Paul Lynch’s fascination with movies began at the age of 10. Saving up money from his part-time job of–in his words–walking horses on the beach, in the British seaside town of Hoylake, he bought a picture book of movie stars, but his mother made him return it, since money was tight for his working-class family. But his cinematic passion wouldn’t go away for long. The next year, his family moved to Oakville, Ontario, and by the time he was a teenager, Lynch was gravitating regularly between the two local movie theaters–one showing high art and the other schlock. (“I would alternately go to Ingmar Bergman pictures which I hated and Hells-Angels-on-wheels pictures which I loved,” Lynch said in a 1982 interview with Cinema Canada.)
One day, while perusing magazines, he discovered an article about a new hotshot director, who had gotten his start as a photographer, moved on to documentary shorts and then launched a few feature films, and was now making his first big-budget film for Universal Studios. That director was Stanley Kubrick. Shortly after, Lynch saw Sidney J. Furie’s “The Ipcress File”–still a favorite of his–and then learned that Furie’s career had a similar trajectory.
From that point on, Lynch was hellbent on following in Furie and Kubrick’s footsteps, and in the mid-1960s, photography and independent filmmaking were refreshingly opportunistic, uncompetitive industries. He submitted photographs to the Toronto Star, where he was already a frequent cartoonist, and eventually sold “picture stories”–mostly chronicling blue collar people–to magazines like MacLean’s and Toronto Life. In 1966, Lynch adapted one such pictorial, “A Teenage Marriage,” into a film, and shortly after, he met William Gray, a former CBC editor who helped him get a condensed version of the film onto the network. After years shooting docudramas for CBC, as well as doing graphic designer work for magazines, Lynch hooked up with writer John Hunter, who had developed a script about country music called “The Hard Part Begins.” That became Lynch’s debut feature film, after Lynch independently raised $40,000 and received a $60,000 loan from the Canadian Film Development Corporation (CFDC, established by the Canadian government in the late 1960s to help burgeoning filmmakers). Released in 1973, it won critical acclaim and, though it played pretty much exclusively in Canada, made a decent profit as well.
Lynch’s second film, “Blood and Guts,” was released five years later, and also dealt with down-on-their-luck blue collar types, in this case amateur wrestlers. But following that experience, Lynch had trouble finding support for what he called “good human stories,” as his next big idea, a tale of a circus lion tamer called “Catman and the Kid,” was rejected by the studios. The next movie Lynch directed–after an unsuccessful campaign pitching a demented gynecologist horror film called “Don’t See the Doctor”–would become his most successful: the 1980 teen slasher/Jamie Lee Curtis vehicle “Prom Night.” While he certainly enjoyed the profits, he reflected, in the same 1982 interview, that it lacked the “depth” of his previous work: “The problem with teenagers is that there is no depth to them…even a picture like ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High,’ there is only so much depth you can apply to these kids.”
Unfortunately, the remainder of the films Lynch shot in the 1980s were also a bit starved for depth: the deserted island monster pic “Humongous”; the ultraviolent revenge saga “Bullies”; “Flying,” a cheesy ode to gymnastics. (These are discussed at greater length in my previous blog entry on Lynch.) That trend was in no small part because of the Canadian government cutting funding for independent filmmakers in 1984, the same year that the CFDC changed to Telefilm and a torrent of made-for-television movies and trashy genre films became the main output from Canada for the rest of the decade. By 1987, Lynch had mostly devoted himself to television, turning out episodes of hit shows like “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and “Moonlighting,” though he occasionally made straight-to-video action and sci-fi pictures in the 1990s and 2000s.
One could say, by looking at his repertoire, that Paul Lynch’s career took an artistic nosedive as of 1980, that he sold out with “Prom Night” and was doomed to make schlocky “studio” productions from there on out. But Lynch, 65, emphatically does not see it that way, and his viewpoint is a true wake-up call to anyone who wishes to dismiss his post-“Prom Night” career so simplistically. When pressed about artistic integrity in the same 1982 interview, he defended not only his own work, but also more financially successful yet critically savaged Canadian directors such as Ivan Reitman (“Meatballs”) and Bob Clark (“Porky’s”). “In Canada, I really think that it’s a mistake not to get down on one’s knees and kiss David Cronenberg and Ivan Reitman and people like that, because every picture that they make, whether one may think that it has merit or not, spurs an industry,” Lynch said. “All these films [“Meatballs,” “Porky’s,” “Prom Night”] are self-generated by a filmmaker who believes and cares about making a film that he likes and thinks he can make some money on. They are not packages.”
When I interviewed Lynch over the phone a few weeks ago, he still held firmly that all his films, trashy or not, were exactly the pictures he set out to make. He’s been blessed with a 40-year career in film and television that is astonishingly devoid of horror stories about producers meddling with his work. A few interviews over the years imply that Lynch prefers his earlier features, and is even a bit wistful about his career trajectory (“I’d like perhaps to return to what I started to do, human drama…I keep looking for stories that are worth telling,” he told the Globe and Mail in 1989). And when I talked to him, he said the next big project he’s planning is in the romance genre, a far cry from his typical metier . But whatever his personal taste, he has no regrets whatsoever. He’s also–as you will discover–an enthusiastic storyteller, an indefatigable talker, and though he’s clearly self-confident, not easily swayed by critics, he can be gently self-mocking as well. Lynch, who has never written a screenplay, admits he has little talent for writing, as well as acting: his sole experience with the latter was a walk-on role in “Simon, King of the Witches,” a campy 1971 occult film. Said another actor to Lynch: “Stick with directing!”
Sam Weisberg: When you were starting out as a director, was there a specific movie you wanted to emulate?
Paul Lynch: What really drove me was “The Ipcress File.” Not only was it a great thriller, it had a fabulous leading man and a great style. And then came [Furie’s] “The Appaloosa” with Marlon Brando and “The Naked Runner” with Frank Sinatra. They were all so compelling, the way he used a camera, his editing. It really made me decide to leave my day job being an art director in the magazines and go into movies. The only guy doing that kind of thing at the time was Sidney, so I thought there should be two guys. In order to be a director, it takes that kind of outsized arrogance.
You have to remember, that in the 1960’s, there weren’t any people [in the industry]. Now there are way too many people. Outside of law and brain surgery, if you were breathing, you had a job. I showed up at the door of an art studio and said “I want to work” and they said “Get in here!” I showed up at a magazine and said “I’d like to take pictures of this and I need money for film and you can pay me later,” and they said “Go do it, quickly!” It was effortless. I became a graphic designer and I became an art director, I went to an advertising agency, they said “When can you start?” What really kicked me over the edge was when I was working as an art director and just down the street I got hired by CBC to work as a director in their sports department, and after two weeks they ran out of money, yet proceeded to pay me for six months. Every month I got a check in the mail and I didn’t have a job! I had a lot of extra money. And, at the end of it, I got a freelance client from a great new magazine, so I left and said “I’m going off to make a film,” and they said “Well, if you leave you can’t come back,” and I said “That’s OK.” So I made the film and I’ve never worked since, since I was 24.
SW: Were your folks supportive of your career choice?
PL: My Dad initially was very apprehensive. He wanted me to go to University, and when I didn’t, in the right kind of concerned way, he wanted me to work. But everyone in England, at 14, just went to work, so when I was 16, I said, “I’m just not making it in high school, this is boring.” I have attention deficit disorder, so it was hard for me to focus, and back then they didn’t have anything for kids like that. In English terms it was called St. Vitus’ Dance, where you couldn’t sit still. John Huston obviously had the same thing, he always had to be doing something. He couldn’t be bored, ever. In my case, being bored meant that you did stuff. Photography, drawing. In my case, it was a huge asset. The extension, to a degree, of attention deficit disorder, is bipolar [disorder]. Mine stopped before it got that far.
SW: So you dropped out of high school?
PL: Yes. So my mother said, “Fine.” My dad said, “This is America, they don’t do that here,” but she said I could always go later. And after a year or so of various jobs I was fine. It was a different time, it has no relationship to today. Being a cartoonist or photographer, that wasn’t part of anyone’s sensibility. Now everyone wants to do that. When I made my first film as an art director at the magazine, in 1967, there weren’t film schools in Canada. There were photography courses and in the States there were maybe a half dozen film schools.
SW: Your first feature-length films, “The Hard Part Begins” and its follow-up, “Blood and Guts,” are pretty heartfelt, slice-of-life films, compared to the slicker movies you did later. What attracted you to those small-scale films early on?
PL: Sid Furie had done a few good slice-of-life films, like “The Loverboys.” Growing up around Toronto, we used to get American, English and European films, much more than anyone living in America. So I got to see a lot of English movies, like Furie’s and Ken Loach’s. I liked those kitchen sink movies [1950s-60s British film realism movement starting with the 1959 John Osborne adaptation “Look Back in Anger”]. They were the type I wanted to make, very emotional.
SW: So after those movies, the offers stopped for more down-to-earth, artistic types of projects?
PL: Yes, there weren’t any. I made “Blood and Guts” in 1977 and it was coming to the end of those kinds of movies. There was a big surge through the late 1960s and early 1970s, but that was starting to drop off. It wasn’t only in Canada, it was in the States. Jerry Schatzberg had made those kinds of films, but then he went on to do that Alan Alda political film [“The Seduction of Joe Tynan” (1979)]. The whole culture was changing, so I had to look for something else to do.
SW: What would it take today, with the industry and economy the way it is, to get an independent industry running again in Canada, the way it was in the 1970s?
PL: It will never be that way. It was like the beginning of movies in the silent days. In 1915, there were two big companies on the West Coast, D.W. Griffith’s and Cecil B. DeMille’s. They were the only film schools of the day and therefore there was incredible excitement. And they screened a black and white film to 10,000 people in New York City. Raoul Walsh played a Mexican bandito, and no one back then had seen Mexico, and they were just stunned to see that on the screen. It was the new thing. That’s what the film business in Canada was like from 1977 to 1984. People lived and breathed it. It’s very hard to imagine what it was like unless you were there. In the early 1980s, VHS really fed the Canadian boom. Somewhere around the late ’80s that started to fade away, and in the ’90 that was replaced by a big boom in television and this idea of making TV shows so they could eventually be shown on the Internet. By then, we had film crews, we had a production country as good as Hollywood, and the Americans began to use it and promote Canada through their films everywhere, so there was less need for Canada to do it. Canada still does it and does it well. But the whole idea was to put Canada on the map.
SW: Was it a wild industry compared to Hollywood, as far as partying?
PL: By Canadian standards, it was off the charts. By American standards, no, it was very quiet. There were a couple of hotels and bars in Toronto that everyone hung out at. There’d be all stars there, drinking. It lasted about seven years. Then the bozo conservatives pulled the tax credit and it started to slide and it never really came back until the provinces brought in their own tax credits towards the end of the ’80s, and that spurred the television boom.
SW: Do you think there will be a new crop of filmmakers that bring the purity back to the movement?
PL: I don’t know. The guy who actually got it right on every level was Francis Ford Coppola. In 1993, he said eventually people would make their own movies and exchange them. In a way, his daughter has continued that. Her films are more expensive than the mumblecore films, but they’re still very small and personal. When she makes a film, she’s making it for herself and her friends. Francis is kind of the studio [power] behind the films, they get a wider distribution, but she’s doing what he talked about. The bigger part of that is people endlessly making ten to twenty minute shorts on the Internet. I think that’s where the future lives.
SW: Are you happy with the facility with which people now make movies, or do you think it’s too easy?
PL: When I got into the space, I was lucky, in that it was so technically oriented that it didn’t appeal to everybody. Everyone could get a family and take a picture of them. All we’ve done is expand that because time marches on. You can’t hold back progress. What this has hurt are professional writers. They have to compete with [self-financed filmmakers, doing all their own writing]. The other downside is, there’s a limit to stories, at their heart. No matter how much you dig for offbeat, oddball people, their stories tend to eventually become similar. But that said, every 15 years, there’s a whole new audience.
SW: You earlier mentioned Raoul Walsh and the silent film era, and I heard that you are working on a documentary on him. How did that project come together?
PL: I started watching Turner Classic Movies and caught up with Walsh’s films, and then I started looking and [only found] the book he wrote [“Each Man in His Time: The Life Story of a Director”] many years ago. I thought this would be a very good documentary. He covered films from silents right up to the big turnaround in the early ‘60s. I found a book written by his first wife, which filled in the whole silent period, and then I came across a book by Patrick McGilligan, who had interviewed Walsh, so I called him, and he told me to talk to Marilyn Ann Moss. She was doing a book on him [“Raoul Walsh: The True Adventures of Hollywood’s Legendary Director,” released earlier this year]. I teamed up with her and offered to help her research the book, and [she agreed to let me] use a lot of that in a documentary. I discovered that Raoul’s wife had a nephew. His wife was still alive but she was really old and ailing. When she passed on, the nephew came to California and went through her library of stuff on Raoul and shared it with Marilyn and me, and then she published the book. Just around that time, the financial collapse happened, so there’s been very little money for documentaries. We still have a presentation and we’re still shipping it. My first hope was that TCM would do something with it, but they’re not doing much because of the financial crisis.
SW: Is that the sole project on the agenda right now?
PL: I’ve been trying over the last few years to make a film on the story of Saint Valentine. It’s a wonderful romantic story that I’ve researched a great deal. He’s the precursor for Valentine’s Day. I’ve always been a big fan of the Swedish film “Elvira Madigan” [1967 tragedy about a tightrope dancer] and I wanted to do that kind of a film. It’s very much an Elvira Madigan-type of love story. A frat boy from the upper classes woke up and realized that all his friends were massacring innocent people, and he wanted to leave the elite and go save the peasants. What sparked him to do it was this blind girl he met. They went on the road to help the peasants and were hunted down by badguys. It’s a spiritual romance story, kind of like “Doctor Zhivago,” but it’s been a hard haul, because there just isn’t that kind of independent movie money anymore. The whole business is changing radically, particularly with theater-going audiences and [the rise of] video-on-demand. We don’t know where it’s going to wind up in ten years time. People are only going to big movies. There’s no real movie stars anymore. A movie star like Humphrey Bogart can bring an audience into a mediocre movie. But now it’s mostly the concept, like paranormal activity. The movie star is the idea.
SW: Do you have ideal actors in mind for your Saint Valentine movie?
PL: No, because I’ve been working on it for ten years and I’ve had different actors in mind all the way through. It’s a seven or eight million-dollar project and people aren’t interested in that kind of a movie.
SW: Despite some obvious pitfalls trying to get studios to make your films, how much control would you say you’ve had throughout your career? Do your films end up basically the way you wanted?
PL: Yes. Most of my films are independent. They just happen to maybe lean more commercially than artistically, however you split that. People have never really changed them much from whatever the original intent was. I’ve been very lucky that way.
If I’d ever gone to University, I may have been more inclined to say, “Well, I’d like to have made ‘The Servant.'” But that wasn’t the way the cards were dealt. I went to the downtown theater on Saturday night and…I mean, I loved Joe Losey’s movies, they were terrific, they were really an education in all sorts of ways. But I wasn’t drawn to them as much as the, shall we say, expectational seediness of those wonderful pictures that played downtown. And then I got to make them, so hey, how could I not be happy? How could I ever complain? Anyone in my position who would ever complain about anything should be run over by a big truck, don’t you think? I was attempting to make the films I grew up with, and I was mostly able to do that, in a broad spectrum.
SW: After “Prom Night” became a hit, was there pressure to make a stream of sequels?
PL: No. Peter Simpson [producer] came up with one, but I didn’t bother doing it because it had nothing to do with “Prom Night.” They just put the “Prom Night” name on other pictures, like “Hello Mary Lou: Prom Night II” (1987). It was set in a 1950s high school. The only [sequel possibility] for “Prom Night” is to pick up [with] Jamie Lee Curtis in a mental institution. That’s where I figured I left the film. She was sitting on the ground outside the school, and they’d take her away. Besides what she’s been through, she’s also killed her own brother, so the only place for her is a mental institution.
They re-made that movie, which they miscast and did completely wrong, so the value of the original is still intact. If they’d done it right, that would have been unfortunate, but they did it wrong. The girl had no charisma. They [stage] it in a hotel, and they keep all the lights on. I thought, this is just luck of the draw.
SW: Did you try to stop the sequels and remakes?
PL: No, it had nothing to do with me. I don’t care what people do.
SW: Tell me a bit about what happened in the wake of “Prom Night’s” success.
PL: I was offered another horror film by a Canadian producer and so Bill Gray [screenwriter] and I did “Humongous.” I turned down a Charlton Heston movie to do it. He did one where he played both parts [“Mother Lode” (1982)], but it didn’t really work. [NOTE: It wound up being directed by Heston himself and had an extremely limited theatrical release].
After “Humongous,” they offered me “Cross Country.” It was originally financed by MGM, and then the guy in charge of it retired, and it was [handed over to] the late David Begleman, who had no clue what he had or how to sell it. The classics division that [his predecessor] had been running was closed. So “Cross Country” kind of got stuck in no man’s land, and then finally MGM sold it to New World Pictures.
SW: What was the main reason for the three year gap between the release of “Cross Country” and “Bullies”?
PL: Well, “Cross Country” was [shot in] 1982. Then Tony [Kramreither, producer of “Humongous”] asked if I wanted to do “Flying,” so we did that in 1984. And right after [shooting “Flying”] I went to work with Peter Simpson on “Bullies,” in 1985, and then in 1986 I did “Blindside” for Peter.
SW: Is it just a coincidence that many of your 1980s movies, especially “Bullies,” involve women in a great deal of terror?
PL: I think it was just a convention of the genres. Particularly in horror films, women are—less so today, I think—but they were more vulnerable than men. The thing I liked about “Bullies” was that it was actually a reaction to Peter Simpson’s film “The Sea Gypsies.” He had produced pictures about families going into the wilderness, and having a resurgence and finding themselves. And what I liked was that this family goes into the wilderness and has to battle elements other than animals just to stay alive. I read a comment from somebody that it was like “Straw Dogs,” but it was never intended to be like “Straw Dogs.” What people forget about “Straw Dogs” is that it was the in-fighting between Dustin Hoffman’s wife and the town where she came from that provoked everything. That wasn’t the way it was here.
SW: I was disturbed by parts of “Bullies” because there was a grotesque nature to some of the emotional violence.
PL: But when they rape that girl against the door, for me, it was what people do when they rape people. After that, for some reason, I joined a series called “Top Cops,” and I got the rape episodes. I don’t know why. Maybe they saw “Bullies” and thought, “This guy knows what rape’s all about.” The things that people dream up to do in rape are disgusting. It’s violence against women with hammers and fists and things. But it never, as far as I could see, included attaching the woman’s lips to the guy’s anus. [laughs] They just did Part 2 of this horror movie where some guy sees a movie about a crazy doctor who takes a guy and sews him to the anus of another person [“The Human Centipede”]. So he follows that formula and attaches a whole bunch of people together. Their mouth to their anus. And if that’s how low they have to resort, then what’s the point? That’s not anything. That’s just sick. Even at 18, you can’t find that entertaining, it’s just grotesque. I was just trying to show what happens when things get out of hand. Outside of what we know, that men rape women, I don’t want to suggest that they then get a needle and thread and so forth.
SW: So the gore repels you more than emotional terror?
PL: Well, what was grotesque for me about the “Bullies” rape was it was against the door, clanging back and forth. But I don’t think people are gonna go out and buy a door to rape a girl against. It doesn’t happen that way, rape. It happens on the spur of the moment, and it’s all different ways. People don’t plan it, they don’t go out to get tools. But a lot of these things [like “Human Centipede”] could lead unbalanced people to go out and get a needle and thread and go to work. I don’t think there’s any value in it. It’s not an audience I want to deal with, personally.
SW: When you’re getting really sweet-faced actors like Jonathan Crombie, who had been in such gentle fare like “Anne of Green Gables,” to do something like the rape scene in “Bullies,” what’s your method of getting actors to convey that degree of terror?
PL: I’d always been a fan of Richard Compton’s film, from 1977 [“The Ransom”]. It was about people being terrorized, but mostly it starred people I’d never seen. The other one that came to mind, when I was doing “Bullies,” was “The Last House on the Left,” because the original was truly terrifying. I had never seen these actors, so it seemed more like a documentary. So when I did “Bullies,” I tried not to use somebody that people knew, because if you had big names in there, that distances you from what’s going on. If you go in to a theater and see these maniacs come out of the blue and go into a house, like in “Last House” or “Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” I’m terrified. So I decided, and Peter went along with it, to cast new people. They were so good that they make you believe they will go over the edge and commit heinous crimes. The other thing that inspired “Bullies” was the Rambo movies.
SW: It’s a very Rambo-era movie, about the pacifist pushed too far into violence. Was it Canada’s answer to that style of film?
PL: Canada has always been one of the nicest places on Earth. It’s more like Scandinavia than anywhere else. It’s a very laid-back, honorable, fair-minded, trustworthy group of people compared to anywhere else. They certainly didn’t have that kind of thing, not until the 1990s, and now the influence of the world has influenced Canada, and we have all sorts of whackos now. But for a long time that didn’t happen there. I grew up in Oakville which looked like [a cross between] Connecticut and Georgia. When I went to a town just a little West of there called Bradford, it looked to me an awful lot like Georgia. And sure enough, when I went later to Georgia to shoot “In the Heat of the Night” [1989 TV show], it did look just like Bradford [where “Bullies” was shot]. So I was pleased with that, because [the characters in “Bullies”] weren’t really trying to be Canadian. The Canadian films were “Blood and Guts” and “Hard Part,” but once I got into doing “Prom Night,” that and everything after was really much more American.
SW: After “Bullies,” “Flying” was released. I know that the distribution got a little screwed up, because the movie was marketed under several different titles…
PL: What happened was, Golden Harvest Productions took “Flying” to Cannes, and it got a good reaction because it was coming on the heels of those kinds of movies, “Flashdance” and “Footloose,” and people started bidding on it. The [representative] kept asking for more money until it was outbid and nobody would pick it up. I was flummoxed. And they were so excited they decided to put it out by themselves. So it was a very limited release, because it needed a studio. They weren’t up to the task. It made less than it should have. And then it went to VHS where it did fine, but because [Golden Harvest] was a Hong Kong company, they never copyrighted it. So as a result, various people picked it up and changed the title. So it was “Flying,” “Dream to Believe,” “Teenage Dream.”
SW: You went back to the thriller format for “Blindside”, which is a much more toned-down, subdued film than “Bullies.” What drew you to that film?
PL: It was an interesting script. What I liked about it was the idea of the criminals. There’s a really neat little scene where the guy is laying in bed with his girlfriend and he’s trying to pull together a group of guys to do a job. It always struck me that that must be incredibly difficult, because when you’re a criminal, you’re looking for really good people. If they screw up, you’ll go to jail. But on the other hand, you can’t get resumes. You can’t say, “Show me what you’ve done and where you’ve been a success.” So you’re gambling on the people, which is really hard. And this guy has to put this group of idiots together, and it’s really frustrating, because he wants better people but he doesn’t know how to get them. That scene was basically, for me, what it’s about, the lower class guys that can’t get a job and become criminals. And that’s what intrigued me about the whole film, the Harvey Keitel story less so, even though it was the leading thing. It was really those down-on-their-luck, loser criminals which have always fascinated me.
SW: Nonetheless, what was it like working with Harvey Keitel?
PL: It was fun, but I’ll tell you the oddest story. I was casting the girl that played the stripper, who lives in the motel building Keitel manages. A girl came in from Montreal who’d done some films and she was really interested, she came to the casting sessions. And afterwards, she offered to buy me a coffee. She asked, “Whether you hire me or not, when you’re making the film, can I come out to the set? I’m a huge fan of Harvey Keitel’s.” And I said, “By all means.” She goes back to Montreal, and in comes this whacky, interesting girl who’s had small parts, Lolita Davidovich, and she’s just fabulous. I think she may have done, not stripping, but exotic dancing. So we gave her the job. When the film was finished, two things happened. Lolita goes up for a part in a movie called “Blaze,” with Paul Newman. She borrows the footage from “Blindside,” where she has played a stripper, to show [the filmmakers], and gets the job, and ends up marrying the director of that film [Ron Shelton]. Meanwhile, the girl who wanted to meet Harvey, she ends up moving to L.A., and making a couple of independent films. I lose track of her. A few years ago, I’m at a newsstand, and there’s a picture of Harvey Keitel and his new wife, and it’s that girl. [Daphna Kastner]. One of the nicest things about making movies, besides, hopefully, having a bit of success, is when the people come out of it well.
SW: In that way, “Blindside” seems like a fond memory, but were you a little disappointed at the time with its brief theatrical run?
PL: No, because it was never really intended to have a theatrical run. Back then, it played for maybe a week to promote the VHS. It was incredibly successful as a VHS and foreign title. I wasn’t quite as cognizant as I am now about how the business works. I was just really into making the movies and on that level it was a success. I would have liked it to be a bigger success in theaters, but by the time it came out, it wasn’t that kind of a movie. That [era] was coming to an end with “Cross Country,” when MGM’s independent film unit closed up. That was kind of the writing on the wall. I just didn’t see it.
SW: Some of your movies from that era–in particular “Blindside,” “Bullies” and “Humongous”–received quite negative reviews. How do you respond to critics?
PL: Today it’s irrelevant, because the real critics that I grew up with, like Vincent Canby, in the New York Times…if one was maligned by them, it was really a knife through the heart. I think I would have liked a really good review by Pauline Kael or Penelope Gilliatt, but they’re gone now. Today, with the Internet, everyone is a critic. It’s meaningless. There’s only one great critic left, and that’s David Edelstein at New York Magazine. But other than him, it’s just people going online and writing their opinion.
I once did a show on violence on Phil Donahue, in the early ’90s, and so many people came up after, from the audience, and they were genuine fans of “Bullies.” And that’s nice, but I can’t get a thrill out of that. It’s just nice.
I’m a big fan of film books, only because when I was growing up they didn’t exist, and I think I now own every book on film and directors. That’s why I worked on the Walsh book, because there wasn’t one on him, and now I only have two to go: the Hungarian director of “Casablanca” [Michael Curtiz] and there’s one coming out on Allan Dwan [director, operator of one of the first California film studios in history]. But I was in the book store the other day, there was a book out on American directors [“The Wallflower Critical Guide to Contemporary North American Directors”] and I was in there. I think Ed Wood comes out better than me in that book. The guy [Ian Cooper] found no value in anything I ever did, it was complete and utter crap to him. That’s fine, that’s a personal review. I have never found anything directed by that Spanish director, Pedro [Almodovar], any good at all. It’s just a personal thing. You do what you do, and do it as well as you can, and hope that forces will intervene to make it something like “Prom Night.”
SW: You’ve worked with a vast variety of actors: Mark Linn-Baker, Cloris Leachman, Andrew Dice Clay. I know you worked with Olivia d’Abo on both “Bullies” and “Flying” and then a few TV shows.
PL: Yeah, she was fabulous. She was a great actress. I was just saying the other night, it’s beyond me why she didn’t become a megastar. I used her as the ultimate Playboy bunny [in the 1987 TV movie “Really Weird Tales”], except that she was a great actress. Most bunnies aren’t that bright, but Olivia was very bright, and she was stunning. I don’t know what happened. She had everything. It’s just bad luck that happens to some people.
SW: Besides her, do you have any favorite performers you’ve directed?
PL: They’re all fabulous. The only two that I didn’t find very good or nice at all were Cybil Shepherd and Hal Linden, but that’s only two out of a 40-year career. With Cybil, it was understandable. “Moonlighting” was arranged as a star vehicle for her and from the first episode, Bruce Willis stole the show. But she was just not very nice. Hal Linden was working on “Black Magic,” with Harry Morgan. Harry was such a great actor, but then he would come and sit with me and have a coffee, and was just a reasonable man. Whereas as soon as you said “Cut,” Hal Linden would walk to his dressing room as though he was a megastar. For some reason, he got into a hassle on set one day, I don’t know what it was about, he walked off. And I didn’t understand it because here was Harry, who had been around for years and was a major talent, and Hal was just an average guy. Generally speaking, it’s the insecure actors who aren’t very good who are the problem. A great actor might disagree or may do odd things, but there’s generally no problem if you agree going in what you’re trying to do. I have had a few instances where the actors don’t seem to know what show they’re on, quite honestly.
SW: Speaking of odd actors, tell me what it was like to work with Dennis Hopper on “The Keeper” (2004).
PL: When we started the film, he’d done so many knock-off films to pay his debt to Rip Torn. He’d gotten into an altercation with Rip Torn and the judge found that it was his fault. He came for the paycheck. After three or four days, he asked if he could see some footage. He’d been working off cue cards, he’d mastered cue card acting and he was great. You never saw his eyes move or anything. Then, I showed him the rushes. And he got enthusiastic about acting in something of value and decided to dump the cards and learn the lines. That became very frustrating for him. It was hard for him to learn lines because he had 30 years of a wild and crazy lifestyle, which hurt his memory. Why it worked—it was all magic and lucky accident. Any director who takes credit for great performances should be shot. In my case, because he had to learn the lines, he took Asia Argento into his trailer and they ran the lines together. Dennis was also a great director of actors. I got the impression he directed her, because they would come out in the morning when I’d block the scene, and they were impeccable. They were perfect.
The only time Dennis would freak out was if I had to add something or remind him of a move he had to do, because that wasn’t connected in his memory, so it threw him. And he would get very frustrated and be weird. Like, we’d send him from the top of the basement stairs into the basement, and the assistant director says, “Rolling!” And you hear from Dennis, “Don’t you give the actor any warning?” So the AD said, “OK, tell us when you’re ready, Dennis.” And so we waited and waited, and then you hear, “What are you people doing? You gonna leave me up here all day?” “Oh, are you ready?” “Yes, I’ve been ready!” There’s no explanation, but you don’t care, because that performance is great. You can have a really nice actor that doesn’t do anything. I’d much rather deal with the other kind, any day of the week.
SW: Have you ever had an actor not give you what you want on set? How did you deal?
PL: There was one actress where I thought I could get more out of her than I could. I did only 25 takes and I got her at her limit. It was for [the 1999 comedy] “More to Love,” about an overweight girl.
It’s like when Kubrick did 200 takes of Tom Cruise for “Eyes Wide Shut.” He’s used to Peter Sellers, who can give you a different thing in 300 takes. But that wasn’t the case. Harvey Keitel was in the movie originally, and he got sick of waiting around [for all the takes]. So [to replace Keitel], Kubrick brought Sydney Pollack in, who’s a great actor, but he figured Pollack could also work with Tom [as he had on “The Firm.”] He believed once Sydney signed on that magic could happen. But the difference between what Stanley was doing and what Sydney did, is that Sydney [shot] Tom moving. Tom moved all the time, he never stops. But in “Eyes Wide Shut,” the movie was based on his face, all static. And no one, including Pollack, could help create that. If it’s not in Tom, it’s not in Tom. It’s very unfair when you’ve got an actor who’s just good, to beat them up, to make them something they’re not. If I’m an actor, and I’m doing the best I can, giving 110%, I don’t want to do 300 takes. That means you’ve miscast me and it’s not my fault.
SW: It sounds like you don’t yell too often on set.
PL: Not, not, not, not really. I think I—no, I don’t think it’s—it’s odd, because one of the best directors, Mike Nichols, he’s also a guy who has studied film. He said unless you’re an assistant director, you don’t know how anyone else directs. It’s like sex, you never know how anyone else does it. You also don’t know how you are on set. I always thought that for me, it wasn’t being a tyrant, but whatever I present, no one’s ever really argued with me. Maybe I put out a vibe of “Don’t do that,” or something. I’m a fairly logical guy, so maybe that’s something. But you never know what people are thinking. There’s not a lot of time for self-examination.
SW: I did hear one legendary on-set story about you, and I don’t know if it’s just a rumour. Did you once put a stuffed animal in its own director’s chair?
PL: No, no, no. This is the first time I can reveal all of this, and there’s a wonderful payoff. When I was a kid, I had a teddy bear. When I was in my early ’30s, my Mom couldn’t find a gift for me, so she sent me a teddy bear. It reminded her of the one I had as a kid. Then, I was in a store in California buying stationery supplies, and they had little outfits for dolls, but it looked like it could fit the bear. I got a pair of running shoes and a pair of jeans and a little shirt and I put them on the bear.
Then I was doing “Flying,” and I thought, I’ve got young actresses out there [on set], maybe they’ll have fun in between takes playing with the bear. But they didn’t play with the bear at all, they just left it with the crew. The crew, the set decorator, the camera crew, they all have Polaroids. They take the bear, they take a piece of card, they put it in his lap, they put a little chalk on it, they put a straw up to his nose, and they give him a beer, and they take pictures. I had never seen this until I went to get the bear one night, and his shoe fell off. On the back of the shoe it said “Ted’s Flying High Shoes.” So now, I start to use the bear, when it’s applicable, in movies.
So in the “Twilight Zone” episode I did, this character was in the modern day, and he went through a wall in his basement and came out in period time. So in order to bridge it, in the basement he’s stuffing a teddy bear in the box, and when he shows up in this other period world, the bear is in a suit and tie.
I later brought the bear on the set of a TV movie after my Mom passed on. I asked this photographer on set, he was taking pictures of me for an interview with the paper, and for some reason the bear had a suit on in this movie, and I said, “My mom gave me the bear and I’d love to have a picture of me with it.” I didn’t even think about it. When my mom was ill and passing on, being on the set took this edge off of dealing with this horrible thing going on. The editor puts the picture in the paper of me with the bear, and not only that, it gets half a page in the national paper in Toronto. So when I appear now, back in Toronto, people look at me oddly and ask if I’m alright. I said “Yeah, why?” “Well, it’s about you and the bear.” And then people started giving me bears. I ended up with a large collection of teddy bears.
People think I’m a little odd and eccentric because I collect teddy bears. But what is coming out next summer? A movie starring Mr. Action Himself, Mr. Hit You in the Face and Beat You and Pulverize You, Mark Wahlberg, playing a man who takes around, everywhere he goes, a teddy bear and talks to him. I was exonerated! I can’t imagine anyone else who can exonerate me better than Mark Wahlberg.