I have spent a great deal of time on this blog bringing forgotten or undiscovered trash classics to people’s attention, but the first legitimately great film I watched, where I felt a real sense of loss from its obscurity, was Jan Egleson’s 1979 drama “Billy in the Lowlands.” Shot on location in working-class Cambridge, it is a bracingly unsentimental portrait of a lovable but impulsive juvenile delinquent, who breaks out of prison to reunite with his estranged father. The story may sound like a standard misunderstood youth concept, but the naturalistic feel of “Billy” is about as far from the histrionics of “Rebel Without a Cause” as you can imagine.
I would never have known about this movie if the title of Egleson’s second film, “The Dark End of the Street”–released in 1981 as a sort-of sequel to “Billy”–hadn’t caught my eye while scrolling through imdb.com. I was able to track Egleson down–he’s now an associate film professor at Boston University, but still has movie projects on his agenda–and he kindly sent me DVD copies of “Billy,” “Dark End” and “The Little Sister,” the 1984 made-for-TV film that completed what Egleson calls his Boston trilogy. He’s now making hi-def transfers of all three films, and with any luck, they will soon be streaming online. Surely, they deserve to be seen more often than at the occasional Harvard film retrospective event.
Raised in New York, Egleson studied acting in England, at the Bristol Old Vic, and subsequently at Yale Drama School; he then performed with several theater groups in New York before settling at the Theater Company of Boston, which, during the early 1970s, featured such breakout stars as Robert DeNiro, Dustin Hoffman and Al Pacino. In 1973, he appeared as a skittish gun dealer in Peter Yates’ superb adaptation of George V. Higgins’ gritty crime novel “The Friends of Eddie Coyle.” After the Theater Company closed later that decade, Egleson volunteered at a Cambridge school for troubled kids, and that is where he began collecting ideas for “Billy.”
The teenagers’ anecdotes about their brushes with the law and general roughhousing formed the basis for the loose story. Egleson hired a few peers from his theater group (such as the late Paul Benedict, who later played the faux-Guffman in “Waiting for Guffman”) to play key parts, but the cast of “Billy” was mostly comprised of these teenagers and other non-professionals (including real-life police officers), which only added to its authenticity.
The film received limited festival runs and was praised by critics, most notably The New York Times’ Vincent Canby. Two years later, the equally well-received “Dark End of the Street,” a parable about race relations again set in blue-collar Cambridge, was released, with many of the same cast members from “Billy” on board (as well as a very young Ben Affleck). By the early 1980s, PBS had agreed to broadcast both films, and in 1982 they helped finance “The Little Sister,” which was eventually shown on PBS’ “American Playhouse” series.
Throughout the rest of the decade, Egleson shot several more “American Playhouse” films, including the 1988 adaptation of Lanford Wilson’s play “Lemon Sky,” starring Kevin Bacon, and “Big Time,” a 1989 satire of the fashion scene starring Mia Sara. To date, his sole big-budget Hollywood film is the 1990 Michael Caine dark comedy “A Shock to the System.” His last feature film was the HBO-produced, Boston-set 2001 drama “The Blue Diner,” about a bilingual woman who suddenly forgets how to speak Spanish. (All four of these films can be found on Netflix; all have stellar moments, but aren’t quite up to par with the Boston trilogy).
Egleson is still trying to launch a project he’s been dreaming of for decades: “The Rat on Fire,” a crime drama based around Boston’s once-rampant outbreak of arson. According to Egleson, George V. Higgins agreed to write the script for Egleson back in the late 1970s, and instead delivered a novel, permitting Egleson to do whatever he wanted with it. Egleson sat on the project for thirty odd years and, once he publicly announced his rekindled interest in 2011, was threatened by the late Higgins’ estate, which claimed he didn’t have the rights to “Rat on Fire” anymore. The dispute is still in arbitration, two years later.
During our two phone conversations as well as an in-person interview in Cambridge, Egleson discussed how he segued from acting to directing, his experiences working with Michael Caine, and his hilarious, ill-fated misadventures working on the never-filmed sequel to “Annie.”
“I had seen a lot of kitchen-sink drama. It was a moment in Britain. They were making a lot of films about working-class people, and I remember constantly thinking, when I was out in the projects, ‘Gee, nobody does that in America. I wonder if we can do that.'”
Sam Weisberg: Was it hard making the move from actor to filmmaker?
Jan Egleson: For me, actually, it felt very comfortable. It didn’t feel like a big stretch. I’d had a lot of experience working with actors, telling stories in a dramatic way. So that part was very familiar to me. And the technical part–at that time, you’re talking the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, and there was a big documentary filmmaking community in Boston. As you can see in my early films, we were using documentary techniques, even though they’re fiction. So that was very seamless.
SW: I would not call “Billy in the Lowlands” or “The Dark End of the Street” stagy at all. There’s a lot of locations and carefully chosen camera angles. Was it natural to learn the camerawork side of the medium?
JE: Absolutely. A big advantage was that I was working with a very experienced documentary film cameraman [D’Arcy Marsh]. It was a very small crew, only about eight or ten people. So it was very containable and controllable. It wasn’t like suddenly being thrown into a crew of a hundred guys. I could kind of learn as I went. The first two films were a really good education. Even between the two, “Dark End” is much more controlled than “Billy,” which is all kind of “follow the action.” By the time I got to “The Little Sister,” a big union production, I felt pretty comfortable.
SW: I’m assuming you raised money for “Billy.” Were you seeking a certain budget so that it could be more mainstream or did you always want it to be lower budget?
JE: We just wanted to get whatever we could get so we could shoot. Fifteen years ago, in a world where there were small distribution companies, the primary thought would have been, “Well, we should shoot it on 35mm and it should look like this, because if we don’t, they’re not gonna pick it up.” But because this was before that, you never even thought that way. You thought, “Wow, it will be a miracle if we can make the thing. So let’s just make it the way we want and see what happens.” So in a way it was a really wonderful time, because you weren’t trying to second-guess stuff. That was one of the things that I saw [later on] that I thought was too bad, that people began pitching for a distribution deal rather than making the exact film they wanted to make.
SW: Was it hard to get rights to shoot in Boston back then?
JE: At that time, it was so easy. You can see that those films are set in the projects, and I’d been working with those kids on plays. I knew them well but I also knew a lot of the cops who had grown up there. I knew people in the city government. There was no real filmmaking bureaucracy. We could just go to the police and say “Hey, we’re making a film, we’re gonna be in the projects.” We weren’t outsiders. If we had been, we couldn’t have done it.
SW: Are those extras in the Harvard Square scene in “Billy,” where he’s begging for money, or did you just shoot sporadically?
JE: The people that speak to him, I think it’s three or four people, those are actors. We didn’t rehearse them, we just gave them the backstory. The other people were just on the street. When you’re just a lightweight, handheld, two-people [crew]…back then, filmmaking was such a rarity, people didn’t think anything of it.
SW: Both “Billy” and “Dark End” met with a lot of critical acclaim. What happened distribution-wise after the theatrical runs?
JE: There really was no distribution. It got very good press. It got reviewed in the New York Times, and there were little runs in New York and Boston and Los Angeles. But nationwide, you really couldn’t go to any of the distributors–back then there were only four–because they just didn’t know what to make of anything like this. They had no idea. There was a big bulge in there in the late ‘80s and ‘90s, with indie films, but this was before Miramax or any of those specialty companies. It was films like “Billy” and “Dark End” that began to get people thinking, “Wait a minute, maybe there’s a viable business there.” But it took another five or six years for that to grow out. So we sold them to public television and that was a big deal.
SW: There wasn’t a VHS release?
JE: No. I finally tracked down the negatives for both of them. I just did a hi-def transfer, and I’m gonna get them out there streaming. I’m hoping Criterion takes them on.
SW: Would you have shot more films in Boston, had the industry not changed?
JE: There were a lot of indie guys, and we were either having families or wanting to see what we could do in the industry. I had a family to support, and I decided that I wanted to work in the industry. I didn’t move to L.A., I stayed in Boston, but I commuted out there. It was just kind of a natural progression. But in the ‘90s I did a lot of television movies and actually shot three or four of them in Boston. I did a television show for the Fox network called “Against the Law.”
SW: Which filmmakers were you trying to emulate as far as style?
JE: It’s funny, because when I started, I wasn’t a huge film buff. I had for some reason seen a lot of what they call kitchen-sink drama, with Alan Bates and all those guys. “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” and “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.” It was a moment in Britain. They were making a lot of films about working-class people. Olivier did one called “The Entertainer.” Just really good films. And I do remember constantly thinking, when I was out in the projects, “Gee, nobody does that in America. I wonder if we can do that.”
Then I learned more, I watched the French guys, like Godard. Obviously “Big Time” is really influenced by that.
SW: Did you grow up in a working-class environment?
JE: Honestly, I really didn’t. I’m from a middle-class New York family, a lefty family, a family of artists and painters. I remember being with the kids and I felt what I could contribute as a middle-class guy is that I knew how to write and how to get grants. But those stories are very much their stories and we were very respectful of that.
SW: What drew you to lower class Boston as opposed to other milieus?
JE: I don’t think I ever thought that deeply about it. We were working with these kids anyway. I was getting to know them. I looked around and said, “Hey, American film doesn’t really deal with this, or it romanticizes it.” In American film, if you’re working-class, you’re also a criminal. And one of the things I was saying was, “These kids aren’t criminals. They’re smart, but they’re bored. It’d be good to make a film that reflected that.” And again the model was the English films like “Look Back in Anger.”
SW: Was Cambridge way more dangerous then compared to now?
JE: It’s relative. Not compared to New York. There were funkier parts of it. Cambridge has gotten very gentrified and I don’t like it as much. It’s all white, it’s all rich people. My kids went to Brooklyn for a long time, and California, and they came back and settled here, but it’s too expensive. That’s too bad. It had different neighborhoods and people lived right up against each other, and that’s why we were making those first movies. That project is a mile from Harvard. There were people from Harvard that didn’t know anything about it.
“The kids felt a real sense of ownership, so they were protective. They weren’t gonna fuck up. I know we worried about that, like, ‘What if we start to shoot and some kid gets arrested?’ But it never happened.”
SW: Did you have the basic story arc when you met with the kids or did they help you form the story?
JE: Over a period of months, we would hear different stories. Like the kid who escaped from jail in a trash can. I’m pretty sure I came up with the structure of the idea of a boy trying to find his dad. That was the overriding thing we could plug everything into, to give it some form. Then we took all their anecdotes and sat around with the kids and said, “OK, here’s the story, it’s gonna go like this,” and they would correct us and say, “No, he’d never do that!” That’s how it evolved. First it was written out just as a story, and then we’d go with the kids and make up dialogue, and then we did have a finished script and the kids had to learn their lines. The only rule was that you couldn’t [act out] something that actually happened to you. We didn’t want people thinking, “This is their life.” We wanted it to be authentic but still fiction.
SW: What inspired the plot device where Billy can’t take the handcuffs off?
JE: I’m sure that was an example of something that actually happened. I don’t think it happened to Henry, I think it happened to a different kid.
SW: Who came up with the race relations/murder plot in “Dark End”?
JE: That was an incident that had happened. There was a kid that had been killed in, I think, a car accident. Nobody ever knew exactly what happened. It was a big deal for those kids, because those projects were pretty segregated. Race was a big issue in Cambridge. This was a time of busing in Boston. It was a situation of a lot of finger-pointing and a lot of people getting in trouble and really tearing things apart. We noticed that the kids were a lot less racist than the society around them. They were kind of being forced to be racist. That was kind of the point of the film.
SW: Were the black kids friends with the white kids in that community, as in the film?
JE: Yes. A lot of the racism was institutionalized. Something would happen and they’d get forced into, “No, I don’t want to go that school” and people saying “Oh, you’re racist.” They get tarred with that brush and then racism begins to really happen.
SW: Were there ever behavioral problems on the set?
JE: Never. They were fantastic.
SW: It seems that that’s the pattern, that movies provide real-life tough kids with an outlet.
JE: It just proves the point that they’re all intelligent, creative people, and if you give them a task and something they believe in and something they feel is theirs, like all of us, they behave well. And if you take it all away they’re gonna behave badly. The kids felt a real sense of ownership, so they were protective. They weren’t gonna fuck up. I know we worried about that, like, “What if we start to shoot and some kid gets arrested?” But it never happened.
SW: When the shoot stopped, did they start acting out again?
JE: Over the years, maybe, but for the most part, no. It was very empowering. They came out of it feeling better about themselves. Harvard did a retrospective screening about five or six years ago, and there were kids I hadn’t seen in 25 years, living good lives. It was very moving. They stood up and said, “That experience taught me that you can do something.”
SW: I was wondering, given the power of his performance as Billy, if Henry Tomaszewski had any prior acting experience.
JE: No, he really didn’t. He was part of a community group. They had a couple of plays. And he really loved it, he was a natural. He was an incredibly talented kid. He really took to it. You can kind of see that. I don’t think we would have made “Billy” if it weren’t for him. If you don’t respond to him, the film doesn’t work. But he was such a natural talent.
SW: Did he have trouble with the law in real life?
JE: All of the kids in the first film were in the projects. The scene where Henry is in the police car and the cop says “What are you doing?” That cop knew Henry real well and had arrested him many times. That’s what we learned, all the cops were from there, too. They knew all the kids on a first-name basis.
SW: I know a lot of filmmakers that have worked with real-life tough kids have had a hard time getting them to cry, because they’ve been conditioned not to. Was it hard getting Henry to do that, in the wrenching scene with Paul Benedict?
JE: It wasn’t hard. We just ran the camera and never turned it off. He kept looking around, like, “Aren’t you gonna say ‘Cut?’” We never did. And he did it. Henry was the real deal.
SW: What became of him?
JE: Unfortunately, Henry had a very tough time. He went to Hollywood for a while and became friends with Martin Sheen, but he was having a lot of emotional problems. He was finally diagnosed bipolar and just became barely functional. He’s around, but he never really recovered. I see him every once in awhile, but he’s nothing like the kid he was. He came from a really tough family, his dad was a street guy, it’s genetic. It caught up with him.
SW: I know you worked with Kevin Bacon on “Lemon Sky,” but I also noticed he has an uncredited cameo in “Little Sister.” Do you know why he didn’t receive billing for it?
JE: He was a huge star. He’d just done “Footloose.” I hired Tracey [Pollan] and a week before [the shoot], she said, “Can I bring my boyfriend?” and I said sure. She said “He’s an actor, can he do something?” I said sure. It was fucking Kevin Bacon! I had no idea. He was so cool. It was a real small part, he was terrific, he was really fun. And then years later I hired him to do “Lemon Sky.” By then he’d broken up with Tracey and married Kyra [Sedgwick]. I’ve been through both girlfriends with him! He’s a real pro. I have untold admiration for that guy.
“‘A Shock to the System’ was a nightmare to make. Basically, Michael Caine and I were making one film, and [producer] Frank Perry said, ‘No, you can’t, you gotta make this film.'”
SW: How did you sign on to “Shock to the System” in the first place?
JE: I really don’t know. I got a call from my agent, I don’t know how he did it. It seems very random to me.
SW: Was it daunting to be assigned a thriller?
JE: Oh totally. I think the big tension between [producer Frank Perry and I] was that I was interested in it being a black comedy, kind of a social commentary. And he, it turns out, was interested in it being a horror movie. And about halfway through it got pretty nasty.
The truth is, “Shock” was a nightmare to make. I had tremendous respect for Perry. He directed “David and Lisa,” he did “Rancho Deluxe,” he did some great movies. But by the time I was working with him, he had decided, I don’t know why, to step back from directing and produce. He had a company [Corsair Pictures]. The problem was, guys who are directors never stop being directors. They hire some young guy, relatively speaking, and then they basically go nuts because they don’t have control. So we really locked horns and he was very, very destructive. Basically, Michael Caine and I were making one film, and Frank Perry said, “No, you can’t, you gotta make this film.”
SW: He was on set all the time?
JE: He was everywhere all the time. He was a very difficult–he was not a direct guy. It was awful, it was a terrible experience. But in the end I did prevail and I’m glad. I think the point about a film is, you can’t have two voices running the show. When films go really wrong it’s because one vision gets sidetracked and another comes in and it’s neither one nor the other.
You know, he’d just fuck things up. We’d go to work, not knowing what we’re gonna shoot, because he’d suddenly say “I’m not gonna pay for that location,” because it wasn’t in his version. I’d say, “Yeah, but we’re supposed to go there.” That would be the night before!
SW: What ended up cut from his version?
JE: The whole issue was how the film was gonna end. Was [Caine’s character] gonna get caught or not? From day one, I was up front. If he gets caught, then he’s a badguy, and you’re kind of saying, “He was a badguy all along,” but the whole trick of the film is you have to like him. The audience has to get a little kick about him getting away with murder. You have to be on his side. If you turn it into a morality play, like he’s bad, then it’s like punishing the audience.
Right from the beginning, Michael and I said that to Frank. And we started to shoot that way, and then right in the middle Frank came in and said, “You’ve got to shoot my ending.” We shot it and previewed it, and people loved the film and hated the ending. There wasn’t much he could say about that. So it ended up OK.
SW: But you’re supposed to think he’s a little evil, right? I mean he bombs a boat!
JE: Yes, but in my version, you never see a dead body. But in the script, you did. He’s a real killer. That’s a different movie, that’s about a psychopath.
SW: When you read the script and saw there were dead bodies, did you initially not want to do it?
JE: Yes. In the first meeting, I said, “This is kind of a horror movie, but the way I see it, it’s really a satire and a black comedy, and that’s what Michael’s good at.” Michael only agreed to do it if we re-wrote it. Like me, he didn’t quite get the charm of the original. He said, “If it’s another crazy person, I’m not interested.”
SW: Was Michael easy to work with?
JE: He was fantastic. He was a great ally. He was a big star, and when Frank wouldn’t listen to me, he listened to Michael.
SW: How was the experience of shooting that “There is a man…in my office!” rant?
JE: There was no bullshit with Michael. I remember on that day–he’s very even-tempered, very funny–but on that day, he was in a terrible mood. And then I realized that, like all actors, he was just living the part. He would never admit to it, that he did anything psychological.
SW: Was it all shot in New York?
JE: Yeah. Unfortunately, it was made for a company that had never produced films. It never got the distribution it should have.
SW: It is on Netflix.
JE: Well I bought the rights back. It was kind of an orphan film. That’s why it’s on Netflix. I rescued it and it was very lucky, because there are a lot of films out there that are orphaned, they’re just stuck.
SW: That was the one film that The New York Times panned. Do you take bad reviews hard?
JE: I think that Frank Perry got to Vincent Canby. He wrote, “It looks like a film where people couldn’t decide what it was,” but it doesn’t, if you actually look at it. But if you know that people were fighting about it…I think that Frank was vindictive enough that he would shoot himself in the foot. I know he knew Canby. I didn’t know for years that filmmakers actually talk to reviewers but they do. I can’t read that review any other way. It got fantastic reviews except for the Times.
“One day we were working on the script [for ‘Annie 2’] and we get a message that Ray [Stark] wants us to work in a part where Annie goes to Mexico. So we write the scene, and then get this note: ‘Ray’s wife is a big fan of Julio Iglesias, so we have to write a scene for him.'” It was crazy.”
SW: I’m sorry if this catches you way off guard, but I read a 1983 New York Times announcement saying you were slated to direct “Annie 2.”
JE: Here’s a little story. After I made those first two films, I got a call from [Columbia Pictures producer/powerhouse] Ray Stark. He owned the rights to this book called “Death at an Early Age” [by Jonathan Kozol], which was about school integration in Boston, about busing. He said, “I’ve seen your films, you know Boston. I think you’re the guy. I want you to direct the movie.” And I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Columbia Pictures, and a great book! He said to fly out to Hollywood and see him. I’m just a little guy in Cambridge who made two films. I had a big beard and looked like a hippie!
I fly out there and I’m met by one of his assistants. He said, “Ray really wants to do this, but you have to know, there’s an actor attached to this.” I said, “OK, that can’t be a problem.” He said, “We’d better tell you who it is.” How bad could it be? The guy said, “It’s Neil Diamond!” And I go, “Wait, you said there was an actor attached to this!” He said, “Yeah, we know, but Ray has this idea that a math teacher is at the center of the book, maybe [we’ll make him] a music teacher. Maybe instead of taking the kids to the city council and showing how they’re abused in school, he takes them and they all sing a big song!” I said, “Look guy, just put me on the plane and send me home. This is the craziest fucking idea I ever heard. I’m definitely not gonna do that.”
So now they’re really upset because they have to tell Ray I’m not gonna do it. They tell Ray, and he’s real disappointed, and he says “At least stick around and have dinner with me.” So I got to dinner, and I said, “Look, you can’t turn this into a musical. This is a serious work about desegregation. People will hate you and it’s a terrible idea.” He said, “Well, maybe you just hate musicals.” I said, “I don’t hate musicals. I have a daughter and she loves ‘Annie.’” Then he looks at me and says, “Do you want to work on ‘Annie 2’?” I’m thinking, this is crazy, this has to be a joke. I said, “Yeah, I’d love to work on ‘Annie.’ I have a daughter, she goes around the house singing all the songs, that’d be so much fun.” He said, “OK, I own the rights. You direct ‘Annie 2.’”
I hired a writer and worked on it for a year. Then it turned out Ray didn’t own the rights! The whole thing just fell apart.
SW: Who owned the rights?
JE: The guy who wrote the score, I can’t remember his name. [Charles Strouse]. I have the script in the basement. I was really up for it.
One day we were working on the script, and we get a message that Ray wants us to work in a part where Annie goes to Mexico. “Maybe Daddy Warbucks has to do something and they go to Mexico.” We said, “No, that’s nuts, that’s not the story.” They said, “You have to, Ray has money in Mexico that he can only spend in Mexico.” So we write a scene in Mexico, and get this note, “Ray’s wife is a big fan of Julio Iglesias, so we have to write a scene for him.” It was crazy.
“I didn’t do all the career things you’re supposed to do. The truth is, I like making little movies. I didn’t want to make big movies.”
SW: When did you feel the film industry really started to change?
JE: The last indie film I made was called “The Blue Diner.” I really loved doing it. There was a real important film for the Latino community, “Real Women Have Curves,” and ours was about two years before that. And the idea of a bilingual film was, like…Sony Picture Classics was gonna release it and they tried to do some marketing stuff and they just didn’t know how. We shot that film in Boston, and that’s the last big indie film I can think of where we shot there. It cost $1 million.
SW: I wonder why everyone says the distribution market is dried up when you see the mumblecore movement taking off, and people shooting movies on their cellphones. Yet it’s harder to get a film out there?
JE: There are films that get a lot of notoriety but they don’t make any money. If the directors don’t start making money for people, they stop making films. If you’re willing to make them for absolutely nothing, you can keep going, but if you’re looking to make a living, you can’t. And still people don’t get that. Once you get to a point where you can’t just get your friends to do it for free and you’ve gotta pay people, then you’re kind of stuck. I wanted to do this pyramid of, in America, how many directors make one movie? Seven thousand. How many make two? At three, it’s like a couple of hundred. Only about fifty people make four features because by the time you get to there, you’re really in trouble if you haven’t made somebody money.
I didn’t do all the things [in my career] that you’re supposed to do. I should have been in L.A. when “Shock” opened and I wasn’t. The truth is, I like making little movies. I didn’t want to make big movies. That’s a problem. I didn’t mind the work, I didn’t have any discomfort doing it. It just wasn’t the kind of filmmaking that I liked. I liked being with my buddies and doing what I wanted. And I was spoiled, because I’d done it, like, four times. Once you’ve done it four times and then someone’s telling you what to do, you’re like “Fuck you.” Whereas if you do it the other way around, I think it’s easier. If you come up in the business and then break out and do something of your own, it’s easier.
One thought on “The Early Days of Boston/Cambridge Cinema: An Interview with Director Jan Egleson”
Liked the Billy in the Lowlands movie. PBS showed it 5 nights in a row when they aired it. Did not realize the history of how this movie developed. I originally watched it because I heard that some of my friends’ younger siblings in North Cambridge were in a movie. Scenes were shot in places we hung out at, the Shelter, the tunnel, roller skating rink, etc. I was wild seeing the younger kids and locations that I knew in an actual movie. North Cambridge and the projects were tougher places than Mr. Egleson let’s on, though. Plenty of booze, drugs, and violence – we were all underage. Fortunately, no guns had arrived on the scene in any big way back then.
Hoping to find a DVD of it sometime to show my kids where I grew up and what we did for “fun”.