In the performance that won him the Best Actor award from the National Society of Film Critics, Peter O’Toole, the director-hero of The Stunt Man, describes paranoia as a “social disease” that comes from man being constantly screwed by his fellow man. This perception belongs as well to Richard Rush, the real-life producer-director of The Stunt Man who spent most of a decade finding the money and developing the techniques he needed to turn Paul Brodeur’s arty novel into a unique entertainment — a super-charged, philosophic adventure-comedy. In 1978, he persuaded Mel Simon Productions to finance the script he fashioned with writer Lawrence B. Marcus. Once he made the film, however, he couldn’t persuade the corporation that audiences would pay to see it. At that point, Rush a robust six-footer who had been healthy all of his forty-eight years, suffered a heart attack. (“It was a classic case,” he told an interviewer. “I lost that round.”)
Finally, Mel Simon Productions agreed to a test engagement that began in Seattle on July 27th, 1980. The Stunt Man earned rave reviews and did more business in its first week than any film except The Empire Strikes Back, but Rush still couldn’t get a distribution deal; the studios had decided that Seattle was too esoteric a test market. Nevertheless, he managed to maneuver another test engagement, this one in Los Angeles, the second biggest movie market in the country. By the end of its seven-week run at the Westwood, the film had attracted a loyal following, as if it were a thinking man’s Rocky Horror Picture Show. You could hear the audience anticipate favorite lines or bits of action—no mean feat, considering that this picture plays peekaboo with your perceptions.
Emboldened by its repeated success, Twentieth Century-Fox picked up the film for national release, only to take it to New York two months later with a botched ad campaign. While the press continued to report on The Stunt Man as a success story — a dream deferred becomes a dream realized — Fox, faced with disappointing box-office returns, canceled its wide release. But they softened the blow by pledging to rerelease the film on February 20th. And on January 27th, another good omen came when the Directors’ Guild of America nominated Rush for Outstanding Directorial Achievement.
The Stunt Man is a bravura piece of moviemaking — a true popular work of modernist art. It makes the audience experience the uncertainty of the contemporary world in a visceral, often hilarious way.
When a fugitive named Cameron (Steve Railsback) accidentally causes the death of a stunt man on location, the director (O’Toole as Eli Cross) talks him into taking the stunt man’s place. The looking-glass world of movie-making is a great escape for Cameron (read it: Camera-on), until he suspects that the director would kill him, or anyone, if it would help his film. Rush uses Cameron’s paranoia to explore the act of seeing itself: to quote the producer-director, Cameron views his life “as if he were peeking through a keyhole and getting a very partial look at the truth. Like all the rest of us, he makes up his version of the truth as he goes along. He invents enemies to test his strength, and gods to protect him from the enemies.”
Talking to Rush is like seeing the movie all over again: he carries the whole thing around in his head. His Bel-Air home could easily be part of the set, since both exude Rush’s sense of outlandish fun. The living room, colored like a peacock’s tail, is filled with toylike decorations and knickknacks. A carousel horse blocks the way to the bathroom, and you get the feeling that you could flick a switch to set the entire place spinning. A couple of emotional Hungarian dogs lavish their affections on guests.
I met Rush at his home on Inauguration Day, and though he wasn’t paying attention to the swearing-in ceremonies, the talk turned to politics anyway. It soon became obvious that, for all of his movie’s elaborate gamesmanship, when it comes to The Stunt Man’s meanings, Rush wasn’t simply foolin’ around.
What’s happening in the country today doesn’t seem very different from what we see around the edges of your film. When the parents of Eli Cross’ leading lady (Barbara Hershey) visit the set, they’re shocked to see a nude scene. When Cameron, who’s a Vietnam vet, uses the word “gooks,” Cross says that it has “nostalgia value.” You get the feeling that all our social values have fallen into a state of inertia and only art has any energy.
First, I generally agree with Cross when he says, “If you’ve got something to say in a movie, you’d better slip it in while they’re all laughing or crying or jerking off at the sex and violence.” But we did try to work the country’s sense of lethargy into the texture of the movie. Kent State happened the week that my first “big” movie [Getting Straight] opened around the country. Kent State for me was that tragic moment when the people manning the barricades finally said, “Well fuck it.” They turned away from political protests toward safer targets. Ecology was born. It was more than fear: parents didn’t want to see their children getting killed. When push came to shove, nobody wanted a violent revolution. The braves stopped hunting and stayed home to clean out the tepees. The Movement scattered like buckshot into separate causes. A great sense of indecision, a lack of clear perceptions, settled over us. What better inspiration could there be for a movie meant to jolt people out of an apathetic frame of reference?
I started working on The Stunt Man in 1971, but nothing definitive has happened since then to clarify the disorder. The war kind of drifted to an end while Cambodia was still going on. Nixon made the deal with China. With Watergate, we all got used to deception, elbowing one another about it knowingly. Now we’ve elected to go for a strong-man image, as if that will frighten away all our enemies. We’ve gone from hippie clothes to designer jeans. The dislocations are tremendously confusing. Everything seems coagulated.
Yet you worked on ‘Freebie and the Bean,’ a slapstick cop movie, during all this….
Oddly enough, I think the film does fit into what we’re talking about, this coagulation. I remember looking at the Mekong Delta on the six o’clock news and thinking, “What a well-done show.” Then an action show came on — maybe it was a cop show — and I realized how confused we’d become about violence. I tried to take two terrible bores, have them do horrible things to other people, and yet have them warm and loyal to each other. I thought I could trap an audience into rooting for them and then drawing back.
Sounds like an anti-‘Dirty Harry.’
Yeah, Dirty Harry was a straight fascist movie without laughs. I wanted to snap the audience back from Tom and Jerry slapstick to reality and catch them in midchuckle. I wanted a fun-house-mirror look at machismo and violence. In The Stunt Man, I wanted a fun-house look at everything.
‘The Stunt Man’ is partly a Hollywood horror movie. It’s about the horror of working in a vacuum, of not knowing what the assumptions of the audience or the studio are. The movie Eli Cross is making could turn out to be ‘Heaven’s Gate.’
That’s what Cross is saying when he tells the anecdote about the friend who made the perfect antiwar movie; when it premièred in his hometown, enlistment went up 600 percent. Terrific uncertainty develops from not knowing how your material will be “read”; the uncertainty develops from the rapid changes in the attitudes of the audience. When the atmosphere shifts, if you’re at all conscious of trying to communicate a moral statement, moviemaking becomes an act of desperation. As far as the studios go, though, I’ve never had any trouble, except for The Stunt Man. When I shot Freebie and the Bean, Warner Brothers would look at my notes on the action and keep upping the budget. They told me I couldn’t stay within budget and shoot those scenes. They were wrong. But I kept staging more stunts to match the extra money.
Even though the film-within-a-film in ‘The Stunt Man’ is heavily improvised, your own film is intricately structured.
I’ve never believed in going into the cutting room with a mess of raw footage and then saying, “Let’s make a movie.” But I do improvise. I learned while making movies like Hell’s Angels on Wheels, Psych-Out and The Savage Seven. I had a certain freedom on those so-called exploitation films to get the right tone and reality to the scenes and then catch up with the script. I had my own stock company of actors and technicians, people like Jack Nicholson, Adam Roarke [who plays Eli Cross’ leading man] and [cinematographer] Laszlo Kovacs. When Bert Schneider made Easy Rider, he was trying to do a “Rush” — he even used my cameraman, Kovacs, and my star, Nicholson.
Although most critics across the country have praised ‘The Stunt Man,’ some have called your style fragmented, the movie a collection of glittering pieces rather than a whole.
My style isn’t fragmented — it’s active. Part of it is that I’m trying to match the ideal performance in my head with what I got in the camera. If that means taking a second from an over-the-shoulder shot and trying to match it with a close-up, I’ll do it. That’s why the movie took so long to edit. I also wanted to jolt the audience’s perceptions of not only life but moviemaking itself. That’s why I staged certain sleight-of-hand scenes like the on-set movie massacre in abbreviated “movie time.” When Cross throws a fit because his assistant has yelled cut with twenty-two seconds left in the camera, he’s absolutely right. That’s a fucking lot of time in a movie.
What drew you to the Brodeur novel? It’s actually rather precious.
The availability of unspoken metaphor in the middle of an action movie. Here’s this fugitive crashing out of the “real” world and into a microcosm ruled by a director playing God or the devil.
Is the director really satanic? He almost uses Cameron’s paranoia as a fuel for self-improvement.
Well, I wouldn’t call old Eli altruistic. I don’t think I’m consciously celebrating art as any kind of panacea for the stunt man’s or the world’s ills. But it can serve as a necessary buffer to reality. There’s great fun in Eli’s character — maybe the greatest fun in the movie. Of course, he’s the character I’m closest to. Deep down, I don’t feel that he’s diabolical at all. How could I? Here’s a director with three days left on his shooting schedule, struggling to make an antiwar movie work, and finding in this kid the kind of giddy, dangerous madness he needs. On that time schedule, he wouldn’t even have been able to send back to Hollywood for a real stunt man. Anybody less than O’Toole wouldn’t have been able to pull this character off: this incredibly charming savior and benefactor who then seems to be a killer — until we find out that it’s all bullshit.
Was Barbara Hershey’s character meant to be a female counterpart to Cross in her effect on the stunt man?
In a study of illusion and reality, what could be more central than the image of the Dream Girl? It’s the most absurd concoction of Western civilization; I’m not familiar with Eastern civilization. I remember in kindergarten picking the one girl to fall in love with, that phantom to dream about at night. I’ve spent most of my life looking around the next corner. Every actress I’ve known who has become a star is schizophrenic enough to play that role and wrap herself in its mysterious allure. She can make you constantly expect to get to some core, even though all you get is this self-involved creature who’s a Southern belle who’s also a little girl, depending on what fantasy she shows you on a particular day.
What is she supposed to see in the stunt man, then?
We’ve all had the experience of seeing a beautiful woman and wondering what to say to her, wasting hours filled with anxiety, and then watching some guy walk up and remark, “Isn’t it a pleasant day?” and walk off with her. We’ve all thought, “What does she see in this asshole?” If that’s how you react to the love story here, that’s okay with me.
There seemed to be more of a sexual relationship between Cross and Cameron.
There’s such an undercurrent of homosexual panic in our society that the slightest suggestion of it adds sinister undertones to O’Toole’s part, even though nothing is really going on. I’m trying to toy with the preconceptions the audience brings into the theater with them.
If the movie was so popular in Seattle, L. A. and Canada, why didn’t the people come out for it in New York?
Events conspired to lessen the impact of the opening. First, there was the matter of theaters. There were theaters available that in New York signify the arrival of a special film. The Stunt Man was not booked into one of those. Then Fox decided to open the film without television promotion. Fox is actually tremendously fond of the film. They picked it up the week it won the Grand Prix at the Montreal Film Festival and probably thought that the momentum would continue to build cross-country. They thought we didn’t need TV. I was shocked. When it did go broader and they used TV spots, the grosses in the original two Manhattan theaters doubled. There was also a decision made not to use reviewers’ quotes. [A Fox representative contends that this decision was made because New York critics were not as unanimous in their praise as those in Seattle and L. A.] It was said that we couldn’t heavily publicize Peter O’Toole, one of the few great actors who’s also a great star, because he was thought to be box-office poison. Of course, everyone loved him in the film. Now O’Toole is being considered as the focus of a forthcoming campaign.
The second campaign they used in New York showed the stunt man hanging by a handcuff and smashing through a papiermaché backdrop. The caption was, You’ll Believe What You See — And You’ll Be Wrong. I guess no one wants to pay four or five bucks to be wrong. At the time, the Fox people in charge of the film went down to Aruba for some convention. Realizing that the ads didn’t work and unable to come up with a quick alternative, they simply canceled the ads. The plan became: “Let’s wait and see what happens with the Oscar nominations.” Now, I’m long past interest in the financial bail-out on the picture. I’m interested in the glory — the vindication, really — not just for me but for all those who worked with me and should know they helped make a hit and not a film that’s “unreleasable.”
For a long time, the major studios thought that the film could never be sold. Are they trying to prove that they were right?
That’s a difficult question to answer.
And what if the studio came to you and said, “The film is just too quick and tricky the way it is; we need more exposition and explanation.”
I hope I’d respond as James Joyce did when the people asked him to put back the commas.