By James Kenney, Originally published for WhatchaReading?
Brian Trenchard-Smith is well known among certain circles as a high-quality efficient film and television director for nearly fifty years, whereas among others he is not known at all, although many have seen his work even if they haven’t identified him as its author. He has some well-known enthusiasts such as Quentin Tarantino, who have actively talked up his filmography, and was prominently featured in the excellent documentary about Australian genre films Not Quite Hollywood. Nevertheless, even on his most recent theatrical gig, Drive Hard, he was initially turned down by John Cusack, who didn’t know anything about him (Cusack ultimately changed his mind when he saw Trenchard-Smith’s terrific and subversive Dead-End Drive-In). Trenchard-Smith is a director who, even after directing international successes featuring the likes of Nicole Kidman, took work on late-night guilty pleasure cop show Silk Stalkings in its first season because he simply needed a gig to keep from having to sell his house.
It is here where I first encountered Trenchard-Smith myself despite previously being aware of his name on video store VHS boxes such as Dead-End Drive-In, which I managed to miss upon initial release (I can affirm from my days at Take One Video in Whitestone, Queens, that it was a big renter). I did note that some of his Stalkings episodes were among the best of that beloved little show, a sex drenched murder-driven basic cable show created by TV legend Stephen J Cannell, that proved to be Cannell’s longest-running series.
Flash forward to 2016 when I finally got to see Trenchard-Smith’s 1976 Hong Kong-meets-Australia cult-classic the Man from Hong Kong, co-starring Jimmy Wang Yu and George Lazenby, at the Hong Kong Film Festival at the Metrograph Theatre. Seeing this madcap action film in all its widescreen 1970s glory theatrically decisively led me to take the Trenchard-Smith plunge. I caught up with Stunt Rock, BMX Bandits, Siege of Firebase Gloria and the already noted Dead-End Drive-In in short order on Blu-ray (all have had handsome releases, often with Trenchard-Smith commentaries) after seeing the terrifically fun Hong Kong. The man can direct and whether by his choice or not it was fun to see such a knowledgeable and capable filmmaker work in disreputable genres. I mean, Trenchard Smith has directed two Leprechaun films, and not the one starring Jennifer Aniston (in case you’re wondering, yes he did the one that takes place in Outer Space).
Trenchard-Smith has directed gay and lesbian action films for the Here TV network, late-at-night erotic Cinemax television, and multiple straightforward war, Kung-fu, horror, science fiction, and Christian end-of-the-world films, not to mention kids film starring ET’s Henry Thomas and Nicole Kidman, and most recently the aforementioned Aussie car-chase film starring Cusack and Thomas Jane, Drive Hard.
Beyond all that he’s had a long term marriage, raised a family, and found the time to write two novels and now a huge information packed autobiography, Adventures in the B-Movie Trade, detailing his career with refreshing candor and good humor, covering his successes, owning up to his mistakes (such as setting former James Bond star George Lazenby on fire and pouring a beer on David Hemmings’ head), and generally telling it like it is.
This terrific book is essential to fans of action films and those who want to know how the business really works for a jobbing director who, unlike Spielberg, occasionally has to scramble for work, replace other directors on troubled productions, and even once get replaced himself. This book is full of stories about funding not coming through; temperamental stars (especially if Mike Norris, Chuck’s son, counts); stunts that go both right and wrong; trying to raise a family internationally in both Australia and Hollywood; dealing with producers re-cutting your work when they don’t know what they’re doing (much of what drew Cusack to Drive Hard, its humor, was removed in editing); and staying sane while all of it unfolds. It also is a fascinating window into life in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s during the height of the Ozploitation period, and into what it took to stay employed directing-to-DVD and cable television films in the 21st century.
Trenchard-Smith is a pragmatic and creative filmmaker and he’s also, on the evidence of his Blu-ray commentaries and this impressive book, quite erudite, and not stingy with the details. The book clocks in at 580 large pages filled with text and images and my only quibble is, like so many recently published books, there are a couple of typos and format errors that mildly distract here and there. Otherwise the book is highly readable, highly informative, and highly recommended.
And, as a Silk Stalkings fan, I am glad to hear that personal faves Rob Estes and Mitzi Kapture both always showed up prepared and knowing all their lines, and that despite John Cusack wearing his usual recent-era low-budget film umpire uniform to work, he was serious and committed to his part in Drive Hard; Trenchard-Smith even provides readers a page of script marked up by Cusack, who was unaccepting of the initial subpar material he was given. And who can blame George Lazenby for wanting to kill Trenchard-Smith after he set him on fire for a stunt? The book gives us the good, the bad, and the ugly of low-budget filmmaking, and it’s an easy book to pick up, but hard to put down.
The fact that Trenchard-Smith is largely still an anonymous director is what makes this tome even more essential, as it will hopefully go a long way to getting him the recognition he has deserved. He’s been in the trenches, had both career highs and career lows, maintained a family and a lifestyle, and never lost touch with reality. A good-humored and honest self-review of a fascinating life, Adventures in the B Movie Trade would make a terrific Christmas gift to yourself this year.