In the 90s and 00s, we began seeing more three-dimensional homosexual characters in mainstream entertainment. In the movies, we had Philadelphia and Brokeback Mountain; in TV, Will and Grace and Queer as Folk. The first positive portrayal of gay men in mainstream cinema dates back to 1982 to a movie called Making Love in which Zach, a married doctor (Michael Ontkean), finally acknowledges his homosexuality when Bart (Harry Hamlin), a successful novelist, comes in for a checkup. Barry Sandler was a prolific screenwriter by the time he wrote Making Love, and as a result of writing it, he came out of the closet.
His screenplay credit for Making Love alone would reserve him a place in cinematic history. Yet, Barry didn’t stop there. He followed this up with Crimes of Passion (one of this author’s personal favorite films). Directed by the legendary Ken Russell, it is a film about Joanna (Kathleen Turner), who works as a fashion designer by day and China Blue, a skid row prostitute, by night. She is stalked by Rev. Shayne (Anthony Perkins), who wants control over her soul. At the same time, unhappily married Bobby Grady (John Laughlin) becomes infatuated with her and wants the real Joanna to respond to him instead of China Blue. Crimes of Passion became a cult classic, and Turner’s performance in Crimes of Passion is cited her as one of her best.
Most interviews and articles about Barry Sandler have revolved around Making Love and Crimes of Passion, which is understandable, since they are the most personal films of Sandler’s career. However, very little has been written about his career before Making Love or after Crimes of Passion. In the following very candid conversation, not only we will cover Making Love and Crimes of Passion but also his career as a successful Hollywood screenwriter, which began when he was still a UCLA student. We will also look at his present life as a University of Central Florida film professor. I want to thank Barry for taking the time out to do this interview.
Jeff Cramer: Where were you born?
Barry Sandler: Buffalo, New York.
JC: How did you come to have an interest in movies?
BS: Just grew up loving movies, I guess. I wasn’t into sports. I wasn’t into cars and the typical stuff. I was much more into reading and seeing movies. It was an escape. It was exciting. It was an adventure. It was something I just found spellbinding, and from a very early age, I knew that’s what I wanted to pursue.
JC: You would go on to study at UCLA Film School.
BS: Yeah, growing up in Buffalo, New York, I always had the driving ambition to get to Hollywood. When it came time to pick private colleges, I wanted to go out to California. My parents wanted me to stick closer to home, obviously, because I was in upstate New York. I applied to Columbia, NYU, Northwestern, USC, and UCLA, and I got into all of them. My heart was set on California. My parents knew how much I wanted it, so we took a trip out to California, and we looked at both schools, and decided on UCLA, and that’s where I had my college education. It was a great experience going to UCLA and making a lot of good friends. They had a terrific film department. Still do. It was a great foundation for learning about filmmaking, because they had great access to the industry right in L.A. They had a lot of people from the industry who would come in and speak to the student body, like Paul Newman and Roman Polanski. You had people who were successful writers or producers like Mort Fine (I Spy) and Bill Froug (Gilligan’s Island) who would actually come in and teach a class. So, it was just a great foundation and still is a great springboard leading into the industry.
JC: Several classmates of yours would become successful in the industry.
BS: When I got to UCLA, Francis Coppola had just left. He lit the fuse for UCLA. He was just starting to make it and he was kind of a star. But in my era, in my class, we had people like Gloria Katz (screenwriter of American Graffiti), Jeffrey Boam (screenwriter of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade), and Colin Higgins (screenwriter of Harold and Maude). It was a good group. A lot of the people went on to do well in the business.
JC: Your first movie was The Loners.
Pictures and Poster from The Loners
BS: Yes. I was an undergrad and I was actually working on Kansas City Bomber too. But with The Loners, what happened was that I had written a script. I was signed with Jeff Berg at ICM. Jeff had sent the script out and I had sent it out to a couple of places on my own. One of the places was this company on the Samuel Goldwyn lot. They read the script, called me in and said they loved it, but they also said they were not sure if they wanted to do it. However, they were about to go into production on this motorcycle movie and they needed somebody to rewrite it. I was told to take the script home, read it, and come back the next day and give them my thoughts. So, I did. They obviously liked what I had to say about it, because they hired me to do the rewrite. I stayed in that production all the way through. I went down to the location with them in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was great. You had Dean Stockwell, who was the star, and Gloria Grahame, the academy award winner. It was just very exciting. I was, like, 19 or 20 or whatever, and to be working on a movie with these stars for the first time while I was still in school was a real thrill. So, that was the first thing that got off the ground.
As for Kansas City Bomber, I had written a script with Raquel Welch in mind, and Raquel was a huge star at the time--kind like the pop culture goddess. I just thought it would be great to see her as a roller derby queen; it seemed like a perfect meshing of pop culture with that role. Raquel was also at ICM and my agent sent it to her. However, I imagined it sitting on a pile with 50 other scripts that she was getting and she would get to it eventually, or not. So, instead, I got a map of the stars and found out where she lived. I drove up to the front of her house, took the script in hand, and went up the front steps a little bit anxiously. I rang the doorbell thinking I would just hand her the script and say, “This is your next movie. I wrote it for you. It’s a great role.” But her assistant Vesta answered the door--the woman who worked with her. And I asked her if Raquel was home. And she gave me a look...this was way before stalkers; she wasn’t too nervous about it. I said I had written a script for Raquel. She said, “Raquel is in Europe making a movie.” She also said, “This is highly unconventional.” I said, “I know, but this is a great part for her.” She said she would read the script and if she liked it, she would give it to Raquel. I said, “OK, well, you know. I can’t do better than this right now.” So I gave her the script, she gave me her phone number, and then I left. A few weeks went by and I hadn’t heard anything, so I called Vesta and asked what was happening. She said that Raquel had just got back and she hadn’t had a chance to do anything but that she’d told her about the script and she was kind of intrigued and liked the title. So, a few more weeks went by and I hadn’t heard anything. I was still in school at the time, so I wasn’t totally preoccupied with this, but I was curious to know what was going to happen. I called Vesta again, and she said that Raquel still hadn’t gotten to it yet.
And so more time went by, and then...This is where it gets murky. I can’t remember exactly what the situation was, but I had only one copy of the script, or something. I needed that copy back to run a copy off, or something. I called Vesta and asked her if I could have the copy back; I would run to get it xeroxed, come back, and leave it. She said, “Yeah, I’ll leave it on the front doorstep, and you can come pick it up and then leave it back on the doorstep. But whatever you do, don’t ring the doorbell.” I said, “Fine, no problem.” She said again, “Whatever you do, don’t ring the doorbell.”
So, I got up to the house and there was the script on the front doorstep. I got up to the door, picked it up, and then there was something in me, I don’t remember; I didn't know exactly what it was, but something kept telling me to ring the doorbell, which I ended up doing.
JC: I think it was probably because you were told not to do it.
BS: Probably. Yeah, that little bell of defiance was going off in my mind. I saw from the back, it was all fenced in, but from the back, I could see what looked like it might have been Raquel from a distance. Well, I sort of like just freaked, grabbed the script, ran back to my car, and just zoomed away. I got home and there was a call from Vesta. She said, “I told you not to ring the doorbell. You screwed up. Raquel is really pissed. She doesn’t want to have anything to do with you or the script.”
Well, I just said, “No. I can’t, I’ve gone too far. I can’t let it rest at that. I’ve got to do something.” So, this happened on a Friday, and I remember just walking up and down the street near my apartment thinking, “What am I going to do?”
So, I decided I was going to write a letter to Raquel: the most sincere, heartfelt letter, telling her I meant no harm, that I’m sorry I invaded her privacy, that I had written the script for her and just needed to pick it up for a minute, and that I would bring it back, but please don’t let that stop...whatever it was in the letter. I poured so much into that letter--probably as much as I put into the script--and I attached that to the script, and I believe I even paid for a messenger to bring it back to the house. That was late on Friday. Monday morning, I got a call from my agent that Raquel loved the script and wanted to do the movie. And like I said, she was a huge star at the time, and that meant if she wanted to do it, the movie would get made.
So, in other words, the letter must have done the trick. She read the letter and whatever I wrote in the letter compelled her to read the script. She read it over the weekend. Monday morning, my agent called, and he had no idea that I’d done this on my own. He would have just...
JC: …told you that you can’t do this.
BS: So, I told him after the fact and he was cool with it, but not pleased. He had sent the script over to her. So, that call came in on Monday morning, and she said she’d love to do it, and it was a thrill. Then they put the deal together and the following week, I was invited to her house to dinner, and this time, I went up and rang the front doorbell, knocked on the door, and I was welcomed as a hero.
Her husband at the time was a PR guy and really made that story--really exploited that story. It was in the press and it became kind of legendary around the UCLA film school about how to get your script to a major star. But you can’t do it like that these days because it's a different era and you can get shot at by doing it.
JC: I can imagine.
BS: I wouldn’t recommend it. I tell my students about it and they get a kick out of it. But again, I don’t think it's something you can do today…I couldn’t do it and no else could do it. But that was a much more innocent era; it was, like, 1970 or 71...
So that's how Kansas City Bomber started. [To watch the trailer for Kansas City Bomber, please click here.] Then what happened was we sent it out to Warner Brothers, and naturally, I was this 21 year-old kid, or whatever, who’d written a script, and they felt it needed more professional hands to come aboard and rewrite it. So it went through a lot of rewrites...Warner Brothers sent it to United Artists, it ended up at MGM, and finally, it went through a lot of different hands. And while I still owned a good percentage of the movie and had a good piece of the movie, and I did make money off it, the movie is very far removed from my original screenplay.
JC: What is your original screenplay like?
BS: It’s a dark, gritty, character piece, more in the vein of Requiem for a Heavyweight. It’s about this young woman from Kansas City who goes out to Hollywood dreaming of fame and fortune, making it in the movies, and she’s really not good enough to do so, but she’s desperate to make her name and to get attention. She struggles and struggles, and never makes it, and then one day, she meets this kind of beat up, bruised up, burnt-out ex roller derby queen who kind of takes her under her wing and coaches her, and tries to get her involved in the roller derby. It sort of shows her becoming a roller derby star, and the irony is that she makes it in the roller derby, but as a black-trophy...as a bad girl who gets hissed at, beat up, and spit on every week.
The irony is that she is able to find the stardom she desperately yearned for, but not as a movie star--as a star on the roller derby track getting booed at and spit at every week. And so it’s kind of dark, and much grittier and different, kind of almost along the lines of Midnight Cowboy, which was a different kind of movie and I know what MGM’s thinking was; if it had been at Warner Brothers, they would have stuck to those lines. Warner Brothers was a much more adventurous studio at the time. They were making The Devils and A Clockwork Orange, Performance…they stuck with those kinds of movies.
But then, when it fell out there and ended up at UA and onto MGM, MGM wanted to sell Raquel Welch in a tight roller derby jersey, running around the track. Listen, they weren’t stupid, they were smart to do that. It certainly made them a lot of money, and it would have been a much riskier project to go the other way. They weren’t sure whether Raquel could pull it off. I think she could have, but they wanted to play it much safer and go with a much more straight-on roller derby store. So, the film was made like that, and I think it’s pretty good, but it’s a different kind of movie than the version I envisioned.
JC: What was your next script?
BS: Well, I had been working on another original script, The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox, which ICM actually put together with Melvin Frank. Melvin had just done A Touch of Class with Glenda Jackson and George Segal. He had an office at Warner Brothers and wanted to refer it to Warner Brothers, but it was put in turnaround at 20th Century Fox. I had written The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox and worked with Frank on the rewrite. That film was made right around the same time as Gable and Lombard.
And here’s how Gable and Lombard came about. My agent Jeff Berg also represented Sidney Furie, who had just scored a big hit with Lady Sings the Blues, that wonderful Billie Holiday biopic with Diana Ross. Sidney was looking for a new project to develop and he wanted a writer. Jeff had sent him a script that I had written and Sidney liked it, so we met and hit it off really well. He’s a great guy and a terrific guy to work with. Before that he always wanted to do a movie about Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, and I said it was a great idea. I knew my mother was a huge Carole Lombard fan and talked about her all the time. I didn’t know too much about her. But I remembered Gable from when I was growing up and my initial reaction was, “How are you going to get an actor to be a believable Clark Gable?”
BS: And he said, “Don't worry about that right now. I made the world believe that Diana Ross was Billie Holiday,” which he did. “And I can do it with Clark Gable.” Not addressing the fact that the world knew what Clark Gable looked like, but anyway, I trusted him and just really liked him. So, we sat down and knocked out an outline for the story, and then I went off on the road to write a first draft in about 10 weeks. He was pretty sure, I was pretty sure, and so was our agent that since Sidney was a high level commodity after Lady Sings the Blues, that we could get a deal.
And it was one of those things, you know; we gave it to Universal late on Friday afternoon and by Monday morning, we had a deal. They wanted to do it. They liked the script and they said, “Let's do it.” Out of any movie I’ve done, this was the most fun.
Sidney was a major director, so Universal spared no expense. I mean, they just went hog wild and gave us whatever we wanted: sets and costumes,the Edith Head costumes, and the top of the line production designer. You know, we actually got Edward C. Carfagno, who did those movies in the 30s and 40s. Sidney brought in Jordan Cronenweth, a great cinematographer, but the casting was an interesting situation.
The script was very well received in the Hollywood community, and there were a lot of stars who wanted to do it, like Warren Beatty wanted to do it with Julie Christie. Beatty and Christie didn’t want to do it with Clark Gable and Carole Lombard beacuse they wanted it to be fictionalized. They wanted to call it, like, you know, Joe Smith and Mary Jones, and Sidney didn’t want to do that.
Sidney wanted to stick to Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. Universal tried to convince him. They said, “Hey, you’ve got Warren Beatty wanting to do this movie; give it some thought.” I also think Sidney wanted to maintain control.
JC: Yeah because Warren Beatty sounds like if he was going to be involved, he was going to you know...
BS: …Yeah, he would have to be given a lot of control.
JC: He would take so much control that eventually, he would become the director and writer of the project.
BS: Yeah, exactly. You know, I remember that Steve McQueen and Ali MacGraw were interested in doing sort of the same thing though; like, they wouldn’t do Gable and Lombard, but they would do a Hollywood couple. I really liked the script, because, you know, when I wrote it, I was trying to do it as sort of an homage to the screwball comedies that Lombard was famous for at Paramount, along with the kind of romantic melodramas that Gable was famous for at MGM, and I tried to recreate that spirit from some of those movies in this movie, and I think it worked.
And on paper, you know, you’re reading Clark Gable and Carole Lombard doing the dialogue, so your mind is already picturing the actual Clark Gable and Carole Lombard. So, we had a lot of interest in a lot of different actors, but everybody was afraid to portray this famous couple. But Sidney really wanted to do a movie on them.
Jim Brolin was far from an unknown; he was a huge TV star from Marcus Welby. Sidney’s wife saw Brolin on TV one night and said, “There’s the guy.” We brought him in, and sure enough, he was the guy. I mean, he just really kind of…he walked in the room, and you knew this was a star; he had incredible charisma and he was a great guy--a really nice guy and just a joy to work with. The key was finding Lombard, because we needed somebody that who the audience would believe had suffered a major loss when Gable loses her. So, I remember, there were a lot of actresses that wanted to do it, but Sidney was very particular. I mean, he knew what he wanted, but we couldn’t find her and we just interviewed, met, and talked to so many different actresses. Sidney and I were talking about Susan Sarandon, Candice Bergen…
JC: You probably didn’t know at the time that Candice Bergen was capable of comedy.
BS: Well, that’s the point. We didn’t know at the time. In retrospect, I think she probably would have been great. I tried to push Natalie Wood, because I’ve always been a huge Natalie Wood fan. Nobody really clicked, and then one night, I remember I was watching a movie on TV called Hustling, with Jill Clayburgh, who was a New York actress. She was playing kind of this floozy hooker, you know, and very far removed from Carole Lombard, but she was brilliant. I mean, she was really incredible. I called Sidney and I said, “Sidney, turn on channel 2.” And he turned it on and was watching her, and he said, “I’ll call you when it’s over.” Sure enough, at 11 o’clock, he called me and he said, “That’s the girl. She’s amazing. She’s just incredible.” We brought her up from New York, and she was just terrific. She’s nothing like the character that she played in Hustling. You know, she’s just very sophisticated and intelligent. She went to one of those Ivy League colleges, and just had great spirit, and we just fell in love with her right off the bat.
However, the studio didn’t think she was attractive enough...I remember, we did a test on her, and Sidney was adamant about going with her. He said, “If you don’t go with her, I’m not doing the movie here. I’ll take it somewhere else.” And they said, “Well, OK. If you’re that certain about it...we’re going to give you, like, $50,000 to go and have her teeth fixed, her hair done, and do a whole remake of her. Then come back and convince us that she can be glamorous and dazzling.” So, he did and she did well.
James Brolin and Jill Clayburgh as Gable and Lombard
Jimmy and Jill got along great. It was just a really terrific experience working on Gable and Lombard. I’ll always, cherish the experience of making that movie.
You know, the critical reaction was tough. I took certain liberties which you have to do when you’re doing a biography. You can’t stick to every specific detail. You have to shape it into a dramatic narrative that’s going to engage an audience even if you have to eliminate or consolidate or compress or rearrange whatever. So, you know, I got some critics criticizing me for that. I also took a more fun, sexual kind of approach to the relationship, and the critics thought that was being sacrilegious or whatever. Nonetheless, I’m very proud of the film. I had a great time making it and have some very fond memories of it.
JC: Since you took some liberties, I am curious, was the sock thing really true?
BS: Well, the sock thing was the truth.
BS: Was it like a cock warmer thing, you mean?
JC: Yeah, right, that whole thing.
BS: Yeah, that actually happened. I did a lot of research. I remember studying for hours in the academy library, going over old newspaper articles and new stories, and just reading all the material I could read about that. So, you know, all of that is true: the paternity suit, the sock thing, and obviously the plane crash.
JC: Of course, I know that Clark Gable wasn’t fighting in World War II when Lombard’s plane crash happened, because Gable didn’t serve until after Lombard’s death. She was on the plane raising war bonds. I’ve heard he served because she died trying to support the war.
BS: That’s the thing about doing a biography. If you want to make characters sympathetic and likable, you have to sort of forge it a bit. If that had been the situation, he would have lost the respect of the audience. So in a way, it’s making him the one who decides that he wants to go fight. It makes him more admirable, I guess, in the eyes of the audience.
JC: Do you think if you’d gone with what Warren Beatty or Steve McQueen suggested about changing the names, that the critical reaction might have been different?
BS: Yes, absolutely, it would have been different; totally, because it would have been fictional. It would have been inspired by real people, not a biography. You can still do that and make it work, but it would have been totally different; absolutely. It would have been a monster hit, too. I’ll tell you why. We previewed the film in Hawaii. It was the first time the studio had ever had a preview in Hawaii. They wanted to get as far away from Hollywood as possible, and it was a packed house in Honolulu; like, a thousand people. The preview had a test screening and the reaction to that screening was the second best reaction in the history of the studio. Jaws was first.
The studio originally decided to release Gable and Lombard in a thousand theaters at one time. As a result of that test screening, they changed the release pattern to open it smaller and in smaller theaters and let word of mouth sell the film. I think that turned out to be a mistake, because I think the reviewers hurt the film. It did huge business at the end of opening week, but then it went down. I think if they had opened it in all the theaters at once, it would have done much better.
JC: Brolin didn’t do many films until he married Streisand but I noticed that right after Gable and Lombard, Jill Clayburgh really started getting a lot of work.
BS: Here’s what happened. Paul Mazursky was at a particular screening of the movie somewhere in the San Fernando Valley and the reaction was great there too. He had been hearing all of these rumors about Jill, how great she was, and he went to that screening and on the basis of that, signed her to do An Unmarried Woman. Alan J. Pakula signed her for Starting Over, and then she did Semi Tough. She was a huge star; she turned down a lot too. Jill told me the biggest mistake of her life was turning down Norma Rae to do Luna, the Bertolucci movie. I’m still in contact with her. In fact, we brought her up to UCF a couple of years ago. She spoke to the film department here. She was great.
JC: Right. And it’s funny that Universal didn’t think she was attractive enough, because a few years later, Jill would be playing opposite Burt Reynolds, Michael Douglas, and Kris Kristofferson, and audiences bought her as the romantic interest.
What’s interesting in Gable and Lombard is that you have this happy relationship and these people can’t come out and tell the world about it. Later on, in Making Love and Crimes of Passion, you wrote about married couples who are out to the public, and yet they’re not happy relationships, and they need to end.
BS: It's a theme that I’ve dealt with in all my work: the masks we wear, the facades we put on, and the games we play. In The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox, Goldie Hawn’s character assumes the role of the Duchess because she’s a saloon girl and a dance hall girl on the Barbary Coast, and she wants get out of the life she’s been leading. In my Agatha Christie adaptations, The Mirror Crack’d and Evil Under the Sun, they are putting on facades and acts. I think it’s a consistent theme that runs through all my work, certainly in All-American Murder, obviously in Crimes of Passion, and Making Love too. I’m glad you picked up on that.
JC: Talk a little about The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox.
BS: Gable and Lombard was shot at the same time as The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox. Duchess took a longer time to get set up, obviously, because I had written it before Gable and Lombard.
Mel Frank was really going to reunite George Segal with Glenda Jackson from A Touch of Class. Then Glenda Jackson didn’t work out and Goldie Hawn came on. [To watch Goldie Hawn’s musical number from The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox, click here.] They wanted me to go to Canyon City, Colorado, to work on the film, but I preferred to stay in Hollywood and make Gable and Lombard at that time. So, both films were shot at the same time and they came out roughly about the same time.
In fact, this was a great thrill. Gable and Lombard opened in February for Valentine’s Day and The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox opened in March. And I remember taking a group of people on a Friday night to see The Duchess and the Dirtwater Fox and seeing a huge line across the street for Gable and Lombard. I mean, imagine that!
JC: Yes, I know, I know.
BS: To see the two big premier theaters both playing my movies… There’s a photograph of me, if you frame it right, I’m standing in the middle of the street, standing between the two marquees of these theaters; pretty exciting.
JC: What other projects did you work on?
BS: There was a project for Universal with Jon Peters that ended up not getting made. I worked on The Other Side of Midnight and I worked with the director Ronald Neame. Ronald’s wife was very seriously ill, so he had to leave the movie. They brought on another director, Charles Jarrott, who then brought on another writer. But I remember I worked on that project for a long time.
And then the Agatha Christie movies came up: The Mirror Crack’d and Evil Under the Sun. There was an existing script on Mirror Crack’d that was written by a British writer, Jonathan Hales, who actually wrote Star Wars II: The Attack of the Clones. They wanted an American writer, so I got involved in that and rewrote the script.
What was exciting to me was the original cast. They cast Rock Hudson, Angela Lansbury, and at the time, they had cast Natalie Wood. Now, as I said, I had been going to Natalie Wood movies since I was a kid; she was my favorite. And the idea that she was going to star in the movie was just a major thrill for me.
So I remember meeting her, and God, she was great. She was terrific. I mean, she was so warm and so friendly and, like, non actorish, you know? I remember the first time we spoke with her at lunch and we spent, like, four hours just talking and she wanted to know about me and my life; it was not about me, me, me, me. She was very down-to-earth. One day, I was at her house working on the script and I was getting out at six o’clock. I looked at my watch, and it was getting near six, and said, “I got to leave.” She said, “Just stick around for a few minutes; there’s somebody I want you to meet.” So, I hung around for a few minutes and at six o’clock sharp, the doorbell rings. She says, “Come on, I want you to meet my friend,” and I walked with her into the foyer and opened the door, and there stood Laurence Olivier and she introduced me, “Barry, Larry, Larry, Barry.” The idea of standing on Natalie Wood’s floor meeting Laurence Olivier, it was pretty mind boggling.
But then I got a call one day from the producer, Richard Goodwin, telling me, “I have bad news and good news.” He said, “What do you want to hear first?” I said, “The bad news.” He said, “Natalie is not going to be in the movie.” I said, “What happened?” He said, “She's got into a big fight with Guy.” Guy Hamilton was the director. He had done some of the James Bond movies: Goldfinger and Diamonds are Forever. He was much more of a male-oriented action kind of director and we really needed a George Cukor to pull this off. She said she couldn’t work with Guy and she left the movie, and I was just devastated when I heard that. And then Richard said, “You wanna hear the good news?” I said, “What?” And then he said, “We just signed Elizabeth Taylor.” Well, I perked up real fast, because if there was one actress that meant more to me growing up than Natalie Wood it was Elizabeth Taylor; both of them. So, clearly, that mitigated my devastation.
So, I worked on the script for The Mirror Crack’d, and I kind of fashioned the role for Elizabeth Taylor. Then I was over in England for a week or so while we were shooting and got to meet everybody.
Newspaper ad for The Mirror Crack’d
One day, Angela Lansbury came up to me and said, “Lunch tomorrow?” and I said, “For sure.” She said, “I’d like to talk to you about fixing the script.” So I said, “Fine.” I had a terrific lunch with her. She’s great. The next day, I got a call from the producer saying, “Guy would like you to get back to California tomorrow.” I said, “What happened?” He said, “Well, he was very upset when he heard you and Angela were talking behind his back.” I said, “What do you mean ‘talking behind his back?’ She came up to me and she wanted to talk to me about the script. She said she wasn’t getting much help from Guy.” He was very upset about that. He was the only director I ever worked with who had that problem, I guess; I don’t know why. I wasn’t telling him how to direct; I was just there as a writer talking to an actor about the part. Clearly, he thought that I had usurped his authority, or whatever. Maybe, being British, he felt much more regimented in terms of all that.
So I took off and went back to California. However, he asked me to do the next movie. So, obviously, while he may not have liked me talking to the actors, he was struck by my talent enough to want me to work on the next movie, Evil Under the Sun, which indeed I did. [To watch the trailer for Evil Under the Sun, click here.] I remember they wanted me to go to Mallorca to work on Evil Under the Sun, but Making Love was being shot here in LA at the same time. Obviously, Making Love was more important to me, so I went with that.
JC: Talk about how Making Love started.
BS: Scott Berg and I were involved in the 70s. Scott Berg has really made a tremendous mark for himself. He’s a literary giant; won the Pulitzer Prize for his Lindbergh biography and has written a lot of great biographies: Samuel Goldwyn, Maxwell Perkins and Katherine Hepburn. The Hepburn one is more of a personal memoir of his. It’s about his friendship with her. But, anyway, I was then going through a certain reassessment and personal evaluation of where I wanted to go as a writer and he knew this. I had written these big kind of glamorous Hollywood movies--big star driven movies--and I was sort of looking to dig a little deeper into more personal issues, and he really pushed me to write the first gay coming out movie.
As Hollywood had never dealt with that subject in a positive way, the existing images of gay people in movies were very negative and very down beat. They were either suicidal or humiliating butts of jokes, or they had kind of ugly, negative imagery, and I knew that from growing up myself, because we all gain our perceptions from the media. Classic examples are The Detective and The Children’s Hour where people were arrested for homosexuality or they ended up killing themselves because they couldn’t face it. These are very negative images of gay people. Scott was very pivotal in terms of trying to push me in the direction of writing the first positive movie about a regular guy who is trying to come to terms with his sexuality and ends up accepting himself.
I resisted it for a little while because I knew if I were going to do it that it would have to be something; it would be a major turning point in my career, but I would have to go out and admit that I was gay. You couldn't write this movie and be a pioneer of sorts and deal with this issue without coming forward with some kind of legitimacy from coming from a point of truth.
JC: Did anyone in the industry know that you were gay at that time?
BS: No, but I never hid it, so maybe they knew. However, I was never public about it. I knew if I decided to write the script, then I would have to take the next step. I finally decided that I’d do it. It was time. One of the caveats, I told Scott, was that I didn’t want to write it and then try to sell it, because I didn’t want to put weeks and weeks of my heart and soul into something that everybody would be afraid of and nobody would want to do. I said that I’d prefer to go see if a studio would be interested in the project and that if the script turned out well, they would be willing to make the movie. I needed the studio’s assurance that they were at least open to the idea.
Scott was close to Claire Townsend, who was the project executive at 20th Century Fox, which was run by Sherry Lansing. Sherry was the first female studio executive: head of production. We went in and they said, “Great, yes, we definitely want to develop this project,” and it took two women to shepherd this project, particularly Sherry. She was the first woman. She had a lot on the line and she really went all out for this project. She stood before the board and said, “I want to make this movie.”
We developed it at Fox. I turned the script in and everybody loved it. Daniel Melnick had a production company, IndiProd. Daniel was an estimable producer, having done Altered States and All That Jazz. He was the head of certain studios and he wanted to do this as his first movie for IndiProd.
Daniel warned us that the studio was about to be purchased by Marvin Davis, so we needed to start production fast. We signed Arthur Hiller to direct, and Arthur really responded to the script. We had very, very few changes. The movie that was made was pretty damn close to the script that I wrote. [Warning: The following clip summarizes the movie Making Love in a couple of minutes. If you have not seen Making Love and intend to do so, do not click on this clip, because it will spoil the film for you. Otherwise, click here.]
JC: Who were they thinking of to star in the film?
BS: Obviously, they wanted to try to get stars attached in the beginning. Naturally, stars were very reluctant to come aboard. Harrison Ford said no. Richard Gere might have said no. I know one star who was interested for a long time was Michael Douglas. We really, really had a kind of back and forth on it. There were several weeks where he was toying with the idea of doing it. Finally, because we knew we had to get the movie going quickly, in case the studio was being sold, we just decided to go with the best actors we could. We felt that the star of the movie was the subject, so we should just go with the best actors we could. Harry Hamlin was hot off Clash of the Titans. Michael Ontkean was an up-and-comer. He did Slap Shot and Willie and Phil. Then we had Kate Jackson, who was a huge TV star from Charlie’s Angels.
Dan Melnick said that was great casting with her. He was right, because she was a familiar face that people felt comfortable with. She was kind of like the guide in the film and, at the end of the movie, she accepts the Michael Ontkean character. He knew if the audience were to start identifying with her, they would accept it as well. It was very smart thinking on his part.
We made the movie. It was a pretty easy shoot. I mean, everybody committed to the film. Everybody knew the importance and the significance of this movie. We just gave it our all. You know, nobody had any resistance. Everybody was a real pro about it. They had a sense that they were doing something very important. So, that’s what happened.
Gay audiences were hungry for it. We had four test screenings of the film. Three of them for were for a straight audience, and I remember when we got to the scene where the two guys kiss, the audience just had a real problem with it. They moaned and groaned and kidded or laughed or got up and walked out, but when we showed this to the all-gay audience, they applauded during that scene.
The gay community continued to embrace it when the film came out. I got an enormous amount of mail when it came out. I still do to this day. It’s really gratifying for a writer to hear that somebody was so affected by a movie that it really changed their life, or allowed them to, you know, try to come to a decision with themselves to stop lying, face the truth or extricate themselves from a marriage that was a lie. That was sort of my most significant writing, or most significant movie, in terms of the impact it had on people.
At the 25th anniversary of OutFest, they took a poll of gay people all over the country to name the 25 most important gay themed films, that is, ones that changed movies and changed their lives, and this one came out on top. So, that was gratifying too.
JC: How did other communities, say, the Religious Right, react to it?
BS: They were people from the religious right who tore down the movie. This was a movie that said, “Hey, not only is it OK to be gay but you can actually find happiness and self-respect by accepting who you are as a gay person.” And that was a message that a lot of people in that mindset didn’t want to hear--you know, in that kind of hysterical religious right mindset. But I expected it and it wasn’t that overwhelming.
I know Fox sent me out on a promotional tour. I was on a lot of television shows. I was on 20/20 and The Today Show. There were people who were concerned that I might get attacked, or whatever but I wasn’t.
JC: It’s interesting that Michael Douglas turned down the role because as you know, he’s about to play Liberace. At the same time, what I also find interesting is that actors back then were afraid to do the role in Making Love, whereas today, if a straight actor plays a gay role, it is a quick path to getting an Oscar.
BS: The Liberace one is in development, but I mean, yeah, you can point to William Hurt in Kiss of the Spider Woman, Tom Hanks in Philadelphia, and Sean Penn in Milk. I think we’ve come a long way.
JC: Jim Carrey just finished a movie where his character is gay. Today, if your script had came in and I was the agent for an actor who wanted to be taken more seriously, I would say, “You’ve got to do this role. This is where people will see that you can act.”
BS: Yeah. Times have changed. But at the time, agents didn’t want their actors to do it because they thought it would stigmatize them. Mike and Harry had a lot of guts to do it, and they did really well, but yeah, it was a different time. You know, I remember Harry’s people were saying, “You’re going to kiss a man on screen? It’s going to scar you for the rest of your life.” Who knows? When Making Love came out, I would get mail from people wanting me to fix them up with Michael or Harry. You know, at the time people actually felt, “Well, if they’re playing gays here they must be gay.” But I think that people are a little more sophisticated now, and they can make the jump and see that if Sean Penn’s playing in Milk, it doesn't mean that he’s gay. He’s an actor playing a part.
JC: Whatever people thought about Harry Hamlin doing Making Love, it didn’t seem to hurt his career. A few years later, he went on to star in one of the biggest TV shows, LA Law.
BS: He was, like, the biggest TV star in the 80s. He really did well with that show, and then he did a lot of TV movies after that. He’s still working.
JC: One thing about Making Love is that your leading gay characters are doing well financially. Michael is a doctor. Harry is a best-selling novelist. It is not till three-quarters of the way into the film that we meet a gay character who is blue-collar.
BS: Yeah, I know what you're getting at. Did you ever see Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?
BS: Some people attacked the film because the characters were so attractive, affluent and educated. It’s like you’re trying to convince people to accept them in terms of their sexuality, or in terms of Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, their race. So, you want to make the situation as comfortable as possible for them to accept these people. But if you make them a little bit more attractive or a little bit more successful you direct the focus more to the central issue, which is sexuality. That was just a choice. I don’t think it was calculated. I think I was writing about people I knew. That was the terrain I wanted to cover. I guess, you could have made the same story about somebody who’s a construction worker who meets a truant officer and maybe the same elements would be in play.
But I tried to make the character as sympathetic as possible so the audience would deal with that character and then accept him when he leaves his wife and comes to terms with who he is. To make him a doctor, I thought, would have made, would have kind of given you…you try to make the case as empathetic as possible. You try to make the character as likable and as admirable as possible, and maybe I might have gone overboard, but I thought I needed it to counteract all the years of negative imagery of gay people.
JC: Was the talking to the screen influenced by Woody Allen?
BS: No. That wasn’t influenced by anybody. It was just my invention.
JC: I’m curious. Why doesn’t the Ontkean character ever speak to the screen but the Hamlin and Jackson characters do?
BS: That was the construction I chose: to show the point of view of those he profoundly affected the most.
JC: Obviously, your career wasn’t hurt, since you continued to work, but did anyone else in the industry treat you differently as a result of Making Love?
BS: Well, it’s interesting, I suspect there were certain producers and executives, once I came out, who wouldn’t want to hire me to do some kind of male-oriented action movie, or whatever. I knew of the risk, but I’m glad I made it. And to this day, I have absolutely no regrets about it. If people don’t want to work with me because I came out publicly, then fuck them. They are not people I would have wanted to work with to begin with, so it's just as well.
JC: Let’s go on to Crimes of Passion. How did that whole project start? [To see the trailer for Crimes of Passion, click here.]
BS: I’d written a number of drafts over a long period of time. It started as a two-character piece of China Blue and Shayne. Shayne was originally a man masquerading as a psychiatrist, and it was a much more kind of psychological two-hander. China Blue, at one point, wasn’t a prostitute but was just a single woman who was very sexually compulsive. Finally, I got it to a point where I was ready to show it to my agent, and he sent it around to several different directors and actors, and there were quite a few actors and directors who were interested in getting involved at certain points. I had a couple meetings. John Frankenheimer (director of Manchurian Candidate) was interested, Bob Rafelson (director of Five Easy Pieces) was interested, and John Carpenter (director of Halloween) wanted to do it. Then Cher was interested in doing it, but the studios were very nervous about it because it was very sexually explicit and very graphic. This was right at the beginning of the Reagan 80s, which was a very conservative time in this country. We also had the Meese Commission on Pornography and they were putting a lot of pressure on the studios to deliver more clean, wholesome family films and all that crap.
So, it was a tough movie to get off the ground. I had a friend who was head of New World who read the script and got it out to New World. Actually, New World was trying to do more movies that were out of the mainstream, more cutting edge films and more provocative stuff than the studios were doing. Once New World came aboard, they partnered with Orion at the time, and Orion wanted to do the financing. New World would release the film in the United States and Orion would release it to the rest of the world. At the time this was happening, my agency wanted to get one of their directors involved. My agent at the time said to me, “What do you think of Ken Russell?” I said, “Are you kidding? Ken Russell? He’s like an icon.”
When I was at film school in UCLA in the 70s, there were a handful of directors who everybody really kind of looked up to and everybody would’ve loved to have worked with at that time. Ken Russell was one of them. He was considered this mad genius who did very outrageous, very iconoclastic, very audacious kinds of films. So, they sent it to him and he read it on the plane.
He had just finished doing Altered States and had actually had a bad experience working with Paddy Chayefsky on Altered States. So, he was a little bit reluctant to get involved with another American production right away, but he read the script and loved it and said, “Yes, I wanna do it,” and that’s how it all happened. Once Ken Russell came aboard, casting was easy, you know, because actors were excited to work with him. Kathleen Turner, at the time, had just come out in Romancing the Stone and she was, like, the biggest star in the country at the time. She was America’s sweetheart. She read the script and she wanted to do it. So, it totally contradicted the image that she created from Romancing the Stone.
JC: It’s interesting that she would choose to follow Romancing the Stone with Crimes of Passion.
BS: Well, she agreed to do it. She said it was not an easy movie to make, and it wasn’t. It was a lot of stress and tension, but she loved the character, and I think she really loved the idea of working with Ken Russell. She had done Body Heat with William Hurt, who had just come off of Altered States. I’m sure he told her of how great it was to work with him, so I think that excited her as well. So, that’s how that happened.
Ken wasn’t sure about Kathleen, though. I showed him Body Heat, and Ken was still not sure about her after watching Body Heat. New World came to me and said, “You’ve got to convince him to go with Kathleen.” So, I showed him The Man with Two Brains, the Steve Martin comedy, and he went nuts for that. He loved her in that, because he thought she was funny. The character needed that kind of humor--that kind of edgy humor.
As for Shayne, I think the first actor we went to was Anthony Hopkins, because Ken had worked briefly with him. Hopkins couldn’t fit it in his schedule. He was busy. Anthony Perkins was a client at the same agency that we all were, so that’s how he came aboard.
JC: I understand that Shayne’s character became different after Anthony Perkins was cast.
BS: Well, the thing with this is that, the original Shayne character was still the shrink; he was still a guy who went out into the red light district and pretended to be a shrink to have this power thing over these hookers. I remember sitting at lunch with Tony and he said, “How would you feel about changing the whole shrink concept?” I said, “Well, why?” and he said he just got through doing Equus on Broadway. In Equus, he played Dysart, a shrink who’s working with these young kids. Tony worried that he would bring too much of Dysart to the character of Shayne, and he didn’t wanna do that. He wanted to go in a whole fresh, original direction with this. So, understanding that, and certainly since it was valid and I was thrilled to work with Tony Perkins, I said, “I’m happy to. The dynamic isn’t so much the shrink: it’s the man who tries to exert power over women, and if we can find another parallel to that, I’d be happy to change it.” It was right around the time of these phony TV evangelists, you know?
JC: Oh, I do remember Jimmy Swaggert.
BS: Jim Bakker and the -
JC: I know. I grew up in the 80’s.
BS: Yeah. Then they’d go off with these hookers and they were totally hypocrites, and as we know, it still goes on today with the Ted Haggards and George Rekers. Of course, Ken loved that idea because if you’re familiar with Ken’s work, the idea of showing religious hypocrisy was something that he would embrace. So, I got excited about it and Tony got excited about it. I remember Ken said, “Why don’t you guys work on it this weekend and come up with something?” So, I went over to Tony’s house. He had a great place up in, I think, it was Nichols Canyon. Anyway, we spent the day. He was an ordained preacher, so he had all of these Bibles and all of this religious stuff, and we went through it and came up with different passages to use in the movie, and that’s how that concept of Shayne evolved to that point, so that was fascinating. He was great to work with. He’s just so smart and so funny and so knowledgeable about movies, as am I, so we had a great back and forth on different movies. He worked with some of the greats, like Hitchcock. I mean, it doesn’t get greater than Hitchcock. So, I’d want to know about working with Hitchcock or Sidney Lumet.
JC: What’s interesting about Anthony Perkins is that here was someone who had led an active homosexual life and then later on, got married. It was doing kind of the reverse of the Michael Ontkean character in Making Love.
BS: Well, all I can say to that point is that he was not in the closet. He and I never had anything physical going on, but I remember when we were looping the movie in New York--this was late summer--once in a while, we would take a break and we would go over to these shows, like these strip shows on 8th Avenue, and go to these little sleazy joints and stuff, but nothing came of it. It was sort of a voyeuristic thing.
I want to talk about the Grady character because I remember the movie was budgeted for a certain price and they didn’t want to go above that price. It was a dicey project to begin with, as you can imagine, and nobody knew how people would respond to this movie, so they wanted to limit the risk and not go wildly off budget. Between Kathleen and Tony Perkins, we’d already exceeded the allotment for the cast.
In the meantime, Jeff Bridges had read the script and really wanted to do it. At the time, Jeff Bridges was getting something like $3 million a picture. He said he’d cut his price down to $1 million, but they wouldn’t even go for $1 million. They wanted somebody practically for nothing. They wanted an unknown, which is really unfortunate because Jeff Bridges would’ve been great. I mean, come on! Jeff Bridges and Kathleen Turner? Imagine Jeff Bridges as Grady too, looking great, and as great an actor as he’s been. But they wouldn’t put up the money despite his willingness to cut his price.
So different actors came in. I remember Patrick Swayze came in to read and people didn’t know much about him at the time, and Alec Baldwin came in and people didn’t know much about him at the time either. Baldwin did a great reading. He was terrific, but the chemistry with him and Kathleen…he was short, so it didn’t quite work.
JC: He was short?
BS: I don’t know. He must’ve been 5’7” or 5’8’’ or something.
JC: Okay. I always thought he was taller for some reason.
BS: Yeah, but different actors came in and then one day this unknown John Laughlin came in. He’d done a TV series called The White Shadow and he’d had a small part in Footloose and a couple other movies, but he came in and he gave a great reading. He just knocked everybody out. Kathleen came in the next day and they read again, and the chemistry seemed right, and that’s how that all got going. John was a great guy, but he was a little bit intimidated. She was the biggest star in the country and Ken Russell was this legendary director. He was this guy plucked out of nowhere, so I think he felt a little uneasy and nervous, but it kind of worked for the character. He sort of saw that in him and actually pushed his buttons in that direction because he thought it worked for the character, who was very uncomfortable and uneasy and all that.
JC: But the guy had to be a little nervous, especially because he was the one wandering into that world, you know?
BS: So, that’s the whole thing. Sure. But it’s so funny because Ken is not an actor’s director in the sense that he works really closely to mold the performance. Arthur Hiller is and was great with the actors, but Ken is much more of a visual stylist and he always gets great actors and he’s used to working with Alan Bates, Vanessa Redgrave, Helen Mirren, Maggie Smith, and Glenda Jackson, and people like that. So, he’s not one who molds a performance, and John was very uneasy, so I worked with him, and Ken was fine with that. In fact, Ken encouraged it. He kind of gave him some moral support and I kind of worked with him in terms of the character, and he was very grateful.
This is a great story. One night, we were shooting in Hollywood in a little shopping center--the strip mall where the shop is--and a stray dog wandered onto the set. He was a puppy, like five months old. He was a black lab shepherd mix and the police were gonna take him away, and John rescued the dog and gave him to me as a present. He said, “Here, I want you to have this as a token of my gratitude.” I said, “John, what are you, crazy? I don’t want a dog.” He said, “Take him for one night and if you don’t want him by tomorrow then I’ll take him. But just take him for the one night.” I took him for the one night. He jumped on my bed and he was with me for 14 years. He was a great dog. I named him Grady. So, Grady was the best thing I got out of the movie, I’ll tell you. I don’t mean to disparage the rest of the movie. It was a great experience, but he was a terrific dog. If it weren’t for John, I don’t know if I would’ve ever gotten a dog. Who knows? He was a great dog.
JC: One thing I also noticed is that you were one of the film’s producers.
BS: Yes. Well, I was associate producer on Making Love.
JC: So, now you were becoming a little more involved in the film.
BS: Yeah. It was because it was my original screenplay and I wanted to maintain as much control as I possibly could, so part of the concept was that I would function as a creative producer, not a line producer, not a nuts and bolts guy. Don Borchers did that and did a great job. Don worked with the studio, the unions and the production line. That was his strength and he did a great job.
JC: Did you ever want to direct?
BS: Never. I never wanted to direct. It’s a whole other sensibility. I don’t really have the eye and I’m very happy to have been a writer and a producer, not because I want to produce, but because producing gives me the opportunity to be on the set and be involved, as well as the opportunity to work with really good directors. I’ve been fortunate to work with good directors, and I’ve been pretty non-threatening because I don’t want to direct, and they know that. I’ve said that upfront: “Hey, I’m not looking to take over your job or tell you what to do. I’m just happy to be here, and I’m here for the good of the movie,” and they help you and deal with the script. So because I have that attitude, I’ve pretty much been welcomed. I’ve been fortunate to work with Ken Russell and Arthur Hiller and Sid Furie, and it’s just been really good, but I never wanted to direct. That’s funny. Most writers do, but no, I never have.
JC: I read about one conflict that you and Kathleen Turner had. In the scene with the dying man, you wanted her to be naked and she didn’t.
BS: You know, I don’t understand where that came from. I have no recollection of that whatsoever.
JC: You don’t?
BS: It might’ve been Ken who suggested it, and I know she’s got this thing about that, but I don’t know where it comes from. Ken might’ve said to me, “Go see if Kathleen would be open to that” or something, and I don’t even…that’s all I can recall might’ve happened, but beyond that I have absolutely no recollection. Somebody else asked me about that and I said for the life of me, I don’t know what she’s talking about. I have no idea. If it happened, I just don’t remember it. I’m not denying that it happened. I’m just saying I don’t remember what she’s talking about . If it were anything, it might’ve been just a throwaway, like, “Would you be willing?” and she said, “Absolutely not,” and I said, “Fine,” but she construed it into something bigger than that. One the other hand, she was on Larry King’s show last year, and this is great because I saw the show and somebody called her and asked her what she thinks her best work was and she said, “I think it’s Crimes of Passion.”
JC: I find it interesting that you got Rick Wakeman from the group Yes to do the score for this.
BS: That was Ken who got all that going. He’s a music guy.
JC: People who’ve seen Crimes of Passion often remark that it’s like watching two films. There’s one film about China Blue as a skid row hooker with Rev. Shayne trying to save her and there’s another film about an unhappily married suburban couple. Was the idea of making it seem like two films intentional?
BS: Well it was intentional. I was just going for one very natural story and one sort of surreal story and showing the parallels. I mean, that’s the whole point of the movie. China Blue and Rev. Shayne were people who got into these masquerades to try hiding the reality of their lives, their insecurities and their inability to achieve trust and intimacy. Then that was played on with a marriage in which the people do the same things in a much more natural way, but they still have lies and deceptions and illusions, and just going for these parallels of talking about people who don these masks to camouflage reality.
JC: I like that you mention “people who don these masks.” Fifteen years later, Stanley Kubrick tried to do the same thing in Eyes Wide Shut. But Kubrick was not subtle about it because his characters literally wear masks at a party. However, you and Ken were much more subtle about people who masked themselves, and as a result, you were more successful in dealing with that theme.
BS: That’s funny. I know what you’re saying. People actually drew comparisons between those two films.
JC: I understand that the film was cut so it would get an R rating.
BS: Oh yeah. Wow. Here’s the story of what happened there. We shot the film and everybody knew what it was, but New World had actually raised cash with American Express, and part of the deal was that they couldn’t release any X-rated movie. Ken assembled the first cut. We went to the ratings board and we got an X. The studio said, “Well, we can’t release it as an X. We’ve got to do some cuts.” Ken made a few cuts, went back, and got the X again. Well, this happened about five times. Richard Heffron was the head of the ratings board at the time, and we had a long conversation with him and he said, “Look, you can make a trim here and a snip here and cut a few things there, a few things here. It’s not going to matter. This film is not a moment here and a moment there or a curse word here and nudity there; it’s the whole sensibility of the movie. It’s the whole theme. It’s the whole approach you’re taking. It’s a great movie. Why don’t you convince your studio to come out with an X rating? It would really legitimize the whole X rating.” Flash back to the point where the whole rating system first came about in the 60s and into the 70s. An X rating was not a scarlet letter. It was spirit; it was sign of the time. Movies like Midnight Cowboy, A Clockwork Orange and The Devils got an X. So, you had some very important, prestigious, Academy Award winning movies that got X ratings. Then X ratings went to pornography, and an X became synonymous with pornography, so nobody wanted to get an X rating on their movie because it looked like it was pornography, so that’s what happened.
I totally agree with Heffron that it being released with an X was a great idea, but the studio would absolutely…Orion was fine with it but, Orion wasn’t going release it in this country; it was New World that said adamantly, “No. It’s got to be an R.” That was their deal with American Express.
So, Ken was very demoralized by it. He was very, very upset, and he kept cutting and cutting, and finally, we cut the entire cop sequence with the nightstick. We cut a lot of other stuff too, and finally, by the time it would’ve gone to get an R rating, it was not the same movie that finally got released on DVD and Blu-Ray.
JC: I don’t mean to say your two films are the same. They aren’t, but Caligula was released with an X rating with legitimate stars and that did well at the box office.
BS: Caligula was released by a much more independent company. I don’t remember who it was, but it was a grade C releasing company. I’m pretty sure New World was still trying to be like a mini-major, and they were excited about the publicity the movie was getting, although it was about the movie getting the X rating and Ken going back and cutting more and resubmitting and getting another X. It became like a running commentary in the LA Times. So, the studio got all excited. They were, like, “Oh, great publicity for the movie. Let’s keep it going.” I said, “Guys, no, you’re wrong. What’s gonna happen--sure it’s great publicity, but when the movie finally comes out as an R, it’ll be a sanitized version. It’s a cut version. No one’s gonna wanna see it then. Why would they wanna see it if all the good parts are cut out? They’ll wait to see it on video.”
Well, they didn’t buy it, but guess what? I was right. I mean, it’s a hollow victory, but still, that’s what happened. After seven or eight times of going back to the ratings board and getting cut to shreds and getting the R, we had a film that no one wanted to see.
But at any rate, what had happened was that finally, when it did come out on video a year later, it did extremely well. It came out as Ken Russell’s unrated version. It came out in two boxes: the R-rated version was in a blue box and the unrated version was in a red box, and they both came out simultaneously, because certain stores wouldn’t sell unrated movies, and the red box--the unrated version--did something like ten times the business the other one did. When it finally came out on laserdisc and then on DVD, it did well. That’s when it finally found its audience, but it did pretty well overseas, because Orion released it in Ken’s original cut.
Well, there’s a funny story attached to the laserdisc and DVD version where I did the audio commentary on the movie and the deleted scenes.
JC: Yeah. I have that DVD and I’ve heard the commentary where Ken Russell joins you for the first hour and then leaves.
BS: He leaves midway. It’s funny because I said to him, “Will you do the audio version, the commentary?” He said, “I will do it if you will, but I’ll give you an hour.” I said, “Yeah, but the film runs almost two hours.” He said, “I’m sorry. I’m only gonna be an hour.” He felt that New World owed him money. There was some kind of monetary dispute over his fee or his pension or something, and he was really pissed at them. So, first, he wanted to get paid and I said, “Ken, directors don’t get paid to do these audio commentaries. It’s for posterity and all that.” Then he said, “Well I’m only gonna do it for an hour.”
So I thought, we’ll go to lunch. We scheduled with him until 3:00. I thought, we’ll go to lunch, he’ll have some wine, he’ll have some more wine; by the time we get there, he’ll forget and he’ll do it. Well, we went to lunch, he had some wine, he had some more wine, and he was in a pretty good mood. If you’ve heard this commentary, you can tell. Well, an hour into it, he said, “Okay, time’s up. I’m going.” I had to take him back to his hotel because I was driving. So, I said, “C’mon Ken,” and he said, “Nope. An hour. That’s it.”
He’s a really stubborn guy. I love him. He’s great. He’s just the greatest, but he is stubborn. So, he stopped the thing, I took him back to the hotel, and I came back and completed the rest of the movie in a decidedly more serious tone.
Nevertheless, it was a great thrill to work with Ken Russell. We had a difficult beginning. Well, not difficult, but he was a little bit reluctant because he just had come off this bad experience with Chayefsky on Altered States, but I made it clear that I was just thrilled he was doing the movie and I was totally open to his vision, not only open to it but ready to embrace it. Once we broke down that barrier, it didn’t take long. It took a couple sessions, and he said that he wasn’t gonna resist it and was welcoming of it, and then we got along great. And in the end, he had total respect for the script. I mean, if an actor wanted to change a line he would say, “That’s up to Barry. You’ve got to talk to him about that.”
BS: Very few directors will do that. He was very respectful too, but Ken was a writer himself, so he knew that script and was protective of the material. So, it was a great experience and he was on the set every day and working close and all that. We had a great event last year here in Florida for the 25th anniversary of the film, and the Florida Film Festival had a special event screening. They flew Ken and his wife in from England for it and he and I did a Q&A afterwards. It was a packed house.
Barry Sandler and Ken Russell at the Florida Film Festival
Five years before that, I had presented him with the lifetime achievement award at the Ashville Film Festival and we screened the film. We screened Crimes of Passion, Tommy and The Devils.
JC: Talk about All-American Murder, which is the one you and Ken almost did together.
JC: And ended up being directed by Anson Williams. (Anson played Potsie in Happy Days.) How did we come from Ken Russell to Potsie?
BS: Yeah. It was a heartbreaking experience. Dan Ireland was head of production at Vestron and he was a huge Ken Russell fan. Vestron had done Ken’s Lair of the White Worm. Ken and I had such a great experience on Crimes of Passion and we wanted to do something else. I showed him the script for All-American Murder and he said, “Let’s do it. Let me give this to Dan Ireland.” So Dan got it, Dan loved it, and it happened very quickly. They really wanted to get moving on it. So, it was very exciting. The movie that you saw was shot on a budget of something like $1.3 million, and the movie that we were doing at Vestron was budgeted, I believe, at $8 million, so it would’ve been a much bigger movie and Ken would have known where to put the camera; not to discount Anson, because I loved Anson.
We started casting and we cast Charlie Schlatter as the lead character. I’d seen him in a couple films like 18 Again and showed them to Ken. Ken liked him a lot. Charlie came in for a meeting and that just worked, but the guy Ken really wanted to play that part was Kiefer Sutherland, and Kiefer was--his schedule--it didn’t quite correlate with our schedule.
JC: Well, that’s interesting. I see how Charlie would be able to deliver the comedic lines, but Kiefer Sutherland, I’m not sure about. On the other hand, that character was supposed to have been kicked out of schools. Kiefer looks like someone who was kicked out. Charlie, I have to admit, doesn’t look like a guy who was thrown out of schools.
BS: Yeah, but Kiefer had a much darker, sleazier kind of persona, but he’s a good actor. So, I remember that Jeff Goldblum was supposed to play the Christopher Walken part, and I remember we had lunch with Jeff. Ken had rented a house for the duration of the movie. In fact, it was Gore Vidal’s house in Outpost. It was a great old house. Jeff was excited to do it. I remember, we had lunch with Ann Margaret, who was going to play the Joanna Cassidy character, the dean’s wife. There was even some talk, and I don’t know how real this was or not, but that Charlton Heston was even considering playing the dean.
JC: Well, I don’t think he would’ve done the scene where he is having sex with a coed undergrad, handcuffed to the bed, and his wife walks on them.
BS: I don’t think Charlton would either. He was a big Ken Russell fan and I think that he wanted to work with Ken, but it would’ve been tricky coming down to it. We were scouting locations and getting the crew ready, and it was about six weeks before we started shooting when the company, Vestron, went under. Down. Gone. Suddenly everything was put on hold. They had about three or four productions in pre-production that were just frozen, and I remember it went on for a few weeks. Every day, we’d come in to see whether things had changed, whether somebody would rescue us, but they couldn’t because the rights tie up and all that.
Anyway, it was horrible. It was so demoralizing and upsetting because we were so close to making the movie and it would’ve been, I think, a good movie. It fell apart. So, Ken went back to England. The cast went their own separate ways, and the script was reverted to me, except for certain rewrites that I had done that Vestron claimed to own. So, I could go back to my original script, but I couldn’t use all the material that I had written under the development of Vestron.
Anson had this company called Enchanted Pictures, and they had a deal with Trimark to do these low budget movies. My manager sent in the script. Anson loved it, so he wanted this to be their first movie, and that’s how that happened. Most of that budget of $1.3 million was eaten up by Christopher Walken’s salary, which was, I think, $400,000 or $500,000.
British video release of All-American Murder
We shot in Oklahoma. We had a tie-in at the Oklahoma Film Commission, so they had to shoot in Oklahoma with an Oklahoma crew, and everything had to be done in Oklahoma. Anson was great. I adored him and he was very beholden to the script and very respectful of the script and we got along great. I can’t remember one argument. It was his first time shooting and we only had an 18-day shoot, and it was kind of an elaborate film because there were a lot of locations and we did a lot of night shooting, and night shooting is a bitch. It’s really exhausting. So, it was a tough shoot, but we had a good cast for that movie. I mean, Christopher Walken was great. I love Christopher Walken, and he was terrific. Joanna Cassidy was wonderful and Charlie was great. Richard Kind was one of the cops, and we had Josie Bissett.
I’ll tell you an interesting story from when we were casting the film. We had our offices on Sunset Boulevard and one of the roles we were casting was Josie Bissett’s best friend, Wendy. She’s kind of the plain girl. One of the girls who came in to read for it was Jennifer Aniston.
JC: Jennifer Aniston came in to read?
BS: Yeah, the Wendy part, and this was way before Friends, and she was great. She just gave a terrific reading, but one of the producers--not Anson--didn’t think she was…I hate to say the word, but this is the word they used; they didn’t think she was “fuckable” enough.
JC: [Laughs] That’s interesting because the character is not supposed to be-
BS: That’s what I said! I said, “First of all, I don’t agree. Second of all, even if she isn’t, she’s not supposed to be. That’s not the character.” They said--this will be on my autobiography and my tombstone--they said, “We want every girl in this movie to be fuckable.” [Laughs] I really went nuts. I really exploded. Not only was that sexist and stupid, but it was quite irrelevant and it was such a misguided, sexist, ignorant remark, and I was really upset. They could tell I was furious, so they said, “All right.” She was waiting out in the lobby--in the hall, or whatever. They said, “Look, we can tell you really feel strongly about this. Why don’t you go out and talk to her? Tell her to come back tomorrow and tell her to come back looking fuckable.” I said, “I’m not gonna tell her that. Are you nuts?” They said. “However you wanna say it, just say it.” So, I went out in the hall and she was so sweet and so nice and clearly the most gifted actress who had read for the part, no question, and I sort of said, “Could you come back tomorrow and see if you can look a little more...” I was stumbling and she knew exactly what I was trying to say. She came back the next day, looking great and gave a great reading, but I still couldn’t sell him on it. That really was a big upset and it was the money guys. And hey, guess what? I guess Brad Pitt sure thought she was fuckable. And two years later, she ended up doing Friends and getting paid $1 million an episode, so she got Brad Pitt and $12 million a year. I’m sure she was just fine, you know? But she gave a great reading. She’s the biggest star in the world, so who knows? Maybe if she had done this movie, she wouldn’t be. Who knows? I don’t know.
JC: Interesting enough, the girl they got, no offense to her -
BS: No, I know.
JC: How did she get that?
BS: There must have been a deal with somebody. Not a deal, but I suspect it was a payback for something. I don’t know the truth about that, but I think there was more to it than that. I think she was very good, the girl who played her.
JC: I understand you were working for a lower budget, but was the script exactly what you and Ken were about to do back then?
BS: No. The script with Ken and me, it’s pretty close, but like I said, there was material that I had written at Vestron, which was much more, I don’t know how to say it. It was funnier. It was a little bit more off the wall. The final movie was much more linear and more straightforward. I think Anson did a really good job with the limited budget that he had, the schedule he had, and being out there for the first time, but with Ken, that movie would’ve truly been a different movie. It would’ve been much more outrageous and off the wall, and probably far more over the top, but it would’ve been a movie people would’ve talked about, I think.
JC: Yeah. Well I’ve actually shown it to a few friends because they like Christopher Walken and they know Josie Bisset from Melrose Place. Usually, their reaction is, “This is pretty good, although the budget seems very small.” They said they think the story is very good. That’s usually their reaction, you know?
BS: Right. They said that?
JC: That’s what they said. They like the story. They said, “It’s a pretty good story for a B movie.”
BS: Oh good. Well that’s nice to hear. I regret that it didn’t go that way, because it’s Ken Russell and--now listen, as much as I like Jeff Goldblum and I’m very happy for Christopher Walken, and the Joanna Cassidy casting was great and Ann Margaret would’ve been great, it would’ve been eight times the budget with the mad genius of Ken Russell behind the camera. Anson is a great guy, but he’s kind of in television. He’s a much more linear, straight-arrow kind of guy, although he certainly was willing to go for it within the limited time and budget of what we were able to do.
JC: Since you did two Agatha Christie adaptations, I was curious if you lifted the twist ending of the killer from Christie’s Ten Little Indians. The twist is that the killer fakes his death and portrays himself as one of the victims. So, we’re supposed to dismiss that person as the possible culprit, but sure enough, it is him.
BS: You know, I didn’t intentionally, but I may have subjectively because I’ve done Agatha Christie movies. So I was thinking along those lines, so it may have been. It wasn’t a conscious decision, but maybe it was a subconscious decision.
JC: What did you do next after All-American Murder?
BS: I was actually working. Oh, there were always scripts, but they seemed close to getting made, but didn’t quite get made. There were always projects. I could name them all for you, but we’d be here for three days. I’ll name a few, though. I developed a project for Columbia about two brothers; one is gay and who has HIV and the other who is straight, but is a journalist and has a column in a Houston newspaper. He is a well-known journalist, and he gets into a brawl one night. He’s mistaken for being gay, and then he uses it to write a series of stories about homophobia, pretending that he’s gay. Remember Gentleman’s Agreement? It was sort of inspired by that. He’s a reporter and pretends to be Jewish to get to the roots of anti-Semitism. In this case, I was going for a straight reporter who pretends to be gay to get to the roots of homophobia in America. This was right around the early 90s, so it was much more rampant; not that it isn’t now. We developed the AIDS project at Columbia and right around that time--93-’94--Philadelphia came out. So, Philadelphia came out and sort of killed my project, because they maybe release one gay movie per decade, I guess. [Laughs] I did a project at Warner Brothers called Future House, which was about this big house in the future and used all these extraordinary gadgets as a selling device. An all-American family goes to live in the house for a month to show what the wave of the future is going to be, and a rival company sabotages it. Then there’s a computer glitch and everything that was great in the first half of the movie goes totally awry in the second half.
So, it becomes sort of like Poseidon Adventure set in this futuristic house. It was a great script, but it was budgeted out at, like, $200 million or something in the early 90s, which would be, like, $800 million today, right? Oh, and there was a great project at CBS with Liza Minnelli and that was a biography of Helen Morgan, a torch singer. That was a terrific project and working with her was great. She was terrific. I just adored her, but what happened was she broke her hip and she was out of commission, so that killed that project, because she was also a producer on it.
JC: You also did a TV movie with Katherine Heigl called Evil Never Dies.
BS: I had worked with this director Farhad Mann, who was supposed to direct it and who ended up not doing it, but yeah. That was like Frankenstein set on a college campus with Katherine Heigl and Thomas Gibson. That was written in 2001, the year before I came to UCF. That’s right around the time that I sort of took a detour in my life and had to get out of the business.
JC: Okay. Well, let’s get into that detour. One interesting thing is that the old saying is “those who can’t, teach.” Obviously, you can and you went into teaching.
BS: Yeah. Anyway, I had done all of this writing and I was starting to feel kind of isolated, like there were different acts in my life, I guess. We were talking about Making Love. That came about because I was looking to go in a new direction. Well, I was at a point when I needed another new direction. I don’t wanna say I was burned out; I just needed some kind of change in my life. I was starting to feel isolated. Starting to feel like the business was getting to the point where it was getting harder and harder to get projects off the ground, and I hated to go through all this development process. It just came to the point where I needed a break and it just happened simultaneously with this position that was offered to me at the University of Central Florida. I sort of resisted at first because I thought it was a move. I had based my life in LA, and this was 2,000 miles away, but I said, you know what? Screw it. I’ll give it a shot. They flew me out here and I met with everybody, and I really liked it. I really liked the whole campus environment.
There was a whole new infusion of energy and it was just like a whole new chapter in my life, and they definitely gave me a good offer with tenure, and so, decided to try it for a year and see. That was eight years ago and I’m still loving it. I absolutely love it. I love it as much now as I did in the beginning. It’s just a whole new adventure, really. It’s taking my knowledge and the experience that we’ve been talking about and kind of using it to educate and inspire the next generation -- kids who are 19, 20 years old, and they still totally appreciate it. They still totally love the fact that… I know this because when I was at film school, it was always much more exciting to be taught by someone who had actually done it, who had made movies, whether it was a teacher or a guest speaker, or whatever, rather than somebody who had been trying for years and had never been able to get a script off the ground, and now was teaching as a last resort and was sort of bitter and kind of -
JC: Yeah. That describes the majority of my screenwriter teachers.
BS: Yeah, and I think students recognize that.
JC: Oh, believe me, we do!
BS: Students see that I’m coming to them having done it and with this great surge of enthusiasm and energy. It’s like being able to take what I’ve learned and what I’ve acquired and my own experience over the years and channeling it and inspiring them. The next generation is very exciting and very gratifying, and being able to show them these movies that I saw when I was that age: The Graduate, Bonnie and Clyde, Cool Hand Luke, Manchurian Candidate, and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? It’s one thing when you’re at the multiplex and you watch Valentine’s Day, Dear John, Hot Tub Time Machine and Kick Ass. It’s another thing to see The Manchurian Candidate and The Graduate. Not that there aren’t good movies today, but I don’t think they’re as great as they were then. I sound like some relic, but I think the students see the difference, you know?
I developed a class called American Film Artists. It’s a class that I created that’s really become very popular. You study one particular director for the entire semester. You look at their entire body of work and see the emergence of a vision and stylistic and thematic consistencies, and every week, you see this director’s films, and you see a real film vision and I think you appreciate that and it inspires you to develop and create visions of your own. So, I kind of alternate between contemporary directors and classical directors, like Scorsese and Billy Wilder or Mike Nichols and Alfred Hitchcock and next year, I’m doing Coppola. I did one class with four directors in one time period--the late 70’s--so, I did Polanski, Bob Fosse, Robert Altman, and Sydney Pollack, who all have very different perspectives. That was a great class. Anyway, they’ve given me a lot of flexibility here to develop those kinds of classes.
Barry teaching UCF students about cinema
JC: You also teach screenwriting. Writing is a very tricky subject to teach. How do you go about it?
BS: Writing is hard to teach because there’s nothing you can really teach. There are all these books that Syd Field has written on screenwriting. You can read them and sort of get a sense of it, but boy, you can’t teach someone talent. It’s got to be there. You can bring it out. You can help mold it and shape it.
I teach the basics. I teach how to set up a character and how to give a character’s actions, complexity, and how to connect the audience with a character. I’ll show movies and talk about scenes that illustrate that, and they’ll get a sense of how you can connect an audience to a character in the beginning and how the obstacles can be set up. So, you can give them overall concepts and you can give them the basics, but it’s up to them to come up with the story of the characters. If they have talent, you can help shape it and guide it, but you can’t instill it in them if they don’t have it. It’s talent. It’s hard. I’ll read the material and I’ll go through it with a red pen and I’ll say, “This scene doesn’t work. This character wouldn’t say this,” or whatever, and then sometimes they’ll come back with revisions that are better. It’s a hard one. Teaching writing is the hardest. The other classes are a breeze. You show the movies and you say, “Look how Coppola shoots this scene. What does that say about Don Corleone?” It’s difficult with writing.
This was the last week of classes and we have to get grades in and do final papers. One kid wrote in one of his papers…let me read it. It’s why I really love teaching and why teaching is so gratifying. On the last page of his final paper, he wrote, “Before I began this class, I really had no interest in older films. I was not a fan of black and white cinematography or slowly developing plots or storylines. I was very surprised that as the semester went on, I found myself more and more excited to attend class and see that week’s film. It was sort of a small break from reality and I had a newfound respect and interest in classic films. I believe that the main reason for this was you. The way you talk about these movies shows your passion for film and it rubs off on everyone in the room. Thanks for a great semester, and I’ll continue to view more classic films on my own in the future.”
So, it’s great to read something like that, and that’s where the kid gets an A, right? He would’ve got it anyway. I go back to California every summer and I’ve still got a couple of projects, but I’m not really hungry anymore like I used to be. I’m very content with what I’m doing here. I mean, I love writing and I can play around with something and get back to it, but I’m just having a great time here.