good audience. 

Have you ever felt the influence of your work on other films? 
I know Quentin gives me great credit for MIAMI BLUES and breaking through with that kind of film. I know him and love him and he's an absolute genius, but I told him ''The only thing we have in common as filmmakers is that we love the same kinds of films, but I saw them first-run and you saw them on video!'' 

Part three of the interview. 

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

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