Interview: Director Richard Rush

❉ We chat with Richard Rush about his fascinating career and his passion for cinema.

A regular collaborator with legendary cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs and screen icon Jack Nicholson during the early part of his career, Rush has worked for American International Pictures, Troma Entertainment, as well as the major studios, and spoke with We Are Cult’s Nick Clement about his fascinating career and his passion for cinema in general.

“I was always very rebellious, right from when I was a kid. And I think that when I started to make movies, the people at AIP saw the type of person I was, and they knew I’d be a great fit with their material. Their films were made to appeal to teens, and I knew how to reach them. My message was always: What do you need to overcome? And how can you accomplish that?”

THE STUNT MAN, director Richard Rush, (top), Peter O’Toole, 1980, TM & Copyright ©20th Century Fox Film Corp

I’ve had the privilege of meeting some of my idols and getting to know them, and in the past few years, doing some interviews with artists that I revere and respect unconditionally. But I’m not sure I’ve ever had quite the same feeling during my multiple discussions with the witty, warm, and totally cool writer/director Richard Rush.

Few names set the cult movie world ablaze like his and it was an enormous honor to get to know him and put this all together for his fans and for those who might be curious to learn more about one of the unsung creative forces of his generation.

Getting his start on rough and tumble, low-budget exploitation films with youthful ingredients including 1960’s Too Soon to Love, 1963’s Of Love and Desire, and 1967’s Thunder Alley, Rush quickly established a spontaneous visual style to match his multilayered narratives. Also released in 1967 were The Cups of San Sebastian (a.k.a. The Fickle Finger of Fate), which sported the rather fun tagline of “It’s James Bond on acid!”, as well as the wild biker romp Hells Angels on Wheels. Rush had three films released in 1968: the gonzo hippie flick Psych-Out, a follow up to Hells Angels on Wheels called The Savage Seven, and the spy-spoof A Man Called Dagger.

Alan Arkin and James Caan in ‘Freebie And The Bean’.

In 1970, he directed the counterculture/college campus classic Getting Straight, with Elliot Gould and Candice Bergen, which became a critical and commercial success. Four year later, Freebie and the Bean hit the screen, and when it did, it became an influential box-office smash, serving as one of the earliest examples of the big-studio buddy/cop comedy that would become popularized a decade later. Then, in 1980, Rush released his magnum opus, The Stunt Man, a film many consider to be one of the best of that decade, and one of the finest inside-the-biz movies ever concocted. It would take Rush 14 years to helm another film – the now infamous erotic thriller Color of Night, with Bruce Willis and Jane March, while he did retain a screenwriting credit on the 1990 action-drama Air America (he parted ways with the studio as director during development). 

Director Richard Rush.

Richard, I can’t even begin to express how excited and grateful I am to have this opportunity to speak with you. It’s a dream come true to discuss your work with you.

Richard: Your enthusiasm is most appreciated! I’m delighted to chat.

No, I’m being serious. I’ve had the chance to meet my idols, and speak to some of the most amazing people in the industry, by my standards anyways. But this is a rare treat and honor, and I’m sorry to keep gushing, but I could honestly cry before we get into the first question!

Richard: Gush away, my ego can take it! This will be fun, and it’s always great to talk to people who love cinema.

I’m a student of cinema, and I grew up in a very film-friendly household. I studied film analysis and production in college, and then had the chance to get a taste of the business for a bit in Los Angeles. But at the end of the day, I’m just searching for great movies to watch, dissect, and discuss. And I think that’s a good place to start. What makes a “great movie” a “great movie” to Richard Rush?

Richard: A great movie happens because suddenly the characters compel me to want to experience their story, whether it’s to escape or accomplish something, and the best films relate the world around us and the relevant issues we face to the stories being told. You have to be careful you don’t get too political, though. You need that proper balance.

Do you watch a lot of films? How many do you see per week?

Richard: I’m a member of the Academy and the DGA, so I attend their screenings, and of course get the screeners during awards season. But I’m typically seeing two movies per week in the theater. I will always love movies.

Has there been anything you’ve seen so far in 2017 that’s really made an impression on you? My two favorite films so far have been The Lost City of Z and Wind River, I’m not sure if you’ve seen those yet?

Richard: I haven’t seen those two yet, but it’s great to hear that I’ve got some titles to look forward to seeing. I’ve seen some good films this year, but nothing yet that’s tickled me or shaken me up. I recently viewed the new Angelina Jolie film, First They Killed My Father, which is on Netflix. She’s learning a lot as a filmmaker, and on a scene to scene level, there’s some amazing work in this. She keeps picking challenging subject matter, but I think since it’s a true story, the plot doesn’t hold together as much as I wish it had. But still, it’s a very accomplished piece of work.

What’s the most recent film you’ve seen in the theater?

Richard: Well, I just got back from seeing mother! a few hours ago. That was something else…

So I’ve heard! I haven’t seen the film yet, but I do know a lot about it, probably too much before I see it. I always try to avoid spoilers, but unfortunately, I read an irate Facebook post that spoiled the ending. This guy really didn’t like the movie. I’m a fan of Darren Aronofsky’s work in general, so I’m certainly curious. I’m just not big on horror movies.

Richard: It’s very well made. The direction, cinematography, production design, the performances – all of it is first rate in that regard. But I didn’t “enjoy” the viewing experience, which, I think, was likely the intent! That last act is really outrageous, and everyone really went for it and got messy. And in some ways I’m surprised he was able to pull that off in a studio movie. I see it as an attempt by a director to make an extreme horror film, at the expense of anything and everything, including the viewer. And he certainly accomplished his goals. He’s clearly got an interesting take on relationships with women.

Do you have a favorite film, or is there one particular movie you could watch out of pure enjoyment any day of the week? Do you have a favorite director?

Richard: David Lean has long been my favorite director, and The Bridge of the River Kwai is definitely one of my favorite films of all time. I think we all learn about our culture though cinema, as it’s an art form with tremendous communal power, and Lean’s works had that sense of both being epic and intimate, and truly transported you to new places.

When did you get bit by the film bug, or was there something that opened your eyes at one point or another to the power of cinema?

Richard: I loved movies as a kid. When I was younger, I wanted to be the first man on the moon, but I quickly realized that NASA would have eaten me for breakfast! So I changed majors in school to theater in the hopes of learning how to be a director. I can remember seeing A Place in the Sun, by George Stevens, and that was a turning point for me as a viewer. I’m very much a fan of his work. And I started to understand what could be accomplished with the art form. I also love Humphrey Bogart’s pictures.

Early in your career, you worked on some films for the U.S. military. How did that happen?

Richard: I was part of the first filmmaking unit for the Air Force. We formed the first TV unit and we were sent out to watch and consult on various 3-camera programs. It was very exciting stuff and something that broke new ground.

Your resume lists one television credit – an episode of The Mod Squad – what was that like?

Richard: Oh that was a lot of fun. The producers contacted me and asked if I was interested and I said hell yes! I came in and directed the first episode, after they’d done their pilot. They wanted me to set the tone and style for the show moving forward, so that’s what I did. But I didn’t do any other television after that. I thought it would derail my career.

Yeah, because back then, working in television was still seen as a step-down from features, correct? Movie directors probably didn’t want to bounce back and forth.

Richard: Absolutely. You worked in TV to then make it into features, and if you were lucky enough, you stayed with features. Some guys bounced around but I didn’t want to do that. It’s not like it is now where you have all of these massively talented filmmakers migrating to the small screen because of the opportunities they’re being given. The studios stopped making a certain type of adult-skewing films, which has helped to create many great television programs.

What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment as a filmmaker?

Richard: The Stunt Man. That’s the best project I’ve ever been a part of. I think my unproduced script for Air America might be the best thing I’ve written, but in terms of my completed work, The Stunt Man is my favorite thing I was able to get made, and the one film that completely represents my total vision from start to finish.

We’ll circle back to The Stunt Man soon, and definitely discuss what happened with Air America, but I’m curious – would you ever be interested in directing a $200 million, CGI movie, possibly a superhero story or a big, modern action-adventure film with lots of complicated visual effects? Does that stuff appeal to you?

Richard: I’m definitely interested in that stuff. But I’d need to inject some sort of thematic resonance into the piece. It couldn’t just be explosions and action for the sake of doing it. I think what happens is that a certain sense of laziness settles in when you can literally visualize anything on screen that pops into your head, because of what can be done with computers. In a way, The Stunt Man was this sort of picture for me. It’s all about the illusion and duplicity of movie-making and it’s got massive stunts and huge action, but it was grounded to something I could understand.

Yes, and it was done all for real! Were you ever nervous when filming those complicated action set pieces?

Richard: Absolutely! We had amazing technicians who worked on The Stunt Man, but those guys are hell-bent on destruction. They will do whatever you need to get the shot, but everything needs to be safety-tested and properly planned for, even if the stunt performers don’t seem to care. I worked with the best guys in the business, and Chuck Bail, who worked with me on every picture since Hells Angels on Wheels, was our stunt supervisor on The Stunt Man, and he taught me how it was always about preparation and safety. Chuck worked closely with stunt man Gary Johnson, who was Steve Railsback’s double. I could never tell the difference between Gary and Steve while watching the footage. Chuck actually gave Gary the stunt coordinator credit, and Chuck got a second unit director credit. It was a great team to work with on a film that relied on serious stunt work.

One of the defining characteristics of your work is the balance of tone, and how your films operated on multiple levels at once. One minute something is funny, then it’s exciting, then it’s scary or sad. It’s sort of like how things work in real-life, where you’re not just one thing all the time or all day. Was this a conscious decision on your part, to make films that moved back and forth in terms of how they felt?

Richard: Exactly. That’s how it needs to be. What I’ve always tried to do is replicate what’s going in my mind. Living life is like falling down through a pin-ball machine, with balls bouncing off of each other, causing action and reaction in an unexpected way. And that’s how I view storytelling, having that great balance of all the various elements. Something is allowed to be funny and serious sometimes within the same moment or scene, and that tonal balance is something I always strived for in my work. Comedy is sometimes viewed as the enemy of drama, and vice versa. I always wanted to inject real drama into the action-comedy narrative, and the trick is to walk a tightrope of successfully balancing those elements. That was my trademark specialty as a filmmaker.

And all of your films have a “stick it to the man” vibe that I can’t help but admire. Where does this come from?

Richard: I was always very rebellious, right from when I was a kid. I challenged authority at all times. My parents were politically and socially rebellious and I followed in their footsteps, even more so than them. I rebelled against them, even! And I think that when I started to make movies, the people at American International Pictures, they saw the type of person I was, and they knew I’d be a great fit with their material. Rebellion was part of the essence of being a teenager, and that was our audience. Their films were made to appeal to teens, and I knew how to reach them. My message, with those early films, was always: What do you need to overcome? And how can you accomplish that?

I gather that you were the first person to develop the technique of rack focusing (aka focus pulling) within a shot. I used to look for rack focuses because of how cool they were, and these days, it seems that no directors or directors of photography seem to be including them in their work. How did you develop this technique?

Richard: One year, for a birthday present, I was given an 8mm camera with a 10:1 lens on it. I spent the better part of a summer tinkering with the camera poolside, and I realized that you were able to focus on one item within a shot, making that item extremely clear, but then you’d be able to change the focus, and the object would disappear, and another would appear – the same with faces. It evokes an emotional response when you open the lens properly, and that’s why it became something I explored. It was better than just a simple fade or dissolve or edit to another shot. I brought what I had found to my cameraman, Laszlo Kovcas, and told him we needed to try this with a 35mm camera. So we went about testing it and adjusting it, and through our experimentation, we improved upon the syntax of cinema, and through this, a new form of transitioning and character blocking was created.

Wow. That’s just amazing. And why do you think it is that filmmakers stopped including the rack focus in their work? Aside from simple laziness or ignorance?

Richard: It’s because of the digital cameras. You need at least a 10:1 lens on the camera to do it correct, and many of those smaller cameras simply don’t have the ability.

Would you ever be interested in shooting something digitally?

Richard: Yes! I’m definitely interested in emerging technology, but there’s still nothing quite like the look and sound of something shot on celluloid. My heart is with film but I understand the importance to the digital trends that have come to dominate. If I did have the chance to shoot digitally, I’d insist on using a 10:1 lens, however.

You had the chance to work with Jack Nicholson when he was an up and coming actor. What was that like?

Richard: It was so obvious that he had a ton of talent. He brought a tremendous sense of energy to everything he did, whether the role was small, like in our first project together, which was Too Soon to Love, or in more challenging parts like the ones in Hells Angels on Wheels and Psych-Out. He had that goofy, shit-eating grin which really appealed to me, and I told him to cultivate that look, which of course emerged into that iconic Jack Nicholson smile! He’s one of those once in a lifetime talents and his skill was boundless.

Those early efforts for you, those were fast productions to work on. What was that like for you as an emerging filmmaker to work in that fashion?

Richard: We were shooting films in 13 days, for $50-$100,000, so when you’re moving that fast, you’re working on instinct so that you stayed on budget and on schedule. I was known as “the best of the two dollar hookers,” you need it done for two bucks, get Richard! Those films taught me how to control a set and work with actors, which I always love. I had great respect for the actors I worked with, and I really enjoyed collaborating with them and helping to develop the characters. But man, making a movie in 13 days, especially those films that we made, that was back-breaking, mind-bending, soul-scorching stuff. And I’ll never forget it.

And you and Kovacs became quite the team it would appear?

Richard: Yes, he was “my guy,” I got him his first picture and he always shot my movies. He wasn’t able to shoot The Stunt Man because of scheduling issues, but I loved what Mario Tosi brought to the movie. And I worked with the great German cameraman Dietrich Lohmann on Color of Night. But Laszlo was a genius and I loved collaborating with him. His level of spontaneity matched my own so we were a great fit. I was able to get him and his entire crew into the union, and Laszlo had just escaped a tank invasion in his home country, and he’d come to America with footage of the invasion that he’d shot while on the run and fleeing. I used to love to tell him that before he was a union member, he was the best with hand-held photography, but after he joined, he never picked up the camera again! He had his operators and team. But we had such a great time making films!

I absolutely love Getting Straight, which was released in 1970, and I think it’s one of the best films of its type, which would also include Haskell Wexler’s Medium Cool, Stanley Kramer’s R.P.M., and Stuart Haggman’s The Strawberry Statement. You of course brought that superb sense of style, and the ideas never stop flowing. It’s got a huge, bleeding heart at the center of its narrative and sterling performances. What was it like working with Elliot Gould and Candice Bergen on the movie, and what can you remember from your experiences with getting it made?

Richard: Getting Straight was my first try of really saying something on film. Columbia Pictures had sent me a book which was similar to the movie we ended up making. I read it and thought it was smart and interesting, and I told them I’d do the movie if I could set it on a college campus and against the backdrop of the Vietnam protest. I wrote a treatment, and they liked it. It was risky material because the war was still going on and students were at the barricades and Hollywood movies weren’t really addressing this stuff yet head-on. Then I brought on my writing partner Robert Kaufman to put the script together, and Ken Kolb also worked on it.  We opened a week after the Kent State massacre.

Wow. I never realized that. And yet, even with such a terrible tragedy, the film was a big success.

Richard: We were one of Columbia’s biggest grossers of the year, and critics were very supportive. And of course over time, the film has gained in reputation, and it still feels relevant. The performances were exceptional from both Elliot and Candice. Gould was a dream come true to work with. We had a brilliant relationship going, and he had so much energy every single day. For me, he could do no wrong. He’d be able to do six versions of any scene, and he’d do it differently every time, so I’d always have something interesting to work with. And no matter what he did, or in the manner that he did it, he was totally believable. All of his takes were excellent and very different from one another. And Candice, she wasn’t an experienced actress yet, but she was so beautiful, and you could tell she had real talent. She really brought it during her breakdown scenes and she gave a very genuine performance. She cut her teeth with me. And we even got Harrison Ford in there, one of his earliest roles.

Yeah, 1970 was a big year for Bergen. She also appeared that year in the revisionist western Soldier Blue, which was a very tough piece, as well as 1971’s The Hunting Party, which is as bleak as they come. You worked with Laszlo on the film, cementing your visual style that you’d pioneered with him on the early efforts.

Richard: Yes, I used Getting Straight was a way to experiment with my own shooting style. We shot the film on a very long lens, so we could peer inside and outside of the classrooms on the campus to gather relevant information, and get interesting angles in order to create a mood of tension or unpredictability. And this is where we really started using the rack focus technique. This type of shooting draws the viewer into the shot on an emotional level.

After Getting Straight, you moved on to direct Freebie and the Bean, which of course served as a pre-cursor to the buddy-cop comedy onslaught of the 80’s. Is it true that Alan Arkin and James Caan made your life harder than it needed to be on that set?

Richard:  I love that Freebie jump started that genre. I definitely had some problems with Arkin and Caan. Arkin had made it part of his routine, part of his method, to irritate all of the directors he’d work with. It was just his thing. He found creative energy and inspiration out of being combative. And it was the only time in my 50 year career I had a problem with an actor. Warner Brothers approached me to direct the film, and they had a treatment that had been written by Floyd Muturx and Caan was attached and already part of the package. I ended up rewriting most of the script with Robert Kaufmann but I didn’t take credit. And the studio said I could cast the other cop, so I immediately said I wanted Arkin. And John Calley, who was the greatest executive that I’ve ever met in my life, casually warned me not to hire Arkin. He told me he’d driven Mike Nichols into the hospital while they’d been making Catch-22. But I said I didn’t care, and that I’d take my chances. And Calley told me I’d regret it.

Did you?

Richard: Yes and no. Arkin just had this thing about him as an actor where he needed confrontation, and it got malicious at points. And Caan was a follower, he’d do whatever he saw Arkin doing. It turned into a living hell for a while, but they did everything I wanted them to do as professional actors and the results were brilliant. Arkin wouldn’t take direction very well at times, though, which became challenging, but he’s a great talent and that was just his process. They had such terrific chemistry on-screen that the off-screen antics, while frustrating, were worth it in the end in terms of the final product. I had to edit out a lot of my own laughter from the set. What I needed out of those two main characters in Freebie was for them to create a four-armed, four-legged, two-headed monster, and they did! It wasn’t easy at times but the movie has a sense of manic energy that I’m not sure we’d have achieved with anyone else in those roles. I just became their common enemy.

What was it like working with Valerie Harper?

Richard: She was the perfect person for that role, and we specifically wrote it for Valerie. I had to get the studio moving to get her cast, because she was up for another film at the same time that Freebie was going to shoot, and the studio, for whatever reason, was stalling. Arkin had approved her but they were just being lazy. So I got on the phone and demanded that she be cast before we lost her! She was gorgeous and so much fun to work with, and I really loved what she did in the film, because her role elevates the movie a bit more from just being a buddy-cop film, there’s an extra dimension because of her.

You’re a fan of improv, correct?

Richard: Yes, and back then, nobody was doing that. I thought the script for Freebie was fine, but a lot was born out of what Arkin and Caan would come up with on set. And the studio, they couldn’t understand the idea of us shooting improv, because nobody used to do that, and it was hard to cut around. They were always afraid that the takes wouldn’t match. But because I was always editing my pictures in my head as we were shooting, I’d know where I could cut around a particular performance to make it work, or to use an alternate take or angle. Nowadays everyone does this, but back then, it was rare. Working as my editor is tough because I’ve got it all in my head!

Is there anything you’d have done differently on Freebie?

Richard: You always think of things in retrospect, and there are a few silly things in there I’d probably lose today. Those giant dominoes falling over would be one thing.

Hey! Leave my dominoes alone! That scene is priceless!

Richard: Ha! Yeah, we really had some fun there. We went all out with the car crashes and the stunts and the personal property damage, just us running around and smashing up all of San Francisco.

The action in Freebie and the Bean has a maniacal edge to it. I love the film so much. And I’m curious – have you see Michael Bay’s Bad Boys II, because that film is basically a $150 million version of Freebie and the Bean. It’s made with extreme in-your-face attitude, it’s happily R-rated, very violent and macho and questionable in taste. And totally fabulous.

Richard: Sounds wonderful! No, I’ve not seen it yet, but now I will. It sounds like a lot of fun. And I’d imagine given that it’s a Michael Bay movie that the action is on the bigger end of things?

Yes. You get stuff in that film that’s truly amazing, all done for real, with an honest sense of excitement for doing what it was that they were doing. The influence of Freebie and the Bean on the Bad Boys movies is absolutely right there, whether it was intentional or not.

Richard: And that’s the thing, because, you know, Freebie was Warner’s biggest hit of the year, and critics didn’t like the film very much, they hit us kind of hard, but it didn’t matter. When we screened Freebie for all of the theater owners and the buyers, they were rolling in the aisles with laughter. We knew we had a huge hit on our hands and that it was an audience movie. It sounds like I’ll enjoy these Bad Boys movies.

I noticed some similarities between the mise-en-scene and the overall sense of spontaneous energy during certain sequences of Hells Angels on Wheels and Freebie and the Bean. There’s a freewheeling nature to the visual style that I just love. I still can’t get over the bit when Arkin and Caan drive their car off the freeway and into the apartment complex. It’s just the best moment.

Richard: Thank you. Chuck Bail and I were always trying to find new ways to show motion and action, and I think that when we worked on those low-budget efforts, we learned enough, so when we got the chance to make Freebie, we brought our same style to a production that had more resources. We had some fun with that bit. And even there, it was all about their performances, and how we could set that gag up and keep it serious and silly all at once.

What was your reaction when Lethal Weapon came out, and then all of the other imitators and genre entries?

Richard: Well, Dick Donner and I were friends, and I love his movies, and he’d send me these little pictures over telegram, how he’d be stealing a stunt or something from Freebie for the films he was making. I saw Lethal Weapon at an early screening and I really enjoyed it. Mel and Danny were a great team, and they definitely “got it” in terms of the genre with Lethal Weapon. Walter Hill’s 48 Hrs. is probably the best of them, though. The first Rush Hour did a good job with the formula. And I’ll need to see the two Bad Boys pictures. But many imitators simply didn’t get it right.

I’d have to assume that Freebie and the Bean served as some sort of influence on screenwriter Shane Black, considering he wrote Lethal Weapon. He also did a mild riff on The Stunt Man with his terrific action comedy Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, in that Robert Downey Jr. assumes the identity of an actor as he’s being chased, and ducks into an audition and lands the part! You and Shane need to meet for a beer, I think! Have you ever met Shane?

Richard: No! I’ve never met him!

Wow. This would seem to be a crime against cinema. The two of you have to meet. I need to make this happen!

We’ll move on to The Stunt Man now. It’s a masterpiece. It’s one of the best films I’ve ever seen and it’s routinely considered to be one of the defining films of the 1980’s, even if it was released at the very start of the decade. And it feels like the most “Richard Rush” you can get in a “Richard Rush Film.” My father showed me The Stunt Man when I was too young to fully comprehend everything about it, but it blew me away nonetheless, and over the years, I’ve become obsessed with it.

Richard: Thank you! Yes, it’s the best thing I ever had the chance to make, and I think it’s the one film where I was able to get across exactly the vision I had hoped to. Of course, it took years, and many fights, and re-cuts but it’s been worth it. The journey of The Stunt Man has been remarkable for me as a person.

What was it like, that journey to get The Stunt Man made?

Richard: It was a very long process totaling 10 years from script to screen. I had the audacity to think that I could make a picture that would explore illusion and reality, and I wanted to use the film as a mirror for the paranoid mindset that we all live through at one point or another. And I got double Oscar nominated, for writing and directing, and of course Peter O’Toole was nominated for Best Actor. It’s all about trying to keep your finger on the pulse of society, and figuring out what’s relevant. And the film still feels pertinent today, given we’re in this “alternative facts” and “fake news” landscape, and the rise of Trump. It’s like paranoid satire becoming a reality with this current presidency. And those current themes were what I was trying to explore with The Stunt Man. Trump’s idiocies have inspired me to make another picture, I think!

I can only imagine that the development process on The Stunt Man must’ve been arduous. This is a weighty thematic piece to say nothing of the physical logistics of the production.

Richard: The creative process started in the 70’s when I had been approached to direct it, but there were regime changes, and the champions of the project were all of a sudden gone. It was a tricky adaptation from Paul Brodeur’s book, and it took a lot of time and energy. Working with O’Toole was one of the great moments of my career, he’s one of the greatest actors of all time, and knowing how much he loved the film has always made me very happy.

The Stunt Man could never be made today, and knowing that, I’m extremely happy that we did what we did, and that over the years, the response from fans and critics has been beyond inspiring to see. But it was a hard film to get made, with many obstacles.

(Editor’s note: For more on the making of The Stunt Man, please purchase the Severin Blu-ray, which includes the invaluable documentary The Sinister Saga of the Making of The Stunt Man, which includes in-depth interviews with Richard on the film’s life and history).

You’ve had to go to battle with the MPAA on more than one occasion during your career, and I’ve often wondered about the thought process that occurs over there, in terms of why certain films receive the ratings that they do.

Richard: Yes, with Color of Night, I had to fight for the rating for the video release. We needed that video version approved because what we were going to release was different from what went out to theaters. It’s a bizarre process with a bizarre group of people who seemingly make up things as they go along. I even had the chance to speak with the President of the MPAA Censorship Board, and for the first time after decades of furious battles, she sat down and quietly and patiently explained their process. I asked her why you could see certain, potentially objectionable material on television, but not on the big screen. And she admitted that their sense of leniency was dictated by how much hate mail they’d be receiving on any given week. So, if they got hit with tons of notes from parents saying that they were angry about a film that had just opened, that would affect their mindset with the films that were screening that week. But she was very lenient on me with on my cut of Color of Night.

What the hell happened with Color of Night? That movie was made during that post Basic Instinct heyday of sexy-violent studio thrillers, and I remember it was a big VHS item for my buddies and I when were teenagers because of Jane March. Are you at least happy with the director’s cut that eventually made its way to Blu-ray?

Richard: It was a simply situation of being at war with producers who took the movie out of my hands. A PR battle ensued where nasty articles were written about me during the post-production phase, and those were leaked to the media on a Friday, and I never had a chance to respond until the following week. They tried to fire me after we had a “battle of the test screenings” situation, to see if an audience preferred my cut over the producer’s cut. I won, but the DGA wouldn’t allow me to be fired so late in the process. I told the studio they could have domestic in terms of the final cut, but I wanted foreign and video. They told me foreign had been locked in, so I got the video. And in the end, I had a heart attack and was in the hospital as a result from the stress of making that film. I learned the true meaning of “final cut” – it’s the one they make in your chest when they do the bypass surgery!

Damn. Nobody should be driven to have a heart attack as a result of making a movie. At least because of the DVD/Blu-ray explosion the film can be seen in your preferred director’s cut in full widescreen.

Richard: I got one of the best awards ever out of Color of Night. In my bathroom hangs the “Best Sex Scene Ever Filmed” award that we received from Maxim Magazine, which is one of my proudest moments! But yes, I’m glad that I was able to get my version out there on DVD and Blu-ray, which I had screened for my three top critics in the world and they re-reviewed it and gave it three raves. It was good for my ego, but too late for the world.

And you mentioned earlier how much you loved your final script for Air America. What happened there?

Richard: That was the classic case of more studio regime changes, with one group of producers, who were supportive and enthusiastic leaving the scene, and who were followed by a different set of people who didn’t understand the project or care.  It would have been extremely different, my version, than what they ended up doing, which was to blow up a lot of stuff and make it look cool.

Have you been working on anything since Color of Night?

Yes, for about 10 years I was developing the Barry Seal story, a project called The Fat Lady. It was going to be my chance to correct the wrongs that went down with Air America. There’s a film coming out later this month with Tom Cruise, where he plays Seal.

American Made?

Richard: Yes, that film. The story of Barry Seal is extraordinary, maybe the best story I’ve ever heard. I wish them good luck and I’m sorry they beat me to the punch.

Do you consider yourself retired at the age of 88? Are you ready to go in on Monday morning and do a pitch with some execs?

Richard: Oh, I’m not retired. My wife may tell me that I’m retired, and I might be in a wheelchair some of the time, which might complicate things, because making a film is a 24 hour a day, seven day a week marathon. But I’m ready. If I love the project I’ll make the pitch and that electric wheelchair is a lot swifter and trickier than you might think!

❉ Nick Clement is a freelance writer, having contributed to Variety Magazine, Hollywood- Elsewhere, Awards Daily, Back to the Movies, and Taste of Cinema. He’s currently writing a book about the works of filmmaker Tony Scott, and co-operates the website Podcasting Them Softly.

❉ He is also a regular contributor for, a site dedicated to providing the best news and analysis on viral marketing and ARG campaigns for films and other forms of entertainment.

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