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Grindhouse Gang

Tarantino on location: When he says action, he really means it. (Andrew Cooper/The Weinstein Company)

Tarantino on location: When he says action, he really means it. (Andrew Cooper/The Weinstein Company)

The following interviews were conducted on the evening of March 31. Sadly, as this story was going to press, it was reported that Bob Clark was killed in a head-on car crash on Pacific Coast Highway in the early-morning hours of April 4. His son Ariel, a passenger in the car, was also pronounced dead at the scene.

It was during a typically long and muggy Florida summer that I first wandered into the dimly lit recesses of a local video store and plucked from its dusty shelves the movies of the Australian suspense maestro Richard Franklin, including his 1978 Patrick, with its comatose yet telekinetic title character. In short order, I would similarly discover the work of the American urban-terror specialist William Lustig (of Maniac and Maniac Cop fame), and that of the Italian splatter king Lucio Fulci (New York Ripper, Don’t Torture a Duckling) — my fondness deepening, with each successive trip to the rental counter, for the golden age of grindhouse cinema. It was only later that I came to realize how thoroughly VHS and cable had cannibalized the theatrical exploitation market, so that by the time I made it to New York and Los Angeles in the 1990s, the decaying movie palaces along 42nd Street and Hollywood Boulevard that once served up exploitation movies by the pound had shuttered or been converted into more traditional places of worship (those with altars in place of screens). Low-budget horror and action quickies were now being manufactured almost exclusively for the home-video market. Per Norma Desmond’s prophetic words, the pictures really had gotten smaller.

Among contemporary filmmakers, none harbor greater affection for (or have been more influenced by) this bygone era than Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, whose Grindhouse offers a vintage double-header (complete with ersatz trailers and print damage) of cheap thrills and gory chills, starting with Rodriguez’s eco-horror zombie movie Planet Terror and concluding with Tarantino’s edge-of-your-(car)seat thrill ride Death Proof. Yet, when I proposed to these two nostalgia junkies that, in lieu of a conventional interview, we might organize a kind of roundtable with a few favorite grindhouse veterans, little did I imagine the historic meeting — or, to quote Tarantino, summit — that was about to transpire. Only too happy to answer our call were Richard Rush, who began his career with the classic biker movies The Savage Seven and Hell’s Angels on Wheels; Bob Clark, who directed the 1970s creep-outs Children Shouldn’t Play With Dead Things and Black Christmas before going on to create the Porky’s franchise; and the British-born Brian Trenchard-Smith, whose résumé ranges from directing Steve Railsback in the cult classic Escape 2000 to latter-day entries in the Leprechaun and Omega Code franchises. Joining them would be three alumni of the Roger Corman dream factory: Allan Arkush (Hollywood Boulevard, Rock ’n’ Roll High School), George Armitage (Private Duty Nurses, Vigilante Force) and Lewis Teague (The Lady in Red, Alligator).

Like the great B-movie directors of the 1950s before them (and Tarantino and Rodriguez afterward), these industrious auteurs often bridged the gap — or muddied the waters — between grindhouse and art house, with Rush going on to receive an Oscar nomination for his direction of The Stunt Man, while Clark helmed the elegant Sherlock Holmes–meets–Jack the Ripper thriller Murder by Decree and that holiday classic known as A Christmas Story. Some, like Teague, graduated to studio tent-pole fare (The Jewel of the Nile), while others, like Arkush, settled into careers in network television. The elusive Armitage emerged in the 1990s from a decadelong hiatus to deliver two memorable slices of modern pulp fiction: Miami Blues and Grosse Pointe Blank. The recent work of Trenchard-Smith, perhaps the most unpredictable of the lot, includes the 9/11-themed Showtime docudrama Time of Crisis and two films (Tides of War, In Her Line of Fire) in the burgeoning subgenre (who knew?) of gay-themed action movies.

As we convened over dinner on the night following Grindhouse’s first press screening, the admiration flowed freely between the masters and their disciples, while the conversation (particularly when Tarantino himself held forth — which was often — with his exhaustive inventory of B-movie arcana) encompassed such obscure objects of cinephilic desire as the forgotten low-budget master William Witney, the Filipino action director Cirio H. Santiago and the sexploitation actress Candice Rialson. Above all, the discussion offered a reminder that, for the filmmmakers present, no matter where their careers have taken them, their hearts will always belong to the grindhouse. What follows are highlights culled from that evening, with the caveat that, per Tarantino’s own sage advice, I have elected to keep some of the magicians’ secrets just so.

ARKUSH: Sometimes, I’ll just yell, “Freedom take. Do anything you want as long as you hit the same marks.” Of course, they do it kind of the same, but they feel that the pressure’s off and they give it that little extra something.

TARANTINO: That’s it!

CLARK: The amazing thing for me was that it didn’t feel like a contrived master shot. It felt organic and real. If you hadn’t told me that they had the day before to prepare and you’d just come in that morning and done it, I would know that you were a god and not just a good filmmaker.

TRENCHARD-SMITH: It was an extraordinarily risky thing to do, because it’s the presentation scene for [Death Proof star] Zoe Bell, and she really has to have her personality on and be absolutely letter-perfect. If there was a flaw in her performance, it would have affected everything.

TARANTINO: That’s when all of a sudden the good idea isn’t such a good idea anymore.

CLARK: Was Zoe the one actually on the front of the car.

TARANTINO: That’s her the entire time. There’s no stuntwoman. She was the stuntwoman. If you see a shot of just her hand, it’s her hand. She made a point of saying, “Look, I’m hired as a stunt person, so if you cut to just a foot on the fender, I want it to be my foot. I’m doing the entire performance. I’m doing what I always do, except I’m doing acting too.”

TRENCHARD-SMITH: I assume you had some kind of mount hidden under her stomach for some of those shots where she’s facing forward on the hood of the car?

TARANTINO: What we had was a single wire connected to her that ran through the hood, through the engine and into the back seat, where a stuntman was crouched low on the floor with a blanket over him, holding on to her. It had to be a human doing it, because he had to give her some slack and then hold her when it came time to hold her. It was a whole human experience. There were no mechanics involved other than a wire that a man was holding on to.

CLARK: The tone and the style was completely different from Robert’s movie. And the three trailers... I want to make one of those movies. They were outrageously funny.

TRENCHARD-SMITH: What were the shots that the MPAA cut out of those?

TARANTINO: There’s been a rumor that we had a problem with the MPAA. We actually didn’t. That rumor happened before we’d even shown them the movie. It’s interesting, because I’ve never had a big problem with the MPAA. There’s some negotiation that goes on every once in a while, but they respect me and my stuff, and it’s pretty cool. What’s actually really funny is that when it came to Robert’s film, they said one thing to him. It was about the one zombie attack that didn’t have a humorous edge, that was a little bit more violent and rough. That was the one where they said, “Maybe we could lose a little bit from that.” But everything else they understood. Here’s the deal: We had no test screenings on this movie, because we didn’t have time. We had an April 6 release date, and we finished cutting our negative last week. So, when we were talking to the MPAA, they were actually the first people to see the goddamned fucking movie, and they were so down with everything that we were like, “I guess the humor works!”

RODRIGUEZ: They were our test audience.

TARANTINO: Look, I am not against the MPAA. I’m a big supporter of theirs, because without them, we’d have every jerkwater county in America coming up with obscenity laws, and that’s a dangerous road. That’s the road where Lenny Bruce gets put in jail and people are thinking about prosecuting Jack Nicholson for starring in Carnal Knowledge. So, they’ve got a hard job to do, and I’ve always appreciated them. But in this instance, they just kind of got it. Even when we did From Dusk Till Dawn, the one decision we made early on was to give the vampires green blood, because it’s not blood that the MPAA dislikes — they dislike the color red. We threw green everywhere, and they didn’t give a damn. Same thing with Kill Bill: You go to black and white, and suddenly the blood turns from crimson red to black oil. Intellectually, you know it’s blood, but if it’s not red, no worries.

TRENCHARD-SMITH: I’ve found that if you give them a couple of shots to cut out, then they’re happy. With the beheading scene in Night of the Demons 2, it needed exactly the number of shots that it had in the final cut, but I put in a few extra shots of squirting torso and head rolling, and they said, “Trim this scene down.” So, I took those shots out, and it was just the way I wanted it.

ARKUSH: At New World, we used to have to run the trailers for the MPAA and sit there and take notes. Roger used to only allow black-and-white dailies, so then you’d dupe the dailies and cut the trailer from those, by which point you couldn’t tell what was going on. Later, the MPAA would get all these complaints, because there was blood everywhere. So, then they said that we had to show the trailers in color.

TARANTINO: Here’s something I want to talk about, and, Allan, you’re the guy to talk about it because you did trailers: If movies have entered a less sensationalistic time than what existed in the late ’60s and throughout the 1970s, trailers have changed completely! The trailers I have from the ’70s, you couldn’t get that stuff in a feature today, let alone the fucking trailer!

ARKUSH: The Grindhouse trailer is so much like the old New World trailers, I ran it five times the other day. When the narrator says “two” over the shot of her breasts, that’s like when we used to say “Pam Grier’s two biggest hits!”

RODRIGUEZ: We referenced those trailers all the time. Originally, we were going to do more fake trailers ourselves, and we were going to keep cutting to a shot of a helicopter blowing up.

TARANTINO: You guys put that helicopter shot in every trailer, including Jackson County Jail, which is the one I remember best. Tommy Lee Jones shoots a shotgun out of a window, cut to a helicopter exploding. Then I see the movie: Where’s the fucking helicopter?

ARKUSH: On Crazy Mama, Jonathan Demme, who’s a brilliant director, never got a shot of Cloris Leachman, who played Crazy Mama, firing a gun, which to Roger was like sacrilege. At one point, she waves the gun around and sticks it out the window of the car. So, when we were cutting the trailer, as soon as the gun cleared frame, we added the sound of a gunshot and cut to a helicopter blowing up, which we lifted from a Cirio Santiago movie.

TARANTINO: Cirio Santiago happened to be in town recently, and I became the first person to do an in-depth interview with him about his entire filmography. We did a 90-minute interview at my house, and it’s going to be on the Grindhouse Web site.

ARKUSH: George, didn’t you produce one of Cirio’s films?

ARMITAGE: I didn’t produce any of those. Demme and Joe Viola produced that one they shot in the Philippines [The Hot Box]. Cirio was around, though. We would hang with him.

ARKUSH: Cirio was so cheap that when he would send us the movies, they were only spliced on one side.

TARANTINO: I heard stories of Scotch-tape splices! Is that true?

ARKUSH: Exactly. We would get the prints in order to cut the trailer, and we’d go through and resplice them on both sides. There was one called TNT Jackson and Dynamite Wong. Roger said, “I don’t like Dynamite Wong — he’s gone.” So, it became just TNT Jackson. And the ad line was “TNT Jackson. She’ll Put You in Traction.” But to this day, Roger tells me with great affection that his favorite ad line was the one I came up with for Eat My Dust: “Ron Howard Pops the Clutch and Tells the World to Eat My Dust

TARANTINO: By the way, that’s poetry. I can recite that in my sleep.

ARKUSH: It came to me in the shower, and I ran to the editing room.

TRENCHARD-SMITH: I liked his line for Shogun Assassin. “Shogun Assassin: He’ll Kick Your Ass In.”

ARKUSH: “Cover Girl Models: They Don’t Need Clothes to Strike a Pose.”

TARANTINO: Yes! I loved Cover Girl Models. Of Roger Corman’s three-girl movies, that would be my third favorite after Night Call Nurses and Private Duty Nurses. I’m also a fan of Hollywood Boulevard, though I almost don’t consider it in the same vein, because it is a wink at those. It’s not a three-girls movie proper; it exists outside of them.

ARKUSH: I still have a Xerox of my paycheck: I was paid $85, and we shot it in 10 days.

TARANTINO: And can I just say that of all the sexploitation actresses — and there were some goddamn good ones, in particular the brunette in Night Call Nurses — Candice Rialson had a star quality.

ARKUSH: A toast to Candice Rialson, who passed away last year.

[Clinking of glasses.]

TARANTINO: Candice Rialson had a wonderful quality about her, and not only was she sexy as all get-out — the quintessential stripper girl in every way, shape and form, with an Amazonian body — but she had a genuine sense of humor and, like Zoe Bell, was just immensely likable.

ARKUSH: She was bubbly and funny in real life. The day we went out and shot all the stuff that starts the movie was just one of the most fun days, running up and down Hollywood Boulevard, shooting shots of her.

TARANTINO: In Summer School Teachers and in Candy Stripe Nurses, she’s really good. But Hollywood Boulevard was the first official comedy she acted in, so she could actually lead with her strength in that. And you realized how incredibly good she was. To tell you the truth, I never understood why you and Joe Dante didn’t bring her along with you when you moved on.

ARKUSH: She went and did that movie about the singing vagina.

TARANTINO: Which she pulled off. Few could have pulled that off as well as she did.

ARKUSH: Then she had little tiny parts in a bunch of stuff her boyfriends were working on, but I think the singing-vagina movie kind of killed her.

TARANTINO: Allan, in that documentary Roger Corman: Hollywood’s Wild Angel, it was great seeing you on the set of Grand Theft Auto directing Don Steele’s car crashing into that pool. When I was working at Video Archives, I bought the old MPI Home Video VHS tape of Roger Corman: Hollywood’s Wild Angel, and I still have it in its original case. It’s like a prized jewel.

ARKUSH: That’s how I met my wife. I was at a screening of the documentary, and in that exact part you’re talking about, where I’m wearing those wild sunglasses, the woman behind me says, “That guy’s cute.” When the lights went up, I turned around and said, “I’m that guy.” We’ve been together for 25 years.

TARANTINO: Here’s the thing about car chases: Once you’ve made a couple of movies, you can see how they’re done. For this movie, I watched so many car chases, I was finally like, “Now I don’t like any of the car chases I thought I liked, and I don’t even know if I like car chases anymore at all.” Because I could see how they were done, and I never wanted to know how the magician did his tricks.

ARKUSH: I thought the Bourne movies raised the level of car chases, especially the second one, The Bourne Supremacy. That car chase was a whole step up.

TARANTINO: It’s weird — I could still feel CGI in that. The last real, old-school car chase was in Terminator 2. To me, there’s nothing worse than CGI when it comes to a car chase. And this whole idea of having 16 cameras shooting from every conceivable angle every time a stunt happens — that’s not directing, that’s selecting. In the ’60s and the ’70s, it was about the one shot; it was about the good driving abilities of these people, and the way the cars held together. Back then, you couldn’t do a 14-year-old-girl coming-of-age movie without having a car chase in it. Now, everything is all cut up and it doesn’t matter who’s driving the fucking car. The geography is lost. The momentum is lost. Being inside of the chase is lost.

ARKUSH: I’ve got two daughters, and I spend a lot of time showing them old movies. We had a movie night recently where we were watching Howard Hawks’ Hatari!, and there’s a scene where this rhino comes right up to the side of the Land Rover and starts kicking the shit out of it. I said to my daughters, “That’s a real rhino, not a CGI rhino.” Two weeks later, they’ve got some girlfriends over and they put the DVD on to that scene and I hear them telling their friends, “That’s a real rhino, not a CGI rhino.”

TEAGUE: Before CGI, you had to find a practical way of doing something that nobody had ever seen before. On Thunder and Lightning, we finished the movie and Roger said, “The car chase isn’t exciting enough — shoot something else.” So, I thought about those foot chases where you see the people jumping from rooftop to rooftop, and I figured we could do the same thing with a car. On the first take, the stuntman miscalculated and missed the other building entirely. We had a pancaked car about a block down the road. The stuntman wasn’t injured at all. He had a backup car. So, we shot it a second time and it was perfect.

L.A. WEEKLY:So, where have all the cheap thrills gone?

TARANTINO: The exploitation market died when ticket prices went as high as they did. To this day, and I know I’m way out of touch, I don’t think a movie ticket should cost more than $5. Back in the day, you could spend $5 to see a low-budget exploitation movie or you could spend $5 to see A Star Is Born or whatever — it was all the same. Now, I’d feel ripped off if I spent $12 at a movie theater to see Eat My Dust, though oddly, I don’t feel ripped off spending $24 for the DVD. That’s my own prejudice. Having said that, today there’s a huge market of straight-to-video exploitation movies.

L.A. WEEKLY:But whenever I see one of those movies, I almost always feel they lack the expressive grandeur of the big-screen exploitation movies of yesteryear.

TARANTINO: You are absolutely right. Whatever else you want to say about Roger Corman, he was a soothsayer. He knew everything that was going to happen years before it happened. When, all of a sudden, his movies started having these one-week engagements in two theaters just to meet a contractual obligation, and then they came out in video two days later, that was the end of exploitation movies theatrically.

ARKUSH: The second he moved into that studio in Venice, everything had to fit within four walls and you lost all the freedom of location shooting.

TARANTINO: The loss of the theatrical experience was like a loss of heart for the directors, because even though you guys didn’t expect critical respect, there was a chance that Kevin Thomas, or Linda Gross, would see what you had done and give you a good review in the Los Angeles Times.

TRENCHARD-SMITH: [Former Los Angeles Times film critic] Michael Wilmington found The Siege of Firebase Gloria playing on the lower half of a drive-in double bill with Red Scorpion and said, “Why isn’t it playing the top half?”

TARANTINO: Here’s a wonderful thing: The Siege of Firebase Gloria played for a week in Los Angeles. Cut to 15 years later, and it is now, among war-film fans, considered in the top five of all Vietnam movies ever made!

TRENCHARD-SMITH: And yet, I can’t get Sony Home Entertainment to put out a DVD, even though they have a high-def master.

TARANTINO: They just don’t know, and won’t take the two seconds it takes to find out. But I’ve been on the Internet. I’ve gone to these Web sites. Cirio Santiago, for example, directed nine Vietnam movies back-to-back in the 1980s and ’90s, and you know what? They’re the best movies of his entire career. Nobody has ever done as many Vietnam movies as good as that. They’re like the great, low-budget WWII movies of the ’50s. They’re like great Combat! episodes, except set in Vietnam. One of them, Eye of the Eagle 3 — also known as Last Stand at Lang Mei — is just terrific. When you look up the reviews, they’re within a breath of The Siege of Firebase Gloria. There’s another one, called Firehawk, that almost plays like Reservoir Dogs set in Vietnam. They’re not about explosions; they’re all about the human drama.

TEAGUE: We haven’t talked about a producer of independent films who was my original inspiration, and that’s Robert Lippert.

TARANTINO: He produced those B Westerns.

TEAGUE: And Sam Fuller movies. That’s what really got me interested in making movies. Jack Nicholson was writing and producing for Robert Lippert. Fred Roos was producing for him. And Fuller directed three or four movies for him.

TARANTINO: Robert Lippert did Monte Hellman’s Back Door to Hell and Flight to Fury.

TEAGUE: In the Philippines.

TRENCHARD-SMITH: Have you seen those movies that George Montgomery made in the Philippines?

TARANTINO: No, I know of them, but I’ve never seen them.

TRENCHARD-SMITH: They’re quite good. There’s The Steel Claw and Samar and Warkill. They all have great jungle combat. Some of them were period.

TARANTINO: Well, I’m a huge fan of Filipino cinema. I can defend Eddie Romero and Gerry DeLeon and Cirio Santiago till the cows come home. I have tonight, actually.

TRENCHARD-SMITH: When I first came to America in 1968, Warkill was the first exploding-blood-bag movie that I remember seeing. I thought, “This is great stuff. I want to do that.” It took a while for the rest of the world to catch up, but when The Wild Bunch came out in 1969, all bets were off. When I came to Los Angeles in 1970, the first movie I saw on Hollywood Boulevard was Slaughter, and they didn’t care that you could see the wires coming out of the actors’ trousers. The hell with the wires — everyone’s looking at the blood!

TARANTINO: Jack Starrett!

TRENCHARD-SMITH: Jack Starrett!

TARANTINO: If Jack Starrett were alive, he’d be sitting at this table. [To Richard Rush] You know, if you’re the king of the biker movies, he was the crown prince.

RICHARD RUSH: Thank you.

TARANTINO: One of the things I always loved about your stuff was that you started out Max Julien — the great Max Julien. Probably the single-most iconic performance in the history of blaxploitation movies was Max Julien as Goldie in The Mack. Not Superfly. Not Shaft. Not Pam Grier. Max Julien in The Mack is the Paul-Muni-in-Scarface performance of blaxploitation cinema, and he started in your movies.

RUSH: And after he did those blaxploitation pictures, he played in my first studio picture, Getting Straight.

TARANTINO: By the way, if you didn’t know this, Getting Straight was Ingmar Bergman’s favorite American movie of all time. He always cited Getting Straight.

RUSH: That script contains one of the proudest lines of my writing career, which is when Elliott Gould says, “You’re not a woman. You’re just a guy with a hole in the middle!”

TARANTINO: My love-of-my-life girlfriend, when I was in my early 20s, was a literature major going for her professorship, just like the Elliott Gould character. And Getting Straight was her personal favorite of all the movies we watched together. She loved the constant literary talk of that movie. There were two movies, out of three years of showing her movies, she loved the most: Getting Straight and — check this out — Paul Mazursky’s Blume in Love. So, on top of all your cinematic genius, thank you for giving me that moment with a woman I loved so much.

RUSH: My pleasure.

TARANTINO: Gentlemen, I’m going to leave because I’ve got to start my press junket early tomorrow. Otherwise, I’d keep this thing going until 2 o’clock in the morning.

Question or comment? Email askfilm@laweekly.com