American International Pictures and The Rise of New Hollywood Part 8

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A falling out?

Continued from Part 7

AIP had been very proud of their track record producing many successful pictures, but in 1969 they produced a couple of flops that they had high hopes for, Angel, Angel Down We Go starring Jennifer Jones, a sort of Swinging’ Sixties thing (I’ve never seen it, but some people thinks it’s great) the other picture was was a co production that they had high expectations for, De Sade, featuring 2001:A Space Odyssey’s Keir Dullea as the Marquis De Sade and directed by Cy Endfield who scored huge with a favorite picture of mine Zulu.

The picture had difficulties, mostly with Endfield being uncomfortable shooting the sex scenes. AIP’s Sam Arkoff wanted him replaced but star Keir Dullea had director approval in his contract and balked at the idea, but Sam was persistent saying “If this picture doesn’t get finished your career may suffer. If you don’t want to do it with another director, no one will ever see you in this wonderful role.” Keir reluctantly agreed.

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According to Sam he approached John Huston, who has a role in the picture, but he declined, Huston has said he was never asked. Then he went to someone he knew could finish the picture quickly, Roger Corman. “The exploitation director?!” Keir cried. Roger originally said “no” as he had a lot on his plate, but decided to be a team player and help out and flew out to London to meet with Keir.

The film wrapped up and had a big Hollywood premiere, AIPs first. Sam and Jim were embarrassed by the picture and ultimately it did not do well.

1970 proved to be a good year for AIP with the previously mentioned Bloody Mama, Count Yorga, Vampire, Hammer film productions’ The Vampire Lovers. It also marked the year of Roger Corman’s ill fated Film Gas-s-s-s.

Gas-s-s-s is a comedy about a chemical that’s released, killing everyone over the age of 25 and what’s left are a bunch of countercultural hippie types. The film didn’t go well for Roger and while he left to film Von Richthofen and Brown for FOX, Sam and Jim had it recut. Roger was none too happy about this and it would be the last picture he would direct for AIP.

After he wrapped Von Richthofen and Brown he married his long time girlfriend Julie, whom he’s still married to, and decided to quite directing altogether to focus on producing and distributing films. He created New World Pictures, its first film, directed by Corman’s assistant Stephanie Rothman, Student Nurses and kicked off his own cycle of ‘Nurseploitation’ pictures and creating a friendly competition with AIP. In 1971 though, he would produce one more film for AIP to be directed by a 28 year old NYU graduate Martin Scorsese called Boxcar Bertha.

Roger is, despite himself, the most remarkable type of artist because, while not taking himself too seriously, he was able to inspire and nurture other talent in a way that was never envious or difficult-but always generous. – Martin Scorsese

Scorsese had been out of film school for five years and been living in LA working as an editor on films like Woodstock and Medicine Ball Caravan while at Warner Bros (he and friend George Lucas, who was also an editor, would often sit on a bench in front of the edit bungalows’ fountain and ask themselves “why are we editors and not making movies?” (I often sat at that same bench and asked myself the same question.) though he had directed several shorts and a student film Look Who’s Knocking, he had yet to direct anything professional.

Boxcar Bertha is based on the true story of labor organizer/hobo Bertha Thompson (Barbara Hershey) and her lover Big Bill Shelly (David Carradine) and their friends Rake Brown (Barry Primas) and Von Morton (Bernie Casey) as they ride the rails, spreading their socialist ideals and avoiding the rail owners and henchmen. It’s a pretty good film had has the type of violence and camera work that frequents Scorsese’s body of work except in this picture it’s a bit more raw and less fluid.

“As for standing behind Marty, history has vindicated me. Marty Scorsese has become a major director. After Marty we (New World Pictures) became a filmmaking Mecca for untested, ambitious talent.” – Roger Corman

Early in pre-production Scorsese brought hundreds of hand drawn storyboards to Roger, he was impressed that Marty had done his homework but recommended that he shoot the steam trains first. He was a bit confused as the shot Roger wanted first was a ‘nothing shot’ that plays under the open credits in the early morning. Roger said it’ll be best to shoot it first because if the shot goes wrong you’ll have to back it up and re-do it. It could cost you a day instantly putting you behind schedule, and if it’s first, you can probably make it up by losing some shots or scenes later. So Marty listened to his new mentor and did just that. When Sam received the first dailies all he saw were shots of trains and wheels and wanted to fire Scorsese, but Roger refused and had Scorsese’s back. Some trouble irrupted on set as some southern extras wanted more money and shot up the bar where the film was shooting and took Marty hostage. Scorsese called Roger then Sam and told of his predicament “They’ve already fired guns and they might do it again!” Sam agreed to give them an extra 20 bucks a day and the 24 day schedule finished.

“I have the notion that Roger Corman sent his actors and crew south in hopes to make a nice, sexy violent film for the summer trade. What we got was something better. Director Martin Scorsese has gone for mood and atmosphere more than for action, and his violence is always blunt and unpleasant.” Roger Ebert 1972

Shortly before production began on Boxcar Bertha James H. Nicholson resigned from AIP, telling Sam he wanted to produce his own films. Sam pleaded that he could still distribute them through AIP but he had already made a deal with Fox. They remained friends and met often, as James still owned some of the properties, and according to Sam, AIP gave him a couple pictures they were developing, The Legend of Hell House, Dirty Mary and Crazy Larry but Jim would never be able to see the later. On December 10, 1972 James H. Nicholson died from a brain tumor discovered just weeks before, he was 56 years old.

Next: AIP finds a new audience, a new star, and new cycle of pictures: BLAXPLOITATION CINEMA!

-Phillip López Jiménez

 

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