Thursday, December 12, 2013

INTERVIEW: Brian Trenchard-Smith talks with TV STORE ONLINE about STUNT ROCK, ESCAPE 2000 and THE MAN FROM HONG KONG

Getting the opportunity to interview Brian Trenchard-Smith can set one's mind a blaze. As I prepare to meet up with the now age 65 filmmaker, I'm reminded of many of the awe-inspiring action sequences I've seen in many of his films over the years. Would Trenchard-Smith show up for our interview via a hang glider that he lands in the middle of the street? Would he pull up in a car that's been smashed to hell and back after it's just survived a ten mile car chase, or will he do a eighty foot free fall from the skyscraper above me while on fire? 

Trenchard-Smith has been directing for thirty-eight years now, completing forty-two films and a bunch of TV episodes to date. Born in England to an Australian Royal Air Force officer, Trenchard-Smith cut his filmmaking teeth in the early 1970's working in television down-under in Australia. During this period he directed films like, KUNG FU KILLERS (1974) and THE STUNTMEN aka DARE DEVILS (1973). These films initiated the career of Australia's premiere stunt icon, Grant Page. THE STUNTMEN won an award at the 1973 Sydney Film Festival, giving Trenchard-Smith the opportunity to transition into feature film work.

After creating a number of offbeat but internationally successful feature films like THE MAN FROM HONG KONG aka DRAGON FLIES (1975), TURKEY SHOOT aka ESCAPE 2000 (1982), DEAD END DRIVE-IN (1986) and BMX BANDITS (1983), Trenchard-Smith moved to Los Angeles in the late 80's where he continued on as the ultimate director for hire. The last twenty plus years have found Trenchard-Smith super prolific on cable, receiving good ratings and well-deserved critical praise, but only a few of his films achieved theatrical release. 

Trenchard-Smith shot the ultimate 'a sequel better than it's original' NIGHT OF THE DEMONS 2 (1994). He found gold by directing the hugely successful follow-ups LEPRECHAUN 3 (1995) and LEPRECHAUN 4: IN SPACE (1996). Trenchard-Smith has also put his touch on more unconventional films that have flown under many cinematic radars, like the fun lesbian Rambo epic, IN HER LINE OF FIRE (2006) and the gutsy new-wave PORKY'S installment PIMPIN' PEE WEE (2009).   His latest film, which is currently in post-production is DRIVE HARD (2014) and it stars Thomas Jane and John Cusack.

Tragically, career standouts from Trenchard-Smith's filmmaking canon like THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA (1989), ATOMIC DOG (1998), SAHARA (1995), and HAPPY FACE MURDERS (1999) continue to remain practically undiscovered, unseen and unreleased on DVD. These films are amazing, search them out.

In recent years, Trenchard-Smith has garnered modest acclaim. His films have seen a renewed interest in part due to his participation in the Mark Hartley directed 2008 documentary about Australian exploitation films, NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD: THE WILD, UNTOLD STORY OF OZPLOITATION (2008). He's earned endorsements from famous fans like Quentin Tarantino, who has quite aptly summed up the essence of Trenchard-Smith's work by stating, "If you don't like Brian Trenchard-Smith...get the fuck out of here!" Regardless of these accolades, Trenchard-Smith still hasn't received the proper tribute that his rich, offbeat, and ahead of their time film's rightly deserve. It's a goddamn shame.

Speaking with Trenchard-Smith is a blast. He's very much a Brit at heart. His sense of humor is great, almost Monty Python esque. He's smart, appreciative, endearing and has some of the most amazing stories about his life, and filmmaking experiences that I've ever heard. His personality is infused in his own work, and this is what makes his films so must see.

TV STORE ONLINE: One of the earliest films you directed in Australia was a film called THE LOVE EPIDEMIC (1975). For those of us who haven't seen the film here in the United States, can you tell us what it's all about?

BTS: Yes, It's a 'mockumentary' about sexual transmitted diseases. My first genre cocktail. It's an earnest, minatory, and reminiscent tribute to the World War II Venereal disease documentaries. I interspersed the film with wacky and somewhat heavy handed comedy sequences. Like two actors in boiler suits and hardhats playing Syphilis and Gonorrhea, arguing over which of them is worse. The film actually does have quite a bit of fact in it as well. In the twelve months after its release, admissions at the Albion Street clinic tripled. I put that down to increased awareness rather than mass fornication. 

The R rating had just been introduced in Australia. The distributor wanted something that would play in soft core theaters, but also be a hard hitting documentary. I thought that occasional humor would help. And a battle scene. Yes I confess, any excuse will do to stage mass combat. In this case, the siege of Naples in 1495 where an epidemic of syphilis stopped the campaign worked perfectly. I also used the footage in an episode of my Danger Freaks (1989) series, thereby bifurcating the cost. I appear briefly as a man who wakes up and finds a large mud crab nestling in his lap. LOVE EPIDEMIC has not been seen since its VHS release in the early eighties. It will finally be released on DVD this year in Australia. If nothing else, it's an interesting cultural time capsule from Australia's sexual revolution plus a few strange things from my Id.

TV STORE ONLINE: How did you manage to get a film like THE MAN FROM HONG KONG off the ground?

BTS: I made a documentary for Australian television called THE STUNTMEN. The film is available in the U.S on the second disc of the Code Red DVD release of STUNT ROCK. THE STUNTMEN won me an award at the Sydney Film Festival. I used that as a calling card to get the attention of Raymond Chow at Golden Harvest in Hong Kong. I told him I had an Australian distributor/exhibitor willing to put up half the budget for THE MAN FROM HONG KONG. (Just a pitch at that time, but who dares wins.) He said he would match it. Then I went back to the Australian distributor/exhibitor and said I had Golden Harvest's commitment for half. Would they like to match it? Luckily the project suited both parties' agenda at the time.

TV STORE ONLINE: Is it frustrating to see yourself listed at times as being the co-director of THE MAN FROM HONG KONG with Jimmy Wang Yu?

BTS: Wang Yu was a major star who also had directed eight movies prior to doing THE MAN FROM HONG KONG. This was my first big movie. So, part of the co-production deal was that Wang Yu would get co-directing credit in the Asian markets where his fan base expected it, but not in the international version. My version was released everywhere else. It was just something I had to accept. But I directed the film and I wrote it. My personality infuses its sensibilities. I did naturally listen to Wang Yu and Sammo Hung very closely about the choreography of the fight sequences, so that they would work for the Asian audiences. The fight scene between Wang Yu and Grant Page in the kitchen for example,we worked it out together. 

 In the script, I had written that their brawl uses "every implement in the kitchen." So I laid out the broad strokes.. I said, "Oh.. There's a frying pan - use that" or "There's a giant hook - use that", and then the guys would choreograph it out. The Director of Photography Russell Boyd and I would decide how to shoot it. We had only two nights to do that kitchen sequence, so good direction requires collaboration.

TV STORE ONLINE: With the amazing action sequences in THE MAN FROM HONG KONG as a director, are you a storyboard filmmaker?

BTS: Not usually. But if there's a complex visual effects sequence, I will storyboard that. But normally I do shot lists. Then everyone has a better sense as to what has to be achieved each shooting day in broad principle. Further coverage may develop organically from blocking if I need it.

TV STORE ONLINE:  Wasn't your next film, DEATH CHEATERS (1976) inspired by your love of the British television series The Avengers (1961-69)? Also, how did you come up with such a great movie title?

BTS: It's a wry tribute to British television series like The Avengers, The Rat Catchers (1966-67) Callan (1967-72). As a teen I loved those shows. They had both whimsey and bite. The original title was going to be "Cunning Stunts." I couldn't persuade my financiers that people wouldn't engage in an accidental spoonerism and say "Stunning Cunts." You still see the heroes in the film wearing the "Cunning Stunts" t-shirts. I managed to sneak that in. Somehow, DEATH CHEATERS evolved as a compromise title. It was also an exercise in trying to spread out one hundred and fifty thousand dollars as wisely as I could. It was John Seale's first movie as Director of Photography by the way.

Seale was an operator for me on THE MAN FROM HONG KONG prior to starting CHEATERS. He was clearly a genius and so easy to work with. He shot BMX BANDITS for me as well later on. I think DEATH CHEATERS has a sort of antique charm to it. If I could do it over again, I would get to the mission much earlier, find out that the wife has stowed away and they are stuck with her, lots of twists and turns till she demonstrates she's as adept as they. Much more fun. Major mistake to exclude the female lead from the climax.

TV STORE ONLINE: In regards to STUNT ROCK I've heard rumors that you were originally looking at KISS to play the band in the film?

BTS: Yes, I was told by the film's Dutch financiers at that time, that they could get me any band I wanted. We talked about KISS and The Eagles. KISS was certainly the ideal role model for the film. I was also interested in Foreigner as well. I flew to New York in February 1978 to talk to the band. They would have done it if we were prepared to wait till they had finished their current tour. But that wasn't an option. 

The deal was to make the film in Los Angeles, ready for Dutch theaters by end of June. Time went by, and all the band's that were originally offered to me, the financiers now said they couldn't get. So I was told, find a band by Monday or the production would be shut down. This was on a Wednesday of the previous week! So an agent offered the bands Virgin or Sorcery. I went to see Sorcery. They showed me some video of their act, and I loved them. They were the right choice, and the decision, I think has really stood the test of time. They were and are, quite unique. Magic, music and stunts with late seventies attitude.. What's not to like? 

TV STORE ONLINE: Didn't you get set on fire yourself on television to promote the film STUNT ROCK?

BTS: I've been set on fire a total of seven times for mainly promotional reasons. "The hottest director in town is here to promote his latest movie." That sort of thing. Though I did set my naked arm on fire in THE STUNTMAN to demonstrate the fire retardant gel we used, but that was something different.

Another time, I lit myself on fire to persuade George Lazenby on the set of THE MAN FROM HONG KONG that he himself could do it. Thereby hangs a tail. See the documentary NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD. Grant Page and I did it a couple of times each on regional American television to answer your question. After Grant lit me on fire, the television talk show host was running around like a headless chicken , yelling "Put Him Out! Put Him Out!" He totally lost it on-air. 

TV STORE ONLINE: So what goes through your mind or better yet...What is it like to be set on fire?

BTS: It's kinda hot. You are conscious of the fact that it's hot. But you must realize that's it not you that's burning. It's important to not inhale any gases and to remain calm. So, when you move - you sort of rotate in circles, so that the flames swirl and look bigger to camera. You don't breathe while surrounded by the flame either. You sort of lunge forward so that the flames are behind you, then you can breathe. Then rotate again. That's the way you do it.

TV STORE ONLINE: Do you think STUNT ROCK is a film ahead of it's time? 

BTS: Sure. I think it was ahead of its time, ahead of MTV too. It also a ninety minute trailer for Grant Page, whose stunt career I managed for its first five years. I like pace, and I like to get on with it. When you see it with an audience, they don't really care about the lack of plot. That's because it's a portrait of a real life. It's one of a kind human being, showing his skills in a quasi dramatic format. And shit is blowing up all the time, so who cares. Grant's the real thing, the Croc Hunter of stunts. And they're all real. It was before CGI and wire work. The multiple panels were fresh too. It was a concert movie device that I applied to action sequences set to music.

TV STORE ONLINE: On TURKEY SHOOT aka ESCAPE 2000 weren't there actually several versions of the script prior to shooting, wasn't there an early draft set in the 1930's?

BTS: Yes, the original script was sort of like I WAS A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG (1932) meets THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (1932). Seventy pages of CHAIN GANG to start off and then MOST DANGEROUS GAME lasted about thirty-five pages. I didn't think that was good balance. Also it was set in the depression era Deep South. We had tax based financing in place on condition that it was supposed to be set in Australia. 

So I suggested we set it in the future, and make it more universal. We wanted to make a tongue in cheek but gutsy action movie with subtext about corporate fascism at the beginning of the Reagan era. (He had Australia frightened...RONALD RAY GUN cartoons were often spray painted on Sydney walls in 1981) So we hired two new writers to redo it. Then of course, there were days when I was writing pages myself during the shooting.

TV STORE ONLINE: Wasn't TURKEY SHOOT the most difficult production you've had to endure? You've said that the film is a very flawed film...But on that note, isn't it gratifying that it is so beloved by your fans?

BTS: Every film is difficult in different ways. And every film teaches you stuff. Due to a sudden change in the tax incentive scheme during prep, the budget of the film was cut severely prior to shooting. But the money shortfall affected the below the line cash flow on an immediate basis, so radical cuts had to be made. We started out with a script that was ninety-four pages. The first fifteen pages, set in a Orwellian city where the three prisoners are captured were cut out. It was too expensive (I covered the story point via the opening title montage). Then another four pages later in the script involving a helicopter and a whole character were cut out as well. "Distribute his function amongst the other characters...they said." Forty-four days went down to twenty-eight shooting days. So I had to do my best to stretch screen time, yet maintain pace and deliver a film that was at least ninety minutes. 

With the new budget, TURKEY SHOOT wouldn't have the spectacle I had in mind originally. Also I couldn't pay the stuntmen any loadings. I couldn't make the sort of 1984 meets THE CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND (1958) meets THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME and THE GREAT ESCAPE (1963) that I had in my head. So I decided the only way to ensure world sales with the money we had available was to ramp up the exploitation values, and turn it into a high camp Lucio Fulci action shocker of sorts. Blood is cheap. I threw as much of it around as I could. Blood is good box office. It always has been, and always will be. 

I really had to think on my feet. But I didn't mind that. That's good training. I have since taken over four films during or just before shooting. What does not kill you makes you stronger. It's always a pleasure to be circus ringmaster to a great cast and crew, and to be able to tell a story with a camera. It's the greatest job in the world. 

I think TURKEY SHOOT is appreciated cause people like the camp value of it. You can bathe in the cheese of it. It's got a theater of the absurd tone to it. It's a fun artifact of 80's culture. 

TV STORE ONLINE: You took a lot of criticism in Australia for making TURKEY SHOOT didn't you?

BTS: Yes. It became a bit of a media feeding frenzy. A bandwagon that self vaunting pundits liked to jump on. The producer of TURKEY SHOOT decided to enter it for the Australian Film Institute Awards. That audience were used to watching Australian arthouse movies. They didn't get the joke. So word spread very quickly of how disgraceful the film was. They were saying, "How dare he use Australian tax shelter money to make this sort of film." It was shocking to those with a very narrow cinema perspective.

As for me, they said I should be run out of town on a rail, never allowed to make a film again. But, of course TURKEY SHOOT was huge in the Australian drive-ins for which it was intended to play. It broke a first week box office record at it's London opening, and has cult status now of course.

TV STORE ONLINE: How did you come to make the film BMX BANDITS?

BTS: There were two producers from Melbourne that had seen TURKEY SHOOT that weren't appalled as everyone else. They got it from a commercial standpoint. They had seen THE MAN FROM HONG KONG. They thought - he can direct action. So they offered me BMX BANDITS. I told them I would be interested only if I could move the setting of the film from a small industrial suburb in Melbourne to the northern beaches of Sydney. I said let's get John Seale as D.P and shoot in the Anamorphic ratio. We have this beautiful beach and harbor city to use after all. We decided to change interior scenes to exterior and that added production value and the budget remained the same. So while I didn't originate the script, I did originate the BMX action to play in those quite different locations. Like the Manly Water Slide, football field, and adjacent mall.

TV STORE ONLINE: Did you have anything to do with the wonderful comic sensibilities that the film has?

BTS: Most of verbal wit is from screenwriters Patrick Edgeworth and Russel Haag. The two goons didn't have much to say in their script. So I wanted to take a couple stand up comics (David Argue & John Ley) and see if they could be funny. So we added some buffoonery to it. I put in that running gag where one of the goon's can't drive, but always wants to. Some critics said that I should've made the goons more serious and genuinely threatening. But the script had a cartoonish sensibility, and I liked that. Pratfalls make an audience laugh the world over. I wanted to make something even a six year old could see. In retrospect, I should have dropped the shotguns from the bank robbery sequence.

TV STORE ONLINE: Is it surprising to you in regards to how well the film is loved today?

BTS: I hear stories all the time. People in their thirties tell me how they used to skip school to run home and watch the film on HBO. Others say they watched the film so many times that they wore out their VHS copy. The American distributor fumbled the theatrical release then went belly-up, but it was very successful on cable. Showtime, HBO and The Disney Channel licensed it a couple of times. It was even pirated once on VHS under the title WIRED with a picture of an adult Nicole Kidman. Pirates, I hate those guys. 

Girls felt empowered by the Nicole Kidman character I think. That character wasn't really written that way initially. She originally was a sort of "tag along" character behind the two heroic boys. Once I cast Nicole, and saw what she could do, I started to move her into the foreground and strengthened her character. I somehow knew she was going to be a star. My reasons are in the DVD commentary so buy the new DVD.

TV STORE ONLINE: In the DVD commentary on the Anchor Bay DVD for DEAD END DRIVE-IN you mention that you are a big Stallone fan. What did you think of that last "Rambo" installment for a year or two ago?

BTS: I thought it was pretty good. I thought it did exactly what it set out to do, and no more. It gives the audience a high level of slaughter and evisceration in graphic detail, while hanging off a razor thin plot. Nothing too hard for people to digest. Very well staged. Sly knows his way around an action scene.  

TV STORE ONLINE: So if you got offered to write and direct the next Rambo film would you do it? What would it be about?

BTS: I think Stallone has already done that with THE EXPENDABLES (2010). Jason Statham has carved out a piece of that violent but good outlaw for himself over the last few years as well. Certainly, I would like to bring my experience to bear on a total action picture with a decent budget like that.

TV STORE ONLINE: I know you're a big Hitchcock fan... So is your film OUT OF THE BODY (1989) your Hitchcock film?

BTS: Well, I'm not worthy to be mentioned in the same breath as Hitchcock. Obviously, he's just as much an inspiration to me as I'm sure he is to countless other filmmakers. I didn't set out to make OUT OF THE BODY as any sort of Hitchcockian exercise. I set out to see what I could make for five hundred thousand dollars. I felt terribly let down by the finished film's music score and the sound mix. I had to shoot OUT OF THE BODY and then edit for two weeks and then go off to do THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA for several months. This forced me to leave OUT OF THE BODY in the producer's hands.

The post production finish didn't have the atmosphere it needed. The film really needed to have music that was the equivalent to what Goblin did for Dario Argento's SUSPIRIA (1977). The post production audio was also, very low-level. We needed to strike up the band, instead they gave me - strike up the bland. It was a flawed script too, but all scripts are to a certain point. I take some of the blame because I did the final draft of it. In it's day though, it was a solid direct-to-video feature. It did well in the U.K. video market, hitting the top ten in rentals in its first week with no star power. Is it entertaining? Depends on your expectations. Has time been kind to it? Probably not. I have not seen it for years. You've seen it, what do you think?

TV STORE ONLINE: Do you see any sort of similarities between THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA and something like Sam Fuller's THE BIG RED ONE (1980)?

BTS: Yes, I adopted a Sam Fuller frame of mind, I think. I knew that this was gonna be my Pacific Theater World War II movie in Vietnam dress. What I liked about the script was how it portrayed the Vietcong, not demonizing them. Which was the fashion at that time. I rather enjoyed showing them as brave men and women fighting for what they believed in, just as brave as the American soldiers they faced. 

TV STORE ONLINE: I've heard rumors that R. Lee Emery actually wrote the script to THE SIEGE OF FIREBASE GLORIA uncredited. Is that true?

BTS: Lee didn't write the script. It was written by two Australians, one of whom had served in Vietnam as a conscript and served in the catering corps. But that didn't matter cause you could still get shelled in the night. You could be a cook or a pen pusher, and still get blown to pieces anytime over there. Anyone that serves their country in harms way is certainly a courageous person. 

What happened with the script was that it had to be re-worked. The original had things in it like tanks and hovercrafts. We couldn't afford any of that on our $1.6 million dollar budget. I had not spoken to Lee prior to arriving. So once I arrived and we met, I fell in love with Lee's sense of humor and his take on things. Probably like how Stanley Kubrick probably fell in love with him on FULL METAL JACKET (1987) and promoted his Marine technical adviser to the role of Sgt. Major Hartman in the film.

I showed him the location we picked for the firebase and he approved. Lee did change a lot of his own dialogue to what a Marine would say. The original script featured Army soldiers, and Lee suggested that his patrol be Marines that took over an Army base. So I went along with his ideas. He came up with the whole thing about their being "no atheists in a foxhole." 

Lee and I re-wrote the severed heads scene in the script as well. The original scene was somewhat different in the script, not memorable really. So while they were setting up the lights, Lee and I were brainstorming it out and as we were doing that I was writing everything down. Now, it's the scene that everyone remembers from the film. Lee and I share an additional dialogue credit at the end. You have to listen to someone like R. Lee Emery. Lee did two and half full tours in Vietnam. The real deal. He's a wealth of knowledge and experience. He brought a level of authenticity to the film. Sam Fuller would have loved him. 

TV STORE ONLINE: How did you get involved with the remake of SAHARA? And how did you envision Jim Belushi playing the Humphrey Bogart role? 

BTS: It was a Tristar T.V project for Showtime. We shot it in Port Stevens, Australia on a strip of sand twenty kilometers long and one kilometer wide., with the sea on one side and a forest on the other. As for Belushi, he was coming to Australia anyway to do a film with Hallie Berry called RACE WITH THE SUN (1996). So he was assigned by the studio. With many productions these days, the director no longer picks his lead cast. I thought Jim was wonderful. He was a total professional, and an inspiration to the other members of the ensemble cast. I know he enjoyed working on SAHARA more than he did RACE WITH THE SUN. I think the film is a solid piece of work, and very true to the original. It rated highly on Showtime. It's not available on VHS or DVD in the United States. I wish it was, because it's one of my better films.


TV STORE ONLINE: You often joke that you've made forty-two crimes against cinema. There is always some truth in humor, so do you really think of your work that way? Why do you make such a comment?

BTS: I guess it's a Rodney Dangerfield kind of thing. Though, since NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD put a spotlight on my work, I'm getting some appreciation. There is a certain bullshit mystique about the creative process and it's easy to get drunk on it. I try not to take myself particularly seriously. But, I do take my work very seriously. It's my passion. I enjoy celebrating and satirizing standard genre forms, devising genre hybrids, all the while still delivering a fun ride to fans of the genre in question. Critics from their lofty perch have not always grasped my sense of humor, or the taste of the intended audience for the film. Just read the all too many sad haters that troll internet movie sites. Together with some gatekeepers at the Hollywood studios and television networks they share an ignorance of how low budget productions come are made.

Too often I hear good direction being confused with good photography. Shaky-cam confused with realism, Machine gun editing confused with pace. A tendency to hire the sizzle rather than the steak. But most sadly, there is ageism. Hollywood eats its young and discards its old. Directors actually get better with experience. Luckily I have a loyal client base, and I will keep saying "action" and "cut" while there is breath in my body. That's all a director has to do, right?

Interview Conducted By Justin Bozung
For more with Brian Trenchard-Smith please follow him on Facebook HERE
Be sure to check out BTS on the Trailer's From Hell website HERE