Friday, October 25, 2019


“Things only seem to be magic. There is no real magic. There’s no real magic ever.” – Martin

Filmmaker George A. Romero is most well-known for his popular and highly influential zombie films. Their impact and legacy has been well-documented. It is the films he made between them that are also worth examining in particular a prolific period between 1971 and 1974 when he made four films exploring various genres, from the romantic comedy with There’s Always Vanilla (1971) to witches with Season of the Witch (1973) to the lethal outbreak film with The Crazies (1973). Martin (1978) was his low-key and incredibly compelling take on the vampire genre by creating a portrait of a young man who may or may to be a bloodsucker. The important thing to keep in mind is that he believes he’s a vampire.

We first meet Martin (John Amplas) boarding a train for Pittsburgh. He spots a beautiful woman (Fran Middleton) getting on and stalks her. Right from the start we are unsure of his motives. He goes into a bathroom and takes out a syringe and fills it with something. Is he a junkie? He breaks into the woman’s compartment and tries to surprise her. She sees him and they struggle as he injects the syringe in her. The nature of the attack and his undressing her once subdued suggests he plans to rape her. Instead, he takes out a razor blade, cuts her arm and drinks her blood. It comes as something of a shock as nothing leading up to this point has prepared us for this act. Despite his initial bumbling, Martin is careful. He cleans up the compartment after the attack. In a sly touch, now that it is day, Romero has the young man put on a pair of sunglasses.

Believing he is cursed with the affliction of being a vampire, Martin enlists the help of Tateh Cuda (Lincoln Maazel), his grand-uncle who takes him in after the death of the young man’s immediate family. Cuda is an old school Lithuanian Catholic who believes Martin is ancient vampire, constantly referring to him as “Nosferatu.” He even tells him at one point, “First, I will save your soul. Then, I will destroy you.” It is at this point that there are serious doubts that Martin is a vampire. Sunlight doesn’t burn him. He can bite into garlic. He can see his reflection. This begs the question, what is wrong with Martin? This is the mystery that the rest of the film explores.

Martin has a rich fantasy life that Romero occasionally shows via black and white footage reminiscent of a vintage Universal monster movie right down to the torch-wielding villagers. In these moments, he is much more capable and even a dashing vampire adored by his willing victims than what he is in real life, which is awkward and messy, like when he stalks a potential victim and upon moving in to attack accidentally interrupts her having sex with a lover, forcing the young man to improvise. As with his other films, Romero shows how the best laid plans can go awry as life is like that. People make mistakes, like in Night of the Living Dead (1968) when Judy is unable to free herself as she and her boyfriend try to get a truck and gas it up only to be engulfed in flames, or in Dawn of the Dead (1978) when Roger gets too cocky and is bitten by a zombie when he and Peter are fortifying the mall.

John Amplas is excellent as the disturbed Martin, a serial rapist/killer with his own specific methodology that ties into his delusion of being a vampire. It is a wonderfully nuanced performance as in some scenes he’s sullen and withdrawn (usually around men) and in others playfully enigmatic (usually with women). Romero doesn’t provide us with much of a backstory for Martin which forces us to figure him out based on what he does in the present.

Christine Forrest is also quite good as a sympathetic ear for Martin and a voice of reason in her father’s home. In a superbly acted scene, she finally confronts the old man on his delusional beliefs that Martin is Nosferatu and tells him that she is leaving to live with her boyfriend Arthur (Tom Savini). Lincoln Maazel delivers a solid performance as shop owner cum vampire hunter, convinced that Martin is a vampire. Cuda is just delusional if not more worse than Martin, prattling on like a low-rent Van Helsing, which only further confuses the young man. The veteran theatrical actor delivers a grounded performance for a role where the temptation would be to chew the scenery.

After making Night of the Living Dead, Romero made several documentaries to pay the bills. He was eventually offered $100,000 to make a low budget horror film. He remembered, “It was one of those middle-of-the-night ideas, which I first saw as something funny – basically, a vampire would have a hard time today! Nobody would pay him a lot of attention or get particularly shook up.” The filmmaker researched a series of actual vampiric murders committed by a Los Angeles-based slasher drinking his victims’ blood from goblets he brought with him. Romero also looked at vampiric lore, including an account of a clan of highway thieves in 14th century Scotland that lived in a cave, eating their victims’ remains.

He did so much research that he couldn’t decide which direction to take with the film. “I didn’t know whether I wanted my character to be a vampire or just think he was a vampire.” Romero got a better idea of what he wanted to do when he saw actor John Amplas in Philemon, a play about the persecution of a Christian disciple by the Romans at the Pittsburgh playhouse, which impressed him greatly. So much so that he wrote the titular character with the actor in mind. In addition to his leading man, Martin also saw the debuts of regular collaborators cinematographer Michael Gornick and Tom Savini who did double duty as special effects artist and appearing on screen as Christina’s boyfriend.

During filming Romero had a small crew of only 5-8 people on the set on a given day working 18-hour days. They were bolstered by the on-going romance between the director and Christine Forrest, an actress who moved back to Pittsburgh from New York City. They had met while making Season of the Witch and would end up eventually getting married in 1980.

Romero’s original cut of Martin came in at two hours and 45 minutes. He had originally envisioned it in black and white but unfortunately, he couldn’t afford to strike a negative of this version and had to cut it down to a more theater-friendly running time. Of the footage that was excised, Romero said, “little incidental characters became more important,” and “there was more stuff about the town and the decay.”

Martin opened in July of 1978. Newsweek’s Jack Kroll said, “Romero has become a dazzling stylist…his balance of wit and horror is the best since Hitchcock.” The Chicago Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote, “Despite the usual amounts of gore, this is a surprisingly tender, ambiguous, and sexy film in which Romero’s penchant for social satire is for once restricted to local and modest proportions.”

At one point, Martin says to someone, “Things only seem to be magic. There is no real magic. There’s no real magic ever.” This could be the central thesis for Romero’s early films as they are grounded in realism. Even the fantastical elements – the dead coming back to life – are treated matter-of-factly and juxtaposed with actors that look like and portray everyday people, inhabiting recognizable settings, like a farmhouse, a mall or the suburbs. As he did with Season of the Witch, the filmmaker shows his characters doing mundane things, like making dinner or going grocery shopping so that when something extraordinary happens, like someone dying, it has an extra punch to it.

Martin was a modest success but its legacy as one of Romero’s best films is firmly in place. It gave birth to two notable vampire films that couldn’t be further apart in tone – Vampire’s Kiss (1988) and Habit (1997). The former stars Nicolas Cage in an outrageous tour-de-force performance that takes Martin’s notion of a man who thinks he’s a vampire and runs with it to the extreme. The latter is Larry Fessenden’s gritty take set in New York City and examines a man who gets involved with a mysterious woman who may or may not be a vampire. Both films owe a huge debt to Romero’s film.

Late in the film Martin says, “If the magic part was real and you could make them do whatever you wanted them to do, then that would be different. In real life…in real life, you can’t get people to do what you want them to do.” Romero’s film is a melancholic portrait of a young man adrift in life with very little to anchor him to the real world, which may explain why he clings to the belief that he is a vampire. It gives his life some meaning and purpose in an otherwise meaningless existence.


Gagne, Paul R. The Zombies That Ate Pittsburgh. Dodd, Mead & Company. 1987.

Friday, September 20, 2019

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

In 1969, two important westerns came out examining the end of the Wild West in very different ways. Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch was a blood-soaked elegy to its aging protagonists who found themselves increasingly marginalized in a world that was passing them by. George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid also featured bank robbers finding it increasingly harder to ply their trade albeit in a lighter vein, emphasizing the undeniable chemistry between its two lead actors, Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Screenwriter William Goldman and director Hill helped create a classic buddy action film that would shape and influence the genre for years to come.

Infamous outlaws Butch Cassidy (Newman) and the Sundance Kid (Redford) have spent their careers robbing banks with their Hole in the Wall Gang. Butch is the smart one who plans all the jobs they do while Sundance is the man of action. Sundance tells him, “You just keep thinking, Butch. That’s what you’re good at,” to which he responds, “Boy, I got vision and the rest of the world wears bifocals.” Times are changing, however, and it has become harder to be a criminal. Now that they are legends Butch and Sundance have become well known with the authorities. It is also getting tougher to rob banks as they now have more security.

Even one of the guys in their Hole in the Wall Gang challenges Butch’s leadership – a rather large, imposing man (Ted Cassidy). This scene sets the tone for the first half of the film and also tells us a lot about Butch and Sundance. The former keeps talking as a way of stalling until can figure out a way to beat his physically superior opponent. The latter simply stays quiet but his intense look implies that if Butch gets in any kind of real trouble he’ll step in as evident in the amusing exchange between them before the showdown. Butch tells Sundance, “Listen, I don’t mean to be a sore loser but, uh, when it’s done – if I’m dead – kill him,” to which Sundance replies, “Love to.” He then turns and gives Butch’s opponent a wave and flashes his iconic smile. It is this moment of levity before an action sequence that would be imitated most by subsequent buddy action movies.

After robbing the same train twice, Butch and Sundance are pursued by a posse of determined lawmen. Their introduction is a mythic one as we never get a clear, up-close view of these men but they are always in pursuit, killing off two of the Hole in the Wall gang members right away like an inhuman killing machine. Butch and Sundance are doggedly pursued over rugged terrain, desert, rivers, rocky ground and dangerous rapids, day and night for miles. It is downright spooky as we never lose sight of the posse. It is like they are in the background of every scene. They never stop and rest, even traveling at night with the aid of lanterns. Butch tries all kinds of ways to evade them but to no avail, which unnerves the unflappable outlaw. It is also unsettling for us because, up to this point in the film, we’ve see Butch and Sundance gleefully stick it to The Man but as this super posse continues their relentless pursuit, Butch actually looks worried. The posse are the literal embodiment of progress as the years of robbing banks has finally caught up to the film’s protagonists.

Chemistry is crucial in a film like this and Newman and Redford have it right from the get-go as evident when Butch tries to talk Sundance out of a showdown with a card player who accuses the latter of cheating. It looks like they are going to have it out with guns until Butch calls Sundance by name and the other man, realizing who they are, backs down. Newman and Redford’s comic timing is superb and they work so well together. They are believable as long-time friends in the way they banter and bicker with each other – courtesy of Goldman’s razor-sharp screenplay – like when they jump off a cliff into water to evade the posse. Sundance refuses as he can’t swim. Butch laughs and points out, “The fall’ll probably kill ya!” The comedic interplay between these two actors, coupled with the action-oriented misadventures they find themselves getting into would later become a very popular template for buddy action films in the 1980s and early 1990s.

The one jarring sequence that seems out of place in the film is when Butch and Sundance’s girlfriend Etta (Katharine Ross) ride around on a bicycle to “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head,” a contemporary song written by Hal David and Burt Bacharach and recorded by B.J. Thomas. This whimsical song feels out of place in the film. There are already many comedic moments all of which are much better than this one. It feels like the filmmakers needed more scenes with Etta in it and came up with this scene but it comes across as unnecessary and wouldn’t be missed if it was taken out.

In the mid-1960s, William Goldman was a novelist making ends meet teaching creative writing at Princeton University. He was in-between projects and decided to write a screenplay about legendary outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, whom he had been interested in since the 1950s. He was taken with their adventures, the fact that Butch didn’t kill people and the rumor that the duo survived a shoot-out in Bolivia. What really crystallized things for him was the famous line from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Last Tycoon – “There are no second acts in American lives.” Goldman’s research proved otherwise when it came to Butch and Sundance. According to the writer, the two men “ran to South America and lived there for eight years and that thrilled me: They had a second act.”

Goldman shopped his script around Hollywood with little success. He worked on it further and in the meantime, wrote the screenplay for the Paul Newman detective film Harper (1966). He visited the actor on location in Arizona while he was filming Hombre (1967) and told him about Butch and Sundance. Weeks later, fellow actor and friend Steve McQueen called Newman up in November 1967 raving about the script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and that they should make it together. Both men agreed to buy the script themselves but it had already been sold to 20th Century Fox. Newman figured that was it until studio chief Richard Zanuck asked him to star in it. The studio then hired George Roy Hill to direct. He was coming off the incredibly successful musical Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967).

When Newman first read Goldman’s screenplay he loved it and envisioned playing the role of Sundance. The writer had always imagined Jack Lemmon for the role of Butch but he was no longer a right fit for the film. Hill assumed Newman would play Butch but when they first met the actor went on about Sundance – his motives and changes to lines in the script. A confused Hill told Newman that he was to play Butch. The actor disagreed and then re-read the script that night and realized, “the parts are really equal and they’re both great parts. So I said, ‘Okay, I’ll be Butch.’”

Warren Beatty heard about the script and wanted to do the film but when he heard that Newman was going to play Butch he wanted to play the character. He even claimed he could get Marlon Brando to play Sundance but when he got the script the actor wanted to play Butch as well! McQueen still wanted to play Sundance. He liked the script but was unhappy that Newman, the bigger earner and more impressive filmography, would receive top billing. When told of McQueen’s issue with billing, Newman refused to relinquish first star billing.

This cleared the deck for Robert Redford, who, at the time, was a rising star thanks to guest spots on television shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone, and was coming off the critically and commercially successful Barefoot in the Park (1967). He was acting on Broadway when he got the script for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and was wary as he suspected that he was being used to lure a bigger co-star for Newman. Redford’s agent, Goldman and others kept after him to read the script and meet Newman, which he did. They talked about everything but the film and Redford said, “We didn’t really need to, because right away there seemed to be this understanding that I would make the picture.”

Redford, Newman, Katharine Ross, Goldman, and Hill got together for two weeks of rehearsals in September 1968, which Newman loved. “What George did from the rehearsals onward was allow us to run with the script, to just go nuts, then nurse the whole shebang in the direction he wanted, which was original and visionary.” Filming began on September 16 in Durango, Colorado. Right from the start there was a brotherly relationship between Newman and Redford with the former playing on the difference in experience between them to create memorable moments that weren’t in the script. Hill said, “I played off Newman’s history and Redford’s newness. Up till then, Paul was known as the hard rebel loner of Hud or Cool Hand Luke. Bob was a blank sheet of paper. For the movie we made them goofballs, and because that was so fresh in context of what we were doing, it won over the audience.” During filming in Mexico, Redford and Newman bonded over drinks and playing Ping-Pong. They also played practical jokes on each other and engaged in good-natured trash-talk.

When the production relocated to Los Angeles to film the bicycle-riding scene that Hill added at the last minute to create a love triangle between Butch, Sundance and Etta, the director hired a stuntman and they argued that the vintage bike wouldn’t withstand the trick riding. While they argued Newman rode by standing on the bicycle seat, his hands on the handlebars. The stuntman was fired and Newman did his own riding in the scene.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid did not fare well with critics of the day. The New York Times’ Vincent Canby said it had “gnawing emptiness,” while Pauline Kael complained that it left her “depressed…and rather offended.” Time magazine felt that Redford and Newman were "afflicted with cinematic schizophrenia. One moment they are sinewy, battered remnants of a discarded tradition. The next they are low comedians whose chaffing relationship—and dialogue—could have been lifted from a Batman and Robin episode.” Even Roger Ebert felt it was “slow and disappointing.” Regardless, it performed very well at the box office, grossing $102 million and was nominated for seven Academy Awards, winning four: Best Original Screenplay, Original Song, Original Score and Cinematography.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid came along at just the right time. 1969 was a year of change. People were still reeling from the assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy as well as the Manson family murders during the summer of ’69 with Altamont just around the corner, all of which helped put an end to the Flower Power Generation and the idealism of the ‘60s. People wanted to feel good about something again and this film offered them a brief respite from what Hunter S. Thompson called, “the grim meat-hook realities” in his book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid laments the loss of an era with the Wild West acting as a metaphor for the ’60s. In some respects, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is the brother film to Easy Rider (1969), which also signaled the end of an era where the two main characters meet a violent end. They were a product of and defined by the times in which they were made. Butch and Sundance’s refusal to go quietly spoke to audiences. Their end was a more palatable version of Easy Rider for mainstream audiences that weren’t ready for the radical nature of that film or their two lead actors. Redford and Newman, on the other hand, were clean-cut all-American actors that the public knew they’d be safe going to see as opposed to the “damn dirty hippies” that Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda represented.

At one point, Butch says to Sundance, “Every day, you get older. Now that’s the law.”
They represent a dying breed: outlaw cowboys who find it increasingly harder to ply their trade. They are getting older and aren’t as fast and as tough as they used to be. And they are starting to feel it. Times are changing. Banks are getting harder to rob. Butch’s solution is to keep outrunning progress but eventually it catches it up to them at the end of the film. After the Summer of Love in ’67, the Hippies tried to hold on to it but time keeps moving on and you can’t stop it.


Feeney Callan, Michael. Robert Redford: The Biography. Vintage. 2012.

Levy, Shawn. Paul Newman: A Life. Three Rivers Press. 2009.

“The Making of a Movie Classic.” Life magazine. September 2019.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Tarzan, The Ape Man

“Audiences will come to see something that has been invented by Bo. She is a happening, not really an actress.” – John Derek

Sometimes the making of a movie is a more interesting story than the movie itself. There are legendary tales of runaway productions plagued by the clashing of egos, extravagant spending or unforeseen acts of nature. Such is the case with Tarzan, The Ape Man (1981), a vanity project directed by John Derek to promote the “talents” of his wife Bo Derek who, for a short time, was a sex symbol thanks to the critical and commercial success of 10 (1979). John managed to convince MGM to back his “vision” of the Tarzan story from Jane’s point-of-view. With Bo known more for her stunning looks than her acting chops, how could this go wrong? Plenty. The Dereks’ hubris knew no bounds as they managed to alienate the film crew, the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate, and the studio. Predictably, the movie was savaged by critics but people saw it anyway and it was a commercial success. The movie itself is incredibly inept on all levels. What is interesting is the story about how it got made with the Dereks exerting an unusual amount of control over the production.

The character of Tarzan was created by Edgar Rice Burroughs and first appeared in print in 1912. Son of a British lord and lady that were stranded on the east coast of Africa by mutineers, as an infant Tarzan was raise by an ape tribe. Once he became an adult, Tarzan crossed paths with Jane Porter, a young American woman who, along with her father and others, had been marooned on the same jungle area as Tarzan. The stories proved to be very popular and this led to adaptations in film, radio and television over the years. MGM bought the film rights in 1931 for the tidy sum of $100,000 and didn’t let it lapse for decades, much to the chagrin of the Burroughs family.

In 1980, actor-turned-director John Derek announced that he would remake the 1932 movie, Tarzan the Ape Man, promising a “sensual, erotic” update with his wife Bo starring (as Jane) and producing. Tired of being exploited by other filmmakers, she decided it was okay to be exploited by her husband and only make movies with him where she could do nudity on her own terms. For the Burroughs estate this was the last straw and they charged MGM with copyright infringement and sought unsuccessfully to block the release of the movie. They were upset that the Dereks’ project would steal the thunder from a long-delayed deal the estate had with Warner Brothers to make an officially-approved $15 million adaptation. The Burroughs family lost on both counts and filming went ahead as scheduled.

At the time, Bo said that their intention was to tell a story “that was bigger than life – something with the magic and fantasy that 10 had been. We wanted the story to be corny, romantic and more absurd than 10.” If the final product is any indication, they were successful in their goal. According to Bo, it was John that came up with the idea of telling the story from Jane’s perspective instead of Tarzan’s: “She has the perfect male who can’t talk, isn’t sophisticated enough to think he is superior to her and doesn’t have any credit cards.” John acted as his own hype man: “We are putting ourselves on the line in this one, arrogantly saying, ‘We know best and we can do it better.’”

After looking at the 1932 movie, famously starring former Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller, the Dereks realized that “we didn’t need to change anything to suit our idea: it really had been Jane’s story all the time.” They set about writing the screenplay with Gary Goddard, known more for his work on theme parks, who wrote it in two weeks. In a controversial move, the resulting script reduced Tarzan’s dialogue to a few grunts (he gets even less than that in the finished movie). The Dereks went back to Burroughs’ stories for inspiration, claiming that no one could have possibly taught Tarzan to speak English with his parents dead and raised by great apes.

After the financial success of 10, MGM wanted to get in the Bo Derek business and agreed to finance John’s vision for a new Tarzan movie. Right from the get-go the Dereks asserted their authority when they refused the studio’s offer to shoot the movie in a Hollywood safari park. They told the studio that they “would not film in a jungle Disneyland.” In June 1980, the Dereks spent two weeks scouting locations up the Amazon but found it “too dark and too dense.” Kenya was not right either as they couldn’t get close enough to the animals. They finally decided to film in Sri Lanka for the jungle, and the Seychelles Islands, 1,868 miles away, for the sea, the beach and the high cliffs they wanted. Understandably, the studio balked at expensive location shooting but according to John, “’We’ll leave the country and shoot the movie in some faraway place and John will direct and everyone can shut up.’”

The Dereks flew out to Sri Lanka on January 12, 1981 with a film crew of 23, a lion named Dandi, an orangutan known as C.J., three chimpanzees, two Irish wolfhounds and an 18-foot python they recruited from Thailand. Lee Canalito, a 27-year-old boxer-turned-actor standing 6’4” tall and weighing 280 pounds, was cast as Tarzan. His claim to fame was appearing as Sylvester Stallone’s brother in the ill-fated Paradise Alley (1978).

Problems occurred right away when the Dereks foolishly decided to spend their first night in a tent in the jungle instead of the hotel with the crew in order to get in the spirit of the story. They were soon driven out by mosquitos. They should’ve taken this as an omen. For the shoot, the Dereks ordered 150 elephants and on the first morning they only needed two. The problem? No one had ordered the elephants and it would take a week for them to walk to the location.

By their own admission the Dereks berated their crew who weren’t impressed with Bo and John’s management skills. She said, “I knew some of them weren’t going to last very long – and they didn’t. So every day, as people goofed or didn’t do their jobs – I said, ‘Walk!’ And they did.” Bo was flexing her producer’s muscle. “It was the first time dealing with people twice my age who I had to fire. They had made dozens of films. I hadn’t. But getting rid of someone wasn’t really difficult.” In the first 15 days of principal photography, Bo fired 15 of the 23 crew members, including Tarzan himself. According to Bo, “Lee had a beautiful quality with a Michelangelo face but he wasn’t the proud lord of the jungle.” When he was cast, Canalito was overweight and the Dereks had sent him to the gym to get fit. In the end, “when we saw the rushes; we realized there just too much jiggling.” When MGM cabled the Dereks asking what replacements they needed, they replied, “None. We’ll do it all ourselves.” Again, how could this go wrong?

Sam Jones, who appeared in 10 as Bo’s husband, was briefly considered to be Tarzan. After auditioning by swinging from a tree on a rope at a local Hollywood park, 26-year-old Miles O’Keeffe was cast as Tarzan and flown out with 24-hours notice. The 6’3”, 200-pound man was a former football player and psychology major, which of course made him the perfect person to play Tarzan. He arrived in Sri Lanka, drove four hours through the jungle and started filming immediately.

In the wake of all the crew firings it became a family affair with Bo’s mother, who had come along as a hairdresser, put in charge of wardrobe and makeup. Bo’s sister Kerry helped as an assistant director. Even Bo’s best friend was given a job. The remaining professional film crew ended up taking on ten jobs each. According to the rookie producer everything was going well: “As people went we had more fun, the problems were easier and we were getting better things on film.” As anyone who has seen the final product, this comment is more than a little surprising and speaks volumes of the couple’s hubris.

If the Dereks had problems working with their crew, they didn’t have much luck working with animals either. The lion they brought over was the wrong one and he didn’t like working with chimps and the elephants. Apparently, he didn’t like working with humans either. During the scene where Tarzan tries to drag Jane out of the water and onto the beach, Dandi’s leash broke. The animal lashed out at Bo with his paw, hitting her on the left shoulder which sent her sprawling back into the water. He then hit her on the right hip but slipped before he could strike again. Fortunately, the trainer and the rest of the crew intervened and subdued the lion.

Bo did get along with the orangutan but he got jealous when Tarzan started making love with Jane. The same could not be said about the chimps. “They may look fun but they are pigs to work with,” John said. The elephants were also a handful. The younger ones wanted to play while the larger ones wanted to fight. During filming they had to be tied to large trees that couldn’t uproot. Initially, the python was afraid of Bo but as filming progressed it became friendly and even tightened himself around her body during a scene. “I didn’t much care for the wrestling with him in the water because then he would slide his body between my legs and thighs.”

Tired of being judged solely on her looks, Bo wanted to be taken seriously – hence taking on the producer mantle. She wore many hats during the production, claiming to have dealt with money problems, checking the number of packed lunches that were needed and even acted as script girl for a while. She also found out the local caterers were charging too much for lunch and fired them. They were replaced by a messenger boy who was cheaper. John said of his wife, “Audiences will come to see something that has been invented by Bo. She is a happening, not really an actress.” Half of that sentence is accurate.

The production incurred more headaches when moving from Sri Lanka to the Seychelles Islands. Lions need jumbo jets to travel in. The only plane available was a 707 so John put the animal on a 747 out of Seychelles via London – a round trip of 11,663 miles. Filming mercifully wrapped on March 11, 1981. Miraculously, the movie finished on schedule (48 days) and on budget ($6.6 million).

The controversy continued as the Burroughs estate took MGM to court claiming that “Tarzan is nothing more than a spear carrier,” and Jane, “in sexual matters she is now the aggressor in a sense…The walking by Jane topless for long stretches seems pervasive.” The estate also objected to the “suggestion of sexuality” between Jane and her father and the “rubbing of Jane’s breasts” that took place in a scene where she was “leaning on all fours” in preparation for being raped by the Ivory King (Steve Strong). The estate also objected to a moment where a chimp “actually kisses her breast” and a scene at the end of the movie in which Tarzan, Jane and an orangutan “are almost simulating sexual activity.” The Burroughs estate claimed that the original 1931 license meant that all Tarzan films were intended for family entertainment and MGM violated the deal by allowing extensive nudity in the Dereks’ movie.

The judge presiding over the case screened the 1932 film, a 1954 remake with Denny Miller and ordered cuts in four sequences. The Dereks refused to make them so MGM did and resubmitted the movie to the judge who demanded additional cuts. He was finally satisfied after three minutes and six seconds were removed. An outraged John proclaimed, “Tarzan should be so lucky as to be made by us.” He fumed about the cuts: “Ninety percent of Bo’s nudity will be cut out. If that’s not censorship, I don’t know what is.” In protest, Bo went on Los Angeles television to announce that she and John were giving up their 10% of the gross and promised to contribute the money to saving gorillas endangered by poachers in Zaire.

It is safe to say that film critics were not kind to Tarzan, The Ape Man. Roger Ebert gave the film two-and-a-half out of four stars and wrote, "The Tarzan-Jane scenes strike a blow for noble savages, for innocent lust, for animal magnetism, and, indeed, for soft-core porn, which is ever so much sexier than the hard-core variety." In his review for The New York Times, Vincent Canby wrote, "To describe the film as inept would be to miss the point, which is to present Mrs. Derek in as many different poses, nude and seminude, as there are days of the year, all in something less than two hours. She is a magnificent-looking creature...However, as an actress she displays the sort of fausse naivete that is less erotic than perfunctorily calculated, in the manner of an old-fashioned, pre-porn-era stripteaser who might have started her act dressed like Heidi." The Washington Post's Gary Arnold wrote of John Derek's direction: "His approach to the mating of Tarzan and Jane is so revoltingly coy and his filmmaking style so inertly picturesque, like an arthritic imitation of The Black Stallion, that the movie is no more titillating than two hours of patty-cake."

After all the dust had settled, a bitter John called Hollywood “a hellhole,” claimed MGM “failed me,” said that the Burroughs estate was “arrogant and sue-happy,” the judge “made the Constitution a joke,” and felt that the press was “out to get us.” He had to feel, however, somewhat vindicated by the box office results as Tarzan made $36.5 million off a $6.6 million budget, but the damage had been done within Hollywood. Effectively burning his bridges, he made Bolero (1984) for Cannon Films once again starring Bo, which, in addition to being mired in production problems, was a critical and commercial flop. They made one more film together – Ghosts Can’t Do It (1989), which effectively killed off his filmmaking career. Bo continues to act in movies and T.V. with her most significant role as Brian Dennehy’s trophy wife in the Chris Farley/David Spade comedy Tommy Boy (1995).

The Burroughs’ estate got their classier, more faithful Tarzan film three years later with the unwieldly titled, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984), starring then-unknowns Christopher Lambert and Andie MacDowell, which, despite its talent behind the camera (director Hugh Hudson, screenwriter Robert Towne & make-up effects artist Rick Baker), didn’t exactly set the box office on fire. Hollywood continues to try to adapt Edgar Rice Burroughs’ most famous creation with John and Bo Derek’s version serving as a cautionary tale of giving too much creative control to filmmakers that clearly can’t handle it.


Harmetz, Aljean. “Tarzan was the Star Once, And Not Bo Derek.” The New York Times. June 10, 1982.

Hawn, Jack. “Tarzan Publicity a Blessing for Some.” Los Angeles Times. July 25, 1981.

Kelly, Sue & David Wallace. “Too Wild?” People. July 27,1981.

Lewin, David. “Bo Derek Takes to the Jungle to Bring Tarzan Back Alive.” The New York Times. July 19, 1981.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

Ever since his directorial debut with Reservoir Dogs (1992), Quentin Tarantino has made a point of casting actors that were successful but whose marketability has waned over time only to be marginalized by Hollywood. Once leading men, they became character actors or starred in B-movies. He doesn’t care about what’s trendy and has sought out these forgotten actors with the belief that they can be great again if given the right material – think of John Travolta in Pulp Fiction (1994) or Robert Forster in Jackie Brown (1997) or David Carradine in the Kill Bill films. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) is the culmination of Tarantino’s fascination with these kinds of actors as its two protagonists are an actor and his stunt double who have been pushed to the margins with one trying to get back into Hollywood’s good graces while the other has made peace with his lot in life. The irony is that Tarantino has cast two of the biggest movie stars in the world in these roles – Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt. The relationship between these two characters lies at the heart of the film – a sprawling, yet intimate epic set in Los Angeles at the end of the 1960s with multiple storylines whose end result is a love letter to that time and place.

Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) is a journeyman actor at a crossroads. His agent (Al Pacino) lays it out for him. He can continue doing guest spots as the villain on television shows like The F.B.I. or he can go to Italy and make westerns where he’ll be the hero, just like he was on the popular T.V. western Bounty Law. Rick isn’t convinced and we follow him and his stunt double Cliff Booth (Pitt) over the course of two days (with a third day six months later) as he takes stock of his life and career. The film follows three tracks – Rick and Cliff, up-and-coming actress Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), and, to a lesser degree, Charles Manson (Damon Herriman) follower Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) – as they occasionally intersect in all kinds of expected and unexpected ways. Once Upon a Time follows the trajectories of Rick, Cliff and Sharon with the former’s on the decline while the latter’s is taking off. All three are at crucial points in their respective lives and careers with the three days depicted in the film proving to be incredibly pivotal.

What I liked about this film is that you get to live with these characters. Like Jackie Brown, Tarantino’s best film up to this point, he takes the time to get know these characters by showing bits of business, like devoting a scene to Cliff feeding his dog (while the theme to the T.V. show Mannix plays in the background no less). Does it move the narrative forward? No, but it does provide us with insight into how he lives. This is a film rich in character behavior and it makes for a much more rewarding experience.

Leonardo DiCaprio turns in another fantastic performance as an actor with a fragile ego looking at the possible tail end of his career. Rick is created in the mold of Tab Hunter, Ty Hardin or Vince Edwards – actors that were heartthrobs in Classical Hollywood but were unable to adapt to the winds of change of the ‘60s when their kind of leading man changed to the likes of Peter Fonda and Michael Sarrazin. He must make a serious choice about what to do and fortunately for him Cliff is there to give him a boost when he needs it. The always-reliable stunt double acts as a cheerleader. DiCaprio brings his customary intensity but also shows a refreshing capacity for comedy, like when Rick has a meltdown in his trailer after he’s unable to remember lines in a scene, or surprising vulnerability, like when he breaks down in front of a child actor (Julia Butters) on the set of his latest T.V. guest spot.

Over the years, Brad Pitt has grown into his looks and has become increasingly comfortable in his own body and this has made him a better actor. He knows he has nothing to prove to anyone but himself and it is this assurance in his own abilities that results in one of his strongest performances to date. Cliff’s laconic self-confidence sets the tone for the entire film and provides a welcome counterpoint to Rick’s panicked uncertainty. This is Pitt’s most relaxed, confident performance since Killing Them Softly (2012) and one that allows to him inhabit a fully-realized character who certainly has his share of regrets but has made peace with his past.

We get to see Sharon Tate live and breathe again as she hobnobs with hip Hollywood elite like Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis) and popular musicians like Michelle Phillips (Rebecca Rittenhouse) and Mama Cass (Rachel Redleaf) at the Playboy Mansion in one scene. Margot Robbie delivers a vivid portrayal of the young actress and the best example of this is when, on a whim, Sharon goes into a theater showing The Wrecking Crew (1968) where she appeared along with Dean Martin and Elke Sommer. Tarantino stages a wonderful meta moment of Robbie playing Sharon watching the real Sharon on the big screen, basking in the audience’s enjoyment of the movie. While she may not have as much screen time as DiCaprio or Pitt (the film is ultimately about their characters), Tarantino weaves her in and out of the film for the entire running time so that there are echoes of her presence even when she isn’t on-screen.

For fans of esoteric pop culture, it is a real thrill to see Tarantino pay homage to ‘60s era T.V. by showing clips from Rick’s claim to fame, Bounty Law, which was patterned closely after Wanted Dead or Alive, however, unlike Steve McQueen breaking out from that show into high profile film roles, Rick continued playing characters on the small screen, missing out on that crucial part of a lifetime. Tarantino playfully intersects his characters with iconic historical figures, like Cliff’s amusing encounter with a cocky Bruce Lee (Mike Moh) on the set of The Green Hornet. For once, the filmmaker isn’t shamelessly ripping off other films and T.V. shows and passing them off as his own but instead referencing them directly or in the background of scenes.

Tarantino has made his first hang out movie. For the first half we are just following Rick and Cliff around as they drive through L.A. listening to music. Remember that? Ah, the simple days of driving around with your friends just enjoying each other’s company and listening to tunes on the radio or tape deck. Once Upon a Time captures that vibe beautifully. After the orchestral score for The Hateful Eight (2015), Tarantino returns to the mixed tape approach with 60 musical cues! What a soundtrack he has assembled for this film – perhaps his best – with local radio station KHJ acting as a Greek chorus of sorts with deep cuts from the likes of Paul Revere and the Raiders, Vanilla Fudge, and The Box Tops.

Tarantino and his production crew meticulously and lovingly recreate late ‘60s era L.A., immersing us in the sights and sounds of the downtown to the hills of the infamous Cielo Drive. Billboard advertisements on buildings and the sides of buses are on display prominently while also buried in the background of scenes. Long defunct movie palaces like the Pussycat Theater and the Aquarius Theatre are brought back to life, all of it adding to the rich tapestry of the film.

From its vintage Columbia Pictures logo to the KHJ Batman radio promo that bookend the film, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is Tarantino’s loving tribute to Sharon Tate, to Los Angeles and to making movies with the friendship between Rick and Cliff at its center. They have a bit of Burt Reynolds-Hal Needham thing going on and their rapport gives the film its unexpected heart. Tarantino has crafted the most substantial relationship between two characters since Jackie and Max in Jackie Brown. As Rick edges towards obsolescence is the filmmaker using him as a mouthpiece to convey his own thoughts about impending retirement from filmmaking? Perhaps. I like to think that of the many things Once Upon a Time is about it’s a tribute to the forgotten actors from a bygone era – people like George Maharis and Edd Byrnes – that are only remembered by a select number of devoted film fans if they are remembered at all. Tarantino’s film argues that their stories are worth telling, too.

Friday, June 28, 2019


While two generations separated us, one thing my Grandfather and I bonded over was our love of movies, namely Sergio Leone’s Man With No Name trilogy and Sean Connery James Bond movies. With the latter, he was old enough to have seen them when they first came out – their brand of ruthless violence and beautiful women appealed to him. He came from a time when men were men and women in spy movies were kittens in distress. I think he also admired Connery’s style and particular brand of machismo. Of course at my young age, I had no idea about any of this; all I knew was that he (a man of few words) and I (equally so) could enjoy those movies together, which is why the Connery Bond movies will always have a special place in my heart, Thunderball (1965) being my favorite. Conventional wisdom says that Goldfinger (1964) is the best movie of the Connery era but I love the ambition of Thunderball. It has the best action sequence and Bond girl from this period.

The movie’s opening prologue sets the tone right away as Bond confronts a widow that turns out to be a male enemy agent. They engage in battle that is quite intense – Bond finally kills him by breaking his neck with a fireplace poker. He proceeds to escape the scene with the aid of a jetpack! This segues into one of the most striking opening credits sequences, complete with beautiful women swimming underwater alongside men armed with spear guns, foreshadowing the movie’s exciting climax, all the while Tom Jones belting out the theme song with his trademark gusto. Maurice Bender uses color masterfully in this sequence, mixing a saturated palate of dark purples and blues with red, giving them a distinctive look.

SPECTRE are at it again. After eliminating a duplicitous agent, the organization gets down to business as their Number Two a.k.a. Emilio Largo (Adolfo Celi) has devised a plan to steal a NATO bomber carrying two nuclear warheads, then ransom them for $280 million. The British government has seven days to come up with the money or SPECTRE will bomb either a British city or an American one. I like that we only see the head of SPECTRE from the shoulders down. Remember when mastermind villains had an air of mystery to them? I’m always amused by the casual indifference Largo shows after one of his contemporaries is fried by the boss. Business as usual.

By sheer coincidence, Bond stumbles across this plot while recuperating, which mainly involves bedding the lovely female staff member (Molly Peters) there, at a spa in England, where he’s nearly killed for his troubles. This sequence features awkwardly blatant sexism as Bond initially forces himself on said staff member…then blackmails her into having sex, in lieu of not telling her superiors about a mishap that almost resulted in his demise. Bond’s attitude towards women is certainly the most problematic element of both the movie and the franchise. It is the aspect that has dated the movie the most.

Thunderball features one of the most exotic and gorgeous Bond girls – Dominique “Domino” Derval (Claudine Auger) – whose brother (Paul Stassino) was killed by SPECTRE and replaced by an imposter. Her “guardian” is none other than Largo, which gives Bond access to him. She doesn’t immediately give in to the spy’s charms, or fall into bed with him, either. She plays hard to get or, rather, she is the property of another man. That doesn’t last long once Bond enters the mix. Early on, he recognizes that Domino is different, telling her at one point that she swims like a man to which she cheekily replies, “So do you.” Claudine Auger plays Domino as someone candid and self-aware enough to admit that she’s a kept woman but one gets the sense that she’s biding her time. Domino uses Bond to help her escape from Largo – and then later as an instrument for revenge. It is an interesting relationship, to say the least. Auger conveys a wonderful vulnerability in the role, shedding tears when Bond informs her of her brother’s death. She isn’t an aloof socialite. She becomes determined to kill Largo and make him pay for what he did to her brother.

With his eye patch, Largo is one of the more distinctive Bond villains. He oozes confidence and power but is not afraid to get his hands dirty, exemplified early on when he kills an operative who has outlived their usefulness. He’s also not above feeding another to a swimming pool of sharks. He owns a yacht with the coolest name – Disco Volante, which would go on to become the name of Mr. Bungle’s second album (they’ve also covered “Thunderball” in concert). Largo’s finest moment is when he invites Bond to his estate. They trade thinly-veiled insults in a rather sophisticated dick-measuring contest, Largo casually threatening Bond with a shotgun while they shoot some skeet. Largo takes the first shot, nails it and says to Bond, “What could be easier?” Bond smiles and says, “Seems terribly difficult” before effortlessly nailing his shot: “No, it isn’t, is it?”

Bond, however, meets his match with Largo’s female enforcer Fiona Volpe (Luciana Paluzzi). She has no qualms about torturing his female assistant (Martine Beswick) then bedding him, proving to be just as aggressive as he is in the sack. She’s fully aware of Bond’s reputation and even calls him on it: “James Bond, who only has to make love to a woman and she starts hearing heavenly choirs sing. She repents, then immediately returns to the side of right and virtue,” which pretty much nails Bond’s relationship with women. She’s the most dangerous person in the movie, perhaps even more than Largo, and comes the closest to trapping and killing Bond in the movie, with one of her men managing to wound him.

The movie climaxes with a thrilling underwater battle of Largo and his men versus Bond and his, with dangerous sharks thrown into the mix. One of the frequent complaints leveled at Thunderball is that there are too many underwater sequences. While, the crashing landing and subsequent salvaging of the NATO bomber does drag on for too long, you’ve got the underwater meet-cute between Bond and Domino, Bond photographing Largo’s yacht, and Bond having sex with Domino in the ocean. Then there is the aforementioned underwater battle. Its critics say the sequence drags on too long but I love every minute of it. I like that Largo isn’t afraid to lead his men into battle. He’s not a criminal mastermind that lets others do the killing. He leads by example. This leads to a kinetic fist fight with Bond aboard the Disco Volante as Largo tries to escape, only for Domino to save the spy’s life and get her much deserved revenge as she delivers the killing blow – a rarity in the franchise. She is the first Bond girl to directly save Bond and the first one to kill the main baddie.

Thunderball ends in typical cheeky Bond fashion as he rides off into the sunset with the girl living to fight another day, in another installment. This marks the fourth and last of the truly essential Connery Bond movies that has it all: cool gadgetry (the yacht that can detach its rear half to make a speedy getaway), sharks, a nasty villain sporting an eyepatch, beautiful women (three of them!), and just the right mix of well-timed levity, and visceral action.

Friday, May 24, 2019

First Man

Ever since I can remember I have been fascinated by space travel. The seeds were planted in science fiction movies like Star Wars (1977) but my interest intensified in the early 1980s with the United States Space Shuttle program. If kids in the 1960s and 1970s had the space race between the Americans and the Russians, my generation had the Shuttles – incredible spacecraft that would hurtle into outer space to launch telescopes or rendezvous with space stations. The tragic Space Shuttle Challenger mission in 1986 where it exploded 73 seconds into its flight was a sobering reminder of the danger of these endeavors.

My interest in the Space Shuttles dovetailed with the release of The Right Stuff (1983), a historical biopic about the Mercury Seven astronauts that playfully exposed their flaws and celebrated these brave men. Over the years, my interest in the subject continued with films like Apollo 13 (1995) and so when it was announced that a biopic chronicling Neil Armstrong’s historic landing on the Moon was being made I was all in.

First Man (2018) is Damien Chazelle’s follow-up to La La Land (2016) and reunited him with his leading man Ryan Gosling playing Armstrong. As a result, anticipation for the film was high and then it failed to perform at the box office despite mostly glowing reviews. Some have speculated that the frivolous controversy over the omission of the planting of the American flag on the Moon as being unpatriotic may have turned off mainstream audiences, it was more likely Gosling’s historically accurate, reserved take on Armstrong, coupled with a somewhat detached point-of-view that probably turned off filmgoers. Who cares? First Man is a thoughtful, moving film that takes a visceral approach to the challenges of traveling into outer space.

Much like The Right Stuff, First Man starts off by putting its protagonist in peril. Armstrong (Gosling) is testing the X-15 rocket-powered plane by pushing it and him to the absolute limits as he escapes the Earth’s atmosphere. It is a gripping, visceral experience punctuated by a brief break of serene beauty as he takes a moment to admire the view of our planet from such a great distance. This soon gives way to sweaty, white knuckled panic as he has trouble re-entering the atmosphere. Chazelle makes sure we experience it right along with Armstrong and it sets the tone for the rest of the film.

It’s 1961 and Armstrong and his wife Janet (Claire Foy) are dealing with the death of their young daughter Karen. The taciturn Armstrong internalizes his feelings in front of everyone, only grieving by himself in private. He processes her death and goes immediately back to work but the powers that be ground him. While dealing with paperwork he notices a pamphlet for Project Gemini, whose focus will be on space exploration. In 1962, he applies for and is accepted into the program. The rest of First Man chronicles his journey and some of the challenges he faced on the way to achieving his goal: landing on the Moon.

Unlike The Right Stuff, First Man plays the astronaut training scenes straight-faced with the physical exercises depicted as grueling affairs that best the most determined men, like Armstrong, and the most confident, like Ed White (Jason Clarke), who are all pushed to their physical and mental limits. He spends little screen-time on this aspect of the program as it has already been depicted numerous times before.

Chazelle makes interesting choices on how he depicts certain events, like how Ed tells Neil about their friend and fellow astronaut Elliot See (Patrick Fugit) dying in a jet crash. Instead of going for the obvious close-ups on anguished faces, he shoots both men silhouetted in the frame of Armstrong’s front door. They accept the news with no emotion having been trained to be cool under pressure but when Armstrong comes back into the kitchen with his wife and son, Gosling conveys the inner turmoil through his expressive eyes and how every facial muscle clenches as Armstrong fights to keep in the emotions he’s feeling about the death of one of his closest friends.

Most of the film is experienced through Armstrong’s perspective. When he goes up in the Gemini 8, Chazelle depicts it through his P.O.V., quite often showing us what he sees – a seemingly endless array of dials and switches and then cutting to close-ups of Armstrong’s face as he reacts to this extraordinary experience. Once the rocket launches, Chazelle bombards us with a cacophony of sights and sounds as the noisy rocket shakes and vibrates violently, escaping the Earth’s atmosphere in an incredibly intense sequence.

Chazelle ratchets up the tension even more when Armstrong’s spacecraft suddenly loses control and plummets via a violent continuous left roll towards the Earth. The G-forces cause his co-pilot to pass out and within seconds of passing out himself, Armstrong manages to gain control, which is conveyed in jarring close-ups and kinetic editing as Chazelle cuts from Armstrong’s panicked eyes to the various switches and mechanisms he utilizes to keep alive. Chazelle juxtaposes these intense moments of Neil at work with his downtime at home presented in elegiac fragments reminiscent of the family scenes in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011). They aren’t traditional scenes with a beginning, middle and ending, but rather snapshots of the Armstrong family dynamic.

Gosling is excellent, delivering a complex portrait of Neil Armstrong. He digs deep and shows the man’s private side, how he doesn’t show emotion to anyone, even, at times, his wife, preferring to express it alone. His generation saw emotion as a sign of weakness. Any private reservations he has he keeps to himself. This lack of communication comes to a head, however, on the eve of his mission to the Moon. Janet finally has had it and confronts him, forcing her husband to talk to their children about the danger of the mission. It might be the last time they see him and she wants Armstrong to let their children know that. He is not afraid of many things but having an open and honest conversation with his family terrifies him. Gosling is incredible in this scene as he conveys how uncomfortable Armstrong feels in this situation, answering his children’s questions like a press briefing as he doesn’t know any other way. Gosling conveys the emotions brimming under the surface in his eyes while his body language gives nothing else away. It is this unflappable nature that makes Armstrong a brilliant astronaut but not the greatest husband and father.

For all his stoicism, Chazelle shows a lighter side to Armstrong when he and his wife recount how he wrote lyrics in the vein of Gilbert and Sullivan to the faux disbelief of their friends as they all break up into laughter. This is an important scene as it humanizes Armstrong. This portrait of the man feels authentic but it isn’t very audience-friendly. He isn’t an easy person to relate to or like and Gosling’s natural charisma tempers this somewhat but he doesn’t try to go for the easy route nor does the film and make you like him. It forces the audience to meet him on his own terms, which probably hurt its commercial appeal.

Jason Clarke turns in another wonderfully solid performance as Ed White, Armstrong’s best friend and one of the few people able to penetrate the man’s stoic exterior. He’s an astronaut, too, so he knows what Armstrong is going through but even he can’t relate to the part of him that is still dealing with the death of a child. He is aware of his inscrutable nature and allows White in further than anyone else. After the death of See, Armstrong doesn’t want to let anyone else get too close as he knows how dangerous their job is and doesn’t want to mourn yet another person close to him. When one of their own dies on a mission they all think that could have been them. That’s the reality of their existence: there is always a high probability that they won’t come back and First Man shows how it affects Armstrong and his family.

The actual mission to the Moon is masterfully recreated with Chazelle capturing all the technical details while also allowing for a bit of artistic license that feels right and remains true to the spirit of Armstrong’s character as he finally gets closure on his daughter’s death. While there is a certain amount of tension conveyed in the actual landing on the Moon (they almost run out of fuel), Chazelle tempers this with the wonderment of being there in a way that has not been done before in a fictional film. Everything Armstrong has done in his life has prepared him for this moment and instead of underlining how momentous landing on the Moon was for the United States and for the world, the director opts for showing what it means to Armstrong.

In 2014, Damien Chazelle was approached by the producers Marty Bowen and Wyck Godfrey with the book, First Man: The Life of Neil A. Armstrong by James R. Hansen they’d optioned for Universal Pictures. Initially, he had little interest in Armstrong or the space program and was unsure about doing an adaptation as well as something based on real life. Everything he had done before had been made up and personal. The more he read about the man, though, the more he was intrigued about the very private person that had experienced multiple tragedies, which included the loss of his home in a fire and the death of his daughter at age three. Chazelle was also able to find a personal connection – he could identify with the hard work it took to achieve something and realize a dream. He pitched First Man to Ryan Gosling but they started talking about La La Land instead and made that first. The director felt that both Gosling and Armstrong shared similar qualities: introverted, cool-under-pressure and men of few words. Working with the actor on La La Land and getting to know him personally confirmed that Gosling was right for the role.

Chazelle began looking for a screenwriter that could do the research needed and then transform it into a narrative. He met Josh Singer in 2015 and liked his passion for the project. While Chazelle was shooting La La Land, Singer worked on the script. For research, they visited NASA and met a few of the surviving astronauts like Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins as well as spending time with Neil’s wife, Janet.

As he began assembling his crew for the film, he sought out Nathan Crowley, the production designer on Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014), as he admired his practical approach: in-camera effects, miniatures, full-scale replicas, and lived-in sets. The look of the film was inspired by the archival materials that were uncovered during research and this included photographs the astronauts took in space, the LIFE magazine photos of the family, old home movies, photos the astronaut families shared, and seeing actual capsules. He also eschewed obvious themed films like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Apollo 13 in favor of films like Battle of Algiers (1966) and The French Connection (1971) that opted for gritty realism. He ended up compiling a 300-page dossier of images that the crew nicknamed “The Notebook” (in reference to the Gosling film of the same name) that he could refer to during the 58-day shoot.

Chazelle worked hard to separate the man from the mythology and wanted to show his range of emotions. He was interested looking at Armstrong on the family level with his wife and children. He also wanted to depict lesser known aspects of Armstrong’s life, like how he almost died in the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle while training for the Moon landing. Chazelle also wanted to remind people “how dangerous that first era of space travel really was,” and “make it as scary and uncertain as it really was.”

During filming, Chazelle told his cinematographer Linus Sandgren, “imagine we’re a fly on the wall, carrying a camera, running and gunning with these astronauts.” He wanted to do as much “in camera” as possible and for the actors to see what the audience would see, so if they saw the Earth out a window it was on a 35-foot-tall, 65-foot-wide LED screen. To film the space flight sequences, visual effects supervisor Paul Lambert used the screen to project 90 minutes of digital imagery created for the film. A replica spacecraft was built and mounted on a gimbal and synchronized to move in sync with footage on the screen. This allowed the astronauts’ surroundings to be filmed in real time. The footage consisted of 20 cans of 70mm NASA footage that was discovered at the Marshall Space Center in Alabama that had not been viewed in decades as the equipment to project it no longer existed. The filmmakers digitally processed and cleaned up the footage and used it in the finished film. Other footage, like the Saturn V rocket falling away was done with models built at varying scales. No blue-screen or green-screen was used in any shot. Only 726 effects shots were added in post-production.

To stand in for the Moon, Chazelle and his team found the Vulcan Rock Quarry south of Atlanta. Crowley and his team sculpted five acres of it to replicate the Sea of Tranquility. Shooting on location, however, proved to be challenging. On the first day it snowed and the schedule was pushed back a week. The specially built lamp that was 15 feet long, 200,000 watts – the most powerful movie light ever built to simulate the sun – exploded and caught fire 30 minutes into shooting due to the freezing temperatures.

First Man received mostly positive critical notices. In his review for The New York Times, A. O. Scott felt that the film was "strangely underwhelming. It reminds you of an extraordinary feat and acquaints you with an interesting, enigmatic man. But there is a further leap beyond technical accomplishment – into meaning, history, metaphysics or the wilder zones of the imagination – that the film is too careful, too earthbound, to attempt." Entertainment Weekly gave the film "A-" and Chris Nashawaty wrote, "Where the film really comes alive, though, is when it leaves the ground and soars into the heavens with all of its terror, beauty, unpredictability, and majesty. You’ve never seen a movie that captures space flight with this degree of authenticity." The New Yorker's Anthony Lane wrote, "Instead, the movie seeks to remold its protagonist in the image of our own era; it tells us more about us than it does about him." In his review for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw wrote, "It is a movie packed with wonderful vehemence and rapture: it has a yearning to do justice to this existential adventure and to the head-spinning experience of looking back on Earth from another planet. There is a great shot of Armstrong looking down, stupefied, at the sight of his first boot-print on the moon dust, realising what that represents."

It is the emphasis on the intimate in favor of the epic that helps First Man stand out from other films of its ilk. We know the actual event’s place in history and Chazelle opts for telling a more personal story about the man, never losing sight of that right down to the understated yet moving conclusion as Janet meets her husband after he returns from the Moon. Hopefully, it will find a new life on home video and rekindle interest in space exploration, something that people used to dream about and has become forgotten over the years as we’ve become mired in a multitude of earthbound problems.


Davids, Brian. “How Damien Chazelle’s First Man Took a Page Out of Christopher Nolan’s Playbook.” The Hollywood Reporter. October 12, 2018.

Galloway, Stephen. “Damien Chazelle Shoots the Moon: Oscar’s Youngest Best Director Grows Up with First Man.” The Hollywood Reporter. August 22, 2018.

Rottenberg, Josh. “How First Man Director Damien Chazelle and His Visual Effects Team Took Moviegoers to the Moon.” Los Angeles Times. October 16, 2018.