By James Kenney
A True Anomaly.
In Jim Wynorski’s 1997 film, AGAINST THE LAW, written by Steve Mitchell and Bob Sheridan, 21 JUMP STREET’s Richard Grieco plays Rex, a psychopathic self-fancied modern day gunslinger, who heads to Hollywood on a bright sunny day in a red convertible with a longhorn strapped to the front grill, after having killed a lawman he challenged to an “Are you fast enough?” duel, stealing both gun and badge from the fresh corpse.
Rex, looking for Hollywood fame, stalks L.A. reporter Maggie Hewitt (Nancy Allen from ROBOCOP) as he continues to kill cops in order to set up a big showdown with a burnout detective, John Shepard (Nick Mancuso, TICKET TO HEAVEN and UNDER SIEGE). Rex is convinced Shepard is the “best” because Shepard is getting media attention for a recent lucky “good kill” that has driven him back to the bottle, hard.
Shepard wants no part of Rex, nor of the police brass who want to make him a media “hero,” but Rex won’t be happy until they have a one-on-one showdown a la HIGH NOON, although with Rex’s greasy unshaven look, perhaps he’s more of a FISTFUL OF DOLLARS kinda guy.
The fast-paced, unusually-intelligent-for-its-pedigree AGAINST THE LAW, is an incongruous departure from Wynorski, best known for CHOPPING MALL, RETURN OF THE SWAMP THING, and for various quickly-shot “Skinemax” titles that earned him a documentary called POPATOPOLIS.
But unlike so much big and small Hollywood action product, LAW does not exult in macho belligerence and grueling displays of military capability, but instead relies on a tightly wound script more concerned with psychological nuance.
Grieco’s Rex, seething with anti-social impulses (he even turns down romance with a gorgeous pre-MY NAME IS EARL Jaime Pressly!) yet craving stardom, feels all the more plausible a creation in a 21st century universe infested with relentlessly driven YouTube celebrities who display no talent whatsoever. Rex’s “murder will make me famous” mentality is only a step (okay, maybe two) beyond no-talent narcissistic YouTubers such as Logan Paul, who visit Aokigahara Forest (Japan’s infamous suicide forest), camera in hand, looking for a freshly hanging corpse to feature on his channel (he found one).
Mancuso’s commitment to being an unpleasant anti-hero (“I’m not a great cop. I’m not a good cop. I’m just a cop”), Steven Ford’s delicate portrayal of his friend and commanding officer (you feel genuine affection between these guys, even when they’re squabbling), and several scenes that are played for authentic dramatic effect as opposed to cheap genre thrills really makes the all-but-forgotten (or is that never-noticed?) AGAINST THE LAW a true anomaly in 1990s direct-to-video cinema, and an outlier in both Wynorski and Grieco’s prolific and occasionally questionable output.
Wynorski has technical facility not always evident in his low-budget peers – he knows how to stage a scene and understands issues of sight lines and all that – and for this one moment didn’t go for the gag (or the bare breast), delivering a film where he doesn’t trip up a high-strung thoroughbred such as Mancuso, and guides Grieco, who perhaps needs it, to a credible performance.
Despite its absurdly poor release, the film exists, 85 minutes of solid action drama that wouldn’t be out of place in a 1970s drive-in playing alongside Jonathan Demme’s FIGHTING MAD, Jonathan Kaplan’s WHITE LINE FEVER, Larry Cohen’s BLACK CAESAR or Phil Karlson’s FRAMED. This one’s less like Wynorski’s traditional output and more like some of the better Demme and Kaplan B-pictures of the 70’s — giving you the desired exploitation element but offering involving drama at the same time.
AGAINST THE LAW, despite surface appearances, is not playing to action fan bottom-feeders; the film is not an haphazardly assembled arrangement of slap-happy action archetypes. It is a well-composed, well-paced character-driven low budget film with a brain in its head.
O.K., it also has a couple of decent shootouts and a good car/fruit stand stunt.
Small but real achievements like AGAINST THE LAW should not be overlooked when they come along, so I reached out to one of its two screenwriters, Steve Mitchell (the other, Bob Sheridan, passed away in 2014), to discuss the film in detail.
Mitchell is an ever-present figure in American pop culture over the last half-century, having worked as a comic book artist, inker and author for D.C., Marvel, and independent publishers for nearly four decades on titles like BATMAN, DETECTIVE COMICS, CONAN THE BARBARIAN and IRON MAN; he also wrote for television cartoons such as TRANSFORMERS and G.I. JOE before making his way to Hollywood to work on several projects, most notably Wynorski’s recognized cult classic CHOPPING MALL. About a decade after Roger Corman released MALL, Mitchell worked with Sheridan on a script called GUNSLINGER that Wynorski ultimately shot as AGAINST THE LAW.
Most recently, Steve Mitchell produced and directed an acclaimed documentary about cult filmmaking legend Larry Cohen, KING COHEN, and is working on a documentary, TRUE BELIEVERS about the “blue jean generation,” the men behind the great run of 1970s comic books.
In the following interview Mitchell open-handedly touches upon all of this while focusing on AGAINST THE LAW, getting on the record many things about this quirky, interesting action flick.
Could you let us know a little bit about your road to Hollywood and screenwriting and producing? You had a lot of adventures before you ended up working on projects such as Jim Wynorski’s CHOPPING MALL (1985) and AGAINST THE LAW.
At one con, I met fellow fan, Jim Wynorski. We seemed to like each other, and a friendship began. Jim was dedicated to working in movies, while I wasn’t as bold. I started working in comics, with a goal to be a full time freelance inker. I was handy with a brush, and frankly, not much of a penciler. My comics career began working for DC in their production department doing odd gofer type work, art corrections, paste ups, Xeroxing, etc. I was in Manhattan doing my tiny bit to create comics, and I could not have been happier.
Also at that time, I began to do some film journalism, doing interviews for FILMMAKER’S NEWSLETTER, which became FILMMAKER’S MONTHLY, and then FANTASTIC FILMS, a genre magazine. It was the start of my career doing interviews for print, and eventually making DVD/BLU RAY extras. A good skill to learn which I put to use many years later when I started doing documentary featurettes, commentary tracks, and ultimately, in features.
The money was lousy, but it got me on all the screening lists around town, which was, for me, a heck of a perk. Making a living in comics, doing interviews, seeing films all the time…I had zero complaints. I worked as an assistant to Neal Adams at his studio, learned a lot, which helped me with my freelance career. I worked at DC for a while, then I was the production Manager for the upstart Atlas comics, then back to DC, where I finally got some small freelance assignments, which lead to an inking career that spanned almost four decades.
To break in, I would have had to move 3000 miles, with no guarantees, so I stayed in New York. Jim had made the move to Los Angeles, and found his way into the biz. I would visit him once a year after going to Comicon in San Diego. We had fun driving around, buying soundtracks, which are another of my movie passions, and had some laughs. I liked L.A.
Jim was relentless in his pitch for me to move to “the coast.” It took a while, but I managed to convince my very reluctant wife that it was time to move. I could freelance from anywhere as long as there was a FedEx drop box nearby, so why not? We packed up a 30 foot U-Haul truck and drove west. I learned how to drive a stick shift, on the highway, making that trip. Talk about adventure, and stress…sheesh!
After 5 days or so on the road we landed in Los Angeles. I look back and can’t quite believe we did it. By the way, everybody should drive across America at least once. America is an amazing country.
Tell the whatchareading.com readership a bit about your time working in comics.
I liked working in comics, both as a staffer and as a freelancer. In the beginning, working at DC in their 909 3rd Avenue office, I met and got to know a lot of my heroes, and became friends with a number of the younger guys breaking in, who I call “the blue jean generation.” Guys like Berni Wrightson, Howard Chaykin, Len Wein, Jeff Jones, Dan Green, Frank Brunner, Marv Wolfman, Cary Bates, Elliot Maggin, Mike Kaluta. Fans who made the journey to New York to follow their dreams. I was lucky because I already lived in NYC.
The other very cool perk was meeting and getting to know the guys who inspired me to work in comics. Neal Adams, as I mentioned before, but also titans like Joe Kubert, Murphy Anderson, Curt Swan, Russ Heath, Mike Sekowsky, John Romita, Gray Morrow, to name a few.
Dick Giordano was one of my mentors, and I learned a lot from him. He gave me tips on how to do the work, but also insight on how to be a pro which was invaluable. Archie Goodwin, was also a big influence on me. He was almost unnecessarily nice to me in my pesty fan days when I would visit him at the Warren offices. He would show me art for stories yet to be published in CREEPY and EERIE, which was an over the moon kind of treat for a young fan.
As a pro he gave me work as a writer, then as an inker, over the years. He was one of the best writers in the business, a tremendous editor – one of the best ever, in my opinion – and just an easy going, wickedly funny, wonderful guy. Everybody loved him. Everybody.
While I loved being a freelance inker, it was tough work; very long hours, but on my schedule. I literally worked every day. Some days were short, usually on Fridays, when I would do matinees of new movies, but I seemed to put brush to paper every day. Even on Thanksgiving I would work waiting for the Turkey to roast.
Inking comics was a grind, which paid by the page, and if you didn’t put in the time, you didn’t make the dime. Also, rates were pretty low, especially for me in the beginning. Based on what I know of comics today, the rates have not gone up much over the last twenty years.
What was the first actual script you wrote? Do you remember anything about your first published written work?
My very first paid “Written by” credits were comic book stories that I did for DC and Archie Goodwin. I wrote four back-ups for him. He used three of them when he was editing some of the war books. One was drawn by Dan Spiegel, two by Ken Barr, and the other one was used some time later by Ross Andru, when he was editing for DC. It was drawn by a Philippine artist, who I can’t remember. Ross rewrote it and the writing credit was kind of odd…”Janus Mitchell.” Janus was Ross’ pseudonym. I always wondered why he needed to share the credit. Most editors rewrote but never co-opted credit, since it was part of their job.
I also had a couple of writing credits when I was on staff at Atlas Comics. THE COUGAR #1, and a story, drawn by the great John Severin, in THRILLING ADVENTURES #1 called “Town Tamer.”
What are some key similarities and differences in telling stories for the comics and writing for cinema? Did working on comics help you “think visual”?
Some years ago, I think Joe Kubert gave me the simple definition of good storytelling in comics. He told me that if you look at the art, and not read any of the balloons and captions, and understand the story…for the most part, then that was good story telling.
Movies and comics have that in common, and I really absorbed that, and took it to heart. You would be surprised if you looked at the work of some of the greats, who could draw like crazy, but you really could not “get” the story without reading the words.
Similarly, some of the very best cinematic storytelling is in silent films, for all the obvious reasons. No sound means that the pictures are telling the story. A useful tool for writing today is to think of scenes as silent movies whenever possible.
Also, I think comics were waaay overwritten back in the day. I look at examples from my youth, and I am shocked at how much of the art and the page are covered by balloons and captions. While I am not into contemporary comics that much, I have noticed a less is more approach to a lot of the writing in comics today. A good thing.
By the way, I read a very long time ago an interview with the great cinematographer, William Clothier, that he developed his skill for cinematic composition by looking at, and absorbing composition from newspaper strips and comics. I never forgot that.
Ultimately the simple answer to your question is I learned how to think visually because of comics, but also because I devoured movies and TV. If pay some attention you are bound to learn something about visual thinking.
How did you ultimately bond with Jim Wynorski, leading to working together for over ten years and culminating in his directing AGAINST THE LAW?
As I said, I met Jim at a convention in New York. It was, I believe the one and only convention dedicated to EC Comics, which were then, and in many ways still some of the best comics ever printed based on story and art. We found that we had a lot in common. Our favorite movie was, and still is, THE THING from another world. We also loved film music, with Jerry Goldsmith as our favorite composer, but we also loved the work of so many great musical talents of the day, like: John Williams, John Barry, Ennio Morricone, Elmer Bernstein, Lalo Schifrin, Bernard Herrmann to name a few; golden years for film music, and film music fans.
Once I moved to Los Angeles, and was still freelancing comics, I started to write scripts for animated series like G.I. JOE, THE TRANSFORMERS, and other shows.
I had no real interest in writing cartoons. I got those jobs through Steve Gerber, who I knew from comics. He pitched them as writing live action scripts, not cartoons. He was looking for more of an “adult” take which helped me enormously to visualize the stories. He also wanted to “cut” film in the writing. Meaning he wanted the writers to write very visually and think of cuts, and transitions that were cinematic. As a film lover, I tried to bring a movie sense of action, and montage to the storytelling as much as possible. Good training for any kind of writing actually.
As the famous CHOPPING MALL story goes, Jim called me one night and told me that we had an opportunity to sell a script to Julie Corman (Roger Corman’s wife, and a producer) if we came up with a successful pitch for a horror movie set in a mall. The rest is pretty-well documented in interviews, and on the Vestron Blu Ray of CHOPPING MALL, which coincidentally aired on the Joe Bob Briggs Shudder show just last night!
Having listened to your commentaries for CITY OF INDUSTRY and LAST OF THE FINEST on their Kino Blu-ray releases, it’s clear you have an affinity for old-school cop and crime films from the 1960s through 1980s. Were you specifically thinking of that type of cinema when you started kicking around the AGAINST THE LAW idea in your head? When and why did this project first start revealing itself to you (it was originally called GUNSLINGER, yes)?
I love cop movies…crime movies… noir…I love ‘em all. My second favorite movie of all time after THE THING, is THE FRENCH CONNECTION. New York, cops, and it is masterpiece of obsession to boot, which should tell you something. So, yeah, I needed to write a cop movie.
I had taken a lot of writing courses here in L.A. when I arrived. Why not? I went to film school at night in New York, and enjoyed it, so I just kept the education train rolling. The most useful class I took was the Truby Story Structure class, and one of the many areas of focus was the genre mash-up…the two-for-one approach to story-telling. Handy examples: PREDATOR, and ALIENS, which were war movies with monsters in them.
Now, this is where my memory is a bit fuzzy, I’m not sure exactly where the AGAINST THE LAW idea started from. I knew I wanted to write a cop film, and I had the idea of doing a modern western about a crazy killer looking to make himself famous. Seems like a great idea, especially in the self absorbed, social media culture of today, but this was twenty plus years ago.
GUNSLINGER was the original title because of the western connection, and the original idea was to have a charming charismatic villain and a not-so-appealing hero on a collision course with one another. Also, it is a Hollywood story about the weirdness of fame in the media, which sounds sort of lofty and pretentious, but it really wasn’t. It was just developing into a movie I wanted to see, which is important when you are going to write a movie on spec.
How did Bob Sheridan (who cowrote the scripts for Wynorski’s SORORITY HOUSE MASSACRE 2 and DINOSAUR ISLAND) get involved in the writing? Did you guys work through scenes together, or would he write a scene and you write a separate scene? Explain the dynamic a little bit, please.
I knew Bob socially from our New York days. We were kindred spirits. He was a movie fan like I was. Our tastes dovetailed and differed, and we had some spirited debates, but always with some respect for one another’s opinion, which for New Yorkers is very civilized. Anyway, somewhere along the line I knew Bob wanted to continue writing, as did I.
At that point I did not have the courage to write on my own. I always needed a collaborator, partly to do the typing, because I was a lousy typist, but more importantly I needed someone who I could work out the story with, tell me that my ideas were lousy, and get over the eventual speed bumps of writing a script. It is nice to work with someone who you are attuned to, but is different in their ideas and views as well. Bob was that guy and he wanted to tackle the story with me.
We talked, at some length about turning archetypes upside down, and whenever I ventured towards pretension, Bob would gently shoot me down. Although there were times when he would say, in a good way… “this is very French.” Meaning we were onto some subtext that was working for the story.
Our process was to get together around eleven a.m. because we were both night owls. I freelanced at night and into the wee hours. We almost always worked at his place, and talked, and wrote. For me it was like going to an office for the express purpose of writing, which was good. It gave the day structure.
The initial writing was pen to paper, then Bob, bless him, would type it up for review the next day. We would talk scene description, and action, then add dialogue as needed. I collaborate still, but I don’t work that way anymore. Too hard to dictate the right line, especially with dialogue, but it seemed to mostly work then.
The goal with any script is to stumble through and get a first draft. Once you have that, rewriting is where the script really takes form. On the unproduced features I have written since AGAINST THE LAW, I can screw up typing wise because of screen writing programs like Final Draft, and easily correct mistakes. Very liberating! I also find that I think through my fingers, especially when it comes to dialogue.
As many smarter writers and teachers have said over the span of time, character is drama…action. We had the high concept, but the way those characters addressed the high concept was where the story comes from.
We also benefited from the idea in terms of it inherently having plenty of action, which was a commercial necessity back in those days. The thematic elements developed in the writing process. Even though we knew the idea, we were finding the story as we wrote, which is a good thing. The characters begin to tell you how to write the story once you are into the process…if you’re lucky.
Also, I wanted to do a cop movie where taking one life would impact the character. Think about it. Sonny Crockett on MIAMI VICE, a series I loved, probably killed a hundred guys, literally over five seasons, and rarely was he even bothered by killing. I wanted to address how hard it must be to kill someone and live with it.
You initially thought you might try to get your first directing gig with this script. You already had a working relationship with Wynorski; was there anyone actually working in the 90s that you thought would be a good organic fit for the film? I can think of guys like John Flynn (who made the revenge classic ROLLING THUNDER with William Devane and BEST SELLER with Brian Dennehy and James Woods and scripted by Larry Cohen) who might have done well with the film (although I think Wynorski does deliver). Did you have any thoughts at the time along these lines as you were writing it? Or were you always assuming “either I or Wynorski” for it?
My plan was to write my way into the director’s chair. Bob was cool with that, because I would protect our material, and I would have him as a second opinion about things like casting, which we discussed as we wrote the script. Sometimes it helps to have an actor in mind, to visualize the story and scenes. Some people feel it is a bad idea to “cast” when you write. I think it helps, but I never write specifically to any actor because it is ninety five percent likely that actor won’t play the part.
John Flynn would have been a great choice. If we had sold the movie and it became an “A” project, then someone like Peter Hyams (OUTLAND, RUNNING SCARED) would have been another good choice. Back at the time, I probably could have come up with a dozen good choices, but when we wrote the picture, I always thought about directing it. Jim was never in the mix when we wrote the script.
How did the film get set up ultimately with Wynorski and Cinetel/Sunset? Did they give you any notes about rewrites or seemed okay with shooting the script as written?
Jim was aware of the script. I’m not sure how he got it. I may have discussed it with him or Bob did. Anyway, I got a call from Jim and he said he wanted to buy the script. Truth be told, I wasn’t anxious to sell it unless I got to direct. I was working, and making a living, and after I heard their offer, I said…”no.” Jim was persistent, and then Bob said that he wanted the money, even though it was typical low budget lousy. That said, they wanted to make the movie which seem to matter a bit more to Bob, than to me, frankly, since I wasn’t going to direct. Ultimately, I caved and said, “yes.”
We got notes from Cinetel and Jim. Not a lot, but no writer likes to change anything, and I hated to put more work into a script that was not paying all that much in the first place. We grinned, weakly, and did the work.
One major note was, “why does Mancuso’s character drink so much?” This turned into a new scene which was pure exposition. Writers hate exposition. Story execs love it. Bob gave me the note to deal with. I went home and did something which I call a reverse biography, which is to think of the life of a character before the film. How he was raised, what was his family life like, etc., which helped me crack the note.
I wrote the scene where the lieutenant tells Mancuso’s new young partner about the day Shepard sort of lost his “cop mojo,” for lack of a better term. Bob was good with it and it satisfied Cinetel as well. As an aside, when we had an early look at the movie, John Terlesky (star of DEATHSTALKER 2 and CHOPPING MALL, and Mitchell’s original choice to play Rex) was there. It was the “what do you think?” screening for friends of the director.
When that scene, which I vigorously protested, played out on screen, John turned to me and gave me a big thumbs up! Very gratifying response to be sure, but Steven Ford, who played the lieutenant, carried that scene into the end zone.
Good actors, man…they make writers look good. All day. Every day.
You have mentioned in previous interviews that Mancuso wasn’t necessarily convincing as a former Southern Cal surfer. Do you know why Wynorski chose Mancuso?
Firstly, I thought that Mancuso did a good job. I liked him as an actor before AGAINST THE LAW, but to me what we needed was a guy who looked like an athlete and spent time in the sun. Steven Ford was perfect. He had the look. Nick is a bit too urban, but he was the guy they got. I was never consulted about casting. I know that at Cinetel they look for actors that have foreign market value, and Nick had some TV cred. That, and he was happy to take the paycheck, I guess.
I visited the set a couple of times, and Mancuso paid me a compliment when I met him: ”nice words,” Seemed a bit pro-forma, but I take compliments at face value. He is a very good actor. I knew his work, and he usually does an interesting job.
Overall, the darkness of the character, and his specific look worked a bit against what Bob and I had in mind. I think one time we talked about Luke Perry as Shepard. He had the SoCal look, and I felt that he could bring the intensity. He would have been the other side of the coin if John Terlesky played Rex, which was on our mind originally when we talked about casting.
You have also said you thought Nancy Allen wasn’t quite right for the part: I think she’s quite good when she tells the deluded Grieco no one gives a s*** about ‘how fast he is.’ You have mentioned some names you thought might be right: Nia Peeples and Cynthia Gibb, both whom I adore because I was the right age to have a crush on them when they were on FAME, but as time has passed I’m glad a star of De Palma films and ROBOCOP is in it, as her name means a better chance that one of the boutique labels such as Vinegar Syndrome, Synapse or Scorpion might take a chance on releasing it on Blu-ray. Can you talk about why you were not so happy with her casting and what you think of her performance in hindsight?
Nia and Cynthia would have been good in the part, so would another 50 of their contemporaries as well. Nancy was not my choice because at her age she looked a bit more like an anchor to me. A field reporter is usually younger and a bit hungrier to get behind the desk. The desk is the top of the pyramid, especially in a local news market. Nancy looks like an anchor, even her wardrobe felt that way to me.
You are probably right about her marquee value, and boy would it be great if somebody produced a good looking Blu on the movie. In hindsight, I think she did a nice job with the role.
And what about Rex? Can you talk about why you thought DEATHSTALKER 2’s John Terlesky would have been great in it (I heartily agree!)
We wanted a bad guy who looked like a hero. John is all that, and a really good actor. He is also a pal, and I know that he would have had fun with the part.
I think Richard Grieco as Rex actually hits a decent note for the role, and keeps a viewer watching, but it’s just the one note. I get a sense from the script that Rex’s grip is supposed to be loosening more and more as the film progresses, whereas Grieco is pretty much just the same “Rex” from beginning to end.
Any number of young actors, with some level of toughness I guess would have played for me. We got Grieco, who mattered in the home vid/foreign sales world. He was creepy in a “hate me” sort of way which works for a bad guy, but you are right that he only hits one note. Ultimately we wanted a young good looking guy to contrast the psycho side of the character. Ultimately, I liked Grieco, and thought he did a good job with his version of “Rex.”
As Bob Sheridan once said to me, “Grieco is a Rex. He’s not our Rex, but he’s a Rex!” Grieco was having some issues at the time, wasn’t he?
I know he was difficult some times. The scene where he confronts Maggie in her hot tub was a miracle of editing. Editor Rich Gentler did a very nice job cutting that scene using snippets of takes to create Grieco’s performance. I liked the way Rich cut the movie overall.
I think it’s a tribute to the script that the supporting cast seems to show up for work and has a relatively low amount of bum performances for a low budget flick. You guys got some solid performers (Gary Sandy from WKRP, Steven Ford, James Stephens from THE PAPER CHASE, the late Thomas Mikal ford from MARTIN, Billy Gallo) who I think delivered. Any thoughts on the supporting cast?
We got lucky with the supporting players, and I agree they all showed up and did nice work. Steven Ford really impressed me, with a knowing and camera savvy performance. He seems to really listen, and he understands the power of stillness. Gary Sandy was a nice surprise as well. I know Jim cast him because he liked him on WKRP, a show we both enjoyed. It was good to see him again.
Even Heather Thomas, from THE FALL GUY and Fred Olen Ray’s CYCLONE shows up and has a nice one-scene bit as Mancuso’s ex-wife, which they play straight.
Heather had the right look for a former beach gal, and she also had that well-tended look of a woman who eventually marries well. You see women like that all over the place in L.A. I had an issue with how Jim staged that scene, but knowing the schedule and the general budget, it was most likely a simple solution which got him through the day.
Did the shoot go okay, as far as you know? How many days did you guys have? Were the writers on the set? Were the actors generally prepared and well-behaved from what you know?
I wasn’t around for most of the shoot. I believe they had four weeks. 5 days a week. Grieco was I’m told, a bit of a problem on one night. Otherwise, no nightmare stories from the set. Jim would be the first one to complain if someone was a problem or slowed things down, which does not sit well with him. Frankly, when you are an actor on any project regardless of schedule or budget, it is important to know your job, just like all the members of the crew are expected to do theirs.
I remember visiting a location for a TV series that was produced and written by friends of mine, and a driver said to me after I thanked him for giving me a lift to the set, “It was his job and his pleasure.” If you are lucky enough to make movies that should, in theory, be your mantra every day. It is a privilege to make to tell and stories at any level or budget.
AGAINST THE LAW is very much unlike most anything else Wynorski has made. Why do you think he was drawn to it and how well do you think he handled the material?
Initially a guy named Jon Winfrey, a former first AD who worked with Jim at Corman’s, was going to direct. I was surprised to see him at the notes meeting, since I thought Jim was going to helm the picture. Somewhere between that meeting, and the shoot, Jim took over. Not sure why Jon was replaced.
Jim liked the script, and he expressed to me that he knew it was a better story than the usual fare of the time. It was about something more than having actors running around and saying “let’s go,” or “come on, “which is common in most movies that are just about movement or action. To his credit, and my satisfaction, he mostly put effort and real thought into telling the story. I’m not crazy about how some scenes were directed, yet I was very pleasantly surprised with how he made the movie in general. I especially liked the way he did the climactic showdown at the ocean’s edge
Jim, as a director, has some bad habits. The one that bothers me the most is his need to over-cover a scene. He is always in a hurry like a first A.D., and he thinks, like Roger Corman, about having enough to cut so he can make the scene in the editing room. Valid enough, especially in the world of low budget, but my feeling that grabbing a movie is not the same as directing it. With AGAINST THE LAW, I think he spent more time thinking about the film than usual, and directed it.
Thinking back, I’m not sure we wrote it as light. The idea was that Rex got what he wanted, but was not around to see his film on the big screen. Most action movies, especially in the 80’s up the point LAW was made, used comedy, and the idea of ending on an up note was pretty common. The mind set of having the audience walk out of the theater with a smile on their face was not a bad thing, and it would help the box office. In our case we knew the film would, most likely, never play in a theater, but it seemed like a good way to end the story. I might not have liked it initially, but I accept it today.
Can you talk a bit about how you think the film might have manifested itself differently if you had directed?
What if…? This is a very interesting question. I know that I would have cast differently along some of the lines I mentioned earlier. My hands might have been tied regarding what actors mattered at the time. All low budget companies are aware of how certain actors play internationally, which affect sales. That said, I still would have cast the three leads differently depending on who we could get and how they mattered.
Gotta say, that I wrote the waitress in the opening scene with Suzee Slater – from CHOPPING MALL — in mind, and both Bob and I were knocked out by Jaime Pressly, who, like Steven Ford, made her scene maybe better than it had any right to be.
I might have wanted/chosen different locations, which is a thing I am very conscious of as a viewer. Locations are a very articulate form of story-telling that matters to me quite a bit. I might have shot less coverage and designed more moves for fluid camera rhythm. I also would have used longer lenses which help you cheat in an artful way. This is all 20/20 hindsight, but as I have said, Jim did a pretty good job with the movie.
The film had a disappointingly small release even for a Wynorski film. The VHS had a ridiculous cut and paste of a shirtless Grieco “holding a gun” and a minor DVD release for Platinum. Do you know anything about Wynorski and Cinetel’s efforts to sell the film? Couldn’t anyone come up with some decent poster art? (I know some international tapes and DVDs do have slightly better artwork that properly sells the movie).
Yeah, it seems that every expense was spared. The key art was crap to me. I have an art background and I am a fan of movie illustration. I probably could do a simple comp, and give it to one of many talented LA based illustrators, for a better result. I think Cinetel spent no money on theatrical, and just looked to get their money back as quickly as possible. Most of what they did was sell movies to cable as “World Premiers” to get back most of the cost, then sell the vid rights, and make a profit from foreign sales. From a business side, it makes sense, but for a writer/creator their apathy bothered me. To them it seemed like just “another one for the fire,” as Jim would often say.
While your film is more strait-laced in a sense, I think the marriage of high-concept plot with offbeat character stuff is similar in some ways to Larry Cohen’s work, who you document in your recent documentary KING COHEN. (I can imagine his version with Michael Moriarity as the cop and David Carradine as Rex).
Wow! Love being compared to Larry in even the most distant of ways. Part of the high concept is how we think of the media and how media sensationalizes stories for ratings. If it bleeds…it leads as they say, and 20 years ago the power of a story like ours would have gotten a pretty fair amount of media attention if it actually happened. Larry was a social critic, and he might have liked this movie. He would, of course, say “his” version would be better.
Can you talk a little about what drew you to making your recent Larry Cohen documentary? While sad, it must be a little gratifying you were able to get it out there on the record as a tribute before he passed.
I was producing DVD special features and commentaries for folks like Image Entertainment and I started to feel like the physical media world might be changing due to softer sales. I kind of knew that I had to make my own film, and put my skills to some kind of use. For a reason still kind of unknown to me, I thought a doc on Larry was a good idea. Roger had one, so why not?!
In many ways Larry is a real king of the low budget world because he writes, produces and directs his material. I also was a fan and had a working knowledge of his TV stuff as well.
Larry was a filmmaker with a legit voice and POV. I remember one day before starting to work with Bob Sheridan, he mentioned he had seen a little known Cohen film called: PERFECT STRANGERS. I asked him how it was and he said…”it’s a Larry Cohen film;” succinct and to the point as always with Bob. One sentence, but I knew a lot about the movie without knowing anything.
I dedicated KING COHEN to Bob Sheridan’s memory, primarily because of his fondness for Larry as a creator, and that memorable mini-review. I think Bob would have enjoyed KING COHEN.
My first step was to get in touch with Larry, and see if he was interested. I got his number, and called him. He answered, which threw me for a second…the guy answers his own phone! I told him who I was, my idea for the doc, and he invited me over to his famous house, which in some way or another, appears in all of his movies. With little convincing, he said, “yes.” And we were off to the races. He was great to deal with, and we became friends. I miss him, even when he gave me a hard time about movies…or well, anything. New Yorkers…ya know?
Making the movie and touring festivals with Larry was such a great experience. He thought the movie should have actually been a multi-part mini-series. “One movie is not enough to tell my story,” he said. He was only half-kidding.
Can you talk a bit about the comic-book themed documentary you are working on now? What compelled you to make this?
It’s called TRUE BELIEVERS, and it is the story of the first wave of young comic book fans that broke into the business and in the process created a lot of comics’ most valuable intellectual property. It is a little autobiographical, but it is not my story specifically.
It is about what I dubbed “The Blue Jean Generation,” a group of young dreamers that wanted to work with their heroes, and somehow make a living in comics at a time when the business was on shaky ground, in the tumultuous setting of NY in the 70’s. Everyone knows Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and other golden and silver age creators, but what followed them has been under documented, on film at least.
By the way, TRUE BELIEVERS, has a Patreon page where we are creating awareness for the film, and expanding our social media presence, prior to a Kickstarter campaign. I have recorded over six hours of audio tales and anecdotes about my career in comics, discussing some of my experiences, and my encounters with my heroes who in some cases became mentors.
If the 70’s were an area of comics interest for you, then you are likely to enjoy these reminiscences. Please tell any and all who might be interested in comics and comics history, to check out our page.
History from someone who was there in those halls where it happened.
I just want to add I love your casual but informative DVD & Blu-ray commentaries, we like all the same movies! Do you have any coming up?
Thanks! They are fun to do. I seem to do a half dozen or so a year. Some of the recent ones are MIRAGE, TOBRUK, MADIGAN, FORCE TEN FROM NAVARONE, LONELY ARE THE BRAVE, SUPERDOME, MURDER BY DECREE. I am committed to a number of other titles which I will record in the near future, with Howard S. Berger, & Nathaniel Thompson on some, and Steven Jay Rubin on others.
Finally, if you could pair AGAINST THE LAW as a double feature with any 70s genre film, what film do you think would be a good match for it?
I gotta think a bit, now. Some obvious choices are from that fertile post FRENCH CONNECTION cop movie cluster, movies like BUSTING, HICKEY AND BOGGS, REPORT TO THE COMISSIONER, THE LAUGHING POLICEMAN, and, of course, DIRTY HARRY being the most obvious choice.
One cop. One psycho. You get it.