I previously talked to Neil Cohen about making the glorious, nutty CHIEF ZABU in some detail. Here I talk to him andco-conspirator Zack Norman (co-star of ROMANCING THE STONE and CADILLAC MAN) in further depth in celebration of the film’s Streaming release.
The loose, zanily charming CHIEF ZABU, a comedy about real estate, ambition, sex and politics, starring Allen Garfield, Ed Lauter and Zack Norman, that was lost for 30 years, only to re-materialize recently for barnstorming screenings across the country featuring Norman and co-director/co-writer Neil Cohen, continues its mission to take over the world by now becoming available to rent or purchase on Amazon, iTunes, and Vudu! Sitting on the film for this long, after the original distributor went bankrupt, has allowed Cohen and Norman to think about what worked and what did not in the original cut; they reckoned if they were going to release it in in the 21st century, they were going to do it right. No one said the release had to act as some sort of “confessional” of creative sins committed 30 years ago; they wanted to put the best possible film out.
CHIEF ZABU, about a status-seeking real-estate dealer who dreams of having political influence (talk about a work finding its moment!), is most known to show business types as the film featured in an ad Norman ran in Variety for about a decade starting in the mid 1980s. It became enough of a legend that the guys on MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000 turned it into a gag that today would have materialized as a meme on twitter. It was an ad that simply stated “Zack Norman as Sammy in CHIEF ZABU” with a photo, but as it ran week after week for a decade it grew into something to tell the grandkids about, especially because the majority of us assumed there was no film ever going to show up. Well, “us” was wrong and here ZABU is.
Norman was a weekly presence in my home; my dad bought home Variety regularly, and I would read it to see the advertisements for upcoming films, the reviews, the grosses at the local Manhattan theaters, and the weekly “Zack Norman as Sammy in CHIEF ZABU” ad. We’d laugh about the ad, talk about who we imagined the elusive Norman to be, and find it reassuring that death and taxes weren’t the only inevitable thing in life. When I finally saw Norman in a sizable role in ROMANCING THE STONE as Danny De Vito’s larcenous sidekick, it was like seeing Brando for the first time.
Norman, in a recent phone interview, said that there would be occasional surprises when he ran this ad, like the door opening on the fourth floor during an elevator ride and an Indian gentleman shouting out “Zack Norman!” before the door closed. He also told me that he found it easier to work for himself than take direction from big time Hollywood directors like Robert Zemeckis or Roger Donaldson. “It was very easy. I was more concerned as co-director about the larger picture, it wasn’t all about me, whereas as a performer I am more concerned with just my aspect of the film. But since I co-wrote this and it was largely about my life in comedy and real estate, I had [the part]“swallowed” before it began.”
Norman says that Allen Garfield, of NASHVILLE, BEVERLY HILLS COP 2, CRY UNCLE, and many other films, was very easy to work with, and able to keep up with the improvisational nature of the project. “We would do the literal script once or twice and then go into freer takes where we would work off each other and not necessarily stick to the script. He was up for it all. We really based the character on Donald Trump, and Allen understood who this guy was and was able to play him both on and off the script.”
Co-writer and co-director Neil Cohen expands on how the project developed: “Per the Trumpiness of Allen Garfield’s character, not only was Trump a presence in the 80s – as a prominent, creepy buffoon of the New York real estate and finance scene – but here’s an important, fun CHIEF ZABU fact: Zack Norman was introduced to his wife, Nancy, by none other than Blaine Trump, one of the major socialites of that high flying Wall Street, real estate speculation and Studio 54 era in New York. Blaine Trump, who was married to Donald’s younger brother, was an everyday fixture in the New York gossip pages so while preparing the script and film we were always aware of The Donald’s shenanigans.”
Cohen expands on the issue of how veterans like Garfield, Allen Arbus, MEDIUM COOL‘s Marianna Hill and Ed Lauter responded to the freewheeling nature of ZABU: “No one was difficult but many came from different ‘schools of acting’ so there was some tension that actually made the comedy work . Allan Arbus was perfectly on book and often a bit thrown by Zack and Allen Garfield’s improv during scenes, but Arbus always stayed in character and in the moment so the tension between all of them was very real – which makes some of those scenes hilarious (at least I think they are). The only difficulty (but it was ultimately a comedic blessing) is that Allen Garfield was such a committed actor that he BECAME the neurotic and needful real estate developer Ben Sydney, on and off the set, and seemed to forget he was in a comedy or that Ben Sydney as a human was a joke – he came to think of Ben Sydney as a man who became enlightened! – so when Allen Garfield …. makes his preposterous political speech he had no idea after each take why me, Zack and the crew were laughing!”
As a fan of character actor Ed Lauter in general, I asked how they were able to grab him for this comedy, as he’s best known for dramas and action films. “We were scouring for an actor to play the doltish old money heir, Skip, and in those days before the internet there was a thick book put out twice a year called “The Players Guide” with pages and pages of photos and contact info for every working or wannabe actor and actress,” Cohen explains. “Flipping through the pages of The Players Guide we noticed Ed Lauter’s very serious photo – we knew his work – and for some reason we burst out laughing, never imagining he would accept to be in our no-budget movie; as a goof we called his agent who told us, without reading the script, that he was sure Ed would want to be in our movie as – the agent revealed to us – Lauter, who was then the go-to Hollywood heavy, had actually started his career as a standup comedian! — and that he wanted to be in comedies but that no one would offer him a role in a funny movie! Ed Lauter was an absolute delight to work with, up for anything.”
Looking at the genesis of ZABU, which included the original screenplay and an underground graphic novel version in the spirit of Cohen’s recent, New-York-Times-Approved children’s book AMERICAN GARGOYLES, it is interesting to see how the project developed: these early versions include the political assassination of Zabu, most definitely not in the final product.
Cohen explains “This was an ending based on the actual fate of the man – Chief Clemmons Kapuuo of Namibia – whose story sparked the creation of CHIEF ZABU … but notwithstanding my love of downbeat-ending 70’s films like SCARECROW, END OF THE ROAD, PANIC IN NEEDLE PARK, it was I think wisely determined that the rest of the script and the movie we were going to make could not hold the weight of such a denouement .. it would be us asking to be ‘taken seriously’ in way we had not ‘earned’ and so it would actually be self-congratulatory and thus … ick. Therefore, having moved the locale from the reality that inspired it to the South Pacific where several island colonies were trying to win their independence and France was still doing nuclear testing … so while that’s heavy it was not going to be THAT heavy as to the fate of Chief Zabu.”
Cohen, who among other things went on to write for television shows such as THE EQUALIZER and B.L. STRYKER, remembers back to his days of writing for actors such as Burt Reynolds and Don Johnson: “I wish I had been more mature and had enjoyed back then watching then-famous actors mouthing my words; mostly I was frustrated how much my scripts had been changed (‘my vision: ruined!’) – which is the perennial Hollywood writers’ lament; now I would tell my younger self: “Oh, enjoy the ride!”
CHIEF ZABU appearing after all these years is like finding out unicorns are real or Santa exists. In this exceedingly stressful period in U.S. history, we can use a laugh and a smile, and this time-capsule piece (with unexpected political relevance) allows some legendary character actors from the second golden age of cinema to shine one more time; Garfield, like Arbus (the kindly psychologist from M*A*S*H), and Lauter, have all passed on, making this opportunity to view their unearthed performances even more poignant. Make the effort to check out ZABU; It took 35 years for Chief Zabu to appear, he’s not going away quietly!