Producer/Director Michael Laughlin (Two-Lane Blacktop, Joanna, The Whispers) talks with Justin Bozung of TV STORE ONLINE about his 1981 New Zealand made horror movie STRANGE BEHAVIOR...
TV STORE ONLINE: I was recently re-reading a interview with Stanley Kubrick from the mid '60s where he spoke about, how, to him--all of film was a dream. I really see your film STRANGE BEHAVIOR aka DEAD KIDS (1981) as belonging to that idea as well....
LAUGHLIN: I knew Stanley. I used to go over to his house for lunch and I was good friends with his former producer Jimmy Harris. When Stanley was over in England shooting 2001--I was over there too at MGM shooting the film JOANNA (1968). I ran into him outside of a dubbing room one afternoon and he was playing around with the voice for the 2001 computer--except it wasn't the voice as it appears in that film today--it was the voice of Martin Balsam. But to me it sounded like Mel Brooks.
TV STORE ONLINE: Boy, a 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY with the voice of Mel Brooks as Hal 9000 would be something else.
LAUGHLIN: (Laughing) That's just the way I heard it. I was over at Stanley's once for a dinner and...he was a big believer in the germ theory. There were about ten people there for dinner and one of his kids had a cold. He came to dinner wearing a protective face mask because he didn't want to catch a cold.
With STRANGE BEHAVIOR--I think some of what you're mentioned comes from the decision to have Tangerine Dream create the score. I went to Berlin to work with them. I just called them up and then went off to Berlin.
TV STORE ONLINE: I read once, in passing, that you at a point were interested in bringing Norman Mailer's book The Deer Park to the big screen?
LAUGHLIN: I was. I even wrote a script for it, well, most of a script for it. This was around 2002. At that time, another producer I knew owned the rights. I got in touch with him and told him that I wanted to make the film and we agreed on everything. I started writing the script and when I got about eighty-pages in I decided to stop until I had a signed contract in hand. When I asked him if we could finalize our deal--he declined to give me what I wanted. So I walked away from it. I certainly wasn't the first person to try to adapt it though. John Dunne and Joan Didion had adapted it years prior. If I would have been able to make it I would have wanted to cast Joaquin Phoenix in the lead.
TV STORE ONLINE: How did the STRANGE BEHAVIOR project come to you?
LAUGHLIN: I was living with Alan Pakula at the time. I was looking for a project. I had been over in England just before that working on DICK TRACY. This was way before Warren Beatty decided to make it on his own. I had gotten Warren interested in it originally and we had a screenplay written. I had bought up the rights and made a deal at Universal but I could never get Ned Tannen to sign off on it. Eventually the rights reverted back and Warren bought them and made it. He had a great vision for it. I was living with Alan Pakula when I read an article that Bill Condon had written in a film magazine. I called him. I asked him to come over and we decided to do a couple projects together. We made a couple deals around town. Then we decided that we could just do it on our own. So we sat down to write it. I set out to raise a bit of money and Bill suggested that I direct it.
The script was written in a couple months. We knew that we wanted it to come out in the Summer. In order for that to happen we had to shoot the film in the winter. So we decided that Australia or New Zealand would be the best place to shoot. Bill went to New Zealand to do some scouting. He reported back and we loaded everything up on a plane and left for it.
TV STORE ONLINE: How did the script-writing process work?
LAUGHLIN: Well, we wrote it with the title DEAD KIDS because it was the most commercially viable title that we could think of. We set it in the Midwest because that was where I was from. I knew how people walked and talked there. We wrote everyday for a couple months and once we were done we sent it off to our English producer John Daily.
TV STORE ONLINE: I've heard Bill Condon talk about the other projects that the two you had hoped to do...One was called ALIEN WITHOUT A CAUSE?
LAUGHLIN: We developed that and had some studio interest but we just couldn't quite get it nailed down. It was quite frustrating. Paramount was interested but then backed out for whatever reason.
TV STORE ONLINE: What was the premise?
LAUGHLIN: REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE set in space. It was very good and very funny. There was another which we had hoped to call THE ADVENTURES OF PHILLIP STRANGE--which we wanted to be a spy film in the style of the late '40s or early '50s. It would have been done in the same style that we shot STRANGE BEHAVIOR and STRANGE INVADERS (1982)...
TV STORE ONLINE: It's that style that I most admire about both of those films actually...
LAUGHLIN: We shot the film in widescreen. I grew up with Cinemascope so that's how I like to work.
TV STORE ONLINE: I love how the film opens with all of those wide shots and over the course of the film you begin to suffocate us by going from the wide to closing in visually over the course of the film.
LAUGHLIN: That was my plan from the start.
TV STORE ONLINE: I also like how all of the exterior shoots in the film are over-cranked. There's this haze of white in all of the scenes that occur outside during the day. For me, this really adds to that whole style and dream-like aesthetic that I feel like the film has.
LAUGHLIN: Right. I had a great Director of Photography. It was all planned out that way. I never shot coverage either. I only shot what you see in the film today.
TV STORE ONLINE: You break a few rules in STRANGE BEHAVIOR too. It's why I love this film! You break the line of action a couple times in the film... One instance is in that sequence with Fiona Lewis, Dan Shor, and Michael Murphy in the lab. It's when Dan cuts his arm open. You start off on one side of the scene, on one line of action--and then dolly through the room, around the actors, ending up on the same action but on the completely opposite side of the line.
LAUGHLIN: I love when actors leave the frame and then come back. I love when the action--for instance, there's a shot in the wedding sequence in the film. There's a panning shot that goes right-to-left but the actors turns left-to-right.
TV STORE ONLINE: I love that wedding sequence because of how dreamy it is. There's little sound in that sequence.
TV STORE ONLINE: I'm always asking myself when I'm watch STRANGE BEHAVIOR--Who does this dream belong to? If it's a dream? I can only guess that it's Michael Murphy who is dreaming...
LAUGHLIN: Well, all of cinema is a dream. It's voyeurism. I think--the reigning movie for this discussion as an example would be REAR WINDOW (1954). Is it a dream? Is it a set or a Broadway show? The audience is looking at the film as if it is their rear window as the character Jimmy Stewart plays--is also looking out his rear window. When I was shooting the film--I was always guided by that idea. We're only peeking in on someone else's dream...
TV STORE ONLINE: Absolutely. And you blend the first person P-O-V with the third person....
LAUGHLIN: Right, but not everyone likes that kind of thing. A lot of Hollywood doesn't like that as a whole.
TV STORE ONLINE: There are so many shots in STRANGE BEHAVIOR that I'm obsessed with. One that comes to mind...that opening where the camera tracks across the yard and then goes up the side of the house...
LAUGHLIN: Right, and it really feels like we start from the inside of that car doesn't it? Most people would call that masturbation.
TV STORE ONLINE: Absolutely. Or some would call it self-indulgent. Yet, for me, all films are self-indulgent.
LAUGHLIN: Here's an example of that: I wrote the script for TOWN & COUNTRY (2001). I had all kinds of meetings with Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton. We went through the script and Warren said, "we can cut this. We can cut that. Let's cut this because it's just a platform." I said, "Well, I like platforms!" He said, "But it's artificial." I said, "Warren, the whole medium is artificial!"
TV STORE ONLINE: I love the visual juxtapositions in STRANGE BEHAVIOR as well. There's this '50s style mixed in with these weird sets that almost look futuristic. In particular the lab set.
LAUGHLIN: Right.. Susannah Moore really deserves the credit for all that. It really wasn't her calling but she really made the film look incredible. She had a great eye and that's why she did the costumes for the actors and the production design. That set was an audio lab at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.
TV STORE ONLINE: How about the dance sequence that comes at the beginning of the film?
LAUGHLIN: Everyone likes the dance sequence. Bill Condon organized the dance sequence but we had a choreographer come in for it. The music was perfect for it. Bill's idea was to integrate the costumes of the '60s television characters. Actors leaving the frame and then coming back in again....
TV STORE ONLINE: Right, and then in that last minute where the camera pulls back through the kids dancing and they jump back into the frame....
LAUGHLIN: I liked that too.
TV STORE ONLINE: The rock songs in STRANGE BEHAVIOR are pretty wonderful as well..
LAUGHLIN: Yes, we had all the music planned out before we got to New Zealand. Those bands were breaking there and it was just the right music for that era.
TV STORE ONLINE: Another shot I like--it's one that was omitted from the film early on but was restored at a point--is that shot of Bill Condon, his body, in the role of that scarecrow in the middle of that field. Did you storyboard stuff out like that particular shot in the film prior to shooting?
LAUGHLIN: I didn't. I don't like storyboards. But I did have everything thought out before the shooting. When I get on a location or on a set--I don't rehearse or spend the time trying out where to the put the camera. I just shoot the dialogue, or the dialogue that we need. I don't shoot the entire scene. I only get what I need for the cutting.
TV STORE ONLINE: Not to continue to beat my dead horse...But to go back to this idea that the film is a dream...Going back to that opening kill with Marc McClure in the Tor Johnson mask running after the girl through the woods...There's a dreaminess to it and all the other kills in the film because they all seem to be in...
LAUGHLIN: Slow motion.
TV STORE ONLINE: Right, exactly.
LAUGHIN: All that, we did for stylization. I wanted to make it a personal film so that the audience wouldn't be able to take the film so literal. We're really just playing with time just as many had before us.
TV STORE ONLINE: Right, and the dreamy quality of the film..It sure didn't hurt that you had Ingmar Bergman's editor on board either to cut STRANGE BEHAVIOR...
Interview Conducted By: Justin Bozung