By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
In 1969 Kaye won one of the initial 12 fellowships to the new American Film Institute Conservatory, then ensconced behind the walls of Beverly Hills' Greystone Mansion — Brandy had been his front-gate key. His colleagues at Greystone included Terrence Malick, David Lynch and Schrader, the program's lone film critic. Even among these and other strong-willed talents, Kaye projected a formidable persona — a freebase of East Village cool and Topanga weirdness.
"Stanton," remembers school contemporary Carroll Ballard, "was one of the greatest hustlers on Earth — he was absolutely charming." Ballard, who would become a director (The Black Stallion, Fly Away Home, Duma), had attended UCLA with Kaye and remembers his ability to talk himself into any party he wanted.
"He came by my place on the beach once," Ballard remembers. "We drank some wine, and he talked about LACMA's opening party. He said, 'Come on, let's go over there — I can get us in.' He somehow got us in — we crashed one of the damnedest parties I'd ever seen."
The AFI came into being in 1967 thanks to funding from Lyndon B. Johnson's newly created National Endowment for the Arts. AFI's founding director, George Stevens Jr., saw a chance to use federal money not only to study the history and theory of film, but also to fund independent films — and connect with the New Hollywood of the Warren Beattys and Robert Townes that was boisterously emerging from the canyons and flatlands to the east of Greystone.
"It was much different then," Schrader says of AFI. "Everything was free and it had a 2-1 teacher-to-fellow ratio. It was more like a club than an institute."
(Neither Stevens nor anyone associated with AFI, past or present, responded to repeated interview requests for this article.)
By 1969 Stevens was ready to undertake the school's biggest gamble — the complete funding of a film project chosen from among its fellows' scripts. The film would not simply be a big-budget student movie — the finished product would receive commercial distribution, people would see it in theaters. And money could be made — there was that too. Kaye, a high school dropout, signed a real director's contract to inaugurate the institute's golden age of federally funded filmmaking, beating out the bright young film B.A.s from UCLA and USC.
"I wasn't really annoyed, because I thought he was a genius who was going to be the next big thing," says Ballard, who at the time was hoping AFI would shoot a script he'd written about Thomas Jefferson.
Others were less sanguine.
"The AFI at that time, they had some really talented people," says veteran cinematographer Caleb Deschanel (The Right Stuff, Titanic). "I just don't know why they picked him."
Paul Schrader feels he knows the reason. "AFI operated as George Stevens Jr.'s club," he says. "George's idea was that it would be a little boutique studio. And Stanton was his fair-haired boy."
Kaye had once wanted to make a movie about pioneers from the doomed Donner Party, but the story he and Stevens settled on was an allegorical Western concerning a mining enterprise on the frontier — though not any frontier that John Ford fans would have recognized.
"It was set in the scientific future, it had robots in it," Kaye recalls. "A small group of disenfranchised people in this small town come at night and try to tear apart the mining operation."
Specifically, the disenfranchised were a tribe of Indians who had been forced off their ore-rich land by private speculators who surrounded the mine with a giant red, electrified fence. The story focused on them and a young man who comes West and falls in love with the wife of the mine's overseer. It was inspired by persistent legends, fueled by Southwestern cave petroglyphs, of Aztec gold having been buried in North America.
In Pursuit of Treasure was shot over 11 weeks in 1970 with Panavision cameras in Kanab, Utah, with union waivers, a $220,000 budget and even logistical help from the state's National Guard. It featured young actors Scott Glenn, Elizabeth Hartman and Bonnie Bedelia, along with such veterans as Marc Lawrence and Jay Silverheels, the Mohawk* actor known as Tonto in the Lone Ranger TV series. Czech cinematographer Bedrich Batka would eventually shoot most of the principal photography, with Deschanel heading up the second unit.
Almost from the start, however, the project fell behind schedule, eventually imploding, its budget ballooning to $408,000. Everything seemed to go wrong. A wall constructed for a set blew down during a storm, and night scenes that had been scheduled to be shot on Hollywood sound stages were attempted on location — only to be ruined by the sound of crickets. One critical scene was shot with a grain of sand in the camera's film gate, resulting in a long scratch trailing down the middle of the footage. Kaye ended up firing his original cinematographer, Stevan Larner, who had once been his UCLA film instructor. In order to simulate a flock of dead sheep, live sheep had to be repeatedly knocked out with injections for numerous takes, with no clear prediction of when they'd awake. (Some didn't.) Kaye's girlfriend left him during the shoot, but worse, his father died. Kaye had cast him in the role of an old miner, but Edward never made it to Utah — although, Kaye says, the old man would recite his lines as he lay in his bed at the UCLA Medical Center.