Monday, November 28, 2011

German Spectacle

Since its publication last year, the chapter in my book Arizona’s Little Hollywood that’s raised the most eyebrows is the one that revealed that Der Kaiser von Kalifornien, a German-language Nazi Western, was shot on location in Sedona in September 1935. Readers find it incredible that such an off-the-wall film could have been shot in patriotic Red Rock Country; as pop culture pundit Fern Siegel commented in MediaPost, “Like Woody Allen, my Nazi radar is highly attuned, so Der Kaiser von Kalifornien, a 1936 piece of anti-capitalist propaganda, was a surprise.”

I didn’t believe it either until I tracked down a German DVD copy and saw for myself. Sure enough, local landmarks Schnebly Hill, Oak Creek, Munds Mountain Trail, even the dirt trail that is today’s paved State Route 89A are all easily recognizable locations in the movie. There’s even a slow sweeping panorama of the entire area shot from high atop the Mogollon Rim that is probably the best photographic record we have of the Sedona landscape before development.

The question I'm most frequently asked is “How can I see this movie?” It’s not easy. Der Kaiser has never been released on home video in the United States, but pristinely restored DVD special editions (in German and without English subtitles) are available from in Germany, as well as through international dealers on eBay. Thankfully, because the intent of Der Kaiser was strictly to vilify capitalism and twist the story of Sutter’s Mill and America’s 19th-century belief in Manifest Destiny into an analogy for Hitler’s plan for German expansion into foreign territories, there is no anti-Semetic or racist content in the film. But one word of warning before purchasing a DVD: Because the discs are produced in the European PAL video format, you’ll need a multi-region DVD player to watch it.––Joe McNeill

Monday, November 21, 2011

Dan Gordon, Part 2

Anthony Edwards and Linda Fiorentino in Gotcha! (1985)
DAN: “The first successful movie I wrote was called Tank. It was with Jim Garner, Tommy Howell, Shirley Jones and Jamie Cromwell. After that, I did a picture called Gotcha! with Anthony Edwards and Linda Fiorentino. Today, if I meet any 45-year-old man, they tell me they were in love with Linda Fiorentino. Evidently it was a big hit for 15-year-old boys, who would ditch school to see the movie. I did one of the first HBO films called Gulag, and then I did Passenger 57.

Passenger 57 was a really big hit movie. That made me flavor of the month for a while. As a writer, you don’t ever deal with fame like a movie star. No one knows who writers are, which is the joy of being a writer. You make a very good living, and you get the fun of working in movies, but you don’t have to worry about the paparazzi. [Passenger 57] gave me access to any studio for anything that I wanted to do. You can probably get a good two or three years off of a movie like that.

“Character-driven drama at the studios no longer exists, and the movies [today] usually end in the word ‘man.’ Batman, Superman, X-Men. I actually turned down writing Transformers because I said I didn’t have anything to bring to the table. None of the movies that I did, including The Hurricane with Denzel Washington, would be made today. The best you could hope for would be to make the movie as an indie and hope a studio would distribute it.

Wyatt Earp took a few years to get made. I had pitched it to Kevin Costner when he was editing Dances with Wolves. He was a very bankable actor but not yet the Oscar-winning megastar that he became. It was a very, very easy pitch. The problem was, he got very hot, and Kevin had the habit of immersing himself in a character and not doing any other work while he was working on that particular character.
Wesley Snipes in Passenger 57 (1992)

“I hate Wyatt Earp. When I finished the screenplay, I think it was one of the best Western scripts that anybody had done. I was enormously proud of that screenplay. The idea was to do a Western Godfather and make it the story of two crime families and one law enforcement family. If you saw the movie, you saw it was about one law enforcement family, but there was no crime family. It was really God-awful. When Kevin and I developed it, we talked about Marty Scorsese directing the picture. We wanted it done in black-and-white. Instead of Marty Scorsese, Kevin felt indebted to Larry Kasdan. He became the director of the movie. From what I understand, Larry Kasdan wanted to write the screenplay. Kevin, from what I understand, said he liked the script. Kasdan, I felt, wrote a horrible, God-awful piece of dung. It was so boring and pretentious and wooden and lifeless. The final screenplay became an amalgam of those two screenplays. So anything you like in the movie, I wrote [laughs]. Anything that was long and boring and dull, Kasdan wrote. You watch that movie, you lose the will to live. It’s a heartbreak to me because I know what could and should have been. I was so pissed off about it I wrote the book called Wyatt Earp. That is actually based on my screenplay.

“I was the second writer on Hurricane. Armyan Bernstein, who was and still is the head of Beacon Pictures, wrote a screenplay but felt the material got away from him. He said he needed to bring someone in to do a rewrite, which is an incredibly egoless, wonderful thing for him to have done. I was working on the production draft in New York. My son Zaki had just graduated from NYU, and he was working on an HBO picture as a production assistant. Zaki and I would meet after work around midnight, split a couple of steaks and a bottle of wine, and it was the best. Here was my firstborn, the only one of my three boys who went into the same business as me. There we were in the same business, and I see how mature he is, what a wonderful man he turned out to be. If I had to say what was the happiest time of my life that was it.

“We broke for the holidays. I came back from LA, and Zaki came back from New York to celebrate the holidays. The last in-depth conversation that Zaki and I had, he outlined his vision for a film school. He felt compelled to talk about it. He thought it all out – class size, curriculum. It would be a film school unlike any other – completely for independent filmmakers. The school became the Zaki Gordon Institute for Filmmaking. That was at Hanukkah. We were home, and he was exhausted that night. The next morning, he was killed in a car accident. When that happened, there was no way I could go back and work on [The Hurricane]. At the end of the day, I think the value of that movie is Denzel Washington’s performance more than the screenplay.

“After the accident, I thought I would establish some screenwriting scholarships for Zaki at various schools; that’s how I would memorialize him. About six months after the accident, I was on a plane going to Canada for my cousin’s wedding. I was sitting next to a woman, passing the time. She was going to Calgary to see a cultural park like the one being built in Sedona. Part of the deal with the cultural park was the addition of a film school, but she didn’t know anything about film schools. I told her exactly what the school was going to be: the Zaki Gordon Institute for Independent Filmmaking. I pitched her my son’s vision. She said it sounded great and asked me to be in Sedona in two weeks. I met with the president of Yavapai College, Doreen Dailey. I liked the idea of doing [the school] in Sedona because for years I had a ranch in Colorado, and we actually used to drive through Sedona to get there. I had memories of Zaki in Sedona. The negotiations were very hard because I wanted to make sure academia didn’t screw up Zaki’s vision. I wasn’t going to have my son get rewritten.

“We finally made it happen. About six months after the school opened, Doreen asked if I wondered why she was so good about helping me make it a reality. She said that she had grown up in a challenging environment in Alaska and she owed everything she had become to a mentor who made her college education possible. His name was Zack Gordon.” ––Interview by Erika Ayn Finch. Originally published in the January/February 2011 issue of Sedona Monthly

Monday, November 14, 2011

Dan Gordon, Part 1

Screenwriter Dan Gordon has written the scripts for some of Hollywood’s most popular films, including Passenger 57, Wyatt Earp, Murder in the First and The Hurricane. He also wrote and directed numerous episodes of the television series Highway to Heaven. But Sedona residents might be more familiar with Dan as the founder of Red Rock Country’s Zaki Gordon Institute for Independent Filmmaking, which is named after Dan’s firstborn son, Zaki, who was killed in a car accident when he was 22. Dan’s life experiences are not unlike those in the character-driven dramas he writes: He had a stint in the Israeli army, lived on a kibbutz, spent a year in New York unknowingly working for the mafia and turned down the opportunity to write the script for Transformers. Dan spoke to us from Los Angeles in an extremely forthright interview. “I’m being more candid with you than most writers would ever be,” he said. Here’s an inside look at what it’s like to write films in Hollywood.––Erika Ayn Finch

DAN: “I was born in a little town called Bell Gardens, California. It was mainly people who came out from the Grapes of Wrath era and stayed. We abounded in churches and bars. We had probably more storefront churches and more honky-tonk bars than anyplace I’ve ever been. It was actually a great place for a writer to grow up because you were around a lot of characters. It was a colorful town. One of my neighbors was Eddie Cochran, who wrote Summertime Blues. I remember my brother and me in his garage listening to him and his pals jam. My friends from my childhood are all still my friends today.

“When I was 16, I more or less ran away from home with my parents’ active encouragement. I went to Israel. I went to a kibbutz and went to high school in a kibbutz. My father was born in 1895 in then czarist Russia. He was 52 when I was born. After his experiences, to expect that he would understand two American teenagers was insane. Everything we did seemed disrespectful to him, and everything he did seemed nuts to us. He and I weren’t getting along, and it was getting physical. I had been raised on Zionist lore, and I had seen Exodus. There was a very fetching young girl who played Paul Newman’s sister. She had these rather fetching kibbutz shorts on, so I decided I’d go and try to find her or her surrogate somewhere in the valley of Jezreel. I fell in love with the lifestyle and people in Israel.

“I came back to the United States to go to college. I went to East Los Angeles College and then UCLA. I worked for a couple of years in the business – I knew I wanted to be a screenwriter/director. I had sold my first screenplay to Universal when I was 20. I sold it as fluke, and I made the princely sum of $1,860. This made me about the richest Jew in LA.

“I worked for a couple of years, and I made one film that, unknown to me, was a money laundering operation for the mob. They were hiring the stupidest kid they could find, and I fit the bill perfectly. They said the budget of the film was $1 million, but they gave me $100,000 assuming I could never make the picture for that. I was closing in on finishing the film, and they told me the film could never be finished because they would be audited. They needed to write off the film as a loss. It was sort of like The Producers. This was 1972, and I was in New York. It was in the middle of the Colombo-Gallo war, and they gave me a bodyguard who was also there to keep me from running because I was getting squirrelly. I lived with these guys in that world for the better part of a year, and I knew I had to get out. I’d been around some very dangerous people and seen some dangerous things. I went back to the kibbutz.

“In 1973, I went into the Israeli army in time to serve in the Yom Kippur War. I was in the army for two years. During that time, on a 48-hour pass, I wrote a screenplay. A friend managed an R&B group and asked me to write a musical for them. Oddly enough, it got financed and that was Train Ride to Hollywood.

“Like everybody of my generation, [the Yom Kippur War] was a traumatic war. So there was a biological response – I assume not unlike what happened after World War II – of everyone who came out of that war wanting to get married and have children. I didn’t know who I was going to marry, but I knew I was going to marry – now. I was discharged in May or June in 1975, and I was married two months later. My oldest boy, Zaki, was born in June 1976. My then wife was an American girl who didn’t take to life on the kibbutz, so we left. We lived outside of Jerusalem, and I worked three jobs. There was no such thing as a screenwriter in Israel. I’d been milking cows on the kibbutz and working in the field. So I taught at a film school and at Tel Aviv University and wrote ad copy for an advertising agency to make ends meet.

“By the time I had two kids, there was no way to make a living at a film studio in Israel. I had a lot of friends tell me if I came back to LA, I could get all the work I wanted. So in 1980, I came back to the United States. That was a heartbreak. I had hoped and planned to live in Israel and put down roots there. I love this country, and I love that country. In short order, I started making a living as a screenwriter. I had a couple of hard years, but then I began selling on an ongoing basis. I had a string of movies that had varying degrees of success, and I went on to work on some very good television series.

Highway to Heaven was one of my favorites. I’m as proud, if not prouder, of the work I did there as I am of anything else in my career. I had a great time working with Mike Landon. He was another mentor in my life – he and Don Simpson. He was like a big brother to me, and it was great fun to work on that show. I had a degree of freedom that I’ve never had since because Mike was such a big star and powerful force at NBC. I wrote 45 of the first 100 episodes, and I did the rewriting on all the others. Mike would do the final rewrite. It was a great place to learn to be a writer, and he would insist that I direct because he wanted me to learn production. I use what I learned from Mike to this day. – Originally published in the January/February 2011 issue of Sedona Monthly