“I remember being absolutely fearless because I was too young to know any better. I had no idea, I had never tasted failure — or pressure from the studio. You know, that film got made because Sean was very hot, Sean wanted me to direct it, and because he and I were so simpatico, we could do whatever we wanted because we held the power. I never appreciated that at the time, how important that was, so we literally did whatever we wanted and tried crazy things and didn’t care what other people thought — we didn’t have to care what other people thought.” James Foley interviewed by Walter Chaw for Film Freak Central, April 2003
At Close Range (1986)
Directed by James Foley
Screenplay by Nicholas Kazan, story by Elliott Lewitt and Nicholas Kazan
Produced by Elliott Lewitt, Don Guest
If the songwriting of Bruce Springsteen could conjure moving images, the result would be something very similar to At Close Range. Though The Boss didn’t supply any music for the soundtrack, echoes of “Thunder Road” or “Darkness on the Edge of Town” with their engines of discontented youth reverberate through this film, siphoned into a crime story and injected by an ensemble cast that makes a case for being one of the greatest ever assembled. Somewhere in the seemingly lawless farmland of Pennsylvania in 1978, Brad Whitewood Jr. (Sean Penn) trucks into town to pick up his knucklehead brother Tommy (Christopher Penn). Brad summons the guts to talk to a girl named Terry (Mary Stuart Masterson) hanging out in the square. Lacking a job or even reliable wheels, he ultimately convinces the 16-year-old to light out west with him for a better life together.
Brad Jr. seeks out his absentee father Brad Whitewood Sr. (Christopher Walken), who local gossip has it is a thief. Brad Sr. introduces the boy to his woman (Candy Clark), as well as the uncles (R.D. Call, J.C. Quinn) and the epileptic (David Straithairn) he disappears with in the dead of night. Wary of Brad Jr. getting mixed up in the schemes of his dim witted Uncle Patch (Tracey Walter), Brad Sr. gives his son a 1970 Chevrolet Chevelle and sends him back to his mother (Millie Perkins). Seeking respect and some extra cash, Brad Jr. and Tommy gather their friends (Crispin Glover, Stephen Geoffreys, Kiefer Sutherland) and start stealing tractors. Brad Jr. compels his father to show him the ropes, but sees more than he bargained for one night and breaks away from his dad. When his son is arrested, the bonds of family buckle and Brad Sr’s self-preservation kicks in.
In August 1978, producer Elliott Lewitt came across an account in the Philadelphia Inquirer of two teenagers — a federal witness and his 15-year-old girlfriend — who’d been riddled with bullets in rural Chester County. Details emerged that the boy’s father Bruce Johnston Sr. was patriarch of family notorious for stealing tractors and anything else that wasn’t moving. Seeing potential for a modern day Greek tragedy, Lewitt hired Nicholas Kazan to adapt a screenplay based on these events. Titled At Close Range, Kazan’s script became one nearly every executive in Hollywood wanted to see made but none were willing to bankroll. That changed in 1985 when Sean Penn was being heralded as the most talented young actor in movies. Penn had befriended USC Film School grad James Foley and a script both men loved was At Close Range. Hemdale Film Corporation agreed to finance the project with Orion Pictures handling distribution.
Kazan let it be known how displeased he was with Foley’s work, cutting scenes the scribe felt pivotal to the plot, redacting the humor and giving the picture a visual sheen Kazan thought undermined its reality. It’ll never be known how great At Close Range might have been, but in Foley’s defense, what’s on screen is remarkable. Cast by Risa Bramon and Billy Hopkins, the ensemble is extraordinary and in his sophomore feature, Foley knew to let his actors act. The energy harnessed by Sean Penn, his brother Chris and their mother Eileen Ryan (playing the boys’ grandma) is palpable, while Walken and Masterson and the great Tracey Walter mesmerize in every moment of their screen time. The lightning by Juan Ruiz Anchia bleeds shadow, but in a fresh approach, this is film noir set knee deep in the boondocks. Madonna co-wrote and performed the ubiquitous theme song “Live To Tell”, which materializes throughout the film as its own atmospheric effect.
“I think a lot of it has gone into comic books, and to me, in comic books, it’s all about the men — and because they were written in the ’50s and ’60s especially. It just wasn’t where it was at for those writers and there’s only so many band-aids you can put on that to make it relevant for today’s society. There are gorgeous, occasionally kick-ass characters like Scarlett Johansson in Iron Man 2, but in general I don’t think those guys were thinking about women in those ways. I think as long as Hollywood is doing that, there won’t be these amazing action-women characters.” Sigourney Weaver interviewed by Eric Larknik for moviefone, July 2011
Directed by James Cameron
Screenplay by James Cameron, story by James Cameron and Walter Hill & David Giler, based on characters created by Dan O’Bannon & Ronald Shusett
Produced by Gale Ann Hurd
137 minutes (theatrical version)/ 154 minutes (special edition)
Sequels start out as business deals and often build a case of buyer’s remorse among audiences as soon as they drive off the lot, but James Cameron wasn’t interested in business as usual when he signed on for part two of Ridley Scott’s 1979 outer space spookfest Alien. With ideas bountiful enough for three good movies, Cameron races away with a film that laps other sci-fi, horror and war movies for a far greater prize: the mantle of epic filmmaking. Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), lone survivor of the freighter Nostromo, is discovered drifting through space by a salvage crew. Revived after spending 57 years in hypersleep, the home office remains skeptical that Ripley scuttled the Nostromo because a hostile alien (with acid for blood) got on board and killed her crew. The moon where Ripley first encountered the creature is now the site of a terraformed colony which hasn’t reported any trouble. Not yet.
Plagued by nightmares of her ordeal in space, Ripley is notified by smarmy case officer Burke (Paul Reiser) that contact with the colony has been lost. Burke promises to reinstate Ripley’s flight license if she accompanies him and a unit of colonial marines to investigate. These include the green Lt. Gorman (William Hope), quiet Cpl. Hicks (Michael Biehn), cocky Pvt. Hudson (Bill Paxton), two macho gunners (Jenette Goldstein, Mark Rolston) and an “artificial person” called Bishop (Lance Henriksen). The marines find one colonist, a girl named Newt (Carrie Henn) crawling in the ventilation ducts with no sign of the others. Advancing on an atmosphere processing station, the marines with their pulse rifles and motion trackers are overwhelmed by a swarm of ferocious creatures seeking human hosts. Ripley saves what’s left of the unit, which is now marooned with her and Newt in hostile terrain 17 days short of any rescue.
James Cameron was scrambling to finance a low budget sci-fi thriller he’d written titled Terminator when he met with Walter Hill & David Giler. Cameron pitched a few ideas, none of which went over well, until the producers mentioned they were thinking about a sequel to Alien. The up and comer submitted a 40-page treatment for Alien II, which Hill & Giler developed with Cameron, who was retained to write a screenplay. He turned in only 90 pages before departing to direct Terminator, but based on what they’d read, the producers made the unusual call not to hire another writer. Armed with the prestige of The Terminator, Cameron was handed directing duties for the sequel, with his 29-year-old partner Gale Ann Hurd producing a studio film for triple their last budget. Cameron coaxed Sigourney Weaver back, survived a skeptical British crew at Pinewood Studios and again exceeded expectations in the realm of modestly budgeted sci-fi.
Cameron wrote Aliens in tandem with First Blood Part II and without Sylvester Stallone’s input, Aliens persists as an allegory to the colonial wars of past, where superior technology is overrun by an indigenous enemy. As fantastic as the tech is — the next generation power loaders from Caterpillar are beautifully designed and rendered — Aliens is Zulu in deep space. Instead of making a copy, Cameron actually gives each element from the original film sharper and deeper imaging, from the alien biology, to the culture of a maritime shipping corporation, to space travel. What makes this business so engaging are characters drawn with distinctive humor and guts who live and die memorably based on those established traits. Instead of a plot pushing her from point A to point B, Ripley’s fear of the aliens and her desire for motherhood is what drives the expansive narrative, a trick that may be the most enduring Cameron was able to pull off.
Rotten Tomatoes “Tomatometer” average among 374,363 users: 90% for Aliens
Metacritic “Metascore” average among leading critics: N/A
“I finally realized that the only way I was going to get my career jump-started was if I created my own project and then held onto it tenaciously, like an abalone, until somebody would put up the money for it. So I conceived a project that had the imagery I could create cost-effectively with my experience in visual effects. It had some of that imagery but not so much that the budget was proportionately large, because I knew no one would trust me with a large budget.” James Cameron interviewed by Robert J. Emery for The Directors: Take One
The Terminator (1984)
Directed by James Cameron
Written by James Cameron with Gale Ann Hurd
Produced by Gale Ann Hurd
By now, anyone with ears should have heard of The Terminator, a down and dirty science fiction action thriller about Adam and Eve on the run from a killer cyborg played by the future governor of California. A surprise box office hit that was championed by enough critics to qualify as a success on every level, few at the time may have realized how extraordinary it was that this movie ever got made, while those studying the DIY production techniques today might miss what a great movie it is. In Los Angeles of the year 2029, machines have risen from the nuclear apocalypse they triggered against mankind to wage what has turned into a losing war against the survivors. In a last desperate act, a cybernetic organism known as a Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is sent to Los Angeles of the year 1984.
Also traveling back in time naked as the day he was born is Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn). After the Terminator visits an unlucky gunsmith (Dick Miller), it begins assassinating every “Sarah Connor” in greater Los Angeles. The next Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) realizes she’s in danger and calls police from a nightclub. The steady Lt. Traxler (Paul Winfield) urges her to stay in public until LAPD can get to her, but the Terminator displays no regard for witnesses as it attacks. Reese rescues Sarah and explains that the Terminator has targeted the young waitress to eliminate her unborn son, who’s destined to lead mankind to victory against the machines. Once captured by police, Traxler, his partner (Lance Henriksen) and a psychologist (Earl Boen) offer Sarah a rational explanation for her ordeal. Their theory lasts as long as it takes for the Terminator to track Sarah to the police station.
While on the payroll of Roger Corman’s New World Pictures, James Cameron was promoted out of the fx department with battlefield speed. When his first gig as director — Piranha II: The Spawning — ended badly for all interested parties, Cameron had to create a project for himself. Mixing low cost locations with a sci-fi element that favored special effects, Cameron backed into the idea of a robotic hitman sent through time, arrived on the title Terminator and wrote most of a screenplay. A former production manager at New World named Gale Ann Hurd helped polish the script, which Cameron sold to her for one dollar in a pact that he’d direct it. Hurd spent two years struggling to raise money for that, finally cajoling Hemdale Film Corporation to finance Terminator and Orion Pictures to distribute it. Shot with a single camera, the picture caught critics and the industry by shock when it opened #1 at the U.S. box office.
The Terminator is the ultimate B-movie. Like the relentless killing machine that became the best known role of the Austrian Oak’s career, Cameron locks in on his target audience and in terms of artistry and intensity, keeps coming. Over-delivering became standard operating procedure for Cameron but in a departure from his big budget action movies, the violence here is as uncompromising as it is audacious, with police officers and even women mowed down or blown apart by gunfire. What lifts The Terminator out of the grindhouse and into the Library of Congress (where it was preserved in 2008) is its foreboding of how dependent we’ve truly become on machines and where we’re headed if we surrender our humanity completely. Unfolding over a 24-hour time frame, the cast is well picked for the nonstop physicality of the story, while the electronic score by Brad Fiedel strikes a powerful doomsday vibe.