Gala: On this episode of the Video Archives podcast, Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary take a trip to Boston Memorial Hospital for Michael Crichton’s Coma. People are falling into comas after routine procedures, and it’s up to one doctor to uncover the mystery. Roger and Quentin discuss a main character overcoming chauvinistic expectations and go in-depth on Crichton as a writer and director. Next, we’ll travel to the streets of Philly for Elaine May’s Mikey & Nicky: a small-time bookie has stolen mob money and is in hiding.
The only person he can depend on is his childhood friend. A tale with a supreme split and reversal, Roger and Quentin unravel the mystery of why Elaine May chose to make this film. Lastly, we’ll travel down the river with Joe Dante’s Piranha: piranhas designed to survive in both fresh and saltwater are released into a river and they’re hungry for little chubby legs. Roger and Quentin talk about how big studios diving into the exploitation market affected the genre and the balance between comedy and humanity that only Joe Dante can bring to a movie. Here they are now: Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary.
Quentin: Thank you very much, Gala, for the introduction. Okay, kill the Bacalov, and welcome back to another exciting episode of the Video Archives Podcast. I’m Quentin Tarantino.
Roger: I am Roger Avary.
Quentin: And we’re dealing with three movies today, our normal way: one double feature and then kind of a third one, attached.
Roger: A very special monkey in the middle.
Quentin: Yes, exactly. If you were at a Grindhouse or a Drive-In, you would decide whether or not you stayed for the third movie and you are more than entitled to do that when listening to this podcast. One thing I will say about two of the movies that we’re going to be talking about, Coma and Mikey & Nicky, is that it’s almost impossible to talk about them in any kind of analysis-y way without giving away (at least some) of the pleasures of the movie, narratively. So I would say that this is an episode that if you really wanted to see Coma, and especially Mikey & Nicky, you should probably watch it before you hear our episode. I mean, even reading the back of the box for Mikey & Nicky will ruin some of the narrative pleasures that I think the movie has to offer. I don’t normally say that. On this one, though, we’re not going to give away too much stuff in Coma, but to actually really talk about it you need to reveal some things that, if you intend to watch the movie, would be better not revealed by us.
Roger: We’ll try not to, but it may happen.
Quentin: It will happen, at least for me.
Clip from trailer for Coma: At the Boston Memorial Hospital, only one doctor can save your life. But first, she’s got to save her own. “This is real, Mark. Somebody is putting people into comas.” Somebody’s seen too much. Somebody has gone too far. Somebody is getting away with murder. Coma rated PG.
Quentin: The first film that we used from the Video Archives collection. Coma is normally kept in the drama section. It was not in the horror section.
Roger: When Gala was looking it up earlier in the big book, the database book, she was like, “Where is it?” And I said, “Well, I think drama,” because that’s where we always had it. It really moved out of drama with all the Michael Douglas and whatnot.
Quentin: Its foot could fall into, frankly, not only the horror camp, its big toe crosses over into science fiction.
Quentin: But at the end of the day, I think it’s most effective as a thriller.
Roger: Yeah and it was super timely.
Quentin: Very timely, at the time. It’s a beautiful MGM/UA box. I love their boxes. It’s one of the big square ones. It’s really terrific. I’m going to read the back of the box. It was directed by Michael Crichton, oddly enough, not based on a book that he wrote. It’s one of the rare times, I think the only time he actually did work based on somebody else’s novel, even though he did the screenplay. It was a very popular novel at the time. Robin Cook wrote it.
Roger: It was huge. The novel came out and, boom, into production immediately.
Quentin: Not only was Coma such a big novel, to some degree or another, it started an entire sub-genre in fiction of hospital and medical thrillers. Brian De Palma’s father (who is a doctor) writes medical thrillers and I remember Coma was actually one of those books in the seventies that got its own commercial on TV. Like a year before the movie came out, you had that image of the bodies hanging from the wires because of they had the thing-
Roger: My memory was that everybody had this book. We had the book. You’d go over to somebody’s house; they had the book. I remember seeing this book everywhere when I was younger.
Quentin: I remember all the bestsellers that actually got commercials that were played almost like a trailer-
Roger: And they would shoot their own commercial stuff.
Quentin: So anyway, this is Coma. The movie stars Geneviève Bujold and Michael Douglas, as well as Elizabeth Ashley, Rip Torn and Richard Widmark. I shall now read the back of the box: “Geneviève Bujold and Michael Douglas star in an exciting contemporary thriller: the film version of the bestselling Robin Cook novel, where every split second can mean the difference between life and living death. Few stories have caused the sensation that Coma has; with its deep, probing questions into the medical mysteries of our time. Now the movie, directed by Michael Crichton, throws open the doors to the secret research going on inside the private labs. Brilliant costars Richard Widmark, Elizabeth Ashley and Rip Torn bring to the screen all the suspense of the novel.” See how they’re really hittin’ the novel?
Quentin: “Geneviève Bujold (as Dr. Susan Wheeler) suspects that someone is purposely murdering patients at the hospital. Healthy young people undergoing routine operations are slipping into irreversible comas. There is no pattern to the incidents. Yet she becomes obsessed with proving that the hospital is responsible, even when it puts her own life in danger. Michael Douglas (the talented actor and producer) plays her lover, a young doctor who is never sure whether his friend is onto something or just cracking up. The tension builds throughout the entire film until the final climactic stroke of the scalpel in a pulse pumping finish.” That’s actually a pretty good description.
Roger: Yeah, it sells it.
Quentin: I’ll just sort of reiterate their version of the plot, just to get us talking about the film in general. The idea of the film is Geneviève Bujold is a young resident in a hospital. I believe she’s in her very first year as a resident, and her lover is Michael Douglas, who’s sort of like her- They’re not live in boyfriend, are they? No, they’re not.
Roger: She has her own place.
Roger: But she’s staying at his place a lot. She’s got a drawer. She keeps her toothbrush there, stuff like that.
Quentin: He’s a resident. I think he’s maybe five or six years ahead of her, and he’s in line to really be a big shot in the hospital. There’s an upcoming vacancy that he might very well be the one getting, and there’s a big point made that he’s a very political animal. He knows the right people to wine and dine and the right people to have lunch with and just the right things to do that when openings come up to advance his career, he is one of the people thought of.
Roger: He’s not there for the Hippocratic Oath. He’s there to to advance himself.
Quentin: I wouldn’t go so far as to question his motives for being in medicine, but he wants to- He doesn’t just want to be a doctor. He wants to be running this place.
Roger: You said at the forefront. That’s the forefront. The Hippocratic Oath is the back burner.
Quentin: In the story, one of Geneviève Bujold’s really good friends played by Lois Chiles, who we remember from Moonraker
Roger: Let’s talk about Moonraker for a while, now that we’ve got Louis Chiles in the movie. I was so happy to see her show up here again.
Quentin: Oh, I’m always happy to see her.
Roger: I love Lois Chiles.
Quentin: I like Lois, as well. In this, she is a married woman who is having an affair that her husband doesn’t know about. In the course of the affair, she got pregnant. She’s getting a simple abortion that will take care of the baby and her husband will be none the wiser because of it. She talks with Geneviève Bujold about it, and she admits that she’s a little nervous. And she goes, “It’s totally safe.”
Roger: “It’s a routine procedure.”
Quentin: “It’s a routine procedure.” And Geneviève Bujold goes, “Well, yeah. Look, any time you go under the knife there is a slight risk. But no, this is completely routine. You’re absolutely fine. Your husband won’t know, and you’ll be fine. It’s just fine. Don’t worry about it. Trust me. Don’t worry about it.” So she goes in to get the abortion and she’s put under, and then they’re not able to bring her out of the anesthesia.
Roger: Her eyes become fixed and dilated, and that’s it.
Quentin: That’s it. It’s irreversible. There’s no coming back from that. Her brain is too fucked up now.
Roger: So they send her off to the Jefferson Institute.
Quentin: So Geneviève Bujold, this is a friend of hers. So she’s like, “This doesn’t make any sense.” So she’s asking all these questions and she’s poking her nose into this. Then all the doctors, including her boyfriend Michael Douglas, are saying, “Look, we know. Yes, it’s absolutely tragic, but you know that these things happen.”
Roger: “We have thousands and thousands of people coming through this hospital every day and, you know, somebody is going to die every now and then.”
Quentin: There is a reality of anesthesia, and one out of a thousand respond badly to it and that can make something like this happen. It is one in a thousand, but there is that one and apparently she was that one. It just happened. She keeps trying to stick her nose into it more, but they keep discouraging it. Then she sees it happen a second time, the very next day, to a patient. The patient just happens to be Tom Selleck, which is frankly one of the best pieces of casting in the entire movie. He’s playing an athlete who hurt his leg and he’s got to get something done in his knee. But the thing about it is not just that he looks exactly like Tom Selleck, it’s not like Terminal Island Tom Selleck; where he doesn’t quite look like Tom Selleck yet, or a Myra Breckinridge Tom Selleck. No, this is Magnum P.I., two years before Magnum, P.I.. He looks like the epitome of health.
Roger: Well he is the epitome of health. He’s Tom Selleck.
Quentin: He is health personified. So you see him and he’s all charming and he’s handsome and he’s sitting in the bed and he’s talking about the minor operation on his leg. Then 3 hours later, you see him and he’s, for all intents and purposes, dead. It’s actually powerful. It’s shocking and she’s like, “Whoa, whoa.”
Roger: How could this guy who’s in perfect health-
Quentin: “Whoa, wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute.” So then she starts doing the thing that I like: when female characters in thrillers start becoming Nancy Drew. She starts investigating what’s going on here, which leads her to the facility-
Roger: The Jefferson Institute.
Quentin: – the Jefferson Institute, which leads to the facility where they are sending these coma patients.
Roger: For long term care.
Quentin: For long term care. It’s a very futuristic-
Roger: A brutalist kind of facility out of a Cronenberg movie.
Quentin: Right. Now, part of the way the movie works is: she thinks there’s a conspiracy, so she’s trying to prove it. Everybody else is telling her that she’s wrong and not only is she wrong, she’s being wrong like an hysterical woman. She’s jumping to massive conclusions and she’s overreacting and she’s being too emotional.
Roger: When you go to the head of anesthesiology (who is Rip Torn) and you start saying, “Hey, let me go over all of your files, I’m going to investigate all this stuff.” He’s insulted by that.
Quentin: No, that’s one of my favorite lines in the movie. “Would you mind if I went over your research, sir?” “Yes, I would mind. I would mind very, very much. Yes, I do mind.”
Roger: Yes. So she’s missing people off in a big way and also during a time when, “Honey, sit down” is kind of the attitude.
Quentin: But now the thing is, she thinks there might be something going on here and is trying to figure it out and they’re all telling her there’s not. We know there’s something going on because we paid to see a movie called Coma and we know that she’s going to be right. We know that there is a cabal at work here, that there’s a conspiracy at work. We’re just hoping she doesn’t get killed finding it out.
Roger: We don’t know the particulars of it, but we-
Quentin: But we do know-
Roger: -know that some kind of crazy stuff is going on.
Quentin: Because it’s a movie, we know that she’s correct.
Roger: And also the poster is very sinister looking.
Quentin: So we’re waiting to see how far it goes, who’s involved and will she get out of this with her skin intact? I saw this the opening night. I saw this the Friday it opened, at the 7:30 show. So I was there for the evening show and this was a smash hit. I was there on that smash opening weekend, so I knew what I felt about the movie. You had never seen it, until this screening.
Roger: That’s correct.
Quentin: So what did you think of it?
Roger: Okay. So at the time, I was young enough that this just didn’t appeal to me. I mean, the concept of it appealed to me, and I even think that at Archives, we popped it on once or twice in the store and it would play. There is the thriller element that is, I think, absolutely great because by the end of the movie when everybody’s running around; Geneviève Bujold (I think somebody here actually said this earlier) Geneviève Bujold is like an action star. She is fantastic. Now, this is a French Canadian girl.
Quentin: Anne of a Thousand Days.
Roger: I knew her from Earthquake. I also knew her from King of Hearts, which is one of my very favorite movies that I hope we watch, someday, here.
Quentin: The week after Coma hit, it was such a smash that Geneviève Bujold was on the cover of People magazine. Like, “Oh, Geneviève Bujold, star of the new movie Coma. This wonderful actress has finally found the right commercial hit.” I remember even buying the People magazine because I liked her. I liked the picture of her on the cover, and I read the article. I thought maybe I might still have it, but I don’t.
Roger: I’m really, really glad I didn’t see the movie until I am the person I am now, which is grown up Roger. Because I think young Roger just wouldn’t have been prepared to look at the movie this way or to understand the movie this way. There is the thriller elements, which are great. That’s what makes the movie just fun to watch, and it moves also. It has a great pace.
Quentin: I actually think it’s, kind of hands down, Michael Crichton’s best directing.
Roger: Yeah, I would say that. I liked Looker, but not because it’s so well-directed.
Quentin: I’m not putting down the other films. His direction here is just-
Roger: It’s serving the movie, completely.
Quentin: It’s just seamless, and it just moves. I think maybe back then when it came out, I might have wanted more of a De Palma flourish in my thrillers.
Roger: Set pieces.
Quentin: I didn’t need that at all, watching it this time. I just actually appreciate its effectiveness.
Roger: Yeah, it’s completely effective. Now, what I would not have been equipped to read and comprehend out of this movie was all of the discussions and how the entire movie is built: the plot of the movie is the thriller aspect, and the story of the film is all these conversations about the gender issues that were going on at the time; the battle of the sexes that was going on at the time, the Billie Jean King/Bobby Riggs thing that had happened the years before when this book was probably written. From the very first scene in that apartment when they’re talking, it’s all about their societal positions and his expectations of her as a woman and his not even taking her fully seriously and his expectation that she’s going to serve him. There is that in this movie.
Quentin: Is that, but there are times in the movie (and I think that’s one of the neat things about the screenplay) that, yes, she feels that oftentimes in the movie, but the movie doesn’t always say she’s right.
Roger: No, no, it doesn’t. But you don’t have to always be right to be listened to. Everyone she goes to; from Michael Douglas, her boyfriend, to Richard Widmark who is playing the head of the hospital who almost starts uncomfortably touching her in a weird way.
Quentin: It’s very Joe Biden-y.
Roger: If he had leaned over and sniffed her, maybe.
Quentin: But I got to say. Yeah, I noticed that now. I didn’t notice that back in the day when I first watched it.
Roger: You don’t have to notice it but it’s one of the strong things that I think is so great about the movie, because there is a moment where it’s thematically presented: where she’s trying to solve the problem and she’s found a clue and she’s gone into the depths of the hospital and she’s climbing this access shaft, or something, this ladder in the bowels of the hospital that goes up five stories. She’s climbing it and she gets the top and she has to get over into this little access tunnel off to the side.
Quentin: She has to kick her shoes off in order to do it. She has to take her pantyhose off-
Roger: That’s what I’m getting at. She drops her shoes and she sheds her feminine artifice; the shit that men expect her to wear. She kicks those off and that allows her to continue on her journey. I think Creighton handles that, like, amazingly well. Subtly. There’s another moment, the whole thing is, OR-8 means “orate.” Like, it’s the word “orate,” which is to speak pompously. Which is, I think, what all the men are doing in this movie.
Quentin: Very much that
Roger: Pompously talking about themselves, thinking about themselves.
Quentin: That’s very true.
Roger: There’s many subtle word plays like that going on through the movie. I think the script is really dynamite.
Quentin: The script is really good. I think there are some holes in the story, some big holes. However, there’s far fewer holes than are in a Michael Crichton novel adaptation. But the thing that’s always just perplexed me about Michael Crichton; he might be the smartest person who ever was a Directors Guild member, and he maybe has a higher intelligence-
Roger: And a Writers Guild member, and probably a Producers Guild member.
Quentin: Okay. Well, writers can be smart. Directors aren’t always the smartest guys in the world, alright? The things in his fantasias that he’s able to sell, that nobody else could sell, are absolutely gobsmacking. Equally gobsmacking are the incredible plot holes that the most untalented hack could have puttied over, that he just leaves exposed all out there for the world to see. Looker, is the perfect example-
Roger: I love Looker.
Quentin: Because nothing simple in the movie works at all. Everything about the movie just doesn’t work. Nothing about it makes sense from the point of view of why-
Roger: We’re gonna replace models digitally and chill them!
Quentin: They feel they need to take actresses, who are happy to act for you- No, we need to replace them with digital avatars, and then let’s kill them for whatever reason. It’s never explained why that’s a good idea. Those are the big ideas: Albert Finney has to get from A to B and then C, and then eventually get to D, and none of it is convincing. It’s all just complete coincidence. They’re just gaping, gaping plot holes, the simplest shit that a TV scrub could write on a Mannix episode is just beyond Michael Crichton. On the other hand, he introduces a ray gun that has never existed before and will probably never exist, and it’s the most convincing thing of the fucking movie.
Roger: It’s so brilliant. In fact, it’s so brilliant. It makes the movie better.
Quentin: It makes the movie!
Roger: It props everything up.
Quentin: It’s the reason you watch Looker, is for the ray gun. Even the effects of the ray gun on Albert Finney are convincing. “Oh, I guess that’s probably what would happen if you got shot with that ray gun.
Roger: The scene where he’s driving in his car and then suddenly he’s sitting in the fountain, in his car.
Quentin: The ray gun scenes are the whole fucking movie. That’s why you watch Looker.
Roger: I love Looker.
Quentin: And to see James Coburn look like a shark.
Roger: Susan Day’s not bad.
Quentin: No, I like Susan. I’ve always liked Susan, but that’s all of his movies. I have to say, there is an aspect of that in Coma, as well. There is a middle section in Coma that is absolutely ridiculous, just absolutely ridiculous and absolutely absurd. It’s in there just to add a big action scene; to keep everything going and to keep Geneviève Bujold’s character in peril. Basically, she’s asking too many questions. We know that there is a conspiracy going on. We don’t know exactly who’s involved, but we know somebody is involved. So somebody sends an assassin after her and now the assassin is running all over the hospital, and there’s one janitor that’s maybe figured out something, and she’s going to go talk to him.
The assassin kills the janitor, and now he’s chasing her all around the hospital, trying to kill her. Okay, so let’s go to exactly one of my problems with this is: I have a problem with it conceptually and I have a problem with it practically, as far as how it works as a scene. One: I never, ever, ever, ever, ever buy these little conspiracies of people; that when something starts happening, they go out and they send an assassin as if they have this brotherhood of assassins that work for them. Who is this guy? How did they hire him? Where did he come from? He came from Movie Assassin World. That’s where he came from. Why would these doctors actually let an assassin be part of their thing? To get in the way of all of this?
Seems like he would be the easiest guy for the cops to find and have him drop dime on all of them. It’s just a movie conceit that nobody asks questions about, and I don’t buy it. To add to how ridiculous the assassin situation is in Coma, is to see how realistic the assassination situation is In Mikey & Nicky when we talk about it.
Roger: Yeah, we’ll get to that.
Quentin: That is how a real hitman would be.
Roger: Ned Beatty’s character.
Quentin: It almost has the stink deal of authenticity, it seems so, so real. That just proves how fanciful the Coma situation is; of these organizations that have brotherhoods of assassins that just do their bidding.
Roger: You don’t have to go so far. You can just go to that Coma institute, the Jefferson Institute, and the fact that everybody is hanging by wires from the ceiling.
Quentin: No but I buy all that, though. This, I don’t buy. I don’t buy the imaginary Assassin’s creed. How much is it paid? What’s the situation? Has he killed other people for them before?
Roger: You’ve never hired an assassin?
Quentin: Is this a one time thing, or is he part of the organization? How much does he know? Seems like he knows a lot. So that’s my problem with the entire concept of the assassin. Then the scene plays out, and it’s the most absurd fucking thing in the movie. I cannot believe this is a hospital that is open for business. It’s in the middle of the night. There’s a lot of people in this hospital. This could not be more of a public place.
Roger: It’s also a huge hospital.
Roger: For what it’s worth.
Quentin: We will say that in this situation at this time of night, in whatever floor up above, in the hospital she is that there’s nobody on those two or three floors.
Quentin: The assassin is chasing her all around and trying to kill her. She’s running and he’s after her and she’s hiding and he’s catching her, and she gets away and all this stuff is going on. I will go along with the idea that maybe at that moment on these two floors, there just doesn’t happen to be anybody there. Okay. But then what happens, is she’s hiding in one of the refrigeration rooms where all the bodies are kept. So he comes in the refrigeration room. Now, forget about the fact he’s already killed a janitor who’s lying down there in the basement. Dead.
Quentin: So there’s already a dead body involved. Okay, so he’s lying in the basement. Now, the assassin comes into the cold storage body room where they’re all being held up by their ears in a very creepy looking thing.
Roger: It made me wonder. Crichton knows what he’s talking about, he was a medical doctor at- Was it John Hopkins or Boston Memorial or something like that?
Quentin: Well, this is Boston Memorial.
Roger: Well, yeah, but he would know.
Quentin: I don’t know if they hold him up by the ear like a fish, but okay.
Roger: It was weird.
Quentin: That would be like bodies hanging by their lips. So he’s going through the dead bodies looking for her. They have a tussle. He’s got a big gun with a silencer on it. He starts shooting at her, he hits a couple of the dead bodies and then she gets out of the freezer and locks him in. So now you’re in a public place, you’re in an open hospital. A guy has just tried to kill you and has killed the janitor downstairs, and there’s a dead body downstairs to prove it. Now, you have the killer trapped. He cannot get out. He is in the cold storage. Not only that, he’s in there with his gun. So he has the weapon. Not only that, there are now dead bodies that have those bullets in them because he has shot them.
Does she go downstairs to the front desk and say, “Call the fucking cops? This guy tried to kill me and I have got him locked in the freezer door.” No, she goes home to tell Michael Douglas all about the whole thing!
Roger: She’s in shock.
Quentin: It’s absolutely absurd!
Roger: First of all, I think that cold storage room had two doors. I think it had two doors. She comes in one and goes out the other.
Quentin: You are just yanking that out of your ass. That has not been shown. It’s not even like the guy can say, “Well, what the fuck’s she talking about?” The gun is in the room. There are bullets in the bodies and there’s a dead guy downstairs and she’s a fucking doctor saying he did it.
Roger: Well, one of the reasons you don’t think all those thoughts is because in the very following scene (the one you’re talking about with Michael Douglas, where she’s talking to him), Geneviève Bujold gives this amazing performance where she’s hysterical and crying and it’s real. She’s giving her Rosemary’s Baby performance in that moment.
Quentin: Yeah, she is.
Roger: And it’s so good and convincing that you’re like, “Yeah, she went to the person she could trust.”
Quentin: That is such sloppy screenwriting. I just. Okay, anyway.
Roger: I can agree with you on that. I think I can agree with you a little bit. But I’m not thinking about that, is the thing.
Quentin: I was thinking about it when I watched it. I don’t know if I was thinking about it in 1978 when I saw the film.
Roger: But when we watch it together-
Quentin: Of course, I was thinking about it! It’s not even that great of a sequence because it’s a generic killer chasing the heroine (well, it doesn’t have to be a woman but the lead) of the thriller. It’s just thrown in there to be some action. Now I could be a dick and just piss on the whole concept: of the way the conspiracy works in general, about the fact that a bunch of doctors would all just get together and just throw the Hippocratic Oath away and come up with this ridiculously preposterous and very chancy situation of murdering people by putting them in comas; simply to sell their organs, and they’re doing it all simply for money. It’s only about money.
There is a moment in the movie that’s the classic moment in a thriller; where our hero goes and tells the person that they trust what’s going on and the person goes- I’ve seen this, we’ve all seen this scene a zillion times. They go, “Wow, what a story. Hey, can I get you a drink?” “Yeah, sure, sure.” “Have a drink. That’s a really, really amazing tale. Thank you for coming to me with this. You’ve uncovered a lot.” “Well, thank you. Oh, wait a minute. Something’s going on. What’s weird? I’m getting kind of dizzy.” “You know, you’ve been a real problem. You’ve been a real problem. I tried to talk you out of it, but I’m going to now have to deal with you. Yeah, no. That’s the poison that I put in your drink.”
Roger: That is the most arch moment of the movie.
Quentin: And then at that point, normally in a movie, the person proceeds to give their little speech; of the philosophy of why they’re doing what they do. Usually in these kind of thrillers, you don’t buy their philosophy but at least they have a philosophy. They buy it. They believe it. I’m expecting that to happen. The character even starts: “Yes. It’s easy when you’re younger, but when you’re older, us doctors, we have to make decisions between life and death and da da da da,” and then he ends up saying nothing.
Roger: Well, his argument is actually preposterous, because all he has to do is say it’s about money. That’s all he has to say and instead, he does this whole thing of “We doctors. We have to take care. We have to make decisions for people and make the hard choices.”
Quentin: It’s just double talk.
Roger: And it becomes such an arch villain, it’s ridiculous.
Quentin: It’s really a situation because you figure that there was some philosophy behind it, and then you go, “So this is just about money? This is just about selling the gallbladder?”
Roger: Well, that I could buy.
Quentin: I mean, I could even make a case for where he’s coming from, where it’s like, “Yes, we do sacrifice some of these healthy people and yes, that is a sacrifice and that is a tragedy. However, if we harvest their organs, that one person could end up saving seven people.” I don’t buy that argument, but that’s an argument to be made for a megalomaniac conspiracy killing doctor.
Roger: But this was the discussion in the seventies, when the book came out. It was all about organ donations and organ transplants which were starting to become a big thing. There was so much distrust among people about donating their organs, should I be killed in an accident or whatever.
Quentin: Here’s the thing. I will buy it for what it is. I will buy it for what it sells. In the case of King Kong, I believe that there is an ape that could be that big, whether that’s possible or not. But I’ll go with it for now. Okay. When I watch Land of the Giants, I believe that there could be a planet with people that big, so I will go with that in the case of Coma. Geneviève Bujold is just fantastic in this movie.
Roger: She holds it together. You want to follow her, you just want to follow her everywhere she goes.
Quentin: It’s one of the best leads in a thriller, you know? Uncovering stuff, playing the Nancy Drew, whether it’s a male character or a female character. It’s one of the better characters in a thriller, and you really, really, really like her. Yet she does not kill herself trying to be likable. They do a very interesting thing between her and Michael Douglas that works both as their relationship and it also works in the thriller camp, because we know we know some of these people that we’ve met in the hospital (whether it be Richard Widmark or Rip Torn or somebody); some of them, one of them, all of them, who knows, are going to be part of this conspiracy.
Roger: And you’re like, “Is it this person? Is it that person?” It feels like everybody.
Quentin: Yeah, it feels like everybody.
Roger: Because you’re paranoid, like her by the end of the movie.
Quentin: Exactly. I think one of the best screenwriting things that Michael Crichton does is that “Is he or isn’t he?” aspect of Michael Douglas’ character. Is he involved in this conspiracy or is he not? Is he innocent? Is he completely and utterly guilty? Is he just unconvinced by what she’s saying or is he purposely trying to derail her because she’s learning too much? You always believe that he cares for her. That’s not the issue. But it’s like, “Oh, my God, maybe she’s getting too close.” The “Is he a bad guy? Is he not a bad guy?” propels you through the whole movie.
Roger: There is so much attention placed on the male gaze. There’s this whole discussion of who’s going to take the shower first. “I’m going to take the shower first this time,” and he’s like, “No, I’m going to take it” and it becomes sort of a a pecking order thing among them. She’s just like, “Screw that. I’m taking my shower.” She gets in, we’re in an extreme close up of Michael Douglas in profile, looking at her in the shower. He’s talking. Normally, the convention would be to rack focus to his face and Critchton doesn’t do that. Or I should say Victor Kemper doesn’t do it, and it’s a very, very conscious decision because we as the audience, are then placed into the position of looking at the female form.
Quentin: Behind the shower door, yeah.
Roger: Behind the shower door.
Quentin: I love that shot.
Roger: Oh, I absolutely love the shot, and I love what that shot does in setting up their characters.
Quentin: But what I’m saying, though, is the fact that throughout the whole movie, it hops back and forth about “Is he a bad guy? Is he not? Is he a bad guy? Is he not?” Also, is Michael Douglas the male chauvinist that all the other people are in the film or is he not? This thing suggests maybe he is, this answer back from him suggests maybe he’s not.
“How much does he love her? How much is he committed to her?” There’s the left foot. There’s the right foot. It all keeps going back and forth and in the case of Michael Douglas, everything is eventually revealed. You actually get the answer to all three of those questions: How much does he love her? How much is he involved? Is he a bad guy and does he respect her? All that is all answered. It’s all answered by the end of the film. That’s fantastic.
Roger: Because those are the things that I think Crichton cares about when he’s adapting the book and making the movie. Less so, the mundane mechanics of the plot.
Quentin: When you talk about Coma, there is the whole image of the bodies hanging which once you’ve seen it, you can never unsee it.
Roger: The poster tagline was, “Imagine your life hangs by a thread. Imagine your body hangs by a wire. Imagine that you’re not imagining. Coma.”
Quentin: Yeah. Then there’s that wonderful, wonderful moment with Elizabeth Ashley, who’s the nurse at the coma facility, and the one body is just kind of out of place.
Roger: She’s great in this.
Quentin: Yeah, she’s terrific in it. The one body’s out of place, so she just kind of touches it and is just like, “It’s okay, it’s okay.”
Roger: “It’s going to be okay. Everything’s going to be okay.” What I liked about that is that it showed that this may be this nefarious institution, but there is kind of a soul going on in there. She cares, that woman. She cares about those people.
Quentin: Having seen the movie at the theaters when it came out, the reason Coma was a hit (aside from the the interesting premise) is because the climax at the end is so damn exciting. It is so much fun, that is why it was a hit. That is why people applauded in the movie theater at the very end. You got your money’s worth for the end in a packed movie theater, and people walked out laughing and they enjoyed it and they told their friends and then they went and saw it.
It’s because of the ending that it was a hit, and deservedly a hit. I remember seeing it, when a certain reveal happens (and I won’t say what it is) but when a certain reveal happens, the audience just burst into applause. I mean, just burst into applause. It was one of the wonderful moments like that, in going to movies in the seventies with a jam packed audience and they just all lost it.
Roger: Everybody wanted that moment to happen.
Quentin: And it happened, and there was just a magnificent reaction. It really made you feel why it’s fun to go to the movies.
Roger: That’s the power of a movie theater.
Quentin: And you walked out of the theater back into the mall, just feeling great, having had a wonderful time at the films.
Roger: There’s so many discussions, everything is about kidneys in the movie. She’s talking to that child about his kidney, and we see that she kind of knows he’s not going to get the kidney he needs. So she gives him two pieces of candy. She’s like, “Go ahead. You may as well. Live life now.” There’s so many kidney discussions. It’s the kidneys that they’re selling.
Quentin: But there’s a weird aspect in Coma, though. How random are these people that they decide to put in comas?
Roger: Well, I have a thought on that. Tom Selleck’s character, you didn’t mention, he is the picture of health but he’s also kind of gay in the movie. He’s got the mustache. He’s like, “Me and my buddies, we were horsing around…”
Quentin: He’s an athlete!
Roger: I know, but watch it again. He’s playing a gay guy. There’s even that whole thing of when he’s saying that they were playing touch football. But he’s kind of like “Me he and the boys were just…” Then Lois Chiles’s character is getting an abortion. So I feel like on some level, they’re they’re making these kind of executive decisions based on who they feel are moral choices.
Quentin: I don’t buy your Tom Selleck story, alright. But the Lois Chiles one, her situation is talked about to such a degree where we don’t need to know anything. She didn’t need to go in for an abortion, she could have gone in for anything. But she’s going in for an abortion.
Roger: It’s very specific.
Quentin: We’re told she got pregnant from having an affair out of wedlock with her husband and then the doctor even discusses it during her operation. “It looks like this little minx is going to get away with it.”
Roger: “Not my place to make a moral decision.”
Quentin: Yeah, exactly. I mean, all this stuff, it does suggest that maybe because she’s getting an abortion, she’s the one that’s put on the list. Okay, so that’s all I really have to say about Coma.
Roger: Well, I have one more thing I want to bring up, and that’s Ed Harris.
Quentin: Oh, yeah.
Roger: In this movie, when she goes down into the-
Quentin: It’s a very funny scene.
Roger: -the autopsy space, the pathology room, and all the pathology guys are down there. What I love about that scene is that in this world of abject chauvinism that is everywhere, she goes down into the place where all they think about all day long is how to murder people and murdering people and those are the one guys that are a: not chauvinist at all. They give her everything she needs. They talk to her as a neutral person.
Quentin: They don’t try to get a date. They’re not trying to get a phone number.
Roger: They’re like the geeks, who are just totally normal. They’re the only people you can trust.
Quentin: Yeah. They’re not trying to be flirty. They actually literally are engaging with her.
Roger: And Ed Harris gives such a great, funny performance in like-
Quentin: And so does the other guy, they’re a good team.
Roger: Oh, they’re a great team.
Quentin: Yes, and they actually predate those two computer nerds in Silence of the Lambs.
Roger: Yeah, completely yeah.
Quentin: Dean Butler plays one of them. It’s to such a degree, that I actually think that maybe that sequence is based on this sequence.
Roger: Oh, for sure and the autopsy sequence in Wolfen is similar to that. Anyone who eats in pathology is probably coming from Coma. There is another thing to mention: Victor Kemper, who was the DP of this, is also the DP of Mikey & Nicky.
Quentin: Oh that’s true. Yeah.
Roger: So today’s theme: Victor Kemper. Mostly a studio guy, but also did Eyes of Laura Mars, Magic, and Xanadu.
Quentin: His work in both of them is fantastic and they could not be more opposite. Frankly, I am not a fan of movies that are set in hospitals. I find them boring and drab.
Roger: Dull to look at, yeah.
Quentin: Dull, and everything’s lit by fucking fluorescents.
Roger: You shot an entire episode in a hospital.
Quentin: Yeah. That was interesting, though, because in the case of E.R., they went a long way to not making it drab. They had light flares and all these really interesting things. They came up with a dynamic design for the hospital. Well, Coma has the same design. There’s nothing drab about Coma, even when they’re in the normal hospital, and when they get to the Coma Institute it’s fantastic. I mean, it’s like she walked into a German expressionistic painting.
Quentin: So, Gala.
Gala: Hello. I watched Coma and I liked it so much that in the same week I bought the Blu Ray and watched Coma again. I actually think this is now one of my favorite movies of all time. I’m just going to go out and say it; I love Coma. All of the hospital scenes feel super authentic. When she goes and sees the therapist, he’s using actual motivational interviewing techniques. I’m a psychology student at Harvard, and he’s using those techniques properly (which you never see in movies, them actually using psychology techniques properly) and then later Dr. George is using them on her also, just to manipulate her.
Quentin: I really liked that. I like when the therapist goes, “And nobody cares.” “Really? Nobody cares?”
Roger: I loved that guy.
Quentin: That’s Harry Rhodes, actually. He’s a cool guy. He’s the star of Detroit 9000.
Gala: Oh, yeah. Because all of these actors that just pop up everywhere are all really terrific. I think every performance is a great performance. This is an example of a headstrong woman who is really likable. I have to just go out and say, I love her. I found her actually lovable. Maybe it’s because she’s fighting against sexism or against chauvinism or whatever it is. But even when she’s wrong, I like that she just goes for it. She’s just doing it. Also, I love that it’s an Invasion of the Body Snatchers level of paranoia; you don’t know if it’s her grief or if it is a bigger conspiracy, for a while in the movie.
Roger: Grief of losing her friend, Lois Chiles.
Gala: The grief of losing Lois Chiles, who- I love Lois Chiles, I think that’s pretty apparent.
Quentin: Watching the movie this time, I was thinking, “What if they actually went more the Polanski way with Rosemary’s Baby, where she could be wrong. She could just be suffering from postpartum depression and then everything ultimately is just circumstantial evidence until the very end.
Roger: It’s just paranoia.
Quentin: Ralph Bellamy could be 100% right in his diagnosis of her, in the film. I don’t think it quite goes that far. I started wondering if it did go that far, if I would like it more and I’m not sure. But it’s an interesting way to think about it.
Gala: Yeah, I kind of wish it had gone that far.
Quentin: I kind of wish it’d gone that far. A little bit. Just a little bit. I wish they’d done just a little bit more.
Gala: But I will say and now, Quentin, you asked Roger, “Are you going to go toe to toe with me on this?” And he didn’t go. I’m going to: That cadaver part is one of my favorite parts of the movie. I find that chase sequence so fun. It re-energizes the movie. They are in the school part of the hospital, which is why it’s empty.
Roger: That’s why there’s an auditorium.
Gala: The bodies that have been donated to science are there so that they can work on them and learn, which is why it’s empty. The number one thing, though, that I think you left out when you were discussing why she doesn’t immediately go downstairs? She just killed him.
Gala: She’s killed him. He’s dead. Imagine getting all of those bodies on you.
Quentin: She did not kill him.
Gala: He’s dead.
Quentin: She did not kill him, she just knocked him down.
Gala: I think he’s dead. I mean, if you had, like, 20 or 30 dead bodies piled on you-
Quentin: It’s not 20 or 30, it’s like 9.
Gala: I’m going to go home and get out my Blu Ray disc of Coma. I’m going to go home and I’m going to count the bodies.
Roger: I count about seven or nine. But still, those bodies are heavy.
Quentin: A car would kill him.
Roger: Bodies are heavy.
Quentin: They’re not enough to crush him to death. No, it wouldn’t do that.
Roger: It definitely incapacitated him.
Gala: Well, I understand her being so afraid that she goes the one person she thinks she can trust, which is her boyfriend. I would hope that if you’re dating someone, you could trust them if there’s a maniac killer.
Quentin: She went across town! There are cops right there. There is security that is paid for. Everyone thinks you’re crazy! Now you can tell them all! I think the chase scene is perfunctory, but it’s just what she does afterwards that’s absolutely absurd.
Gala: Okay, we can agree to disagree because I honestly don’t care because it’s just so fun. I love the reveal of the whistle for Michael Douglas. I don’t know why whenever he’s in a movie and he’s making tea, they use this whistle.
Roger: It’s his signature touch.
Gala: If he makes tea, the whistle has to go off and something crazy has to happen.
Roger: It’s my trademark.
Gala: Now, the kidney, because this movie is all about the kidney. That’s the thing is, that at one point he says, “We have to make the hard decisions.” They’re doing it for the children. They’re harvesting these organs for the children.
Roger: Oh that’s interesting. I hadn’t thought of that.
Quentin: He doesn’t say it explicitly.
Roger: No, but Quentin,
Quentin: You’re saying that.
Roger: No, she is saying that, but what she’s saying actually supports (in some ways) his wonky argument of, “We have to make the choices.”
Quentin: He’s got to make it, mate. Okay. You guys can’t make it for him. Where’s the scene to explain it all? He has to make the argument. You can’t make the argument for him.
Roger: Well, he made it to Gala
Quentin: I know. I just made the argument, but that doesn’t count.
Gala: I don’t know. It was made well enough to me that I was under the impression that he’s doing it for the children. Quentin, I have to say, it is an attack on femininity: 100% the people they are targeting for these Comas: you have Lois Chiles with an abortion. You have a Jane Doe who has a lump on her breast. You have Tom Selleck, who is wrastlin’ with the guys.
Quentin: Are you buying your father’s theory?
Gala: We watched it separately and we had the same conclusion. So maybe it’s just because we’re in the same household and because I am of him. What the whole movie is about, is that she’s being attacked as a woman and there’s an attack on femininity going on. They’re choosing people-
Quentin: I didn’t argue about that.
Gala: Yeah, but I think that they’re specifically choosing people that are having issues with their femininity.
Quentin: I brought that up. I agree with you. I’m betting that in the book, Richard Widmark’s philosophy is probably laid out-
Roger: In a much more clear way.
Quentin: In a stronger way. But I am not letting Crichton off the hook because it’s not like, “Oh, he didn’t have time to deal with that.” He gives Richard Widmark a speech where he just says homilies and he just says cliches. He doesn’t get to a point. I respect what you’re saying, but you’re saying it. He’s not saying it, you’re drawing it from him.
Roger: Well, I think because the whole question of, “Why have the scene where she’s talking to the child?” And part of it is to illustrate the need for kidneys.
Quentin: Okay, this is great storytelling, that you guys are doing, but it’s all fucking smoke and mirrors and we have to pour lemon juice on the fucking pages so you can read the invisible ink.
Gala: We have to take a Moonraker connection here.
Gala: Also one thing I will say, though, is in that final arch speech, I really like the effect they used.
Quentin: I never like that.
Gala: I enjoyed it.
Roger: The problem is, in that moment, we kind of need a little clarity. We need the explanation delivered to us, and suddenly it becomes all about weird lasers and slow motion.
Quentin: In a situation like that (not always, you never say always and I don’t mean always, but normally), I don’t want to see the world through Geneviève Bujold’s eyes; getting all weird with crazy lenses that don’t hold up today. I want to see the effect of the drug on her as she’s crumbling to the floor with the villain standing over her and I want to hear, clearly, what he has to say.
Roger: I frankly couldn’t believe it, that she actually went to him. I just have an inherent distrust of- You know me. I have an inherent distrust of corporations, governments, mobs of people. Doctors will fall into that and so I-
Quentin: Frankly, they’re bureaucrats.
Roger: Bureaucrats is what they are, not doctors.
Quentin: The case could be made that the film is double investing in its patriarchal dynamic; because he’s setting himself up as the great father of this situation and she’s the bright, shiny penny that’s coming in there. So when she does come to him, she’s coming to the great father to right everything and to fix everything. So even she at the end of the day, when it comes to age and wisdom and position, even she ultimately this is the society she lives in and she goes to the great father.
Gala: I also just have to say, I wasn’t really fooled by the whole Dr. George thing. That was the one thing that was kind of confusing to me; that they’re trying to say, “Oh, it’s the anesthesiologist.”
Quentin: You’re talking about Rip Torn.
Gala: Yeah, they’re trying to say it’s Rip Torn but…
Quentin: I didn’t buy the George double thing, at all.
Gala: I was so confused when she’s realizing, when she’s drugged.
Roger: I wasn’t even following George until that moment.
Quentin: Yeah, I know. Me neither. Now, the thing about Rip Torn, though, he’s just a complete red herring. There’s no doubt about that. I actually think he maybe gives the best characterization along with Geneviève Bujold in the film. He’s fantastic.
Roger: Yeah, he’s good.
Quentin: It doesn’t even matter that he’s a red herring, he is fantastic. I wish he had more scenes. He’s really, really good every time he comes in.
Gala: Yeah, him and his three really sexy Asian nurses, that are all, “Hello, Dr. George.”
Roger: I’m sure that that was a very specific Crichton detail, that he knew was real.
Quentin: Well, I guess that brings us to the end of our Coma segment.
Gala: I will tell you, Quentin, that my beautiful box that you have in your hands, because you love it so much, I bought that for $7.49. It is the MGM/UA big box release and it’s originally owned by Video Connections at 6400 Northeast Highway 99 in Vancouver, Washington.
Quentin: Oh, wow, that’s really cool and your box is all together. What that means is that it opens up like a book as opposed to, a thing that’s inserted, and it has that wonderful MGM thing where it has the entire cast and their characters all written down beautifully down the side in just a lovely level way. One hour and 44 minutes.
Roger: So shout out to Video Connections.
Gala: If anyone actually rented Coma from Video Connections, let me know.
Roger: Yeah, drop us a line.
Gala: The Video Archives VHS was bought on 8/20/1987 for $59.95.
MIKEY & NICKY
Clip from trailer for Mikey & Nicky: Peter Falk is Mikey. “I got a terrific suggestion for you, Nicky. I suggest you find somebody you can trust.” John Cassavetes is Nicky. “They’re gonna kill me. They’re gonna kill me.” On a night like this, there are no rules. Mikey & Nicky. Written and directed by Elaine May. “Ma, if anything happens to me, Mikey did it.”
Quentin: And we’re back. And the next film on our double feature that we’ve already mentioned once before, and Roger pointed out the same cinematographer, is writer/director Elaine May’s film, Mikey & Nicky, starring Peter Falk and John Cassavetes. This movie has a kind of interesting history. Before I go into the history, though, let me read the back of the box; which actually is very well written, frankly, to tell you the truth. But it maybe says too much and it definitely says too much as far as the narrative surprises that I like in the film. So like I said, if you intend to see Mikey & Nicky, I would skip listening to this episode until after you’ve seen it. If you don’t care, here we go:
Nicky, a small time hood, is in big trouble. He’s stolen syndicate money, and the local czars put a contract out on him. Over beers at the B n’ O bar, Nicky pleads with a lifelong friend for help. Will he make airline arrangements for him and help him escape? Obliging, Mikey walks to the phone, drops in a dime and dials the hitman. Peter Falk and John Cassavetes give stunning performances in writer/director Elaine May’s Mikey & Nicky. Cassavetes is Nicky: a hot wired charmer, capable of fast talking his way through any situation, except perhaps this one. Falk is Mikey: a weak willed, workaday racketeer who’s silently embittered by Nicky’s long time abuse of their long term friendship. Short, simple and if not sweet, at least efficient. That’s how Mikey hoped the job would be done. But wide eyed, suspicious Nicky won’t stay in one place long enough to allow it. He careens from one neighborhood stomping ground to another, and Mikey’s set up becomes a blackly comic setup that leaves the bumbling hitman, Ned Beatty, [Quentin interjects] he’s not bumbling, [back to reading] cruising the right block at the wrong time.
Roger: He’s just out of town.
Quentin: The misuses send Mikey on a long night’s journey of forced camaraderie with Nicky, and what a night. It’s an emotional whirlwind of dames, dupes and a painful past which before dawn, reveals the battered foundation of their once solid friendship. Throughout the night the hired assassin, like a shark circling for the kill, moves closer to his prey. As Nicky increasingly senses his entrapment, Mikey comes to realize his own. Does he hang on to the comfortable niche in his life the mob has given him, or does he rescue his lowlife but lifelong friend? Rereleased in 1984 to raves of critics everywhere, Mikey & Nicky has acquired a much deserved second life. But you’ll have to see for yourself if Nicky gets another chance. To say more would ruin a final sequence that Stanley Kaufman and Sally Review described as one of the most harrowing images that modern American film has ever given us.
Roger: I have to say, they describe Ned Beatty’s character as both bumbling and a shark circling to kill.
Quentin: So that’s a Warner Brothers home video. Mikey & Nicky: color, 107 minutes. So first, let me tell a little bit of the history of Mikey & Nicky before we get into the movie proper. And Roger, this is another film that you had never seen before right?
Roger: Yeah, I know you’re an Elaine May fan.
Quentin: I’m a big Elaine May fan.
Roger: A big, big Elaine May fan. Like, a champion.
Quentin: I think she’s one of the greatest screenwriters of all time, and I’m a big fan of her direction of movies, as well.
Roger: And I had never had that same appreciation. However, I’m a Cassavetes fan and I don’t know what it was, but over the years I just consistently stayed away from this, even though it felt like imitation to me. Even though everything in it is stuff that I would love: like Peter Falk, John Cassavetes, gangster stories, these two brothers (they’re not brothers, but they might as well be underworld brothers) and their relationship together. Everything about it is something I would love, there was just something I just repelled away from it over the years. Then you mentioned that we were going to watch it, and to be honest, I was like, “Well, okay, bring it on,” and she brought it on and I was especially taken by the film. I have a few issues with the movie, small issues though.
Quentin: I think this is a movie that you kind of divide into halves.
Roger: Mikey, and Nicky.
Quentin: Yeah, yeah. Literally. The film starts; the character of Nicky thinks that there’s a hit out on him. He’s holed up in a hotel room.
Roger: He’s done something.
Quentin: He worked for the bookmaking bank and him and another guy, who got whacked, stole some money. So now they’re after him.
Roger: He assumes everyone’s going to be after him.
Quentin: Yeah. He’s actually heard that Resnick, who’s the head mob guy played by the acting teacher Sanford Meisner, has actually put a hit on him. So what is almost the whole story of the movie almost is like, will Nicky live through the night? He’s got to live through the night. If he can live through the night, they can maybe get him out of town. But will he live through the night? And we kind of live through that night with him to see what happens. So he calls his old friend, who’s a gangster with him in this business, but he’s known him since he was a little boy. He’s literally a lifelong friend.
Roger: Yeah, they grew up on the street together.
Quentin: He calls his friend Mikey, the only one he can really trust, because they go back so far. Mikey shows up to help him, to calm him down and to take care of him and hopefully maybe even get him out of town. Possibly. This is all set up in the first half of the movie, in the first half of the movie you don’t want Nicky to get killed. You want him to get out of this, and you want Mikey to help him. Then the movie has, I actually think, one of the more devastating narrative reveals that you can see in a film.
Roger: In that bar?
Quentin: In the bar, yeah. Obviously you’re buying Falk and Cassavetes’ friendship because they were best friends.
Roger: Yeah, we’ve seen so many movies with them doing this.
Quentin: They are, literally, maybe one of the best dramatic acting teams that there is. You want Mikey to help him and you think he’s helping him. Then all of a sudden it cuts to the Ned Beatty character, who’s the hitman, and he’s on the phone and Nicky is being fingered. You have no idea who’s fingering him, but you figure, “Okay, well, this is the hitman. He’s going to go get him and everything” and then it cuts to the bar that they’re at and you see Peter Falk hang up the phone.
Roger: And frankly, if you blink, you might miss it.
Quentin: When you realize that Mikey is setting him up and is fingering him for the hitman, it’s unfathomable. You can’t believe it. You can’t even comprehend that he is actually betraying him to that degree, and it makes you fucking despise him. You want him to come to a senses.
Roger: He’s a fink. He’s a traitor.
Quentin: It’s unconscionable. That’s the first half of the movie. The second half of the movie is when you realize what a true piece of shit Nick is, and he deserves to die. At the end of the movie, you kind of want him to die and it’s Mikey who you feel sorry for. It is Mikey who rips your heart out at the end and that is just a fucking brilliant, dramatic structure for a movie that is basically about two people that you you carry through from the beginning of the end. It’s a magnificent, magnificent pressure cooker for a crime story.
Roger: Yeah. I mean, when they finally end up (I think it’s) in the graveyard, Mikey turns to Nicky and he says, “I don’t think you love anybody but you.” It’s in this moment, we realize how long Mikey has been subjected to being kind of-
Roger: -ridiculed by the mob, by Resnick, by all of them.
Quentin: Taken lightly, taken for granted.
Roger: The discovery that he’s been betrayed by his friend. It’s very deftly handled because it does allow you to, in that moment, you’re immediately on Peter Falk’s side and I completely related to Peter Falk also because at first you think, “Oh, he’s the guy who didn’t do well.”
Quentin: We’re watching this movie together and I go, “Oh my god. Am I, Nicky?”
Roger: Yeah. “Oh, my God. Am I Mikey?”
Quentin: If I’m anybody, I’m fucking Nicky. That’s not so good.
Roger: I think I’m Mikey, I don’t know if that’s good either. But when he’s like, “Look, I don’t want you to be my friend when nobody else is around,” and the fact that he’s been making jokes on his behalf. Then he plays it off and he’s like, “Oh, no, no. We were joking together.” It’s fucking devastating. That’s terrible. That’s actually not in the graveyard, isn’t it?
Quentin: That’s afterwards, yeah, yeah.
Roger: Yeah, that’s in the street.
Quentin: It’s after he left the girl’s house.
Roger: It’s in that incredible moment where Elaine May just let some go and they start wrestling like two little kids on the street.
Quentin: I think, in particularly Peter Falk’s confronting him about the the joke that happened in the restaurant-
Roger: It’s painful.
Quentin: I think that is (not just one of the best scenes of this movie, if not the best scene in this movie) one of the best written and best acted scenes between two men in any film of the seventies, as far as I’m concerned. It is as good as any of the Harvey Keitel/Robert De Niro sequences in Mean Street or in Taxi Driver. When he goes, “I walked into that restaurant and you’re sitting there with Resnick, and I have to say your name three times because I’m too embarrassed to walk away without getting an answer. Then you give me a little acknowledgment, and then just as I left, you turn to Resnick and say, ‘Oh, wait, I forgot to order the clams from that guy,’ and you laughed.”
Roger: “I did the joke for you.”
Quentin: “I said that for you. I said that for you. That’s why I said it loud enough that you would hear. That joke was for you. That joke was not for Resnick, that joke was for you.”
Roger: And you know what? In his mind, he might be justifying it that way but the truth of the matter is, Nicky does not have a lot of honor. He has this moment with the bus driver, where they actually work. They’re having a little fracas. They’re fighting with the bus driver, and they’re in a headlock or something. He’s holding his leg and yelling.
Quentin: “I can’t fight on the bus.”
Roger: “You’ll get out the back door.” “No, no, we’ll get off.” “No, you’ll get off the back door.” “Okay. If we get off the back, I’ll give you my word. If I let you go, you won’t do anything and then we’re going to get off the back.” “Okay. Okay. I believe him. He’s a man of his word.”
Quentin: “I’ll let you go. Don’t hit me. We’ll go outside and we’re going to really have at it.”
Roger: And then they go out the front door.
Quentin: And he runs away.
Roger: He didn’t have to do that. He does it on purpose because he can.
Quentin: Mikey and Nicky started being made around 74′ or so, and she was shooting it for Paramount. She ended up shooting an incredible amount of footage and for whatever reason (that I have no fucking clue about), she was in the editing room for like a year. I don’t understand why, but she was. So by the time they were done with it in 1976, Paramount didn’t know what to fuckin do with this and they really weren’t into it. They just threw it out there. I remember when it opened in 76′, they had an interesting little ad in the paper. I think it played at one theater in Westwood, Lemley Fine arts or something like that. Just one theater in Los Angeles, and none of the critics knew what to make of it and I do think the Peter Falk/John Cassavetes thing derailed them a little bit.
Roger: To be honest, that was the barrier for entry to me is that I was just afraid it was going to be aping the whole Peter Falk/Cassavetes improv Meisner thing, and that it was just going to be a big ape of that. And I found out, okay, it is actually way more structured than that.
Quentin: It’s not like that at all.
Roger: It’s actually not that. It’s its own thing.
Quentin: When you compare Mikey and Nicky to, say, John Cassavetes’ genre piece, which is A Killing of a Chinese Bookie; no, that’s a John Cassavetes movie that’s dipping its toe into genre while not really giving a fuck about genre, but just doing its own thing, using it simply as a framework. It works or doesn’t work, depending on how you feel about that. Mikey & Nicky completely and utterly works as a magnificent crime story. Her movie is shot. His movies aren’t shot. His movies are captured.
Roger: Yeah, absolutely. Frequently by hidden cameras.
Quentin: He’s never had strong cinematographers because he’s not about that. John Cassavetes doesn’t care. John Cassavetes isn’t going to spend 3 hours lighting a night street.
Roger: Or 5 minutes focusing.
Quentin: It’s just not what he did. It’s just not what he cares about. He’s about conjuring up moments and capturing something that a normal movie wouldn’t capture.
Roger: And then running up afterwards with release forms to get the street people that just happened to be in the movie.
Quentin: But Mikey & Nicky is well shot. It’s shot, it’s directed. Then basically, the film just disappeared. Paramount didn’t give a damn about it, but in 84′ a small release company called Castle Hill Productions; who also released the Henry Jaglom movie Can’t You Bake a Cherry Pie? Somehow they got the rights to Mikey & Nicky, and in 1984 it got rereleased again. This was at the time in Los Angeles, where the Beverly Center entertainment complex was the big art house place. So it just got booked in a theater there. In 84′, that’s when it got the reviews that it never got. That’s when the Stanley Kaufman piece comes out. That’s when the Michael Ventura rave review in the L.A. Weekly comes out. That’s when people started appreciating it for what it is. So that’s its history. I’m wondering, “Elaine May is, a writer, one of the best screenwriters in the history of Hollywood. She’s a writer who does not put her name on her own projects that much. She would much rather- Not much rather but she oftentimes, for a lot of money, would come in and do huge rewrites that she didn’t take credit on.
Roger: Those can pay well.
Quentin: Yeah, they can pay well and she does some of some of her most standout work that way. She was very protective about what she eventually put her name on. So coming from a point of view of a writer and coming from where she’s coming from, from more of a comedy place, what the fuck made her sit down to write this story about these two fucking dudes? What is the impetus of that? I don’t think it’s just to make a crime film. I don’t think she’s that kind of genre person, that wants to do that. So what is it? What is it that made her make this story about these two guys? I was fascinated by that. So fascinated that I got in touch with Elaine May, and I called her up and I asked her. I asked her, “What was it about these guys that you wanted to tell the story about?” I was thinking, maybe, that it was actually a Hollywood story. That these were people she knew in Hollywood.
Roger: It’s about Roger and Quentin.
Quentin: [laughing] That she knew in Hollywood, that she wanted to explore and she wanted to explore that dynamic. But then she simply made them gangsters and made it a crime movie in order to make it, you know, a movie. Even using an example in my head, not saying that this would be these people or making any aspersions on these people, but Nicky could be Jack Nicholson sitting in a restaurant and he’s sitting there with the mob character, Resnick, who could be Mike Medavoy.
Roger: Cause Nicholson’s the cool guy, and everybody wants to hang out with him.
Quentin: And Mikey is Monte Hellman, who comes in there and approaches them and has to say Jack’s name three times and Jack says, “Hey, Monte, how you doing?” And he walks away and they make some little joke at Monte’s expense, and Monte hears it. I’m not saying Jack would do that or anything like that, but it’s just-
Roger: It’s a famous dynamic.
Quentin: It’s a famous dynamic and we can all come up with 20 other little examples of people’s relationships in Hollywood that it could be.
Roger: It’s the Fight Club dynamic where you’ve got the extrovert and something of an introvert and they’re dynamic with each other.
Quentin: So anyway, I was thinking maybe that might be what it was and she just simply came up with a gangster genre to make it a movie. So I called her up and asked her about it. She didn’t understand what the fuck I was talking about at all, when I brought that up.
Roger: Yeah, when you told me your theory, I was like, “Yeah, that actually makes a lot of sense.”
Quentin: So I brought it up to her, and she’s like, “What is Hollywood about my story?” I go, “Oh, no, I’m not saying your story is Hollywood.” Then I laid it out, just exactly the way I laid it out to you. She was like, “Oh, I see where you’re going with that, that makes sense. That’s not where I was coming from, though.” “Okay. So where were you coming from?” “I knew two brothers, exactly like this, when I was a child in Chicago.” I go, “You did?” She goes, “Yes. When I was a little girl, we lived in an apartment building and there were different people in the area; Italians and Greeks and Jews. They were all involved with the mob, especially with bookmaking and bookmaking banks.
There were these two brothers that were pretty much the emblem of Mikey & Nicky in my mind, both gangsters. But one brother was kind of beloved by everybody. Everybody liked him, they liked being with him. They thought he was funny, he was handsome, and everyone dug him. The big bosses really, really liked him. Then he stole money from them, and then they wanted to kill him. Part of the reason they wanted to kill him is because they liked him so much. They were like, “How dare he?” When the mob likes you that much and then you fuck them, that’s when they really, really want to teach you a lesson.
It was to such a degree, that the mother of the two sons even had a favorite son. The favorite son was the Nicky character, the one in trouble. The mob had gotten in touch with her and told her, “You have to send one of your sons to this one place because that’s where we’re going to take care of them.” And she knew she had no choice, so she did a Sophie’s Choice. She sent the other son.” I’m like, “Holy shit. That’s wild.”
Roger: That’s such a good dynamic. I can’t believe she didn’t put that in there.
Quentin: Yeah, I know. I think that’s probably where she started and then it developed into this.
Roger: The emotional dynamics are actually the same, though, whether it’s two biological brothers or not.
Quentin: These guys might as well be brothers.
Roger: Well, especially Cassavetes and Peter Falk.
Quentin: In real life, yes. But even in the movie, as Mikey and Nicky, they made it, especially the way they talk about each other’s parents all the time. One of my favorite moments is the whole discussion of Mikey’s brother, Izzy, that died of cancer. That’s a beautiful section. That’s just a really, really beautiful section. This was really fascinating. One: to know that this all came from two people that Elaine May when she was a little girl. This is something that happened,
Roger: In the neighborhood.
Quentin: I’m guessing, she was 9 or ten or 11; around that age. That was the kind of age range she was talking about.
Roger: I just don’t know, where did she grew up? Brooklyn?
Roger: Yeah, of course.
Quentin: She kept making a point that this is very Chicago; this is a Chicago thing. She even told me that the first time she attempted to write this, it was as a one act play before she had even joined Second City. That’s how early this was in her mind; that she wrote it as a one act play before her Second City years, which is the beginning of Elaine May.
Quentin: And so then, after all that time, to now come back to that original story; that original one act play and then sit down and that’s going to be your new movie, that’s pretty darn fascinating. I was glad to find that out. I liked my little theory, and I think it still works.
Quentin: Totally works, I kind of wish she had just rolled with it.
Roger: That’s exactly what I was thinking.
Quentin: My little subtextual theory still works, if you want to buy it.
Roger: There’s also something; a dynamic that she sets up that isn’t brothers and isn’t a mother turning her child in, which is super interesting, and we are not like this together. But Mikey is a family guy. When I was first watching the movie-
Quentin: He is a family guy.
Roger: I was thinking, “Oh, he’s the one who really didn’t ascend.” No, he’s living really well. He’s living in a nice house. He’s got a wife. He’s living a very suburban existence. In fact, he has a little child. Reminded me of your child. I looked at him and I was like, “Jesus, he looks like Quentin’s kid.”
Quentin: His little boy is five years old. I was thinking about Leo the whole time, watching the movie. Even the way he talks about him-
Roger: It’s like, “Hey, bring me a crayon, honey. I have to take down these notes for the hitman.” Probably she doesn’t know it’s a hit man but she’s getting the crayon and everything. Then in the end- We’re just giving it away, but John Cassavetes is coming to the door. He’s basically pounding on the door of domesticity.
Quentin: Yeah, he is.
Roger: He’s pounding on it to be let in, but it’s too late for him.
Quentin: It’s too late.
Roger: And they can’t let him in, they have their child to protect. They have their life to protect.
Quentin: And what Stanley Kaufman’s referring to is, it is devastating to see Peter Falk’s face because he had already resigned himself that he was going to do this. He was the Judas who had made a conscious decision for the betterment of all.
Roger: Well, he’s also the reliable one with Resnick. They might like to hang out with Nicky, but Mikey’s the one that they go to when they need shit done. So when they call him to betray his friend, I think they know he’s going to do it.
Quentin: Yeah and then the thing is also that the way it was set up is if Ned Beatty had gotten to the bar in time, Mikey gets him in the bar, Mikey fingers him and gives the hitman the location; but he doesn’t have to watch the deed being done. He gets to escape and have it just happen in the background. But here, he has to cause it. He has to cause it at the end, and the cost of causing it is devastating. It’s a devastating last close up of Peter Falk. I mean, it’s just terrific acting work from both men. I think it’s really important to say that when it comes to John Cassavetes, because John Cassavetes was one of the powerhouse young actors of the fifties
After Brando came out, there was a whole explosion of young actors: obviously James Dean, but also Vic Morrow in Blackboard Jungle, that were kind of angry young man taking the Brando thing. In the sixties at some point, John Cassavetes obviously made a decision that when it came to being artistically fulfilled, acting wasn’t going to do that for him anymore. The way he was going to be artistically fulfilled, was to be making movies and directing movies and directing them his way and doing them his way. That would be where his artistic fulfillment would come. He’s still an actor, and he’s still going to do good movies. But artistic fulfillment, it’s not his goal in that; it’s simply to do good work and make money and usually to make money to put into his own movies.
Roger: Yeah. It’s not like he’s bringing a heck of a lot of passion to the gigs he’s doing.
Quentin: However, having said that, John Cassavetes actually became one of the better genre actors of the late sixties and through the seventies, and even into the eighties. If he’s hired to be the motorcycle gang leader in The Devil’s Angels, or if he’s hired to be in the Italian gangster movie Machine Gun McCabe, do I think John Cassavetes will watch those movies? No, he’s not going to watch them. He doesn’t want to watch a stupid motorcycle movie, but he’s still going to try to do as good a job as he possibly can for them. He knows what they want and he wants to be a good actor. He’s not going to kill himself, but he’s going to deliver a good performance. He’s very good as the villain in The Fury and he’s very good in The Incubus.
Roger: I love him in The Fury. It took me a moment to actually register The Fury; that you were actually invoking the name, because you know how much I love that movie.
Quentin: I love him as the SWAT leader in Two Minute Warning. I’m a big fan of Two Minute Warning. Nevertheless, the point being is they were two dimensional portrayals in genre movies of (more or less) two dimensional characters, at best. The type of work he gives in Mikey & Nicky is not the work he gave any other director from 1965 on.
Roger: Do you think that’s partly because Peter Falk, his brother in filmmaking, is there to help elevate him, to stand with him and basically match him?
Quentin: Well, I think Falk has a lot to do with it, but I also think he’s responding to Elaine and I think he responded to the script and he realized that this is not like any of the other movies that he had done as an actor, up until this time. This is, I think, the only- He’s given some terrific performances in some of these movies. He was nominated for an Oscar for The Dirty Dozen and he fucking deserved it. But there is a three dimensional quality to his acting, there is a level of investment in his acting that is just not there in Two Minute Warning and it’s not there in Machine Gun McCabe and it’s not there in Capone and it’s not there in any of these the other movies he does.
I even think maybe Peter Falk is even better, but to see John Cassavetes commit to acting in a way that you have not seen him commit, even in his own movies, is just something to behold. Especially to see him and Falk working together. I think that there is something about why she cast them. You’re talking about Elaine May, who was part of one of the greatest comedy teams in the history of comedy: Nichols and May. When she cast Mikey & Nicky, she looked for the dramatic equivalent of Nichols and May; when it came to Improvisation, when it came to finishing each other’s sentences, when it came to knowing what the other one was going to do before they were going to do it, and then just handing it off like a potato. They are the dramatic equivalent of a Nichols and May.
Roger: Well, now that you’ve said that, Nicky is obviously Nichols and Mikey is obviously May.
Roger: I mean, that’s the dynamic here we’re talking of. Actually, that dynamic formula still works as you discussed it.
Quentin: I could actually even hear Elaine May saying, “Oh, whenever you have a problem with a script, that’s when you come to me. When you have a problem with The Birdcage, that’s when I get the call. That’s when I get the knock on the door.”
Roger: She doesn’t even take the acclaim. She just does the work.
Quentin: One of the things that she told me that was interesting is, you get the impression in the movie that Nicky has risen higher in the organization than Mikey has; which was part of my Monte Hellman/Jack Nicholson comparison. Then she goes, “No, no, no, no, no, no, no. It’s not necessarily that Nicky is in a better situation with Resnick than Mikey is, as far as moving up in the business, it’s just Nicky’s beloved. Nicky is popular.
Roger: He’s funner to hang out with.
Quentin: Mikey’s not popular. He irritates Resnick.
Roger: He’s got that weird eye. He’s kind of a little bit of a schlubby guy. He’s married.
Quentin: He doesn’t have a bunch of poontang set up in different apartment buildings, you know? Okay. So this review from Sight and Sound magazine on the rerelease of Mikey and Nicky that happened in the eighties.
Roger: Sight and Sound was one of my very, very favorites.
Quentin: Yeah, me too, actually. Mikey and Nicky, eight years late in entering British distribution, Elaine May’s film spent half as long in production and emerged with four cameramen and eight sound editors credited, bearing all the scars of its troubled and meddlesome gestation. But given that none of May’s films have had a trouble-free passage and that all bore witness to an original talent peculiarly unaffected by any of the ruling notions of cinema, this is not necessarily a bad sign.
Mikey and Nicky is many things; some of them are already evident in A New Leaf and The Heartbreak Kid and all of them in extremis. It is a gangster film whose funny, sad, gangsterism: a hitman who can’t find his way and a rather ulcerous as godfather, are also a kind of realism. It is comedy whose dawdling point (Nicky is Mikey’s best friend and is setting him up for a hit) becomes crueler as it gets funnier. It is a study of male camaraderie, in which the free form raggedness of John Cassavetes and Peter Falk playing both echoes Cassavetes own films and turns on a reversal of sympathies as neat as in the most well-made play. Brilliant disillusionment.
Roger: It almost needs to be read with a British accent, when they say, “Dawdling.”
Quentin: That’s my take on Mikey and Nicky. I think a powerful, powerful movie that held up to repeated viewings. While I think there was a lot of interplay going on between Falk and Cassavetes, I do not think it is the Improvisation thing that a lot of people have accused it of being. I actually think this is very literate material. It’s a very strong, strong screenplay that one of the great writers of Hollywood cinema wrote, and it’s a gem.
Roger: You know, you mentioned the false nature of the hitman in Coma and the highly realistic nature of the hitman in this Ned Beatty character. The fact that he has shown up in town, and they mentioned bumbling on the box-
Quentin: Yeah, he’s not a bumbler.
Roger: He’s not a bumbler at all. He’s a hitman.
Quentin: There is a comic aspect to Ned Beatty, but it’s not-
Roger: That’s only because he’s he’s from out of town.
Quentin: That of a bumbler. As comic as some of it is, none of it takes away from his lethalness.
Roger: No, it’s realistic.
Quentin: He’s always a threat. He’s never not a threat. But it maybe seems like the most realistic version of a hit situation that I’ve ever encountered in a movie, and especially the whole concept of a hit man in the 70’s; when you thought of the mob hiring a hitman, you see Charles Bronson come off the airplane.
Roger: You don’t see Ned Beatty.
Quentin: You see Henry Silva come off the airplane and they’ve got the high powered rifle with a big silencer at the end of the big scope, and they’re on the fucking roof and they’ve got their little photos and shit. You say the word hitman to me and Henry Silva’s face is what pops into my head and if it’s not Silva, it’s fucking Bronson.
Quentin: Then you got Ned Beatty here. It just takes the piss out of the whole thing without making it a joke. What’s funny about it is that it seems kind of workaday realistic.
Roger: Gala, what did you think?
Gala: So I watched this on Criterion Blu Ray, it is number 957 for any of you Criterion lovers out there. I have to give you and Quentin a thank you, because I’m going to be honest: this movie was lost on me completely. I was lukewarm watching this. I was really interested in watching it because I’ve wanted to watch The Heartbreak Kid for like a year now and just never got around to it. So I was like, “Ooh, Elaine May. I’m really excited” and I watched it and I’m just like, “Oh I don’t know, it’s okay. I like the performances and I can acknowledge that it’s good, but I don’t know. I just wasn’t crazy about it.”
But listening to you guys talk about it, I’m like, “Wow, there is a lot that I missed while I’m watching this film.” I mean, number one, that story that you told about Elaine May is super powerful; the reasons why she’s making this and the story behind it. I think it lends a lot to someone like me, that maybe wasn’t understanding of the material. Also the discussion of turning in your friend, knowing that you’re going to do it, it’s on his doorstep. It has to take place on his doorstep. What you guys said about the fact that it’s basically suburbia holding him out; like he’s realized that this is the life that he should be living and he no longer is able to live this.
Roger: He’s meeting the very end that he’s built his entire life, both of them are where they are. It’s a kind of tragedy.
Quentin: I love what you said about the family holding him out. “I don’t treat my wife the way you treat yours; when I’m going to be late or I’m going to be out all night, I call.”
Gala: And actually, it’s also his wife holding him out. I mean, his wife doesn’t want to.
Quentin: She doesn’t know what the fuck’s going on. She’s disturbed.
Gala: But it’s actually really powerful. So I thank you guys for enlightening me.
Roger: No matter what, any director stepping in to these two guys in a movie like this, that comes with a lot of baggage and it takes a strong filmmaker to be able to navigate that and to stay true to the material.
Quentin: Well, you’re right. It came with a lot of baggage and I do think that baggage helped sink it in the seventies.
Roger: In its initial release.
Quentin: In its initial release. Yes, exactly. Even the fact that Elaine May didn’t talk Gena Rowlands into playing Nicky’s wife but instead got Joyce Van Patten, who is fantastic in the movie. She says one of the better lines in the film, “They’re going to kill me.” Well, when you steal people’s money, they get mad.” But then when they just kiss and they just break into each other’s arms and they just give each other this passionate kiss, that was moving. That got me.
Gala: I will say, there’s actually two moments in the movie I really like, which are both Peter Falk. I actually really enjoy him in the movie. The first is at the very beginning, when he goes to the pharmacy or whatever.
Quentin: Oh, the diner?
Gala: He’s like, “Give me the cream or I’ll kill you, because I’m crazy.” That was a really fun moment because it’s funny because he has to get him out of the apartment, basically to kill him. But he’s like having an ulcer. It’s like just like, let him suffer. He doesn’t want his friend to suffer, he still wants to get him the cream.
Roger: He’s going back and forth. He’s got to do his job. He’s got to betray his friend. But also, it’s his friend.
Quentin: That scene with the cream and the disinterested counter guy, that seems like a great Harvey Keitel scene from a Scorsese movie.
Roger: And it feels (whether it was or not, I don’t know) spontaneous; that moment where he hops over the counter.
Quentin: He just swipes the donut case off the counter, hops over the counter, just strangling this man.
Roger: It looks like he shocked that day player.
Gala: And I also really like the moment when Nicky is with one of his many women, when Mikey is just sitting there in the kitchen, awkwardly.
Quentin: Oh, I know.
Gala: Nicky basically rapes this woman on the couch, when they’re just kind of sitting there. It’s like The Last Supper because he’s been bringing guys there to have sex with her multiple times.
Quentin: No, no, no, no, no, no, no. He’s told guys. He doesn’t bring guys over there, he’s let guys know that she puts out.
Gala: Because then he tells Mikey to go try it with her and she gets really mad that he’s doing that.
Roger: That’s another one of his jokes, though. He’s setting up his friend. He knows that she’s going to get mad.
Quentin: Yeah, she’s his piece on the side.
Gala: You learn something new every day, I guess. One thing I will say is that this movie, in my opinion, is a clear inspiration for the Safdie brothers. I feel like if they haven’t watched this movie for some reason, I mean, they must have. It feels like the Safdie brothers have watched this movie and have taken a little bit from Elaine May into their films.
Roger: And from Cassavetes, for sure.
Gala: And also, of course, from Cassavetes. I bought my copy of Mikey & Nicky, which is a Warner Home video, for $14 and Video Archives originally got theirs for $69.99.
Quentin: Do you have a big old clamshell box?
Gala: I think I do have the big old clamshell box, if I remember correctly.
Quentin: This box could not be more attractive. It really could not be.
Roger: I can remember seeing that box, and I can remember exactly where it was in the store; because there was that middle counter area for a while. Well, actually, the store moved at one point (at two points) but I can remember exactly where it sat, and I can remember looking at it almost every day and I can remember Gerry telling me constantly, “This is a really good movie. You’ve got to see this movie.” Jerry Martinez.
Quentin: I think me and Jerry maybe even saw it together during the 84′ rerelease.
Roger: It must have been because he was pushing it hard on me, and it may have been because he was pushing it so hard that I rejected it, to be perfectly honest.
Quentin: Now, oddly enough, the Castle Hill poster, the one sheet of it, is different and it’s a really good one sheet. It’s the image of the two of them sitting together in the bus, when they’re sitting next to each other. But it’s done like a photograph, and the photographs ripped in half and it’s spread apart. The “and” of Mikey & Nicky is in the middle where the rip is. Which is a fucking wonderful title design. However, having said that, as much as I like that, I like this artwork better.
Clip from trailer for Piranha: Water: you can drink it, you can swim in it, and if you’re not careful…you can die in it. Piranha: the deadliest flesh eaters of all. Their razor teeth can strip a man to bone in seconds and now, they’re here in the lakes and rivers of America. Piranha: They’ll eat you alive. From New World Pictures, rated R under 17 not admitted without parent.
Ad copy: Piranha plays October 16th on glorious 35 millimeter film at the New Beverly Cinema; at 7165 Beverly Boulevard, Los Angeles, California. For further information, go to thenewbev.com. The New Beverly Cinema: Always on film.
Quentin: Okay, and we’re back. Now we do our third film, which is usually (it doesn’t always have to be, but normally is) our exploitation-y title that comes in third. This time we’re doing one of the biggest hits in the history of New World Pictures: Piranha, directed by Joe Dante and written by John Sayles and starring Bradford Dillman, Heather Mendez, Kevin McCarthy, Paul Bartel, and Dick Miller and Barbara Steele. We watched this on the Warner Home video, which came out with a beautiful Warner Home Video for a long, long time. However, somewhere along the way, I’ve lost the gorgeous green clamshell of Piranha. So even though we watched the video, I don’t have the box. So Roger will be reading the back of the DVD release of Piranha. Roger, take it away.
Roger: That’s right. This is the back of the Shout! Factory DVD. Is this a Blu-Ray or DVD?
Roger: I should say that for the most part, Shout! Factory does a really good job.
Quentin: No, they do a damn good job.
Roger: They do a really, really good job. They love the stuff that they do.
Quentin: It seems like we have the same taste as Shout! Factory, too.
Roger: I think so. I talked to those guys and they’re great. This begins very strangely, though [reading box] “From man who introduced us (not from the man, from man) to Jack Nicholson and Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme and Martin Scorsese, Shout! Factory is proud to present the new collector’s edition of Roger Corman’s most loved production: Joe Dante’s cult classic Piranha is back in a new collector’s edition with new special features.
Roger: [not reading from box] It has a lot of special features.
Roger: [reading] While searching for missing teenagers, novice Skip Tracer, Maggie McCowan (Heather Menzies) and local town Boozer, Paul Grogan (Bradford Dillman) stumble upon a top secret army laboratory conducting genetic experiments on a piranha fish for the purposes of developing biological warfare. When the deadly eating machines are accidentally released from the compound, they’re seen heading downstream and consuming everything, and anything, in their path. Just when you thought it was safe to go back into the river. Piranha features a stellar group of talent in front of, as well as behind, the camera. A top notch cast of cult stars includes Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers), Barbara Steele (Black Sunday), Belinda Blesky (The Howling), Dick Miller (Bucket of Blood) and Paul Martel.
Quentin: Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.
Roger: (Rock ‘n’ Roll High School and Death Race 2000). Piranha is director Joe Dante’s second film. He would go on to direct Gremlins and Small Soldiers. Producer John Davison went on to produce blockbusters RoboCop and Starship Troopers.
Quentin: And Airplane, my god.
Roger: Yeah, and Airplane. But I’m happy that Shout! Factory knows that its audience cares about Starship Troopers and RoboCop. They know. The film also features a thrilling soundtrack by Pino D’Angelo (Dressed to Kill, Carrie, and Dante’s The Howling) and it could easily have been the same soundtrack for all of those. I just want to say.
Quentin: Especially the Carrie theme; every time they show Grogan’s daughter, it’s the Carrie theme playing. Roger Corman made a statement, actually, to me. He was talking about how when Jaws came out and then Star Wars came out afterwards, he’d realized that, “Oh, shit, the studios are doing the kind of movies I’m doing, but they’re going to make them better. They have the power to make them better than I could. We had the dynamic of the monster movie and we had the dynamic of this or that. But now, if the studios are making that type of popcorn movie, they’re going to outclass us because we just won’t be able to compete with that kind of thing.” For the most part, he’s correct. The New World Pictures that work are not because they’re offering just those kind of adventures.
It’s usually their idiosyncratic sense of humor, or their sex, or their action or their violence. But especially when it came to New World Pictures, their idiosyncratic sense of humor. However, I think one of the times that New World Pictures was able to go head to head with the big movies that it’s competing against, is in the case of Piranha. Now, I’m not saying Piranha is as good as Jaws, because I actually think Jaws is the greatest movie ever made. Not the greatest film ever made, but what’s supposed to be a movie. Everything that a movie is supposed to be, Jaws is.
You’re never going to get better than Jaws. Jaws is the pinnacle of that. It’s the greatest movie ever made. Piranha is not the greatest movie ever made, but it’s a pretty damn good fucking movie, and it’s a magnificent Jaws rip off. It’s a fantastic Jaws rip off. If you ask me, Piranha is as fun as almost any movie made in the seventies. It is a blast. I have seen Piranha eight or nine times since it came out, and I’ll probably see it three more times again and I’ll enjoy it every single fucking time. Especially if I’m watching it with somebody who hasn’t seen it before.
Roger: Well, so much of that is Joe Dante and his bemused touch. Everything he touches feels-
Quentin: Well, he’s just a smart aleck.
Roger: He’s a little bit of a smart aleck, but that’s kind of what I like about him.
Quentin: That’s who he is, if you don’t like that then you don’t like him.
Roger: Yeah. He just makes it fun, the movie is fun. Jaws isn’t-
Quentin: Jaws is fucking fun.
Roger: Yeah, I was going to say it’s not fun, but the truth is that Jaws is fun. It’s fun in a different kind of way. Piranha is fun in a campier way.
Quentin: Yeah, but it manages the camp without it being stupid. It’s. It always has the right touch of Mad Magazine to it.
Roger: Totally. Well, I’ll tell you something. My wife, Gretchen, who you know.
Quentin: Yeah. You don’t need to preface who you’re talking about when you say your wife, Gretchen.
Roger: I was talking to Gala.
Gala: Yeah, I think I might know her.
Roger: So I was describing a scene from Piranha to her and I started to cry. I don’t know if you noticed when we were watching it-
Quentin: During the Paul Bartel scene?
Quentin: Yeah, yeah.
Roger: I started crying while watching Piranha, I can’t believe that I started crying watching Piranha. I’m a little bit of a softy with movies, but I never cried during Jaws. There’s that moment where Joe Dante does the ultimate; which is he takes all children, it’s all these little children in the water in this river.
Roger: And the piranhas come and they just start attacking people, they’re just sucking them under and they’re just chewing them into pieces. They’re taking legs to the bone and it’s a feeding frenzy on children; and if that isn’t shocking enough, you’ve had Paul Bartel’s character, who is kind of that Dante Camp kind of-
Quentin: Explain his job, who he is.
Roger: Okay, so he’s the camp counselor. He’s kind of the goofy camp counselor. “Okay, you kids are you got to go over here.” He’s walkin’ around, he’s Paul Bartel; he’s a little goofy and overweight.
Quentin: Yeah, he’s pompous. He’s the jerky, disciplinarian at the camp who’s stopping all the kids from having a good time.
Roger: “You’ve got to get in the water,” and she’s like, “But she said that I didn’t have to…” “Get in the water. Now. You do it, don’t be a -” I can’t remember how he talks her down, but it’s hilarious.
Quentin: “Don’t be a quitter.”
Roger: And he gets a call from Bradford Dillman, the town boozer.
Quentin: “Yeah, there’s a bunch of piranha on the way.” “Piranha? Get out of here.”
Roger: He hangs up the phone.
Quentin: “Sober up, Grogan.”
Roger: He’s been set up as that Jaws character who’s ignoring everything that’s going on. There’s two of those in this movie, there’s also Dick Smith; but he’s set up as one of those kind of guys who’s ignoring all of the warning signs that are coming at him. He’s a little goofy and he’s played for comedy, almost.
Quentin: A complete character. A complete buffoon.
Roger: A caricature. Suddenly, the attack on children happens and he jumps into the water. I think maybe he falls in water,
Quentin: No, he jumps in. The lake is full of piranhas and he is standing there waist deep in it, carrying children out-
Roger: -as the piranhas are attacking him. It’s a super powerful moment because when the chips are down he shows humanity. Though he’s being fricking flayed by these piranhas, who are just nipping away at him and biting him all over his body, he’s pulling out as many kids as he can before he can’t do it anymore.
Roger: And then Bradford Dillman, who has been trying to warn him.
Quentin: Who gets there after everything has happened.
Roger: After the chaos has happened and there are just people crying everywhere, children in tears, half eaten, everywhere. He sees Paul Bartel, and the moment comes where he’s looking at Paul Bartel on the ground and wants-
Quentin: I’m just laughing at “children, half eaten everywhere.” That’s a good description. That’s a fantastic sentence. I’m so fucking there, I’m front row.
Roger: He sees Paul Bartel, the two of them lock eyes. It’s the moment where basically he would tell him, “I told you so,” but he doesn’t have to because he’s already laying in front of a dead child.
Quentin: Yeah, he’s destroyed, absolutely.
Roger: Paul Bartel, the look on his face goes from this goofy caricature, where he’s literally playing out of Porky’s or something. Then suddenly, he’s filled with this kind of depth of human compassion and understanding and devastation. There’s all this death around him, and I was overwhelmed by it.
Quentin: Even the shot of him on the ground by the child with bites all over.
Roger: The look on his face.
Quentin: It looks like Vietnam, is what it looks like. I actually think the imagery is almost meant to evoke Vietnam, to some degree.
Roger: So I was trying to explain to Gretchen what the movie was like, and I started describing it. I started weeping in that moment, it took me right back to the scene. It occurred to me that what Dante does is, he has a deft balance. He does the comedy that you need to do but also when the chips are down, humanity is there. I’ve seen this in many of his movies, I’m a big fan of Inner Space. I love The Burbs.
Quentin: I love Explorers.
Roger: I love Explorers. You really like Explorers. You were always a big fan of Explorers.
Quentin: Yeah. Back when everybody else was.
Roger: When nobody else was, even I didn’t like it back then and I have since come around.
Quentin: Yeah, I actually think Gremlins 2: the New Batch is a fucking masterpiece. An absolute masterpiece. The greatest Mad Magazine ever turned into a film.
Roger: I wonder if the DVD or the video has- Because in Gremlins 2, there’s a moment where the film burns.
Quentin: Oh, yeah, yeah.
Roger: And they changed it on the video, and they made it video. I wonder what that is they do on the DVD now.
Quentin: Not only did they do that, they actually did something like that in the novelization.
Roger: Oh, really?
Quentin: In the novelization, when it gets to that part, the gremlins attack the novelist.
Quentin: The Gremlins come in, attack the novelist, yank him off of the novel, and lock him in the closet. Then Stripe, the lead gremlin, goes on to apparently write a three page manifesto until the author gets out of the closet and chases the gremlins away and finishes the book.
Roger: Oh my god, that sounds amazing. But that’s Dante, he will do stuff like that because the fun is in the movies. He’s just as emotional and just as powerful as any other filmmaker doing real human emotions on screen, but he’s also really super playful. He makes it a movie.
Quentin: I was able to interview Joe Dante on the set of Gremlins. I was able to meet him in his office.
Roger: These are the days when you were pretending to write a book, and you would meet with all these directors.
Quentin: Starting at the age of 17, I started getting in touch with the directors and told them I was writing a book and asked if I could get together with them and meet with them and interview them.
Roger: Knowing that directors are completely vain and be like, “I’m in a book? Yeah, come and talk to me.”
Quentin: So I did this. I met a whole lot of directors and interviewed them and one of them was Joe Dante. When I’m meeting him at the office, we’re talking for a little bit, and he goes, “Oh, you know what? I got to go and look at a matte shot that they’re testing out on me. You can come with me. Come with me.” He introduces me to a bunch of people and goes, “Go ahead and have a seat.” It’s the closing shot of the little neighborhood from Gremlins and everything. It’s Christmas time, so it’s all snowy and everything, and the camera’s moving out and you see the moon, you see the sky and whatever. So they’re looking at the mattes and he goes, “Yeah, that looks nice,” and this and that.
Then somebody says, “Well, you know what? We could have a little Santa Claus and the reindeers flying over the moon, like in the background there. We could do that.” They all laughed and then Dante goes, “Okay, don’t suggest shit like that to me unless you’re prepared for me to do it, cause I’m liable to think that’s a good idea and make you do it.”
One of the things that Roger just couldn’t believe, when we were watching the film (and it’s hard for me to believe), is that the majority (there were some exceptions, but the lion’s share) of all the movies coming out of New World Pictures had two week schedules. They were two weeks or two and a half weeks, maybe three weeks. That’s a big production, especially in the first half of the seventies; the movies were like $180,000 or $200,000 or $220,000. $240,000. If they’re getting to $300,000, that’s getting to be too much. The movie looks like they had six weeks and at least a half a million, at least.
Roger: I would even go beyond that because as I was watching-
Quentin: You could say it cost 8 million if it was done for Warner Brothers and you’d believe it. Now, they had more money than they normally had because Corman sold the (I believe he sold to United Artists) Foreign Rights. That means that they might have had $100/$200,000 more dollars to make the movie, and then probably a couple of weeks. I’m still guessing $400,000 at the most, at the highest.
Roger: I mean, you’ve done low budget movies. I do low budget movies. I know what it takes to do what they did in that film. It is a Herculean task to achieve what they did. They’re shooting on water. They’re shooting in lakes. They’re shooting with hundreds of children. It’s incredible.
Quentin: Here’s the difference, though; when you’re talking about they had three weeks to shoot the movie or four weeks to shoot the movie, you’re talking about the main production shoot. I’m positive (in fact, I know) that when it came to Piranha, when it came to all the special effects, they just kept working on that after the shoot was over. They kept working on that again and again and again and again and again and again and again on little pools in Venice. I only have two problems with the whole movie. One problem, that you have, about the way the piranhas get loose in the ocean is not elegant.
Roger: Into the river.
Quentin: The river, yeah. It’s not elegant.
Roger: It doesn’t serve our heroine.
Quentin: It doesn’t serve our heroine. They could have done better.
Roger: They could have done better.
Quentin: “Oh, hey, what’s this?” They could have done better.
Roger: They could have done anything.
Quentin: Had that kind of a-
Roger: “Don’t push that!”
Quentin: Yeah. It’s National Treasure again, “Hey, what’s this wheel? Let’s turn it.” The other thing that I have a problem with is; I really like Bradford Dillman in the movie and especially his first scene that he has with Keenan Wynn. He’s really terrific. I like Bradford Dillman when he’s stars in B-movies. He kind of makes that red flannel shirt kind of iconic by the time you get to the end of the movie, because he’s worn through the whole film and he’s got his beard and he looks virile. He looks a little sexy, which I’m not used to seeing Bradford Dillman looks sexy. He has that over enunciated way of talking through gritted teeth that makes him look like a B-movie Charlton Heston, but a good B-movie Charlton Heston. I liked him. I have a little bit of a problem, in the first half hour of the movie, after setting him up as this kind of cool, virile, woodsy guy. Yeah, he’s got a drinking problem. Who cares? That almost makes him seem cool. Like Hemingway, or something.
Roger: Seems like he can hold it.
Quentin: Like, maybe he’s a Hemingway-ish writer out there and just knocking ’em back as he’s pounding out some bitter typewriter. They make him kind of a doddering fool in the first half hour when he’s with Heather Menez, and then he’s kind of puttering around behind her.
Roger: I think it’s an attempt to give him a character arc; where he starts off as a drunk and he ends up as a hero.
Quentin: But he never plays it as a drunk. He plays it like a writer; the bottle is part of his life. He’s never drunk.
Roger: “I don’t even feel it anymore,” is the feeling. “I can drink a whole bottle and it doesn’t even affect me.”
Quentin: The way he just keeps, like, sipping out of it. It just seems like they’re emasculating him, after they had set him up to be so virile. The way he sips out of the canteen just seems like it’s an emasculating way. When I actually thought it was very powerful, the way he was set up in that scene with Keenan. Now, he gets it all back. He gets it all back later once he gets on the river. But that’s my only problem. Where I think the movie distinguishes itself as something impressive (and dare I even say remarkable, frankly) is when you follow the piranha down the river, and where we start learning where the piranha is heading: to a child’s camp that is based on the river.
We know this is where they’re heading. Now, there’s also a big resort, so the piranhas are going to hit the resort. But the hitting the resort is one thing; the fact that they’ve put all these children in the river, all on inner tubes with all these chubby legs and all these chubby arms and all these chubby little fingers and chubby little toes, Dante is just-
Roger: Gleefully, gleefully showing you this.
Roger: They gleefully attack their underarms.
Quentin: Oh, there’s no trepidation about setting up the children. It is gleeful. The worst thing that could happen and it’s relished. It’s relished, and we’re waiting for it to happen and waiting for it to happen. Then it happens and that is one of the best edited sequences of 70’s cinema. Dante was a terrific editor. He always considered himself an editor, especially back then.
Roger: Yeah, but he stops editing.
Quentin: Well, he’s a director who thought of himself-
Roger: After The Howling, he never edited again. I always wondered why, he’s such a good editor.
Quentin: Yeah, when you’re a director and you also edit; you give some other guy the job, and you can edit as much as you want.
Roger: What’s really served him on Piranha. Go ahead, continue.
Quentin: Well, the editing technique is so amazing. You see Eisenstein in that sequence, you see Russ Meyer in that sequence. It’s all there. He is using every trick he has ever learned and all the tricks he learned cutting New World trailers. Every little effect, he’s used it. Now, one of the reasons I think (and I think, cinematically, it’s his best accomplished sequence he’s ever done) it’s the most cinematically perfect sequence and I love the fact that it’s not about the comedy, other than just the gruesome black comedy of it all.
Roger: Well, the comedy makes it ever more powerful, is the thing.
Quentin: But no, there’s a reason it works so good. I’ve read many interviews with Dante, talking about the time making Piranha. We all know that Joe Dante is a smart aleck; so if he watches your movie and it’s cheesy, and the monster is fucking rubber suit and you can see the feet of the guy inside, he’s going to joke about it. He’s going to goof on it. Well, now he’s stuck doing a movie that he doesn’t have enough money to do the proper special effects for, and now he’s going to be the movie that everyone dumps on.
Roger: And he will be damned if he lets that happen.
Quentin: And then he tried it and he thinks the stuff looks terrible. Then he tries this with the fish, and he thinks it looks terrible. So because of fear of it being terrible, he worked harder on cutting the sequences and reshooting the fish and doing different things with the fish and trying different things with the fish. He did so many things again and again and again. Not even to make it good, just to make it not bad as far as he was concerned. He worked probably harder than he ever did, cinematically, and he pulled off an editorial masterpiece. If you ask me, the fact that you can look at it and you can see Eisenstein and Russ Meyer in those montages is kind of fucking amazing. And it’s right there. It’s a phantasmagorical editorial masterpiece, those sequences.
Roger: I completely agree.
Quentin: Tour de force.
Roger: There’s a couple of other genre editor/directors that I love. One of them is George Romero, who was famous as an editor. What he would do is, he would be editing and he’s like, “Okay, we need this.” Then he would go out and shoot it and then put it in. I got to know Don Coscarelli really well, and he’s the same thing. Literally, he would shoot and he’d leave standing sets and he’s got his editing room.
Quentin: Robert Rodriguez does the same thing.
Roger: And yeah, exactly. These kind of directors who are crafting it together and they know the images and the sequences that they want to be doing, it-
Quentin: Romero also had a thing: Romero didn’t like to see his movies at speed.
Roger: Oh, that’s interesting.
Quentin: Yeah, he liked to just do them on the rewind. He’d go, “No, you get too comfortable seeing them at speed. You need to do them at your own pace.” So he would just add tracks, just keep adding mag tracks. Just winding them through the little box.
Roger: After we saw this and we were talking about Eisenstein and the kind of Eisenstein quality of that sequence. I mean, you’re absolutely right. His craft and care into like making sure that every single cut has maximum effect. Whether it’s a little piranha-
Quentin: Biting the fatty part of a little kid’s arm.
Roger: Yeah, exactly. Going after the underarm. It’s such an intense scene. A lot of people are going to watch it and just not feel anything, I imagine.
Quentin: I disagree, there’s a reason why it’s impressive.
Roger: I might be building it up too much. It’s just that it really-
Quentin: It delivers like Domino’s.
Roger: It delivers like the Odessa step sequence, is what it delivers. He really figured out this shot, this fear reaction, this shot of people running, this shot of someone falling, this shot of piranhas zooming through the water. It feels like a perfect rhythm.
Gala: Okay, so some of my film club are huge James Cameron fans and he directed Piranha 2, which apparently he has disowned, completely. They’re like, “Oh, wanna watch Piranha 2 with me?” And I said, “Well, have you ever seen Piranha before?” And they’re like, “No, I’ve never seen it.” I’m like, “Well, you have to watch Joe Dante’s Piranha.” So we planned a screening (this is fortuitous) and I had about five guys and a girl come. Man, it was such a blast. I’ve seen it before. I saw it back in 2015 and I hadn’t seen it since. I got to tell you, when those little kids are getting eaten, this one guy was saying, “Wait, are they actually going to eat the kids? They’re actually going to go attack the kids?” I’m like, “Yeah,” and they’re watching in shock. Like, “I can’t believe they’re actually attacking the kids.” The script is so good.
Roger: Done by one of the best writers alive.
Gala: It is so funny. There are so many moments, like Paul Bartel as Mr. Dumont who is the camp counselor. He says “People eat fish, fish don’t eat people,” and his line delivery of that is just so funny.
Roger: Well, he has that kind of Bartel, [doing an impression] “Fish don’t eat people.” It’s almost- That was a terrible impersonation.
Gala: Yeah, it was.
Roger: I apologize. My apologies to Paul Martel. It sounded more like Bret Easton Ellis.
Gala: But the script is so good. There are so many one-liners, there’s so many emotional moments. You spoke about the scene in the aftermath of the child murder, but there’s also the moment where the son and his dad are fishing on the river.
Quentin: Oh, God. Yeah.
Gala: And the dad says, “Don’t get any closer” and he falls in and the kid is screaming for his dad and the kids on the capsized boat. When they save the kid and they have the doctor who’s been attacked by piranhas and died and they throw the doctor’s body in because they realize the blood is dripping into the water. The kid says, “Don’t throw him in. The pariahs are eating him, that’s what they did to my dad.” He’s trying to get the dead body out as if it’s his father’s body, and it’s so heart wrenching. You’re thinking, “What is happening in this movie?” I’m supposed to just be like, “Yay, piranhas!” and I’m feeling terrible.
Roger: That Dante touch.
Quentin: Well, I think there’s also a situation where if you see a decapitation in a movie and the head goes flying off, you can enjoy it and it seems like a movie because decapitations aren’t part of your real life. So you put it in the context of a big, spectacular thing that you would see in a movie. However, if you see somebody get a paper cut in a movie you wig out, because you know what a paper cut is like.
Gala: Yeah, the hangnail of it all.
Roger: Polanski is, I think, the one who said this.
Quentin: You know how that feels. In Jaws, you can be scared of sharks but you don’t have this effect of maybe thinking that you’re going to get your leg bitten off. It just seems like a movie. That works the same way as the decapitation thing, but something about the little tiny razor teeth of a piranha. I mean, that could almost be a rat biting you but it seems like it would do more damage. That seems like that hurts, that gets to you. So even something like when the dead guy on the raft-
Roger: Kevin McCarthy’s character.
Quentin: Yeah. When his hand is just floating in the water and it’s bleeding and then the way the piranhas are coming up and just biting. I mean, that fucking hurts. That actually hurts in a way you can identify with.
Roger: You can identify with the horror.
Quentin: It’s a way Jaws doesn’t hurt, and the fact it’s not about the throat or the eye or something. It’s the hand, that’s what’s getting you. That’s what’s hurting, is that it’s the fucking hand or the fucking little kid’s toe.
Roger: That scene actually was (not the substance of the scene, but the set up for that scene) the one moment that I was bothered by. It was the moment that didn’t work for me; when Kevin McCarthy’s character kind of jumps into the water and swims to that kid. I thought there was a better way to stage that.
Gala: Yeah, we all were trying to figure out why he was swimming to the child. At first I was like, “Oh, maybe he’s trying to lure the piranhas away,” and then someone said, “Maybe he’s trying to lure the piranhas towards the kid.”
Roger: Luring them away from the kid would have been a legit thing, and being in the water to help the kid cross over from one boat to the other is also amazing.
Quentin: All that works. He just did it too soon. I’d let the raft get a little closer to the canoe.
Roger: A little premature ejaculation.
Gala: I don’t know. Maybe he just couldn’t stand living anymore because he had let the piranhas into the river, so he was committing suicide.
Quentin: No, he didn’t let the piranhas on the river.
Gala: You’re right, she did.
Roger: He was pissed that she did.
Gala: I gotta say, the moment that she lets the piranhas into the river is one of the funniest moments in the movie.
Quentin: “Oh, hey, what’s this?” “OH MY GOD WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!”
Roger: Drain the tank. Pull that lever.
Gala: The dynamic between the two leads is such a good dynamic.
Gala: It’s fun. It’s fresh. She is really nosey, annoying, typical stereotype of a dumb blonde know-it-all.
Roger: She’s an investigator, I loved that about her.
Gala: She just kind of goes with it and I like that.
Roger: She’s a go getter.
Quentin: Now by the way, she’s not just anybody, okay? Us kids growing up in the seventies will all know her from the TV show Logan’s Run.
Roger: Yeah, Logan’s Run.
Quentin: The TV show version of the movie.
Roger: Yeah, she played Jenny Agutter’s character.
Gala: I just like her character. I like that she just, opens up the thing. She doesn’t care about anyone else, she just wants to find her purse.
Roger: Well, she did have a reason. She thought that the bodies would be at the bottom of the thing. She’s not thinking it’s full of piranhas
Quentin: But there’s also the aspect, though, that everybody in this film is really good. Even the two characters at the beginning, before the credits, who go swimming. You like them, the girl especially. I missed them when they went out of the picture.
Roger: I felt bad when they died.
Gala: I also have to say; I love the little claymation in the government building.
Quentin: Oh me too.
Gala: I don’t know, it’s never explained.
Roger: That’s another Dante touch, what they’re doing. It’s a biological laboratory.
Quentin: It’s just a Dante touch.
Roger: He just knew that he could, and so he did.
Quentin: And he doesn’t care if anyone likes or gets it, or whatever.
Roger: But what’s interesting about that is he-
Quentin: He just wanted to have a stop motion section.
Roger: But he creates this little iguana creature character thing that is somewhat sentient, and is kind of hiding like, [makes noise] It’s hiding behind things and looking at them.
Quentin: Hiding behind beakers.
Roger: Hiding behind beakers and stuff. It’s kind of like, “What the hell have they been doing at this place?”
Quentin: It also had a little bit of Professor Proteus, from the Bride of Frankenstein; that little king creature.
Gala: It’s those Dante touches I love. When you say that Mr. Dumont is called to say, “Oh, there’s piranhas coming down,” he has a newspaper on him. I don’t know If you guys noticed, but the headlines say “Dog rips up newborn baby.”
Roger: I can’t believe I’m laughing at that, but.
Gala: And “Rattler bites teen,” it’s all of these animals attacking people. He’s reading this newspaper about all these animals people-
Roger: But he’s ignoring the warning, yeah.
Gala: I love that.
Roger: That’s an amazing thematic commentary.
Gala: It’s such a good commentary and I just love it. The last thing I have to say is, yes, the villain in the movie is the piranhas, or maybe it’s the government or whatever.
Quentin: It’s the government.
Roger: It’s Barbara Steele.
Gala: For me, it’s the female scientist that comes. I have to wonder; she has this great line where she says, “Some things are more important than a few people’s lives.” They respond, “That’s not what Dr. Hope thought.” And she says, “As I said, he was a dreamer.” It’s such a great moment because you realize that’s her villainous intent.
Roger: That’s a sales idea, completely a sales idea.
Gala: Yeah and correct me if I’m wrong, but did she and the original military doctor seem like they’re pretty friendly. I mean, she refers to him by a nickname first. Are they dating?
Quentin: No, no, no, no.
Gala: Are they in love?
Quentin: No, it’s implied.
Roger: Implied, but they didn’t actually say it.
Quentin: No, no, no, no, they do. No, they do. They do. They do. I’m forgetting Kevin McCarthy’s first name, but he’s always Dr. this doctor that. She goes, “Well, Kevin was always a dreamer.” “Kevin?” “We go back a long time.”
Gala: And it kind of just made me feel like, is she partially being evil because she just wants him to burn?
Roger: She was his handler. With guys like that, he may have been the dreamer or the scientist who she takes advantage of.
Quentin: There’s a tremendous amount of fun of Joe Dante being able to direct Barbara Steele because he is a huge Mario Bava fan. He loves Barbara Steele and for him to actually be able to put her in a movie-
Roger: He’s putting everybody he can into cool places, Keenan Wynn and the like.
Quentin: When he cast Elizabeth Brooks later as a werewolf woman in The Howling, he cast her because she looks like Barbara fucking Steele.
Roger: Yeah. Yeah.
Quentin: It doesn’t matter that Barbara Steele is not necessarily giving a good performance. You can’t imagine the movie without her because you just love her. It doesn’t matter if she’s not good, you just got to dig her playing the evil character with that face of hers.
Gala: And before anyone asks me, I would just skip Piranha 2. Piranha is good as it is, you don’t need to ruin it with Piranha 2. I bought a VHS of that for $19 from Embassy Home Entertainment. Video Archives has Piranha 2 for $5 bought in 07/23/87. I bought my version of Piranha for $11, it is the 20th anniversary special edition.
Quentin: One thing I didn’t mention, though, is as if the children being eaten in a piranha massacre is not enough; they doubled down on that. They have the massacre that happens at Dick Miller’s resort. The funniest line in the movie, which when I saw the film at the Carson Twin Cinema, brought the house down: when Dick Miller is there and his assistant comes over, “Oh, we have a problem with the piranha?” “What’s the problem with the damn piranha?” “They’re eating the guests, sir.” Brought the house down.
Quentin: But then the movie’s not finished. Now what’s going to happen is that unless this waterway access is closed, the piranha are going to get out into the ocean. If they get it out to the ocean, then basically that’s it for the ocean. The ocean is just going to be filled with these killer piranhas. There’s to be no more swimming ever again.
Quentin: Something about the the lure of the movie is that they breed in saltwater. They breed like crazy in salt water.
Gala: They were originally created to be sent to Vietnam, to destroy the rivers.
Quentin: Yeah, and they can go in saltwater or clear water. It doesn’t matter, just like salmon. So they got to race in front of the piranha to close the access, so that the piranha don’t get out to the ocean. Then it turns out that the access area is flooded and it’s underwater. So now Bradford Dillman is going to have to dive down underwater and turn the rusted fucking metal wheel.
Roger: Yeah, Dante hasn’t done enough. Let’s now do a whole underwater sequence.
Quentin: Now he has to do a whole underwater sequence and close it by turning it underwater
Roger: With a submerged house which, by the way, this whole scene was way better than Inferno.
Quentin: Oh, yeah. The underwater haunted house sequence in Inferno, absolutely. It’s kind of amazing. It looks fantastic. But the whole thing is that they’ve got to time it out. So they tie a rope around Bradford Dillman and then he says, “Look, I’m going to go down. Count to 100, and then after you get to a hundred, just take off. I won’t be able to hold my breath any longer than that and the rope will pull me out.” He goes down, and it’s a fantastic sequence as he has to get through this house and find this wheel and then turn the wheel. It cuts back up to Heather Menez and she’s’
Roger: He’s holding his breath.
Quentin: Yeah, and she’s like, “51, 52, 53” etc, etc.
Roger: Then here comes the piranha.
Quentin: The piranhas are on their way and then we cut back to, “64, 65, 66…” That is a suspense beat worthy of the original Jaws. That is a really magnificent suspense beat. When the piranhas get him while he’s turning the thing, you can’t believe it. I even remember seeing it at the theater. “Oh, my God. They’re getting him. What the fuck? Is this actually even happening? Wow!”
I mean, that is a great, great suspense beat. Is a great action beat. It’s great underwater photography. The piranha shit looks amazing when they attack him. The stakes couldn’t be higher in a way that you buy, completely. What a movie!
Roger: Yeah. It’s a dynamite film.
Quentin: It’s a dynamite picture.
Roger: Let’s hand out some awards. What do you say?
Quentin: Okay, so I’ll start it off.
Roger: This is a tough one, actually. At least for two of these, it’s a tough one for me. There’s what I love, and there’s what I recognize.
Roger: I mean, I love both, but-
Quentin: No, this is a situation where all three movies are really good movies. Which one would you give the edge to?
Roger: I want to say Piranha.
Quentin: Mm hmm.
Roger: Mostly because of Paul Bartel, weirdly enough. Of all things, that the scene with him that we’ve discussed really affected me the way that it does. However, despite its failings, I might go with Coma as my favorite film.
Quentin: Of the group?
Roger: Of the group. It’s just that it is a Hollywood movie and it’s got all that Cronenberg styling from that time period and it’s a great thriller, and I love the heroine.
Quentin: Okay, Gala?
Gala: I expected to give it to Coma, because Coma is one of my new favorite films. But in this aspect, I’m actually going to give it to Piranha.
Roger: Yeah, I feel like I was so close to giving it to Piranha, I feel like I made a wrong choice.
Gala: No, you give it to Coma because then I can give it to Piranha. That way I can not feel guilty about saying that Coma is one of my new favorite films, but giving it to Piranha
Roger: Piranha is so good that it’s like-
Gala: Talking about Piranha was an exciting discussion. It made me remember what I loved about the movie and also, they didn’t have the resources that Coma had and they still made such a good movie.
Quentin: Look, I’m going to give it to Mikey & Nicky but I think I might be a hypocrite, because I think I might really, in my heart of hearts, actually think Piranha is better. I know I will see Piranha many more times before I die than I will Mikey & Nicky. But I’m going to with the power of Mikey & Nicky.
Roger: But I think any of these are good choices. I think the funny thing is that all of us would probably, if our arms were bent, choose Piranha. No problem.
Quentin: Well, if we had to watch one of these movies right now, it would be Piranha. Okay. Best Director.
Roger: I’m going to go with Joe Dante. No problem there, absolutely Joe Dante.
Gala: I’ll go with Joe Dante.
Quentin: I will give Elaine May Best Screenplay, so that way I feel fine about giving this to Piranha. I mean, it really is apples and oranges, describing them…
Roger: Yeah, I think Best Screenplay.
Quentin: I’ll give Elaine May Best Screenplay for Mikey & Nicky
Roger: because it feels improvised and we know that it’s crafted.
Quentin: Well yeah and it’s a real piece of literature, actually, in its own way. That makes me feel much better, no problem, about giving a best director to Joe Dante.
Roger: And it’s a personal film, that she held within her for what sounds like decades.
Quentin: [to Gala] And how about you for screenplay or director?
Gala: Best director, I’ll give to Joe Dante and Best Screenplay I will give to Piranha as well. I just think it’s such a funny script. Comedy does not always land, and they managed to make the massacre of children hilarious.
Quentin: [laughing] I agree. You said that very well, that’s exactly what’s funny about it. The terribleness is what’s so funny.
Roger: I’m going to give best cinematography to Victor Kemper, because he did two movies here.
Quentin: Yes, absolutely.
Roger: He did Coma and Mikey & Nicky.
Quentin: Speaking of which, something I think I was going to say earlier and I think I got a little bit derailed; was the fact that Mikey & Nicky isn’t shot like a John Cassavetes film. Now, oddly enough; it’s shot quite a bit like a Paul Mazursky movie.
Roger: I see what you’re saying, yeah.
Quentin: It has the easy give and take of a Paul Mazursky movie, and it even has (especially in the opening half hour)-
Roger: A Mazursky quality.
Quentin: Especially when they’re in the hotel room. It actually has a bit of a Paul Morrissey look, but Paul Morrissey on a budget. Okay, Best Actress.
Roger: Well for me, that’s Geneviève Bujold.
Roger: It’s easy.
Quentin: That’s just straight down the fucking plate.
Roger: One scene alone, that scene where she’s hysterical talking. She’s wonderful throughout the entire movie. She delivers.
Quentin: Okay, here’s a tough one: Best Actor and you cannot choose both.
Roger: No, I would only choose Peter Falk and I’ll tell you why. Peter Falk actually does a transformation over the movie and reversals. His character is layered in that way, whereas Nicky is just Nicky; he’s kind of a dick, and that’s all. Well, not all but that’s what Cassavetes has to bring to it. The fact that Peter Falk’s character undergoes this transformation and reversals throughout, and then he’s maintaining and carrying it. I just love him in it.
Quentin: Well, here we go, because I actually might think Peter Falk is maybe 5% better than John Cassavetes.
Roger: Oh, it’s by a hair.
Quentin: Yeah, it’s a hair. But I’m going to go with Cassavetes, for all the reasons I explained before. It’s a depth that I had not seen him delve to in 20 years, as an actor. Peter Falk going to the depths of where he’s talking about is not new to me. It’s not a once in a decade situation. This was a once in a decade situation for Cassavetes.
Gala: Is this a lead actor or actor overall?
Quentin: Oh, no, the lead actor.
Gala: Okay, for Lead Actor, I feel like Michael Douglas is just playing himself. So I’m going to give it to Peter Falk.
Quentin: Even though I really like Michael Douglas in the movie.
Roger: Also, it says something about him that he’s willing to take that part where he’s almost secondary to her. What about Best Score; do you think Jerry Goldsmith?
Quentin: Oh, absolutely.
Roger: Or what about Pino? Do think it’s just too much like his other scores?
Quentin: The problem with him is, I think his score is terrific but I actually, in particular, like the Coma score.
Roger: It really pushes the movie along.
Quentin: It does a lot of work. It does a lot of work for the movie.
Roger: Best Editing? Joe Dante? I just wanted to throw that out there. We have to give it to him.
Quentin: Yeah, absolutely.
Roger: You got to give it to Joe.
Quentin: Absolutely. Okay but now,
Roger: Best Supporting Actor, Paul Bartel.
Roger: I just want to say Paul Bartel.
Quentin: Okay, but let’s say let’s let’s talk about who the real three candidates are. There’s like three candidates for that: you have Rip Torn. Who we talked about being terrific; fantastic characterization of a character we never, ever get to know and there’s still still so much characterization there. Then you have everything that we’ve said about Ned Beatty, which almost.
Roger: Yeah, Ned Beatty. I momentarily almost picked him, yeah.
Quentin: Which is almost counterintuitive, how good Ned Beatty is; how funny he can be in this film without ever becoming a joke, and always remaining as the threat that he’s supposed to be. His is definitely the best written character and he delivers the writing. Nevertheless, it’s still Paul Bartel as far as I’m concerned. He is fantastic in the movie.
Roger: Paul Bartell made me feel things to the depths of my soul and that was very unexpected, let me tell you.
Quentin: Best Supporting Female?
Roger: [whispering] Lois Chiles.
Gala: [also whispering] Yeah, Lois Chiles.
Gala: Look, I just love Lois Chiles. When she’s on screen, I light up. She’s only there for a little bit but when we talk about best supporting actress, who else really is there?
Quentin: Joyce Van Patten. Who wins for me, as far as I’m concerned.
Roger: That’s a good choice.
Quentin: She’s Nicky’s wife, and then there’s also Nicky’s side chick that he’s got stashed.
Roger: And boy, what a thankless role that is. I mean, it’s a tough role for an actress to deliver.
Quentin: She actually has one big hard to do scene after another.
Roger: It’s intense.
Quentin: She actually probably has the hardest job of everybody that we’re talking about.
Roger: I don’t know her, I don’t know this actress.
Quentin: I don’t recognize her at all either.
Roger: She just literally comes in from out of nowhere and does this amazing performance.
Quentin: I am not familiar with her. I don’t recognize her, but that’s one of the things I liked. I thought she was really wonderful. I still give it to Joyce Van Patten. Joyce Van Patten in the seventies, like in Bad News Bears and all kinds of things like that, she was actually a quiet powerhouse. When people knew who she was, she fucking delivered and she was terrific. It’s great to see her have the Gena Rowlands role and it’s great to see her carry this much of the story, and this much of the heart of the film. Then that fucking kiss at the end. It’s moving, but it’s also sexy. It’s also sexy when they just give each other that big, passionate, “I can’t stop kissing you, because this is the last time I’m going to see you.”
Gala: Also there is the wonderful villainess in Piranha.
Roger: Yeah, I was just going to say, I think I’m going to give it to Barbara Steele, as a lifetime achievement award.
Gala: Well, she plays a great villain, actually.
Quentin: Yeah, yeah, yeah, she does.
Quentin: Okay. I guess that wraps it up for another episode of Video Archives, the podcast. We’ll see you next time and just remember: Be kind, rewind.
Roger: Until next, when we meet.
Gala: See you next time. The Video Archives podcast is hosted by Quentin Tarantino and Roger Avary and produced by Josh Richmond and Gala Avary. Our engineer is Devon Torrey Bryant and our executive producers are Colin Anderson and Natalie Mooallem. This episode featured additional production by Raven Goldsmith. We now have Video Archives merch, go to podswag.com to see everything we have in stock. Find out more about the show by heading to VideoArchivesPodcast.com. You can also find us on Twitter @VideoArchives and on Instagram at @VideoArchivesPod.