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PLUME: I can’t imagine – what was the reaction to playing these clips to people who, I’m assuming at that time, were middle-aged executives?

KURTZ: Well, it wasn’t great. Also, remember that this was in 1972 – the music we were playing was from 1958-59, because that was when the film was set. It wasn’t contemporary pop music as far as they were concerned – it was music that was already done to death on the oldies stations.

PLUME: So there was already an anachronism for that?

KURTZ: Yeah. They just didn’t understand. In fact, they refused to even license the music rights for an album, they didn’t want to pay the money.

PLUME: And now it’s gone on to be one of the most successful movie soundtrack albums of all time.

KURTZ: Yes, that’s true. But I have to say, if I were the music executive at the time at Universal that I had to deal with, I might have decided the same thing because all of these songs had already been released on oldies packages and oldies compilations albums – three or four times over. Why would another oldies compilation do better than any of those?

PLUME: And frankly, at that time, the only music soundtracks that were released were musical soundtracks, weren’t they?

KURTZ: Yes, the pop driven soundtracks of the Top Guns of the world hadn’t come along yet.

PLUME: So it was basically a combination of probably Easy Rider and American Graffiti that really cemented the idea of wall-to-wall contemporary soundtracks.

KURTZ: Yes, right.

PLUME: Touching back on the transition – this is kind of nonlinear, but generally my interviews tend to go that way, the conversation gets too interesting – so when you got back from Vietnam, did you come back to a different industry, in your eyes?

KURTZ: Well, because of Easy Rider … I had never been part of the industry, really, I had just only seen it from the outside and from the low budget Roger Corman school, so I came back kind of into that same world, and did some work on several low budget pictures and things. But, because of what happened with Easy Rider, the studios were all interested in odd projects. I had worked with Francis Coppola and Monte Hellman on Roger Corman projects, and Francis was just getting started with American Zoetrope in San Francisco and I went up to see him, and I talked with him about the concept of movies.

He and John Milius and the others that were talking about the industry at this time were all talking about the lunatics taking over the asylum, and the studios were dead, and we’re going to have the power now. In a sense, that did happen in the ’70s to a great extent, so it was all very exciting for independent film buff, filmmaker types.

Monte came to me with this project – that eventually became Two-Lane Blacktop – and we put it into the Universal program. Just about three years ago we finally got the music rights cleared for that and Monte and I sat and did the commentary for the DVD.

PLUME: Yes, it’s a nice DVD.

KURTZ: Yeah, the quality turned out pretty good, considering that Two-Lane was shot on Techniscope back during the Technicolor three-strip dye transfer process, so now it obviously has to be printed on Eastman color negatives. The prints that were in the cinema were quite grimy, but the DVD isn’t too bad, actually. Anyway, in doing that, I realized that I hadn’t seen it for a long time. You know, it’s probably one of the only existential allegories made by a major studio – ever.

PLUME: Which is a major accomplishment for that time.


PLUME: That was what – ‘71?

KURTZ: ‘71, yeah. That was the atmosphere of the period, and that was actually my first brush with a major studio, that project. And even it wasn’t a major studio project. The low budget program at Universal was based on this concept that if they liked the script, and the elements were okay with them – the key cast – they in effect wrote you a check and told you to go away and come back with a finished movie. They never bothered you at all. It was a very, very good atmosphere.

The only time that didn’t work for Universal… I realize that when I said earlier that all of these films made under this program all are interesting films and did pretty well considering their costs, I forgot to mention the one film which was the last one in this program – that in effect killed the program – was Dennis Hopper’s The Last Movie, which turned out to be an absolute mess.

PLUME: That would be a project killer.

KURTZ: Yup. And it was made under the same basis. He went off and he made the movie and nobody interfered, and he came back with a movie that was incomprehensible. It looked like it had been run through a food processor and just cut together at random.

PLUME: But I guess, when you have that kind of trust in a system like that, eventually something like that’s going to slip in.

KURTZ: Yup, that’s true. It’s the fact that there are filmmakers around who are not responsible enough to have the power. I think that that’s exactly the dilemma. I worked briefly with Orson Welles … he was making a film, I don’t know that it ever was finished. He was shooting a film and he came down to USC when I was a graduate student. He shot film students asking questions of him… Basically, talking about his career. But in effect, what he was doing was shooting material for this film he was making where the filmmaker – who was not going to be played by him, but was going to be played by John Huston – was being asked the questions. This was the concept.

PLUME: Ah, this is Other Side of the Wind.

KURTZ: Yep. But that experience led me to completely validate what other people had said about Welles, which was that Welles was a wonderful, wonderful filmmaker, but he suffered from the fact that he didn’t have a team around him that knew how to control him. It’s kind of like a steam engine – if a steam engine, generating steam, isn’t focused so that all the steam goes out the right part, then the thing blows up. And, if it goes out the right part, then it can drive the ship or the engine very, very well. Welles’ best films were the ones where he was under the auspices of a studio machine, basically, where he could use his vision within the controls that were placed upon him.

PLUME: So there were directional limitations?

KURTZ: Yes. Not just directional limitations, but working with great cameramen, and great art directors, and great editors, so that the project – like Kane – actually came to fruition and turned out well. If you look at some of Welles’ later films – Mr. Arkadin, and his Othello, and his Macbeth – the films are quite sad, because the potential was wonderful, and there’s still a lot of brilliance there… it’s just that the sound is terrible, and the photography isn’t particularly good, and all of things that could have made them a lot better.

PLUME: So there wasn’t somebody there to focus him.

KURTZ: Yep, exactly.

PLUME: If you were to compare a – the field is certainly widespread if you were to look at the filmmakers of the ’70s, who basically have degenerated into Wellesian types. Are there any that you find saddest of all, because of the potential that you saw at the time?

KURTZ: No, I don’t think so, I think that you have to look upon the people working for a living in an industry. It is a combination of creativity and economics. Francis always said the only way to function is to make a film for yourself and then a film for the studio, to keep your sanity. A lot of people complain that Francis is one of those filmmakers that had this wonderful potential – the first two Godfather films are absolutely brilliant, and Godfather III isn’t very good, and he made it because he needed money to get out of his bankruptcy situation. Well, there’s nothing wrong with that. That’s pretty legitimate. The fact that the film isn’t very good – it did okay at the box office, the critics didn’t like it – but I don’t think you can expect that everything that a filmmaker turns out is going to work for everybody. Marty Scorsese’s made some wonderful, personal films that will last forever and he’s made some studio films, too, that are interesting, but not particularly wonderful. But that’s just the way the business is.

Howard Hawks and Alfred Hitchcock made some turkeys as well. When you’re evaluating an overall pattern, saying, “Well, they could have made some more brilliant films” – yes, maybe, but consider the circumstances of the moment… whether you need money, whether the script you’re working on doesn’t quite work. I know in Francis’s case, for instance, on Godfather III, he was lambasted for using his daughter in that role, and she wasn’t all that great in it…

PLUME: She wasn’t as bad as people made her out to be, either.

KURTZ: No, not at all. Winona Ryder, who was cast in that role, backed out a week before the start of shooting. He didn’t have anybody to fall back on. Anyway, there are all these individual circumstances, always easy to criticize from the outside. Sure, a lot of the filmmakers who were considered sort of the gods of the ’70s, they more recently have made films that a lot of other people didn’t like, particularly, whether they made money or not.

PLUME: I like to say, “The greatest detriment to art is success”…

KURTZ: Yep, exactly.

PLUME: Well, I know that when talking about the directors and the auteur theory and directors throwing off their shackles in the ’70s and what it eventually led to… by the way, a group of friends of mine, we have something that we, ironically enough, call the Kurtz Theory – which directly relates to Lucas. Essentially, it’s that when you lose all checks and balances – someone who has the ability to say no to you or to convince you that this might not be the right direction – you get films like Episode I.

KURTZ: Yeah. Well, I think that’s true. In the case of Episode I, there’s probably something else going on as well, which is it was a merchandise-driven project … they knew that the money from the merchandising would make a lot more money than the money from the film. It’s a tired film, in the sense that there’s no passion or energy there, and that comes from that kind of slightly cynical attitude, I think. There’s a lot that could have been. In Episode I, there’s a tremendous amount of story potential that was wasted.

If, on balance, you’re looking on it on the basis of “Well, it’s going to make a lot of money no matter how terrible it is,” then you’re going to go in not with the right kind of energy to make it right. That’s not limited to Episode I – there are lots of films that are made that way. I think you have to approach every project with a kind of wonder.

I didn’t know Alfred Hitchcock very well … he was working at Universal when I was there, and I met him several times in Lew Wasserman’s office and a couple of times around the lot, and I watched him work on Family Plot a bit. He was a fairly intimidating guy and he was ill as well, at that time. So, he wasn’t his old self, I suppose. Anyway, he did say one day that when someone asked him what was his favorite film of all of his projects, he said, “The next one.”

I think that’s a wonderful comment, because that shows that he was excited about the idea of planning something new. I think all filmmakers should feel that way, because that energy then is transported into the project. If you’re tired before you start, if you’re only doing it for the money, if you don’t like the script – then you’re going to go out everyday and show up, but you’re not going to transfer any of your personal energy into that project.

PLUME: From your personal experience, how would you compare the George you worked with on American Graffiti to the George you worked with towards the end of The Empire Strikes Back?

KURTZ: It was quite different, actually. He was very different. I think the most unfortunate thing that happened was the fact that Indiana Jones came along, and Raiders of the Lost Ark had come out in between. George and I had many, many discussions about that, but it boiled down to the fact that he became convinced that all the audience was interested in was the roller-coaster ride, and so the story and the script didn’t matter anymore.

Now Raiders is not a bad film, but the script actually was much better than the finished film. There were a lot more nuances in the character, and there was less action. It would’ve been a better picture if that script had been made. But, as it is, it’s an interesting and entertaining film – it’s just that this idea that somehow the energy doesn’t have to be put into getting really good story elements together. One of the arguments that I had with George about Empire was the fact that he felt in the end, he said, we could have made just as much money if the film hadn’t been quite so good, and you hadn’t spent so much time. And I said, “But it was worth it!”

PLUME: And so it’s the argument between doing the best you can, and good enough?

KURTZ: Yes, and I know that there’s an extreme that you can go to. I also knew Stanley Kubrick quite well, and I know that he’s probably the epitome of the perfection-oriented. In fact, I think he actually was clinically obsessive-compulsive, probably, in the end. He would go to unbelievable lengths to have it be exactly the way he wanted it, and he didn’t have any money problems – Warner Brothers was writing the checks and they didn’t care what he did. But it still didn’t matter, beyond a certain point. In my personal opinion, after Clockwork Orange, his efforts went downhill, basically. Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Full Metal Jacket, and Eyes Wide Shut all are less than interesting films, as far as I’m concerned.

PLUME: Well, I think they show that era of overdevelopment. They were very sterile films.

KURTZ: Yes, well, part of that was his own personal paranoia about being out in the world. Which he didn’t have, even up to – well, he was shooting The Shining when we were preparing Empire, and I had lots of run-ins with him at the studio, and had lunch and dinner with him many times. During that time period, he was still working at the studio, he was still traveling in from his house, and he would still go to the cinema occasionally, or go out to dinner at restaurants.

After The Shining was in editing, I went out to his home in St. Albans several times for dinner, and to screenings that he had there for small groups of friends. He stopped going out, and he stopped going into the world at all. The world had to come to him. I think that that was the biggest problem … he holed up there, and he didn’t have any contact with the rest of the world. Except on the telephone, where he would talk to people endlessly. He’d call them up in the middle of the night. That was fine, he enjoyed doing that, but I think that his contact with the world – in terms of how he interpreted the world on film – suffered.

PLUME: Made his perception somewhat stagnant?

KURTZ: Well yes, I mean, the whole idea of doing Vietnam in East London is pretty bizarre.

PLUME: That’s a schizophrenic film to begin with.

KURTZ: Well it is, yes. And it’s true that the Beckton Gasworks didn’t look too terrible with a few palm trees around, but the reason that Apocalypse works so well is because it’s shot in the environment that’s exactly like it was in Vietnam.

PLUME: Right.

KURTZ: And, it wasn’t Vietnam, it was the Philippines, but it was close enough …This is a big argument that we had with the studio about Two-Lane Blacktop, and this goes down to the sort of core of how a filmmaker really has to approach his projects. With Two-Lane, we had these meeting with the studio, with their production department, and they had read the script, and they had approved the script, and then they said, “Why not shoot it all in Southern California? We can find a lot of little towns and a lot of country roads.”

Both Monte and I said the whole point of the story is that it’s a cross-country trip, a race, and we need the variety of environments, and we need the variety of backgrounds, we need the variety of people that these racers would encounter. Their ideas were all very practical – it would be a lot cheaper to do it that way. Also, what about weather cover? The production plan that I gave to the studio made them blanch, basically. They were appalled by the fact that we were changing locations every single day, and driving and shooting on the road while we were driving between locations. They said, “How are you going to do this? What happens if the weather doesn’t cooperate?”

We said, “Well, we’re shooting the film in sequence, so if it’s raining, we just shoot in the rain.” Which did happen, actually. But see, they didn’t make movies that way and they didn’t believe it could be made that way. I said, “Look, I’ve worked on hundreds of Roger Corman movies, and lots of student films, and lots of documentaries. That’s the way you make movies that way. You don’t have the luxury of creating everything by yourself.”

Actually, Two-Lane is probably one of the first examples of the whole dogma concept, because it was shot in sequence. It was shot using all live dialogue – there’s no underscore in the film. The only music that you hear is on the radio. There are some sound effects added, some car sound effects, that don’t quite meet the dogma criteria. But it was all shot in real locations, and in all the real locations we accepted everything that was actually there. We didn’t dress anything.

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