The Films of Richard Rush: An Interview

Director Richard Rush poses with a flyer for his most famous film, The Stunt Man

Richard Rush has had his ups and downs in the unpredictable world of Hollywood. His more than three decades of filmmaking have included memorable collaborations with such fellow industry legends as Jack Nicholson and cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs as well as long, arduous years in development hell. It took ten years for The Stunt Man to finally reach the screen. Despite it all, Rush remains an eternal optimist with a wonderful sense of humor, genuine love for his craft and a steadfast loyalty to his cast and crew members. The following interview was conducted in April 2010 just prior to the first TCM Classic Film Festival where The Stunt Man was screened and covers some of his films and experiences in the movie business.

Director Richard Rush on the set of The Stunt Man (1980) with Peter O’Toole and Steve Railsback (lower right).

Jeff Stafford: I saw The Sinister Saga of the Making of The Stunt Man and I think that should be required viewing for anyone in film school because you take us through the entire process from the creative to the pre-production to “the making of” to the editing to the test screenings to the marketing and the release – and all the studio politics in between. It’s important to see the process because of the obstacles that could come your way as a filmmaker in a project that you care passionately about.

Richard Rush:  I’m thrilled to hear you say that because that’s what I like most about the reviews. They were calling it the post-graduate course in filming.

JS: It absolutely is. It goes into everything. Things you don’t even think about. I never knew there was a whole protocol with the screening process of a new film. For instance, if you didn’t preview it first for The Hollywood Reporter [or other L.A. press publications] and took it instead to another city to preview it, how that could hurt you later.

RR: Yeah, it’s true. Things like that you learn the hard way. I actually learned it on like my tenth picture and a good friend at one of the trades gave me a bad review. Because he didn’t get to see it first. He was furious.  JS: I wanted to know if Paul Brodeur, the author of the novel The Stunt Man ever saw the film and if he liked it?

RR: I never met Paul Berdier so we never discussed it personally but I heard that he saw it and liked it. I’m not sure if it’s true. Maybe it’s only wishful thinking.  JS: You mentioned in the documentary that you were first offered The Stunt Man as a possible project right after Getting Straight (1970) for Columbia.  Who was the person who offered that to you?

RR: Let me see….I’m trying to think who was the head of Columbia at that time…

Peter Guber, courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter

JS: Peter Guber?

RR: Yes, although after I started on Stunt Man Peter Guber became president. And Peter was very influential while I was developing the picture there. He would come and tell me little secrets I wasn’t supposed to know…like there’s somebody else at the studio who’s trying to make a similar picture. It was very useful.

Peter O’Toole and Steve Railsback star in a paranoid fantasy about the film world – The Stunt Man (1980).

JS: I read that when you first read The Stunt Man, you didn’t like it.

RR: Right. I had genuine problems with it. I was fascinated with this metaphor that seemed to be the underlying theme of the film – the idea of a fugitive hiding his identity by posing as a stunt man at a movie company and beginning to believe – because of the things that are going on around him – that the director is trying to kill him in order to get his death on film. It seemed very much like the paranoia we all have about our inability to figure out what’s happening in our lives and to control our own destinies. And the people that handle that theme in a big action-adventure film seemed like a lot of fun.

Chuck Bail (upper right) and Steve Railsback in a publicity photo from The Stunt Man (1980).

JS: One of my favorite performances in the film is one that’s not talked about that much but it’s Chuck Bail as the stunt man who teaches Railsback the ropes. He’s really delightful in that film and he’s a little bit sinister too like O’Toole because you never know whether he’s to be trusted or not.

RR: Actually, Chuck Bail played that role in my life. Chuck had been first a stunt man in one of my pictures and then my stunt coordinator from then on for all of my pictures and later my second unit director. I modeled the character after him. Chuck Bail was Chuck Barton in the film. He’s the guy who always said to me, “All you care about is the story.”  JS: He was a great creation in The Stunt Man. I actually just saw him the other night when I was watching Hells Angels on Wheels again and noticed him early on in one of the barroom brawl scenes..

RR: That’s where we met. On that picture was the first time we worked together and I was dazzled at his proficiency. He’s the guy that taught me more than I ever wanted to know about stunts.

JS: You mention in the documentary [The Sinister Saga of the Making of The Stunt Man] that Eli Cross was an alias that you used to use. Did you use that to make other films?

RR: I used it once. There was a film that I was hesitant about making because I wasn’t sure how it would turn out and the quality. I was being very finicky as a young filmmaker, much more than I had the right to be. And I said I’ll put my name on the film if I like it. Otherwise, it’s Eli Cross.  JS: Did the film ever get released?

RR: It did and at the wrap party the producer gave me two cigarette lighters, one with the name Richard Rush on it and the other was the name Eli Cross, and said “Which one are you gonna use?” So I put my name on the film.

JS: And what was the film?

RR: It was a film called A Man Called Dagger.

JS: That’s the spy movie that has Paul Mantee in it.

RR: Exactly, right.

Steve Railsback plays a fugitive from the law who assumes a new identity in The Stunt Man (1980), directed by Richard Rush.

JS:  When you first released The Stunt Man you received all this praise from critics all over the United States but you also received international acclaim from people such as Francois Truffaut. Did you ever meet Truffaut?

RR:  I didn’t meet him. But a dear friend of his, who was a critic who gave me a rave review, became a friend of mine afterwards and would keep me posted on what he was doing and so on. We sort of had a second hand relationship through her.  JS: I didn’t realize that you had actually owned the rights to Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at one point. Were you one of the first people in Hollywood to buy that property?

RR: I believe so. I had been after it for a long time…before the play was on I was actually in love with the book and I did manage to get it through Kirk Douglas when he did the stage play. And he sold me the motion picture rights. It was an amazing thing to watch Hollywood’s reaction to it. “Nobody wants to see a picture about lobotomy!” And that was the universal tone at the studios. Then I tried very hard but reluctantly had to give it up because I could not get it made. I had Jack [Nicholson] committed to it. We’d done three pictures together before and they still wouldn’t go.  And then I finally let it go and his son [Michael Douglas] took it over and got it financed from a music company in San Francisco.

One of the many stunts that was performed during the making of The Stunt Man at the Hotel del Coronado in San Diego.

JS:  A question about the setting of The Stunt Man which I’ve seen in other movies – the Coronado Hotel. I’d seen that used for Some Like It Hot [and Wicked, Wicked]. Was it difficult to get permission to shoot there since it’s a historical preservation site?

RR: Actually it turned out not to be difficult. They were amazingly cooperative. And while we were shooting the picture – although we were wreaking chaos in the hotel and on the rooftops – they were very cooperative. They went along with us on almost everything.

JS: So was the Coronado closed for business while the cast and crew occupied the hotel?

RR: No, what we did was put the cast and crew on the top floor so it made a buffer between the roof and the rest of the guests. And the hotel was packed actually. And the guests were loving the fact that this movie was going on and….we allowed them a lot of freedom on our sets because that was the nature of the film. We were going to see the film crews AND the spectators. Anyway, there was a movie being shot during our movie. You know, it’s part of the plot.

Director Richard Rush (left) and Steve Railsback on the set of The Stunt Man (1980)

JS: Those close-ups of the rooftops where you were filming explosions, were those scenes shot there or on a studio set?

RR: We actually would build part of [it]…like a dormer on the roof on a studio lot and blow it up there. We didn’t do the actually explosions on the roof [of the Coronado].The airplane adventure there was a big thing.

The former MGM backlot just before it was demolished in 1980 (photo by John Divola).

JS: This was actually on the commentary on the DVD of The Stunt Man. That within the film within a film – the war movie – you were destroying sets that were actually on the old MGM backlot.

RR: Yes

JS: And I thought that must have been fun but also sad because you were tearing down what was left of a once classic film studio.

RR: Yes, well at the time I was so single-minded and my objective to get the scenes on film that the sentimentality was lost on me. But it was a wonderful break that we caught. They said, ok, you can wreck the backlot and you don’t have to put it together again ‘cause we’re gonna tear it down.  And we got this little tank and tore it apart.  JS: The sets were great. They were perfect. At Oscar time, The Stunt Man was nominated for Best Director, Best Actor (Peter O’Toole) and Best Screenplay but no Best Picture. I always thought the whole process of the voting is confusing to people who aren’t in the Academy and I wondered how a movie that got nominated for Best Direction didn’t get nominated for Best Picture. Who gets to vote on Best Picture? Is it everybody in the Academy?

RR: Everybody votes on Best Picture. It was sort of an irony we had the top three nominations and didn’t get the Best Picture nomination. But it’s the one I would rather have missed because I loved being nominated for personally writing and directing it.  JS: So after The Stunt Man there was a big gap and you didn’t make another feature for almost fourteen years [It was Color of Night]. Were you trying to get another personal project off the ground in that period of time and just had the same troubles?

RR: OF COURSE! There were a couple of them which were screenplays I loved that I didn’t get to make. The last one I didn’t get to make was called Air America. And it got made.

JS: You got the screenplay credit on that, right?  RR: I got partial screenplay credit, which I didn’t want because they weren’t using my screenplay. It was based on my screenplay. But my screenplay was the best thing I had ever written. It was better than The Stunt Man actually…I had created it. I had heard about the phenomenon of Air America and started researching it and bought a novel called Air America that had a lot of factual information in it and then created the story and the characters.  And it was a great story and a great first exposition picture on Viet Nam. The subject really hadn’t been touched [upon] heavily at that point.

Mel Gibson and Robert Downey, Jr. star in Air America (1990), which was partially based on a screenplay by Richard Rush.

Sean Connery read it and loved it. As a matter of fact we read it out loud together which is a wonderful way to deal with a star. It’s so rare that you get the opportunity to do that. And I went to Southeast Asia to set up the production and I came back with a wonderful production. So good, in fact, I think it was the Commanding Air Force General of Thailand who said he would bomb anything I wanted so I could get it on film, any country I decided on.

JS: That’s cooperation.

RR: But when I got back there was a new head at the studio where we were making that. And he had gone through the material they owned and fallen in love with it and decided he wanted to make it himself. So I got preempted. I was pay or play meaning they could pay you and not use you. And there’s nothing you can do about it. But when somebody takes over a picture there are some rules you have to follow. For one thing, you have to get rid of everyone connected with it because they will automatically be enemies. So I was lost immediately. Secondly, you have to territorially urinate on it and make it your own. So he had a new screenplay done. Unfortunately the new screenplay turned out badly and they couldn’t cast it for a year. Sean Connery left the project as soon as he figured I was gone; I always thought that was very classy of him. So they had trouble casting it. And then they finally did cast it and I understand they were paying very high prices. And made it and I was not fond of the new screenplay although I liked the actors they used.  JS: Jumping back to your first Hollywood feature, was that Too Soon to Love?

RR: Yes.

Jack Nicholson starts a fight at a drive-in theater in this scene from Too Soon to Love (1960), directed by Richard Rush.

JS: And was that the first time you met Jack Nicholson or had you met him before that?

RR: No, I met him while casting the movie…and actually he played a small part in the movie, the part of a villain at a drive-in theater. And then once I had seen him work, he starred in all of my pictures from then on. JS: On your next film Of Love and Desire, you were working with a lot of Hollywood names, some old and new. This was a big step up from the first film with such actors as Merle Oberon and Steve Cochran and John Agar and Curd Jurgens. What was the experience of making that movie like?

RR: Well, it was wonderful. I mean, growing up one always wanted to make a big Hollywood movie and here was my chance and I did. I was thrilled at the opportunity. And Merle was marvelous. She was a splendid actress and a marvelous human being. And I enjoyed the process but I had not yet developed a style that later emerged. I think the first picture that was really representative of me was Hells Angels on Wheels…when I finally caught on to what it is I had to do to make my pictures unique and mine. You know, personal.

A scene from Hells Angels on Wheels (1967) starring Adam Roarke (center) and Hells Angels leader Sonny Barger (far right).

Strangely, it had to do with the fact that I wasn’t in love with the screenplay and therefore I didn’t feel as loyal to it. I also didn’t realize that the director had a creative license to change the story and make the characters work and on Hells Angels we kind of took off…I remember at one point we took off from the screenplay and there was a big cheer that went up from the crew.

JS: You’ve worked with a lot of the same people over and over again and I’m sure that’s probably hard to coordinate in Hollywood where everybody is trying to go from project to project. When did you first start working with Laszlo Kovacs? Was that on A Man Called Dagger?

RR: Yes, it was.

Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs

JS: And he was going by the name Leslie then, wasn’t he?

RR: Right, I talked him back into Laszlo. Be European, it’s fancier.

JS: Can you talk a little bit about Laszlo in terms of your collaborations?

RR: He was wonderful to work with. He was recommended to me by someone who had met him and seen his work – my production man. Laszlo and another kid [Vilmos Zsigmond] had just escaped from Czechoslovakia when the Russian tanks invaded and they had footage of it and came to Hollywood to sell it. And I saw his footage and I loved what he did. We got along verbally and so we went to work together. For one thing, he was the best hand-held cameraman in Hollywood. He could hand-hold a 35mm camera and do miracles with it and follow focus at the same time. And it was before the days of the it had a unique, naturalistic flavor and a kind of move into it that has become too popular now. But it worked fine for our purposes.

Cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs on the set of Freebie and the Bean (1974), directed by Richard Rush.

We experimented together on a lot of things. One summer I got a Beaulieu 8mm camera with a ten to one zoom lens on it and was experimenting around the pool and discovered what I call the concept of critical focus – rack focusing from one object to another. That’s the long end of a ten to one lens. You can get that difference but it’s much more poetic than a cut or a dissolve. The objects seem more closely united when they’re only a focus change apart. I showed him some stuff and said “Do you think we can do this in 35mm?” and so we did some tests and decided to use it on the next picture and it became a Hollywood standard.

JS: Was that The Savage Seven?

RR: It was.

A German lobbycard from the 1967 film, Hells Angels on Wheels.

JS: I’d like to go back to Hells Angels on Wheels. Those opening stunts that were shot on the street, where the guys on the motorcycles are hooking up to the cars and climbing into the windows, were those Hells Angels or were those stunt men pretending to be Hells Angels? I was wondering if the Hells Angels did any of their own stunts in that movie.

RR: It was both actually. I was somewhat terrified of the Hells Angels concept when we went into it. There had only been one motorcycle picture done previously [The Wild Angels] and the reports were that they had beat up the actors and urinated on the crews. But I realized shortly after going to work on it that the Hells Angels is a fascist organization and if you own the leader, you own the organization. We had made the deal with Sonny Barger and his people were completely loyal to him. If he said it was a deal, it was a deal. And they behaved marvelously. As a matter of fact it was the Hells Angels doing their own stunts in some cases and some of our stuntmen doing some of the more specific tricks they were more adept at. But I actually used the Hells Angels in a picture later on.  When we did Psych-Out, I was in love with the hippie scene in San Francisco. And crazy to do that picture and I’d made a trade off…. I agreed to do The Savage Seven if they would let me do The Love Children (aka Psych-Out). When we got there to do it, they took one look at these movie trucks and….it was the winter that it started to turn cold in Haight-Ashbury – and they said “This is the enemy” and we started to have some incidents on the streets. So reluctantly I called in the Hells Angels and said, “Can you police this for us?” And they did very gently and very efficiently because they had a great deal in common – one common denominator – with the love children – and that was dope. They got along fine. They behaved very well for us.

JS: I love Psych-Out because it’s almost like a documentary at times with all of the location shooting. It must have been a nightmare to try to get all these street scenes cleared with officials in San Francisco. But because of the time period – the sixties – it was probably easier than it would be now.

Jack Nicholson, Susan Strasberg & Dean Stockwell star in Psych-Out (1968), directed by Richard Rush.

RR: Probably it was easier then and yeah, the city hadn’t been affronted with that kind of disease – the one we brought to it. Stopping traffic and intruding.

JS: Yeah, you’re responsible for everybody moving to San Francisco. I thought it was surprising that Psych-Out was produced by Dick Clark, who had the clean-cut “American Bandstand” image. Did you have much involvement with Dick Clark on that?

Dick Clark from American Bandstand

RR: I did. He handled the placement of music in it…not the placement but the gathering of music that was going to be in it and the bands that worked in it. That was part of the deal that I explained. I would do The Savage Seven for him if he would let me do this less than clean-cut picture.

JS: What did he think of Psych-Out when it was finished? Did he like it?

Adam Roarke (far left) and Jack Nicholson star in the San Francisco hippie lovefest Psych-Out (1968) directed by Richard Rush.

RR: I think he liked it very much.  But there’s always a conflict with the production entity about length. And they always have an unearring instinct for going after whatever is best in the picture to cut out. And there was a scene that I did – which was the first love scene, actually a full-blown argument between lovers done in critical focus where there were no cuts, just the focus fades between them. It was a completely new style of shooting and it was a piece of poetry. I was enchanted with it. And I knew it would be one of the first things people would go after – and of course they did. But fortunately I won [that argument] so it stayed in.

JS: I noticed in both Psych-Out and Hells Angels on Wheels that you had very unconventional endings in which you didn’t offer an easy resolution for the characters and story. Did you have any trouble with the studio on those endings?  RR: They weren’t complaining about that. In The Savage Seven the village is burning and our hero couple are lying in a burning barn. And they pan up with the smoke. [Of those three films] That was the clumsiest of the three endings. I was actually fond of the other two unhappy endings. At a point, our audience – the teenage audience that American International had learned so cleverly to cater to – were appreciative of the not-too-sweet Hollywood ending and it seemed more real and justifiable to them to handle it in this rougher way. So I got away with it on those three pictures.

Samuel Z. Arkoff (left) and James H. Nicholson were the moguls behind American International Pictures.

JS: While working for American International Pictures, was it difficult to manage the expectations of [Samuel] Arkoff and [James H.] Nicholson or were they relatively easy to work with?

RR: They were as different as two human beings could be. When you got caught in a conflict between them, it was particularly difficult. My first experience with them was on a picture where Nicholson came in my office and said, “There’s a girl I want you to use in this picture for the feminine lead,” and he showed me her picture and said, “She’ll come in to meet you later.” Then Arkoff came in my office and said, “You might get a request to use this girl on the picture. You are forbidden to use her.” Arkoff was, in a sense, a self-made caricature of the movie producer with the big cigar…loud and demanding but he was a movie lover. He loved movies and you could talk him into what you wanted because you could get at him if it was good. He’d recognize it. Nicholson was more of an elitist and much less accessible. So if you could get your problems solved with an Arkoff resolution, you could get away with it.  JS: I had a question about the 60s and 70s when a lot of actors and directors were going to Europe. In 1967 you shot something with Tab Hunter called The Fickle Finger of Fate. It was also known as The Cups of San Sebastian and other titles. What were the circumstances that took you to Spain to shoot that?

RR: It was the offer of a movie that came through my agent and I was grateful for it. I needed to pay my mortgage. I went over to do it and it was exciting to get a chance to work with the Spanish crew and a new environment. Actually I was a little green for that picture in the sense that there was another film shooting at the same company on the same lot, same production company. It was a director who knew his way around and he had an entourage around him. He always had five people running to get him everything he needed and I noticed him going off to good restaurants at night. I was alone there. Very lonely. And kind of disassociated.  So it wasn’t a thrilling experience in that sense. But it was fun to shoot and it was a complete disaster in that for me personally, I wasn’t invited to post-production on the picture. And I’m a maniac in terms of post-production. I don’t allow a director to make a cut unless I point to a spot. So I can’t take full responsibility for that film, good or bad, if I didn’t cut it. Postscript: Due to time limitations, we were not able to discuss Thunder Alley, AIP’s 1967 race car drama starring Frankie Avalon, Annette and Diane McBain, Getting Straight (1970), the counterculture comedy with Elliott Gould and Candice Bergman or Freebie and the Bean (1974), a comedic cop buddy action-thriller with James Caan and Alan Arkin, which most critics hated but audiences loved.

Fourteen years after The Stunt Man, Richard Rush directed his final feature film to date, Color of Night (1994), an erotic mystery thriller starring Bruce Willis, Jane March, Scott Bakula and Lesley Ann Warren. The critical reviews were predominantly negative and it was not popular with moviegoers either. In 2000 Rush wrote and produced the documentary The Sinister Saga of the Making of The Stunt Man which is highly recommended for anyone interested in the difficulties and challenges of making a movie in Hollywood. Unfortunately, that film remains Rush’s last completed project.

Director Richard Rush

Other websites of interest:

CUNNING STUNTS: A Q&A with Richard Rush

A Man Called Dagger trailer


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