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 final part of our three-part interview, I spoke to George about making VIGILANTE FORCE with Kris Kristofferson and in the year of the Bicentennial, the dramas and joys of making THE BIG BOUNCE, his approach to filmmaking, and his passion project Machine. 

Parts one and two of the interview.  

 What was it like working with Kris Kristofferson on VIGILANTE FORCE? 
It was a little rough because he wasn't a trained actor at that time. He would get nervous at times, but he did his best and did a great job I felt. Kris is a very interesting character. 

What were your objectives when you sat down to write the script? 
It was around the time of the Bicentennial. There was lots of flag-waving nuttiness and I thought I would remind everybody of what we had just been through with Vietnam and to not be so self-congratulatory. All of the characters are named after revolutionary war figures. It was my 200th anniversary present to America that they did not open! 

Did you enjoy putting the action scenes together? 
Yes, that was great. That was the first time I had a stunt gaffer and the first time I worked with Buddy Joe Hooker. He was fantastic. I gave him a part in the movie too, which I've done in all my movies since. 

How did THE BIG BOUNCE go from an R rating to a PG-13 rating? 
We had a screening of my cut and it went well. It was in the 80s, which wasn't bad. We had a wonderful producer named Steve Bing, who put up $70 million of his own money, but unfortunately he was told by too many people that it would be difficult for him to get his money back with an R-rated comedy. R-rated comedies are a lot more common now than they were then. Cutting it to a PG-13 completely destroyed the film. I resisted and refused to be any part of it. There was nothing I could do about it. Even the head of the studio told Steve ''You should listen to George. '' I've since taken my cut of the movie to festivals and shown it to critics, and it is always received much better by far than the released version. I've been encouraged to try and get my cut released on DVD. 

 What are the main differences in the two cuts? 
The director's cut plays better. It's not just the language or the nudity, it's an ambience that is changed. The PG-13 version that went out plays like something on television. You need everything. You need a sense of reality and characters that are real people. Nothing really works in that version. It was an unfortunate mistake. I can say that I don't hold any grudges against Steve. He felt he was doing the right thing for the film. 

Was the narration by Owen Wilson in your cut? 
No, it wasn't. Whenever I hear narration for the first time in a movie, I think ''Uh-uh, we're in trouble. '' Somtimes narration can be good, but I never use it. I usually use a radio in the background as narration and cheat that way. I did it in HOT ROD and in GROSSE POINTE BLANK, where Minnie is the DJ. You can do some little tricks like that that can be fun. 

I thought Owen Wilson was perfect casting for a George Armitage movie. 
Oh, I love him. Such a sweet guy. I remember he sat down with me in Hawaii and gave me his notes. I usually write stuff down but we were busy talking back and forth. His notes were so interesting that I remembered them all, and added them to the first half of the script. Everything he said made the script work better. When I asked for his notes on the second half, he said ''I'm not going to give you any more notes! This is great!'' So I said ''OK!'' He's a fabulous character, and so was Morgan Freeman. Charlie Sheen was really fun too. 

How did Willie Nelson end up in the film? 
In my cut, Kris Kristofferson is also in the film. I gave the script to Harry Dean Stanton, and in it is a reference to a Kristofferson song. Harry got confused and thought Kris was going to be in the movie and called Kris up and said ''Hey, we're going to be in a movie together!'' So Kris's wife, who is also his manager, called Steve Bing to find out what all this was about. I said to Steve ''Well, let's get him in the movie then!'' I got on the phone to Kris and said ''Sorry that VIGILANTE FORCE didn't work, but we had a great time. Let's do it again!'' He said ''Sure!'' I had him play Sara Foster's father, sitting on the beach hitting on Brazilian girls. He was wonderful in the scene but they cut it out of the released version. I don't know why. We wrote something up for Willie Nelson to do because he was a friend of Kris's and they both hang out in Maui. 

What was the experience like of working in such a great location as Oahu?
It was the most extraordinary experience of my life in filmmaking making a movie there. The light was such that we could only work from 9 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon, which is perfect! The local cast and crew were beyond spectacular. We made sure we were respectful to the people and nature of Hawaii in the script. 

Your films are notable for their on-location filming. Is that important to you? 
Yeah, I love to be on location, wherever we are. The location becomes part of the film and not just the scenery. I love the location scouting. On GROSSE POINTE BLANK, we didn't shoot any of it in Michigan. Apart from some helicopter footage, most of it was shot here in California. In California, everybody came from somewhere, and they brought their architecture with them, so it's useful when you want to fake a location. I remember one time standing in the park and someone asked me where Lake Michigan was, and for a moment I really thought we were in Michigan! In fact, I even fooled Elmore Leonard. And one newspaper in Detroit said ''Wow, what a wonderful shoot they had here. We didn't even see any trucks or anything. '' 

How did you get involved with working on the script to the TV movie THE LATE SHIFT, about David Letterman and Jay Leno fighting to host The Tonight Show after the departure of Johnny Carson? 
I was a guest of CBS on a flight to the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer and I ran into the TV exec Ron Perth, who figured prominently in the wooing of Dave and Jay. He suggested I read the book that had been written about it. I read it, loved it and as a longtime late night TV fan, I let HBO know that I'd like to write and direct. My take was that the whole thing was self-parody and much ado. I was hired, and wrote a script satirising the self importance of it all. I missed that the execs saw the story as a Valentine to themselves. I left.    

What did you think of the finished film?     
I thought that it was pretty good, but was happy to hear that Dave thought my script was a much better take than the way it went. I also wanted Dave and Jay to play themselves!
Your films always have strong roles for women. Are you always mindful of that? 
Yes. I'm a product of strong women. My mother was strong, and all the women I know are strong and interesting. Starting in the 60s and 70s, women became more powerful in society, and as a trouble making left winger I thought ''Let's do all we can to support them. ''

How much of your own world-view do you think is in your films? 
It's in there, depending on the character. I don't think of any of these characters as me but they do speak for me. 

Your characters are usually upbeat, optimistic people who are flawed but are trying to improve their circumstances. They're usually people who couldn't really fit into polite society even if they wanted to. 
Yeah, they're outsiders, looking in. I'm interested in the Americana aspect of telling stories.

Sometimes you have been given a basic idea on which to write a script, and sometimes you originate your own scripts. Which do you prefer? 
I like to generate my own material, but I think I have been hired on all the films I have made. I've written some 120 scripts. There are a lot more available! 

Which is your favorite of the scripts that hasn't gotten made yet? 
There's a script that I wrote in 1974 called Machine. I was living here in Beverly Glen and there was a fella across the street who was a Computer Arts Major at UCLA. I asked him what he was working on and he said ''Why don't you come on down and I'll show you?'' So I went down there and there was this soccer pitch sized underground area where they had all these cooling towers and computers. I said ''What are you doing?'' and he said ''We're working on something called the Internet. '' This is where it was developed. He showed me what they were doing. So later, I wrote a script called Machine. The premise is that everything we see and hear in our lifetime is collected. Between your eyeball and your cerebral cortex a system intercepts everything you see or hear and has the information on file. In effect, everyone is a movie camera. There's a guy that busts into the System and he decides the best way to find who is behind it all is to go on the run and have them find him. So he gets a dirt bike, out here in California, and just starts racing across the country, and eventually smokes them out. My agent got it to Steve McQueen, who loved it and said he would do it. Bob Evans was going to produce it, and Kate Jackson from Charlie's Angels was going to co-star. She was dating Evans at the time. Steve and I both liked riding dirt bikes, so we got along, but eventually he said ''I'm a little leery of science fiction. '' I was thinking ''Oh no. '' I said to him ''What do you mean? I loved you in THE BLOB!'' He said ''See what I mean?'' It was really funny! But he didn't make the film in the end. 

What is the status of Machine now? 
I am still trying to make it, and I have a deal now where I am going to novelise it in almost script form. It's such a visual concept, the idea of being able to record and play back what you see and hear. The story covers not only the present but the past and the future. I'm trying to cover the history of the world and keep my edge. I'll be focussing on the events in history that are not considered to be important by most people. It should be a hoot. I'm hoping to be able to do three films and perhaps a TV series of it. I'm not sure if I'll direct anymore, but if they do it like we did THE BIG BOUNCE in Hawaii, from 9 to 3, I'll be there!

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

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