Saturday, June 1, 2013

Q&A with Greydon Clark

There are not many auteurs in the history of exploitation, let alone those whose careers span decades, let alone those whose style is so essentially good natured and fun as Greydon Clark - whether he's producing and directing Joysticks or It Came Without Warning or Black Shampoo. His filmography is equal parts versatile, prolific and kind of wacky in the best way possible - parsing the names you have one attention-grabber after another. Mr. Clark was kind enough to give me a few words on his history in low budget genre films by email below, as well as his upcoming project! Read on!

Clark on the set of Joysticks

Which films do you like the most?

I can find something to like in almost every film I've ever seen, beginning with the classic American films of the thirties and forties up to and including today's blockbusters.

What are your recollections of exploitation director-producer Al Adamson, for whom you acted in his films Satan's Sadists (1968), Hell's Bloody Devils (1970) and Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971)?

Al Adamson was an interesting character who was very instrumental in my career. I met Al through an actress I knew from an acting class. I was very lucky that we became friends and I worked for him on three pictures. Al's productions were very low-budget and I was able to learn a great deal about filmmaking. I owe a lot to Al Adamson.

How did you come to marry your co-star in Satan's Sadists - and actress in your later films Satan's Cheerleaders (1977), Angel's Revenge (1979) and Joysticks (1983) - Jacqulin Cole?

Jackie and I met in an acting class. I got her the role in Satan's Sadists, we got to know one another and stayed together thirty-four years before her untimely passing.

Your directorial debut was the Blaxploitation film The Bad Bunch (1973), which you wrote and starred in, what did that film mean to you then?

I was very liberal politically and wanted to make a film that said something about race relations in the United States. Blaxploitation films were hot at the box office and I was able to find a guy with a few bucks to invest.

What inspired your subsequent spin on the Warren Beatty film Shampoo (1976)?

The Bad Bunch was successful at the box office and the distributors wanted me to do another Blaxploitation film. Black Shampoo was strictly a move to exploit Mister Beatty's Shampoo.

You hired Dean Cundey as director of photography on Black Shampoo and then on four more films within five years. Did you ever think he'd be working with Steven Spielberg and John Carpenter?

Dean was an exceptionally talent director of photography. Once he got his break with Halloween, I was not at all surprised at his tremendous success.

Satan's Cheerleaders (1977) is an almost aggressively offbeat entry in the cheerleader exploitation craze. What was its genesis?

The Excorcist and The Omen were very successful at the time. The cheerleader movies were also doing an excellent business. I thought I could combine the two elements, stick my tongue firmly in my cheek, and make a fun picture.

You've worked with veteran Hollywood actors including Jack Palance, Martin Landau, Neville Brand, Ralph Meeker, Clu Gulagher and Chuck Conners. Did it feel like your career had taken a turn when you started casting a better caliber of acting talent?

I was very lucky to work with name talent over the years. These men and women were not only wonderful actors but easy to work with. I never really thought about my "career," I was just making one picture after another and hoping each would be successful enough to allow me to make another film.

Your slasher film parody Wacko (1982) was the first of three films you made starring Joe Don Baker and the next one, Joysticks (1983) was also a comedy. How'd you cast him in his first comic role?

I admired Joe Don Baker's talent in his action-adventure films and thought that he could do comedy as well. He was great to work with and I think his performance in Wacko is one of the great comedic performances ever put on film.

In your second horror film The Uninvited (1988) where did the bizarre idea of a demonic cat hiding inside another cat come from?

I had some success on Without Warning (1980) and wanted to come up with an unusual "monster." I placed most of the story on board a luxury yacht, first thought of a rat and then a rabid dog - neither seemed unique enough. I finally decided on the demonic monster hidden inside an escaped laboratory cat.

The Forbidden Dance (1990) is kind of an aberration from your other films, a dance picture. How did you become involved?

Meahem Golan wanted to do a movie based on Lambada (1990). We were introduced by a mutual friend and he thought I could make the film quickly and on a low budget. This was one of the few films that I made where the original idea was brought to me by someone else.

Have you seen the episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000 featuring your films Final Justice (1985) and Angel's Revenge?

I have seen their take on both pictures and find some of it very amusing, some of it less than so. They edited sequences out of the pictures that I felt were important story points. If their TV series allowed more people to see the pictures, fine by me.

What are you up to today?

My autobiography, "On the Cheap...Five Decades of Low Budget Filmmaking" will be out in a few months.

There you have it - visit to order ANY of Greydon's flicks AND get signed posters and stills! No Joysticks fan's life is complete without a still of Leif Green and Jim Greenleaf! Speaking of Joysticks (my favorite Clark joint and favorite 80s teen comedy) my initial reactions on Cinemachine can be read here and interviews with Clark and Jon Gries on the film can be found in the essential punks-in-film book Destroy All Movies!

Saturday, May 4, 2013

Mars Attacks! (1996, Tim Burton)

Although I didn't see the film theatrically, I loved Mars Attacks! by the time it was released on video. There was subsequent minor rebirth of interest in franchising of the world created by the Topps brand trading cards of the 1950s, in the form of new comic books by Image, with the Martians attacking Spawn and so forth, before spinning the martians off from crossovers into original stories on their own. True to Image's 90s 'tude-inal cred, the comics were full of the same grossness and ultra-violent kitsch that made the trading cards infamous in their day. I hadn't put it together as a kid that Topps was the same trading card company to release Garbage Pail Kids on unsuspecting suburban mother hens. As of this writing, Mars Attacks! and The Garbage Pail Kids Movie are the only two live action films ever made based on trading cards. "Mars Attacks," the franchise, is oddly enough going stronger than the film ever did, which is still woefully underappreciated. Thanks to a small, easily consolidated market of character licensing rights, Mars has attacked The Real Ghostbusters, the Transformers, Popeye, KISS and Judge Dredd, courtesy of IDW Publishing to coincide with the trading cards' 50th anniversary. The convenient thing about anonymous invaders from space is that you can pit them again any other fictional character. Admirably, Burton didn't tamper with old fashioned look of the Martians was not tampered with, embracing their Weird Tales pulp sci-fi paperback cover roots. Animated with a Beavis-like slack-jawed twichiness and given personality only in Beavis-like moments of lust for our beautiful human Earth women.

The screen story and screenplay are credited to one Jonathan Gems, a British playwright. Gems and Burton - whom Gems thanks in the novelization's opening dedication as an invisible co-writer on the screenplay - authored the official "Mars Attacks" film as an homage to the cards, but also a satire of 1970s all-star disaster films, sci-fi tropes, and several social strata of the United States. Gems is a Brit and its cliche to comment that Brits and Europeans often catch the nuances of American life better than our own satirists, but here we are. His is an informed version of America to give a ribbing to; one where the films' opening scene casually shows farm crackers living alongside Filipino families in the sticks - in other words, territory on par with another great satirical work of the 1990s, "King of the Hill."

With a huge ensemble cast, the story takes its time establishing characters and examining their reactions to the encroaching Martian menace rather than expounding any kind of Martian mythology. As aliens, they are in fact completely implacable and in a comedy full of conceptual jokes, Mars Attacks' greatest and best remembered is their baldfaced gibberish language: "ACK ACK ACK ACK ACK!" Humanity's preening optimism in anticipation of first extraterrestrial contact was ripe for puncturing during the 1990s resurgence of interest in scientific evidence for alien life. From the President in Washington to the trailer parks of Kansas to the glitz of Vegas, Americans of all dispositions and sophistication fail to perceive imminent danger, and then for the most part fail to respond effectively.

Critics alternately savaged this film as too over-the-top and not over-the-top enough to be funny, unable to attune to Burton and Gems' vision of grand-scale social and political satire combined with Gremlins-esque eruptions of mischievous monsters wreaking havoc while aping humanity. There is certainly more intelligence and human characterization in this film than Independence Day, a film which stupidly takes dead seriously all the same cliches of 1950s invading aliens films, up to and especially including their jingoistic pro-military bent. Mars Attacks! was released in December of 1996, a few months after the Summer blockbusting success of Independence Day, and felt like a categorical rebuke to everything audiences loved about Roland Emmerich's modern disaster picture which treats the obliteration of cities by alien spaceships as somber spectacle and cheers on humanity's action-packed counterstrike.

An exploding White House is the iconic promotional image, an image meant to thrill and stir emotions, the kind of Hollywood imagery which caused people to say of 9/11 that watching those towers destroyed felt like watching a movie, five years later. Mars Attacks! has a flying saucer tip the Washington Monument on top of a Boy Scout troop. Both films even have the American President as a main character. Independence Day gives him a decisive action sequence against the aliens and a rousing victory speech after their defeat.

After a rousing "Can't we all just get along" speech for intergalactic brotherhood, President Nicholson is impaled by a Martian flag. The Martians are only defeated by dumb luck when someone accidentally discovers their non-sequitor Achilles' heel: like anti-matter to the film score's sci-fi theramin warbling, Slim Whitman's yodeling makes their brains explode. The financial and critical failure of this film to connect with the dopey daydreams of the mid-90s moviegoer is probably what terrified Tim Burton into calculating mainstream success and abandoning any voice of artistic irreverence in his subsequent filmography. Roger Ebert gave two stars to Mars Attacks! but what does he know? He gave two to Beetlejuice, a film Pauline Kael knew well enough to declare a "comedy classic" upon arrival.

Mars Attacks! juggles about 20 characters in four or five locations across the United States in a little under two hours. Literally six of them are left alive by the end of that time, which is the other issue: this film has a hilariously mean streak to its humor and the joke is on mankind. When I watched Jurassic Park recently for the first time in many years I was reminded of how Spielberg deformed the all-star disaster movie formula from the exploitative body counts they were in their heyday into a PG-13 thriller where only expendable tertiary characters are eaten by dinosaurs. Never have so many well paid actors been disintegrated in a single film. Burton is reaching for Dr. Strangelove level comedy, and that's mighty dry terrain - Mars Attacks! is a spoof, yet a restrained and only selectively campy one. Gems allows us to believe in Jack Nicholson as the President James Dale without having him play it as a comedic exaggeration of "Jack Nicholson," the movie persona. Ultimately, he winds up in a direct Strangelove referenced underground war room with Rod Steiger playing an exaggerated Hawk pushing to nuke the Martians.

The same could be said of every cast member, every one of whom is a big name. Only Danny DeVito, in about ten minutes worth of screen time, is giving a "comedy" performance. Him, and Nicholson doing a Sellers-esque turn by playing a second role as a sleazy casino impresario. All the beautiful people are playing into their own types, slightly parodying themselves while retaining credibility as real people thanks to Jonathan Gems' playwright's ears for nuanced and melodious dialogue, so distinctly varied in every character. Danny Elfman's music, at once whimsical yet suitably bombastic for the eventual wanton destruction, strikes the perfect note of arch deadpan seriousness.

Somehow even with the majority of the cast playing dolts, many of them have moments of absurd empathy - Pierce Brosnan and Sarah Jessica Parker are stuffy and dippy, respectively, but find love when reunited as mutilated Martian science experiments. Few $70 million films then had the gall to decapitate Brosnan and Sarah Jessica, before stitching the latter's head to a chihuahua, or to kill Jack Nicholson twice.

A critical portion of the varied characters at play joins the government scientists and leader stock types of 1950s sci-fi protagonists with the media and show business galaxy of stars 1970s galaxy-of-stars casts. Michael J. Fox and Sarah Jessica Parker play a TV personality power couple. Glenn Close plays a chillingly acidic parody of vain and publicity-consious clotheshorse presidential "First Ladies."

Paul Winfield, veteran of decades of genre films, briefs plays a more obsequious version of Colin Powell who is giddy to have won the honor of serving as ambassador to the Martians by "waiting in line" - before being the first to be fried by their weapons, for his trouble. The parade of opportunism across the country is never-ending. Revealing Burton and Gems' moral compass, the few surviving victors of a Martian invasion are not only the little people in this big cast of big stars all across America, they're marginalized members too busy taking on burdens of responsibility to think about exploiting the initial awe of Martian contact, or delude themselves with disbelief as to their motives because their ACK ACK has been officially translated as "We Come In Peace."

About one year before Quentin Tarantino publicized his possession of a golden touch for career resurrection by casting Pam Grier as the lead in Jackie Brown, Burton cast her here amongst contemporary big names for the resonance of her marquee value in the 70s. Her character is one of the good ones, a single parent bus driver in Washington whose two boys wind up defending the president thanks to video game training.

Fleshing out the 70s throwback, her husband is played by Jim Brown, playing a former boxing champ reduced to working dressed as King Tut at a Vegas casino. Brown still loves his wife, sends money back home and tries to get home to when the Martians attack. He's willing to sacrifice himself to help other members of the cast escape by boxing them hand-to-hand, and after a false alarm, we're shown that he survives the ordeal to see his family again.

In Kansas, Lukas Haas plays a shy teenager who's the black sheep of his redneck family, cast with uncanny perfection - Joe Don Baker as the buffoonish patriarch and young Jack Black as Haas' meathead army private older brother, who's among the first to be reduced to a colored skeleton by Martian ray guns. Haas looks after his dotty, sweet natured grandmother, who's similarly ignored by the family, played by Sylvia Sydney, who was also the caseworker ghost Juno in Burton's Beetlejuice.

Their relationship is genuinely touching and Haas' rescue of his grandmother at a rest home massacre during the film's climax leads to Sydney's accidental broadcasting of her Martian-killing Slim Whitman records. Annette Benning is the spiritualist and recovering alcoholic wife of Nicholson's Vegas doppelg√§nger. Even though her character is a bit of a space cadet during America's initial optimism about the coming Martians, she's one of the few to immediately recognize that the intergalactic situation is only headed towards total war. 

Even before then, her character's recovering alcoholism is treated sympathetically and Benning's funniest moments come from playing off her jerky Nicholson and eventually Vegas costars Brown, De Vito and Tom Jones - whose 11th hour cameo addition to the scrambling survivors is the cherry atop the 1960s-unto-70s old fashioned big-cast vibe as "It's Not Unusual" carries the film into the end credits. Even Godzilla gets a guest spot, courtesy of a gag when the Martians channel surf between it and another junk-cultural touchstone, The Dukes of Hazard.

The choice of Vegas as a major location is, like the other locales in Kansas and Washington, D.C., part of a timeless quality Burton had shown adeptness for since Pee-Wee's Big Adventure and Edward Scissorhands. All three places are unstuck in time one way or another, and longtime Burton costume designer Colleen Atwood created a wardrobe of retro-modern clothing colors and styles while the production design subliminally recalls 1960s aesthetics. Sometimes not so subliminally, as when Martin Short, playing a lascivious White House Press Secretary, is undone by a Martian in a beehive-haired pinup girl human costume while attempting to mack on her in the White House's secret "Kennedy Room." The "Martian Spy Girl," played by Burton's then-girlfriend Lisa Marie has become one of the few iconic images unique to the film version of Mars Attacks.

The whole cross-dressing aspect of the scene is usually a little British in the negative for my tastes but Burton creates an eerily convincing alien sex trap. Mars Attacks' other word on alien sex would be the small British detail of Lukas Haas' "Alien Sex Fiend" shirt, a deathrock band from the UK and unlikely adornment on a Kansas farm boy. Another small British giveaway is a great gag where France unsuccessfully negotiates a settlement.

The novelization of Mars Attacks! would have intrigued me even if it had not been written by Jonathan Gems. Having picked it up and finished it recently I'm delighted to report that every ounce of the wit and intellect appreciated in the screenplay for the film can be heard and elaborated on greater detail on every page.