Other Men's Careers
In The Bridge on the River Kwai, near the end, as Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guiness) and Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa) stand on the completed bridge watching the sun set, Col. Nicholson muses, “I've been thinking. Tomorrow it will be twenty-eight years to the day that I've been in the service. Twenty-eight years in peace and war. I don't suppose I've been at home more than ten months in all that time. Still, it's been a good life. I love India. I wouldn't have had it any other way. But there are times . . . when suddenly you realize you're nearer the end than the beginning. You wonder . . . you ask yourself . . . what the sum total of your life represents . . . what difference your being there at any time made to anything . . . or if it made any difference at all really. Particularly in comparison with other men's careers. I don't know whether that kind of thinking is very healthy . . . but I must admit I've had some thoughts along those lines . . . from time to time.” At which point Nicholson mistakenly drops his homemade swagger stick into the river and mutters, “Blast!”
Well, I’ve certainly had some thoughts along those lines, too . . . from time to time.
Forty years ago, when I was seventeen years old, I moved to Hollywood to seek my fame and fortune as a filmmaker. Just previous to my leaving I had made a super-8 film entitled The Case of the Topanga Pearl starring me, Sam Raimi, Scott Spiegel and Ellen Sandwiess, which I hadn’t even yet edited. I cut it together in L.A. and it was one of my first films that contained a story, performances (I played a Sam Spade-like detective named Victor Temple, Sam played the Joel Cairo/Peter Lorre part on his knees to appear smaller, Scott played an old man with a particularly phony beard made of cotton balls, and Ellen played the femme fatale), and it had at least one interesting angle—a sideways POV across my desk to the office door because I was drunk and had my head on the table. This wasn’t my first film; it was my fourth. My third film was Oedipus Rex that I had shot in 9th grade, in which I starred and Bruce Campbell played the role of King Creon.
Sam Raimi and Bruce Campbell have gone on to become famous and have extremely successful careers. Scott Spiegel has since co-produced the Hostel films (he directed the third one) for Quentin Tarantino’s company, and Ellen Sandwiess co-starred in Evil Dead.
When I got to Hollywood one of the only people I knew out there was Mike Binder, with whom I had gone to a summer camp called Tamakwa. Other folks who went to Tamakwa were: Sam Raimi, Gilda Radner (before my time), and a counselor there was Chevy Chase. Mike Binder has since gone on to write and direct, and occasionally star or appear in, quite a few films, such as: the well-received, The Upside of Anger (with Kevin Costner, Joan Allen, Evan Rachel Wood, Keri Russell and Alicia Witt), Indian Summer (about Mike’s childhood days at Camp Tamakwa, starring Alan Arkin, Diane Lane, Elizabeth Perkins, Kevin Pollack, Vincent Spano and Bill Paxton, playing a part that was suspiciously like me), Reign Over Me (with Adam Sandler, Don Cheadle and Donald Sutherland), the recent Black or White (with Kevin Costner), and the HBO series, Mind of the Married Man (with Stephen Baldwin), which Mike brought me in for an interview regarding directing, but never hired me.
One of the first friends that I made in Hollywood was a movie set carpenter named Gary Marvis, who went strictly by the name Marvis, and was busily building sets for the fiasco, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. His good buddy, Sean Reilly, was at that time writing a comic book entitled Ultimato with his buddy and artist, George DiCaprio. Marvis and I visited them a number of times at George’s bohemian apartment on Venice Beach. While there I played with George’s toddler, Leonardo DiCaprio, keeping him busy while his dad worked. This of course didn’t mean anything to me until years later when I saw What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, the film that put Leonardo on the map.
Another early friend of mine in Hollywood was named Sheldon Lettich. Sheldon and I wrote the first draft of what would later become my first feature film, Thou Shalt Not Kill . . . Except. Sheldon went on to discover Jean-Claude Van Damme, writing his first hit, Bloodsport, then writing and directing two of his biggest hits, Lionheart and Double Impact. I spent a week writing a script with Jean-Claude and Sheldon, but it was never completed.
When I returned from Hollywood at the age of eighteen, in 1977, Bruce, Sam, Scott Spiegel and I, along with a few other high school buddies, including John Cameron, began making a lot of super-8 films. The main writer/directors on these films were Sam and I. These films culminated in the making of the first feature film that any of us made, Evil Dead, for which I am credited with “2nd Unit Lighting and Sound” (although there ended up being more 2nd unit than main unit). The assistant editor on Evil Dead was Joel Coen, who, with his brother Ethan, went on to become Oscar-winning filmmakers for films such as: “No Country For Old Men and Fargo, as well as the makers of many other highly-regarded films. They presently executive produce a TV series based on their film Fargo, which is produced by my old high school buddy and co-star of several of my super-8 films, John Cameron.
I made my first feature film, Thou Shalt Not Kill . . . Except, in 1985, which I directed, co-wrote, photographed and edited, produced by Scott Spiegel, that was supposed to star Bruce, but since he had recently joined the Screen Actors Guild, and my film was non-union, he couldn’t do it. He did, however, end up being the supervising sound editor. Sam Raimi co-stars in the film as the Charles Manson-like Cult Leader. The film got a national theatrical release, then came out on video and has remained in release for the next thirty years. It’s undoubtedly my most popular independent feature.
In 1986 Scott and I moved to Hollywood (this was my third time living in Hollywood), and we moved into a little bungalow on McCadden Street. One of the habitués there was a fellow who worked in the video department of a small film company, Imperial Pictures, where Sheldon was making a Jean-Claude Van Damme film, whose name was Quentin Tarantino. I ended up writing some trailers for Imperial. After Scott and I had been hired to write a cop script called Ballbreaker, Scott then wrote a cop script with a guy named Boaz Yakin called The Rookie which Clint Eastwood produced, directed and starred in. Sadly, Ballbreaker never got made. Boaz has gone on to write, produce or direct eleven features, among them, Fresh, A Price Above Rubies with Renee Zellweger, and Remember the Titans with Denzel Washington.
In early 1988 my friend Rob Tapert (co-producer of the Evil Dead movies), who is an avid fisherman, decided that he wanted to make a full-length documentary about big-game fishing. Rob hired me to direct, shoot and edit the film, entitled Battle the Big Tuna, which we shot 300 miles off the coast of Cabo San Lucas, Mexico. When the film was shot, I temporarily moved into Sam’s rented house in Silverlake, set up a ¾-inch editing system, and began cutting the film. At that point Sam was subletting the house to: Joel and Ethan Coen, their girlfriends, Fran McDormand and Holly Hunter, and their friend, Kathy Bates, all of whom have gone on to win Oscars.
Later in 1988, Sam and Rob Tapert got a deal at Universal Pictures to develop and make films. They quickly got three films into development at the same time: Darkman, which would end up starring the young up-and-comer, Liam Neeson (whom I would ultimately meet several times on the set), Hard Target, which would star Jean-Claude Van Damme and would be directed by John Woo (his first American film), whom I met many times, and my film, Lunatics: A Love Story. Lunatics, when it opened in one theater for a week in L.A., got very good reviews, including a glowing, half-page review in the L.A. Times (2 ½ stars in Leonard Maltin’s book), but was then unceremoniously dumped straight to video and cable and was never released theatrically, thus not doing me the slightest bit of good, other than I made an indie feature that made its money back, which is something, but ultimately not that much.
I was working as a production assistant in 1991 on things like Sting’s 40th birthday party concert at the Hollywood Bowl, a Ted Nugent video with his band at the time, Damn Yankees, Domino Pizza commercials with Bronson Pinchot, and a whole variety of other nondescript commercials, while I busily wrote screenplays, as well as writing articles for Film Threat Magazine, including an interview of Quentin Tarantino on the set of Reservoir Dogs, very possibly the only interview or article written about him at that time since absolutely no one had ever heard of him. One of my scripts I wrote at that time, Cycles, the story of the very first motorcycle gang, was optioned by a company named Beacon Pictures, makers of such films as Air Force One with Harrison Ford and The Road to Wellville with Anthony Hopkins. After three years of being under option, when I was certain that the option would expire and I would get the script back, Beacon exercised the option and purchased the script. I received a check for $60,000. Philip Kaufman, who had directed The Right Stuff, among many other films, and had co-written the story for Raiders of the Lost Ark, was attached to the project (meaning he agreed to do direct it and have his name connected). The script then went into what is euphemistically known in Hollywood as “Development Hell,” where it was rewritten and rewritten by many different writers for years. It finally went into what’s called “Turnaround,” as defined by Wikipedia as, “A turnaround or turnaround deal is an arrangement in the film industry, whereby the production costs to a project which one studio has developed are declared a loss on the company's tax return, thereby preventing the studio from exploiting the property any further. The rights can then be sold to another studio in exchange for the cost of development plus interest.” And so Cycles disappeared off the face of the earth, and though I made good money, it didn’t further my career in the slightest.
I moved back to Michigan and got a job as a salesman in a furniture store. I rather liked the job, too—the store didn’t open until 10:00 am, so I didn’t need to use an alarm clock, and I was good at selling furniture and was quickly making decent commissions. Since there was plenty of downtime between customers, I brought in my computer every day and continued writing screenplays. However, as the fortunes of this chain of furniture stores went—it down-sized from seven stores to four stores while I was there—and since I had the least seniority of any salesman there, I got laid off.
This lasted for all of two weeks until I got a call from an old childhood pal, Craig Peligian, who had moved out to Hollywood after me. Craig was the producer of one of the first reality shows, Real Stories of the Highway Patrol, and hired me in the first season to direct the reenactment segments and it was a good gig.
Then Sam and Rob got the TV show, Hercules, that was initially just five two-hour TV movies, and they hired me to be the 2nd unit director on two of the films, as well as main unit director on one of them, Hercules in the Maze of the Minotaur (my film was the second-highest rated and the first was Hercules and the Amazon Women that I 2nd unit directed). This gig is what got me into the Director’s Guild of America (I’ve now been a member for 22 years), and the highlight was that I got to direct Anthony Quinn in one of his roles. The success of these five films lead to the show being picked up for thirteen one-hour episodes, but I was never hired on that. A recurring character on Hercules was Xena the warrior princess. Everybody wanted someone else for the part of Xena, and indeed, someone else was hired, and the only two people who wanted Lucy Lawless were me and the casting director, Diana Rowan. When the other actress got injured and couldn’t make it, Lucy got the part.
I then began my six-year stint directing Xena. I ended up directing nine episodes and co-writing the stories for two others. Along the way I directed the pilot and another episode of another series, Jack of All Trades, starring Bruce Campbell.
Well, I hadn’t gotten into the film business to be a TV director, so I continued to dream and scheme of how I would finagle myself back into the film business.
What sort of film could I make that would be so cinematic that it absolutely could not be ignored? I thought and thought and on the night of New Year’s Eve, 1995-96, as I mulled over Alfred Hitchcock’s film, Rope, which is ostensibly all in one shot (although, since a roll of film is only ten minutes long, it had to have hidden cuts between the reels), and was the only film to be shot in “real time,” why was it such a dull, uninteresting film that was obviously just a filmed play on a single set? And then it occurred to me that if one was going to go to the trouble of shooting a film all in one shot and in real time, then time had to be the basis of the story. Something had to happen in a certain amount of time, which is did not do in Rope. So I came up with the idea for Running Time—a heist story where everything had to occur in a certain amount of time or something was would happen, and this concept of a ticking clock would just keep reasserting itself throughout the film. Not only that, but instead of being stuck on a single set, I’d shoot the film all over the place—a prison, in a truck, all over Los Angeles, in a heist, a shoot-out in an alley, a chase scene, plus I would interweave a love story, too. Now, has this humanly possible to pull off?
Using all the money I made on the sale of Cycles, as well as what I earned on Hercules, I wrote, produced and directed Running Time starring Bruce Campbell, and not only did I pull it off—with all of its insanely long takes—I did in nine days. I opened the film in Los Angeles in one theater and received unanimously positive reviews, several of which were raves—one review went so far as to say that I had “one-upped Hitchcock,” which is certainly a great compliment. So here it finally was, my breakthrough—there was no way that Hollywood could ignore this film; it just wasn’t possible. Oh, yeah? As fate would have it I opened on the exact same day as the long-awaited Titanic and Running Time was completely ignored. Then, miraculously, even though I had seemingly achieved something that had cinematically never been done before, and I had Bruce Campbell in the lead, the film managed to not get into any of the major film festivals, like Sundance, Telluride, New York or Toronto. (The film ultimately ended up getting 3 stars in Leonard Maltin’s book).
Dispirited, but not defeated, I went back to work on Xena.
I saved my money and thought—if I couldn’t impress Hollywood with my cinematic ability, perhaps I could impress them with my depth an intelligence. This is undoubtedly where my thinking went awry because if there’s anything at this late date that does not impress Hollywood it’s depth and intelligence. Nevertheless, I began developing yet another story to make another independent feature, but this time I would really have something to say and make a statement. And what better to comment on than the state of art, commitment and the degradation of contemporary thought? So I then wrote, produced and directed If I had a Hammer, a folk musical set in 1964. This film was truly an enormous undertaking that took me the better part of three years, and $350,000 to complete. By the time it was done Xena had been canceled and I no longer had a job, and I had charged over $100,000 of the production costs on credit cards.
Well, since the film was shot non-union and I had no name actors in it, the first question that every single distributor asked me was, “Who’s in it?” When I replied, “A really talented cast of young newcomers,” I was met with dead silence, followed by unanimous rejection—nobody would even look at it. Then, once again, I didn’t get into any of the major film festivals. From my previous experience with Running Time I now well understood that if you can’t get into the big festivals you’ll never get any kind of distribution deal by going to the second-level festivals. On top of that, the reviewer from Leonard Maltin’s book who came to the cast and crew screening didn’t even bother reviewing it.
And so I gave up. I moved into a trailer in the woods in Oregon about a mile up the road from Bruce Campbell. I spent the next year licking my wounds, paying credit card bills—until I declared bankruptcy, that is—and wrote a book about filmmaking, entitled, The Complete Guide to Low-Budget Feature Filmmaking, which got published and is available on Amazon and other fine online booksellers.
I then moved back to Michigan and turned into a writing machine, knocking out quite a few screenplays and two more books that also got published: Rushes: Essays on Filmmaking and Going Hollywood: A Memoir, both of which are also available on Amazon, and other fine online booksellers.
But wait, my filmmaking career wasn’t quite over yet. The corpse was still twitching. Bruce and I had both signed up with a sales agency called Creative Light in L.A. They set up a deal with SyFy Network (then promptly went bust) for Bruce and I to make two films, both starring Bruce: The Man With the Screaming Brain, that Bruce wrote and directed, and Alien Apocalypse, that I wrote and directed. Everybody’s hopes were pinned on Screaming Brain and nobody gave Alien Apocalypse a second thought, which turned out to be in my favor since I was not put through the rewrite wringer that Bruce was. In a reversal of fate, Screaming Brain only got OK ratings, whereas Alien Apocalypse became SyFy’s highest-rated movie ever. However, since both of these films were shot non-union in Bulgaria, neither Bruce nor I ever saw a penny in residuals. No matter. How could anyone ignore the astounding ratings my film had received? Well, guess what? They could and they did.
I did end up directing one more film for SyFy, Stan Lee’s Harpies, which neither Stan Lee nor I wrote, and ultimately Mr. Lee had his name removed. It starred Stephen Baldwin, a severe right-wing, born-again screwball who never went to the trouble of reading the script, learning his lines, nor would even bother to get into costume, and ultimately made my life a living nightmare. The film was ridiculously under-budgeted, particularly for a script that contained a lot of special effects, and I ended up with no special effects people on the set at all. I brought the production in on time and on budget, and although the executive producer had no issue with the film, nor did SyFy, and the ratings were OK, I just knew my professional filmmaking career was over.
But fate still wasn’t done with me. In 2008 Michigan passed a 40% film incentive program—the highest in the country—and suddenly movie productions were flocking here to shoot. A fly-by-night company out of Florida arrived, found me, and hired me to direct a film called Intent starring Eric Roberts. This production was so mismanaged that I quit after a week of shooting, and though they did finish shooting without me, the film has never been completed or released in any way, shape or form. That was six years ago.
So, what is the reason that my career has never taken off? Is it, A). I’m untalented, B). I’m unlucky, C). I’m an arrogant prick, D). I’m on god’s shit-list, E). My taste in stories and my style of filmmaking are old-fashioned, or F). a combination of all of the above? And does it even matter? I don’t know, and I suspect that I’ll never know. Everything just is what it is.
I’m now fifty-seven years old and I honestly don’t believe that I’ve got it in me to mount another independent feature—it takes an extraordinary amount of effort, time and money, and, as I get nearer the end than the beginning, I have a difficult time envisioning that I can ever again convince anyone that making another feature will lead to anything. I must admit, however, that the idea of making a no-budget feature on weekends, along the lines of the web series (or whatever it is) that I co-executive produced and wrote and directed three episodes, Spine Chillers, does cross my mind . . . from time to time. I don’t have a story in mind, but if I try hard enough I have no doubt that one will come to me.
It may appear that I wrote this essay out of sheer self-pity, and perhaps that’s part of it. But I also wrote it because I’ve gotten a distinct sense over quite a few years of having a website that people have wanted to ask me these questions and have simply had the good taste not to. Also, there’s a certain level of just putting down on paper questions that I ask myself. How did I get here?
At the end of The Bridge On the River Kwai, when Colonel Nicholson realizes that not only have all of his efforts building the bridge been wrong-headed, but have also aided and abetted the enemy, he forlornly asks, “What have I done?”
I know what I’ve done, and I truly believe that none of my efforts were never in vain. Even if I’ve never hit the big time and am not famous, I have done good work. And that, in and of itself, ought to be enough.
But . . . from time to time . . . it just doesn’t seem like it.