Exploitation Retrospect | The Journal of Junk Culture and Fringe Media

MAD AS HELL: An Interview with Ian Grey
By Dan Taylor

As I write this, LOST IN SPACE has dislodged Oscar-winner TITANIC from its lofty Box Office #1 perch. That can only mean one thing—the summer film season is in full swing! What that means to you and me is another five months of cookie-cutter sequels, retreads, remakes, and out-and-out rip-offs. Some of them surely starring members of the ‘Friends’ cast. This does not make me a happy camper, and my movie-going is about as frequent as my record-buying. Could two industries I once loved suck as much as these do?

Frankly, my disdain for the industry that raised me is nothing compared to that of author, critic, observer, cinematic terrorist Ian Grey. Grey — whose new book Sex, Stupidty and Greed: Inside the American Movie Industry (Juno Books) can be purchased at amazon.com — has stared into the gaping maw of the town known as Hollywood. And, as he reports in the book, it ain’t a pretty sight.

We spoke shortly after TITANIC rode its $250 million budget to an almost-unprecedented 11 Oscars.

ER: So how did the idea for a book about the film industry come about?

IG: I was doing a job for Simon & Schuster, and I reviewed about 3000 movies... writing those capsule reviews for them. And then I did writing work for the American Museum of the Moving Image, and writing for [everything from] Fangoria to Time-Out. But when I say down and reviewed three thousand new movies, I started to get cranky. It had a real effect on me.

I started to notice that movies weren’t sucking like they did in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. There was really like this planned suckage. We live in such a media environment that we’re all sort of bombarded into acquiescence. It’s like, “Oh God, just give me my entertainment!”

ER: We’ve become totally accepting of crap! One of the parts of the book that really struck me was when you talk about how you felt after seeing TOTAL RECALL.

I vividly recall walking away from the theater after seeing TOTAL RECALL feeling both pumped up (as if on cheap stimulants), enerated (as if coming down from said stimulants’ ersatz “high”), and, in general, vaguely sullied. Bearing the film’s title in mind, it was remarkable how little of what I’d seen stayed with me.

I thought, “That’s exactly how I felt!”

IG: The thing that’s more important, I think, is that you just accept it. You walk out going, “Movies blow, it cost a lot of money, and that’s how it is.”

ER: When TITANIC was getting ready to come out I figured it would make about a $100 million and then disappear. How do you explain the fact that it has become this phenomena, as well as the biggest-grossing flick of all-time?

IG: I don’t think you can negate the fact that [director James] Cameron is a good filmmaker. Number two, I think he’s smart in a sort of animalistic way. All of his films are about pushing buttons really hard. Not to get all millenial on you, but he just pushed some very basic millenial buttons and he did it in the right way.

The deal is though — this is just a theory of mine, I don’t have any hard data on this — I know the industry was very invested in this movie succeeding. When you have two studios, what is it, Paramount and Fox...?

ER: I think it’s Fox.

IG: Whatever. Big diff. It was the type of thing where it was important to the industry that this not fail. Because if it failed then that would tear down the whole infrastructure of the two hundred vice presidents, blah, blah, blah. It was very important to that infrastructure that this picture not tank.

But the deal is, as we speak, GODZILLA is close to becoming the first half-billion dollar movie. They spent $30 million just on a version directed by the guy that directed SPEED [1] and dropped it...

C14: And now it’s being done by the guys that did INDEPENDENCE DAY.

IG: Right, Roland Emmerich (director) and Dean Develin (producer). I got this from a hidden source and he’s working on the project, and he’s told me, “Well, we’ve spent approximately $150 million now, and we still don’t have a good dinosaur.”

And I’m thinking, “If you’re making a movie called GODZILLA, wouldn’t the big dino come first?!” Other things would be kind of secondary ‘cause your movie’s called GODZILLA! But, it’s suppoused to open Memorial Day and it’s another TITANIC thing. Except Roland Emmerich isn’t James Cameron. There’s a big difference in skill here.

One other thing that TITANIC did was that it verified the whole system. People asked me, “Well how do you think it’s going to end?” And I said, “There’s gonna be a Titanic and it’s gonna sink.” I’m not interested in destroying the system in terms of putting people out of jobs, but it’s a stupid, bloated economy. And the result is you get BRAVEHEART. I rest my case.

ER: You’re not a BRAVEHEART fan...there’s many references in the book to it.

IG: Well, because it was one of those ones that was near the end of my [reviewing job]. Actually, one of the things that got the book going as the idea of a book was that I had to see WATERWORLD. And I had seen, at this point, how many thousands of movies? And it actually got me ill.

Not just because it was bad. The sound spectrum is around 60 Hz, and they use subsonics in movies to enhance explosions, those important parts of the movie, and for WATERWORLD it was so bad that they just had “bbbbbvvvvvrrrrrrrrrrrr” going all the time. It really looked like whoever edited it was using severe opiates, it was just so OVER THE TOP bad and we all know how much it cost ($238 million budget vs. $255 worldwide gross).

My favorite thing is when they go, “How do we find dry land,” and the little girl has the map on her back... what do they do if she turns around?! Do they go somewhere else? So I saw WATERWORLD and I saw BRAVEHEART, I forget what the job was. I had to see it, I certainly didn’t go for the sheer pleasure of it, but the homophobia in it, the way the women in it are just plot mechanisms...you start to realize that in most American action movies the only motivation is “kill the bitch.”

You know, kill the woman and then the guy will get off his ass and do something heroic. It’s just cheap, shoddy writing.

ER: Speaking of cheap, shoddy writing, you’ve got things like GODZILLA, MOD SQUAD, MAN FROM UNCLE, LOST IN SPACE, all somewhere in the pipeline. Why is Hollywood so dry on ideas...

IG: It’s dry on purpose. It doesn’t want good ideas. It buys up good ideas and then shelves them. I just did a piece for ICON magazine, and I interviewed Barry Gifford (WILD AT HEART), Andrew Bergman (STRIPTEASE), so I just said, “What’s the deal?” This is a quote from the guy that wrote the screenplay for TOP GUN: “What you dream is that you get paid and they never make a movie.” You know that once that infrastructure of executives gets a hold of it...

I have a quote from Jack Leschner from Miramax, and he says there’s Leschner’s Law: “The one absolute is no matter what your movie is, somebody at some point will take the most interesting part out of it.”

For all we know, they’re buying up interesting movies and taking that most interesting part out of it. They want a sort of brain-stunned audience of obedient cattle, you don’t want them to be agitated. You don’t want to give them CHINATOWN, or a Robert Altman movie that makes any sense, or name the good filmmaker. I mean, once Kubrick is dead, I don't know. I’m not trying to be all elitist about it, even exploitation movies that are good... JACKIE BROWN, you know I think Tarantino’s pretty much over, no matter what I think of him personally. That was one flavor.

ER: That was a film that amazed me. I read reviews and articles where they talked about how this was, except for the stock it was shot on, exactly like a 1970s blaxploitation flick. Bullshit! 1970s blaxploitation was never about two-and-a-half hour running times and a guy who’s totally in love with every word that comes out of his word processor.

IG: Well, hopefully that will put the tombstone on the whole idea of “independent” film.

ER: That was one of the most interesting things in the book, your take on “independent” films like THE ENGLISH PATIENT and THE SPITFIRE GRILL.

IG: That’s not my take, that’s reportage. There was no take to have. It’s very important for me [for the reader] to know when it’s my opinion and when I’m just telling something.

And once again, it’s the whole thing of keeping the audience in perpetual dissonance. The fact that most of the stuff I report was taken from mainstream magazines...these aren’t big secrets. People read it and I don’t know where it goes. The whole thing about [Kevin] Costner screwing over the Lakota Nation [2], that’s all taken from major magazines. And when people read that chapter they’re horrified. I’m not trying to be superior, but I’m like, “What were you thinking when this happened?”

I think it’s because you have so much garbage thrown at you so many times from so many people, who all have the same campaign, that you’ll be reading about Mira Sorvino’s breasts next to a story about kids being killed on a boat somewhere. It all starts to mean nothing, and that’s very much in their interests... not to get all conspiracy theory about it.

ER: Why are there so many guys like Michael Bay (BAD BOYS, THE ROCK) out there and so few guys like Tim Burton (BATMAN RETURNS, PEE-WEE’S BIG ADVENTURE, ED WOOD, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, MARS ATTACKS!)?

IG: Because Michael Bay can deliver the explosions, on time, and on budget. Tim Burton never delivers anything on time, he may come in under budget. No matter what one may think of Tim Burton’s films he’s definitely an artist. He definitely has a unique vision and that’s anathema. Unfortunately for the Hollywood people he made BATMAN a success, whoops!, so they have to deal with the guy. But he cranks out an ED WOOD to their horror every so often.

ER: I liked MARS ATTACKS!

IG: There’s always good stuff in his movies. My whole thing isn’t to be a critic in that “is MARS ATTACKS! a good movie?” It’s more important why we can’t have more variety, why is it a monopoly? The book is really all about information monopoloy and movies have become ametaphor for this closed monopoly where the Iran War becomes a video game. It’s the same thing.

ER: It was all about, “Hey, we have a camera mounted on this missle and isn’t that cool?”

IG: Yeah, and no one was killed, “targets” were destroyed. If you did a book on aluminum siding you might see the same [metaphor]. It’s all the same business. How exciting is any movie going to be when it’s not in their interest for it to be exciting. There interest is to get your adrenaline going and empty your pocket.

ER: Case in point ARMAGEDDON (directed by, guess who? — Michael Bay)...which looks like an Irwin Allen film.

IG: Hey, let’s not put down Irwin Allen.

ER: I mean in terms of the all-star cast, the end of the world dilemma...

IG: Have you see the trailer?

ER: I’ve seen it. I don’t get it, but I’ve seen it.

IG: This is another whole thing that I didn’t get into, and that’s The Trailer That Tells You Everything About The Movie and Yet You’re Suppoused to See It. Personally, I’m not sure how this works. With TITANIC, the thing that really confused me was, well, I know how it ends! Everyone dies! A movie called ARMAGEDDON... how do you think that’s going to end?! At least with a movie called LOST IN SPACE there’s the possibility that they might get un-lost.

ER: Or a sequel perhaps?

IG: STILL LOST IN SPACE. EVEN MORE LOST IN SPACE. There was a great quote from Gary Oldman, who’s like the villain du jour in all these things.

C14: He’s replaced Klaus Kinski.

IG: Exactly. Well he made that film NIL BY MOUTH which he paid for with his own bucks. He said, “I paid for that with AIR FORCE ONE. Yeah, I just do these movies so I can make my film. What, do you think I’m an idiot? I’m going to make eight AIR FORCE ONE 2’s?!” At least we get a good Gary Oldman film out of it, it keeps John Malkovich employed. I’m trying to think of the upsides now. How much are movies in Pittsburgh?

ER: They’re about $7.

IG: Do you know they’re $8.50 here [in Manhattan]? That’s another thing to keep in mind. Theatrical release isn’t at all about making money any more. It’s an ad campaign. The money’s in video, DVD, whatever format. So, I’m spending $8.50 for them to do their market research? How do you say this? Blow me.

ER: My movie-going has trailed off monumentally. I just can’t get very motivated to go see things that I know are crap.

IG: Yeah, last night I went to see LA CONFIDENTIAL. And it’s sad in a way because this might be the last great Hollywood movie. It’s like, “How did this get made?”

ER: That’s what blew my mind. When they announced the project I didn’t know why or how they were going to possibly make the film, having read the book.

IG: Well, I know [how] but it’s still kind of amazing. It just so happened that at the same time the James Ellroy mega-buzz was going on. You have to keep in mind that the mentality of a lot of the guys in Hollywood is that they like to think they’re like James Ellroy.

ER: Hard-boiled.

IG: On the cutting edge. Yeah, right. It’s like Michael Lehman (HEATHERS, HUDSON HAWK, MY GIANT) corrected me, “what makes them scary, is that they’re not indifferent, that they really care and they really have horrible taste!” These are basically all guys that would be in new media, or aluminum siding sales, but they happen to be in the movies. It doesn’t matter, it’s just business, you’re just selling the same crap. It’s product.

ER: There are several juicy tales in the book, especially James Toback’s gambling-fueled disappearance and Tony Scott’s drunken diatribe. Do you ever fear that that stuff is going to come back and bite you in the ass?

IG: Possible. Frankly it’s a very dark and disturbing book. I believe that the insertion of that stuff is to add a little humor while hopefully shedding some light on the type of people that work in Hollywood. With a little bit of dish that is true, and I can’t do anything about the truth. I was there, this happened, I have nothing against James Toback personally. I’m not in the movie business, I never have been, so it’s not personal. It’s only personal in the $8.50 that’s coming out of my pocket.

ER: The interviews are remarkably candid. How did you get people to open up as much as they did?

IG: I’m very grateful to [the subjects]. I’m an okay interviewer, I know how to talk to people, but I think that people are mad across the board. It’s probably very refreshing for someone to ask them something besides Entertainment Weekly-type questions. You know, to actually be interested in their job...

ER: A real interview.

IG: Yeah, a real interview instead of, “Wow, your great new movie starring Milla Pavolkavich,” or whoever.

ER: [mocking] “So, tell us about MERCURY RISING!”

IG: [Continuing in same vein] “It’s fabulous, I saw the trailer! Bruce Willis and a kid...what an idea!!” It was really a pleasure doing the Sean Young bit. It was another thing. When you see that many movies you start to see things that you normally wouldn’t notice. I saw a film called MIRAGE, and it was Sean Young and Edward James Olmos. Anyway, I’m watching it and I’m going, “This is pretty good, what the hell is this?” It’s not great, but it’s a nice little B-movie. The kind of quality that they used to churn out in the 40s and 50s every week. “Oh, that’s Sean Young.” And like everybody else I’m going, “Oh that crazy bitch. Why do I think that? I don’t know anything about this person.”

And the more research that we did the more it was terrifying the way you start to see the whole onslaught of displaced male...who knows what it was. It was just a total assassination of a career.

ER: Why was the postscript to the whole James Woods/Sean Young thing so neglected when the “story” itself was shoved down our throats? [3]

IG: Yeah, like they neglect to mention that. It’s interesting isn’t that. Because that’s a spin, and that’s the story, and the story doesn’t change. It becomes part of the media machine. “Crazy Sean Young” becomes like “Zany Tim Burton.” Name it. Sean Penn will always be a violent, abusive person, suppousedly. I don’t know that.

When you interview someone like Sean Young and she turns out to be so cool, so sweet, so totally rational, compared to James Toback! [laughs] That’s why that James Toback thing is there. To show what a guy can get away with. Sean Young, what was her great sin? That she went on a talk show in a Catwoman suit? That sounds like fun to me! She learned real quick that the girls can’t do what the boys do.

I’m not a cheapjack feminist but I liked her in BLADE RUNNER, I liked her in NO WAY OUT. She’s taking the bull by the horns. She makes her Hollywood thing with Jim Carrey and then she makes her Merchant/Ivory thing, and then she makes her low-budget [thing]. She really has 30-plus films!

In a certain sense the book is like a consumer report. You should know about your product, and the only way you can vote is with your wallet. It’s sad because outside of jazz this is the only indigenous American art form. And it sucks.

FOOTNOTES:

[1] That would be Jan de Bont, formerly Paul (TOTAL RECALL) Verhoeven’s cinematographer and the director of TWISTER, which starred Bill Paxton and Oscar winner Helen Hunt. Interestingly enough, much of TWISTER was filmed in and around my brother’s home of Ponca City, OK. When visiting the area shortly before the film’s release, various residents informed me that Hunt was a Grade-A bitch who: shunned local residents; slammed the door on a recently-widowed woman that brought baked goods to the house where she was staying; had her security people chase rollerblading little girls from the property; and summoned the owner of the house she was renting at some ungodly hour to unclog the bathtub. Now I wonder how much a Mason jar filled with Oscar-winner bathwater would go for on the freak market. By the way, residents had nothing but good things to say about TWISTER co-stars Paxon, Cary Elwes, Abe Benrubi, and Jake Busey. Return to Article

[2] Costner—the 90s version of Gary Cooper—made his name starring in DANCES WITH WOLVES. The ultra-long (read that “Oscar-winning”) flick also won him the Lokota Indian tribe’s highest tribute. And the cachet to do whatever the hell he wanted for the remainder of his career (ie, WATERWORLD, THE POSTMAN). Yet, after being feted by the tribe, Costner and his brother soon found themselves embroiled in controversy for developing a resort, casino, and golf course on sacred Lakota land. Lakota leaders suggested Costner “wasn’t a human.” Viewers of Costner’s alarmingly one-note performances in ROBIN HOOD, etc. will offer little argument to the contrary. Return to Article

[3] While filming THE BOOST, Young allegedly had a brief fling with James Woods, though they both deny the tryst. In the aftermath of the alleged affair, Woods and then-fiance Sarah Owen reported receiving hate mail, photos of human and animal corpses, and a voodoo doll complete with slashed throat and iodine splatters. Woods sued Young for $2 million on the grounds of “intentional affliction of emotional distress.” Young was forever labeled as a nutcase, Woods dropped the charges, later divorced Owen, and was quoted as saying that the actresses’ charge that Woods and Owen had set her up as “actually half right...” Young remains thought of as “kooky” while Woods garners kudos for his “method” performances. Granted, I’m a big fan of DIGGSTOWN and BEST SELLER, so I’ll stop now. Return to Article


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