by Patrick Bromley
Dwight Little has been one of my favorite directors for many years. With heavy hitters like Halloween 4: The Return of Michael Myers (my favorite Halloween movie), Rapid Fire, and Marked for Death to his long list of credits, Little has an ability to jump around between genres, between studio films and indies, between film and television, always leading with story and character and finding ways to bring the best out of the material. He's the type of versatile director that barely exists anymore within the current model. His new book, Still Rolling: Inside the Hollywood Dream Factory, is a mix of behind-the-scenes stories and practical, boots-on-the-ground advice for would-be filmmakers. It's a terrific read and gave me more than I knew I wanted out of the book.
Never miss a chance to talk to your heroes.
Patrick: I just have to tell you that when I found out that you were writing a book, I freaked out. I was so excited because or years you have been one of my absolute favorite directors and I'm such a fan.
Dwight Little: I really appreciate it. I know you're a Halloween 4 guy. I know that.
Patrick: I am a big Halloween 4 guy, yes, but I'm also a big Rapid Fire guy and a big Marked for Death guy.
Dwight Little: Well, you were in a very formative age of your life when those movies came out. Those are ‘90s movies, a lot of them.
Patrick: Yeah, definitely. And it was one of those things where I saw all those movies, I liked all of those movies individually, but it wasn't until I was a little bit older that I started to put together “Ohh, the same person is responsible for all these movies!”
Dwight Little: That's so funny, yeah. When we were young, we were all like that. You know, “Is this Howard Hawks? He made this?”
Patrick: So there's my first question. I know you mentioned Sydney Pollack in the book as being a huge inspiration, but like, who are your people? Who are the filmmakers that made you want to be a filmmaker?
Dwight Little: Well, let's start with that. For some reason I locked in, I would say around 1970 when I was say a freshman in high school -- all through the ‘70s -- it was, as you know, kind of a golden era for the Auteur director. I mean, we did have Friedkin and Spielberg and Paul Mazursky and De Palma. It was a long, impressive list including Scorsese, who, amazingly, is still working. It's just incredible how far he goes. But I remember being very impressed with what I think what we would call now “mainstream” genre. I love 3 Days of the Condor. I love The Exorcist, The French Connection. These guys who, yes, they were working in Hollywood, but when Sidney Pollock made a spy movie, it was more interesting than anybody else's spy movie. He had a way of taking mainstream-driven, commercial entertainment and making it artful. I was never fully into the deep genre cuts, like the deep Friday the 13th or any of that stuff, although I did get invested in John Carpenter's original Halloween very early. And I love The Fog. I love those two Carpenter movies and was aware of him because he had been at USC.
So I guess it was a period as much as anything. The studios had to give these guys full reign because their big Hello Dolly! musicals and their big Cinerama extravaganzas all busted. Easy Rider just blew everything wide open. And then, of course, in the '80s it changed. But it was a period that informed my enthusiasm more than any individual director.
Patrick: When you start out making films, obviously you are working in smaller, independent, genre-driven movies. How do you approach those being inspired by that '70s period?
Dwight Little: I think I have a good answer for that, because when I make a movie, I always constantly reference “What am I making?” Just boil it down for the actors, too. What am I making? With Halloween 4, I decided I wanted to make an escaped convict police procedural. I wasn't trying to make a horror movie. I mean, I knew it was a horror movie. But I thought “Well what if this was all actually happening?” So it's not corny teenagers getting slaughtered, you know? It wasn't that. It was this guy from a mental institution, this masked killer escapes, there's a detective and a case. The surrogate is Doctor Loomis, not a detective. He acts like a detective, and he's following this Silence of the Lambs kind of killer into a small Midwestern town trying to track him down before he kills again. And what if he does? When we rebuilt Michael – and that was what I was tasked with, because Moustapha [Akkad] wanted Michael back, no matter what – it was like, how do we get him in the overalls? Well, we’ve got to kill the mechanic. And how do we knock down the power lines? We have to burn the telephone poles. And how are we going to get him his mask? We're going to steal it from the Halloween section of a drug store. And how's he going to shut down the power in Haddonfield? He's going to throw a guy into a power grid. Everything had a point. There were no random kills. And when he breaks into Jamie's house and kills the dog, it's like he's looking; you know he's there now. He's in the house. We tried to dig deep into the procedural of it. Getting the cops involved and the siege in the house has an Assault on Precinct 13 energy about it, where they have to barricade themselves in and the killer's in the house. You know, that kind of thing.
When I was making Free Willy 2, completely different universe, I was thinking, “What do I want to make?” And I kept thinking The Black Stallion was the perfect family film. They had the kid and they had the horse. I thought, “OK, I got the kid, I got a whale, so I'm going to try and do something in the spirit of what they did with The Black Stallion.” I always had that in my mind.
With Marked for Death, it was The French Connection. I wanted to do a cop thriller. And I told Steven [Seagal] this. I said, listen, we're doing French Connection. If we can all agree to that, let's go make the movie. And sometimes he would go off on a tangent the way Steven can, and I'd go to his trailer and I'd say now, come on, we agreed to this. You said Bad Day at Black Rock, which is fine. You know, Spencer Tracy goes into the town and cleans it up. Got it. But we're also doing a cop thriller. And that's where that chase in Chicago, which was shot in LA, but that big car chase is really an homage to French Connection. All these ‘70s movies ended up really speaking to me when I was making my other movies. With Anacondas, I was making John Borman's Emerald Forest – well, and African Queen, too. Yes, it's a cheesy snake movie. Understood. But I had the boat going upriver into the jungle and the waterfalls and the whole Emerald Forest up the Amazon of it all. In my mind, all those ‘70s movies inform my commercial movies.
Patrick: I think that's one of the things that I love so much about your work. You work in so many different genres and I think you're always very faithful in delivering what we want out of the genre and then going above and beyond on top of that. In Halloween 4, we have characters that we really care about and you're always delivering the goods when it comes to the genre, but then delivering something we didn't know we wanted on top of that. Is that something that you did consciously?
Dwight Little: I mean, yes. Rapid Fire is a good example. There's a scene shot right on the North Shore Highway by the lake there. There's a scene we shot up there with Brandon [Lee] and Powers [Booth] and he's really talking about the death of his father and Powers says, “Listen, sooner or later you're going to have to pick a side, you're going to have to stand for something, believe in something, be about something,” and he gives him this tough love speech and it's a very human scene. You don't expect it in an ass-kicking martial arts movie. But we deliver the martial arts and we deliver the hand to hand combat and we deliver all that, but that relationship between Brandon and Powers Booth is touching. When he has to send Brandon into the bad guys’ lair, and he knows he's probably going to get killed, you can see it on his face. And I think that does take the genre and elevate it.
Patrick: What was it about now that made you want to sit down and write a book? What made you realize it was time?
Dwight Little: It's a good question. There's a producing colleague of mine named Jennie Tugand, who's very involved with the Free Willy movies, and she invited me down to UCLA to do these adjunct guest lectures. These lecture halls were packed. I mean, it wasn't for me. It's just because there’s so much interest, right? And so there were 300 seats full of young, eager, interested faces. And it was a 45-minute thing. Afterwards, the Q&A, you just couldn't cover half of it. So I thought, OK, well, I'm probably not going to teach school because I'm too restless. But I thought I should write some of this down because a lot of the questions had to do with “What is film and what is TV for a director?” and that's why I broke up the book in two parts. It makes chronological sense, obviously, but also creatively, it's two different jobs really. People have trouble understanding it. I tried to help make that clear, how it's different. So there's some gossip in it for film fans. But it's also for film students.
And by the way, it's not just film students. Everybody in the world, it seems like, wants to make an indie movie. I don't know what's happening. When I went to film school, it was an unusual choice. It was business school or law school or just school school. I mean, there were film schools around, but there were three to five to six, maybe, that were of any value. Today there's 30 or 40 pretty good ones, maybe 100 in the second tier. It's amazing. There's Ithaca and there's DePaul where you are, there's Chapel Hill, and Florida has good ones, and Arizona State. I mean, there's a lot beyond USC and NYU.
Anyway, I thought that it could be useful maybe as a little bit of a cautionary tale, because when you add school to something it cleans it up. Like, “Mom, Dad, I need $60,000 a year to go to film school.” “Oh, well, that must be where they train you to…what?” What you wouldn't say is “Mom, I need $60,000 a year because I'm going into show business.” They would look at you like, get out of town, go join the circus. But the problem is that they've mainstreamed it so that it feels like it's just as legitimate as going to dental school. It's not. It's show business and there's no escaping it – the precarious nature of it, the ups and downs, the dumb luck, the disappointments. I mentioned this in the book, that it's like you're running off to join the circus. There's no avenue for you when you finish film school.
Patrick: You have a lot of stories in the book, where even somebody at your level and degree of success made this great Warner Brothers Studio movie with Wesley Snipes and then you get blocked out by Clint Eastwood.
Dwight Little: There's always a bigger fish in the pond. He's a big fish. He’s the 100 lb. gorilla. If I was him, I would do the same thing, but that was a shock. We were all really hit hard by that because they promised us to our face, "You're a January movie. Don't worry about Absolute Power. That's in the 'Clint slot.'" And then we were ruined by our own success because we screened the movie and the movie tested great. And everybody's like, "Wait a minute, wait a minute. Maybe we'll put our client’s movie first."
Patrick: I just ran through your whole filmography for the 20th time and I had the best time. I noticed that you’re very much a story-first filmmaker.
Dwight Little: Right, right. I think that's right.
Patrick: But I also noticed a real talent for camera blocking, which I think is a secret gift that not a lot of directors have. I've seen it be real show-offy, but honestly, I was reminded of Steven Spielberg, a great camera blocker, as I watched.
Dwight Little: He is a great blocker.
Patrick: As I rewatched so many of your films, Spielberg was coming to mind. Is blocking like that something that's important to you?
Dwight Little: Well, only if I could have his house in the Palisades.
When I started off, I was like a lot of young filmmakers. I was very shot-driven. I was very taken with “the shot,” especially if there was a piece of fancy equipment attached to it, because there's something very show-offy about a technocrane or a Steadicam or what have you. But the deeper I got into this, I started to have a plan in my head. I would maybe have one shot that I was really hopeful for and then I would block and work with the actors first and really make the scene work with the actors. This was something I had to learn. I wish I hadn't wasted quite so much time. I learned a bit about this from Dick Donner when I was mentored by him on Free Willy 2, because he was a great shooter, but he was an actor-first blocker. When you start to make it work with the actors in the story and then bring in your shots, it seems to work better. Spielberg is a planner, but you know he's an actor guy, too, so it is a balance.
Patrick: In doing just a little bit of research. I read an interview where you made mention of Last Rampage, which is a great fucking movie, as being your most personal film and I was wondering if you could speak to that.
Dwight Little: What I meant to say was there was no adult supervision at all, and that means that the creatives one the movie, me and Robert Patrick and Alvaro Rodriguez, the writer, we would do whatever we were doing and we didn't have to call the network or call the studio or call to get something approved or signed off. We didn't have any money. That's kind of a burden, but there was something about that where I thought, “This the first time in my career where I'm really free.” I'm not checking in with anybody. If the scene doesn't cut, if it doesn't play, it's on me. So that was one thing. Just being, for once, completely free.
There was also what was happening at that time about 2016/2017. There was a lot of the random violence, I think, partly because of ISIS in Iraq. We’re going through this all over again, but at that time there was a terrible shooting out in San Bernardino, where some people came in and massacred a room full of social workers. I couldn't make any sense of it. What I found in Last Rampage is that you’ve got Gary, who is this narcissistic force of real evil, and there's Bruce Davison, who's trying to figure it out. He's not only trying to capture him, he's trying to understand what the nature of evil is. And then there's this young little journalist, who's very kind of naive about the whole thing, and she's making friends with the wife. Most of this, you know, actually happened. There's a great scene when Bruce Davison comes to her and says “What are you doing? You're glorifying these people.” And then she sees who they really are and apologizes to him. She says “I didn't know.” And he says “Well, now you do.” And it was like that to me. It crystallized where I was at that moment. Like, I can't figure out, like, how do you go in with guns and kill social workers like that? There's no place. For me to put it.
I think that's most of us. We can't make sense of what's just happened. It doesn't make any human sense. It doesn't. It doesn't make any sense. I think with Last Rampage, I was putting some of myself into the Bruce Davison character. At the end his wife asks him if he did everything he could and he doesn't know.
I'm glad you liked that movie. It's an interesting film.
Patrick: It's a great film with a great, great Robert Patrick performance. I mean everybody in it is terrific, but Robert Patrick is…
Dwight Little: He’s kind of next level.
Patrick: What made you want to return to horror with Natty Knocks?
Dwight Little: It was just an opportunity because there was a little equity money that landed in our lap and the script was in that genre. And I thought, OK, what can I do for a very small budget? Because we were in a period where it was hard to get studio money. It was hard to get network money. I wasn't making as much television as I used to. I thought, well, I know what I'll do. I’ll put the band back together. So I called Robert [Englund]. We've been in touch all these years from Phantom of the Opera. I called Danielle [Harris], who now plays the real estate mom. It's shocking. And then I got to know Bill Mosley through them.
I thought, ok, I’ve got these three real veterans in the genre, that's kind of interesting. And then I went out and cast these young kids. That was the most fun. Working with people who were 18, 20 years old is great because they just have enthusiasm for life and for the movies and for what they're doing. We found this actress, she was a Rutgers student. She had no credits. Her tape landed on our desk. And it was Charlotte Fountain-Hardin, who played the babysitter. She barely knew how to move and do marks, you know? She's very raw. But the camera just loved her. It was a great small movie. It's a minor note, but let me put it this way: we survived COVID with it.
Patrick: As a fan of yours, it was so much fun to see the "family affair" feel of it all, where it's being produced by your wife and your stepson [Jason James Richter]. And he shows up in the movie! It was like, oh, it's the Dwight Little All Stars. And that makes me so happy.
Dwight Little: It was like “Let's put on a show!”
The reaction to that movie has been just like Phantom: wildly mixed. Some people are so disappointed because it's not a gore fest. The cast sort of promises a gore fest and it doesn't deliver. But the people who see the Disturbia of it, the Goonies of it, they love it. This is a movie that, more than anything, is all about expectations.
Patrick: Phantom of the Opera to me is a movie that's way ahead of its time. In the book you talk about how it wasn’t fish or fowl for enough people, and they didn't know what to make of it. But I think as audiences become more and more sophisticated in terms of tone and mixing genres and stuff, I feel like they’re finally…
Dwight Little: They're getting it now.
Dwight Little: Until Last Rampage, I would say that was absolutely my best movie, even though we were pilloried by the Andrew Lloyd Webber people and the gore hounds that didn't like the opera. I mentioned this in the book, but now there's a lot of love for this movie and I think artistically this may be my best, too. I told Robert this, I said “Look, I've had some commercial hits and other films more successful with the critics or whatever, but I think Phantom, for the people that get it, is really something else.” It's haunting, and the score that Misha Segal did is unbelievable. I don't know what it is. It's about art and time and love and loss and darkness and death. I think people will continue to watch that. Again, another movie about expectations, right?
Patrick: I'll ask you one more question, if that's OK. What is the best piece of advice you've ever been given and what is the best piece of advice you could give?
Dwight Little: Let's start with the first one, because it's it circles back to what I learned from Dick Donner, who was a master at this job. It's this: make the scene work. Don't make any of it about you. Don't be the director. Don't impose your vision yet. Make what's best for the actor. What's best for the script. What's the better line of dialogue? How can we rewrite it? How can we stage it in a more interesting way? How can we add a twist that? Get all that right as a director. Then, when you're really sure of it, now go in with your lenses and your dollies and your cranes and your Steadicam and all that cool stuff because it is cool. But save it. Make the movie work. Don't make “Dwight Little” work, make the movie work. I think that's a big one.
Dwight Little: It's similar, but I would say very early on decide what you have to offer from you're very first short. Make sure that's who you are. If you make your first short and it's successful and it's a romcom, you're gonna probably be able to raise money for your first feature doing a romcom, and if that's successful, you're the romcom guy or gal, right? And you're going to be on that track for a while. That's good news. You can't just make a short that's a slapstick comedy and then become this dark horror person. You have to be in the meeting and the and the producers know who they are sitting here with. If I'm sitting with Wes Anderson, I'm not looking to make an Eli Roth movie, you know? There's no point. I'm not going to hire Eli Roth to do a Wes Anderson movie or vice versa. They have a brand. They have a point of view and it started at the beginning. If you don't have anything to bring to the party, then what are you doing? Why aren't you in law school?
Why are you in the room? And the people have to say, "You know what? This is our guy" or "This is our gal." But don't be vague and don't be like, "Well, I mean, I love thrillers and I love comedy and I love musicals." And they're like, "Who are you?"
I guess that's odd advice to give, but I think it's practical. Decide who you are and sell that hard, and if you have success with the short that's going to lead to more success in that area. If you you have something that fails terribly, it doesn't matter. Just wipe it away and never mind. It never happened. That won't be hard, because it's success that brands you, not failure.
I made this mistake and -- this is why I give the advice -- because after Rapid Fire, I was kind of feeling like I was being a little bit pigeonholed as an action/horror guy and I had this opportunity to do a family movie. And they were very important producers, the Donners, and it was Warner Brothers and all that. I thought this would be great and I'll rebrand myself as a mainstream, adventure, family guy. And so I made the movie and the agents and people were confused. They said, "Wait a minute, are you telling me the Free Willy 2 guy is the Marked for Death guy?" Suddenly it's confusing to them.
And I had never really thought that through, because in my own mind I could do anything. But you have to think that if you were behind the desk interviewing you, what's the brand that you might be buying? So I'll leave it there.
Patrick: Obviously the studio system is gone, but do you think we're past the era where we can have a Howard Hawks or Michael Curtiz or someone like yourself who's able to jump around like that?
Dwight Little: What a good question. The legacy studios, I'm afraid, have made their their bed so to speak. They're going to make event movies and they're going to make IP movies and that's who they are. They're they're going to make 10 remakes or sequels or Marvel movies. And maybe if they have one big director, they'll make something like...they just made this movie called Dumb Money. Perfectly good movie. Unusual to have that as a theatrical release. I saw it in the theater and it's quite good, and it's got a great, terrific cast. But you think "Could I have seen this at home and would it have been a similar experience?" It wouldn't have ruined this movie for me to see this at home. So I think the legacy studios are really in that "event movie" mode financially as well. That's going to leave what I would call the streamers, and that means the tech companies. How top heavy is their executive branch going to be? I think that question is not yet answered. Will they give artists a chance? Will there be the next Soderbergh who can make four or five movies and just be an artist, right? Who's the guy that made Sideways...Alexander Payne? Maybe somebody can make a a one-off, but to make four or five Alexander Payne movies, right? You don't hear about that so much now.
Patrick: I want to say congratulations on the book and on all your movies, and thank you so much for not just your time, but all of your work. It has meant so much to me.
Dwight Little: Well, thank you for reading it. Thank you for supporting these movies. I really appreciate it.