Director Mark Lester

I first read about director Mark Lester in the June 5, 1995 edition of The New Republic magazine.

"At the time, George Caton had begun producing films for director Mark Lester, who in 1971 had achieved notoriety for a soft-porn spoof on Nixon, Tricia' s Wedding, that featured the Cockettes, a gay San Francisco troupe of female impersonators. That winter, as Nixon became increasingly crippled by the Watergate scandal, Lester decided to shelve Beauty Queens and direct instead a risque sequel to Tricia's Wedding, called White House Wedding. It was to be written by Sebastian, the one-name former manager and founder of the Cockettes.

"Caton says he called Gramm and offered to return his check. (Once again, he says he never talked to the wife of Gramm' s colleague.) When Caton described to Gramm what the new movie was about, "he got even more excited and wanted to put in more money." Caton said Lester didn't need the additional money. The project went forward with Gramm's $15,000 out of a total $325,000. "Truck Stop Women." The film was directed by Mark Lester, whose seminal Linda Blair movie, "Roller Blade Boogie," is, of course, well known to us all. "Truck Stop Women" was absolutely packed with well-armed, large-busted, underclad women. "It really got Phil titillated," Caton now says. Gramm offered to invest in the next Mark Lester picture." (The New Republic, 6/5/95)

I visited Mark at his office January 31, 2002. Pic1 Pic2 Pic3

Mark: "I segued into the business by working for a documentary film company (American Documentary Films) in San Francisco in 1970 that was making political films. I had been a campaign manager and running the Young Democrats of California for four years. I had a degree in Political Science from Cal State Northridge.

"I did a little picture called Cops of the World about American involvement in Vietnam. The company was operated as a commune with everybody voting on which pictures to make. I was a more independent type person. I was in charge of raising the money. I thought, hey, if I can raise the money, that means I finance a movie. So why do I need to be voting with all these people when I'm raising the money?

"A professor of anthropology at U.C. Berkeley got me interested in the Mayan indians in Mexico. So I went down there and lived with them for three months and made a documentary, Twilight of the Mayans, that won Best Documentary at the Venice Film Festival. Twenty five years later, these indians got weapons and started fighting the Mexican government.

"Tricia Nixon was getting married in 1971. I met this troup called The Cockettes, a troup of San Francisco drag queens who performed at the Palace Theater in San Francisco. So I decided to spoof the Nixon Whitehouse with a film called Tricia's Wedding. It was a sensation, the Rocky Horror Picture Show of its time. It ran across the street from the Whitehouse.

"John Dean told the story on Johnny Carson how a burglar was ordered to break into the lab so a print could be screened in the White House basement, that bunker where all the guys would hide, just like it was a stag film. I think it's amazing that a $3000 underground comedy could so distract the top level of our government. Nixon was outraged by these drag queens playing all these Nixon Whitehouse people. They ran a clip on the Johnny Carson Show.

"I four-walled the theaters and showed the movie and took in all the revenue and got enough money to make another movie. I met some investors in Oakland who wanted to know what I was doing next. I was with my girlfriend rafting on a river at Sacramento and I met some auto daredevils called The Circus of Death led by Dusty Russell. They were Hells Angel types who travelled from town to town and put on these death defying shows. One guy blew himself up with dynamite and other guys crashed head on into each other. They don't even have these kind of shows anymore because cars aren't made to crash like that.

"So I wrote my first feature length movie called Steel Arena [1972]. I raised the money and did everything. Rolling Stone called it the most original movie of the year. I put political layers underneath it all. I thought it was symbolic of the country at the time."

According to the December 3, 1973 issue of Time magazine review: "A bunch of stunt drivers tool around the back country risking their necks for the breezy hell of it, living out some shabby fantasy of success. The drivers are all portrayed by real stunt drivers, which gives the cast a unifying verisimilitude and a certain brazen clumsiness in the expository scenes. The plot, almost inevitably, concerns the one driver who wants to push the risk a little further, and how fate slaps him down."

Mark: "Truck Stop Women [1974] was a comedy action movie with women hikacking trucks in the desert. It became successful as a cult hit. Rolling Stone loved it. I made it as a union film for $300,000."

Adam Miller writes on Imdb.com: A great piece of early 70's film: this gem has it all. Some special moments:

•The beautiful Claudia Jennings in go-go boots or naked throughout most of the film!

•The truckin' music video inserted about mid film!

•The overt violence peppered throughout (from the opening execution in a bathtub, to the final battle featuring machine gun toting hookers and lots of tragic death)... all set to some great CB-era country music and a few bit that they had left over from "Land of the Lost"!

•The southern New Mexico locations that cradle our heroes in their struggle!

•The turncoat, Seago, getting trampled by 30 head of cattle in the back of a weaving truck!

"Two years later, Nixon was in the Watergate fiasco and I decided it was time to do a sequel. I decided to do a spoof of the Whitehouse called Whitehouse Madness [1975]. That picture didn't do well because it came out the night he resigned. I shot the movie in ten days. I built the Whitehouse on a soundstage. Nixon gets exorcised by Billy Graham and he's walking naked through the Whitehouse, which turned out to be true. He was talking to pictures on the wall while walking nude through the Whitehouse. But the picture failed because nobody wanted to hear about Nixon after he resigned. I thought there was going to be a big trial.

"Years later, when Phil Gramm was running for president, it turned out he was an investor in the movie. I was in Doonesbury [cartoon strip] for a week. Phil Gramm was directing me behind the scenes.

"George Caton was a friend of mine who was raising money for my different movies. The reality is Phil Gramm didn't know what we were really doing. Originally he was going to invest in Beauty Queens.

Mark: "The movie business at the time was wide-open. There were 5000 drive-ins around the country. We took it city by city. I distributed it myself. Today if you make a video like that, it's strictly a direct to video movie. In the '70s, they were theatrical pictures.

"I made a [1976] movie Bobby Jo and the Outlaw starring Lynda Carter, who became Wonder Woman. That was released theatrically all over and the picture grossed $5 million. That's like $40 million today. It was the trilogy of sorts and my biggest success yet.

"Stunts [1977] was the first movie where someone hired me as a director. It was New Line Cinema's first movie. They'd done the distribution on Truck Stop Women. It turned out sensationally. When New Line Cinema went public, they used the movie as an example because they netted a $2 million profit on the sale to NBC."

According to the 7/22/77 New Times review by Richard Corliss: "Stunts is a high-spirited, no-frills action picture... It generates as many thrills as the big-budget movies, but you can enjoy it without feeling afterward that you've been worked over and ripped off by a high-priced Hollywood hooker."

"Roller Boogie [1979] was the last movie of the 1970s. It was released on the last day of 1979. Thank God for Heaven's Gate. It was pulled from the theaters by United Artists, and Roller Boogie was put in its place. Linda Blair was hot at the time."

"See Linda Blair skate that career into oblivion," writes a reviewer on IMDB.com."Great dance sequence scenes, and Venice Beach parts are cool, but the crappy rich kids vs. poor kids theme made me want to gag (how 80's). Blair is flawless, but even she can't rescue this one. This is how Disco started to get a bad name."

Mark: "Linda was having some personal problems and she was not working at the studios. That's the good thing about independents. We don't have to worry about that stuff.

"Gold of the Amazon Women [1979] is the only movie I made directly for TV. I called it Spaghetti Jungle. Alfredo Leone, of Italian horror film fame, was the producer. He wanted to shoot it in Trinidad because he served in the Navy there during the war. We shot in the middle of a rain forest. It rained every day which made things difficult. Anita Enkberg made her semi-comeback."

Born in 1931, Anita, who sported huge breasts, was crowned Miss Sweden in 1950. She was up for the lead role in the 50's TV series, "Sheena, Queen of the Jungle" before her contract was bought out by John Wayne's production company, Batjac.

"The greatest thing to come out of Sweden since smorgasbord! Her parents got the Nobel Prize for architecture." -- Bob Hope.

Leonard Maltin writes: "[Enkberg] resurfaced in Hollywood, considerably overweight, to appear in embarrassing trifles such as Gold of the Amazon Women (1979) and Daisy Chain (1981). Fellini featured the now alarmingly bloated Ekberg in his 1987 Intervista."

Mark: "It was a strange experience. I'm sure it is the only film to be shot in Trinidad. We built big villages and sets on these abandoned bunkers where the planes used to be hidden from the Nazis. We had to bring everything in. Customs was a nightmare.

"Bo Svenson was a crazy actor. He ended up attacking some local girl. I saw it happened. He stands about 6'8" and he threw a chair at this tiny girl. He got arrested. He had to escape from the island. The police surrounded the set and allowed him to shoot, then on the last day, they took him away.

"It's funny to see how far censorship has come. Now you have Baywatch where they're wearing bikinis on TV. The NBC censors came down to Trinidad and ruled that the girl's loincloths were an inch too high. They came just below their knees. They made us close down and sew another inch on every dress."

Luke: "I think your best film is The Class of 1984 [1982]."

Mark: "I think it is. It's the one I love the most. I'm putting together now a DVD for its 25th anniversary release. I thought of the idea. I went back to my high school in the San Fernando Valley and researched it. At the time, there was little violence in high schools but it was coming. The warning at the beginning of the film says that if society doesn't do anything about this issue, this problem will spread all across the country. Now with Columbine, etc, it turns out to be true. At the time, people were laughing at me. How could they be checking all the kids for guns before they come into school?

"My idea was to update Blackboard Jungle which I liked as a teenager. I spent a year with the script and I did everything exactly right and it became a huge success. It was a classic film and also about a political issue. I used my original interest in politics and put it into a commercial context. The film became controversial. I was on CBS Morning News. Time magazine reviewed it. Newsweek gave it two pages. I'm proud of that film and I'm preparing a 25th anniversary DVD release.

"Nobody wanted to distribute the movie. I screened the film at every studio. I had a deal at Columbia Pictures and at the last minute they said, 'Frank Price has vetoed it. It's too controversial.' It was a big hit at the Cannes Film Festival. Then I got to America and they said it was too vile and too controversial and not maintream enough.

"Paramount's Frank Mancuso said he'd take it if I brought the film to his neighborhood in New Jersey and the people like it. I said ok, if it plays with Death Wish. So I flew with a print to the New Jersey. When I got to the theater, they screened it with Porkys. And they had a special advertisement, all 12-year old boys get in free to Porkys. So the theater was filled with 12-year old boys and when they saw Class of 1984, they were outraged. They came into the lobby and threw things at Frank Mancuso.

"Warner Brothers said they would take it if I could prove that a theater will take it. So I started calling theater chains. I got a hold of Sal Hasinine, who was president of United Artists theaters. I screened it for him at his home on Long Island. He said it was great, 'I will play it in all my theaters.' He said I didn't need Warner Brothers. 'I'll give you a half million dollar advance. I've got theaters all over the country.'

"I said, 'You've got to open it in the summer time.' He said, 'We're playing Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.' I said, 'Isn't that a Warner Brothers film?' He said yes, and it's doing terrible. I said pull it and replace it with my film. And my film became the number one picture in New York."

Roger Ebert writes in the Chicago Sun-Times 5/31/82: "Class of '84 is not likely to make many critics' "Best 10" lists next January, but after a week of anemic, disappointing and boring "serious" films in a so-far disappointing Cannes Festival, it was a reminder of what moives are, and what they can do: It was a strong story, well-acted, confidently directed, exciting, moving and controversial.

"[Class of '84] is about a deadly duel of the wills between a hero high school music teacher (Perry King) and the dope-dealing punk rocker who runs the school (Timothy Van Patten). ...King surprisesVan Patten and his gang dealing drugs in the graffiti-covered lavatory o fthe high school, after which a kid on angel dust climbs to the top of the school flagpole, recites the pledge of allegiance and plunges to his death.

"Other memorable scenes in the film include the massacre of all the animals in the high school's biology lab, the sudden mutilation of one of the gang members on a buzzsaw in the shop class, an episode in which the grief-crazed biology teacher (Roddy McDowell) terrorizes a class at gunpoint, and a climax during which King chases Van Patten across the skylight above the stage where King's student orchestra is playing the 1812 Overture.

"The audience reaction was amazing. The distributors were chering the teacher, and the young French film buffs were cheering the dope dealer."

Lester tells Ebert: "This audience was tame. At Cannes, they're jaded and cynical. We had a sneak preview...in Culver City, and the kids...went berserk.

"You know where I got the idea for this film? On a visit to my old high school...in the San Fernando Valley. I graduated in 1964. We used to have a dress code. I saw kids in the hallways who weren't even wearing any shirts. I did some research, and found out there were 287,000 assaults in American high schools last year. In Boston, they put the kids through metal weapons detectors. In Florida, they have closed-circuit television scanners. Blackboard Jungle was sweet compared to this."

Luke: "What should society do to prevent school shootings?"

Mark: "Zero tolerance is a good idea. If a student does one thing, they're out. I always tell my kids to be aware of kids in the class who are left out of things. Be nice to them. It seems that the people who shoot are always these loners who are cast aside by the other kids and not integrated into the school."

John has an 18-year old girl, a 9-year old boy and a 6-year old boy. He's been married ten years to.

Mark: "I can show my kids some of my films - Roller Boogie, and Stunts, and the ones they're not interested in. Kids want to see R-rated films. It's a great thing to my 9-year old to see R-rated films like Black Hawk Down. These pictures have the F-word through all these movies. I think, they hear these words all through school. So you're not going to take them to a good movie because they say f--k? It seems silly to object to showing kids a film based on language only."

Luke: "How do you decide what R-rated films to take your kids to?"

Mark: "If it is a good movie, I don't care what the rating is. I keep them away from sexual content. Black Hawk Down is a good movie, about an important subject, a historical event that happened... So if a 9-year old is able to comprehend, which he was, why not take him?

"I don't like censorship. I don't like ratings boards. I did this picture Extreme Justice and it got an X-rating. And there's no sex in it. And they rated it X because of the political content. It was about the L.A. Police Department's SIS secret squad. It was based on a true story, all these newspaper stories, a 60 Minutes piece and there's a book on it now. The L.A. riots were happening as we were shooting. The producer claims that the police were following me.

"It was supposed to be an anti-police movie but I made it so people could take it either way. I like the SIS. I like what they did, following these criminals and shooting them down when they leave the bank. The only problem was, as portrayed in the movie, was that they would watch the crime take place and arrest them after. They put innocent people in jeopardy while they waited to knock them off.

"After it was rated X, I said that's outrageous. I flew to New York and fought the ratings board. And they changed the rating to an R wihtout making any cuts. The Night of the Running Man was rated X. I had to trim sex scenes to get an R."

Luke: "Hard core?"

Mark: "No. That's the misnomer. People immediately think that X is hardcore. It was just a simulated love-making scene. The actors aren't even nude. They're wearing G-strings. It just looks like they're having sex. Now they're saying, oh, it's cumulative, when I ask what specific scenes they object to.

"It's all turned around now. The Democrats are now for censorship and the Republicans are against it.

"Firestarter [a 1984 movie based on the Stephen King novel] was the first book that I had adapted. I made it for Dino DeLaurentiis. I found this place (an old plantation) to shoot in Wilmington, North Carolina. Nobody had ever made a film there before.

"Dino was originally going to do it as a union film but he didn't have the budget. John Carpenter was originally going to direct but the budget got to $18 million. So Dino asked, can anybody make it for $10 million? I raised my hand.

"We followed the book exactly. Stephen King was on the set and loved the whole project. But he hates every movie when it's finished.

"Commando [1985] starring Arnold Schwarzenegger was my most commercial movie, made for $12 million for a big studio. It was wildly successful and set Schwarzenegger off on his routine of one-liners and comedy bits in different movies like The Terminator.

"I've always tried to put something working class in my films. It comes from political background. At the time, the CIA were accused of training contras to go down to Nicaragua. I put different news items in the film. I remember Roger Corman once saying that even in a movie like [1974's] Candy Striper Nurses, they're trying to form a union. I think the same way. You put these different elements in the film and they become stronger pictures because they have something to say."

Luke: "Where does your political bent come from?"

Mark: "My parents were very political left-wing people. I grew up in Ohio and moved to Los Angeles in my teens. My dad was a court reporter. We used to go around Los Angeles and if there was even a right-wing John Birch Society meeting, we'd go.

"Once you establish yourself as a producer-director, it's hard to get hired because producers tend not to be as interested if you are also a producer.

"I think of myself as more of a thriller director. I'm buying books now. I have a book agent. I buy books once they've been passed on by the studios. I'm buying suspense thrillers because with action movies, you're competing with major studios and all these incredible action sequences that can be done when you spend $50 million on a movie. With a suspense thriller, like In The Bedroom or Memento, you can do something really interesting on a low budget because it relies more on the characters and suspense you can build.

"Sacrifice [a year 2000 TV movie] was based on a book by Mitchell Smith about the killer at an abortion clinic."

Luke: "Thrillers are about the most profitable genre for independent films."

Mark: "Yes but you can never have a big hit.

Luke: "What's your favorite part of your job?"

Mark: "I like everything. I like principle photography. I like staging scenes. And then it's exciting to see what you've done. It's like painting. I prefer shooting on location than in L.A.. I remember spending three weeks travelling through the Mid-West to find the perfect 1930s town to use for a movie. And I came across Guthrie, Oklahoma. It was exciting to tear down the old storefronts and replace them with 1930s storefronts. You have control of the whole town. You're creating the cars and the characters within this setting.

"I even like sales. People say, 'You must have a right brain and a left brain. How do you go from selling a movie, to raising the money, to directing?' There is a big separation because with selling, you're dealing with straight business. But even there, you're pitching a story to people and you're learning what they might be interested in buying.

"We have our own foreign sales company here. There are few directors (such as Menahem Golan, Steven Spieldberg) who have their own foreign sales company. I ask, what does my sales company need to sell? Now I'm looking for art-ploitation - an art film with exploitation elements. It's really risky to make an art film. We see a hundred of these films every day that never get distributed. If one pops out, it's incredible."

Luke: "Which of your films has been the biggest risk?"

Mark sits and thinks. "None of them are a risk. None of them can lose their investment. We haven't taken risks here but I want to. The risk these days is in staying in business. I made three films last year and I financed them all myself. The budgets are over $2 million. The average is $5 million. Up to $10 million."

Luke: "Tell me about working with the late Brandon Lee in Showdown in Little Tokyo."

Mark: "This was his first [American] movie. He'd done a couple of pictures in Hong Kong. I wanted a little sidekick to Dolph Lundgren. Brandon was so good in the movie that when Warner Brothers saw him in the movie, we've got to cut this into a Brandon Lee movie."

Luke: "Other notable actors?"

Mark: "Meg Ryan had done one scene in Topgun. I read her for Armed and Dangerous [1986] and I hired her immediately. Everybody knew she was going to be a star. The casting people came in and said, 'You've got to use her.' [One of] Michael J. Fox's first movie[s] was Class of 1984. He came in for a reading and the minute I saw him, I said, 'This guy's a star.' Sometimes you can tell right away and other times I go over our casting list and say, 'Ohmigod, I saw Matt Damon? He came in for that?' He was 18. 'Ben Affleck? How come we couldn't catch him?' You can't always tell."

Luke: "What do you think your body of work says about you?"

Mark thinks for 30 seconds. "I've thought a lot about that. I look back through all these pictures and other people see them and go, 'The minute one of your movies comes on TV, I know it's you. Even if I've missed the credits. You have a certain style.' What is that? I've always tried to put some kind of statement in all these movies. They have political overtones. I'm a fast-paced person. My movies move quickly. I would hope that I have some humanity to them but there's also a dark side. I must have a dark side because my pictures have a dark side to them. There aren't too many comedies. I have many hard-edged thrillers. I mainly dress in black. People meet me and go, 'You seem so soft spoken and nice, then you see the movie...' I've had an angry side over the years that I've portrayed on the screen. Now I've mellowed out.

"I'm no longer the young angry guy making The Class of 1984. Upset by some issue, had a bad experience, and now I'm going to make a movie about a bad experience in highschool. Or, a guy who didn't like authority growing up so now I'm going to make a movie like Extreme Justice [1993] which attacks authority. It is true that you're kind of like your movies if you make them and you choose this kind of material. Obviously you're projecting out some kind of personality that you have. I suppose that in all of this these sides of myself. A dark side, an angry side. There is love in the movies, always a scene or two.

"Growing up, I was always an outsider. I was raised outside the system. Through the McCarthy era, my father was always afraid that he'd lose his security clearance. I had a lot of fears growing up. I was always an outsider at school. So the pictures all have an outsider. I'm giving you good information. I was going to write this in my own book. I suppose that's why I'm an independent film company and go outside the system. We're distributing ourselves. I've been an outlaw."

Luke: "What clique were you in in highschool?"

Mark: "I was never in a clique because I was in drama class. Now my son loves drama and all the girls love drama. And all the boys want to be in drama. When I was taking drama in highschool, that was a gay thing to do. You were a nerdy gay kid in highschool if you were in drama. Even the girls in drama didn't like you. The sports guys got all the girls. When I sat at lunch, they came in and stole my lunch."