Time Trial (1979)
"Make the call for the experience of several lifetimes."
Critics were ambivalent about my first feature, those in the small minority who didn't give it a complete pass-few failed to see at least "glimmers of promise in the sludge" as one of their number generously phrased it-but viewers were near unanimous in their indifference. Roughly the same number of people as watched the 100 top grossing films of all time, never bothered to show up at any of the theatres-few as they were-playing Time Trial on its first run. I've talked to the Guinness people but they can't see the point of a "least watched movie ever" category-or why I'd want such a distinction for one of mine. Publicity! obviously. I have a new film in final edit, naturally I want to generate buzz any way I can. I don't aspire to be the director of only ten feature films-better than half of them decently reviewed-forever.
The Subway's a Killer (1980)
Who would have thought, after such a fiasco, that in less than nine months
"This is where you get off."
I would not only have financed, but shot and edited and sent off to the Festival of Festivals my second feature? (they hadn't been so quick on the uptake on the first). Maybe somebody saw commercial promise, God knows why, in that first feature so suffused with my own feeling as to leave no room for audiences to supply any? If so their faith was justified: I was determined this time out to communicate, bums in seats! brains fully activated a few feet above them, hearts pumping at a wide variety of paces. Genres freely mingled, horror? yep! thriller? sure, comedy? honest to God, what kind of film is it if it isn't at least a comedy, the police procedural has never been as relevant or successful again since the evanishment of the Keystone Kops. I could have done without critics calling it "a more accessible David Lynch," but I suppose they thought they were being kind, and it may have brought in more ticket buyers than it shooed away. I had my revenge; it was a sleeper hit, grossing more (against an initial budget even smaller) than The Crying Game; on which I did very well, although the royalty I've been paid over the years is certainly less than half the two percent of gross I was contractually promised. It's enough to make you wish one of the victims had been a picture studio executive, but try to feature one of those taking public transit! Taxi Driver had already been made and even Scorsese didn't have the wit or the balls to put a fat Magnum slug into the alleged heart of a studio exec trying to stiff Travis Bickle on his fare. Or bargain it down, even worse! what is it with us maverick indie directors? Don't we know who our real enemies are? Or are we just too squeamish to do anything about it even symbolically? What baffles me is that after this considerable success-if they were going to compare me to anyone, shouldn't it have been Terry Gilliam?-it took
Beggar's Banquet (1991)
"So far we have a perfect record. We've lived every day and haven't died even once."
just over ten years to realize my next project. If I'd had a horror/comedy/thriller script read to go I suspect it would have been a breeze-or been ready to take on any of the scripts they were gleefully shooting my way, which had everything The Subway's a Killer had except horror, thrills, comedy or a coherent story line-I was reminded of Joss Whedon's comment on a script he was asked to doctor: "The problem with the third act is the first two acts." I'd have to rewrite from first to last, top to bottom, back to forward and upside down reverse, just to get a usable script I could transform through the cinemagic of the camera. Did any of them have a premise exciting enough to be worth the effort of a rewrite? no, plus I wasn't hearing a whimper about any sort of fee for all that heavy preparation labour before a single actor could be auditioned let alone a single foot of viable film arrived at? It wasn't as if I didn't have a script of my own, a rich philosophic comedy about eight people living rough on the streets. No monster serial killer (no visible one), no fast paced thrill-a-minute action requiring detailed stunt choreography-I suppose they decided it was out of my wheelhouse and would you believe it? None of them liked the middle-aged man pincushioned with arrows like St. Sebastian-said they just couldn't see the point I mean! couldn't make the symbolism more clear and direct than that if I tried with both hands and a couple of feet for good measure but then it's distinctly possible that was the problem-too much clarity, not too little. I was pitching this to the homeful-some of them had two, three, more in the multi-million dollar range, scattered to various points on the mundane sphere. If I hadn't written a novel (still unpublished), many short stories (a fair number in print and online by now), suffered an exhausting love affair with a near-psychopath (that'll eat up the hours) the time would have hung somewhat heavy on my hands and even feet. Made its money back and a little more, very little. I was able meet house payments.
Elimination Dance (1994)
A mere three years was all it took
"I was wondering why all the skull stencilled trapdoors on the ballroom floor."
to broker a deal, assemble a cast and shoot, edit and move into a respectable number of theatres my next, though I managed it only by abandoning the first project I was pitching, Father's Day (which I'd already had produced on the stage) in favour of another noir thriller with horror fantasy elements and black (no! ultraviolet) humour to taste throughout. A project of convenience until the impassioned inner life of major and minor characters alike (I wasn't expecting any of that) lit a fire of inspiration which not only produced a fabulous script but the most focused impromptu pitch I've ever given in my life. I think they'd already decided to greenlight, but I'd lay any money at any odds that my infectious enthusiasm caused them to double the budget. Which did not make it a big budget by any means, but did mean the creative choices I made were not always hastily improvised responses to the need to pinch every penny until the copper bled into my fingers. Investors were disappointed, and so was I, by its performance at the box office-all of us were hoping for a hit as big proportionally as The Subway's a Killer had been (with my points I would have been quasi-rich instead of merely comfortable-able to afford first edition Lafferty and Peter Barnes, sure, but not necessarily a Rolls Royce with my own chauffeur). Then again it was my second highest grossing film to date, and while many critics complained of a "tailing off on energy in Heavisides' second crack at horror thriller chuckles", almost as many remarked an assurance in my handling of materials that fulfilled the promise of that earlier work, which is certainly the view I'd endorse, though it's possible I might be biased. If it had occurred to me to make a better deal on royalties from VCR and DVD sales! Not to mention streaming, but who even suspected that would turn out to be possible as a source of revenue? only the bankers and accountants who dominate this business at the production end apparently.
Dream Dream Dream (1996)
For whatever reason, my track record seemed to be inspiring confidence. I was able immediately to
Work. Sleep. Think there's a difference? You'd be surprised.
greenlight my most ambitious project to date, a horror thriller comedy with an ingenious sci-fi twist which necessitated my biggest budget to date, for visual effects to realize onscreen the nightmare implants directed at the entire working population by the Dream Technicians-but is there something the Technicians themselves don't know about the full extent of the programme?
This had been a radio play originally, with vividly imagistic accounts by the hapless dreamers that were translated into stage directions in the filmscript. I made sure I retained all the imagistic prose of the play and then some, a highly detailed blueprint-didn't want to downplay the skill and sophistication of my special effects crew by any means, but did want it understood what was the poetic core this dazzling vision was built upon. By anyone who still bothered to read scripts. Also I wanted scholars to have a clear picture of how the same material was adapted for two radically divergent media. Not a nibble from them yet, but fingers crossed. Maybe it was the right year for a change. This was a huge hit, my biggest to date. (I'm not talking Star Wars huge, of course. . . ) Nevertheless I had solid money, relatively little of which vanished through the rabbit hole of creative accounting-enough ("Almost!" said a nagging voice in my head) that I felt free to try my hand at an anarcho-comedy, half documentary, half fiction (documentary fiction being a term I'd invented while wearing my film critic's hat)
a vanity project plain and simple some would have said (in fact many did), but I would say ornate and baroque. I'd been directing theatre for years by that time-my own plays initially, but eventually interpretations of the odd classic: Life is a Dream and The Best Garroting Ever by Calderon de la Barca (the former under-produced, the latter pretty much never done); a King Lear with the daughters played by actresses between the age of 28 and forty, the lead played by an unusually intense teenage boy (considerable adenoidal force in the important soliloquys); A Chaste Maid in Cheapside; The Cannibals; Bartholemew Fair; Leonardo's Last Supper/Noonday Demons; Bussy d'Ambois; Vatzlav; you know the drill, you could probably predict the other half dozen simply based on these. I'd videotaped all or at least a fair sample of each production to have some sort of record, and I drew on these for samples of the directors' work. I played myself but also created an alter ego, Resto Popovich-something of a bickering devil's advocate. As a matter of fact, there's a consistent pattern of doubling throughout and BTW-do you know why Ireland's the richest nation in the world? because it's capital's always Dublin.
With a Bullet (2002)
A vanity project maybe, but I deliberately excluded even a foot of video from any of the plays I'd written as well as directed. Perhaps I anticipated a groundswell of popular demand that I complete the project with a second film chronicling those productions (no doubt as misdirected by Popovich), the second disc of my white album so to speak. This never happened.
The next film could be said to tread
Fargo meets the song stylings of Leonard Cohen.
familiar ground, but at the same time it was highly original (of which of my projects, good, bad or indifferent, could that not be said?). For once the least of my problems was financing-the biggest was casting the lead role (partly because money interest would wax or wane on this point as much as any other). Ideally of course Leonard Cohen would have played the dual lead-himself, and the aging hit man who's a dead ringer for him (in this comedy of murderously mistaken identity). What could you do? he loved the script, was willing to license the use of his music at tolerable rates, but act before the camera? There he drew the line. "I'm too old to memorize that many of another writer's lines." Philip Baker Hall was interested-told me he could sing as badly as Cohen if he suppressed his natural chops a bit. Potential backers were all big fans of his character work, but I sensed they were hesitant to engage him as a leading man. Tony Curtis gave a terrific vocal audition, but I wasn't sure how really committed he was to the role-anyway, nothing came of that. Robert Redford petered out too. So did a number of others, I won't bore you with the list. Then suddenly out of the blue, someone (might even have been me) suggested Tom Waits. He's one of the few gifted singers in the gravel-over-chainsaw range who can actually act after all. The money men were on board with that-I suspect they assumed we'd come up with some sort of prosthetic miracle in the make up department, but I wasn't interested, and neither was Tom, in merely superficial resemblance-"Plus who need eight extra hours in the chair every day, puttin' that stuff on, takin' it off?" What I wanted Waits to capture was the Zen/Jewish/Catholic mindset of the character as I'd conceived him, the murderous cool of the hit man with the songster's face, and that's precisely what he did-much as he would in The Imaginarium of Dr Parnassus. I mean I know there are plenty of photographs of the devil, especially on the Internet, but they don't even resemble each other, typically-which fits what's know about his protean nature but how's even the most gifted make up artist going to cope with a face that plastic? Anyway I thought it was a) funnier b) more metaphysically interesting to have the hit man Leonardo Connavalli repeatedly mistaken for Leonard Cohen (even when Cohen's sitting right across from him at table), and neither of them even once mistaken for Tom Waits.
Firewatcher's Wages (2004)
Brilliant noses. beneath skin above bone. A fixed reliable commodity. Marvellously subtle. Drawing your sword at a puffball. Sneaking up on a body. Who can define man? an appalling pax. The last one in the distance. I am of Clytemnestra's party absolutely. Nine lives this sovereign blade alone. Tiny killers. Heraclitus Firestarter.
Strictly PBS/Cinematheque screenings with writer, director, perhaps a member of the principal cast in attendance, never likely to pay back more than the salaries of all concerned in its production, this was nevertheless a blast to film. There may have been other Greek/Canadian co-productions, but another in which the entire movie was filmed twice, in English as I wrote it and in a Greek translation of my text? Happy days! ouzo, drowsy olive and lemon groves, Island of Mykonos a dazzling jewel in the wine dark Meditteranean. First rate performances by the entire ensemble, I scarcely remember a single disagreement in either of the languages of record.
Live, from Athens (2010)
This-the leadup to the Oresteia as seen by the Herald (Heraclitus Firewatcher in my script, I'm not about to name a lead character 'Herald' and let it go at that) from Aeschylus' Agamemnon-was the first of two Greek projects
"The examined life is no barrel of monkeys."
(the trial and execution of Socrates as a reality show for tv) was the second. At four hours neat, a full night (with an act division for intermission) at the ci-ne-mah, or a compact two episode mini-series, and it's been presented in both formats. To less than universal acclaim. If you can believe it, even in modern day Greece there are still people who take this personally: how dare I suggest any Greek court, in the capital no less, even two and a half millennia ago, could possibly have rendered an unjust verdict? bet you have to really walk on eggshells if the subject of pedophilia comes up.
I was good for tourism it appears even so, which is why I imagine there are even Greek voices among those hectoring me about when I'll make the next one. They want a trilogy! which is flattering (and tempting, I mean Lindsay Anderson did one after all. . . even Aeschylus if it comes to that) but I simply have no idea for another. Worst case scenario, this leads people to suggest one. Most frequently "Oedipus Tyrannus set in modern times." I know what they mean-Jocasta on a cellphone, Oedipus text-but they don't understand, and almost invariably it's impossible to explain to them that any theatre production, however costumed, is inevitably set in modern times. They may draw on ancient myth and legend-or history which is myth and legend with a thin patina of contemporaneous records and statistics-insofar as they still resonate with present concerns, and it's even been known to happen that they're staged in the ruins of ancient spaces-the Parthenon, Stonehenge and the like-but it's never been the case yet that a play was staged in ancient times (Sophocles, Aeschylus, Euripides and Aristophanes were moderns when they first produced their plays. Still are if they're done right; I know because I produced a number of them during hiati in production, Greek translators at the ready-that was one busy language assistant.) Not even comparatively recent times-fun as it might be to imagine transporting a production of The Ruling Class to a theatre and audience in 1875, it isn't currently feasible. I certainly don't expect to see it in my lifetime.
"It's so lovely being all of you this evening."
Smoke. Intelligent fog. Fun house mirrors, death house aesthetics, a city lit from within and a city of living houses. Riddles and enigmas. What was that language, where is its key? City webworks for instant travel by elevator or magic bus. People who are you and me only fictional. Elf clubs buried snug in the friendly earth and nightclubs whose floorshow is literally murder. St James Infirmary as you've never experienced it before. Song stylings of owls. Storytellers way too inwoven with the stories they tell. Red and blue water on tap. Dream or real? You or me? Happening to us or do we make it happen? Plain language that almost make sense. Bloodsuckers alive and undead. A once-majestic hall of mirrors that now exists somewhere between memory and legend. Vomiting parties, economic indices, themebook competitions. Action and suspense, stories that begin. Have you noticed how cities are like dreams? Anything imaginable can happen in them. Cut the deck and snap! the cards. Cut the head and bring on the dancing girls.
Hard to believe we succeeded in capturing this on film-difficult enough in the verbal field of a novel, where anything can be visualized because it doesn't have to be actually seen. And when I say it's hard to believe we did, I mean of course that most days, before the unblinking eye of the Avid, it's hard to believe we will. Too many ideas for editing, not to mention the ever-present threat of reshooting, often with no way to reconstruct earlier sets, struck on a note of false high confidence some time ago. CGI can help, but I'd wanted to lean on that relatively little. Never mind, I think it'll come together fine. Decent. A solid approximation of what we were originally after. I think so.