Alain Silver Interview
I sat down with author and producer Dr. Alain Joel Silver November 1, 2001, at his home in Santa Monica. It has an ancient feel. It's filled with hundreds of 33-play vinyl records (mainly movie soundtracks), a reel-to-reel tape recorder and a TV that looks to date from the 1970s.
Born December 7, 1947 in Chinatown in Los Angeles, Alain grew up in the San Fernando Valley. His mother was a French war bride. His father, who studied cinematography in France and at one time worked as a photo processor in a night club, mainly worked in the aerospace industry. Upon retirement in 1971, Alain's dad worked at William Morris talent agency in Beverly Hills for five years as a mailroom supervisor.
After receiving his Ph.D. in motion picture history from UCLA, Dr. Silver proceeded to publish 14 books, produce about low budget 30 movies and about 120 CDs of music.
He's finished three yet to be published books, including one about director - producer Roger Corman.
Alain: "My co-author James Ursini and I were given an advance by Silman-James Press to write a book called Visions of Directing. And it just didn't work in the two director interviews we did.
"So we did a book about Corman as a director, while the publisher was more interested in Corman as a producer. The director books that Jim Ursini and I have done are auteur books about the personal vision of the director. We did David Lean, Robert Aldrich and this Corman book is the same, formatted film by film.
"We did three hours of interviews with Corman about the 54 films he directed. He's done hundreds of interviews. He tells the same stories. He has a particular approach and if you read his book "How I Made 100 Movies In Hollywood And Never Lost A Dime," it's all in there."
Luke: "Ever since you were a kid, you wanted to work in Hollywood?"
Alain: "Yes. I didn't realize until I was older that that my father had not pursued his ambitions to be a cinematographer took away what might have been a significant advantage. Hollywood is nepotistic."
After 12 years of Catholic school, Silver graduated from high school from Chaminade Preparatory.
Luke: "Were your parents devout?"
Alain: "My mother was French so she insisted on Mass every Sunday. But we always got there just before the Offatory and left just after the Communion. We participated in the minimum required parts of the Mass. I'm well versed in Catholic history and rituals. I've been lapsed for a long time.
"UCLA was inexpensive. I got a scholarship from North American Aviation. The children of employees were permitted to take the SAT a second time and based on their score, they were awarded scholarships. After I left UCLA, I had some money left over from the scholarship.
"When I got to UCLA in the late 1960s, motion pictures was not an accepted discipline. So I was an English major for two years before shifting over to production. My undergraduate degree was in motion pictures and there were three people in my graduating class. Most of the department was graduate students.
"I did my Master's thesis on the films of Robert Aldrich and my Ph.D. on David Lean. The thesis turned into my book on Lean. I knew my co-author James from Chaminade High School. Jim wrote his Master's Thesis on Preston Sturges.
"I tried to get into the industry after I got my bachelor's degree. I went around and looked for work as a production assistant. That's when I learned about the Assistant Director's training program which was cosponsored by the Director's Guild Of America and the Association of Motion Picture And Television Producers.. I applied in 1970 after my bachelor's, and didn't get in.
"UCLA solicited me to enter their graduate program in motion picture studies. I was one of their first people in their Ph.D. program. I was offered a scholarship for one year and a teaching position for another as part of my deal. By the time I finished the course work, I was not interested in a career in academia. So I tested again for the Assistant Training program in 1975 and got in. And that's how I got into the industry. Not through persistence or knocking on doors.
"The program was set up in 1965 to open up the industry to people who did not have connections. If you're not a member of the Director's Guild and on its qualification list, you can't be employed. And one of the few ways to get into the Director's Guild is to go through the training program, which is 400 days of work. When you complete that, you're a freelance Assistant Director which I did for the required 520 days. Then you can be a First Assistant Director which you're supposed to do for 260 days. And then you can become a Unit Production Manager (UPM), which is a below the line producer.
"I got my first job as a UPM in 1981 on Spaceship. I then decided that my ambitions were not within the studio structure. About two-thirds of the days I worked [training between 1975-80] were in television which pays the same as features. But TV is not tremendously creative work. It's hard and unrewarding as an assistant director."
Luke: "Did you long to become a full fledged director?"
Alain: "That was certainly the film school ambition but after I worked in the industry for a while, I saw that directing, particularly in TV, was not all that it was cracked up to be. And it seemed to me that the easiest way to segue into features was as a producer.
"I worked on this feature Beat in 1999. The two other producers were primarily responsible for funding. I was responsible for scheduling and making sure the director did the picture in the best possible way. There were many problems. I'm not going to pass judgment on the result. But the other producers suddenly found themselves with a picture that was not as easy to sell as they had thought.
"They wanted to re-cut it. I was caught in the middle [between the other producers and the director]. I said to one, 'I understand your situation but it's unfair to blame the director since he delivered the script.' And the producer agreed. 'Yes, and I liked the script. But now that it is a movie, I can't sell it.' "
Johnathan Crow of the All Movie Guide writes: "William S. Burroughs' ill-fated performance of his "William Tell act" -- resulting in his wife Joan Vollmer getting a bullet in the brain with a shot glass atop her head -- soon became the stuff of Beat legend. This film, directed by Gary Walkow, traces this doomed romance from its inception to its bloody end. The movie opens in 1944 New York, where Columbia journalism student Vollmer is already living a bohemian life filled with pharmaceuticals and a host of future beatniks, including hunky Jack Kerouac (Daniel Martinez), a young Allen Ginsberg (Ron Livingston), and of course, Burroughs (Kiefer Sutherland). Also frequenting Vollmer's pad is Lucien Carr (Norman Reedus) whom everyone is enamored with, especially Dave Kammerer (Kyle Secor), who winds up dead after trying to jump the object of his affection. Seven years later, Joan and William have married in spite of Burroughs' obvious homosexual predilections. Their domestic bliss is strained when the two have to flee to Mexico City after they get slapped with a drug rap. Ginsberg and Carr, now correspondents for the UPI, visit the couple only to discover that Burroughs split town with his lover-for-hire. Vollmer and the boys decide to go on a road trip that is brimming with heterosexual tension. William eventually returns from his sex-binge suspecting that Joan had a fling with Carr. During that fateful night, Burroughs pulls out a gun that he was going to sell for drug money and performs one of the most spectacularly botched party-tricks in literary history.
"There's a shift in how you market independent pictures. It goes back to the '80s and what kind of budget you can expect to raise on an independent project. In the late '80s, you could shoot anything, it seemed. You get by attaching very marginal names as actors to raise funds. And then the foreign buyers caught up to the fact that the American independent product they were buying was substandard. Plus the video shelves in all those little stores in Europe filled up. There just isn't the need that there was in the late '80s when you just bought anything you could that was American.
"I produced a couple of pictures in 1989 for an Australian executive producer (Tom Broadbridge) and that was literally the assumption he was working under. He'd been fairly successful with a company that distributed Australian pictures including an early hit called BMX Bandits, starring a teenage Nicole Kidman.
"Tom wanted to make some American movies for a price with some minor names with certain formula elements. He once told me about a trailer for Prime Suspect for Cannes - 'Make sure you put all the gun shots and all the tits in it.'
"Tom hired my partner Patrick Regan and me to produce the picture. It was written by a guy (Thomas Cost) who lived with actress Susan Strassberg, the daughter of Lee Strassberg. She attached some other actors, Billy Drago and Frank Stallone, who we got instead of Richard Roundtree.
"Thomas Cost, who mainly worked as a production designer, came in and told me that he thought he'd written a brilliant film noir and he wanted to shoot it in an impressionist manner. And the first thing I said was, I don't think we want to talk to Tom about film noir and expressionism. It's not what he's relating to.
"We had a budget of $500,000, financed by a New Zealand bank. It was going to have a completion bond, which was surprising given the low budget. A completion bond means that a company comes in and for a percentage, 1.5-3%, and insures there's completion of the picture. The company gets takeover privileges if they see there's a problem. If there are overruns, they have to come in and spend money. Needless to say, they're not in the business of taking over and spending money. They want to make sure that doesn't happen. They make sure by significantly checking the budget and the schedule and feeling secure there's a good picture. And in the worst instance, when a picture's in serious trouble, they come in and take over.
"The picture was doable but the problem was that the script made no sense, which I shared with Tom Broadbridge before he went back to Australia. He called me at a weird hour from Australia saying he'd read the script on the flight and it made no sense.
"We went and got it rewritten by Bruce Kimmel. The story's about a high school guy who goes on a weekend camping trip with his girlfriend. She's brutally murdered. He's so traumatized that he loses his voice and is put into an institution where his psychologist is Susan Strassberg. He escapes to clear his name and find the real murderers. Susan re-encounters him and helps him. It was a hopelessly convoluted plot.
"Thomas Cost had written it so that after his first sexual experience with this girl, this kid's showering in this waterfall and her severed head comes over the waterfall. I read that and said that is impossible. I can't even get you a decent severed head with our budget.
"So on the spur of the moment, I said, instead of a waterfall, it's a small lake. And he's gone swimming and she's by the shore. And while he's 100 yards off shore, this dark figure comes out of the bushes with a knife. He sees her being killed. He swims as fast as he can but he can not get there. He gets there just in time to have her die in his arms. That's what we shot. Of course Thomas didn't like it.
"It's an ok scene. We were limited by the capabilities of the actors in the cast. But we had to do those kinds of things to the script. And as pre-production continued, we had far more problems. Our DP (Director of Photography) and Production Designer couldn't understand what Thomas wanted. It's the first movie he's ever directed.
"I remember a scene at the production meeting a week before shooting. There are two killers in the woods and there are cutaways to their hands holding knives. But one actor is white and one actor is black. But these cutaways are supposed to look the same.
"Both executive producers wanted to fire Thomas but I fought to keep him on. We'd made a deal with the guy who'd written the script and brought in the package [of actors].
"We started shooting and we saw the dailies and they were impossibly confused...We saw by day two or three that this was not working. I talked to the bond company and they agreed. But we didn't have a pretext. Thomas's deal was that he couldn't be arbitrarily fired. While the production attorney wrestled with those issues, we kept shooting. On day five, I was in the office. My partner was on the set. I just got off the phone with the attorney, still trying to find a pretext to find Thomas. My partner called to say, 'Thomas just attacked me. He tried to choke me. The first AD and the DP had to pull him off of me.' And my first reaction is great, we can fire him.' And we did the next day.
"We brought in Bruce Kimmel, who did the rewrites under a pseudonym (Alex Josephs). He came in for a small fee and made the movie work on the remaining days, including re-shooting. We were rewriting the script before each scene. Bruce would be shooting a scene and I'd be rewriting the next scene.
"Susan Strassberg had to work the first day after Thomas, the man she lived with, was fired. And that was not easy. She burst into tears the first four times she came out of make-up. And she had to go back in. It was a long day. My producing partner was banned from the set because Susan held him responsible for Thomas's problems. I was the only producer allowed to speak to her.
"We finished on schedule and under budget. The problem was, we had a lot of Thomas Cost's material. And as we cut the picture together, we got rid of many of Thomas's scenes. It came out 84 minutes long. Tom Broadbridge had a deal with an early incarnation of Sony Pictures. They were based in New York and called Sony SBS. And they were picking up pictures for distribution. He owed them a picture. One of the Australian pictures he gave them, they didn't want. So he gave them this one. They said, great, but it has to be at least 96 minutes long.
"That was impossible. We shot a really long title sequence in the cemetery and got it up to 88 minutes. My producing partner Patrick Regan quit. We thought about this character you never see, this aggressive district attorney. How about we make him like the Peter Coyote character in Jagged Edge? So we wrote and shot two full scenes and four transitional pieces, shot them in two days, for $8000. We got to 96 minutes. At the screening, Tom Broadbridge turned to me and said, 'You shot all these minutes for $8000. Why couldn't you have shot the whole picture at that ratio?" One of those impossible questions.
"We delivered the picture to Sony. A couple of weeks later, there was an article in the LA Times with the president of Sony SBS. The president talked about our film, though he didn't mention it by name. He said we have to be more careful with these pickups. He didn't have a problem with the quality of the picture but in the shooting of the post-production inserts, we'd used a Panasonic TV. And when the people back in Japan at Sony first saw this movie, they focused on this instant of a Panasonic TV.
"Prime Suspects was made for $520,000. Tom sold it to Sony for $420,000 and then he made a deal for foreign distribution for $750,000. He was happy with his instantaneous profit. The company that bought the foreign, when they took delivery of the picture. They had bought it off the original script. They realized when they took delivery of the picture that the budget was not as high as Tom had said. He told people the budget was $2 million bucks. They might've bought it if you said it cost one million but not two million. So when they got the picture, they realized they'd overpaid and they reneged on the deal.
"And it went to a lawsuit because the New Zealand bank believed the contract was good. The case went to arbitration and the arbitrator nullified the contract because the picture was too different from the original script. I testified that all the changes we'd made were to improve the picture. Tom resold Prime Suspects for half the original amount, long after I did a second picture (Night Visitor) with Tom that was distributed by MGM-UA. It was the same formula with very gratuitously violent and extreme and tasteless script. Again I had Bruce Kimmel do a rewrite to try to inject a little humor and tone it down. It starred Allen Garfield, Elliott Gould, Richard Roundtree.
"My favorite thing in that picture was that we made the Richard Roundtree police detective "Captain Apollo Crane." Chapman makes a lot of stage cranes and they're named after various Greek and Roman gods. The biggest crane is called a Titan. Their mid-size crane is called an Apollo. And we based it on Apollo Creed from the Rocky series.
"I walked onto the set and saw there was actually a name plate called "Captain Apollo Crane." In some of these independent projects, you have to maintain a sense of humor about the material which in this case was flat and inert.
"Both of these instances, Prime Suspects and Night Visitor, reveals what it was like in the late '80s trying to fulfill audience requirements and trying to make a decent picture. At that point in my career as a producer, if I had a project offered, I couldn't just say no. That's different today. If somebody offers me a project I think is dreck, it is easy for me to say no. I don't need the money and I don't need another credit.
"You can never tell how a picture will turn out. I thought Beat would be well received. It's been finished for almost two years and it might eventually get a domestic release.
"Rupert Hitzig directed Night Visitor. It was the first movie he directed. He produced a lot of studio pictures. He was aware of the limitations. The only thing I had to teach him was that he couldn't bring all of his friends from these big budget pictures to this million dollar picture. Because they just wouldn't understand this level. The problem with any picture of this level, the way they are put together dictates the range of aesthetic results.
"Sometimes directors can't stand back from what they're doing, they get so involved, that they can't tell when a scene works. Because of the short schedules and other constraints of independent pictures, it is easy for directors to lose focus of the whole picture and get lost in the details. The best thing a producer can do is try to pull the directors back and let them see what by definition they're supposed to see. If there's anything a director needs to do at any given moment, it is try to help situate an actor. Where is this scene in the movie? Where is your character? Directors are prone like actors to getting sucked in to the details that blind them to the bigger picture.
"I had that experience with someone as sophisticated as Rupert on Night Visitor. We looked all over Los Angeles for a basement. And I said, Rupert, just build it on a stage. You can't find many basements in Los Angeles large enough to shoot in.
"It's hard enough doing these pictures. And when you have directors locked into certain concepts and don't understand that you've brought them a location better than what they wrote, it becomes a problem to do an independent picture for a budget.
"I did a picture Runaway Dreams in Fort Lauderdale with first time director Michelle Noble. I gave her her first job in the business as a PA and she brought me onto this project to mollify the bond company and make them feel secure. And after I spent a few days in Fort Lauderdale, I said to Michelle, 'I'm sorry. I know the camera's facing east. But we could've shot this in LA.' And she agreed. It was a beach with palm trees. There was nothing about where we shot that said Fort Lauderdale.
"The movie was based on some 60 Minutes reports about teenage runaways to Fort Lauderdale who became underage prostitutes. The producer on the movie had produced the 60 Minutes reports. The movie played in a couple of film festivals but was never released in the US. It was right there on the bubble of independent film sales that finished in 1990. And the flux that started in 1990 continues to this day with independent films. The last three features I've worked on have yet to receive a domestic release.
"I've shot some digital features on Sony DV (Digital Video) cameras with director Christopher Coppola. We shot Palmer's Pickup in Super 16mm for a million dollars. We shot while we drove across country with as small a crew as possible. When we cut the picture, we found that a minimum of 1000 frames were ruined. The bond company freaked. They didn't want to extend the delivery date (because the financing for the film was based on it being delivered at a certain time). So we took the picture digital. We transferred the whole movie to high definition video and clean it up there. It cost about $200,000 to do that but the results were great. We went from 16mm to high definition video to 35mm.
"We premiered it at a film festival in Berlin at a huge 1000-seat theater with a monster screen. And the film looked great, though a little grainy.
"When you shoot on video, you can make movies for $10,000 and market direct to video. Video allows filmmakers to make movies for a small amount of money and not go through all the compromises necessitated by fundraising. You don't have to find name actors, work out schedules. The pictures I've produced, not counting the digital ones, have had budgets ranging from $500,000 to $6 million. You can't just snap your fingers and come up with that money. There are always strings attached and compromises.
"To get name actors, you have to pay them a higher proportion of the budget than you would want to. For Beat, while the cast budget was not that high, we couldn't have shot it anywhere else than Mexico. We had a tremendous DP (Director of Photography) for $900 a week. You can't find that in the US. We had a great huge crew of 90 people. The costume designer had won a couple of Mexican academy awards.
"I was an executive producer, in name only, on a $3 million Showtime picture shot in Canada. I wrote the script with my wife Linda Brookover. It was shot in Canada because that costs less. But it had to have a Canadian director and producer to qualify for Canadian subsidies. We had a great crew but we had to make aesthetic compromises. We had to deal with political issues and hire certain people to qualify for Canadian content.
"It was my first time back with the studio thing. When I got the contract from Showtime, it was 95 pages long, for a simple option of a script.
"Since it was the first script Linda had written, I went along with it. And it made us a lot of money. But I think I could've gotten a much better result had I produced it here and applied many of the lessons I'd learned and making better aesthetic choices. The problems with shooting in Canada were above the line issues (stuff that shows on screen).
"In independent production, having the best possible script doesn't guarantee you anything. Getting good actors doesn't guarantee you anything. It's still a long road from there to finishing and selling the picture.
"Christopher Coppola and I have been working for four years trying to sell a project called Black Stallion Rebels. It's the third Black Stallion movie. It's based on the same series of books. It's a low budget and G-rated, which is a phenomenally good market. But it's a difficult sell because people are so greedy about what they want out of a project. Within three months, we had an offer from Warner Brothers to fund it but we passed. Warners would not guarantee a theatrical release of more than 200 screens and that's not giving a picture a fair shot.
"Warners knew that if they gave us the money to make the picture, they'd make a lot of money on the video sales. There were big profits to be made with low risk. And what we wanted was slightly more risk - 500 screens at least, maybe a 1000, and a decent ad budget to give the picture a shot.
"The first Black Stallion movie made the equivalent of $100 million 22 years ago. But the major studios are not interested in taking risks to make a little money. They're interested in taking a big risk to make a lot of money. They're not interested in a guaranteed $5-10 million unless there's no risk. If you want them to back a picture theatrically, they have to imagine a huge upside or it's not worth their effort. And that studio mentality makes it so difficult for independent pictures to compete for distribution slots.
"This has destroyed the mid-level market. The studios have bought out the largest independents like Miramax, October Films, and New Line and forced you to go to a much lower-level alternative where it is difficult to compete. What's the last independent picture to show on 2000 screens? The Blair Witch Project? It doesn't happen often. A lot of people out there making independent pictures think they're going to be the next Blair Witch Project. It's not realistic."
I did my second interview with Dr. Alain Silver at his Santa Monica home March 21, 2002.
Alain: "I opted out of the studio system when I was an Assistant Director. I don't believe the environment of the studio system is open to many things. There are so many years in development, a long time shooting and in post-production, so that much of the creative energy that might infuse a picture gets lost. It's not a system that nurtures innovation and creative freedom. I'm amazed that someone convinced a studio to make Moulin Rhouge. My interest lies in making good pictures. I didn't go to film school to work in episodic television. If you want to make movies, rather than make money, this [independent pictures] is the best choice.
"My most recent studio experience was a Showtime [owned by Viacom] picture [Time at the Top, 1999], which confirmed all my sentiments. My wife wrote the script. Showtime gave us an 83-page contract for optioning the script, a typical studio approach right out of the gate. We fell into the system where we had to shoot it in Canada. It had to be a Canadian-content movie [to qualify for Canadian subsidies]. The choices for director were limited. He [Jim Kaufman] put a lot of effort into it but I don't think he ever clicked with the material. And I don't think the result is optimal."
Luke: "It's hard to make a living outside the studios."
Alain: "Yes. This property was purchased with my earnings as an Assistant Director when I worked at the studios. I have rental units in the back. That mitigates the need for me to worry about my next job.
"With their $3-5 million dollar budgets, independent movies often have more in common with episodic television than features. What's different is that the casting is more ambitious, for two reasons: Aesthetically and fiscally. To try to get your money back from the film, you try to cast differently than in television. It's not a question of acting ability but marketability. You try to cast performers who will engender interest in the marketplace."
Luke: "You believe that digital video will soon replace film as the medium on which motion pictures are shot."
Alain: "They're still motion pictures. It doesn't matter which format you shoot them on."
Luke: "Tell me about your 1992 movie, Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, starring Sean Young and porn star April Rayne (Andrea Naschak)."
Alain: "It wasn't the worst script I've ever read, but it was pretty bad. It was about white slavery. It had women being branded. I remember saying, 'You can't shoot this.' And they [executive producer Michael Hershman and his brother, director Joel Hershman] didn't believe me but when they brought in a guy from PM Entertainment, an exploitation distributor, the first thing he said was, 'You can't shoot women being branded.'
"Michael said Joel had an entirely different concept and after I met with Joel, I agreed to come on board."
Luke: "It became a cult hit."
Alain: "They got a development deal out of Warner Brothers to turn it into a series, but it never worked out. The only actor they wanted to carry over from the picture was Bela Lehoczky. A lot of the problems with the picture have to do with casting issues, which stem from the picture's low budget (significantly under one million dollars).
"Sean Young rented her own limo and her own jet for the picture. We didn't pay for it because we couldn't afford to pay for it. She gave herself the star treatment. The first day that she worked, she was willing to jump in and wrestle with the actor and roll around the ground. She's about giving a performance. We had Dianne Ladd and Timothy Leary for a day each.
"Whatever the limited success of the picture, it did not translate into recuping the investment.
"Andrea Naschak was a good actress. There was a rumor that she died of AIDS [but she's now living in San Francisco Bay Area, married, with a son]. All the non-professional actors in the movie, like Bela and Andrea, gave the most memorable performances.
"Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me typifies the best you can hope for if you do a really quirky picture with a few names scattered here and there. Unfortunately, the best you can hope for in that type of picture is far short of a return on your investment."
Philip Corvus writes on Imdb.com: The director allegedly vowed to make the sleaziest movie he could as a condemnation of Hollywood. He succeeded admirably, but it feels more like homage to me. Dialogue example: "I guess killing your sister, burying your dog, and losing your virginity all in one day is a lot for a girl."
This film is shot in the colors of sleaze--from Sabra's day-glow spandex to the hues of the trailer court. Everything is there to enhance the camp. This is side-spliting sleaze all the way. I mean, how about the scene where he takes Danni out to dinner with handcuffs on? Or, Sabra's come-on line, "down deep I'm a sensitive and vulnerable girl. Don't let my vibrators and dildos fool you." Symbolism?
How 'bout the scene where pink-spandexed Sabra walks Gus down the SPCA promenade of death? That'll make you give up topless bars and stroke mags, man.
Alain: "Digital video is empowering. Christopher Coppola and I are about to start a $600,000 picture, which would cost more than twice as much if we shot it on film. It involves one actor playing four parts, which is simple to do in digital video. You shoot the scene three times and you mask off the portions of the frame that are unaffected. You put the image together on a desktop computer in a couple of minutes. And the effect is seamless. That's power of digital. You see your dailies immediately.
"This is my current cause. Ninety percent of a good movie is good performances. What gets in the way of performance in motion pictures is the amount of time you have to spend getting it. It's difficult for an actor to sustain a characterization over a 100-day shoot. You have a lot of days and a lot of significant breaks, say between a master shot and a closeup. It can be hours. It is difficult for an actor to come back to the same level of intensity and mode two hours later. You lose more time trying to put the actor back to where he was. That's why movie acting is really hard and a lot of movie stars are really good actors.
"We shot this feature in 18 days on digital. We worked standard days. Some of the performers were surprised how short the days were and how quickly we were ready to do a closeup. Actors are used to going back to their room after a master shot."