"...the main purpose of criticism...is not to make its readers agree, nice as that is, but to make them, by whatever orthodox or unorthodox method, think." - John Simon

"The great enemy of clear language is insincerity." - George Orwell

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

George Lucas vs. Star Wars

Now that I've had some time to reflect on Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) and the entire Disney trilogy, it has me thinking about Star Wars without George Lucas. The spark of inspiration came from this 2012 interview on StarWars.com with head of Lucasfilm Kathleen Kennedy and Lucas, which is very interesting, especially in regards to the following quotes:

At one point, Kennedy says, "The main thing is protecting these characters." Really? Then how does she explain killing them off over the course of the new movies? For me, I think that is the hardest thing to accept - characters that I love and cherish from the Original Trilogy being killed off and in ways that feel cheap. For example, I don’t mind the idea of killing off Han Solo (Harrison Ford) in Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015), but it is the way in which it was done that rankles me. It rang false and I expected a very heroic end for a character that deserved a proper demise. I was also fine with Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) death in Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2016), which was pretty badass but why did the filmmakers feel the need to kill him off? I’ve always felt that in the Lucas-controlled Star Wars movies, when a major character was killed off it meant something, it was significant – the notable exception being Boba Fett, which was silly and did a great disservice to such a cool character.

In the 2012 interview, Lucas sums up his vision of Star Wars brilliantly:

"There are people out there who don't play by the rules and if you're not careful you're going to lose all your freedoms. At the same time, those people that don't play by the rules because they are selfish and greedy, and turn themselves into evil people who don't care about other people."

Maybe I'm reading too much into this, but I don't think he's talking about Star Wars. He's talking about Hollywood and the studios. He's always been wary and suspicious of them going back to THX 1138 (1971) when the studio cut out five minutes of the film against his wishes. Perhaps that's why he sold off Lucasfilm. He was tired of all the bullshit and baggage that comes with dealing with them.

Check out the body language between Kennedy and Lucas in the 2012 interview and it is very telling indeed. One person can clearly state his vision for his cinematic world. The other basically parrots what has been said and some of what she says feels like lip service. Now, before you say it, I don't bear Kennedy any ill will and I don't buy into any of the conspiracy theories in regards to why Lucas sold off his company, but the more I think about Star Wars since he sold it off the more I find it less and less like what he originally envisioned it to be. Say what you will about the Prequel trilogy but at least it was the vision of one person as opposed to the Disney trilogy, which, at times, lacks focus – due in large part to the switch of directors on The Last Jedi and then back again on The Rise of Skywalker.

In some respects, I feel sorry for Lucas, especially in light of the excerpts from Robert Iger's book where he writes about how Kennedy, director J.J. Abrams, et al ignored Lucas' ideas for the new movies and went in a different direction. I understand the notion of striking out in a new direction but they didn't really do that did they? The Force Awakens is basically a rehash of Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) and Lucas wasn’t happy about that as Iger’s book states:

"Things didn't improve when Lucas saw the finished movie. Following a private screening, Iger recalls, Lucas "didn't hide his disappointment. 'There's nothing new,' he said. In each of the films in the original trilogy, it was important to him to present new worlds, new stories, new characters, and new technologies. In this one, he said, 'There weren't enough visual or technical leaps forward.' He wasn't wrong, but he also wasn't appreciating the pressure we were under to give ardent fans a film that felt quintessentially Star Wars.""

There it is in a nutshell the biggest problem with The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker: the filmmakers were more concerned with giving fans what they wanted instead of staying true to Lucas’ artistic vision. I’m willing to give the former a pass as it managed to renew my love for Star Wars, getting rid of the bad taste left by the Prequels, and introducing us to some wonderful new characters. It doesn’t hold up as well to repeated viewings now that the initial glow has faded. Lucas has made it clear that he was never concerned with what the fans wanted. He had a definite story he wanted to tell and knew how he wanted to tell it whether the fans liked it or not. This may explain why Rian Johnson’s installment – The Last Jedi – is so reviled in some corners of Star Wars fandom as he adhered to Lucas’ notion of remaining true to your own artistic vision. He said in an interview:

“I think approaching any creative process with [the purpose of making fandoms happy] would be a mistake that would lead to probably the exact opposite result. Even my experience as a fan, you know, if I’m coming into something, even if it’s something that I think I want, if I see exactly what I think I want on the screen, it’s like, ‘Oh, okay.’ It might make me smile and make me feel neutral about the thing and I won’t really think about it afterwards, but that’s not really going to satisfy me.”

The Abrams-directed movies are attempting to give the fans what they want instead of staying true to an artistic vision, while Johnson's movie refused to pander to the fans and they crucified him for it. Interestingly, it is the only one of the new movies that Lucas has publicly said he liked. As a result, we get Abrams returning to the fold to "right the ship" as it were with The Rise of Skywalker. The more I think about them, the more I find that they are lacking. I love the new characters but was disappointed at how the Original Trilogy characters were treated. I don't mind killing off characters but have it mean something, which I felt wasn’t the case in some respects. Again, why do they need to be killed off in the first place? It can be a cheap, narrative ploy. Why couldn't some of them just ride off into the sunset? Admittedly, these sentiments come from having grown up with these characters and having genuine affection for them. I feel protective of them.

Love or hate the Prequels at least they did tread new ground in terms of technology and refused rehash what came before in terms of plot and story. Lucas took us to new worlds and introduced us to all sorts of new characters. The problems with these movies is that Lucas surrounded himself with Yes-men whereas on A New Hope and Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980) he had people, like his wife Marcia and producer Gary Kurtz, keeping him in check, curbing his worst tendencies. It really started with Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983) where Lucas freed himself of anybody who would say a critical word, allowing him to indulge himself. It would only get worse on the Prequel trilogy with the awkward racist stereotypes, ruining the mystique of The Force, and the clumsy direction of young, inexperienced actors.

This is why I find myself enjoying and revisiting the non-Disney trilogy movies/shows, like Rogue One (2016), Solo (2018) and The Mandalorian (2019), more as they are in keeping with the same spirit and tone as Lucas' original vision. Maybe, just maybe, I judged the Prequel movies a little too harshly (well, Episode I: The Phantom Menace is still horrible) and I feel like I need to revisit them in light of now finally seeing the last installment in the Disney trilogy. Maybe my opinion of them will change.


Parker, Ryan. “George Lucas Thinks The Last Jedi Was ‘Beautifully Made’.” The Hollywood Reporter. December 12, 2017.

Parker, Ryan. “Rian Johnson Calls Pandering to Star Wars Fans a ‘Mistake’.” The Hollywood Reporter. December 18, 2019.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Natural Born Killers

The 1990s was a time when hard news intersected with tabloid journalism pushing popular culture into new, salacious directions as nobodies like the Menendez brothers, John and Lorena Bobbitt, and Tonya Harding became instant celebrities via high profile violent cases while celebrities like O.J. Simpson became embroiled in the decade’s most notorious crime and subsequent court case that quickly turned into a media circus. This was aided and abetted by the rise of tabloid journalism with television magazine shows like A Current Affair and Hard Copy plying their trade in trashy celebrity gossip and true crime stories.

Back then, Oliver Stone had a knack for having his finger on the pulse of the pop culture zeitgeist as he proved with Platoon (1986) kick starting an interest in the Vietnam War, The Doors (1990) renewing interest in Jim Morrison and his band, and JFK (1991) launching a cottage industry of conspiracy theorists. Using the clout he had garnered from a run of successful films, he convinced Warner Bros. to help fund and distribute Natural Born Killers (1994), an experimental social satire under the guise of a lovers-on-the-run story that was popular at the time (see Wild at Heart, Kalifornia, True Romance, et al). He used a screenplay, written by then-up-and-coming Quentin Tarantino, as a foundation in which to lay his trademark socio-political beliefs only this time attacking the media, which, as one can imagine, did not endear the film to critics at the time.

Stone employed the flashy, multi-film stock blending of news footage with his own that he had done so effectively in JFK and deliberately pushed it to new extremes by also using front and rear-projection photography as well as cel animation to create “a vortex of the unreal," as one critic put it. Stone’s film adopts the style of the culture it parodies and attacks tabloid media and MTV culture by using the hyperkinetic editing tempo of music videos as well as the constantly changing points-of-view within the film to mirror our channel-surfing culture. The end result predictably courted controversy, divided critics, performed fairly well at the box office, and inspired several, real-life copycat killings.

Right from the get-go, Stone establishes the absurdist tone of his satire with his introduction of Mickey (Woody Harrelson) and Mallory Knox (Juliette Lewis), two murderous lovers on the run, as they kill a trio of rednecks along with everyone else in a diner save one (so that they can tell the media what happened). The director also uses this opening scene to introduce the frenetic, chaotic collage of film techniques that immediately draws attention to itself as a film. For example, when Mickey shoots and kills the cook we see it from his point-of-view, the bullet from the gun stopping for a second in front of the terrified person before hitting them. Afterwards, the couple celebrates their love for each other by dancing with a song straight out of a classic Hollywood musical, the lights going down as a display of fireworks is projected on a screen behind them. This is an exaggerated, heightened reality with its own set of rules as Stone challenges the way we watch a film.

The opening credits push it even further as Stone assaults our senses with a cacophony of sights and sounds with layers of songs and sound effects playing over a montage of Mickey and Mallory driving through rear-projected imagery, including landscapes from the American southwest and nightmarish imagery, like Mallory’s father (Rodney Dangerfield) foreshadowing things to come. The director is commenting on the chaos that pop culture had become in 1994 with so much stimulus bombarding us all the time. The irony is that it has only gotten worse.

The story itself is quite simple. After killing her parents, Mickey and Mallory go on the road, initiating a killing spree that not only draws the attention of the authorities, led by “supercop” Jack Scagnetti (Tom Sizemore), but also tabloid television journalist Wayne Gale (Robert Downey, Jr.) who all want a piece of them – the former wants to kill Mickey and have sex with Mallory, while the latter wants to use them to further his career.

Mickey and Mallory grew up on T.V. and it is how they view life. This is particularly evident in the sequence that depicts how the two met and fell in love. Stone frames it as a sitcom by fusing the sensibilities of I Love Lucy and Married…With Children with comedian Rodney Dangerfield, in a brilliant bit of casting against type, as her monstrous father. Mallory belongs to a white trash family where spousal abuse, incest and sexual abuse are all referenced while a laugh track uncomfortably exposes how contrived sitcoms are, manipulating how the audience is supposed to feel at a given moment. It makes sense that Mickey and Mallory’s backstory is depicted in this way. They would process all of the bad things they experienced through the medium they were exposed to for most of their lives. It’s what they know. This sequence, along with Mickey’s escape from a chain gang, thanks to a well-timed tornado that we see him riding towards on a horse, are the couple self-mythologizing their lives, reinterpreting them in a way that empowers them instead of making them victims.

If the first part of the film is Mickey and Mallory seen through their eyes then the next part is seeing them through Gale’s eyes on his tabloid T.V. show American Maniacs, which allows him to perform his own self-mythologizing. The opening credits hilariously show him breaking down a criminal’s door and then getting spit on by another crook during an interview. We see one of his Mickey and Mallory segments and how he manipulates events through dramatic re-enactments to paint the cops as heroes and the murderous lovers as villains on very simple terms. Stone cuts to Gale’s team putting together the segment with one crewmember bemoaning the reusing of footage from a previous show. Gale scoffs, “You think those nitwits in zombieland remember anything? It’s junk food for the brains. Filler. Fodder. Whatever.” With his exaggerated Australian accent, Downey is hilarious here as the egotistical Gale. This segment also shows how Mickey and Mallory become a media sensation all over the world with one idiot saying, “If I was a mass murderer, I’d be Mickey and Mallory.” Stone is taking dead aim at the deification of murderers like Charles Manson, John Wayne Gacy and Ted Bundy who became infamous for killing people and glorified in film and T.V.

Stone makes a point of showing that Mickey and Mallory’s relationship is far from perfect as evident when they have an argument over him leering at their female hostage while having sex. She gets dressed and leaves only to go off and seduce a young mechanic (Balthazar Getty) in an attempt to feel wanted and desired but also to feel powerful as she initiates everything only to kill him when he recognizes her and tries to force himself on her. Her conflict with Mickey comes to a head when they run out of gas in the middle of the desert and happen upon a Native American Indian (Russell Means). He takes them in and his hospitality is rewarded when Mickey wakes from a particularly vivid nightmare about his abusive childhood and accidentally shoots the man. It is significant that it’s the one death they are remorseful about as Mallory angrily chastises him. To make matters worse, they are both bitten by rattlesnakes and manage to make their way to a drugstore saturated with garish green lighting where they are apprehended by Scagnetti in a scene that visually references the savage Rodney King beating and are sent to prison.

A year later, on the eve of the couple being transported to a mental hospital by Scagnetti after being declared insane, Gale arranges with Warden Dwight McClusky (a wonderfully unhinged Tommy Lee Jones) a live, one-on-one interview with Mickey that will air immediately after the Super Bowl. Downey is awesome in the scene where Gale hypes the interview in the hopes of convincing Mickey to do it: “This is Wallace and Noriega! This is Elton John confessing his bisexuality to Rolling Stone! This is the Maysles brothers at Altamont! This is the fuckin’ Nixon/Frost interviews!” Downey picks just the right words at just the right moments to exaggerate with his outrageous Australian accent that is a masterclass in scenery chewing. The actor manages to take it up another notch during the actual interview as Gale tries to make it all about him.

Known mostly for his genial goofball on Cheers, Woody Harrelson’s turn in NBK was a revelation at the time as he fearlessly shattered preconceived notions to play an unrepentant mass murderer. His finest moment is the prison interview scene as Mickey is introduced with a freshly shaven head and espouses his personal philosophy to Gale: “Everybody got the demon in here. The demon lives in here. It feeds on your hate. Cuts, kills, rapes. It uses your weakness, your fears. Only the vicious survive…You know, the only thing that kills a demon: love.” Amidst all the serial killer psychobabble this is the only bit that feels sincere and is arguably the film’s central thesis, which would explain why it ends the way it does.

The last 30 minutes of NBK are an insanely staged prison riot inspired by Mickey’s interview. He uses it to orchestrate a rescue of Mallory and then an escape with Gale, his film crew and two guards as hostages. This allows Stone to cut loose with all kinds of crazy imagery as prisoners fight it out with guards while Mickey and his group fight their way through the chaos. Amidst it all, Mickey and Mallory have a romantic moment when they are reunited before finishing off Scagnetti. Meanwhile, McClusky is losing his mind while losing control of the prison. Tommy Lee Jones is particularly inspired during this sequence as he delivers an increasingly hysterical performance with Downey matching him in the larger-than-life theatrical department. It’s as if the two actors had a running bet on who could chew up more scenery. Upon reflection, I think Downey wins as Gale goes from hostage to active participant, shooting and killing a guard trying to kill Mickey and Mallory. When the group lays low in a bathroom, Downey takes it up another notch as Gale, drenched in blood and grime, breaks up with his wife and is dumped by his mistress. He is then led out through a throng of guards with a shotgun taped to his head, talking to stay alive while McClusky rants and raves. It is a brilliantly sustained sequence set to a hysterical pitch.

Coming off making Heaven & Earth (1993), Oliver Stone’s marriage was on the rocks. He and his wife Elizabeth were having trouble communicating and she was upset that he continued to give into his wilder tendencies for women, drugs and alcohol. In 1993, Stone had dinner with producer Thom Mount and actor Sean Penn, whose film The Indian Runner (1991) he had produced. They had a screenplay written by then-up-and-coming filmmaker Quentin Tarantino entitled, Natural Born Killers, a contemporary Bonnie and Clyde story about a killer couple made famous by tabloid press and reality T.V. At the time, Stone didn’t know that Penn was going to direct it and that the rights were controlled by Don Murphy and Jane Hamsher, two novice movie producers that envisioned a low budget version.

Hamsher and Murphy were working out of her dining room at the time. They were looking to collaborate with young writers. At a party in April 1991, two people mentioned that Tarantino was going to direct Reservoir Dogs (1992) and his script for NBK was “near brilliant.” They met him and read the script, immediately wanting to make it into a film. It was, however, not easy to categorize and so they had a tough time finding someone willing to finance it. Next, they tried approaching filmmakers but that didn’t work either. They eventually met with Mount and he gave it to Penn.

Mount wanted Stone to produce the film under his company, however, after reading the script he wanted to direct. He said, “I felt attracted to it out of instinct…I know that starting to work on it has brought some turbulence up to the surface…there’s a demon in Natural Born Killers. There’s a demon that drives it. I can’t understand it exactly…but it captivates me.” Mount liked the idea of Stone directing and Penn was out, much to his chagrin. Stone also had to deal with Tarantino who was starting to get some clout in the industry after his debut film came out and wanted a say in the project. Stone remembers, “So I got an angry QT, an angry Sean Penn…There were a lot of legal hassles that we had to pay off to settle out people who might want to sue.”

Stone had to move fast. The wrap party for Heaven & Earth was on January 30 and on February 1, he put Murphy and Hamsher to work on Natural Born Killers. While editing the former he began production on the latter. Stone did not want to shoot Tarantino’s script as it was: “There was a structure and I liked the ideas and there were some very funny scenes, but it was not a movie I wanted to do…I always knew there was another level I wanted to try for.” He wanted to flesh out the relationship between Mickey and Mallory but didn’t have much time so he enlisted the help of long-time collaborator Richard Rutowski and tasked Hamsher with getting “one of your wild and crazy friends” to help them with rewrites. He wasn’t offering much money so she found David Veloz, fresh out of film school with no luck selling any of his scripts and ready to quit the business, whom she felt could write “extreme material that still retained its humanity.” He worked closely with Stone and added scenes like the argument the couple have in a motel room with a female hostage tied up in the corner. Stone also added a new first act with them on the road and flashbacks showing their backgrounds like the “I Love Mallory” sequence.

Rutowski introduced the idea of Mickey and Mallory wrestling with their inner demons and expressing them externally. Stone took Tarantino’s script and went deeper and bigger in scale. He said, “I didn’t want to make a realistic movie about serial killers. That was well done in Henry, Portrait of a Serial Killer. I’m really onto something else. It’s a larger portion of American life that’s enamored of violence, enamored of crime, promotes it on television, and eventually lives and dies by it.”

When Stone’s long-time cinematographer Robert Richardson read the script he didn’t want to do it: “I simply didn’t have the level of respect that I’d had for the written material on, say, Born on the Fourth of July or JFK. Each of those aroused in me a great deal of historical respect and intellectual curiosity.” Stone admitted that he played the “friendship card” with Richardson as he was feeling very vulnerable with his divorce looming over him and felt abandoned. To counter Richardson’s dislike of the material, Stone argued, “As far as the morality of the story was concerned, I argued with him that it represented the culture we were in, and that the picture was a satire, which required us to exaggerate and distort in order to make our point.” Richardson agreed to do it out of loyalty to Stone but it was an unpleasant experience for the man: “The story brought up unpleasant memories from my own childhood, and those memories plagued me to such a degree that my nights were literally sleepless.”

Working on such dark material put additional strain on an already fractured marriage. Stone felt that counseling wasn’t working and turned to meditation and immersed himself in his work, using NBK as a way to deal with his own demons. The filmmaker originally envisioned it as a medium-budget film a la Talk Radio (1988) for $10-12 million but the more he worked on it, the bigger in scale it became. Arnon Milchan financed the film. It was their third collaboration together and as the budget increased they approached Warner Brothers in the hopes that they would not only distribute it but market it as well. Stone wanted to use their considerable resources but the subject matter scared them and so they used their leverage when it came to casting.

Originally, Stone wanted Michael Madsen, who he had worked with on The Doors (1991), to play Mickey Knox and Juliette Lewis to play Mallory Knox, who convinced the director that she was right for the part and that “only I could play somebody who could tear your throat out with her bare hands.” The studio felt that the former wasn’t a big enough movie star and suggested Woody Harrelson instead. Stone agreed and with Robert Downey, Jr. cast as Wayne Gale – someone that Stone had always wanted to work with – he made a deal with the studio. The casting of Harrelson surprised many as all he was really known for at that point was the dumb but sweet bartender on the T.V. sitcom Cheers. Stone had done his homework. At the time, Harrelson’s father was serving a double life sentence for the murder of a federal judge and it was rumored that he was one of the “three tramps” arrested in Dallas the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. For the role of Warden McClusky, Stone had approached Jack Palance but once he read the script he turned down the part as he felt the film was too violent. On short notice, Stone asked Tommy Lee Jones, who had already worked with him on JFK (1991) and Heaven & Earth, and he agreed.

Rehearsals did not go well as Juliette Lewis showed up unprepared. She repeatedly missed kick-boxing lessons, shooting practice and workout sessions that were to develop her into a warrior character like Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991). Instead, she showed up to rehearsal one day and ordered room service, eating and smoking while Stone was trying to work. Meanwhile, Jones worked closely with hair stylist Cydney Cornell to achieve the distinctive look of McClusky: “I always thought those little pencil-thin toothbrush mustaches were really stupid. Huge Carl Perkins sideburns. They said, ‘What do you want your hair to look like?’ I said, ‘I think it ought to look like a ’57 Studebaker.’”

By 1993, Stone and his wife were separated and principal photography began on NBK in New Mexico. He set a blistering pace, shooting in several cities in a short period of time, which meant six and sometimes seven-day weeks with 16-17-hour days. By all accounts it was a wild shoot as on-set doctor Chris Renna remembers one night hearing a lot of noise coming from Lewis’ hotel room and four in the morning. He checked it out and found her and Tom Sizemore bouncing up and down on her bed with the Rolling Stones on the radio. Lewis then wanted to order cornflakes from room service even though Sizemore claimed he couldn’t eat them. She ordered eight boxes anyway and proceeded to feed him a bit of them. He spit the food all over her and the bed. He got mad and she apologized.

Stone shot the film on a wide variety formats: color and B&W 35mm, B&W 16mm, Super 8, Hi8, and Beta. According to Richardson, “We’re going for the grittiness you get from Super 8 or 16mm – a lot of the violence is being done with those formats.” Stone also used front and rear-projection techniques, computer graphics, bluescreen, and cel animation. In addition, he hired Paul Stojanovich, who had worked on the reality T.V. show Cops and the sensationalist talk show Geraldo, to design and direct the style of Wayne Gale’s American Maniacs tabloid show.

Stone devised a stylistic blueprint for specific parts of the film intended to simulate channel-surfing:

“At the beginning of the movie these two young people are really desensitized to violence. The concept is that the live in T.V. world and don’t realize the consequences of their actions…We incorporated those ideas into the movie by using rear-screen images. We wanted to give a sense of the schizophrenic madness of the century and to convey the feeling that the characters’ minds are hopped-up and speedy.”

Stone then changed the look of the film after Mickey accidentally kills that Native American Indian and he and Mallory are bitten by rattlesnakes: “The whole mood of the lighting changes into a greenish, poisonous hue to reflect the idea that the fun has ended.” In addition, each significant character got their own distinctive look with Gale getting a “television magazine” style, Scagnetti, “a lurid, pseudo-Mickey style because Scagnetti wants to be Mickey and possess Mallory,” and for McClusky, Stone wanted to create “a scary, ominous prison that suggested punishment.” For the climactic prison riot, “the look is one of complete chaos – everything but the kitchen sink.”

After New Mexico, filming moved to Joliet, Illinois at a large prison known as Statesville. Of the 2300 inmates, 800 expressed an interest in being part of the film with only 342 cleared by the authorities to actually participate. It was a tough shoot as Richardson said, “I hated it there. Besides the difficult conditions, there is a real racial attitude in the prison because you’ve got thousands of mostly black men being incarcerated and ruled over by mostly white guards. A lot of them resent us being here.” The demands of shooting there increased the budget as did using rear-screen projection while also taking more time. In one day there were five injuries on set and on the next day during the scene where Scagnetti bursts into Mallory’s cell and tries to rape her, Lewis passed out between takes, tired from being up until five in the morning. A few takes later she achieved the energy levels Stone wanted and accidentally smashed Sizemore in the nose for real. He began bleeding and after it was decided that his nose wasn’t broken they finished the scene, using it for the shot.

Stone yelled at her and said later, “We’ve been having all these problems, and she wasn’t responding, I had a bunch of squibs going off, and she was missing her cues, her lines, her marks, and I said, ‘Look, people can get hurt. It’s a real serious thing, you can’t just take it that easy. You have to do it right.’” The prison scenes were the most expensive and difficult to shoot as they filmed in a real prison with real inmates and real weapons. There were limitations where they could shoot and for how long. He ran into problems with the prison authorities when he told them that he wanted to use prop guns during the riot scenes as they were worried that the weapons would be disassembled and used to make real weapons. Stone made a few calls to the right people and the prison authorities allowed it so long as real inmates weren’t near the filming area.

For six weeks the production split their time between shooting the prison riot scene on location and on a large film stage with technical consultant Dale A. Dye and stunt coordinator Phil Nelson staging the sequences. They studied case histories of prison riots and looked at what kind of weapons inmates would make, what from and where they would hide them. They also talked to corrections officers about homemade weapons. Dye said, “This is not a protest, but a riot. These guys aren’t going to hold signs that say, ‘You piss me off.’ They’re going to pop your eye out of its socket and skull-fuck you.” He remembered one take during the riot scene where someone started firing their gun before action was called: “The prisoners freaked out. They and I thought the guards were really firing. There was sheer panic and terror.”

In addition to producing, Hamsher was instrumental in picking songs for the film’s eclectic soundtrack. She wanted alternative rock music in the film and made mixed tapes for Stone of music she wanted to use: L7, Jane’s Addiction, the Velvet Underground, and Diamanda Galas among others. She wanted to challenge Stone and figured he would never go for it but much to her surprise he loved it and even played some of the music during filming to set the tone for a given scene.

Filming wrapped in July and the monumental task of editing all the footage that had been shot began. Stone kept asking Milchan if he could make NBK NC-17 and the mogul agreed but argued that it would limit the places to advertise and screen it. Milchan said, “What he was doing was testing how far he can go…My guess is that he will go for the most extreme version possible. He’ll test it. Push it as far as he can.” Sure enough, the film went to the rating board five times before it got an R rating.

Stone saw his film “constructed via television and as a homage to T.V…There’s the aggression of the imagery, the channel-surfing philosophy of moving on.” He also felt that it was not “an easy movie to settle into, you can’t get a point of view, you have to surrender to the movie. If you resist the movie with conventional ethics, you’ll have a problem.” Not surprisingly, the studio and exhibitors were apprehensive about this ultraviolent film bound to be controversial. An unnamed studio executive admitted, at the time, that it was “a very difficult film to sell. How do you sell a film about two despicable people and the media turning them into heroes?” They opted to play up the social satire aspect rather than it being about vicious killers.

Predictably, Natural Born Killers polarized critics. In her review for The New York Times, Janet Maslin wrote, “Despite isolated moments of bleak, disturbing beauty, it is finally less an epiphany than an ordeal. Not for the first time, Mr. Stone assembles an arsenal of visual ideas and then fires away point-blank in his audience’s direction…While Natural Born Killers affects occasional disgust at the lurid world of Mickey and Mallory, it more often seems enamored of their exhilarating freedom.” The Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers wrote, “Stone calls this bile satire. But it’s not satire to skewer idiots. Satire respects the insidious power of its targets. Satire takes careful aim; Killers is crushingly scattershot. By putting virtuoso technique at the service of lazy thinking, Stone turns his film into the demon he wants to mock; cruelty as entertainment.” In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson wrote, “The main problem with Killers, though, is that it degenerates into the very thing it criticizes…Killers is intended as a gonzo critique of the mass media and, by extension, of the bloodthirsty legions of couch potatoes whose prurient taste guarantees that the garbage rises to the top of the charts. But the film doesn’t make it as a piece of social criticism. Primarily this is because the movie’s jittery, psychedelic style is so obviously a kick for Stone to orchestrate.”

Not all critics hated the film. Roger Ebert gave the film four out of four stars and wrote, “Seeing this movie once is not enough. The first time is for the visceral experience, the second time is for the meaning. As we coast into a long autumn where the news will be dominated by the O.J. Simpson trial, Natural Born Killers is like a slap in the face, waking us up to what’s happening.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, “In Natural Born Killers something revelatory happens. The movie is enlightening, not because it transmits new information, but in the way that movies enlighten, through a synergy of images and rhythms that makes us sense the world in a new way…Stone’s flabbergasting movie cannot be dismissed; it must and will be fought over.”

Natural Born Killers reflects the rise of sampling culture in the ‘90s with hip-hop and industrial music sampling clips from movies, T.V. and other music. Stone does this both audibly, with collages of songs and dialogue that plays over certain scenes, and visually as Mickey and Mallory watch clips of movies that Stone himself wrote – Midnight Express (1978) and Scarface (1983). It was a technique that he had started using in JFK and perfected with NBK to mimic the sensation of changing channels complete with a commercial. Exploitative T.V. shows like A Current Affair no longer exist as all news has become fear-mongering in nature. Take Inside Edition and replace it with Fox News or MSNBC where there is no absolute truth, which continues to make Stone’s film relevant. What NBK is trying to say is that you can’t trust any of these things. You have to trust yourself. You have digest all of this information, figure out what is misinformation and decide for yourself.


Pizzello, Stephen. “Natural Born Killers Blasts Big Screen with Both Barrels.” American Cinematographer. November 1994.

Riordan, James. Stone: A Biography of Oliver Stone. Hyperion. 1995.

Russo, Francine. “There’s A Riot Going On.” Village Voice. August 23, 1994.

Smith, Gavin. “The camera for me is an actor.” Film Comment. January-February 1994.

Smith, Gavin. “Somebody’s gonna give you money, you do your best to make ‘em a good hand.” Film Comment. January-February 1994.

Smith, Gavin. “Oliver Stone – Why Do I Have to Provoke?” Sight and Sound. December 1994.

Weinraub, Bernard. “How a Movie Satire Turned into Reality.” The New York Times. August 16, 1994.

Williams, David E. “Overkill.” Film Threat. October 1994.

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.