Director Richard Rush is one of the great what-might’ve-beens of the “New Hollywood” era. Before filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg helped usher in a new, younger energy in American cinema, Rush was pouring his heart and talent into low-budget independent films like the 1960 romance Too Soon To Love and the 1967 spy romp A Man Called Dagger. Later Rush hooked up with American International Pictures for some of the best-remembered youthsploitation films of the late ’60s: splashy movies like Hells Angels On Wheels and Psych-Out, both starring Jack Nicholson, who had one of his earliest roles in Too Soon To Love. When Rush moved to the majors with the 1970 college comedy Getting Straight, he seemed poised to become one of the most vital filmmakers of his generation, but he spent much of the next two decades mired in production hell on multiple projects, and some of the movies that did come out with his name on them were disastrous: Air America, a Vietnam action-comedy that Rush developed only to see the project taken away from him; and Color Of Night, a critically panned erotic thriller that was released in a choppy cut that Rush didn’t approve. Even Rush’s best-known, most acclaimed film—the 1980 meta-action movie The Stunt Man—suffered from poor distribution and might’ve sunk without a trace had it not become a cult favorite on home video. With The Stunt Man now available on a features-packed Blu-ray from Severin, Rush spoke with The A.V. Club about the highs and lows of his career.
The A.V. Club: The Stunt Man seems so inherently cinematic, but it was based on a novel by Paul Brodeur. How closely does the movie follow the book?
Richard Rush: It’s quite a departure. Columbia Pictures offered me the book after I did Getting Straight for them, and I read it and rejected it. But there was what I call “an irresistible metaphor” hanging in the air from the book. I saw a perfect opportunity to examine some of society’s dirty laundry, and to do so within the structure of a big action-adventure picture. The book had the kernels of the theme in it, but it didn’t deal with illusion and reality as a visceral thing. Its major problem was that all the principles were crazy. And that’s an easy device. If you make everybody crazy, you don’t have to worry about their motivations. So I wrote an outline, a rather detailed one, to intrigue the studio. They read it and said, “Okay.” I said, “You let me do the screenplay based on this outline, and I’ll do it,” and they said, “Fine.” Then they changed their minds by the time they saw the screenplay. But that’s how it all got started.
AVC: Was Peter O’Toole always your first choice for the role of the manipulative director, Eli Cross?
RR: Always. He was my favorite actor in the world at that time. Still is. The character of the director was of course one that I immediately projected onto, since it’s my profession. And I desperately wanted him to play it.
AVC: While making the movie, did you find yourself trying harder than usual not to be an Eli Cross type of director?
RR: [Laughs.] I don’t have that tendency, really. And Eli’s only a bad guy in the view of the stunt man, because Steve Railsback’s character is paranoid enough to believe this guy’s going to kill him in order to get him on film. But that’s really just what the character thinks. I think Eli’s the good guy.
AVC: What’s your take on why The Stunt Man didn’t do as well at the box office as everyone expected?
RR: It was probably the best-reviewed picture in decades, which after 10 years of rejection for me was an enormous gift. We opened in Seattle in one theater as a test run, in a 400-seat house, and we pulled a million bucks out of that one 400-seat house. It was a house record, and a record for Seattle at that time. Then we got a chance to open at the Avco here in Westwood, the movie capital of the world. We were only given a six-week run, because there was another movie due to come in. We greedily took it, and by the end of the week, we had broken the house record here and were the No. 1 film in Los Angeles. We expanded to nine other theaters, and finally a major picked us up because of that success. So it got off to a great start when we were opening it, but then 20th Century Fox never opened the picture wide enough. They kept saying, “We’re waiting for the Academy Award nominations.” And when we got Best Director, Best Writer, and Best Actor—three major Academy Award nominations—they did finally open it. In three theaters. One for each nomination.
I found out the secret afterwards. They had ordered less than 200 prints of the picture altogether, and that’s sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Now you need 3,000 prints to really open a picture. Back then it was 1,000. Either way, you couldn’t do it with 200. But there was one person in the company who hated the movie from the beginning, and was our enemy. He was a dear friend of the head of distribution at 20th, who made good deals for a few of the company’s pictures, but this one was put deliberately on the bottom of the shelf.
AVC: You started out in the ’60s as a true independent, making features on your own and then selling them for distribution. But then you made Thunder Alley with Fabian and Annette Funicello, who at the time were in the middle of their “beach party” fame. How did that come about?
RR: Annette was the wife of my agent. He got me the project. But also it was from American International Pictures, and they were fond of my work. AIP released most of my independents. They were the teenage exploitation studio that knew the secret the studios didn’t, which is that if you want to attract a certain demographic, you make your major cast that age group, and they’ll come to see themselves. Also, you should deal with themes that are important to them. Since I was very rebellious, my characters were always very rebellious, which seemed to be the keynote of American youth at that time. My pictures worked in the marketplace.
AVC: How much freedom did you have on a project like Thunder Alley?
RR: It’s one of the few of the 14 pictures I’ve done that I didn’t have any freedom on. The problem was that they asked me to do it after the producer of the film had spent three racing seasons shooting the racing footage for the picture. They came to me with that part already done. Since it’s a racing film, it didn’t have what I was hoping would be my trademark, even at that early stage. So I never felt it was completely my film. It was like writing the story around the footage.
AVC: A few years after you started, there was a whole generation of younger filmmakers making more idiosyncratic, personal films, like Bob Rafelson and Francis Ford Coppola. Do you feel in some ways that you were a little bit ahead of your time?
RR: I think I probably was. As a newcomer, you can only come up with original ideas, which were spontaneous enough to be ahead of their time.
AVC: After Thunder Alley you made Hells Angels On Wheels, and used actual Hells Angels, correct?
RR: Yes, a guy came to me and said, “I’ve got $100,000 and a contract with the real Hells Angels. So we could use them in the picture and they’re with us. We can make the film.” I was reluctant, because on one motorcycle picture before that, a motorcyclist had beat up the actors and urinated on the equipment. [Laughs.] Seemed like kind of a hostile work environment. And these were the real Hells Angels, who were much deadlier than any of the imitation groups.
But my mortgage payment was due, so I took the film, and I’m very glad I did, because it turned out I think to be the first film that was really my film. I wasn’t very fond of the script, so I improvised a lot. I had been very loyal to the written word before that, considering it some kind of sacred duty, not realizing that there are three films: the one you write, the one you shoot, and the one you cut. And they better all be different, or you’ve made no contribution. With Hells Angels I overlaid a Faustian theme, where my hero was quoting spontaneous lines like, “Better to rule in hell than serve in heaven,” and so on. I treated the Angels as though they were litter on the landscape. It was a very green, beautiful film, visually, and the Angels were always cluttering it up. It was an interesting way to go, and I liked the way it came out. I would deviate from the script and then three days later get back to where we were supposed to be, and a cheer would go up when the crew would realize we’d finally connected again and were back on course.
AVC: Given that you were working on these low-budget, low-expectation, youth-oriented films, was it easier to sneak in those themes?
RR: There used to be a tradeoff. AIP knew I would give them amazing amounts of breathtaking action for the price. They were willing to trade that for my desire to experiment.
AVC: How active were you in the youth culture yourself? On a movie like 1968’s hippie drama Psych-Out, for example, did you have to live it to document it?
RR: I didn’t have to live it, but I admired the culture so much and the whole social phenomenon of the hippies. Suddenly there was a new kind of non-aggressive male, a new kind of hero. I wanted very much to make that picture. American International said, “Okay, we’ll let you make it if you give us a sequel to Hells Angels.” And so we made the deal, and I had to do The Savage Seven first. That was a motorcycle picture, so it counted as a sequel to Hells Angels On Wheels. I actually had a lot of fun doing that one. It was an interesting film, because it was cowboys and Indians except in this case it was motorcyclists and Indians. The bike against the horse. That was also the first time I use my new blocking system, critical focus, which is where “rack focus” came from. Not bad for a 13-day exploitation film shoot. [Laughs.]
Then I got to do the one I really wanted to do, which was Psych-Out. It wasn’t named Psych-Out when I did it; that was the American International name for it. Unfortunately, that was the summer it got cold in Haight-Ashbury. The movement became cold. The kids had been on the street for a couple of years, and it was all wearing thin. It was getting harder to stay alive and healthy in that environment. The dope culture had flourished to a point where it had become troublesome. So I had to deal with some of that, as well as the glory of the movement.
AVC: After that you did Getting Straight for Columbia. At that time, was there a major difference in making a film for a studio and making one for AIP?
RR: Fortunately, there wasn’t. I convinced the studio, “Hey, you hired me because I make cheap pictures that are good. So why don’t you get my crew into the union? It’s the best non-union crew in the business, as you well know.” And there was a business executive there who kind of liked the idea of tackling the IA union on that. We got my entire crew into the union, based on the fact that, “Hey, what are you guys worried about? Once you let these guys in, there will be no non-union competition.” So I had my whole veteran crew that I had worked with on all the exploitation pictures with me on location, in Seattle, and there wasn’t that immediate in-your-face, imposed, studio control. As a matter of fact, the day before I came back from location, I got a telegram from the head of the studio saying, “You’ve got two more days to shoot on location, that’s all I can spare you. Then you’re due back here.” I sent him a telegram back, “Thanks for the extra two days.” [Laughs.]
AVC: After Getting Straight, you had a long layoff before you made Freebie And The Bean in 1974. What were you doing during those four years?
RR: Getting Straight turned out to be Columbia’s highest-grossing film that year, so they wanted me to do another film. They offered me The Stunt Man, and I played around with it, did an outline, talked them into doing it my way and wrote a screenplay, which they rejected. Then with the reassurance of my agent, we took it to all the other studios. I was sure we would have a deal within a week, and within a month we had been turned down twice by everybody. I was trying to get The Stunt Man made when things got thin, and I was offered Freebie And The Bean by John Calley at Warner Brothers, who is the only truly great studio executive I’ve ever met in my life. I turned it down, and he said, “Why are you turning it down?” I said, “Because I’d really like to make a Richard Rush film.” He said, “Why don’t you make this a Richard Rush film? You have a slant on it. We want to make the movie. You’ll find us extremely cooperative in turning it into the kind of film you want.” It was sort of an offer you can’t refuse. So I took it, and we did a new screenplay based on the idea, which appealed to me, of two bad cops who run around town like an old married couple, constantly arguing with each other. I’m not sure which was the husband and which was the wife, and I don’t think they were sure either. It turned out to be Freebie And The Bean, and it started a whole new genre of films, the buddy-cop picture.
AVC: Did you have a piece of any of these movies, Getting Straight or Freebie And The Bean?
RR: I had minor points, but they were net points not gross points, which means that the profits get diluted remarkably in the bookkeeping before they come due. But I’ve probably made more money off of points than I have off salary.
AVC: You had another long layoff after The Stunt Man. What were you working on then?
RR: I had taken an assignment at MGM, with a new screenplay, and then the administration changed, and it didn’t go. But it was a good piece of work. It would have been good. Then I got hooked on a project called Air America, and I actually spent five years on it, researching in Southeast Asia and writing the screenplay. It was the best screenplay I’ve ever written, including The Stunt Man, I believe. Sean Connery committed to it, and we were looking for the second leading man and had a lot of good possibilities. I went to Southeast Asia and scouted locations and put together a production that was almost bulletproof. I remember the head of one of the Asian air forces had offered to bomb any country I wanted so I could get it on film. [Laughs.] I thought that was reasonable cooperation.
But then when I got back, there was a new head of production for the company. He’d fallen in love with the project, and wanted it for himself. The first thing you do when you want to take over a project is get rid of anybody already connected with it, because they will be your enemy. So he got rid of me. The second thing you do is territorially urinate on it, so it becomes yours. So he got a new screenplay written, which was so bad Sean Connery immediately dropped out, and he couldn’t cast it. Finally they came back to me and said, “We can do it with so-and-so.” I said, “Yes.” They said, “He’s coming in this weekend, we’ll meet.” The producer heard about that, and offered twice our salaries to the guys who ended up doing it, so I was gone for good. And it was made with a new screenplay. I got a partial screenplay credit on it, which you can’t take your name off of it even though I didn’t like the screenplay. If you get paid a certain amount—and I got a good price for that screenplay—you can’t remove your name from it. There have been residuals off of that picture; it’s served a purpose in my later years. I keep getting good checks. But every once in a while I actually see the movie, and it depresses me.
AVC: And then you made the erotic thriller Color of Night, which was the last film you’ve made and was poorly received. What was your perception of how that project went?
RR: The project went very well, but it was a tragedy for me. We cut it on a new editing system that was so much fun that everybody wanted a turn to play with the machinery. It was a machine where if there was a shark floating around the screen and you wanted to get rid of something, you could press a button and the shark would eat whatever you wanted to get rid of. It was very imaginative and amusing, and everybody wanted to play with it. I didn’t have final cut on the movie because of some contractual relation the producer had with Disney. But we included a substitute clause that if he wanted to challenge my cut, he could do it, but only if we both had previews of our versions in the same city in an exactly similar circumstance. The guy with the better preview score would get the final cut of the picture. He did decide that he wanted to challenge my cut, and we did have that contest, and I won, so he fired me. The Director’s Guild said, “You can’t fire a guy in this stage of post-production. You can’t fire a director at this stage.” So he hired a publicity man, a top guy, and started a press war. Had a bunch of editorials written about me, negative stuff, and he broke it on a Friday, which is when you start a PR war, because you can’t answer until a Monday. So I was writing the rebuttals over the weekend to break on Monday when I had a heart attack. In the hospital, I realized, “Hey, I can’t win this war from a hospital bed.”
My style at that point was that my scenes were like jokes, with a tagline at the end. Well, he methodically went through and cut out all the taglines, so it was like one big shaggy dog story. I told him I would take my name off the film, which I thought would carry some weight, because his financing was based on the names of the stars and the director. And he had financial points, which had already been used in pre-sales. Then I walked to the door after I told him that. I never would have done it, because you can’t leave your actors hanging out there after they’ve given everything for you. But I walked to the door, and said, “Unless you’re willing to give me foreign and video in my version.” He said, “I can’t give you foreign, because it’s too late. We’re opening day-and-date with domestic. But I can give you video.” So I said okay, and we made that deal.
I had to put back together a video version of my cut, and had to get the code seal on that version. He was furious that they gave me the seal, because I had added seven minutes of sexual material. He said, “Tell me why you were so easy on him, and you were so hard on me.” They said, “Because the sex isn’t just stuck onto the picture, it’s part of it.” Then I went to three of the top critics in the country, my favorites, who I thought were the best, and I said, “Would you look at this version, and if it’s worth a review, please give it to me.” All three wrote rave reviews of the video version. That didn’t help the fact that it had been panned earlier by the press, as it deserved to be, in a badly cut version, but it was some kind of comforting resolution for me.
But I did learn a tremendous life lesson, and that was the true meaning of a final cut. It’s the one they make in your chest for the bypass. [Laughs.]