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W.D. Richter shares his side of the new Buckaroo Banzai franchise dispute.
By JJ Stratford
W.D. Richter is the director of the 1984 cult docudrama, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension! Despite his brilliant work bringing Banzai and his offbeat world to life with writer Earl Mac Rauch, MGM Studios intends to create a spinoff series without their permission. Now living "at the end of a dirt road in Vermont," he talks to The Front about these legal battles, filmmaking that defies all logic, how a (legitimate) sequel might go down, and finally answers the question: "Why's there a watermelon there?"
In 1984 director W.D. Richter and writer Earl Mac Rauch brought The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension to life in a film that would bomb at the box office but become a deep cult classic. One that would go on to influence the future video store generation with the mantra "No matter where you go, there you are".
The hero "Buckaroo Banzai" is a brilliant neurosurgeon dissatisfied with a life devoted solely to medicine. He roams the planet studying martial arts and particle physics, amassing an eccentric group of friends and hard-rocking scientists, The Hong Kong Cavaliers. With his highly engineered Jet Car he can break any dimensional barrier while remaining cool, calm, and collected.
Earl Mac Rauch created the character in the 1970s. For almost a decade before the movie went into production, he built a meticulously detailed world surrounding Buckaroo. The first person to believe in the film's potential was W.D. Richter, who optioned the first Buckaroo Banzai script by helping Mac pay his rent while he worked on the screenplay. He later went on to direct the motion picture and today remains to be one of Buckaroo's most loyal fans.
Despite conceiving of Banzai and his offbeat world, MGM intends to create a spinoff television series without their permission. (Evil! Pure and simple, from the Eighth Dimension!) Now living "at the end of a dirt road in Vermont," W.D. Richter talks to The Front about legal battles with MGM, filmmaking that defies all logic, how a (legitimate) sequel might go down, and finally answers the question: "Why's there watermelon there?"
JJ STRATFORD: I read in the Hollywood Reporter that MGM filed a complaint in California Federal Court against you and Earl Mac Rauch over the rights to the Buckaroo Banzai franchise- the day before Thanksgiving, this year.
W.D. RICHTER: Yes. Well, I'm learning that filing is not the same as notifying the person who has just been... I don't know how to put it... challenged?
So, when did you first hear about a Buckaroo Banzai TV show happening?
I learned the same time anybody else learned. I have a lot of contacts in the world of Buckaroo Banzai. It's a great group of fans, who maintain the Banzai Institute website and Facebook page. One of them emailed me earlier this year and said, "Did you know that Kevin Smith is developing a Buckaroo Banzai TV series for MGM?
I live at the end of a dirt road in Vermont and I don't get that buzz. We waited to see what Kevin Smith was gonna do, and I thought for sure that he would contact Mac Rauch to get him involved. I never expected to be contacted because I'm not an active director now, but Mac is an active writer and is writing books and doing all sorts of stuff. But no call ever came; no contact was ever made.
So, kind of with resignation, we said "I guess, nobody's gonna invite us to participate; let's look at Mac's contract because there are usually residuals in it." We had a good lawyer look at it and they think MGM had simply forgotten to acquire the property. They certainly did not reference the other four stories Mac originally pitched- the Buckaroo Banzai sampler, a group of stories about this small cluster of continuing characters
I consider Buckaroo Banzai to be a realm full of limitless potential, along the lines of Harry Potter. The 1984 film Adventures Across the 8th Dimension! is only a fraction of the Banzai-world. Even within the film itself there are references to the Banzai realm existing beyond the movie. In the opening scene somebody steps on a Buckaroo Banzai comic book and later, mental patients are playing the Buckaroo Banzai video game. These scenes prove that there is a lot more mythology beyond what's seen in the movie
If [controversial Hollywood producer] David Begelman had believed sufficiently in the overall concept, he would have bought the entire universe of Buckaroo Banzai. Instead he said this, "I don't get this thing! Let's develop one script and see how it turns out."
Mac Rauch is kind of an underdog version of JK Rowling. Like Rowling, Mac is gifted with a crystal clear vision of fantastic new worlds. Too bad the studio or his publisher didn't bank on him.
That's an interesting example, because who knows what her original contract said? Maybe they were prescient enough to actually buy the world of Harry Potter, but the situation here is that the studio didn't buy the world. They only bought the original treatment which was 'Lepers from Saturn', which mutated into 'Lectroids from Saturn,' and which changed to, 'Lectroids from Planet 10,' which eventually become 'The Adventures Across the 8th Dimension!"
Let's start from the beginning, before all of this legal noise. All through the 1970s you were a young screenwriter working your way up the Hollywood ladder. How did you first come across the tales of Buckaroo Banzai?
We were all sort of stumbling around at the time, trying to figure things out. Films were changing. We came in at the beginning of The Godfather, so the movies were getting edgier and more interesting. I did a lot of rewrites. I did adaptations that didn't get made. Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Dracula almost occurred back-to-back, not that they were wildly successful movies, but it raised my visibility. At the same time Susan, my wife, and I were looking around for talented writers to see if there was any way we could push them forward. We contacted Mac and he moved out to LA . He started talking about this guy Buckaroo Bandy, who he wanted to write about; a country western action hero.After a while, Mac was talking about it so much I said, "I don't know where you're going with this, but you should write it." Susan and I optioned the first Buckaroo Banzai screenplay, unwritten. We gave Mac option money so he could pay his rent and write a script, and then we would see what it amounted to. He wrote five episodes; one was a full screenplay, one was a 57-page treatment, others would be a 25-page script where you could tell where the narrative was going but you would never anticipate how Mac would get there.
The screenplay for Adventures Across The 8th Dimension! is very packed. There are layers of jokes, meaning, and visual references.
Not only did Mac build the realm, he built the banter. There are so many classic lines from the screenplay. He is a truly unique human being. And he's the shyest guy I know too, so this is something I've never been able to get my head around.
He wrote his first novel in high school. Then he took a bus into New York City, with the manuscript, called, "Dirty Pictures from the Prom," and left it on desks in publishing houses, in the sort of places where manuscripts never go anywhere but into the waste basket. But this is a remarkable work. The title is just Mac being ridiculously provocative; it has almost nothing to do with the book. It was a wildly complicated story. You would never think that an 18-year-old had written it.
Critics of Buckaroo Banzai tend to note that the plot drifts, but do movies truly have to have a clear beginning, middle and end?
People have been trained that way. All screenwriting manuals talk about is a three-act play, an exciting event, all that stuff. Mac doesn't write that way, he just sits in front of the page and makes up a story as he goes along, and then he'll rewrite it. He does a lot of rewrites.
The script is so rich in detail that it doesn't matter.
It does take a more creative imagination as a viewer to accept that, without being thrown by it. I'm more stimulated by the unknown. When I don't really get where something's going, I think it's good. I stay with it and it's delightful when it surprises me. Surprise is one of the things that Mac and I spoke about. Don't be concerned if you're gonna get your hero into a corner. Writing by numbers, with outlines that exist before the script's due and before the characters breathe, isn't creative. We've been taught to know exactly what the characters are gonna do next.
While Buckaroo Banzai is centered around the hero, he's surrounded by this really unique group of friends who represent a diverse and harmonious vision of humanity.
It was imperative to me that being on set felt exactly like what you've just described. All these people were collaborating on this grand adventure and being encouraged to take real chances in their areas of expertise. In the film, the president of the United States is given a "short form" declaration of war.
Yes! That came from a prop guy who read the script, and knew somebody had to walk in with an envelope and hand it to the President. I just assumed it would be a blank piece of paper or something with gibberish typed on it, but I try to encourage people to go out on a limb. So, in the rehearsal, the prop guy delivers the envelope, the President opens it up and he starts laughing. I said, "What are you laughing at?" He shows us, 'Declaration of War: The Short Form.' So we added a close up. I have to thank Eric Nelson, the prop guy, for getting the spirit of it and then enhancing it by doing that.
I didn't think that up, Mac didn't, it just came out of the energy of the group, and that's the model for the Banzai Institute, for the Hong Kong Cavaliers, the Blue Blaze Irregulars, it is the way the world should work.
Does the sequel, Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League actually exist or is it just a concept?
Oh, yeah. Mac has more information on the villain Hanoi Xan in some ways, than on Buckaroo Banzai! Hanoi Xan happens to be running a very illegitimate criminal organization, the World Crime League, with tentacles all over the world, and he runs it from a very strange lair. He's a freakish kind of crazy guy who may not be mortal.
There are scenes in there that are pretty funny, where he's standing there, trying to pitch this idea as if it's some kind of wacky startup company, to these sinister people. And watching on a video monitor is Hanoi Xan, somewhere in the building, sitting in this strange bathtub full of snakes... you're into deep villainy there! It's kind of spooky. You have the tension between the ludicrous side of Lizardo, who's completely out of control and has probably invented something that won't ever work, and Hanoi Xan who you feel could squash him like a bug. Xan has his minions running all over the world, pulling a lot of very dark strings. Buckaroo's going to have to take on Hanoi Xan, sooner rather than later...
Buckaroo Banzai was not a commercial success but it is a cult favorite and beloved by the fans. How does that sit with you?
There's nothing wrong with having a wildly successful film commercially. It frees you to do more stuff and it gives you financial security. The most important thing I did in Hollywood was make Buckaroo Banzai, and the fact that it's excited so many generations of people, well, that's what art should be doing all the time. If you like Buckaroo Banzai, I suspect you're gonna do good things, because it's a good-hearted movie and it advocates cooperation, fearless exploration, crazy possibilities, and has a strange sense of humor about the way this planet works. We might as well be able to laugh at it as well as take it seriously.
Where did the line, "No matter where you go there you are," come from?
Mac put it in the script, and I've learned over the years that he just makes stuff up. He reads the weirdest books, and whether he read that somewhere or not, I don't know. There is also a dark version of it. It's Lizardo who says, "Character is what you are in the dark." It sounds like a sinister statement, but it's actually true. When you're alone, and you can be as bad as you want, that's the test of your character. Buckaroo is saying a similar thing. He wants you to accept who you are and remember that, "We don't have to be mean, 'cause no matter where you go, there you are
What people respect about Buckaroo is knowing that he didn't always have it easy.
Things go badly for him. His parents were murdered, and so was his first wife. But when he's confronted with these things, I think the whole spirit of the Banzai institute and the movie, and everything Mac's written is, "Don't Panic." You're relying on your creativity half the time, but you're also a reasonable human being, and you rely on your powers of deduction. There's a powerful sense of rationality and penetrating intellect that is at the heart of who Buckaroo is, and that's why he's able to attract all these interesting people around him. He's not an asshole. He's just a genuine guy endowed with all these amazing intellectual abilities, so that he can handle five careers simultaneously, but never brag about them. It comes gracefully to him.
Why is Perfect Tommy so perfect?
Perfect Tommy might seem to have a very limited intelligence but he supposedly designed the Jet Car's suspension system, that's why when he says, "She'll hold, don't worry, she'll hold." You have to feel, "My God, this guy built that car." On the other hand, why is his hair that color? Perfect Tommy had a dark history as a "knight of the broken boulevards", and the Banzai institute is supposed to be a second chance for extraordinary people who've screwed up their lives. If they come there and work their way into Buckaroo's inner circle, they'll realize maybe more than their full potential.
What's up with Lizardo's metabolism? And how did he get addicted to electricity?
Lectroids eat electricity. I'm not sure of the biology, but I know that that's why this guy's sucking on a battery in the back of the van Bigboote's driving. Somehow nourishment is coming through the electricity, whether it's just stimulating them and allowing them to metabolize other stuff they've eaten, I didn't get into that alien biology. But Lizardo is inhabited by Lord Whorfin who was somebody who probably had a massive appetite for electricity. That's why he's in an insane asylum 'cause he's not one person anymore and he's using way too much electricity in that place.
The new president is on line one and wants to talk to Buckaroo. Will he take the call?
Buckaroo is not a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist, but Buckaroo is a practicing neurologist. He could look at the president's brain to see if there's some abnormal growth in there pressing on things. Buckaroo could probably go in there and fix it.
One crucial question... what is that watermelon doing there?
Well, we were extremely concerned that Begleman was gonna shut the movie down. Every time we did something we were proud of, he would hate it. He really hated Buckaroo's red glasses, he said, "a hero doesn't wear red glasses." He hated that there was a certain anarchic logic that he couldn't get onboard with. So the watermelon is there just to see if he had gotten so disgusted with us that he wasn't watching our dailies anymore. And it proved to be true, because early on in the movie, he would've shut it down for that little moment of the watermelon. But, he'd given up in despair.
Wait, that's why the watermelon is there? It's a symbol of artistic defiance?
The production designer, driving into work, went by one of those roadside fruit stands and bought a bunch of watermelons. He said, "I don't know what I'm gonna do with these things." During that day, we were blocking out little bits, and wandering around this abandoned factory and there's this amazing machine sitting there, looking as if it's ready to crush something. So I said, "Let's put a watermelon in that." And then they improvised those lines of dialogue, and it became extraordinary.
We never heard a word about it from the studio, so that was our way of recklessly saying, "They're not even looking at our dailies anymore, and we're far enough into the movie that they won't shut it down, so let's just do whatever we want." And that was it, it was license to make the movie we wanted to make. To defy all logic, and just be.
This gives more meaning to the fact that the watermelon is being squeezed...
It's a symbol of getting squeezed, but it's also a test about the strength of
the watermelon. It can take the pressure. It's saying, "Go ahead. Squeeze me, I
can take it." I was ready with an answer in case the phone rang; it was
semi-logical in the context of the story, and it was that the Banzai Institute
is involved in the development of products, one being a strain of watermelon
that can be airlifted and dropped by parachute into areas where people are
starving, and it won't explode on the ground. Watermelon is, in fact, a very
nutritious large, red, wet object. It was one of many tests going on in the
exciting Banzai Institute. Nobody ever asked, so we never had to tell anybody
anything, other than, "I'll tell you later."
Kevin Smith Says He's "No Longer Involved" In 'Buckaroo Banzai' TV Series
There hasn't been a single ruling in MGM's copyright lawsuit for a Buckaroo Banzai TV series, but there's already two clear casualties: Kevin Smith and the show itself, at least for now. After the studio filed legal paperwork November 23 against the 1984 movie's director W.D. Richter and writer Earl Mac Rauch, the Clerks creator went online today to declare "I'm no longer involved" with the proposed Amazon TV series version.
"This is not what I signed up for," Smith said of the legal issues while praising MGM in other respects (watch the video below). "I was caught off-guard [by the lawsuit]. I literally had no idea. It blows, man, because that's the closest I've [come] to having my own show so far."
Additionally, Deadline has learned that with this pronouncement by Smith and MGM's moves in the courts, the project is in limbo at Amazon until the legal matters are resolved. When contacted by Deadline, Amazon had no comment on the series or the lawsuit. As Deadline revealed during Comic-Con this summer, Amazon and MGM had locked a deal for a Smith run Buckaroo TV series intended to debut in 2017.
That's all just paper now, it seems.
In his 18-minute-plus assertion on Facebook Live from Florida this afternoon, Smith said he was floored by The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension pic when he saw it as a teenager and wanted Richter and Rauch to work on his series project. "Without those two dudes, I don't fall in love with that property," he said. "I don't want to make anything unless those two dudes are involved. They had the vision. Like, all we're doing is taking their amazing vision and making a TV show of it."
Later in the video, Smith says: "I'm no longer involved. I don't wish anybody harm; I wish all parties well. I hope these dudes come to an agreement, and if they do and they still want me involved down the road, I'll be here. But why would they?"
Noting that the legal action was "news to me," Smith said, "This lawsuit comes from MGM legal - it doesn't come from any of the people I met at MGM."
He compared the situation to having someone want to remake one of his old movies against his wishes.
"Let's say one day that the people that own Miramax now [said], 'Hey, we want to make Clerks,' " Smith says in the clip. "And I'm like, 'Well, I don't want you to make Clerks - not while I'm alive.' And then they sue me to make sure that they can make Clerks without me being involved. Well, what goes around comes around in life. I'm not saying anybody is wrong in this situation, but what I'm saying is — respectfully to all parties involved - I'm out."
You can see Kevin Smith discuss leaving the Buckaroo Banzai TV show here
MGM Sues 'Buckaroo Banzai' Writer and Director Over Right to Make New TV Series
Earl Mac Rauch and Walter Richter proclaim they own rights -- and have been telling others including Amazon Studios and Kevin Smith's agents at WME.
More than three decades after the cult sci-fi classic The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension was released in theaters, MGM wishes to produce a new television series of the characters with Kevin Smith at the helm and in conjunction with Amazon Studios. But first, MGM is taking a trip to the courtroom to sort out rights.
MGM has filed a complaint in California federal court against Earl Mac Rauch, who wrote the 1984 film about a neurosurgeon/rock star who saves Earth from malevolent aliens, and Walter Richter, who directed the picture that stars Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Jeff Goldblum and Christopher Lloyd.
Rauch and Richter "have now asserted in multiple letters to Plaintiffs that they, not Plaintiffs, supposedly own the exclusive right to produce and distribute a Buckaroo Banzai television series," states MGM's lawsuit. "There is now a substantial controversy between the parties with great immediacy. MGM seeks to develop its new television series without Defendants' interference. Accordingly, Plaintiffs bring this action to seek a declaration of the rights and legal relations of the parties with regard to Buckaroo Banzai."
The 1984 film left off with a tease in the form of a message where audiences were told, "Watch for the next adventure of Buckaroo Banzai -- Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League."
The sequel never came, and Richter has spoken up in the years that followed of how "the paper trail for the rights is almost impossible to follow," with properties being passed around in corporate transactions and a proposed Warner Bros. animated version being squashed because of the clouded title.
Through the lawsuit, MGM says Rauch and Richter have been aware since at least 2008 that it was pursuing a television series based on Buckaroo Banzai, and in 2011, the writer and director asserted ownership rights. MGM repudiated the claim, and it would hardly be the last time the two sides would trade letters on this topic.
This past July, defendants' agent Mark Lichtman would again claim ownership, not only in letters to MGM that informed the studio that his clients "are moving forward with their projects regarding Buckaroo Banzai," but also to Amazon Studios and Smith's agents at WME. In response, MGM demanded that Rauch and Richter cease and desist from interference.
Then in August, defendants' attorney Kenneth Keller delivered a five-page letter to MGM's counsel, Robert Rotstein at Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp.
"We are not claiming the limited rights which MGM might own with respect to the single motion picture, Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, although as is discussed below, there are certainly serious questions even as to the chain of title with respect to that picture and MGM's rights associated with it," wrote Keller. "What my clients own are the overall rights to the world of Buckaroo Banzai, and all of the characters, themes and ideas associated with that world."
Keller went on to explain that in 1981, MGM entered into an agreement with Rauch's loan-out company for a single episode, but nearly a decade earlier, the script writer had created characters, successfully pitched Richter and had sketched out five stories -- "The Strange Case of Mister Cigars: A Buckaroo Bandy Mystery"; "Lepers From Saturn -- A Buckaroo Banzai Adventure"; "A Buckaroo Banzai Thriller -- 'Find the Jet Cart,' Said the President"; "Shields Against the Devil -- A Buckaroo Banzai Thriller"; and "Forbidden Valley."
It's further reported in the letter that in 1981, Richter and others met with an MGM executive and pitched him the entirety of Rauch's Buckaroo Banzai adventures, leaving a copy of "A Buckaroo Banzai Sampler."
"Critically ... MGM passed on the opportunity to option or obtain any rights in Mr. Rauch's larger property, including the other four episodes which he had written to the point or any other rights to the world of BUCKAROO BANZAI," continued Keller's letter. "The Agreement itself specifically defines what MGM was contracting to acquire -- a screenplay (based on a single episode of Buckaroo Banzai) and two revisions -- and the rights associated with that screenplay."
Naturally, in MGM's lawsuit filed by Rotstein, the studio takes a different view.
MGM contends that the services of Rauch and Richter were provided on a "work-made-for-hire" basis," or alternatively, that it was assigned "all exclusive rights under copyright to the screenplay and motion picture, and the characters, plots, themes, dialogue, mood, settings, pace, sequence of events, and other protected elements therein."
The lawsuit adds that MGM and its predecessors had creative control over the Buckaroo Banzai project and contributed copyrightable elements.
MGM also is asserting that Richter violated a publicity provision of his contract by talking to one film website about MGM's lack of rights to the property. Additionally, Richter and Rauch are said to be in breach of this provision via statements made on Facebook.
At the moment, though, MGM is merely seeking declarations from the court that Rauch and Richter can't prevent a Buckaroo Banzai television series, that it owns the copyrights, that Rauch has signed away rights to literary materials submitted in connection with Buckaroo Banzai and that defendants are barred by statute of limitations and estopped from asserting any ownership rights.
Read the full complaint here.
From: Adams, Ed
Sent: Fri, Oct 30, 2009 7:51 pm
To: Jeff Field; Ryan Nord
Subject: Buckaroo Banzai
Jeff and Ryan - I apologize for our inability to connect by phone this week. As I previously mentioned, I passed all of the documents you sent along to our rights department. After their review and analysis, they found two major gaps in the chain of title (and perhaps some minor ones, as well).
1. There is a gap between Credit Lyonnaise and Universal/Polygram.
2. There is a gap between Polygram and Richter/Rauch.
The rights department is doing further research in an attempt to close these gaps. That means we're willing to do the legwork (and bear the cost) to try and figure this out. I am hoping that will be received as good news. For now, WB will foot the bill and see what we can find out. The bad news is that this means additional time while we try to satisfy ourselves that the rights are available. I am not sure how long to expect, but we should probably touch base in about a week. That is all I have to report for now. Clearing the chain of title remains the number one issue for us, but hopefully we are moving in a positive direction. If you have any questions or comments, please let me know. Otherwise, let's try to touch base in a week or so.
From: Adams, Ed
Sent: Fri, Mar 5, 2010 8:11 pm
To: Jeff Field; Ryan Nord (Business Fax)
Cc: Register, Sam
Subject: Buckaroo Banzai - Chain of Title
Jeff and Ryan - At long last, I am pleased to get back to you with a response regarding the chain of title. I am sorry it took so long, but the rights department has been busy with a number of priorities for other divisions. As we have discussed a number of times, Warner Bros. would require a clean chain-of-title in order to option and move forward with development of an animated project based upon "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension." Unfortunately, because of a number of transfers of the rights in the property, there are gaps in the chain. These gaps need to be closed before we can proceed any further.
1. Agreement between MGM and Sherwood.
2. Mortgage of Copyright from Sherwood to Lyonnais.
3. Foreclosure on the mortgage by Credit Lyonnais showing its succession to the rights.
4. December 1995 assignment from Lyonnais to Alpha.
5. November 1998 assignment from Alpha to Polygram.
There may be additional open questions, but these are the most pressing. My rights team has done as much as it can at this point. After you have had a chance to review the above with your clients, we should set up a time to discuss next steps. I apologize that I am not delivering better news, but I can assure you the rights team worked very hard to create the best outcome they could. I look forward to speaking with you both soon.
BUCKAROO BANZAI Director W. D. Richter: Ancient Secrets & New Mysteries -
October 4, 2016 by Rich Drees
When first released in August 1984, The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzai: Across The Eighth Dimension did not make much of a splash. Coming from a studio who was unsure how to market the film's offbeat New Wave mix of science-fiction, adventure and comedy and audiences - The ones that made it to the theaters, at least - weren't sure how to respond. But the advent of the home video boom gave the film an unexpected new life, rising it to be considered as one of the great films of the 1980s. Thirty-two years and a recent blu-ray release with a fairly comprehensive documentary about the film later, director W. D. Richter is still happy to discuss Buckaroo Banzai, stating "It's fun to talk about this movie because it means a lot to a lot of people. It meant a lot to us while we were making it." In this first installment of our multipart interview with the director, we talk with Richter about his journey to filmmaking, how he met Buckaroo Banzai screenriter Earl Mac Rauch and the early days of hearing from Rauch about a character named Buckaroo Bandy who would star in a "country western, action adventure serial with science-fiction elements" he wanted to write about...
Q - Did you ever imagine that 32 years later you would still be having opportunities to talk about Buckaroo Banzai?
WDR - Of course not. I mean, it's just astounding to me. I don't know really what to say other than that we all made this thing kind of recklessly and fearlessly and its really connected with a certain constituency. It's really satisfying because it validates your daring. Take some chances, see what happens!
Q - Was filmmaking something you were always interested in growing up?
WDR - My grandmother used to take me to movies in Connecticut in a fairly small town that had like five movie theaters. It was an amazing time. All small towns are probably like that. We were always going to movies. She was born in Poland, so she had certain kind of American icons. She would take me to Errol Flynn movies, you know, big romantic Hollywood movies. Then as I got a little older, I got interested in horror films, and I'm not quite sure why. Maybe watching some old ones on TV. I used to go to some of those theaters by myself to watch Them and things like that that are in black and white. All those B-movies that came through town. I really was a fan of them.
When I went to college, it never occurred to me that there were film schools. It was a time when I don't know how people thought they got in the movie business. We didn't think about t much growing up. It seemed unreachable. You're on the East Coast and something is happening three thousand miles away. In college, I started learning about the existence of film schools because we had some film appreciation classes, which was really unusual. That said to me you can try to do this, you don't have to just watch it from afar. I was probably going to be an English teacher if I didn't have that opportunity. I had no other grand design.
Q - Ultimately, was it this revelation that lead you to go out to Hollywood?
WDR - I applied to USC, UCLA and NYU. I wasn't thinking only Hollywood. My wife and I - well, we weren't married yet, we got married just after graduation - we took a trip to NYU and it just didn't seem like a place where we wanted to start our lives. So I had to make a choice long distance between USC and UCLA. I was able to not make that choice until we got out there. We looked at both universities and I don't know why I picked USC because at that time it was in a bad neighborhood and its film department was pretty ramshackle. But it appealed more.
Q - So did you and your wife meet when you were at Dartmouth or were you high school sweethearts?
WDR - Yes, you got it. We were high school sweethearts. We went steady our senior year. She applied for a teaching position in LA when we decided that's where we're going. At that time they actually sent recruiters across the country to east coast colleges to try and interest students graduating in education to cross the country. I'm not sure that they do that anymore. But she was able to have a job when we landed, so we had a tiny bit of financial security while I went to film school. As soon as she could, she stopped teaching and joined our company as our business manager and as my investment adviser all rolled into one.
Q - Now I know that Earl Mac Rauch was also at Dartmouth, just a few years behind you. Is that where you met or was that later?
WDR - No, but there's an interesting possibility though. He was there one year when I was there. I was a senior and he was a freshman. Later on we discovered we both saw Arthur Penn do a Q & A after a screening of Bonnie And Clyde. Where he did it was a student lounge that didn't have a lot of capacity. There were a reasonable number of people, maybe twenty or thirty, and we were both there! I have no idea if we sat next to each other or anything except that we were both in that room but never met.
The reason I know him at all is that my alumni magazine gave a review of his novel Arkansas Adios and it sounded wonderful. I ordered it and both Susan and I were reading it simultaneously. I said, "You've got to read this" and she grabbed it. It was back and forth for a week or so. I think I wrote the college to start with to find out who to get in contact with this other alum. I sent him a letter and told him if he wasn't content with what he was doing, I thought that he had a really great shot at writing for the movie business. I had already been a story analyst at Warner right after film school and I had read hundreds of scripts. It was really kind of shocking because I had been a literature major and this was like an alternative reality of fiction. It was strange how terrible these scripts were. There were great ones for sure. But most of them seemed like writers weren't writing them. People couldn't construct a sentence, so I thought if Mac wants to take a shot at this, I am going to extend the offer to say "Come out and I'll introduce you to the few people I know." And he did, he took me up on it.
Q - Through the 1970s both of you worked on some notable films. You wrote the first remake of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers and Mac was working with Scorsese on New York, New York.
WDR - That was a difficult time for him. Mac is really not a person who likes to be in public, in meetings and interacting with groups of people. That process was difficult for him. I think Scorsese was fooling around with the script himself, and that was kind of a druggy period in LA and New York. Mac kind of withdrew from the business in a way. He did a lot of writing for producers that he never quite finished. He always second guesses himself. He would send us fantastic material on Buckaroo, we would send him a note or two and it would come back with it totally changed and a lot of great stuff lost. He did that with a lot of other producer/directors, I think. He's just very self-critical. It's wonderful in that way, he's not impressed with himself at all. I am, enormously, but he isn't at all. Then he would withdraw when somebody made the day difficult, rather than say "I'm going to beat this system!"
Q - I think it was only recently that it occurred to me that I didn't recall seeing a picture of him anywhere until Lewis Smith (The Adventures Of Buckaroo Banzi's Perfect Tommy) ran one on his Facebook page.
WDR - There's a photo of him on the back of the hardcover of Arkansas Adios. There's a couple online if you really search, because I've found some stuff and tortured him by handing them to him. When we did the blu-ray recently, I had all the transparencies from Bruce McBroom, who was the production photographer. At the end of this movie, nobody cared about the detritus of it, so I grabbed the big loose leaf of all the transparencies and I've guarded them over the years. We had them digitized in order for them to put some on the blu-ray. They sent me a disc and I was going through it and found that picture of Mac and thought that's wonderful. He really does exist.
Q - You mentioned Mac's numerous beginnings of Buckaroo adventures that he would abandon in favor of a new one. When did he first mention this character Buckaroo Bandy? Do you recall the actual conversation? What about it sparked your imagination?
WDR - I have this giant file I am looking at right now because we're in a strange position with MGM about the rights issues of this movie. I've had to do some real digging into my archives and come up with the chronology you're talking about.
When we said "Come out here," I felt like I could introduce him to a handful of people, and I did, like Irwin Winkler and Jay Weston, producers of that time. They kind of carried Mac through development deals. He was living very close. We were renting a small cottage and he was renting an apartment near by. He would come over for dinner a lot and tell us things he was thinking about writing. Not necessarily for us, my company was really just for me as a writer. I know it was a casual conversation. He had this idea for a country western, action adventure serial in effect, and that it would have sci-fi elements. You can't say, "Oh that's interesting" and then move on to other things. "What are you talking about?" I don't know if he had it worked out or if he just started improvising stuff verbally. It got to some point where it sounded intriguing enough, and we knew he needed money, that if we optioned it for I think initially $1500, unwritten, that would subsidize his writing it. And he called that little contract we write up "Jetcar." As he started turning in pages, that title never appeared, it ultimately became Lepers From Saturn - A Buckaroo Banzai Adventure. This was 1973. In September of that year we have a deal contract, a single page agreement to option it for one year when he delivers the screenplay for $1500 right away.
When he first retitled it, it became The Strange Case Of Mr. Cigars, A Buckaroo Bandy Mystery. He kept starting and stopping these things, even though we would say "That's great, here are some thoughts. If you want to incorporate these fine, if not, just keep going," he would come back with something different. He never finished The Strange Case Of Mr. Cigars. Have you heard about it?
Q - Well, I know that some of the other titles were "Get the Jet Car," Said the President and that the draft before the shooting draft was called Shields Against The Devil.
WDR - Yes. This particular Strange Case Of Mr. Cigars had great promise, and he may finish it some day. It's very unclear who owns the rights to all of this stuff now. There was a gigantic robot involved, that was Godzilla in size. Up in the head, these evil people were running it, pulling big levers and stuff. Mr. Cigars was a villain who was going to kill a lot of world leaders by planting exploding cigars at a big conference. I knew where he was going, but he never got there in the script because he started Lepers From Saturn, which he started in a treatment form. He did finish that, a 57-page treatment, Lepers From Saturn - A Buckaroo Banzai Adventure.
And the it just kept rolling. "OK, are you going to write the script for that?" He said, "Let me start it," and it came in with a title page A Buckaroo Banzai Thriller - "Find The Jet Car," Said The President. Through all of these, more details kept coming in. The Hong Kong Cavaliers replaced the Hopalongs as Buckaroo's country western band. Penny Priddy would suddenly appear in a different context and blow through the script, but come back later when he started another adventure. He only got 67 ages into Find The Jetcar, before he was writing Shields Against The Devil - A Buckaroo Banzai Thriller. That he actually went to the end of. It's a 109-page screenplay. He finished that in `75. That's where he changed the name of the Shields, that was the original name of the support group, to Knights of the Blue Shield, and then it became the Blue Blaze Irregulars subsequently.
But through all this, the context of the world was being enriched. Whether the narrative was abandoned or not, there were ideas in there that we did hang on to, like the World Crime League. All that stuff got us to a point where we put together what we called "A Buckaroo Banzai Sampler" which was about ten or fifteen pages of each one of these things, which in some cases was all the pages he had written. A thirteen-page teaser which said "To be continued." We had, in effect, a selling tool, a marketing tool.
Tune in next week for Part 2 of our multipart interview in which we further
travel the road to bring Buckaroo Banzai to the screen, including a road bump by
the name of David Begelman...
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