There's no point sugar coating it, this is a monster of an interview. But even if you know nothing about Brian Trenchard-Smith, even if you've never seen 'BMX Bandits' or 'Stunt Rock' or 'The Man From Hong Kong,' BTS is a filmmaker worth listening to. He's been around the film industry for decades, making movies the world over and his love for cinema and frustrations with Hollywood make him an absolutely fascinating film figure to listen to (it's just one of many reasons Quentin Tarantino openly calls BTS one of his favorite filmmakers).
So, without further delay, here is Brian Trenchard-Smith talking about everything from giving Nicole Kidman her first feature role to making one of the great, underseen Vietnam war movies to having Bob Weinstein call him an old man.
Cinematical: I'm sure it's a question you get asked all the time, but in all honesty did you see Nicole Kidman's future in her career at that stage?
Brian Trenchard-Smith: I mean who really has a crystal ball? But I have instincts. My instincts were that she has luminescence, a connection with the camera and therefore a connection with the audience. She had screen chemistry and not every actor has that however good they may be. The camera loves her and there's something very endearing about her. Even when she plays a cast iron bitch as in 'To Die For,' you can't take your eyes off her and you just enjoy all her dramatic choices in whatever role she plays.
Obviously there are a number of roles for which you could say she's been perhaps miscast, but whenever she's cast correctly... 'Rabbit Hole' being the latest. She attacked the part with great restraint. It was a part a diva could have wept and wallowed her way through, but she knew the right thing to do was deal with it by underplaying it. It became more searingly painful as a result.
Anyway, she auditioned, the producer said to me "We can't cast her, she's taller than the two boys." And I said, "Are you crazy? Legs up to her arm pits and a shock of frizzy hair, what's not to like?" She brought something to the text, shall we say. It was not exactly Shakespeare, but she managed to make every line-- her gut instinct in that audition with what to do with every line showed she had a natural talent for dramatic interpretation. So I got my way and she was cast. If you watch the extras on the Blu-ray you will see the others being asked the same question and having to admit that they never really saw it; they never saw her future.
I don't know I saw her future, but I knew this was a girl that wasn't going to run out of roles in her '30s, as happens to so many fine actresses who get kicked to the curb for newer and younger etcetra. She just has great skills and I had a gut feeling about it. Obviously it was a good time to say so just before the release in '83. Maybe people thought, "Ah, well, everybody says that," but I meant it and history has proven me right.
Her parents said to me, "Should she go on with this acting thing? It's really getting in the way of her school work." And I said, "Normally my attitude when a parent asks me whether their son or daughter should enter show business, I generally council people against joining the acting profession. That if there's absolutely anything in this world you enjoy doing and getting paid for that isn't acting, do that instead." In this case I said, "No, she's got real talent and I think she has a real future." As it turned out, I invited the leading actor's agents in Australia to a pre-screening of the film and it was, like all Australian films, entered for local awards and she had an agent the next day.
Have you seen the 'BMX Bandits' Blu-ray at this point?
It just arrived today. I assume it's the same extras as the Australian version. I was playing a PAL version on my multi-region DVD player, but I have yet to put in the Blu-ray. I'm curious to see if John Seale's photography has come out even better.
That's actually what I wanted to talk about. The transfer is stunning, especially for a movie of this era. Was the Blu-ray transfer something you monitored?
It was from the original negative. Luckily the negative had been preserved at the National Screen Archive, as films should be preserved. Obviously they did an extremely good job, but I've actually yet to undo the package.
A number of your movies are either unavailable or hard to find in America. In particular, I was fortunate enough to catch a screening of 'Siege of Firebase Gloria,' which Quentin Tarantino brought to the Drafthouse a few years ago as part of Cinemapocalypse.
I remember seeing a bit of his introduction online, actually. It was 'The Losers' and 'Firebase'? There were some fairly loyal people staying around until, what, 5 in the morning?
Oh, it blew the house down. And it's a shame, unless I've missed something, that the only way to still watch it in the US is on Netflix Watch Instantly.
Yeah, it's on Netflix Streaming. I don't understand it. I have been campaigning for close to ten years to get Sony, when they were involved with MGM, and then MGM to see the wisdom of taking what is evidently quite a good HD master and making a DVD with myself and Lee Ermey and Wings Hauser if we can get him, narrating it. As unshakably certain as I was about Nicole Kidman's future, I am certain that every marine would buy one.
Oh, hell yeah.
Lee Ermey is the world's most famous marine. And I know this for a fact because I have a nephew who served in Iraq and he and his fellow soldiers told me this. They love that movie, they wore out a VHS copy. It's very popular with veterans and Lee himself is the archetypal fighting machine and no one will ever forget his Sgt. Hartman. So when I made 'Firebase' I kept saying it was a sort of 'this is Sgt. Hartman in action.' Lee is a two-and-a-half-tour Vietnam veteran!
I've been campaigning to get MGM to do this but for some reason they have never grasped the math; that a couple hundred thousand people would buy that DVD instantly. It's one thing to see it on Netflix streaming, and you can see it many times, I suppose, but there are many soldiers, and not just marines, but army as well, who can't stream it and would want a copy as well. I have tried and they nod politely and their eyes glaze and then the next management team comes in, they're all fired and I have to start over all again. So what the new MGM team will do I don't know, but as I understand it DVD sales keep going down every year. It's not regarded as a market of opportunity.
But it is a collectible. It's not just something that you say "Let's go find it on Netflix," it's something people would want to explore. I have a lot of behind-the-scenes photographs that would end up on there, some of which I've exposed on my blog, but there are a lot more. Did you read that entry? The one on making a war movie in a war zone.
I did, actually. I read it not long after the screening at the Drafthouse.
Was the print in a reasonable condition?
Oh it looked fantastic! I believe it was Tarantino's personal print.
It is his personal print. He has about 800 prints, he's quite the collector and thank God for that.
So, yeah, that is a pity. I think that's film's politics have become more acceptable over time. It's the only movie of mine – and I may have mentioned this in that blog – that has been politically censored by its distributor. The bookends were cut off the film while I was in the looping and tracking and mixing stage. I had to scramble to try and get the point I was trying to make, that wars are fought by brave, young people on both sides, via Lee's narration. They thought they could cut those sentiments out, but at least I was about to put them in in the voice over.
Scenes of that particular NPA commander and the now-grown fifteen year old kid with the flute landing and being processed; the Lee Ermey character being a part of the UN refugee processing center in Manila recognizing that face. "I know that face, I know that face." And as he walks toward him the film changes to the flashback, which is where the film starts. And at the end you wonder how on Earth he's going to feel about his former enemy, with whom he was briefly locked in hand-to-hand combat and cut his face with the bayonet, how is he going to feel about having lost all his friends? And he extends his hand and says in Vietnamese, "Welcome."
The point of the film is that war is reconciliation. But at some drunken sales convention it was apparently screened in Long Beach and they said, "It's too friendly to the gooks."
Yeah! "It's too much emphasis on the gooks, cut that out. This is supposed to be a patriotic American war movie!" But I felt I didn't diminish the heroism on either side. It's the politicians that make wars, it's the ordinary people that have to fight them. So I've always had sympathy for the 'other side,' they're just poor dumb asses like ourselves who are under orders.
Sorry, long story. I therefore feel proud of the film and would like to see it given a wider circulation. And it's not as though such an effort wouldn't be profitable for someone. My 7% is buried in a chain of bankruptcies, so I'll never see a penny but I don't care. I want the film out there.
How frustrating is it for you as a filmmaker when a distributor, either through a series of honest misfortunes or just plain ignorance, fails to honor what your fans want? For example, I have a friend named Brian Kelley, who I believe you know, who is a diehard fan of yours. Does the reward of knowing people like Brian are out there make up for poor distribution? And do you feel like other filmmakers are missing out on that direct fan connection by not opening up to them via blogs or email or whatever?
I do know Brian. I feel very grateful to have a fanbase that does include people like Brian Kelley who are real lovers of cinema, just as I think I am. I have celluloid running through my veins, though of course it needs to be converted to pixels now.
My philosophy has been never forget your audience. Right from the get-go I tried to identify what people wanted to see and study tastes and trends in genres and give them what they want with my own special twist, which tends to be a sort of wry undercurrent that's gently mocking and at the same time gently celebrating whatever genre I'm essaying at the time. So when people "get" me, I really appreciate it.
That's why I started that blog and that's why I do Trailers From Hell. Have you seen any of those?
I've actually only seen a few. Somehow Trailers From Hell stayed under my radar until very recently, so I'm playing catchup on what everyone else has already discovered.
Well I'm trying to spread the word via my various outlets. But it is really a treasure trove for film fans. There are now 500 plus trailers on there and much more prestigious directors than I are commenting on them. But anyways, do take a look at the five of mine that are on there. When I did 'Voyage of Sinbad' I basically said that Ray Harryhausen created the 'Avatar' of his day and it get 10,000 hits in two weeks. So I do have an audience out there, though it may only be two army divisions strong. But I'm grateful for them.
Thank God for people like Brian Kelley who have a sense of film history. Unfortunately it seems a lot of executives don't have much. Their film history starts in 1980 or it starts in '77 with 'Star Wars.' The recognition of some really great films in the early '70s, throughout the '60s, going way back to the '30s-- their qualities still hold up today. Sure, they're in black and white, but...
Long live movie geeks, I say.
Which of my films have you seen, enjoyed or even hated?
Off the top of my head.. both 'Leprechauns,' 'Aztec Rex,' 'Siege on Firebase,' 'BMX Bandits,' 'Stunt Rock,' 'Turkey Shoot' and 'Man From Hong Kong.' And, honestly, though there is much more I haven't seen, there isn't a single one I've hated. And it's because you understand the genres you're working in. In less passionate hands... say on a film like 'Aztec Rex,' would just be director-for-hire, who cares, shoot-it-and-get-it-done movies.
How can you not care? How can you shoot-it-and-get-it-done? It's such a tremendous privilege to make movies! Even in the case of 'Aztec Rex,' I was under enormous difficulties – $900,000 below the line – all the animations on the dinosaur were a casualty of that, unfortunately, but I didn't have the choice of the visual effects company. But I can't phone it in, it's just not in my nature. And it would be a betrayal of not only everything I feel I stand for, but also the small group world wide that get my tastes on things.
I'm glad you picked a film that even Syfy Channel executives dismissed. "Why wasn't the camera moving all the time? The camera should be moving all the time!' Uh, really? "Yes, that's the new style, the new fashion. We thought you were going to do that and you didn't do that, why didn't you do that?" I was serving the drama. [laughs]
Where do these people come from, I wonder? They claim to be lovers of cinema but they don't even know much. Anyway, don't get me started. But you did pick one where I still think that my "thing" sort of shows through.
Actually, Netflix streaming has my somewhat, slightly melodramatic but still slightly intriguing tack on the insurance industry, which is kind of topical these days. It's called 'Escape Clause' that you'll be able to find on Netflix. And, again, it's another one that's not released on DVD, though it was released briefly on VHS.
Part of the problem was that some of these films from the '90s onwards is that they may have been shot on 35 negative, but they were never finished on film and were mastered on DigiBeta. And you'll notice an up-res to HD, obviously. The people who are in charge of DVD departments may have less of a sense of film history or are less developed movie geeks and therefore don't know that there are a few gems of mine out there that would easily recoup the cost to put on DVD.
'Happy Face Murders' with Ann-Margret, Marg Helgenberger, Henry Thomas and Nicholas Campbell...that's a true crime black comedy that I'm proud of. It's pretty damned good for 21 days of shooting. It was a Showtime movie. But Paramount hasn't seen any wisdom in bringing it out, despite it rating very highly on Showtime. And it's Ann-Margret! She still has a tremendous fanbase.
That's one that keeps turning up on cable in a slightly amended form. They dropped one particularly unpleasant scene and that may have been for the good of the picture, but there are reasons I made that seen as unpleasant as possible. You couldn't possibly believe you were about to be duped again.
When things like that happen, when films are re-edited for television, do you have any input on that? Or do you happen to catch it on TV and go, "What the?"
You're meant to have that input. You're meant to have consultation rights under the DGA, of which I am a proud member. Go unions! Unions, unions, unions! We go "Remember the Alamo," but soon it may be "Remember Wisconsin!"
Anyway, you're allowed input and in some cases I have been given input, but in others they just ignore it and there it is, bang, on television a few scenes shorter. DGA directors are meant to help. If things are to be shortened for length, they're meant to give their input. I fight as many battles as I can, but there are only so many hours in the day and I tend to be looking forward rather than backwards trying to find the next thing.
I've just done a romantic comedy, which is something I've never done before, in Ireland with the wonderful Lea Thompson of 'Back to the Future,' who is a wonderful actress and a wonderful person. Why she hasn't been in a major studio movie until Clint Eastwood cast her in a small part in 'J. Edgar' is beyond me. We had lunch the other day and she told me about it and said that being directed by Clint is quite something.
That's my latest genre diversion, shall we say. 'Arctic Blast,' my previous film, was the number one television movie in Spain a few weeks ago. A 15.7 share and seen by over two-and-a-half million people.
Very cool, congratulations.
Well, I'd love to see it in Spanish. Castillian Spanish! My Spanish is very simple things I picked up from the Mexican crew when I did 'Tarzan' years ago. But I've wandered away from the true essence of your question.
Those are two that might amuse you. I think I might have actually sent Brian a copy of 'Happy Face Murders'...
I know you sent a copy of something he couldn't get his hands on otherwise.
'Porky's: The College Years,' probably. I know I sent Tim League a copy of 'Porky's' and 'Sahara.' Go take a look at 'Porky's: The College Years,' which actually Tim didn't like, though he did say he doesn't like 'Porky's' movies anyway... which is weird since Tim is such a wild and crazy guy. But thank God for the Leagues of the world, what an amazing guy.
The whole reason I live in Austin is because of the Alamo Drafthouse. It's literally the only reason I moved here, otherwise I don't think Austin would have even been on my radar.
It's an interesting town though, isn't it? I came for the 'Not Quite Hollywood' year of Fantastic Fest and thought, "Oooh, if I ever moved out of LA... It's liberal, it's up in the hills as a bit so it's not quite as arid and dusty as the rest of Texas. Maybe there's some culture here. It's worth thinking about." I'm so pleased he's made such an oasis out of it.
Anyways, see if you can get a hold of 'Sahara,' which is my remake of the Humphrey Bogart movie, which works extremely well.. The Bogey movie, which was made by Zoltan Korda, was shot in 25 days and we had shoot ours in 18. Normally when you do a remake you get more than the original! And this was made in the '40s! But I do think it's a good World War II movie that shows my father's generation, let's say.
And the 'Porky's' thing... I call it "Young Republicans in Love." Think about it. These characters are all pretty vile. [laughs] Sex obsessed, narcissistic young people.
Is that a title you actually tried to pitch and they rejected it?
No, it's a subtitle I had given to it later. 'Porky's: The College Years' is an updating of the original, which itself was set in the '50s and not when it was made in the late '70s. There are some amusing scenes in it, but it was one of those films that had to be made in a great hurry. It was written with four week's prep and shot in fifteen days. Under the circumstances, I think it turned out really well. I loved my cast, who all played these unsympathetic characters with great energy. Particularily Adam Wylie, who is going to break out one day. He plays Pee Wee.
It's just a matter of time. He was in 'Picket Fences' as a child. He could be the next Robin Williams given the right opportunities. So we'll see if that prediction comes as true as my prediction about Nicole.
Hopefully this isn't an indelicate question, but is part of the reason you haven't made more movies firmly within the Hollywood system is because you don't want to deal with executives that aren't movie geeks?
I was never one of those people that would make any executive interviewing me feel small because he didn't understand the minutia of 'Casablanca.' As a director you have to be a diplomat, a group therapist, a brigade commander-- all sorts of things. So I can handle myself around an executive. The trouble is accountability.
This is a business that is founded on rumor, driven by greed and ruled by fear. If you want to navigate the treacherous water of big corporate bureaucracy and play career leapfrog, you have to be very political. A copy of Machiavelli's 'The Prince' has to be your bedside reading. Many execs mistake good photography for good direction. Or they see bad scripted dialogue as bad direction of actors.
These days people seek the sizzle and not the steak. So it's accountability. They go, "Well we hired the director who was a hit at Sundance or made these great music videos, it's not reasonable to suggest we could have been wrong. But if we hire this guy who has made 40 films on low budgets and we give him a big budget, gee, that's a career risk for us." That's part of it.
I was told this story by an exec who worked for Dimension who got me. He was pitching me strongly to do 'Highlander 4.' [laughs] And 'Highlander 4' would have been a nice budget, particularly spent in the Eastern Bloc, and so my resume was then presented to Bob Weinstein. When he turned the third page, getting to the fourth page, he allegedly said "My God, how many movies has this guy done? We've gotta get somebody younger." And they did and it didn't turn out quite the way they expected.
There's a mindset that unless you have a major box office hit by the time you turn 50, then forget it, you're history. We'll place our bets on the young up-and-comers and maybe one of them will come through and we'll be covered in glory.
I don't wish to sound churlish about it. You make your own luck in this game and if I didn't get recognized or if my skills weren't recognized by a studio, then it's my fault for not being a better salesperson for myself and I have to accept that. But luckily every year someone seems to hire me for something.
It seems I'm about to do a half-hour comedy, or four episodes of it, soon. But what I'd like to do is a big action picture. What could I have done with 'Season of the Witch,' for example?
It would have been perfect for me. It would have been more amusing but just as action packed and as blood thirsty as PG-13 allowed.
Was that a project you actually met for? Or is that something you see and go, "What the? I could have done that!"
No, I noticed it was something I'd have been perfect for. But I don't even get to meet for these things. Part of it was fairly appalling representation, but again, you make your luck in this business. The equivalent of the glass ceiling for women, there is a glass ceiling for experienced low budget directions. "Thank you, but we'll keep you in the underground caves. We don't want you at the studio level."
I guess young people don't want to hire their father. [laughs]
To be fair to studio executives, there are some very bright people out there, but I never get to meet them.
Do you have any passion projects currently you'd like to get off the ground?
I'm always trying to develop things. Recently I've written a spec script with my writing partner Dennis Prat. We both basically do the 'Leprechaun' movies, though one was with credit and was without. I've just done a big action picture thing that I ought to be doing, that I could make on a budget and was pretty damn safe. So that's gone to a couple producers. It's set in Australia, so I sent it to a couple Australian producers.
My passion project, I suppose, is my revisionist Richard the Third. Richard the Third did not murder the princes in the tower, he did not poison his wife to marry his niece, he did not do a wide variety of things that have been enshrined as fact thanks to Shakespeare writing such a brilliant play. And with the aid of a novelist specializing in that period, I used a lot of her research showing how Richard the Third was really an Obama-style reformer brought down by the Karl Rove-type propagandist of his day, Bishop Morton, to bring the wasteful puppet waiting in the wings, Henry the Seventh, in with a tenuous claim to the British throne. Richard basically died in a possibly suicidal attack at the battle of Bosworth, which gave the throne to the Tudors.
I've tried to show in a political thriller with battle scenes and executions everything that people have enjoyed in 'The Tudors' and various other period films, how Shakespeare was wrong. And do it in a commercial, but historically accurate way. I know I could do this for about $15 million, but that's a risk I'm finding that not a lot of people are willing to take. It's an arcane bit of British history that I kind of believe would draw an audience, and at that price it would recoup its budget.
That's just one project. My taste is wide ranging. There are many things I'd like to do, that's just one you wouldn't associate with my past work.
Well hopefully in a post-'King's Speech' Oscar world you'll have a better chance of selling it.
BBC Films said, "Oh, it's too fawning on Richard." And then Working Title are developing their own Richard III movie and they said, "No, he's much more fun as a bad guy." He did have a temper. He did tend to throw the china around. He had his flaws, but he was in a very difficult position and for reasons that the film outlines.
But what might I have done with 'Drive Angry'? [laughs] The two Nicolas Cage movies!
Look, you take each day as it comes, and hopefully even though I am 104 in Hollywood years, I still feel I have the heart and energy of a 22-year old. Meet me on the fencing strip with my épée drawn on Saturdays and you will find that is indeed the case. I'm still fencing and still making budgets best described as the smell of an oily rag.
Well it's good to hear that someone who has been in the industry as long as you have isn't jaded and cynical. I'm sure there are times you are, but overall it's a reassuring attitude to hear.
That's nice of you to say. I would agree with Arnold Schwarzenegger, "Stop whining! Stop Whining!" Whining doesn't get you anywhere. I'd rather win than whine and I guess if I get to say action and cut a few times a year, I'm winning.