Published at: Feb. 19, 2009, 4:58 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
When INSIDE MOVES was released to theaters in December of 1980, it had so much working in its favor: an extremely bankable director in Richard Donner, a script from one of the hottest screenwriting duos in Hollywood (Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson), and an on-the-brink-of-stardom leading man in John Savage (hard to believe now, but he was a huge deal coming off of THE DEER HUNTER, THE ONION FIELD and HAIR). More important than any of that, it was a fine, deeply heartfelt movie that earned Donner the best reviews of his career and a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Diana Scarwid.
So why is it just now making its DVD debut?
There's a multitude of reasons, many of which Mr. Donner candidly discusses in the below interview. But more than distribution snafus and so-called "unappealing" subject matter, the answer, I think, is that INSIDE MOVES is just a classic underdog movie. Like its two physically/emotionally handicapped main characters, Roary (Savage) and Jerry (David Morse in his film acting debut), it was destined to get its ass kicked by life for a while. It had to suffer for being different. That way, when it finally came roaring back (and nothing, not even Enzo Castellari's GREAT WHITE, will stay out-of-print forever), the film's message about surviving the worst life can possibly dish out would be all the sweeter.
One thing I love about INSIDE MOVES is that it doesn't get hung up on backstory. What drove Roary to jump out that window? Why is Jerry's leg fucked up? How did that unlikely group of cripples find their way to Max's Bar? The indignities of the past are not important in Donner's film; locating the dignity in your current situation is. It's such a big-hearted movie. And while there may be a touch of fantasy in Jerry's quest to play professional basketball, the emotion is always earned (it's also important to remember that, aside from a few superstars, the ABA was a veritable misfit magnet).
I'm so thrilled to finally have a copy of INSIDE MOVES to show to friends. The pleasures are myriad: Savage gives a career-best performance, John Barry's score is an understated triumph, Laszlo Kovacs works miracles with available light, the settings are gritty and real, Harold Russell acts onscreen for the first time since THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES... I could go on. Also, it's important to note that if it weren't for the efforts of DVD producers Cliff and Lisa Stephenson, I would be castigating Lionsgate for sticking us with a garbage full-frame transfer. And while the print may not be pristine, I think it's important for movies of this era to not look too pretty; with very few exceptions, no one was going for a "clean" image back then. (The DVD also features a solid making-of documentary, and a fun feature-length commentary with Donner and Academy Award-winning screenwriter Brian Helgeland.)
I also need to thank Cliff Stephenson for setting up this interview with Donner, who's every bit the raconteur over the phone as he is on those commentary tracks. For years, I've been wanting to interview him, hoping to slip in a couple of INSIDE MOVES questions. I'm glad I waited. Save for the obligatory LETHAL WEAPON 5 stuff at the end, this is all INSIDE MOVES. If you're a fan, I hope you enjoy. If you've never seen it... now you can!
Before I could get my recorder started, I told Donner that INSIDE MOVES is still my favorite thing he's ever done. Let's pick it up from there.
Richard Donner: It's in my top two or three. RADIO FLYER is important to me, too.
Mr. Beaks: RADIO FLYER. That was with Laszlo Kovacs, too.
Donner: Yes! You know, the first thing I've got to do is thank Lisa and Cliff Stephenson. She discovered this [print] laying in the dusty environs of a film vault. And the two of them decided to dig this up, redo it, and push it through for release. I owe everything to them.
Beaks: I spoke with Cliff earlier, and he said that before he got involved, the DVD was just going to be a full-frame release with no extras. That seems to be the way this film has been treated over the years, and I don't understand why.
Donner: I'll tell you why. It was distributed really... can I say "stupidly"...?
Donner: ... by a company called PSO in consort with Lew Grade's company [Associated Film Distribution] in England. Twice in my life this has happened to me. They put me out at Christmas in three theaters against all the big pictures. We got the best reviews I think I've ever gotten on a film, and, of course, it died. Nobody knew it was out there. There must be a lot of other films that are sharing the same fate with their death. But not with their recovery - and that I owe to these two kids.
Beaks: It was released in December. Was it being pushed for Oscars? Because Diana Scarwid was nominated for Best Supporting Actress.
Donner: Not that I remember. When was it released?
Beaks: December 19th, 1980.
Donner: No, it was kind of, "Oh, there's an opening in a theater in Westwood! Let's take that!" I mean, really. It was sheer stupidity. We did get an Oscar nomination for Diana Scarwid. It was a good film! I think it could've gotten a better reaction from the Academy, but who am I to say? I don't think [the distributors] would've had the intelligence to think about releasing it for acknowledgment in the industry.
Beaks: I was watching all of the extras on the DVD, and it sounds like [INSIDE MOVES] came to you while you were getting ready for SUPERMAN?
Donner: It came to me as a novel [by Todd Walton], and I loved it. I was represented by a great literary agent - who's now long gone - named Everett Ziegler. I said to Ziegler, "Hey, I want to do this book." He said, "Great." So we were starting to put it together, and, lo and behold, I got a telephone call asking would I like to save Superman's life. Of course, I could not turn that down. And over the two years it took me to make [SUPERMAN] and get it done, I almost forgot about the book. Then one day Everett Ziegler said, "Hey, I've got a screenplay for you to read." I started to read it, and there was that opening sequence with John Savage, and I said, "Oh, my god it's [ INSIDE MOVES]!" It was written by two young folks, Barry Levinson and Valerie Curtin, and I couldn't put it down. I knew Valerie and Barry, and we spent a short while working on the screenplay, and it really just became the picture I was going to make.
I thought I was the hot kid in town. I was the flavor of the month because I had done THE OMEN and SUPERMAN, and both had done phenomenal. But I went everywhere with [INSIDE MOVES], and nobody would make it! "Oh, who wants to make a movie about handicapped people?" I said, "No, it's not!" I had such fights. There was one guy, Robert Evans at Paramount, who thought for a minute that really wanted to make it, but then the studio wouldn't back him - and if they're not going to back him, they're not going to back anybody because he was the studio. So I put it aside and was offered another project by a producer-director named [R.W.] Goodwin. He had a partner named Mark Tanz, and Mark had raised money to do a picture that will remain nameless because I still love it. So I started to work with them on that, and one day I said, "Hey, would you guys like to read a really good screenplay that's ready to go tomorrow?" And that was it. They read it, called me the next day, and said, "Let's go."
So we made it with independent money. And, as I said, it was quasi-distributed through PSO and Lord Grade, which was the death of the film.
Beaks: So when you did get going, John Savage... he was almost like a movie star at the time. He was coming off of three really big movies in THE ONION FIELD, THE DEER HUNTER and HAIR. Was he a big get for you?
Donner: No. John... how do I phrase this with great respect? He was and is a masterful actor. He wasn't a bankable actor. He wasn't a Robert Redford or whoever else was big at that time. But he was an incredibly solid actor who brought great dimension to his roles. And I was just thrilled that, when we submitted it to him, he jumped at the opportunity. Because it was a sensational, very unforgiving role. But by no means was there anyone [on the film] who was bankable - besides me, I thought. Which I wasn't.
Beaks: But that's the great thing about you making this film. It's always nice when filmmakers encounter a great deal of success, and use that clout to make a movie that means something to them. That's when you find out who are the ones with a soul and who's just after the money.
Donner: You know, it's the same thing now. You can make a big, senseless, ridiculous action adventure that has no substance, no caring, no emotions, no realities. It makes a fortune at the box office, and you're totally bankable. But go make some little dedicated piece of film, and you're dead in the market.
Beaks: When the film did not perform, even though you'd had these prior successes, did you still have to reestablish your commercial viability? After this you made THE TOY and then... well, LADYHAWKE, which is another underappreciated gem.
Donner: I never thought about that. I just took pictures I thought I would enjoy doing a year on. There was something in them that made me happy. And I took THE TOY because of a brilliant producer/agent named Guy McElwaine, who just recently died. I think he was partially head of Columbia at the time. I was on an airplane, and there was a tap on my shoulder. It was Guy, and he said, "Read this, it's your next picture. It's Jackie Gleason and Richard Pryor." And I said, "Oh, my god!" I thought I read it, but I don't think I did. (Laughs) And I jumped on it. But all during that, this beautiful young producer was pushing me to read a script called LADYHAWKE. It was well before THE TOY that it was presented to me, but I didn't get around to reading it until the making of THE TOY. And, as you know, I married the producer. (Laughs)
But I think because of SUPERMAN and THE OMEN, everything just kept pouring in. It's a strange town. And they don't value who you are, what you are, or what you're good at. As I said, if you're the flavor of the month they jump on you. Studios were as insecure then as they are now. They won't take a chance on anything new, be it story or people. Too bad.
Beaks: What was your schedule like on INSIDE MOVES? Obviously, you're accustomed to shooting quickly due to your TV training, but how much time did you have to really get into the material?
Donner: I don't remember the schedule, but it was a very pleasant shoot. It was all done on location, and almost all around the Echo Park area of Los Angeles; we did a little bit up in Oakland for the basketball sequences. We built the bar out of a garage in Echo Park, so you were inside/outside on the street. I can't tell you the days, but it was adequate time. I don't believe... I think when you indulge yourself with excessive time that you're really taking away from what you're doing. You lose your energy, and you're losing the energy of the people around you. Energy has got so much to do with delivery of talent as far as I'm concerned.
Beaks: One of the key things you did was you populated the film with so many great character actors. You bring these guys in, and it's like instant texture. And the way you shoot those bar scenes, there's so much life on the periphery. You feel like life is being lived on the edges of the frame.
Donner: Why aren't you writing reviews for The New York Times? (Laughs) You know, I try to do that. You can taste the film, you can smell it, you can feel it... that's why we built Max's bar on the street in a garage. We closed up the garage with plate glass windows and a swinging door that worked automatically for the handicapped. It had a total life of its own; it was a functioning bar for us. And it became the home, a place for emotional release. Whether you were an actor in a scene or a crewman about to shoot something, you felt like you'd come into someplace that was familial, that they wanted your presence there. That, as well as the people that you cast in every role - the tiniest to the smallest - every role is as important as the other. I'm very happy you observed that.
Beaks: It's one of the things that always stood out. Watching it again, though, I want to know how you did the day scenes in the bar. It really seems like the bar is lit by daylight.
Donner: That was Laszlo Kovacs. Of course, you had to balance inside and outside. And you did want, when you opened the door, to feel the heat of the light. So he put [neutral density filters] on the windows, which allowed exterior light to come in - and Laszlo enhanced that. I hate to talk about Laszlo in the past tense because he is and was such a genius. He loved light so much. He and Vilmos [Zsigmond]. It was like you'd toss a coin. "Who are we going to get? Who's available? Get me one of them thar Hungarians!"
There's a great story. Have you heard the one about what happened with the Christmas Party and the camera?
Beaks: Please feel free to retell it.
Donner: There's a Christmas sequence where there's a dance, and everyone comes to be there that evening. John Savage and Diana Scarwid are dancing in the bar. It was all lit from the top, so you could almost do a 360. The mirrors were on davits, so you cock them left or right or up or down; once it was staged, you could move around and you wouldn't see the cameras. Anyway, there were all these people, and it was smoky, and Sinatra's singing [on the jukebox]. They're starting to dance, and they start to hug, and I said, "Oh, geez." The camera was pushing in on them as I wanted, but it wasn't getting close enough because I didn't realize they would get carried away with the moment. So I kept pushing the dolly tighter and tighter, and the dolly grip was pulling back against me, and Laszlo was pulling against me, and I keep pushing, and the assistant camera's looking at me and pulling focus. And I won! I pushed in, we get this great shot, and I say "Cut!" And Laszlo says, "It's no good." I say, "Why isn't it any good?" He says, "Because the sunshade of the camera! You can see it in the mirror!" I say, "Laszlo. There's 200 people. People are dancing, Sinatra is playing, no one is going to see that sunshade." He says, "Vilmos will!" I say, "No, he won't."
So the next morning, when Laszlo came to work - and everyone on the set was alerted to it - we're all setting up a shot, this guy came in and delivered a telegram to Laszlo. And it said, "Laszlo, I was at the lab last night looking at my dailies - which were very good, by the way! And I saw some of yours. They're very good, but what's the sunshade doing in the mirror? Love, Vilmos." Laszlo went berserk!(Laughs) There was that kind of an atmosphere on making this movie. It was a love child. I'm thrilled it's come back.
Beaks: That's such a key emotional moment in the movie. It's such a great scene.
Donner: I love it.
Beaks: But speaking of things you probably wouldn't notice, I didn't know until listening to your commentary that, when he's falling from the building at the beginning of the movie, there are crowds on the corner watching the shoot. If you hadn't pointed that out, I would've never noticed.
Donner: Well, you can say they were all going to lunch at the same time and looked up. (Laughs) But nobody really notices. You know, if a scene works, you've got the captive eye of the audience. If it doesn't, I would've had thousands of letters saying "I saw that crowd!" But nobody's ever said it. That means it worked.
Beaks: Another amazing thing is that this is Harold Russell's first movie since winning the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES.
Donner: No. Winning two Oscars. You know he's the only one to ever win two Oscars for the same role He was a soldier who had never acted in his life. The Academy felt that it was such a brilliant role and that he would never win, so they came up with a new Award for him. [An honorary Oscar for 'bringing hope and courage to his fellow veterans."] Then, lo and behold, they announced the Best Supporting Actor, and he won! So he got up there with those two hooks and accepted. It was amazing.
But when I approached him with [INSIDE MOVES], he said "no". I said, "Would you at least read it." So he read it, called me a couple of days later and said, "I'll do it if you change the name from 'Hooks' to 'Wings'." So we did, and he was just magic! You know why? He was non-professional, but he was real. He was a man standing there with these two things on his arms. And when those guys say, "You got it wrong, kid. First you get handicapped, then you try suicide", that came from their heart. Those people were real.
Beaks: Was there any improvisation between them?
Donner: Lots. I mean, it was a great script, but once you've got great actors and they want to try something or you want to throw something at them... I always try. I always let it go. And nine times out of ten, you get something special, something a little better than you anticipated because it came out of the reality. I couldn't tell you what they are. I just saw the DVD, and I had not seen the film in a long time. My god, it brought back such great memories!
Beaks: Also, you can claim credit for discovering David Morse - at least as a film actor.
Donner: I'll take credit for it, yeah! I was casting in New York. He came into the hotel where we were casting. I had a suite; we had a whole bunch of people there and I was busy, and this big drink of water came in. He had this introverted, very defensive attitude. But when he read, it was the character. There was just no two ways about it. He found so much pain in him in the beginning. I asked him if he ever played basketball. He said, "All the time." So I took him over right away to a little studio on the west side - the old Fox studio - shot a screen test, and when it was done, I said, "That's it, man. He's got it." It was that easy. He was, is and continues to be an extraordinary actor who brings such dimension to his characters. He's a very special man and a very special actor.
Beaks: The one crucial decision you made is going for the "up" ending over the original ending, which had that typical '70s downer ambiguity. You really wanted to have something that would send audiences out feeling as if something positive had finally happened in the lives of these characters.
Donner: That's my attitude in life. I must've quoted this a million times, but if you want to be depressed, it's free: turn on the news. If you go to a movie like this - which says so very much, has so much heart, and has such a good reason to be made - and you come out of it having to make up your own mind whether there's joy in their lives now? And she's so depressing because she's a drug addict and you know she's not going to last long. If I leave it up to you, you come out in a state of confusion as to what your emotions are. I'm just not that kind of guy. I love to come out of a movie and feel good. There are so many movies on the market today, and at the theaters, that are so fucking depressing, so miserable and so unhappy. Yes, they may be well written, but I don't want to sit in the theater and go through all kinds of depression. I mean, god almighty, we've got enough of it! So that has been me for as long as I can remember. I love coming out of a theater feeling well, feeling good, feeling up, feeling like I was taken down a very interesting road, but there was a nice light at the end of it. I wanted that end. And I fought Barry and Valerie and the author; they all wanted it to end that way because, as you said, that was of the time. So I said, "Okay, I'll write it." Then they said, "Okay, okay! We'll do it!" And they did it beautifully. It worked. "Hey, Roary!" "Hey, Jerry!" To me, that's the movie.
Beaks: Well, that's the payoff you want. You want to see Tony Burton come back and get what's coming to him.
Donner: Oh, yeah! You're sure right!
Beaks: But it's also true to the spirit of the guys at Max's. You talk about how these people have rediscovered joy despite what has happened to them. So it just wouldn't sync up with what you've put on the screen if you just left us in the lurch like that. I think those guys deserve that ending.
Donner: I'm saying it again: why aren't you writing for The New York Times? (Laughs) But you're right. The end of that movie is the joy for those that deserve it. They're sitting in that row, and when they they say, "Roary, what did you do?", it's like they all did it. It's like they all got even.
Beaks: I've got to say that I've been humming the John Barry theme for the last couple of weeks. That's such a key component to the movie. You only worked with Barry once.
Donner: I love John. He's been a friend of mine for many years in England. I always wanted to work with him. I'd always loved his [James Bond] stuff, and the small movies he did. They were just beautiful. They had this undercurrent of what the emotion was in its simplest forms - nothing convoluted, just very heartfelt. So I called John and said, "I've finally got one for us." He was living in New York, so he came out, I ran the picture for him, and it was a fait acompli. I have a little piano in my house that I bought on the Thames River years ago; it's a little antique upright that's just one octave short and hasn't been tuned since it was built in the 1800s. John sat down at this thing and made it come to life in the most beautiful tones. Very special man. Still a great talent.
Beaks: Just seeing where INSIDE MOVES stands in your career, is there still joy to be found in making big movies? Do you feel like you're making the big movies to get to things like INSIDE MOVES?
Donner: You know, I was so fortunate when I did television. I got to do everything from the heaviest dramas to GILLIGAN'S ISLAND and GET SMART. I loved the variety. For some strange reason, I was never put in a corner. And when it comes to movies, I really don't think about them in their size. Something comes along, and you read it or develop it or get it going, and that's the movie. If it's LETHAL WEAPON or RADIO FLYER, it's the same getting up, putting your clothes on, driving in and thinking about what a wonderful day this is going to be. How fortunate that I am in a position that I can make this movie, and I'm going to enjoy it! I believe it, it has something for me, and it has something to say. You know, even in LETHAL WEAPON, even under the guise of entertainment we got a lot of messages in that film. From the "Stamp Out Apartheid" on the refrigerator in the first one to women's choice to "No to the NRA"... it got through so strong that I had death threats on these things!
You know that you are making a film that is simply entertainment, but, under that, there are things you can do. If you make simply a message film and try to put entertainment in, nobody's going. But if you do a film, you only do it because you want to see it and you don't want anyone else to make it because you'll never see it the way you saw it the first time when you read it.
Beaks: I have to bring this up. There's constantly talk of another LETHAL WEAPON. It keeps coming around. I know Mel Gibson recently downplayed that. What are your feelings on going back to that franchise?
Donner: Look, I would go back tomorrow. There's a producer whose name I forget, who was my partner who I have no respect for and hope to never work with again. He tried to put it together without me, believe it or not. And I'm the one who hired him and kept him on the film. So he tried to put this thing together. And when they went to Mel, he said, "Two things: I don't see Dick's name, and, no, I've done it." Now, do I think one could be done? Without a second's hesitation. I have a phenomenal, wonderful story with Channing Gibson who wrote the fourth one. He's a wonderful writer, and he came up with this truly great story. Yes, we could do it, and I think that the gang that loved LETHAL WEAPON would love it. And maybe at that point I could get Mel to do it. Who knows? I'm going to do another picture with Mel in between all the pictures he's doing, and we'll see.
Beaks: There was talk of a Shane Black script. Did that ever get to you?
Donner: No. I wish it had because I love Shane. I think he's a brilliant writer and a great guy. But somehow or another, the two of them forgot my name.
Beaks: And what are you working up with Mel?
Donner: It's an original that Brian Helgeland wrote that Mel wants to do. And until we do it, it will be nameless. Mel's doing one in between, so hopefully I will prepare it in the fall.