For his third season showing classic films at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles, Edgar Wright changed up the routine from showing the personal favorites he had seen hundreds of times before to the films he had never seen at all. Armed with a beige leather satchel and a fistful of notes, Wright presided over what would’ve felt like the coolest film studies class imaginable, if only it weren’t filled with so many tales told out of school.
With filmmakers such as Peter Bogdanovich, James Gunn, John Landis, Rian Johnson and more brought in to enlighten Wright (and the majority of patrons) as to what he’d been missing, the eight-day event was a celebration of both the movies and moviegoing, the latter taking on equal importance to the double and triple bills of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and “Ride the High Country” and “Steamboat Bill, Jr.,” “Modern Times” and “The Bank Dick,” respectively. (The full list is here.)
Every screening was preceded by the New Beverly’s Julia Marchese’s plea to sign a petition to save 35mm film to keep archival prints in circulation for repertory theaters around the country and as Wright became known to remark, it would be difficult if not impossible to watch some of these films again without such an appreciative audience around.
Although it would be even tougher to attempt to replicate the experience for anyone who wasn’t in Los Angeles this week, there were plenty of stories well worth sharing beyond the walls of the New Beverly, some about the films that were being shown and others that strayed wonderfully off-topic. Keeping in line with the idea of seeing and hearing things for the first time, these were the revelations (at least to me) of The Wright Stuff III.
Joe Dante pulled double duty at the Wright Stuff, having already appeared to introduce Frank Tashlin’s “The Girl Can’t Help It” on opening night and returning to do the honors for Ernst Lubitsch’s “To Be or Not to Be” as well. As Wright was quick to note, this inadvertently set up a “Gremlins II” reunion with Leonard Maltin, who was also onhand to co-host. Before delving into the chutzpah that Lubitsch had to make a satire about Nazi Germany as World War II raged on, they reminisced about what was the ubiquitous film critic’s first of just two big screen appearances (the other being in Peter Jackson and Costa Botes’ silent era mockumentary “Forgotten Silver).
“The great thing about Leonard is that he gave a bad review to ‘Gremlins’,” Dante said, to give a little backstory. “However, I visited his house and he had a box of ‘Gremlins’ cereal. I said, ‘Why don’t you come on in the new movie and review the other picture and we’ll have the Gremlins kill you.’ And he said sure!”
“It was only fair,” Maltin deadpanned, though he admitted he got more than a laugh and a Gremlin thrashing out of the experience. “The great thing about being in ‘Gremlins II’ was that I’m also on three Topps collector’s cards.”
Edgar Wright has written a musical (kind of).
Since Wright had never seen any of the films he’d be presenting, he was more than content to give the floor to “ringers” to provide context, leaving less room for talk about himself or his work. Still, there were revelations big and small throughout. Audiences discovered the director’s concession stand item of choice when he declared after several screenings how many boxes of Junior Mints he’d consumed and just before the screening of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” Wright let it slip that he had contacted “Kill List” director Ben Wheatley about doing a podcast where the two might interview the great British directors, lamenting the fact that it would be too late to talk to the late Ken Russell.
However, “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” screening proved revealing for a variety of reasons – it was the only film Wright chose for The Wright Stuff without anyone’s recommendation because he had wanted to see it on the big screen since he went on a class trip to the city with his drama teacher and his parents watched it on one of their dates. (“It wasn’t the night I was conceived,” he quickly interjected.) But as a fan of musicals, Wright owed it to himself because lately it’s been coming up in a lot of conversations.
“I’ve written a script which is kind of like a musical,” Wright said. “Slightly a departure for me in some ways, but when I’ve told people about the movie and the idea, most of them have said, “You’ve got to see ‘Umbrellas of Cherbourg,’” So here we are.”
“I brought a raincoat because it used to be a necessity in this theater,” “Mad Men” creator Matthew Weiner told the crowd before “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg.” While it was appropriate for the inclement weather outside, Weiner recalled fondly the days when the New Beverly might’ve been a little less up to code and he would travel the mile over from his house to see double features as varied as “The Maltese Falcon” and “White Heat,” “Godfather I and II” and “I Am Curious Yellow and Blue.”
“Cherbourg” actually wasn’t one of those films since as Weiner explained, he only got around to seeing the Catherine Deneuve classic after the first season of “Mad Men.” Yet his introduction was nonetheless one of more interesting ones of The Wright Stuff III, describing the revelation he had watching “Breathless” at the New Bev and realizing “that a lot of [the French New Wave] was about was reminding Hollywood of what these movies were that they used to make.” He also lamented the lack of intellectual curiosity in a world with iPhones.
When Wright pressed Weiner to talk about his inclusion of pop culture references in “Mad Men” – one involving “Cherbourg” in season four’s episode “The Good News” was the reason he was there – Weiner explained, “My dad is from Brooklyn and my parents are sort of the same age as Pete and Trudy Campbell, they got married in 1959 and part of their assimilation process and their education process and a lot of what the reference stuff is about in ‘Mad Men’ is just basically how educated normal people aspire to be. They really were supposed to be informed. It was embarrassing to get caught not knowing shit back then and now it’s sort of something to be like, ‘I don’t have to know anything because I have my phone.’”
Weiner, who added he was a former “Jeopardy” contestant, went on to describe how his parents, particularly his father, cultivated a love of the opera, which is one of the reasons “Cherbourg” spoke to him so thoroughly. Weiner candidly admitted he had far more prurient interest in the film as a boy – “I knew the music because Catherine Deneuve was on the cover [of the soundtrack] and literally “Whipped Cream and Other Delights” and “Umbrellas of Cherbourg” were the times I spent with the record collection.” But his appreciation of the film was clear in this stirring introduction:
“It is like stepping into somebody else’s dream and whatever fantasy you have of going to the movies and looking at somebody beautiful in the most purely voyeuristic way where they cannot see you and you can see them for as long as you want, you will get that in this movie. It’s a melodramatic story like an opera. There is not that much story, but there’s also this strange thing that I think really hit with the public at that time, which is it’s really about modernity. You’ll see as you move from the seaside town to the gas station, you’ll have a sense of someone looking for romance in what is the technology of the time… And don’t think that all the time you’re staring at Catherine Deneuve is an accident because that’s also part of the story. This woman’s face is the story.”
Richard Schickel was brought in to introduce Raoul Walsh’s 1949 gangster classic “White Heat” in person, but that didn’t prevent Wright from getting in touch with another die-hard fan of the film in Maine. Having only talked to him once before, Wright decided that it was finally time to use the e-mail address he had lying around for Stephen King so he could read something to the audience. King was more than willing to oblige with the following statement: “White Heat’ is Cagney’s last balls-to-the-wall gangster picture and contains the classic tagline, ‘Top of the world, Ma.’ Also of note, [Cagney's character] Cody Jarrett may be the only desperado ever filmed whose mother fixation comes out not just in homicidal rages but in migraine headaches. Great photography too, lots of cool old cars and men wearing hats.”
However, that wasn’t the end of their correspondence. Wright thanked King for taking the time to reply and thought he’d close their conversation with the pleasantry, “Keep being awesome.” Given that this was only the second time Wright had ever talked to the author, he was more than a little surprised when King responded, “I can’t help it, Edgar. I was bitten by a radioactive spider. So I’m just naturally great. Clear eyes, steady hands, firm shits. Hope you have a terrific holidays, Stephen King.”
Joe Carnahan Narc'd on top billing.
On the double bill of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” and “Ride the High Country,” Wright pulled out an interesting similarity besides the fact that they were both westerns. Both films determined the top billing of stars John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart in “Valance” and Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea in “Country” by a coin flip, which prompted "The Grey" director Joe Carnahan, who helped introduce the latter, to ask Wright if that had ever happened to him. Sadly, Wright didn’t use the opportunity to dish on a surely sordid bloodfeud between Simon Pegg and Nick Frost over credits, but Carnahan conceded it happened to him once on “Narc.” While he didn’t mention a coin flip, Ray Liotta did eventually get his name slightly raised above Jason Patric’s on the poster, though reading from right to left, it was Patric’s name that was first. As Wright said, “Always go alphabetical, like Woody Allen,” to which Carnahan replied, “That doesn’t always work, dude.”
The New Beverly, the place for lovers.
Although the Wright Stuff proved once more to be a place to see celebrities — besides the filmmakers who often stayed a night or two beyond their official hosting duties, Alison Brie, Mary Elizabeth Winstead and “Capote” star Clifton Collins Jr. all could be seen ducking into the front row where Wright took his seat after every introduction – it was also a place to find love. At the end of the week, Wright announced that one young couple informed him that they went on their first date to his first Wright stuff in 2007 for a midnight show of the crazy martial arts epic “Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky” and now were married. Wright said, “I just loved that I brought two people together and that ‘Riki-Oh’ will always be a part of their love story.”
It was a special evening when Walter Hill made a rare appearance at the New Beverly for a screening of “The Driver” during The Wright Stuff II in January, so while it was incredible to see him back at the theater to introduce “Hickey & Boggs,” the 1972 slow burn thriller that was his first screenwriting credit, the encore ran the risk of losing a bit of the magic. However, such fears were erased quickly. Hill was greeted with a standing ovation and held the audience rapt with the story of how “I Spy” star Robert Culp acquired the rights to “Hickey & Boggs” and, despite Hill’s initial reservations, got his TV co-star Bill Cosby to once again partner with him onscreen as two of a dying breed of private detectives solving a case complicated by the reality of a more multicultural Los Angeles.
Hill said more than once that he wished it was the late Culp making the introduction instead of him, clearly a little uncomfortable in the spotlight. But after Wright and co-host Elvis Mitchell exhausted talk about “Hickey & Boggs,” Wright couldn’t let Hill off the stage without asking the director about the spare style of his screenplays, which he’s compared in the past to writing haiku. (Afterwards, “A History of Violence” screenwriter Josh Olson, who famously doesn’t read other people’s scripts, acknowledged, “I read his religiously. They’re so terse, they’re so tight.”) Mitchell was visibly taken aback when Hill said he used to read a lot of Harold Pinter, a fitting if not obvious influence for the blunt and often brutal dialogue Hill’s characters spewed in “The Getaway” and “The Warriors.” However, Hill also said the style evolved after being frustrated with all the scripts he read during that time.
“They all seemed to be written by the same person,” Hill said. “Every script at every studio, the dialogue was kind of dopey. They would always refer to each other, ‘Is that right, Frank?’ “Yes, Tom.” They used the names so much. So I was kind of swinging the hammer a little and say, fuck it, let’s do something different.”
Why we haven’t heard of Ivan Passer since “Cutter’s Way.”
As Josh Olson would explain, The New York Times’ Vincent Canby and a regime change at United Artists pretty much killed any shot the Jeff Bridges-John Heard mystery “Cutter’s Way” had of finding success, which made the Wright Stuff screening a rare opportunity to enjoy Ivan Passer’s peculiar mix of renegade spirit and off-kilter humor on the big screen. Though he’s not well known today, Passer rode into Hollywood on the Czech New Wave along with Milos Forman and threatened throughout the ‘70s to have similar success to the “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” director, but never did.
“Heathers” screenwriter Daniel Waters, who was also onhand to present “Cutter’s Way,” spoke eloquently about the film as “The last movie of the ‘70s. It came out in 1980 and the way it was treated, it was like no, the ‘70s are over, you can’t make any more ‘70s type movies.” But he went on to pass along an anecdote from a friend in the editing bay of Passer’s last studio picture, the Mary Shelley adaptation “Haunted Summer,” that suggested it was the director’s own braggadocio that ended his studio career. After noting that film’s most memorable quality was having its lead Eric Stoltz going the full monty, Waters passed along an anecdote from a friend who was in the editing room: “Every day Ivan Passer would come in and say, “I’m going to have to get my name changed because it’s going to have such an impact on people that I’ll never be able to make another movie again.” Which he was right about one part.”
As Wright noted the first evening of “The Wright Stuff,” many of the films that would be shown in the week ahead were already sitting on a shelf at home on DVD. However, if Wright had wanted to see “Get Crazy,” a film that doesn’t disappoint from that simple title, the New Beverly would be one of the only options for Allan Arkush’s wild 1983 film about a New Year’s Eve blowout concert. After the screening, Arkush said he was approached to put the film on DVD, but no one could ever find the soundtrack elements for it. (Self-described “Get Crazy” fan #1 Eli Roth tried to offer an audio cassette of the soundtrack he procured from Lori Eastside, who appeared in the film and went onto work in extras casting, but to no avail. Still, Arkush rewarded Roth with the transparent bowling-ball-like bomb – that a satin-clad Ed Begley Jr. threatens to blow up the theater with in the film – to add to his memorabilia collection. Roth quipped, “It’s like ‘Get Crazy,’ but now it’s get emotional.”)
In lieu of a DVD commentary track, Arkush spilled all kinds of details on the production that spent almost every day of its eight weeks in Los Angeles’ Wiltern Theater recreating New Year’s Eve, including how the film’s producers, one of whom was the disgraced David Begelman, hatched a plan similar to Max Bialystock in “The Producers” to turn more profit by intentionally making a flop, so they set up critics’ screenings and intentionally withhold the prints. Apparently, that didn’t stop the L.A.-based Gary Franklin, who Arkush said in a related anecdote gave the film an eight on a 1-to-10 scale on a local newscast to which one of the anchors piped up, “Really, Gary? It didn’t look very good to me.”
Lou Reed also wasn’t a fan at first, though the film features one of his few onscreen appearances as a warbling singer-songwriter not unlike the Velvet Underground frontman who writes lyrics based on the mundane things going on around him. Arkush recalled, “He got in Creem Magazine and slagged it and I ran into him in a restaurant 25 years later and he came up to me and said, ‘I was wrong about the movie.’”
Despite Arkush saying upfront that other than the 20 people he saw at a L.A. theater on opening day, the film has found a slightly larger audience since. As Roth noted, the Butthole Surfers named their “Electric Larryland” album after “Get Crazy”’s mystical drug pusher and Quentin Tarantino was the one who suggested the film be shown as part of Wright’s first double bill of The Wright Stuff III. And even without the warm reception that Arkush enjoyed at the New Beverly, the film lives on for the director — every time he works with Malcolm McDowell, who plays a Ziggy Stardust-esque rock star in the film, he always calls him to the set by his “Get Crazy” nom de plume, Reggie Wanker.