Friday 27 September 2013

An interview with ATE DE JONG

DEADLY VIRTUES: LOVE.HONOUR.OBEY,  a contemporary thriller directed by cult director Ate de Jong, will have its world premiere at the 2013 Raindance Film Festival in London.  Ahead of the premiere, Ate kindly agreed to meet with me to discuss his new film, and the two films for which he is widely regarded as a ‘cult’ director: HIGHWAY TO HELL, and a personal favourite of mine: DROP DEAD FRED. But before I indulged my love of all things FRED, I asked Ate how his path into films began...

When I was 17 I went from a very remote area in Holland to Amsterdam to go to the Film Academy. And during the Film Academy I really didn’t know anything – I had literally seen only one film at that point – which I didn’t understand! But everyone was older than me and everybody knew so much so I thought the only way to know things is to write, so I started writing for film magazines. It’s that simple, I needed to catch up, so I went to see every film I could. So the whole print thing was to get to know people and to sharpen myself in film. It was always with the intention of making films.
Was it always your ambition to be a film-maker then?

To be honest: no. I had an enormous desire to express myself for a variety of reasons, but that it became film is an absolute coincidence. It could have been theatre; it could have been journalism, writing (novels or whatever). It could have been a variety of things. The fact it became film is a very lucky circumstance because I can’t imagine anything else anymore. But no, I did not want to make films when I was 5 or 6; I didn’t know what film was. I’d seen one film in the cinema.
And that was...?

It was a sex education film - the only film my parents allowed me to see (so that they didn’t have to tell me) – and I didn’t understand it! There was a scene – actually I still remember it very vividly. A boy of 15-16 was lying in bed and then you saw the sheets moving a little bit, and his father came in and started to hit him! I thought: why’s he doing that? I didn’t know what masturbation was – I had no idea.
And so from there you eventually end up moving to Los Angeles and directing an episode of the TV series MIAMI VICE (featuring James Brown and Chris Rock no less). How?
It sounds all so naive but it was also a stroke of luck. I went to America having made 6 feature films in Holland (which was exceptional for my age – I was 32). I’d always wanted to go, and then my relationship ended so I went – with 2 suitcases: one with video tapes of my films. I got an agent and after about 9 months I got a request to do an episode of MIAMI VICE. And I absolutely doubted if I should do it because I’d only made feature films: never TV. And then my agent said it’s a good career move so I did it: it’s that simple. And as for the casting of James Brown and Chris Rock, I had no influence on that whatsoever. And then I made an enormous mistake afterwards because you could laugh a lot with Don Johnson, but he was an absolute prick. So when they asked me if I wanted to do some more episodes I said: no, I’m not masochistic enough. And that’s been a mistake, it would’ve been better for my career if I’d done it...
But then along came DROP DEAD FRED...

Absolutely! But first HIGHWAY TO HELL – it was released later but I made it first. Hemdale [Film Corporation] was going into bankruptcy and they couldn’t release the film. And then DROP DEAD FRED came out – was a success – so on the coattails they released HIGHWAY with 7 prints (which was nothing) but if they hadn’t released it theatrically they couldn’t have released it on video. And the video they attached it to I believe was TERMINATOR 2, and therefore they sold an enormous amount of videos!
I’m not surprised! So let’s talk about HIGHWAY TO HELL. For a horror fan, this film boasts an extraordinary range of genre talent. For a start your ‘Hellcop’ is played by C.J. Graham, who had previously donned the infamous hockey mask to play Jason Voorhees in FRIDAY THE 13TH PART VI...

Oh he was an absolute darling to work with. He has this whole face mask with scriptures of the bible etched in – and he was claustrophobic – so he could only do it so many hours a day. He was in make-up for at least 2 hours a day and they adjusted it to make it feel more comfortable. He was extremely withdrawn, barely spoke – a very nice kind man – but I think he felt very isolated. So perhaps it was more psychological why he stepped away from films.
Your scriptwriter, Brian Helgeland later went on to win an Oscar for his LA CONFIDENTIAL screenplay. Patrick Bergin on the other hand - somewhat ironically - has more recently made another film called HIGHWAY TO HELL (originally titled ELDORADO). But I somehow suspect he wouldn’t see that as being particularly lucky for him or the film’s makers...

You know speaking of titles, my HIGHWAY TO HELL was originally called ROUTE 666, but ‘ROUTE 666’ was a protected title in America so we had to change it to HIGHWAY TO HELL. Then, having done that, we naturally tried to get the song of the same title from AC/DC but they asked an astronomical amount of money.

Now you had the character of ‘Charon’ (sadly in his last role before his untimely death) played by Kevin Peter Hall who had previously played ‘The Predator’ in both PREDATOR  and its sequel – and ‘Harry’ in BIGFOOT (HARRY) AND THE HENDERSON’S...
He was over 2 meters tall I think. He was enormous.

And following on with the horror connections, you have the cinematographer Robin Vidgeon who worked on HELLRAISER and HELLBOUND, NIGHTBREED AND THE FLY 2. Todd Ramsey, editor of THE THING... Such an embarrassment of riches, how did you end up with such an esteemed crew for your first Hollywood feature?
Well, Hollywood, I adored it there, I can’t say differently, I absolutely adored it. I liked it more than any other place I’ve ever lived. The main thing is you live in a community that adores film. Holland’s film industry is virtually completely subsidised – which means people don’t really allow each other the light of day. If I have a success it means I’m going to get subsidy – and you won’t get it - so you hate it. That’s one of the reasons I went away. I went to premieres of films my friends had made and I went there thinking: oh god, I hope it’s going to be a shit film. And that’s no way to live (!) And I realised that and I said that in interviews at the time and people were embarrassed because they all thought the same. But in Hollywood, even if you don’t like a film, you’ll like the success because it helps everyone. They may not like each other’s films but they don’t begrudge the success – and that was so refreshing.

So I think my crew did the film because they liked the script. I think Brian wrote a phenomenal script. Let’s say it was a little bit more intelligent than your average horror film - it had references to Greek mythology for example. The budget for those days wasn’t bad but it wasn’t extraordinary – I believe $6million.
What was it like working with special make-up artist Steve Johnson?

He was pretty damn good. It was early on in his career but you felt he had a talent that was extraordinary. He came up with the idea of the scriptures on ‘Hellcop’s’ face and other ideas.
We need to get this film released on Blu-ray, with you doing a feature-length commentary...

I’d love to! I have good memories about the making - but not the post-production. We made the film for Hemdale [Film Corporation] who gave a lot of directors a chance early on in their careers; Oliver Stone and James Cameron for example. But they, and by ‘they’ I mean John Daly [co-founder of Hemdale] – god rest his soul - had the bad habit of always re-cutting the films. So he re-cut the film and I thought: Oh man... So I wanted to take my name off it. So I went through the whole director’s guild, I got the letter now that said it’s an ‘Alan Smithee’ film and Brian [Helgeland] said don’t do it, don’t do it, it’s still a good movie. I got the letter from the guild and at the last minute and I thought:  I worked so long on the film - oh fuck it - and I left my name on it - and now everyone thinks it’s a cult film! That shows I don’t know anything!
So did the final cut vary greatly from your originally vision?

Well you know in retrospect, time is a great thing – probably not as much as I believed then: except for the ending. We shot an ending where Charlie goes to the airport and they don’t stay together. They separate, Rachel goes and plays violin somewhere else, says I still love you and we’ll stay in touch, but you know they basically separate. And none of that is left...
In fact, the pre-end credits caption states that Charlie and Rachel get married with their parents’ blessing!

I was in LA recently chasing the rights for the film (now owned by MGM) because the film has never been released on DVD. But now MGM wants to release the film because Ben Stiller is in the film –
His whole family is in it!

Absolutely, and I just want the film to be seen. You know there were only 7 prints? Well I bought one of them and I gave it to the Dutch Film Museum, so at least there’s one print in pristine condition safe.
That’s comforting to know. Now, it’s about time we got onto one of my all-time favourite films: DROP DEAD FRED...

It’s so funny you say that because you know I did this film [LOVE. HONOUR. OBEY], well when I first read the script I thought it was brilliant - so good in fact I thought it could attract a much bigger director than me. But when the writer, Mark Rogers, heard this it turned out DROP DEAD FRED was his favourite film also!
When I ask people whether they’ve seen DROP DEAD FRED and if so do they like it – if they say no they don’t like it: I do think less of them! There’s a lot of love for the film now, but I suspect you didn’t feel there was a lot of love for it when it was released...?

No, because the film when it was released was not greatly reviewed, particularly in England. I haven’t read reviews for the last 35 years but you know, people tell you. But the whole generation that saw the film were 8 to 14 years old then – they never read the reviews – so  they are now all in their 30’s or more and they adore the film.
When I first saw it in the cinema (and I was a lot older than 14) when it had finished I just sat there and wanted it to start all over again. I thought: that’s a perfect film. So how did you get involved with it?

When I first came to Hollywood I didn’t know anyone and I sublet a house in Santa Monica from a writer who was gone for 3 months working on a film. When he came back I moved out but he invited me for a dinner party as a thank you for taking good care of his house....The two writers of DROP DEAD FRED (Carlos Davis and Tony Fingleton) were there. A few days later – because I’d met them there - and I’d probably given them a tape of my Dutch films – they suggested me for the film. You know you have 5 dinner parties a week in LA!
Was it based on a novel or an actual story by Elizabeth Livingston?

It was an article, and I’m not sure if it was the New York Times or The New Yorker. The writers certainly took a lot of freedom in adapting it and then when I came onboard I also took a lot of freedom; together with the writers. The whole foray into the past was actually non-existent in the original script – not the script that we filmed - but the script I first got, and I felt that the thing in the past was so essential in understanding her [Elizabeth - Phoebe Cates].  Actually, this next bit might ruin your liking of the film...
No: nothing can do that.

There is an underpinning in the film which is actually extremely serious – because basically she is an abused child. We did it in a way that it wasn’t disturbing but there is a serious undertone in the film. And this psychiatry organisation in California actually used it a lot for therapeutic means – which to be honest I had never thought that could happen. But to me the whole reason for doing the film was this underlying tone.
Well people who don’t like the film just see Rik Mayall flicking snot at people –

Which is funny in itself!
Exactly, and there’s nothing wrong with that! So speaking of Rik Mayall, were you aware of Rik prior to the film?

Yes, because of THE YOUNG ONES.
How much of Fred’s antics were in the script and how much was improvisation on Rik’s part?
Not that much improvisation. Rik had to approve me. I lived in Hollywood so I flew to London because it was a British company, Working Title, and this was their first American film. So I talked to Rik and told him my ideas and apparently he liked me and I got along with him marvellously I must say. I certainly encouraged him to improvise – but within pretty strict boundaries – we set up very specific rules for what Fred could do and what he couldn’t do. And we stuck to that. And then sometimes, for instance when he smears the dog poo on the carpet, I said Rik maybe you should jump on the chair and then he does that, but the way he does it is of course something I could never tell him because it’s so much better. The studio made us cut out a few things because he did a few more things which I thought were he spits into a cup of coffee and Elizabeth’s mother drinks it and says; hmm...but the spitting got thrown out – they didn’t like it – it was too much for them.

It’s got a ‘12’ certificate in the UK, and I was watching it with my young daughter and we came to the “cobwebs!” scene and I thought: please don’t ask me to explain that joke...but she didn’t.
But kids have the great quality that if they don’t understand something – they just don’t understand it. It’s the moment when they almost understand it that they then ask the question.

Well she actually gave me two questions to ask you – but don’t worry, neither is about cobwebs...Does Fred remember all the children he’s helped?
In our discussions – yes, he does remember all the kids he has helped, but once he’s with a new child he doesn’t care about the previous case – so when he’s there at the end, he might recognise Elizabeth, but he’s not interested so he doesn’t pay her any attention.

Ok, and the second question: was Fred trapped in the box for all those years or was he off helping other children?
No, in our opinion he was trapped in the box. There’s one scene which explains a little bit about that first question, it was a scene of about 8-10 minutes, and they cut it out. At some point Fred goes away from her towards the end and he goes back to Drop Dead Fred Land.

Oh yes...
I must have it somewhere on a videotape. If I find it I’ll send it to you – I know it exists. They go to Drop Dead Fred Land; all the other characters you see in the psychiatrists’ office are there too all having fun. And there are loads of doors and each door represents a new assignment but Fred says: no, I have to go back – I can’t leave her like that...

Once again – this film deserves a Blu-ray release with extras...
We did shoot a new ending also, because the original ending finished with Elizabeth telling her mother that she needed a friend. But we felt the film needed a more upbeat ending.

So only Rik Mayall was attached to the film when you came on board. What was it like working with Princess Leia herself, Carrie Fisher?
I adored her. (I was not extremely close to Phoebe to be honest, I mean we could work together) but I adored Carrie. The writers hated her because she made up her own dialogue very often and she was so, so sharp with the dialogue (you could see the writers grinding their teeth). I’m still in touch with the writers and still in touch with Carrie. You know she even once did a scene where she said: “May the Force be with you”. I laughed; but I cut that out – it was a bit too campy.

Bridget Fonda doesn’t appear in the end credits...
No, she did it as a favour for Phoebe, they were good friends and she did it as a cameo.

Your Director of Photography was  Peter Deming – who’d lensed Sam Raimi’s EVIL DEAD 2 prior to DROP DEAD FRED and who has since gone on to work not only with Raimi several more times, but also David Lynch, Wes Craven etc...
We started with another DP, but after 3 days I said to our producer Paul Webster: Paul, this isn’t working, we’re only making 6 shots a day. So Paul had to fire her and Peter, who we’d already met, came back – and he was a great guy.

And the animator on the opening credits, Steve Segal [no not that Segal] went on to work on A BUG’S LIFE and TOY STORY...You’re a human four-leaf clover Ate!
(Laughs) I’ve never thought about it. I hope so!

We spoke a little about the script and the certificate it received here in the UK, was it difficult to know who to pitch the film to, and how far to go with some of the more ‘adult’ references and jokes?
We personally anticipated a slightly older audience than it got. The film was finished, and there were test screenings in different cities. The results of the tests were that this film is ‘particularly good for women over the age of 33’. The film was going to go out with 150 prints (which for an independent film was great).  So they test-released it first in 5 cities. The audience was all kids (kids and their parents). The weird thing was, in the evenings, when they weren’t any kids; there were couples – generally on the younger side – but couples; lots and lots of couples. It was a date movie! (Which we never expected).  The film did so well over that first weekend of the test-release with the 5 prints that they said okay, not 150 prints – 950 prints! And instead of spending $1.5million on publicity and advertising: $7million – more than the actual film’s budget.
Which was...?


So for me it was like a dream come true. But when we made the film we thought that it was actually more for kids, and that we made the adult jokes for their parents. And then the tests all said no; but ultimately it was more or less true.
Now I’ve indulged my passion for DROP DEAD FRED long enough, let’s talk about your Raindance feature film DEADLY VIRTUES: LOVE.HONOUR.OBEY, which I’m eager to see, particularly as I contributed to the crowd-funding campaign to finance it. 
Are you coming to the screening?

Oh yes!

Well as a horror fan I don’t need to warn YOU...
Warn me...?

I had a test screening in Holland, and there’s one guy in Holland who knows everything about horror films. He has a particular liking for ‘despicable’ horror films – and he said: oh god, there are things in this film that even I have never seen. So be ready for that!
Wow! I’m looking forward to it even more now!

You know Paul, as with DROP DEAD FRED, it has a rather serious undercurrent. It starts as a genre film – and it is in a way a genre film – but it’s a genre film that has slightly more ambitions. You know there is actually an analogy with DROP DEAD FRED. At the centre of DEADLY VIRTUES there is a woman who is in a marriage where basically she isn’t being treated very well. An intruder comes in...I don’t want to give anymore away than that...but ultimately she stands up for herself. She’s never stood up for herself before (like Elizabeth in DROP DEAD FRED) and in that sense there’s a link in content between DROP DEAD FRED which was a comedy and DEADLY VIRTUES which is a psychological thriller.      
And I adore it, it’s become a film I’m extremely fond of – fond of in the sense that I think: god, I don’t know if there’s going to be a big audience for it...I’m always nervous! We made it without a distributor, and now we have to find one, and apart from the test screenings, no one has seen it yet.

Are you happy with it?
Yes, absolutely. I think it is stunning what a quality the film has for the amount of money we did it for. But I think money is never an excuse – so I shouldn’t even say that. But it is a film that has an enormous undercurrent of power. The acting is phenomenal. The writing is phenomenal. I think the directing is like – well it’s not the least part – but it’s the less important part. The two best things are the script and the actors. And then I think I’ve been a very good servant for both, well I’ve done a bit more than that – I’m not belittling myself – but you know, if the script and the actors hadn’t been so good, you can direct what you like: you’re never going to get it. I love actors, and on this film we had the luxury of rehearsing for 5 days in the actual location (Watford) –

Near the Harry Potter Studio Tour!
Yes, everyday we’d see the bus to it go by full of witches and wizards...

We should have a DROP DEAD FRED WORLD tour!
Yeah! You know since I’ve done DEADLY VIRTUES: LOVE.HONOUR.OBEY, so many people have told me they love DROP DEAD FRED its been a warm bath for me.

A warm bath at Raindance – a lovely image to end our chat on.
Interviewed by Paul Worts.

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