Directing a movie is a lot like running a distance race. At the beginning, you’re running on adrenaline. After a little while, the adrenaline rush wears off, and you’re starting to feel pain in places you didn’t know existed. As you start to question your reasoning for beginning the race, the pains get worse and worse as your journey wears on, then, at some point you just sort of go numb. You’re on auto-pilot, knowing that the pain is still there, but you’re able to tolerate it and continue moving forward. All you see is your feet hitting the ground, taking the next stride, and the next, and the next. The finish line is only a distant vision.
At some point towards the end of the second week of filming, I started to feel the numbness set in. Call it a defensive mechanism, but my mind started working in streamlined mode, ignoring all of the conflicting emotions that had plagued me from the start. David Carradine, for his part, was marginal at best in most every scene, with brief spurts of superb performance. When his fiance’ Marina was with us, he was under control and we got good stuff from him. But, at the beginning of our third and final week of principal photography, Marina had returned to Los Angeles, leaving us to deal with David – unhinged. It didn’t take long before he came unraveled again, but this time it was in front of the entire cast and crew, and targeted directly at me.
O’Sullivan’s bar was the scene of what was to be the closest I’ve ever come to walking off a movie set – never to return. It’s not the closest I’ve ever come to slapping an actor, but this was pretty close to being slap-worthy. For starters, this day was to film a scene that didn’t exist in the script until about 2 weeks before we started filming – when I wrote it in. For some reason, the screenwriters couldn’t figure out that the script needed an actual arc in the story – a turning point for the main character – to make the story make any sense at all. I waited and waited for the “re-write” that would make a flat script make sense, but it never materialized. All I ever got from them was trite revisions of flat dialogue that didn’t make a lick of difference to the story. When you’re working with actors the caliber of David Carradine, Michael Maloney and Mariel Hemingway – you’re going to improvise changes to dialogue on the fly. That’s just the way it works. Minuscule script changes won’t matter much. What the film was missing was the pivot point for David Carradine’s character. I got tired of waiting, so I sat down one afternoon and wrote it.
Unfortunately, David and I’s relationship throughout the production was largely one of distrust and mutual defensive posturing. Despite the fact that I had stood up for him from the start, holding to my belief that his years of acting experience would yield the professionalism and performance that would send the film over the top, his on-camera performances were continually mediocre. The constant battle he and I had over how the film and the character were to be presented had simply worn me down. I could tell him all I wanted before and after a take what direction to take, but it didn’t matter to him. He was going to do the scene the way he wanted to. One of the biggest annoyances I had with him was his constant attempts to “break the third plane” – movie talk for when an actor breaks a scene and looks directly into the camera to address the audience (example: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off). David would do it constantly. I would call him out on it, make him do the scene again, and he would continue to cast glances directly into the camera – then argue with me in front of everyone that he hadn’t. It was a simple matter of video tap playback to prove my point, but still his actions continued.
This morning’s setup was probably the single most important scene of the entire film. In it, Mariel Hemingway’s character confronts David’s character on his actions (art imitating life?), and we see for the first time someone taking him to task on his resistance to success. I had decided to shoot the entire scene, save for one cutaway to a high-angle shot (which I never used) as a single-take, 32 foot dolly move for the entire 6 1/2 minutes it took to do the scene. As per our usual routine, David came to set after hair and makeup, and we discussed the shot blocking. When I explained the two different shot angles to him, he started to shake his head.
“You can’t do that high angle. It won’t cut with the dolly shot.”
This was the first time David had directly challenged my actual directing. Everything up to this point had been challenges to my periphery – other cast members, my crew, the schedule. The worst part for me, as a young director, was that I had been reminded frequently by David as to how many movies he had been in, and how many movies he himself had directed. To back me up, I asked Tony Hettinger, my cinematographer, to come over and join the conversation.
“Tony,” I said calmly, “back me up on this. The high angle is a cutaway for this one portion of the scene, and the rest of the scene is played out on the dolly shot.”
Tony nodded in agreement. I trusted Tony’s input because he, like many on my crew, had been making films a lot longer than I had. He was also a very experienced editor. I had counted on him throughout the film to make sure I was getting proper coverage.
It didn’t matter. David quickly went from calm to outrage. With literally the entire cast and crew watching – including a dozen extras as bar patrons, as well as his Oscar-nominated co-star Mariel Hemingway – David turned the relatively calm set into a war zone.
“I’ve made seventy five movies and I’m telling you, you can’t shoot it like that! You’re f**king it up!” And with that, off he went to his RV, slamming the back door of the bar behind him as he went.
I would love to say that I had some witty response in that moment. I didn’t. I was dead silent. The truth is, I was mortified and pissed off at being excoriated by a man I had idolized just a few weeks earlier, and that, too, in front of my entire crew. Most of my crew were my good friends. Many of us had worked together on other films and commercials for several years. We had deep bonds from surviving the film equivalent of mortal combat together. To say that I was embarrassed in front of all of them would be the understatement of the century.
I remember Larissa Borkowski and Mike Leonardo, both dear friends of mine that had recently worked with me on a very large television commercial project as actors, surrounding me in that moment and just being there for me. They were working double duty on “American Reel”, each having a small role in the film as well as working crew duties. Mike just looked at me and said, under his breath, “That man just completely crossed the line.” I just shook my head. Darrell Griffin came over to me and asked me to come back to the back of the bar with him.
For some reason, I felt like I was in trouble for something again. Throughout the film, probably because of the example set daily by Carradine himself, I was constantly being asked to explain myself and my directing decisions. I had tried to shoot the film with single camera angles as much as possible to economize on setups and film stock, but it never seemed to be satisfactory. By this point in the production, and at this point in particular, I was fairly certain Darrell wanted to fire me, but with only a few days remaining in the shoot schedule, I knew I had basically won my battle to finish directing my first feature film by sheer attrition. It wouldn’t make sense to fire anybody at this point – we were almost done.
Standing in the men’s restroom at the back of the bar, Darrell and I talked once again about how to handle David. I brought in Tony to reinforce my camera placement decision. Darrell then sent for David, who had locked himself in his RV. When David came in, you could have cut the tension with a knife.
“Mark, would you please explain to David what you just explained to me?” Darrell asked calmly. With my voice slightly quivering from a combination of dread and righteous fury, I proceeded to explain myself once again, and Tony chimed in his support. “Doing this scene as a continuous dolly shot will be so beautiful, so moving. I can’t imagine a better way to shoot it!” Tony stated his support without hesitation. After that, Darrell told David in no uncertain terms that he was going to call the film’s attorney and shut the entire production down if we (David and I) couldn’t get along and finish the film. The obvious reminder of how close we were to finishing the film, and how stupid it would be to let things get the better of us all was pointed out once again.
Suddenly, David snapped back into “team player” mode. “Oh! You didn’t tell me you were doing it like that!” I was baffled at how, even in his “apology”, it was still somehow my fault. “Yeah,” he said, “that will be great! Let’s go do it!” And with that, we were somehow all supposed to be friends again. To his credit, he even made a public apology to me on-set. “Boss – forgive me!” Then he hugged me, and we went about filming the scene. It was the last time we stared each other down on that film, and we finished the week out with relatively little hassle from him.
The last time I talked to David Carradine was at his wedding to Marina Anderson in the spring of 1998, on the backlot at Warner Brothers Studios in Los Angeles. I remember being utterly shocked that he would invite me, since after the film was completed he had sent a scathing, 2-page letter to producers Darrell Griffin and Jordan Rush about me and what a terrible director I was, even going so far as to demand my name be removed from the credits as the film’s director. If ever there was a man I had an excuse to hate, it was David Carradine. But, I couldn’t hate him. I felt sorry for him. I felt empathy for a man who was so lost in arrogant self-absorbtion that he couldn’t help but lash out at everyone around him. In the end, I don’t believe anyone could ever really be his friend. You could only ever be someone who passed through his life. I went to his wedding with Marina for my friend Marina – not for David. Marina had become my friend through it all, and for her I wanted to be there.
When David died in 2009, I heard about it the same way everyone else did – on the news. It had been several years since I had directed a feature-length film, having decided after “American Reel” to focus my efforts on building a production company so that I could produce the content I wanted, when I wanted, and how I wanted. Most of my time was spent on commercial projects, producing television commercials and branding campaigns for corporations. You know, those un-sexy projects that pay bills. Making movies is an expensive business, and the more of those expenses I could internalize by investing in infrastructure, the more control I could have over future film projects when I determined I was ready to direct one again.
I was pulling into a parking space to head in to a meeting with one of our major corporate clients when the news of David’s death came over the radio. Shortly after that, I headed into my meeting, where I was asked about having worked with David by my client. It was big news everywhere. All I could do in the moment was relate to them that I had directed him in a film many years ago, and that I hadn’t talked with him since then. Of course, you would always get the question: “What was he like to work with?”
How could I answer that question? I only knew David for a minuscule portion of his 72 years, so certainly I can’t speak to his life as a whole. What I can speak to is my time spent with him, and that time being quite intense in nature.
As an actor, his vast amounts of experience were almost a hindrance, since he was quick to point out his superior pedigree to anyone who dared challenge him. To a 24 year-old first time director, challenging the man who was in one of Martin Scorsese’s first feature films (“Boxcar Bertha”) before I was even born was unthinkable. He held that over everyone around him, and there was very little mentorship from him. I desperately wanted to learn filmmaking from him, but what I mostly learned was how to dodge flaming arrows launched into my back on a daily basis.
As a man, I hardly knew him, outside of the few civil conversations he and I had. I remember him telling me of how he had written “And Then She Smiles”, a song on the “American Reel” soundtrack for Marina. It was the one and only time I saw him anywhere near vulnerable. It was obvious that he loved her very much. Deep down, I think he knew she was the balance he needed.
My experience with David was a huge part of making me who I am today – much the same way hitting a brick wall repeatedly will eventually numb your broken knuckles to the pain. It shaped me into a better man and a better director, albeit indirectly in many ways. As fire helps shape and purify steel, so David Carradine heated and hammered me into the filmmaker I am still becoming.
An so, Rest in Peace, James Lee Springer.