Saturday, March 28, 2009

Chapter V: Savage Streets

Savage Streets is a revenge thriller starring Linda Blair. The film has lots of camp humor and brutal violence. Quentin Tarantino has claimed to be a fan of the movie.

Jeff Cramer: How did you become involved with the project?

Danny Steinmann: I was working on a miniseries for Playboy Television starring Britt Ekland, when I got a call from a good friend of mine, Billy Fine. He was in big trouble. The picture that he was producing with Linda Blair was to begin literally tomorrow, problem was, he’d just fired the director. Would I take over? Playboy understood. I was free to go.

About midday, I went to Billy’s office and it was mobbed. I was given a script of Savage Streets and told to read it. I went into a side office, and came out about 45 minutes later. I remember I felt challenged, but optimistic. Principal photography began the next day. The night before I didn’t sleep. I read the script twice more and made serious cuts and a few additions. The script would change over time, and then change again.

JC: What do you remember of the original screenplay before you rewrote it?

DS: The basic story would be the same. I got rid of whole scenes, dialogue, and characters. I tried to keep the film moving. There was a love interest that Linda had, a subplot concerning the police. Lots of gags that I thought wouldn’t work, scenes that would slow the film down. My main objective was to keep the audience involved and interested in this silly movie by eliminating clichéd dialogue and action. In the original writer’s defense, he wrote a low budget revenge exploitation film. It may have been one of the first movies starring a young woman as a Charles Bronson facsimile. I thought he did a good job.

The problem was you had a gang that viciously raped an innocent deaf mute girl and threw another girl off a bridge. To combine that with an innocent hackneyed story is not possible, at least not by me.

JC: A fired director would not be the only problem for this film. What else happened?

DS: As soon as I started filming, things were, surprisingly, going very well. Linda Blair was giving a solid performance and the rushes looked good. I felt in control and comfortable. I was having fun! Then, after two and a half weeks of principal photography, the cast and crews’ checks bounced. The shooting stopped. There was no more money. Two of the producers told me to hang in; we’d be fully financed shortly. That, unfortunately, would not be the case. I expressed my displeasure and told them I was offered another film and would not be available after week’s end. This was a lie but I was pissed!

Soon after, one of the many producers came to my hotel room, and gave me $10,000. He set me up in a two-story apartment right on the beach and gave me a new car for the duration. All he needed from me was to cut the footage that was shot and meet with investors who might finance the remaining production and post-production costs. I liked this deal. I cut the footage and met with a few investors. A month went by. I had time to rewrite and polish the remaining pages of the script. Finally, I was told that the film was fully financed.

I was asked to come to the production office and to meet with the new producers: six or seven of them. I was introduced to John Strong, who would act on their behalf. He would oversee the production to make sure the film stayed on budget and on time. I reminded them all that we were under budget and a day under schedule. Nevertheless, the decision had been made. John Strong was a big, powerful man. He was a funny, tireless guy, who assured me he would stay out of my way. I liked him.

JC: Around this time, Billy Fine wanted to fire you from the project. Why?

DS: When checks bounced and people took off, I tried to get in touch with Billy many times. Billy Fine was the producer who hired me to direct Savage Streets. We were friends for many years. I found out later that the other producers got into a huge argument with Billy. About what? I don’t know. When another producer, John Chambliss came and offered me the money, apartment and car, I accepted and was very pleased. Soon after I got a call from an outraged Billy claiming I betrayed and deceived him. I had taken sides. I told him I was unaware that he was fighting with the other producers.

He cursed me out and told me I was fired. Part of the money to finance the film had come from the mob and the very next day a dead fish was placed in front of Billy’s door. He left the film abruptly and I remained the director.

JC: In the film, there are a lot of colorful lines. You mentioned in the Savage Streets commentary that John Vernon’s line, “Go fuck an iceberg,” was adlibbed. What about these lines from Linda Blair, “Wouldn’t fuck him if he had the last dick on earth,” or “It’s too bad you’re not double-jointed so you can bend over and kiss your ass”? Ad-libbed or written?

DS: I asked John Vernon what he meant by his line, “Go fuck an iceberg.” He said it was a saying that many people used. Funny, I didn’t know that, but I thought I’d keep it in because it might get a laugh. Actually, if someone was trying to fuck an iceberg, it would be very uncomfortable, cause a lot of pain and frustrating because it would be almost impossible to get an erection. I believe Linda’s two lines were in the original script. If I had written them, I’d probably remember.

JC: How did Linda Blair react to doing her nude bathtub scene?

DS: Linda Blair is a true professional. She worked hard and never complained. She had no reservations about her scene in the nude. I used a skeleton crew and shot it quickly. Getting completely naked for her character was like the start of a transformation that would enable her to become a remorseless killer. You buy that?

JC: No. Nice Try. But anyway, there’s a certain tone that ranges from campy to very raw and gritty. The best example is when you show the catfight in the shower between Blair and the head cheerleader. While that’s going on, the film crosscuts with the gang rape of Blair’s sister. Was that tone intentional on your part as the director?

DS: I don’t remember if the two scenes were in the original script. Probably were. Also, I don’t remember if they were written to be intercut, but I do think it’s an effective device. I felt that the more harm and terror that the young girl experienced, the angrier the audience would be and their desire to get even would escalate. Linnea Quiqley did a terrific job and her performance holds up. The audience is torn between watching these two scenes happen at the same time.

They’re enjoying watching the fight in the shower, when they are abruptly witnessing a monstrous rape taking place, then suddenly back to naked girls in the shower. They don’t want to go back to this poor girl being raped but know that the act is not complete. Naked girls fighting juxtaposed with a vicious rape, I think it works.

JC: Why do Sal Landi and Bob Dryer kiss each other when they’re in the middle of the gang rape?

DS: Their action was not in the script or in rehearsals. It was totally unexpected and I was thrilled. It was completely in the moment and worked seamlessly. I was greatly impressed.

JC: The gang rape scene was cut by the MPAA. What was cut out?

DS: The girl’s torment was much more brutal. Each gang member took turns with her. It probably was overkill and what’s left is good enough.

JC: Sal Landi, who played one of the gang members, mentioned in the commentary that as a director, you often leave actors to their own devices, allowing them to improvise or add things to their roles. Stephen Furst and several Friday the 13th Part V actors pretty much said the same thing. Can you elaborate on that just a little more?

DS: I dealt with different actors differently. I allowed actors to use their skills and experiment. If I felt it wasn’t working, I’d ask them to try something else. Other actors are able to lock in a role and perform their part in exactly the same way on every take. Some needed line readings and others could dazzle you in rehearsals, but when the camera is rolling, they stiffen up and lose focus.

JC: The male gang works as a team when it comes to gang rape or throwing a woman off a bridge. However, the female gang almost does nothing together. It’s Blair alone who takes on the whole male gang. In fact, if you exclude the victims, you could eliminate the female gang and it would have no impact on the story. Was the gang a leftover from the original script?

DS: The female gang played at being a gang and were basically girls having a good time. John Strong convinced the producers to make Linda the only one who gets even. I disagreed strongly. You really have to be a bit naïve to think that she alone could take down the male gang, especially the two big guys. The girls working together as a team maybe, but many times more believable than just Linda. Towards the end of the film, I stopped arguing with John Strong. I was fighting a fight that was unwinnable.

JC: John Strong mentioned that he took a hand in script rewrites. Was there any truth to this?

DS: After principal photography ended, John Strong wrote two scenes and shot them. The first is when the gang members go to Johnny Venocur’s house to get him. He comes out, changes his clothes, and gets in the car. The second scene is when Linda comes to Johnny Venocur’s house and speaks to his father. They were both fantastic scenes that the Academy somehow overlooked.

JC: It seems there was a lot of tension between you and John Strong. Can you elaborate on it?

DS: Shortly after shooting started, he began to make his presence felt. He was involved in everyone’s business.

People came to me complaining. He was employed to protect the investors. I had agreed with their decision that John would act on their behalf and could do nothing to counteract them. John would look in the camera on most shots, talk with the actors, and always question me about everything. The reason that the producers were able to refinance the film must have had something to do with the cut footage and my vision of the ending. Why shackle me with this albatross?

Some of those remaining days were torturous. His ego was monumental and I struggled to finish the film. But my work with John was not over. He wanted to edit the film with me at his side. I think if John was able to write, direct, produce and star in a film of his own, all his dreams would come true. But I liked him and still do.

1 comment:

roarvis said...

This is a great series of interviews. I love Savage Streets and it's cool to hear about his other projects.