Friday, May 20, 2022

Neon Badges: 8 MILLION WAYS TO DIE, Part 2

 by Anthony King

“He fought for us. But if you fight nose-to-nose with a studio, you're going to lose.” – Louis Gossett Jr.

Read Part 1 here.

Production for a film usually begins with a shooting script. After the initial story is hashed out, the screenplay goes through several different drafts, usually with several different people adding or subtracting things to their liking, most of whom are never officially credited. Usually. On the first day of shooting 8 Million Ways to Die, cast and crew had less than 100 pages with which to work. From an interview with Screenwriter's Utopia, author Lawrence Block called the shoot “a mess.” Recalling a conversation with actor Jeff Bridges, Block remembers hearing “the set was not a happy place.” This, of course, is contradictory to other peoples' accounts from the set, including actors Rosanna Arquette and Andy Garcia. Nevertheless, starting a film with an incomplete script and a director attempting to make a comeback didn't bode well for many people involved, especially Production Sales Organization (PSO) head Mark Damon and the other executives.

As filming progressed, it became abundantly clear director Hal Ashby wasn't following a script. They, of course, had an idea of what the day ahead held in store for them, but, as Arquette remembers, “If things weren't working on the page, Hal let the actors to work freely.” This meant much of the dialogue is improvised; though, according to actor Alexandra Paul, not the infamous line from her character, Sunny. While seducing the main character of Scudder, Sunny strips down and poses in the doorway of the bathroom before saying, “The streetlight makes my pussy hair glow in the dark.” As Andy Garcia says, “Hal never passed judgement on anyone, and allowed each actor to explore their own character.” Referring to Bridges, Arquette says, “What you see is what you get.” Meaning, the laid back and lovable Jeff Bridges we know and love from his most well-known movie roles and interviews, is exactly who he is. But Bridges is also a traditional actor by all measures, and on the set of 8 Million Ways wasn't entirely comfortable with improvising his dialogue. He would become almost robotic in his delivery. So Hal would then tell Arquette and Garcia to cut Bridges off mid-sentence to keep him on his toes. And from the notorious snow cone scene till the end of the film, every scene with Bridges and Garcia is completely improvised.
Bridges would meet with Hal every morning where they would essentially be writing the day's shooting pages. Damon and the other suits saw this as Hal losing control of the production. Hal already had a seemingly insurmountable hill to climb to get in the good graces of his bosses. Unfairly, he came onto the project with two strikes against him. So if things weren't going exactly how the producers thought they should be going, they would come on set and make their presence known. Eventually, anytime an executive would come on set, Hal would disappear into his trailer and not emerge until they were gone. By all accounts, though, Hal was never irresponsible on set. He had gained the trust, respect, and friendship of his cast and crew and everyone working in the film knew they had something special on their hands.

For instance, even though it has since gained a reputation for how over-the-top it is, the climactic scene at the warehouse where Scudder and drug kingpin Angel Maldonado are at a stand-off while constantly shouting at one another is also completely improvised. In the film, before arriving at the warehouse, Maldonado gathers with his crew, overlooking a gorgeous ocean sunrise. Maldonado's crew were Garcia's friends in real life. He talked to Hal and said he knew some guys that fit the description of what the production needed. Garcia remembers Hal being nervous the day his friends arrived on set because he assumed these were going to be real life, Latin drug dealers – the type we see in Scarface. At the warehouse, what was filmed isn't necessarily what we see in the finished product. Shooting the scene involved more magic than is apparent when we watch it now. Again, with only a rough blueprint of how the scene should play out, the dialogue is completely improvised. Hal's only direction to the actors, specifically Garcia and Bridges, was they could haggle as much as they wanted for the stockpile of cocaine, but when all was said and done, Maldonado had to cut Sarah loose at the end. Garcia remembers again approaching Hal the morning of the shoot with an idea he wanted to try. Hal cuts Garcia off, puts a hand on his shoulder, smiles, and says, “Yeah! Let's try it.” Hal was wholly open to listening to ideas from the actors and trying them out. If it didn't work, they simply tried something else. But when it did work, it was magical. And because of those specific moments on set Garcia says, “Jeff and I have a profound connection to this day. I love him like I love my own family.” And it was Hal that made it all happen.
Filming wrapped and Hal gave editor Robert Lawrence a head start on initial cuts as he took a much-deserved two-week respite. As anyone who knew how he worked, and knew what he was capable of, Hal headed into the editing room after his break and began his extensive process of cutting together his latest film. Hal's version of 8 Million Ways to Die would have been a parallel story of the crime and Scudder's alcoholic blackouts and how he's perceiving life during those moments. Andy Garcia was excited to see it all come together. “All our collective energies and contributions and improvisations would come together to create the movie Hal wanted to make.” As was expected, but still to his superiors' chagrin, months went by without word to the studio from Hal about his cut of the film. And then his world came to a crashing halt. Almost inevitably, Hal's greatest fears came to fruition. He received this memo from Mark Damon and PSO:

Dear Mr. Ashby,

In light of your persistent refusal to communicate with us on various production and post production personnel despite phone calls and written requests, and your representatives assertion that you will only talk to us at a DGA hotline meeting, you have presented us with no alternative but to deem your conduct tantamount to a resignation, or in the alternative, to remove you immediately from all further involvement with respect to 8 Million Ways to Die. Your present conduct is a continuation, and, indeed escalation of the irresponsible manner in which you have comported yourself throughout this picture. Although we regret that this course of action has become necessary you have given us no alternative. We cannot risk further delay, significant additional expenses, and the possibility of not meeting our spring release date.

Very truly yours,
PSO Presentations

After a fight where Hal locked himself in the editing bay with film, his energy ran out. He simply had no fight left in him. PSO gave the film over to editor Stuart Pape, who “cut it against the grain,” in a linear way, which was not how it was supposed to be. What the studio did to his film was antithetical to what we were supposed to see. While he couldn't blame the financiers, Bridges was as frustrated as anyone else in Hal's corner. “I mean, look at the pudding coming out of this guy's oven.” Hal had proven himself time and time again, especially in the cutting room where he arguably excelled the most. In Amy Scott's 2018 documentary, Hal, while Mark Damon never speaks ill of Hal, he clearly sidesteps questions about taking the film away from the director. And in his voice you can hear guilt.
Lawrence Block on the film from Screenwriter's Utopia: “I think Jeff did some excellent work in it, and I think Andy Garcia did some excellent work. I think Hal Ashby might have done some excellent work on it but they took final cut away from him... Even Jeff expressed himself rather bitterly on the subject saying that whoever did edit the film used all the bad takes. So that accounts for some of what you see on the screen. And having no script accounts for scenes like the snow cone scene which had potential but was completely improvised, and the downfall of such scenes is no one has the slightest clue how to get the fuck out of it.”

Despite Block's assessment, we were deprived of a brilliant final film from a creative genius. Hal's best friend and director Norman Jewison speaks for most of his colleagues when he says, “Producers are off in fantasyland thinking they can cut a film.” All too often we've seen studio interference completely ruin a film. A director's vision is tossed out the window and we're left with something solely made to make a buck. Unfortunately, PSO Productions and Tri-Star did absolutely nothing to help 8 Million Ways to Die succeed.

The film opened in a paltry 215 theaters on April 25, 1986 bringing in $610,000. Opening at #13 on the box office list, 8 Million Ways was competing against a slate that included a top three of Ridley Scott's Legend, Tom Hanks and Shelly Long in The Money Pit, and Cannon Films' Murphy's Law with Charles Bronson. After its short-lived life on the big screen, 8 Million Ways only brought in a total of $1.3 million.
Critics were generally negative towards the film, many referring to it as “Scarface Junior.” From Variety: “What could have been a better film delving into complexities of one tough-but-vulnerable alcoholic sheriff out to bust a cocaine ring, instead ends up an oddly-paced work that is sometimes a thriller and sometimes a love story, succeeding at neither... In isolated scenes, the actors manage to rise above it all to bring some nuances to their fairly stereo-typical roles.” The New York Times was a massacre. “There is no detecting in this detective story, and no story... The acting is loud and aimless... The final wound is inflicted by the director, Hal Ashby, who seems to have been made desperate by the desultory and disjointed nature of the material... You may feel you've died eight million deaths.” And the Los Angeles Times tries to keep a positive light but similarly leans into the negative aspects of the film. “[Bridges] is, as ever, marvelous, but that’s the only good thing you can say for the film... Surely it’s not good form to recycle old Scarface screaming exchanges, and call that a movie... Director Hal Ashby tries to pump tension into Bridges’ spiral into alcoholism and redemption after killing a suspect in the line of duty, but it’s an impossibility. This script, the work of Stone and David Lee Henry, defeats his every effort... a ponderous, convoluted improbability... “

Lawrence Block has written a total of 17 Matthew Scudder novels, one novella, and one short story anthology. When the film came out in 1986, Block's publisher released a tie-in novel with Bridges on the cover, but as Block puts it, “The movie didn't do well so the book didn't do well.” While he doesn't really look upon the film fondly, Block has my favorite review, saying, “Well, they took a shot.” And Oliver Stone says he now works as efficiently as he does because of what he witnessed on the set of 8 Million Ways.

After witnessing firsthand how he was treated, Rosanna Arquette looks back at the tragic end of 8 Million Ways to Die and how it affected Hal saying, “This really hurt his soul. They didn't respect him and it killed him.” Norman Jewison says, “I just wish his life had a better third act.” Out of all the New Hollywood directors, Hal Ashby is the only one who never blew a huge amount of studio money on a film, yet he was the one who was crucified the worst. After experiencing several medical issues, Hal was finally diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in September of 1988. His doctors gave him three months to live. He got four. On December 27, 1988, Hal Ashby died at his home in Malibu. A few days later, after his memorial, some of his closest friends gathered on a boat off the coast of Malibu and spread Hal's ashes at sea. “He was a wonderful example of the human spirit,” says Jeff Bridges. Nearly choked up by tears, Andy Garcia says, “Hal was completely fearless. We were all blessed to be part of Hal's magic. And that's a very high bar to measure by.”

Neon Badges is an oral history series on the greatest sub-sub-genre of all time: the '80s Cop Movie

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