It's no exaggeration to say that Richard Donner is one of the most influential filmmakers of the past thirty years. For all intents and purposes, he single-handedly invented the modern superhero movie with 1978's Superman. In 1987, he reinvigorated the buddy movie formula with Lethal Weapon, spawning three sequels and countless imitators. But like any filmmaker, there have been some disappointments along the way, both critical and commercial. Perhaps the biggest was the failure of Inside Moves, a low-key character study, to find an audience upon its release in 1980. The film garnered critical praise and an Academy Award nomination for Diana Scarwid in the Best Supporting Actress category. But an ineptly managed theatrical release all but insured that no one would ever see it. After its release on VHS in the early 80s, Inside Moves promptly vanished into obscurity.
Inside Moves has been given a second chance thanks to Lionsgate's new release of the film on DVD (you can read my full review of the disc here), and no one could be happier about that than Dick Donner. I recently chatted with the legendary filmmaker about his least-seen picture, some of his other personal favorites amongst his work, the future of the Lethal Weapon series, and more. In conversation, Donner is candid, forthcoming and genuinely warm and friendly, peppering his responses to my questions with "pal" and "buddy". Within five minutes, this became one of my favorite interviews that I've done for The Bits. Enjoy!
- Dr. Adam Jahnke
Adam Jahnke: What took so long for Inside Moves to come to DVD?
Richard Donner: Well, it was independently made and distributed by a company called PSO and Lord Lew Grade's company in England (ITC). And they did about the worst job of distribution of any film I've ever been involved in. Maybe with the exception of the stupidity of how 16 Blocks was handled by Alcon and Warner Bros. I'm serious, they took 16 Blocks and put me out on a Friday against Dave Chappelle (Block Party) and the star of Dave Chappelle's show was Mos Def. Who was the co-star of mine! They put us out on the same Friday night and that Sunday was the Academy Awards. You think about it. Anyway, it was about the same thing with these other guys. So after (Inside Moves) came out and got great reviews, they put us out around Christmas. Around Academy Award time, so every major studio had every theater. They found one little theater in Westwood for me and the picture "el died-o". So of course since it was independent, it got sold a piece here, a piece there and was just laying in a vault somewhere. Nobody did anything about it. Until this wonderful couple, Cliff and Lisa Stephenson... she's with Lionsgate. She dug it up, put it back together again. Her husband Cliff worked on the DVD. If it weren't for them, it would still be laying there. And I'm sure there are lots of other wonderful films like mine, which I love desperately, laying in vaults where nobody will ever see them until Cliff and Lisa come along and save them.
AJ: They certainly did an excellent job rescuing this one.
RD: Didn't they? I'm telling you... and not only that, they save dogs, too! So they save both.
AJ: But the movie was indeed nominated for an Academy Award, correct?
RD: Yes, (Diana Scarwid) was nominated for an Academy Award. And that was with having it not seen in this town! This town of Holl-E-Wood! I mean, it was a little theater on... do you live here?
AJ: Yes I do.
RD: It was on the south side of Wilshire, a little Westwood theater, I forget the name of it. (Note: For those who don't live here, Westwood is by the UCLA campus and is home to a number of famous, historic movie theaters. Most, however, are on the north side of Wilshire Boulevard. Most south of Wilshire have closed up with the exception of the Crest. - Tour Guide Jahnke) There were practically no ads, no nothing. And it still got her an Academy nomination.
AJ: Like you mentioned, this was completely an independent film.
RD: Yes, it was put together by Bob Goodwin and Mark Tanz, who raised the money because they loved the script. It's just that we got taken down a long road when it came to distribution.
AJ: I was curious why you haven't made more independent films and have instead worked primarily within the studio system.
RD: 'Cause it's a bitch! It really is! I mean, you run into the same problems all the time. You get a rarity like Slumdog Millionaire or something but most of the time... well, the independents have really come up now because the studios are so insecure about taking chances on anything new or different. If you go to a studio now, it's gotta be a book, a comic book or a remake. The independents at least have some balls and will try some new project. And you get good support, the finance and everything with it. Up until recently, it was really tough with an independent. Now, I think I'd rather be with an independent.
AJ: Do you think it would be easier to get this movie made today than it was then?
RD: Probably the same. Yeah, sure if I got Brad Pitt to play the guy with the bad leg and if I got... well, you name one... sure, I could go and get it made. Or if you just went out and made it with relatively unsung heroes. John Savage was a phenomenal actor at that point but he wasn't a bankable actor. I mean, he was an actor who was nominated for an Oscar for The Deer Hunter. So he was a solid actor but he wasn't the kind of guy you could raise money on. It would be the same thing today unless you found some small outfit that just believed so much in the project and they said, "Y'know what? We trust and believe so much in the project, let's go." It's a rarity.
AJ: Now you had wanted to make Inside Moves even before you made Superman.
RD: Yes, I had read the novel by Todd Walton and I loved it and wanted to make it. Then Superman came into my life and that took years away from me. I came back and a very wonderful agent named Everett Ziegler said, "I have a script for you to read." I started to read it and when the character Savage plays attempted suicide, I went, "Oh my God, it's that book." Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson had written it for Paramount. Bob Evans had tried to make it. And he couldn't make it! If Bob Evans can't make it... he WAS Paramount. Our business is so cyclical. When you run into the area of where they're afraid of somebody who's got some depth, you're in trouble.
AJ: Since you had read it originally as a novel, was the final movie pretty much what you intended to make back then or did that change when Valerie Curtin and Barry Levinson's script came into it?
RD: It was far better. I mean, they were and are two brilliant, talented, creative people and they had written a brilliant, great script. They had captured every nuance in that piece. There was just one exception. When I made the movie, my original intentions were to stay with the novel and Barry and Valerie's script. But it ended on a very... I would say, almost down note. If you ever read the book, you'll see it ends on the hooker (played in the movie by Amy Wright), who at that point has become a totally addicted hooker. And she has these lines about how life is as it was and there's no glory in it. There's no up sides. By the time we were getting near that point, I'm thinking something's wrong. Because my mission in life is kind of like... there's one critic who said, "It's the kind of picture that makes you feel good and that ain't bad." And that's what I like. I like to come out of a picture feeling good, feeling kind of warm inside. It's been my mission ever since. I don't like to be depressed. I don't like to pay for it. I don't like to go see movies where the heroine commits suicide. So when we were getting near the end, I thought I've got to add a scene. So I went to Barry and Valerie and they said, "No, no, no. Todd didn't want that." I went, "Look, I just want this picture to have a completion. And these guys from Max's Bar deserve their moment in the sun. All of them. So I'll write it." And they went, "OK, we will. We'll write it if you're threatening to write it." And they came up with that wonderful scene. Sure, it's a payoff scene. But it's something warm and wonderful and those who deserve it got their comeuppance. In those days, in that period, there were a lot of depressing films being made. And I just don't like to be one of them.
AJ: It's interesting because the scene does work as a payoff but it doesn't feel like it's out of keeping with everything that's come before it.
RD: That's great! For me, that's the way it works. I really feel good when Savage's character Roary trips the heavy, Tony Burton... wonderful actor... and he goes down the steps and the group looks at Roary. And he's got this wonderful look on his face. They say, "Roary, what did you do?" And the pride in all of them that nobody messes with the people at Max's Bar. That's our home. That's our happiness. It just worked so well for me. I think it worked well for the film. For years, I've gotten, "Hey, Roary! Hey, Jerry!"
AJ: That sort of ties in with another question I had. On the DVD, Todd Walton mentions bringing the film to a screening of primarily handicapped people and being surprised that they'd all seen it and loved it and it was a really important movie to them. Has that been your experience too, over the years?
RD: Well, you know, I think we're all handicapped. Emotions, physical, mental, everybody's carrying some kind of a problem around with them. I think if you just said it was a picture for the handicapped, it'd be a major mistake. Handicapped is an all-encompassing word. I have had so many people comment on the film over the years. There was a picture I did called Radio Flyer. And I used to get these comments from people saying, "You know, I've never told anybody this but I was abused like that when I was a kid." So when things like that happen and emotions are called up in people in a picture like this, it's not just a picture for handicapped people. It's for people, period.
AJ: It ties in to that great line David Morse has when he goes back to the bar and says, "I'm the only cripple here."
RD: Yes! Yeah, it's a great line. And what a difficult scene for an actor to do. He did that brilliantly. I'll never forget that. He is a sensational actor as well as a great person.
AJ: Speaking of the cast, whose idea was it to persuade Harold Russell to come back for this? (Note: Russell, a World War II veteran whose hands were replaced with a pair of prosthetic hooks, had won two Oscars for his role in The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946 and had not appeared in another film until Inside Moves in 1980. - Film Historian Jahnke)