It's no exaggeration to say that Richard Donner is one of the most influential filmmakers of the past thirty years. For all intents and purposes, he single-handedly invented the modern superhero movie with 1978's Superman. In 1987, he reinvigorated the buddy movie formula with Lethal Weapon, spawning three sequels and countless imitators. But like any filmmaker, there have been some disappointments along the way, both critical and commercial. Perhaps the biggest was the failure of Inside Moves, a low-key character study, to find an audience upon its release in 1980. The film garnered critical praise and an Academy Award nomination for Diana Scarwid in the Best Supporting Actress category. But an ineptly managed theatrical release all but insured that no one would ever see it. After its release on VHS in the early 80s, Inside Moves promptly vanished into obscurity.
Inside Moves has been given a second chance thanks to Lionsgate's new release of the film on DVD (you can read my full review of the disc here), and no one could be happier about that than Dick Donner. I recently chatted with the legendary filmmaker about his least-seen picture, some of his other personal favorites amongst his work, the future of the Lethal Weapon series, and more. In conversation, Donner is candid, forthcoming and genuinely warm and friendly, peppering his responses to my questions with "pal" and "buddy". Within five minutes, this became one of my favorite interviews that I've done for The Bits. Enjoy!
- Dr. Adam Jahnke
Adam Jahnke: What took so long for Inside Moves to come to DVD?
Richard Donner: Well, it was independently made and distributed by a company called PSO and Lord Lew Grade's company in England (ITC). And they did about the worst job of distribution of any film I've ever been involved in. Maybe with the exception of the stupidity of how 16 Blocks was handled by Alcon and Warner Bros. I'm serious, they took 16 Blocks and put me out on a Friday against Dave Chappelle (Block Party) and the star of Dave Chappelle's show was Mos Def. Who was the co-star of mine! They put us out on the same Friday night and that Sunday was the Academy Awards. You think about it. Anyway, it was about the same thing with these other guys. So after (Inside Moves) came out and got great reviews, they put us out around Christmas. Around Academy Award time, so every major studio had every theater. They found one little theater in Westwood for me and the picture "el died-o". So of course since it was independent, it got sold a piece here, a piece there and was just laying in a vault somewhere. Nobody did anything about it. Until this wonderful couple, Cliff and Lisa Stephenson... she's with Lionsgate. She dug it up, put it back together again. Her husband Cliff worked on the DVD. If it weren't for them, it would still be laying there. And I'm sure there are lots of other wonderful films like mine, which I love desperately, laying in vaults where nobody will ever see them until Cliff and Lisa come along and save them.
AJ: They certainly did an excellent job rescuing this one.
RD: Didn't they? I'm telling you... and not only that, they save dogs, too! So they save both.
AJ: But the movie was indeed nominated for an Academy Award, correct?
RD: Yes, (Diana Scarwid) was nominated for an Academy Award. And that was with having it not seen in this town! This town of Holl-E-Wood! I mean, it was a little theater on... do you live here?
AJ: Yes I do.
RD: It was on the south side of Wilshire, a little Westwood theater, I forget the name of it. (Note: For those who don't live here, Westwood is by the UCLA campus and is home to a number of famous, historic movie theaters. Most, however, are on the north side of Wilshire Boulevard. Most south of Wilshire have closed up with the exception of the Crest. - Tour Guide Jahnke) There were practically no ads, no nothing. And it still got her an Academy nomination.
AJ: Like you mentioned, this was completely an independent film.
RD: Yes, it was put together by Bob Goodwin and Mark Tanz, who raised the money because they loved the script. It's just that we got taken down a long road when it came to distribution.
AJ: I was curious why you haven't made more independent films and have instead worked primarily within the studio system.
RD: 'Cause it's a bitch! It really is! I mean, you run into the same problems all the time. You get a rarity like Slumdog Millionaire or something but most of the time... well, the independents have really come up now because the studios are so insecure about taking chances on anything new or different. If you go to a studio now, it's gotta be a book, a comic book or a remake. The independents at least have some balls and will try some new project. And you get good support, the finance and everything with it. Up until recently, it was really tough with an independent. Now, I think I'd rather be with an independent.
AJ: Do you think it would be easier to get this movie made today than it was then?
RD: Probably the same. Yeah, sure if I got Brad Pitt to play the guy with the bad leg and if I got... well, you name one... sure, I could go and get it made. Or if you just went out and made it with relatively unsung heroes. John Savage was a phenomenal actor at that point but he wasn't a bankable actor. I mean, he was an actor who was nominated for an Oscar for The Deer Hunter. So he was a solid actor but he wasn't the kind of guy you could raise money on. It would be the same thing today unless you found some small outfit that just believed so much in the project and they said, "Y'know what? We trust and believe so much in the project, let's go." It's a rarity.
AJ: Now you had wanted to make Inside Moves even before you made Superman.
RD: Yes, I had read the novel by Todd Walton and I loved it and wanted to make it. Then Superman came into my life and that took years away from me. I came back and a very wonderful agent named Everett Ziegler said, "I have a script for you to read." I started to read it and when the character Savage plays attempted suicide, I went, "Oh my God, it's that book." Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson had written it for Paramount. Bob Evans had tried to make it. And he couldn't make it! If Bob Evans can't make it... he WAS Paramount. Our business is so cyclical. When you run into the area of where they're afraid of somebody who's got some depth, you're in trouble.
AJ: Since you had read it originally as a novel, was the final movie pretty much what you intended to make back then or did that change when Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson's script came into it?
RD: It was far better. I mean, they were and are two brilliant, talented, creative people and they had written a brilliant, great script. They had captured every nuance in that piece. There was just one exception. When I made the movie, my original intentions were to stay with the novel and Barry and Valerie's script. But it ended on a very... I would say, almost down note. If you ever read the book, you'll see it ends on the hooker (played in the movie by Amy Wright), who at that point has become a totally addicted hooker. And she has these lines about how life is as it was and there's no glory in it. There's no up sides. By the time we were getting near that point, I'm thinking something's wrong. Because my mission in life is kind of like... there's one critic who said, "It's the kind of picture that makes you feel good and that ain't bad." And that's what I like. I like to come out of a picture feeling good, feeling kind of warm inside. It's been my mission ever since. I don't like to be depressed. I don't like to pay for it. I don't like to go see movies where the heroine commits suicide. So when we were getting near the end, I thought I've got to add a scene. So I went to Barry and Valerie and they said, "No, no, no. Todd didn't want that." I went, "Look, I just want this picture to have a completion. And these guys from Max's Bar deserve their moment in the sun. All of them. So I'll write it." And they went, "OK, we will. We'll write it if you're threatening to write it." And they came up with that wonderful scene. Sure, it's a payoff scene. But it's something warm and wonderful and those who deserve it got their comeuppance. In those days, in that period, there were a lot of depressing films being made. And I just don't like to be one of them.
AJ: It's interesting because the scene does work as a payoff but it doesn't feel like it's out of keeping with everything that's come before it.
RD: That's great! For me, that's the way it works. I really feel good when Savage's character Roary trips the heavy, Tony Burton... wonderful actor... and he goes down the steps and the group looks at Roary. And he's got this wonderful look on his face. They say, "Roary, what did you do?" And the pride in all of them that nobody messes with the people at Max's Bar. That's our home. That's our happiness. It just worked so well for me. I think it worked well for the film. For years, I've gotten, "Hey, Roary! Hey, Jerry!"
AJ: That sort of ties in with another question I had. On the DVD, Todd Walton mentions bringing the film to a screening of primarily handicapped people and being surprised that they'd all seen it and loved it and it was a really important movie to them. Has that been your experience too, over the years?
RD: Well, you know, I think we're all handicapped. Emotions, physical, mental, everybody's carrying some kind of a problem around with them. I think if you just said it was a picture for the handicapped, it'd be a major mistake. Handicapped is an all-encompassing word. I have had so many people comment on the film over the years. There was a picture I did called Radio Flyer. And I used to get these comments from people saying, "You know, I've never told anybody this but I was abused like that when I was a kid." So when things like that happen and emotions are called up in people in a picture like this, it's not just a picture for handicapped people. It's for people, period.
AJ: It ties in to that great line David Morse has when he goes back to the bar and says, "I'm the only cripple here."
RD: Yes! Yeah, it's a great line. And what a difficult scene for an actor to do. He did that brilliantly. I'll never forget that. He is a sensational actor as well as a great person.
AJ: Speaking of the cast, whose idea was it to persuade Harold Russell to come back for this? (Note: Russell, a World War II veteran whose hands were replaced with a pair of prosthetic hooks, had won two Oscars for his role in The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946 and had not appeared in another film until Inside Moves in 1980. - Film Historian Jahnke)
RD: Well, the minute I read the script, who else would you want to play that role but a man like that, who won two Academy Awards for the same performance? He was just perfect for it. So I found him. He was in Washington, D.C., I think, working for the Veterans' Administration. We discussed it and he said, "No thanks, I'm not acting. I was only an actor once. I don't want to be an actor." I said, "Well, I have the script. Would you read it?" He said, "Well certainly, I'll read it." So I sent it to him and in the original script, the character was called Hooks. And I got a call from him. He said, "I read your script." I said, "Well, I hope you enjoyed it." He said, "Yes, I enjoyed it and I would like to do it but would you change the name from Hooks to Wings?" I said, "Oh my God... yeah, instantly." He's brilliant. He's gone now.
AJ: What was it like for him stepping in front of a camera for the first time in over thirty years?
RD: None of them are in front of a camera. That was the most familial group of actors I've ever worked with in my life. Max's Bar was built on a street in Echo Park from a garage. You actually walked into a bar. And that bar became the home for all of us, crew and cast. Those people aren't acting. When Stinky says, "Don't be stupid. First you get handicapped. Then you try suicide," and they laughed at it? That was them. That was so real. In that scene, two of the actors were physically handicapped. Bert Remsen (who plays Stinky) was a casting director and a crane on a set toppled and crushed him. He was badly hurt for the rest of his life. And everybody else fell into it. It wasn't acting. I must say I deserve no credit for that film. They all brought it to life on their own.
AJ: That familial feeling you're talking about really comes through in the party scene at the bar on Christmas.
RD: Yeah, I love that. And who better than Sinatra, huh?
AJ: Yeah, that was a perfect choice. You had worked pretty extensively in television before making The Omen. I was wondering if that helped in making something as intimate as Inside Moves?
RD: Well, working in TV helped me in everything. It helped me to know where my energy should go and what you should do, both physical and mental energies, and where you're going to put your camera. So remember I read that book right after The Omen. And I saw that movie (in my head) then. I think anything you do in the industry, whether you make commercials, documentaries, half-hour TV comedies, dramatics, it helps form how you'll work with other people on any movie you do. So yeah, to answer your question in a very roundabout way, yes it did. (laughs)
AJ: Are there any other movies you've made that you'd like to see rediscovered or reevaluated the same way Inside Moves now hopefully will be?
RD: Two of them. I wish there was more play on Ladyhawke, which I love. It's a beautiful, unrequited, true love story. I love it. And one of the most important for me is Radio Flyer. Because of child abuse, the way it was handled and the way it was acted and the way it was brought to life and the way it forced you into your own conclusions. Its subjectivity. I wish that picture had more play and was out again. But that's show biz!
AJ: I'd agree with you on those. The other one I'd mention is Scrooged, which I always thought got kind of overshadowed by Groundhog Day.
RD: (laughs) You know, it still plays every Christmas. You're right. That was a fun picture. It was great. Bill (Murray) was wonderful. The script was amazing. We're so lucky doing what we do. That shoot was memorable to me too and the end result was great. You know, at the very end of it, it's kind of like Slumdog Millionaire. When they start to sing "Put a Little Love in Your Heart". We started to pull back a little bit, just to get in the cast. Then all of a sudden I kept pushing the camera back and back and back, and everybody came in! The crew, everybody that made that movie practically is in that shot in the end with everybody singing "Put A Little Love in Your Heart". And it was true. You didn't have to push them. Everybody had a lot of love in their hearts making that film.
AJ: That's similar to the way you end Inside Moves, with the crew photo underneath the end credits.
RD: Yeah. And I did that on the last Lethal Weapon, too. I had everybody from every single department get photographed. Either bring photographs in or we shot photographs of them. And as the credits roll, there's pictures of everybody. So the unsungs, the people that nobody ever sees, everybody saw their face.
AJ: Would you ever want to make another movie as small and intimate as Inside Moves again?
RD: Sure, if it comes along. If it's right. If it's the perfect script to do, yeah. Without a second's hesitation. But they're tough to find. And they're tough to finance. But if you really believe in them and you just stay with it, it'll happen. Yes. Sure, without a second's hesitation, I'd jump on it.
AJ: You can tell just by talking to you that Inside Moves was an important movie to you.
RD: Very. Very, very, very. And as I said, it's a feel-good movie.
AJ: As somebody who essentially created the modern superhero movie, what's your take on the current popularity of superhero movies?
RD: I think they're great. I think they're really great, the way they're handled today. I have kind of an expert, he's 13 or 14, named Tommy Wenk. He's a young guy, reads all the comics, keeps up on everything, and he tells me. This would make a great movie. That is a great movie. Go see this one, you'll love it. Tommy Wenk is like the decision for me, whether we should go and see a super-movie of today. I think they're pretty damn good, in general. We call it The Tommy Wenk Critique. He makes our decisions for us. He's the audience!
AJ: There have been rumors for awhile about you reteaming with Mel Gibson, either on Lethal Weapon 5 or a movie called Sam and George or something else.
RD: Well, Sam and George is dead. That was at Paramount. That's not happening. But hopefully I'm doing another picture with Mel, probably next year. Maybe prepare it in the fall of this year. But I don't think Lethal's gonna happen. I think it could. I think we have a great story for it. I think one of the other producers who I allowed on the picture may have screwed it up by trying to push me out and that offended Mel. It just got stupid. It became really Hollywood. It became the low end of what Hollywood is. Quite despicable. But Channing Gibson, who's a great writer and wrote Lethal 4, has a great story for both Mel and Danny (Glover) for a fifth one. It's charming. It's a little bit of the original. It ends the way they should end because it's kind of a little bit of a reversion on what it was. It's a good story and maybe, who knows? Maybe after I work with Mel on this one, maybe I can talk him into it. But only time will tell.
AJ: Somebody just glancing at your filmography might think that Inside Moves is an atypical movie for you. How would you counter that?
RD: Well, is Radio Flyer atypical? It's not. There's nothing typical or atypical for me. You read something or you develop something and you want to see it on screen and it becomes the film. It just seems to me that I did those, they were very difficult, very hard to sell, you still keep making them whenever you can and something else comes along. Until those Lethals came along, I had never done an action film. There was always gratuitous bullshit. This one, written brilliantly by Shane Black, had a reason. It had brilliant characters, great development, great evolution of them, and there was a reason the action evolved out of the situation that the characters were in that you cared about. So I wanted to make it. Maybe that's become typical for me, I don't know. I just love making movies, period.
Certainly that love is readily apparent in any given Richard Donner picture. Be sure to check out my review of Inside Moves on DVD here. Thanks to Cliff Stephenson at Off the Cliff Productions and Derek Hoffman at The Donners' Company for their help in setting up this interview and special thanks to Dick Donner himself for taking the time to chat with us.