Director William Sachs is perhaps best known for “Galaxina,” the deliberately schlocky, Mel Brooks-esque spoof of “Star Wars” and other sci-fi epics. Released in 1980, the film featured Dorothy Stratten–the 20 year-old Playboy centerfold murdered the same year by her husband–in her most prominent film role, as a sexy, mostly mute robot that wows a crew of lame-brained spacemen and their zany creature cohorts. Though dismissed by most mainstream critics, the film now has a vibrant cult following.
But what’s less known about Sachs is his career as a “fixer”–re-editing and even re-shooting doomed film projects to render them suitable for release–both before and after “Galaxina.” Without him, “Joe” (1970), the widely-praised thriller about a man who accidentally kills his daughter’s drug dealer boyfriend, then befriends a rabid right-wing racist, would never have seen the light of day. The film’s director, John G. Avildsen (later hailed for “Rocky”) initially pushed its title character (played by Peter Boyle) into the background, while Sachs, through post-production trickery, made the role of Joe pivotal. The fixer job entailed not only the ability to upright a sinking ship in a compressed period of time, but a certain level of humility; until he joined the Director’s Guild in the mid-1980s, Sachs generally accepted secondary titles such as “post production supervisor” and “additional director,” while watching the projects’ originally assigned directors take credit for his work.
Sachs “fixed” several other low-budget films throughout the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s that have since obtained cult status, most notably “Exterminator 2” and “Leprechaun,” and he was considered a hero by Trimark, Cannon and other production studios that hired him. But Sachs–whom I talked to several times over the phone recently, from his home in California–still feels that most of the films he directed himself suffer from an inconsistency of tone. The producers were uncomfortable with the often goofy, surrealistic vision Sachs brought to violent gang pictures (“Judgement,” AKA “Hitz”) and horrorfests (“The Incredible Melting Man”), even if the content called for more humor. Instead, the final films came out, in his words, “part weird and part straight.”
Happily, Sachs was eventually able to achieve what most artists only dream of: a film made wholly by himself, the 2004 children’s pic “Spooky House,” which starred Ben Kingsley and Mercedes Ruehl. He’s still planning to launch a Kickstarter funding round to finance a better distribution deal for the film.
Sachs cites Fellini and Bunuel and other surrealists as his primary influences. “I remember liking ‘The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T'[1953 musical fantasy written by Dr. Seuss],” he said. “I liked the Bunuel film ‘The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,’ with the people sitting around the table on toilets, reading magazines, and the guy excuses himself to go to the bathroom and that’s where he eats. “
Sachs’ own path to moviemaking might never have started if not for a prank-gone-wrong that left him suspended from college.
“I was studying business and accounting, because my father wanted me to take over his business, and I hated it,” said Sachs. “But I found this book about how to hypnotize people. One day, I hypnotized this guy and then I couldn’t wake him up. I’d only read how to hypnotize and how to wake them up, but there were all these other chapters saying what to do if they don’t want to wake up. He suddenly started shaking and they had to call an ambulance. He went to a mental hospital for three days, where he woke up by himself.” [Sachs would later re-enact this incident, to creepy effect, in “Hitz,” when the crooked judge played by Elliott Gould hypnotizes fellow judge Karen Black.]
“It was illegal to hypnotize him,” Sachs continued, “so they told me I had to leave school and come back in January. This was October. I just got bored and wanted adventure and didn’t want to do business stuff, so I went off to the Air Force, just to get out of New Jersey.”
Sachs wound up stationed in England as an aeromedic but eventually flew several missions, surviving a critical crash in France. After his honorable discharge, he enrolled at London Film School, where he made three award winning films. At the end of the 1960s, he wound up in New York, where he got his first film-related job at Cannon, a decade before those Israeli schlockmeisters Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus put the studio on the map.
“I parked my film down and said, ‘This film won all these prizes. I need a job,'” Sachs remembered. “So they hired me to drive the dailies back from Sag Harbor to Movieland in New York. It was for Robert DeNiro’s first film, ‘Sam’s Song,’ which didn’t come out until years later. When the dailies were finished, they kept me on as assistant editor, on a film that became ‘South of Hell Mountain.'”
Released in 1971, the Western “South of Hell Mountain” was Sachs’ first official fixing job. He was presented with scattered scenes of a robbing and murdering cowpoke’s budding romance with a young woman, but there was no backstory, so he racked his brain to connect the dots.
“They fired the director [Louis Leahman],” said Sachs. “They didn’t know what to do with the footage. It was a meandering thing, there were so many things missing, nothing made sense. So I came up with a spine [for the movie], where the girl is in a mental hospital, and the guy comes to try to get her memory back, and that’s what I shot. I used flashbacks out of what was already shot.”
“I shot it at Welfare Island–it’s now Roosevelt Island–at an old mental hospital. There were labs there with jars of fetuses and body parts that were 100 years old. They put my name on as co-director, though I really didn’t want them to.” The film never got a DVD release; a VHS copy is available on Netflix.
Sachs was next assigned to fix “Joe” (then called “The Gap”), as it ran 150 minutes long and was considered unwatchable by test audiences.
“No one would sit through a screening,” Sachs recalled. “It was overdramatic, and John Avildsen was demanding to be the editor. They didn’t want him to keep cutting it because it was awful, so they fired him.”
“The first thing I wanted to do was start in reel five and throw away the first four reels, because it was boring,” he continued. “[Susan Sarandon’s character] was with her parents the whole time and Peter Boyle wasn’t even in it yet. It now starts fifty minutes into what was the movie. I didn’t have money for shooting, but I brought Peter Boyle back, and every time he was off camera I gave him lines. I basically made Joe the main character; he was a minor character before. And I changed the ending. It went on for ten minutes, with everyone discussing what happened.”
Particularly memorable for Sachs was the experience of working with “Joe’s” notoriously temperamental screenwriter, Norman Wexler.
“He was completely insane,” he said. “When he was on his meds, he was normal. When he got off, he could write stuff like ‘Serpico.’ I remember we got a call that he was arrested in Washington, D.C. for peeing in a fountain. One day he was walking down the street with the editor, George Norris, and he started throwing fifty and one-hundred dollar bills at people. It caused a mini-riot. George wanted to get the money back but he was embarrassed.”
Sachs also divulged a juicy bit of Hollywood gossip: the true story on how then up-and-comer Susan Sarandon landed her role.
“I was there when it happened,” he said. “It was down to two actresses, I don’t remember who the other one was. They picked Sarandon because her nose was more like Dennis Patrick’s nose. I don’t think she even knows that.”
To his everlasting regret, Sachs declined an offer to share director’s credit with Avildsen.
“I had no idea what ‘post production supervisor’ meant,” he chuckled. “I had no idea that it was just an administrative thing. Then Avildsen said he wasn’t gonna put his name on it, because he was mad they took it away. Then he saw the screening and he put his name on it. Jack Lemmon saw it and hired him to do ‘Save the Tiger.’ So I screwed up.”
The experience was further soured when Sachs was denied a guaranteed bonus. As compensation, the producers hired him to fly to Rome and fix several Italian films “so no one would know they were Italian. I would do things like put camera noise over the dubbing. I brought James Coburn back to Rome and re-dubbed him.”
While in Rome, Sachs met not only his wife, Margaret, but the actor Mark Damon. The two made plans to work on Sachs’ next film project, “There Is No 13,” a dark comic fantasy about a war survivor’s romantic flights of fancy, partially based on Sachs’ first-hand experiences with wounded soldiers.
Made for a paltry $40,000 and released in 1974, “There Is No 13” was shot by cinematographer Ralf Bode, who later served as director of photography on “Saturday Night Fever” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” among other legendary films.
“It was his first film as a DP,” said Sachs. “I knew him from ‘Joe,’ which he was [credited as] gaffer on, but he did all the work, really, the lighting and the design.”
The movie entrusts the audience to determine which of the ex-soldier/struggling filmmaker protagonist’s flashbacks are at least somewhat accurate and which are totally hallucinogenic. A perfectly charming tryst in a countryside mansion, for instance, turns into a somewhat sadistic bout of tickling and face-slapping. Is the protagonist distorting his own romantic memory to his liking, or is the entire episode a fantasy? Several Fellini-esque touches abound: when our hero sees a plump lady in a hot dog joint, he fantasizes about shooting a nude scene with her and an old midget; later on, she pops up as a nurse/S&M enthusiast. The dream-like episodes range from banal spoofs (a saloon shootout) to the downright surreal (the protag’s hilarious film about feet, presented to a staff of no-nonsense foot surgeons.)
Alternately wistful and goofy (the score is of the oompah jazz variety), “There Is No 13” is probably Sachs’ best film, certainly his most profound. Sadly, it’s near impossible to find today; I received a DVD copy personally from him. It did garner a great deal of praise at the 1974 Berlin Film Festival, but was ultimately denied the top prize.
“They were protesting American films,” said Sachs. “There were riots going on. At the screening, they turned lights on and off and shouted. In the end, the judge wanted to give it the Golden Bear [statue], because it was the only unusual film. But they were afraid to give it to an American film, because of the Vietnam War [involvement]. So they gave it to a Canadian film, ‘The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.'”
Now here’s one you don’t hear every day. When “Secrets of the Gods,” Sachs’ hysterically silly jab at UFO/Bigfoot enthusiasts, hit theaters in 1976, many viewers were offended as they had expected a totally earnest take on the subject. They were even more angered when, two years later, greedy theater owners decided to release the exact same movie under a different title, “The Force Beyond.”
“People would write letters saying ‘We saw this movie already!'” said Sachs. “It did well, so the theaters said, ‘Let’s make them think it’s a different movie.'”
The movie (which is not on Netflix but can be viewed in its entirety here, on YouTube), is narrated in mock-serious style by the DJ Rosko. He cites the Bible, Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” broadcast and assorted urban myths as “proof” of the existence of martians, Bigfoot and Atlantis. Shots of funny-looking clouds and actors in cheap hairy outfits are presented as personal home videos of these mysterious phenomena. In the funniest scene, a man is hypnotized into recalling his “sea voyage” through Atlantis; his mere shivering is meant to suffice as evidence that this trip really happened.
“The people were so bizarre,” Sachs said of the experience. “I went to a UFO convention in Fort Smith, Arkansas, and I shot a lot of people in distorted lens while they were being interviewed, probably a 14mm or 20mm lens. It makes them look round, like through a fish-eye lens. There was a physicist that was sure the invasion was coming, Colman Von Koviczky–we called him Colman Vodka Whiskey.”
“A lot of people took it seriously,” Sachs continued. “I thought it was a satire on what people thought the secrets of the gods were, how spacemen came and made it with Bigfoot and that’s what became us.”
“There’s a powerful temptation to say that you never saw a movie as foolish as ‘The Incredible Melting Man,'” The New York Times’ Tom Buckley wrote in his May 1978 review. The film (which can be viewed here) is a schlocky horror film about an astronaut whose face turns into something resembling half-melted pizza after a failed space mission. Enraged, he runs around killing people. The material is sometimes presented as if sincerely trying to provoke scares (as in the sequence of the man chasing a horrified nurse in slow motion down a hospital corridor) and sometimes in deliberately campy fashion (as when the waxy-looking severed head of a fisherman is tossed into a river). The dialogue is chock full of howlers (my personal favorite: “He seems to be getting stronger as he melts. I’ve got to find out why”) but as Sachs himself noted, the inconsistency of tone is the result of a creative clash between him and the producers.
“I want all my movies to [be absurd]. The producers always try to take it out. I was fighting with them the whole time, because they wanted me to make it a serious horror film, but I wanted it to be a spoof of horror films.”
Despite his frustrations, “The Incredible Melting Man” was a financial success, although Sachs was again screwed over on payment.
“The books are so cooked,” said Sachs. “I own seven and a half percent of ‘Incredible Melting Man.’ I shot it for $250,000 in 14 days. It was sold to AIP for $250,000 and to Columbia’s [foreign department] for $250,000, and then it made money. I’ve never seen a penny. I’ve never seen a penny for ‘Galaxina.’
Shot in just 18 days for the crassly self-promoting Crown International Pictures (at least one character wears a shirt of the production company), “Van Nuys Blvd” will surely delight fans of “American Graffiti” (which Sachs was attempting to spoof) and “Dazed and Confused.” Released in 1979, and a hit on the drive-in circuit, it follows a raunchy, deliriously hedonistic night in the lives of cruisers, horny rollerskating waitresses, hippie chicks (one of them is named Moon), biker chicks and dewy-eyed, bleached blonde male virgins. The characters have such comically low ambition that you’re eased into enjoying the film’s lazy cheeriness (the main character, for instance, is already a stud in his trailer park community, with a habitually naked girlfriend at his side, but he aspires to be a drag-racing stud). The highlights are a car-bashing standoff between a wimp and a thug, who later become friends (during the shoot, Sachs recalls on the DVD commentary, the cars took an eternity to break apart); a boy left with lockjaw after trying to eat a colossal Italian sandwich; that same boy mistaking his girlfriend’s parents’ bedroom for hers; and that girl’s dad mistaking the boy for his daughter’s best friend, hence fondling him (ugh). There’s enough skin and feisty energy to compensate for the obligatory disco music littering the soundtrack (according to the commentary, Sachs was forced to put in a certain amount of disco and sex scenes).
“The lead male had to be called Bobby,” Sachs remembered. “If you watch all of Crown’s movies, I think the lead guy is always called Bobby.”
“The Roadster in that film had the world’s land speed record. The owner was there every second, guarding it. They closed the cruising down after the movie came out because the [boulevard] got too crowded. People from Japan were cruising in taxis.”
Also of note: the movie features a young Melissa Prophet, an actress who later appeared in “Goodfellas” and was hilariously driven to rage during a prank call by deadpan Denver wit Longmont Potion Castle.
The film is included on a drive-in movie DVD compilation.
So much has been written about “Galaxina,” and the film is so widely available (on YouTube streaming, for one), that I won’t dedicate much space to it here. But I must cite my favorite dopey line: “If a jackass had both your brains, he’d be a very dumb jackass.” And more importantly, I must mention the very informative site about “Galaxina” star Dorothy Stratten (www.dorothystratten.com), which has an extensive interview with Sachs (from about 10 years ago) chock full of details about the “Galaxina” shoot. (And thanks to Steve, creator of the site, for getting me in touch with Sachs.)
The interview, as well as Sachs’ commentary on the 25th Anniversary “Galaxina” DVD, also discusses the director Peter Bogdanovich (Stratten’s lover, who also gave her a small part in his “They All Laughed”) specifically his claim, in the 1984 Stratten ode “The Killing of the Unicorn,” that she was miserable on the set of “Galaxina.” Sachs alleges that this is totally inaccurate, as is Bogdanovich’s boast that he “discovered” Stratten. Sachs is still proud of the fact that “Galaxina” is known as the first film to use computer graphics, as well as one of the only films shot in infrared Ecktachrome.
Neither “Exterminator,” the very dull 1980 vigilante yarn, nor its significantly tackier (and thereby more entertaining) 1984 sequel are available on Netflix; I ordered a DVD of the former and a VHS copy of the latter off Amazon, though both have since become available on YouTube, here and here.
The second film, again starring the criminally drab Robert Ginty, is more memorable because of its abundance of cheap thrills. The gang is led by X (Mario Van Peebles), a sneering, flattop-sporting megalomaniac with ammo constantly strapped to his shirtless frame. He talks of “taking back the city” and his minions (among them John Turturro and Arye Gross, in early roles) chant “Yeah!” in unison. The gang’s ritual killings are laughably elaborate; one foe is carried for miles to an abandoned subway station, where he’s strapped to the rails and run over; the camera cuts between his flailing agony and X’s crazed eyes, blue sparks gleaming off them. There’s a dance club that looks like someone’s living room, and the score (by David Spear) must be the first one to feature every synth instrument available at the time (flute, trumpet, bells, sitar, etc.)
The title character metes out justice while wearing a flame-proof mask, a decision made by Sachs (who replaced the original director, Mark Buntzman, in mid-production), when Ginty’s contract was up and he had to leave the project.
“Bob Ginty was supposed to be doing another movie and they wouldn’t release him,” Sachs continued. “I said, ‘I’ll fix it so you don’t need him.’ I couldn’t get any other stars, so that’s where I came up with the idea. There’s one shot of Ginty with the welding mask working on the garbage truck, and he lifts his mask and has a little torch. So I just used that shot at the end. I turned him into a vigilante with a welding mask for the whole rest of the movie.”
Ginty’s departure wasn’t the only problem that needed immediate fixing. Due to budget constraints, the crew was forced to relocate the shoot to LA.
“They started shooting in New York, and they went so far over budget,” Sachs explained. “It was supposed to be $1.5 million and they got to $3 million and they’d shot like 40 minutes. I had been working on the movie in New York as a co-producer. So I brought it to L.A., and I had to ship the garbage truck from New York, because the ones in New York are metal and the ones in LA are fiberglass, because of the weight restrictions. We got permission. We have scenes where [the truck] goes around the corner of one street in New York, and the other’s in L.A. We threw garbage in the streets and painted the curbs in L.A. a different color, to make it look like New York.”
The production’s initial struggles, according to Sachs, were probably due to Buntzman’s inexperience handling a large film crew.
“I was in New York just to watch, and I saw what was going wrong,” said Sachs. “If you can’t make a decision, everyone starts giving you their two cents until it’s a committee. Mark Buntzman couldn’t make a certain decision, so the script supervisor had an idea and the DP had an idea, and soon there was a meeting going on. A directing lesson: if someone asks ‘Where do I point the camera?’ you just point. The first thing that comes into your head, you just say ‘there.’ Nine times out of ten, it’s the right place. And if it’s not, you say later, ‘Well, I thought about it and it’d be better over here.’ But if you don’t give an answer, you lose them.”
According to Sachs, the character of X got his name due to more indecisiveness from Buntzman, who couldn’t think of a better name. It was also Sachs’ idea to make the character more central.
Even in post-production, the film met with some troubles. The MPAA made Sachs cut down a gory early scene in which an elderly couple is shot up by the gang.
“I’m not really excited about violent stuff,” said Sachs.”When you’re shooting it, it’s fun, but something a little more realistic affects people. When we shot that scene, the DP said it was the most realistic thing he ever saw. The squib and the gun went off in the same frame. It was timed perfectly, by luck, and you don’t usually see that. We had six shots and ended up with one quick shot.”
Sachs does not remember working with John Turturro–possibly his footage was shot earlier–but he had a funny anecdote to share about the casting of Arye Gross. “He came in and read for me, and he was talking like Marlon Brando, through his nose. It was fantastic, so I gave him the part. And when we did the scene, he didn’t talk like that. I said, ‘You’re not talking like you did in your reading!’ And he said, ‘I had a cold.'”
Again, from a credit standpoint, “Exterminator 2” did not end happily for Sachs. He tried to get co-director credit but wound up accepting a co-writer and “additional scenes directed by” credit due to a legal battle with Buntzman. “I joined the Director’s Guild after that,” he said.
After saving “Exterminator 2” for Cannon, Menahem Golan personally selected Sachs to co-write and direct “Hot Chili,” a rowdy 1985 romp about horny guys on the make at a Mexican resort. Golan, using the alias Joseph Goldman, wanted the film to be in the same vein as “Lemon Popsicle,” the 1978 Israeli coming-of-age comedy that spawned many sequels. Even though Cannon and “Lemon Popsicle” director Boaz Davidson had already released a US remake of “Popsicle” (“The Last American Virgin”) in 1982, once was not enough for the feisty Golan. “Hot Chili” even co-stars the same fat actor from “Virgin,” Joe Rubbo, as a token fat kid.
“That’s another one I hate,” said Sachs. “We’d go to Menahem’s office, and he would dictate what had to be written down, but I would write what I wanted. We went to Mexico and found this great place that was built like Cortés’ [palace], it had a sugar refinery. So we shoot my stuff, and we get a phone call three days later. [Israeli accent] ‘I’m pulling the plug! There’s nothing in it I wrote! I’m coming. Stop shooting until I get there!'”
“We all hung out, having parties, a really great time. Menahem comes down and has a big fight with the actress because she liked my version, not his. The movie is half his, half mine. I said, ‘It doesn’t matter, just take my name off it.’ We finished the movie, and the Director’s Guild said, ‘If you take your name off, you won’t get residuals.’ So I just never mention it. I don’t put it on my resume, though I’ve collected more residuals from that movie than anything else. I just got a check recently.”
“I don’t know who watches it,” added Sachs. “Someone told me it’s Burt Lancaster’s favorite movie.”
If you’re curious, here’s a sampling of the notes I took while watching the film (which I ordered off the cult DVD site Twisted Anger): “Shot of cows, bullfrog belches. Teens drive down dirty desert road as every Mexican stereotype is discussed (‘Don’t drink the water,’ ‘Mexican women give you crabs,’ etc). Fat guy, nerd, two clean-cut bores, working at resort for tyrant with six Spanish names. Resorts to voice-over letters home to Mom. The chef is naked buxom blonde, barely covered by apron. One of the boys brings champagne to naked German cellist. Tacky upbeat jazz porno music. Possibly the cheapest film ever made. Geriatric sex jokes, S&M jokes. Sped-up film, boingy sound effects. Fake punches that don’t connect with faces. This is way, way too bad to laugh at. Nazi gunman, ugly black lipstick-wearing German dominatrix. Strobelight catfight, clothes ripped off. The cellist also plays flute naked, and the tuba. Whiny nerd: ‘I just wanna fuuuuck.’ Exactly two laughs (besides belching frog): 1) fat guy runs through wall; 2) fat guy falls through ceiling.”
Sachs and Golan, who later fought in court over the botched Robert Carradine project “Number One with a Bullet” (Sachs was supposed to direct, then the film was made without his consent), have not spoken since the late 1980s, but did lock eyes once at the American Film Market.
“I saw him glaring at me,” said Sachs. “I thought, ‘Oh, he hates me.’ And then I realized, no, that’s his normal face. I don’t think he was looking at anyone.” (Responding via email, Golan said he did not remember Sachs as it had been many years).
Originally called “Judgement,” “Hitz” was shot in 1988 but not released until 1992, and only on home video, at that (it’s still not available on DVD). It may never have seen the light of day if not for the success of “Boyz n the Hood,” which also featured Cuba Gooding, Jr., albeit in a far more prominent role. (The actor has only a few lines here).
Like several of Sachs’ earlier films, “Hitz” was meant to be a surrealist comedy, a satire on the justice system influenced by some of his bizarre personal interactions with juvenile court judges.
“I spent three months riding around with the LAPD gang unit at night, and during the day we’d go to juvenile court,” he said. “One of the judges was there looking very official, and I went back to his chambers, and he took off his robe and he had white pants and a red shirt. The perception and the reality [of the court system] is very different.”
From this encounter stemmed Elliott Gould’s character. He plays perhaps the most inappropriate, unprofessional judge in movie history, a creep who hypnotizes a fellow female judge, whom he lusts after. He’s also so devoted to the juveniles appearing in his courtroom that he shelters them, illegally, in his mansion after they are pronounced guilty. The character originally fit into Sachs’ absurdist outlook, but according to him, the studio wanted more of a classic gang drama, and he was displeased with the messy editing job.
“Now it’s part weird and part straight,” he said. “It opened with Elliott Gould zapping himself with a taser. It had more humor. Remember ‘…And Justice For All’? It was a little bit off-kilter, with the judge sitting with his gun on the balcony, feeding the pigeons. I wanted it to be like that. I had more like that and it got taken out by the distributor.”
The rest of the plot follows grimly earnest attempts from a female lawyer (Emilia Crow) to reform the corrupt legal system; grimly authentic scenes of gang violence; and grimly inauthentic skirmishes with racist authorities (the opening scene of a high school music teacher screaming epithets at a pint-sized thug is hilariously over-the-top, as is the scene where an elderly teacher pulls out a tiny handgun on an unruly student).
“It’s kind of patchy and uneven,” Sachs admitted. “They [the distributors] ruined it. I don’t like the movie the way it is, at all. The performances look overdramatized.”
Part of the film’s problems occurred in post-production, when Sachs got caught in a nasty legal battle between Crow and her ex-husband, who had financed the film.
“I went into the editing room one day and he’d stolen the film,” Sachs explained. “We actually found it in the film’s lawyer’s office. He was paying the lawyer, so he had hidden it there. I did a cut and then it got taken away again. I was in court, it was like divorce court, and I was representing the film like it was their child.”
Despite these pitfalls, Sachs still found the experience of working with real gang members, who were thankful for the job and behaved professionally on set, extremely rewarding.
“One [actor] was the head of one of the biggest, toughest gangs in L.A., and there were [rival] gangs there,” Sachs remembered. “I asked, ‘How come you’re not killing each other?’ And they said, ‘We’re working, we’re professional. After work, maybe.'”
“The kid that played Pepe [Roberto Alvarez, who later appeared in “Dangerous Minds”], his mother in the movie is his real mother,” Sachs continued. “The mother and her daughter were in a gang. He came in with his sister, who was reading, and I had him read for the part. And I said, ‘The kid has to cry.’ He said, ‘I won’t cry, I’m a man.’ I did all this stuff, talking about his uncle that died, and the things he went through not to cry were so powerful that I used him. He was hitting his head with his fists so that he wouldn’t cry.”
Not all the gang members were cast as thugs, though; Sachs recalled one gang member that played a lawyer. “I had him pick out his own wardrobe, so he got this shiny suit with a tie-pin that was a rifle!”
The 1991 action flick “The Last Hour” (AKA “Concrete War”), starring Michael Paré in full-on Mickey Rourke mode, is the least personal film on Sachs’ resume. (Though not on Netflix. it can be viewed here.) It’s slick, it’s violent, it’s overplotted (Paré’s ex-wife is kidnapped because her new husband may or may not have stolen money from some mafiosos). There’s a few memorable wise-guy lines (main badguy, to henchman: “Your men were supposed to be the best! They’re droppin’ like bowling pins!”) and a few elaborate shoot-outs (in a warehouse room filled with Japanese lanterns, for instance) and the obligatory candlelit/saxophone jazz-scored sex scene. But generally it’s pretty thin stuff. Still, Sachs had fun with the project.
“The script was nothing,” he admitted, “but it looked like a canvas where I could try all kinds of visual tricks and have fun. I kind of re-did the script while we were shooting and the writer [Jim Byrnes] was mad at me.
“I stopped doing fixing jobs after ‘Leprechaun,’ because that was so bad,” said Sachs. “I turned it down and they kept offering me more money. I made it more comedic. I put my kids in it doing voices. I brought Jennifer Aniston back and re-did her dialogue, because her performance was so bad, but it wasn’t her fault, it was the director’s. I have a tape of the original somewhere. You wouldn’t be able to get through it.”
Frustrated with the industry, Sachs eventually made the children’s horror fantasy film “Spooky House” through private financing. Despite the limited budget, he was able to attract Ben Kingsley to the principal role of a curmudgeonly magician whose heart is gradually thawed out by a sweet-faced orphan. According to Sachs, Kingsley was so enchanted by this Boo Radley-esque role that he called Sachs saying, “I memorized the book, I hope you want me.” Mercedes Ruehl also signed on to play a Gypsy woman. Sachs even managed a few nifty effects (a strobelit skeleton dance, for one). The film was a hit with kids, especially at the Chicago International Children’s Film Festival.
Though Sachs was thrilled to finally be making a film in his own vision, he is still dismayed with the shoddy distribution the movie ultimately received.
“It’s a horrible story,” Sachs groaned. “I got this sales agent who used to be the head of distribution for New Line, he knew everybody. He went in and immediately destroyed every offer. He killed deals at DreamWorks and USA Films [now Focus Features]. We found out later that he wanted [the movie] for his own company that he was starting. And when we found out, the studios had all been fighting with him, and they wouldn’t work with us because we had worked with him.”
“We did negotiate with Paramount for six months and it just didn’t work,” Sachs continued. “They hadn’t picked up a movie in four or five years and decided they were only gonna do kids’ films for Nickelodeon. We started getting other contracts and our lawyers said, ‘If you sign these, you won’t see a penny.’ There was all this stuff about net profits, which means zero profits.”
Therefore, Sachs released the film independently, to 35 theaters across the country, in 2004. “It actually outgrossed every other movie by the second week, without much advertising. We opened the same day as ‘Scorpion King,’ and by the Thursday night before we pulled it, in this multiplex in Houston, we had doubled the gross of ‘Scorpion King.’ But we couldn’t afford to keep it going, because you don’t get the money for a couple of months and we didn’t have money to move it into other theaters.” The film’s home video distribution deal was equally mangled when the company in question went bankrupt.
But there’s still hope for “Spooky House.” Sachs, who just got the rights back to “Spooky House,” is currently planning a Kickstarter campaign to release a better-quality print of the film. (UPDATE: as of July 2018, it is available on YouTube’s streaming service for $2.99.)
“We have great rewards [for the Kickstarter fund],” he said. “35mm prints of the film, Ben Kingsley’s costume, outtakes. I’m a pack rat, I keep everything.”
Sachs’ other pending projects include a script called “Riches to Rags,” about a “Beverly Hills billionaire who loses all his money and his spoiled teenage kids have to live in their mother-in-law’s trailer park in the South.” He’s slated to direct a film about Martin Luther King, Jr. (tentatively titled “MLK”), written by former special investigator Gary Revel, who personally uncovered never-before-seen details about King’s assassination. According to Revel’s web site, an affiliate of Ted Turner’s TBS is financing the film, but Sachs said that TBS, as well as other production companies, have “gone back and forth” about whether or not to make it, due to its controversial subject.
He’s also working on a film about Haym Solomon, the Portuguese/Spanish Jew who immigrated to New York during the American Revolution and helped finance the Revolutionary War.
“I had a big trial about that and I represented myself in court,” Sachs said. “Someone tried to steal my script. And I won. Over the years, I’ve had various cases where I’ve represented myself and I’ve never lost. I’m an amateur lawyer. [laughs] I have a great time cross-examining witnesses and catching them in lies. It’s great fun, when you see this pompous, $300-an-hour lawyer, and he brings witnesses, and you win, because it’s common sense. That’s what directing is, it’s common sense.”