JOHN FLYNN: OUT FOR ACTION
by Harvey F. Chartrand
Veteran director John Flynn is known for his taut, economical and well-scripted action pictures. He is certainly one of the most underrated directors in crime cinema today.
A protégé of Hollywood legends Robert Wise and J. Lee Thompson, Flynn learned his craft well by observing these masters at work, before tackling his first solo directing assignment in 1967 - The Sergeant, in which Rod Steiger gave an anguished performance as a macho Army sergeant who is horrified by his own feelings of attraction to another man (John Phillip Law). Sadly, this dark and courageous drama has yet to be released on VHS, let alone DVD!
Flynn’s second film, the suspense story The Jerusalem File (1972), is equally obscure. Perhaps for political reasons, this exotic thriller about an idealistic American archaeology student (Bruce Davison) caught in the Arab-Israeli crossfire, is rarely seen on TV. Nor has The Jerusalem File been issued on VHS or DVD, despite the presence in supporting roles of Nicol Williamson, Donald Pleasence and Ian Hendry. (Zabriskie Point’s Daria Halprin also appears here in her final film role.) Set in the Holy City after the Six Day War, the film is one of the few Hollywood productions to have been shot entirely on location in and around Jerusalem.
Flynn went on to direct 15 more pictures, including the hardboiled The Outfit (1973), praised as one of the best films based on a Richard Stark “Parker novel” by the author himself, and the grim revenge saga Rolling Thunder (1977), which so impressed the young director Quentin Tarantino that he named his short-lived film release company (Rolling Thunder Pictures) after it. Rolling Thunder also made Tarantino’s list of his top 25 favorite movies.
Since 1990, Flynn has kept busy making excellent low-budgeters for U.S. cable networks or the direct-to-video market. His last film to date is 2001’s Protection, a witness relocation drama with a twist, starring Stephen Baldwin, Peter Gallagher and a cast of Canadian supporting players.
According to film writer Matthew Wilder, John Flynn could give today’s neo-noir directors seminars in the beauties of haiku-like plainspokenness. Shock Cinema agrees. We talked to John Flynn in May.
Shock Cinema: How did you get started in the film business?
John Flynn: I was Robert Wise’s assistant. He hired me to do research on The Robert Capa Story. (This planned biopic of the famous photographer was never filmed. - Ed.) Later, Bob let me watch him work on the set. I was an apprentice on Odds Against Tomorrow, script supervisor on West Side Story, and second assistant director on Kid Galahad and Two for the Seesaw. Later, I worked as an assistant director on The Great Escape. I was also a second unit director on J. Lee Thompson’s What a Way to Go!
In 1966, Bob Wise set up a company to produce low-budget films that others would direct. The first property that Bob found was Dennis Murphy’s critically acclaimed novel The Sergeant. Bob asked me to direct. So I owe my directing career to Bob Wise - and to J. Lee Thompson, who mentored me on What a Way to Go!, Kings of the Sun and John Goldfarb, Please Come Home!
SC: Discuss your involvement in Kid Galahad (1962), a “boxing musical” starring Elvis Presley, Charles Bronson, Gig Young and Lola Albright.
JF: This was my first credit as an assistant director. One of my jobs was to make sure Elvis was happy, but he was easy to work with then, a really sweet guy. Charles Bronson always tried to act like a tough guy. You had to stand up to him and then he’d back off. Gig Young was a dream, one of the funniest human beings I ever met. He was always coming out with these great one-liners. Lola Albright was a very sweet, beautiful, professional woman, on the cusp of middle age, nearing the end of her career, as it turned out.
SC: You were an assistant director on The Great Escape (1963) - the best prisoner-of-war movie ever made. What did you learn from your seven-month association with action director John Sturges?
JF: I learned simplicity. John Sturges was one of the simplest shooters you’d ever want to see. He knew exactly where to place the cameras. Sturges was a very efficient, no-nonsense shooter and he was working without a script half the time. Writers would be flown in to Munich for rewrites every other week. Since we had no script, assistant directors had a hell of a time, because we had to call in all the actors, not knowing if we were going to use them or not.
It was a wonderful time in a Hollywood that no longer exists. The Mirisch Corporation sent over the same crew I worked with on Kid Galahad and Two for the Seesaw - everyone from grips to art directors to stunt guys. We were like a family. I can’t tell you how many times I hung out with Steve McQueen and James Coburn, all those guys… James Garner had a poker game every week at his house. I also got to know the English contingent: Donald Pleasence, Richard Attenborough, James Donald, and the Germans too - like Hannes Messemer, who gave an incredibly poignant performance as the German commandant. We worked together six days a week for seven months in Bavaria. Off the set, we dined together and we partied together.
The Great Escape was the film that made Steve McQueen a huge star. Everyone expected he would become a star after his performance in The Magnificent Seven. McQueen hated dialogue. He used to cut his lines. He was famous for that. McQueen’s genius as an actor was his presence - his eyes, the way he carried himself, his walk. There is no one like McQueen in movies today. I saw Steve McQueen become a Hollywood icon. I also saw Charles Bronson steal Jill Ireland from her then husband David McCallum (who was in the cast of The Great Escape). I remember Charlie and Jill holding hands at a party (hosted by the McCallums) while David was being the perfect host. It was one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen.
SC: You were a second assistant director on Kings of the Sun (1963), which must have been a strange set to work on. This is the only major Hollywood studio production about the ancient Mayan civilization. Discuss your involvement in this outré historical epic, filmed in Mexico.
JF: This was a bullshit script, a popcorn script. It was a Yul Brynner vehicle about the Mayans against the Spaniards. We were in Chichén Itzá and Merida for a couple of weeks, and then we moved up to Mazatlán and finished work in Mexico City.
I met Richard Basehart on this shoot and we became good friends. He was cast as a Mayan high priest. Richard had just returned to the USA after working abroad for many years. English actress Shirley Anne Field was in this too, fresh from her success in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. God, was she sexy! And a good actress, but Kings of the Sun was comic book stuff.
There was a scene where the Spaniards are invading the Mayan territory from the sea, trying to kidnap George Chakiris, who played a Mayan leader. We had these guys out in prop boats. A powerful surf came up. The boats capsized and we realized that many of the extras couldn’t swim. I was a good swimmer and was able to pull a few people into shore. Luckily, no one drowned.
What happened was this. The extras were all poor locals, who were paid $4 a day if they could swim. If they couldn’t swim, they were kept on shore and only paid $2 a day. So naturally these poor people lied. We never checked to see if they really could swim.
SC: You served as assistant director on the 1965 comedy John Goldfarb, Please Come Home! This picture was trashed by critics 40 years ago but is now considered a campy cult comedy classic.
JF: J. Lee Thompson liked my work on Kings of the Sun. He took me over to Fox to make What a Way to Go!, which was a huge hit. (What a Way to Go! is a black comedy about a woman [Shirley MacLaine] who marries four men; her husbands become incredibly rich and die prematurely, leaving her their fortunes. - Ed.) Fox wanted Lee to direct Shirley MacLaine in another film right away. So they found John Goldfarb, Please Come Home!, which was a William Peter Blatty script. Back then, before The Exorcist, Blatty was known as a comedy novelist and screenwriter. Lee promoted me to first assistant director on John Goldfarb, Please Come Home!, which Fox mightily fought - but Lee prevailed.
Peter Ustinov was absolutely hilarious as King Fawz, an Arab sheik who wanted revenge against Notre Dame, because they wouldn’t let his son on the football team. For reasons related to oil and politics, the State Department forced Notre Dame to go to the Middle East to play against “Fawz U.” Ustinov was just a lovely guy, very funny. He ad-libbed all the time. He said his lines, then kept right on going, and would always crack up the crew.
John Goldfarb, Please Come Home! was one of the great faux pas in screen history. Notre Dame figured prominently in the script, but no one bothered to get clearance from the university, and they threatened to sue. This led to terrible publicity for the film, and it got a whole slew of bad reviews. Lee and Blatty were baffled by this critical drubbing.
Around this time, I showed Lee a script I wanted to direct called On the Day of His Death, from a short novel by Polish writer Marek Hlasko. It was about immigrants in Israel. On the Day of His Death remains a great story, and I still wish I could film it. Marek and I became very good friends. He was a brilliant writer who did manual labor to make a living. I stayed with him in Berlin and he visited me in California. Lee helped me on this project by financing several trips to Israel so I could scout locations and move the project along. Sadly, it never happened. (Hlasko was known as “Poland’s James Dean”. Despite international recognition, drink and despair were his lot. Hlasko killed himself with sleeping pills and alcohol in Wiesbaden, West Germany, in 1969. - Ed.)
SC: How did you coax Rod Steiger to play a gay man in the military in The Sergeant (1968)?
JF: Steiger had always wanted to do the book. So did Simon Oakland, the fine actor who played the reporter in I Want to Live! and the bullying seaman in The Sand Pebbles. Oakland campaigned hard for the part of The Sergeant and even told me he would do it for nothing. But Steiger was riding high at the time. He would soon win an Academy Award for his performance in In the Heat of the Night - he won the Oscar while we were doing post-production on The Sergeant, actually. So Steiger got the lead role in The Sergeant, but he did it for very little money.
Steiger was a great actor, but a terribly sad and lonely man. When we were shooting on location in France, he would invite me out to lunch every day. He didn’t want to eat on the set, so we’d go to a restaurant in the country, about 25 km east of Paris, not far from the set. Steiger just wanted someone to talk to. I went out to dinner with Steiger and Claire Bloom one night in 1967 while we were shooting The Sergeant, and you could tell there was tension between them. Shortly after that, they were divorced.
SC: In the early seventies, you spent seven months in Israel preparing and filming the suspense story The Jerusalem File. What is your most vivid recollection from this shoot in the Holy Lands?
JF: I met writer Troy Kennedy Martin (The Italian Job, Kelly’s Heroes) and we became pals. He rewrote a bad script called The Jerusalem File, making it quite good. I signed on to direct the picture, because I loved the script and it was a chance to return to Israel for a few months. I stayed at the American Colony Hotel in east Jerusalem, further refining the script while waiting for the production money to come in. All the foreign journalists congregated in the bar of that hotel. So I’d be sitting there in that cavern, as they called it, with all these gentlemen of the press, getting the inside dope on what was really happening in Israel.
SC: Was actor Ian Hendry (cast as an Israeli general) on his best behavior?
JF: I never saw Ian Hendry sober, but he somehow managed to function. He’d start with a couple of shots in the morning, but it didn’t seem to affect him. He’d say his lines clearly. Hendry was a perfectly functioning alcoholic when I worked with him. Nicol Williamson (who played an archaeologist) was a wild man too. Very heavy drinker. Late one night, Nicol got quite loaded and threatened to throw Bob Dylan off a hotel balcony!
SC: The Jerusalem File is a very hard film to find. Why is that?
JF: The Jerusalem File didn’t do well at the box office and has all but disappeared. I don’t think it was even released on VHS. It’s probably in a vault at MGM waiting for the DVD treatment.
SC: Roger Ebert describes The Outfit as a “classy action picture, very well directed and acted.” How are you able to create such convincing underworld milieus in your crime films?
JF: I’ve always been fascinated by the criminal demimonde. I’m a big fan of the Parker novels by Donald E. Westlake, writing as Richard Stark. We had a great B-movie cast in The Outfit (Elisha Cook, Jr., Richard Jaeckel, Marie Windsor, Timothy Carey and Jane Greer), but contrary to some reports, it never started out as a film noir period piece set in the 1940s. Robert Duvall really nailed the Parker character (renamed Earl Macklin for The Outfit). Parker is an armed robbery technician who doesn’t crack jokes. Duvall was more like the character in the book than Mel Gibson was in Payback.
I’m very proud of The Outfit. Donald Westlake told me he loved it, even though we had to change the ending. (MGM studio boss) James Aubrey wanted us to make it more upbeat. But Westlake told me The Outfit was one of his favorites of all the films based on his novels.
SC: In several interviews, superstar director Quentin Tarantino has praised Rolling Thunder, a powerful revenge drama - now considered a classic thriller. How did critics and the public respond to Rolling Thunder when it was first released in 1977?
JF: We almost got killed when we previewed Rolling Thunder in San Jose! People were shocked by the extreme violence, especially the scene where a hand is ground up in a garbage disposal unit.
Paul Schrader’s script was reworked by a very fine writer - Heywood Gould. Back then, they were priming William Devane to be a big movie star. He is a wonderful actor, but he never became a star. Tommy Lee Jones was sensational in this picture. Rolling Thunder was his breakthrough film. Linda Haynes was extraordinary. Today, she is a legal secretary in Florida. I saw her when I was shooting Scam there in ‘93.
We shot Rolling Thunder in San Antonio, Texas, in 31 days. We knew we were doing something fairly bold. The producer, Lawrence Gordon, told me to shoot the garbage disposal scene like open-heart surgery, make it as bloody as I possibly could. So I did. When we submitted Rolling Thunder to the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America) for a rating, we expected deep cuts, but the censors passed uncut one of the most violent movies in the history of film. Rolling Thunder was given an R rating!
Fox wanted to cut out all the violence and release Rolling Thunder to 42nd Street theatres, so Larry Gordon took it to Sam Arkoff at American International Pictures. Arkoff bought it from Fox and released it almost uncut. He made one little trim in the garbage disposal scene.
SC: In 1980, you made the switch to television, co-directing the TV-movie Marilyn: The Untold Story. Richard Basehart delivered an amazing performance as agent Johnny Hyde.
JF: I knew Richard from Kings of the Sun. We were still friends. I cast him because I thought he was a great actor. The problem is Richard had difficulty remembering his lines. At this point in his career, he was getting on in years and recovering from a stroke! So I had to coax the scenes out of him. Richard was always prepared and always wonderful, but he was an old man by then, and I had to take that into account.
SC: Why did you co-direct this TV-movie with Jack Arnold and its producer Lawrence Schiller?
JF: I quit about two-thirds of the way through, because Schiller kept interfering with the production, changing my camera set-ups, changing the wardrobe. Schiller is a very bright guy, but he drove me up the wall with his constant meddling, to the point where I literally had my hands around his neck one day. So I left and Schiller brought in Jack Arnold to finish the picture. I shot all the footage with Richard Basehart, Catherine Hicks and John Ireland, who was terrific as director John Huston.
I cast this picture very carefully. Sheree North was outstanding as Marilyn’s crazy mother. Jocelyn Brando (Marlon’s sister) had a small part as Marilyn’s grandmother, and she made the most of it. Catherine Hicks was good, but she was kind of an imitation of Marilyn Monroe. I begged Bonnie Bedelia to take the part of Marilyn, but she turned it down. She was a great actress and an absolute knockout back then. I thought Bonnie would have been brilliant as Marilyn. Even Schiller agreed to cast her, but Bonnie wouldn’t do it.
SC: Defiance (1980) was filmed mostly in New York City’s East Village at a time when street gangs did in fact control that area of Lower Manhattan. Did these hoodlums disrupt filming while you were on location in Alphabet City?
JF: Actually, we did have problems with gangs. We were only shooting for a week in New York. Puerto Rican gang members would throw shit down on us from rooftops. Somebody shot the windshield out of one of our picture cars. The cops would help us clear the streets, but they wouldn’t venture onto rooftops at night to rout the gangs out - not for a movie company. So we hired a local karate club to protect us! They were young gang members too. We put a dozen of them up on rooftops with walkie-talkies and we had no further problems.
SC: How did you manage to elicit such a fine performance from journeyman actor Jan-Michael Vincent?
JF: It wasn’t easy. Jan was a drinker even then. He had Heinekens for breakfast. There was a night scene where we literally had to prop him up. Poor Jan. He latched onto Danny Aiello. Jan loved Danny and tried to give him more of his own lines in the picture. I told Jan he couldn’t mess with the script like that. But Jan was a sweet guy. He never believed that he was an actor, though. He was embarrassed to be an actor. He always thought he was doing an awful job and that people were laughing at him. You had to keep telling him he was wonderful and he would do whatever you wanted him to do. Jan was like a little kid, but he just didn’t believe in himself. Talk about actors’ egos. He was the opposite. This was an actor with a non-ego.
SC: Best Seller (1987) is one of the great thrillers of the 1980s. Did Larry Cohen actually base his screenplay on All the President’s Men, with James Woods as Deep Throat?
JF: No, that’s nonsense. There is no Watergate connection. I rewrote the script. The Writers Guild adjudicated against me and I received no credit, as they decided I hadn’t written at least 51% of the script. Once Larry Cohen and I overcame that conflict, we became good friends and he sent me other scripts over the years.
The original story was called Hard Cover. We changed the title to Best Seller in post-production, as Hard Cover didn’t test well with preview audiences. Then a woman sued us all - me, Larry Cohen, James Woods and producer Carter DeHaven. This woman claimed we had stolen the plot of a book she wrote called Best Seller. We went on to prove that this could not be the case, because Larry Cohen had submitted a treatment to Columbia prior to the copyright of this book. It’s amazing, though, because there were plot similarities. Her book was about a killer who writes a best seller incriminating the people who hired him. Turns out this lady didn’t want money. She asked for a three-picture deal with Hemdale Films. (laughs)
SC: You then directed three action stars in some of their finest pictures: Sly Stallone in Lock Up (1989); Steven Seagal in Out for Justice; and Stephen Baldwin in Absence of the Good (1999) and Protection. To paraphrase a critic who admires your work, “you excel in making violent films that know where they want to go and dazzle in the efficiency and excitement of how they get there.” How did you come by your economical and streamlined style of filmmaking?
JF: I’d like to thank that critic for his comment. I just have a fairly direct style of filmmaking. I’m very impressed by Clint Eastwood’s work as a director, especially his more recent stuff like Million Dollar Baby. I also admire the work of Jean-Pierre Melville. Le samouraï is one of my favorite films. I’ve seen it many times.
Lock Up is a strange lesson in how Hollywood movies are made. Stallone had a “window,” which means the guy was available for a certain window of time. Larry Gordon had a terrible script set in a prison. Stallone calls James Woods and asks if I’m any good as a director. Woods says yeah, he’s a good director and you ought to work with him. So we have a director and a star, but no script. All we have is a theme - a guy escaping from prison.
So we hire Jeb Stuart, who was then one of the hottest writers in Hollywood, to rewrite the script and we go off looking for prison locations. Now we have a star, a theme, a shooting date, a budget, a studio, but we still have no script. So we all go back to New York and move into a hotel where Larry “tortures” Jeb and Henry Rosenbaum into writing a script in record time.
Meanwhile, I’m going around scouting prisons. We finally found one in Rahway, New Jersey. Jeb and Henry were writing the script as we were making the movie. New pages would come in every day. There was one day when I was on the third tier of a cellblock in Rahway Penitentiary and I had nothing to shoot. I had my movie star, all these extras and a great location - and the pages were on their way. So we sat around and bullshitted with the prisoners.
Stallone is a smart guy and a very underrated actor. If I ever needed a better line, he’d come up with one. Stallone is a really hard worker. I had no problem whatsoever with him.
SC: Tell us about Out for Justice (1991), a gritty and deliriously violent saga of a vengeful Brooklyn cop (Steven Seagal), shot on location on the mean streets of Brooklyn. Out for Justice features career-best performances by William Forsythe as a deranged mobster and the late Jerry Orbach as Seagal’s worried boss.
JF: Steven was a commodity. Back then, all of his films cost $20 million and made about $40 million domestically. The original title of Out for Justice was The Price of Our Blood, meaning Mafia blood. That was the title that Steven and I wanted, but Warner Bros. said no. It had to be a three-word title like the other Steven Seagal films (Above the Law and Marked for Death). Out for Justice was number one at the box office for two weeks running and it ended up making $40 million domestic and $100 million worldwide, which is what his pictures always made in those days.
Steven’s films are huge on DVD. The biggest residuals I get, by far, are from Out for Justice, so it’s still making money 14 years later. I think it’s a good movie. I really liked working with Bill Forsythe and Jerry Orbach and all those guys in the car who played the killers. But I didn’t get along with Steven. He was always about an hour late for work and caused a lot of delays.
We shot until October 31, 1990, because an IATSE strike was threatened. (IATSE stands for International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employes, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts. - Ed.) Warner Bros. told us we had to be on a plane by November 1. So we shot for about a month in Brooklyn. The rest of Out for Justice was shot in and around south Los Angeles. We filmed those scenes on Lacy Street, in a slummy area of old wooden buildings that could pass for Brooklyn.
SC: In Nails (1992), Dennis Hopper plays Harry ‘Nails’ Niles, a cop who makes Dirty Harry look like a wimp as he breaks all the rules to go after a gang of drug dealers. Nails has been described as “a high-wire act through hell from start to finish.”
JF: That movie was so good for Dennis, because he is a wild man in person! (laughs) Nails was a violent and bizarre man, and Dennis was perfect in that part. Anne Archer was great as Hopper’s beautiful, intelligent, long-suffering ex-wife. Nails was a Showtime original in the United States, but was released theatrically in Europe, where Hopper was still a big star.
SC: You assembled an impressive cast for Scam (1993): Christopher Walken as a con artist with mysterious motives and Lorraine Bracco as a professional seductress. Was this absorbing crime drama of love/hate relationships, intrigue and mind games one of your more offbeat or personal projects?
JF: No, it was just another assignment. Showtime’s executives liked Nails so much they immediately offered me Scam. We shot most of it in Jamaica. It was a privilege to work with Chris Walken. What a fine actor he is. Miguel Ferrer and Martin Donovan are also first-rate talents, but Lorraine Bracco was clinically depressed at the time, having trouble with her boyfriend Edward James Olmos and her ex-husband Harvey Keitel. So Lorraine wasn’t at the top of her game in Scam.
SC: Brainscan (1994) is the first mainstream virtual reality movie and one of the better horror offerings to come out of the nineties. It starred Edward Furlong as a troubled teenager controlled by a supernatural being and Frank Langella as an empathetic police detective.
JF: Frank Langella is a prince of a guy and a wonderful actor. He really nailed that character. Frank took what was a routine cop part and lent real depth to it. He played against the tough cop stereotype, played it very gently and softly, but there was a subtext of steel. His Detective Hayden character had a very human concern for the boy, but he was going to find the truth. If it meant the destruction of this boy, so be it.
SC: What approach did you decide was best to take in this, your first foray into the horror genre?
JF: I tackled it like any other assignment. The script for Brainscan was by Andrew Kevin Walker - just before he made it big with Se7en. Walker had thoroughly researched that whole VR scene.
The main interest for me was the Trickster character (a cadaverous Alice Cooper-like entity who materializes from a CD-ROM computer game - Ed.). The Trickster was the core of the movie and what attracted me to the script. We found this stage actor (T. Ryder Smith) to play the Trickster and he was extraordinary. Eddie Furlong was a 15-year-old kid who couldn’t act. You had to “slap him awake” every morning. I don’t want to get into knocking people, but I was not a big Eddie Furlong fan.
SC: Absence of the Good is a superior direct-to-video movie about a sad policeman’s hunt for a serial killer.
JF: The Stephen Baldwin character is devastated, because his child is dead and his wife is suicidal. The guy is focusing his grief into an obsessive pursuit of a bizarre killer. Absence of the Good is all about family. It’s about the damage that can be done to a person by his family. The detective’s hunt for the killer is a parallel story about a man who lost his son and comes close to losing his life and his own family. It’s almost a genealogical detective story, the way Ross Macdonald used to write them. I’m very pleased with how this one turned out. Absence of the Good did well on video and was also released to theatres in Europe.
SC: You haven’t directed a picture since Protection in 2001 - another direct-to-video offering. Have you retired from filmmaking?
JF: I spend a lot of time in France and so may soon direct a police procedural drama set in Paris. It will be in the spirit of Le samouraï. It will be my tribute to the cinema of Jean-Pierre Melville.
© 2005 Harvey F. Chartrand
(Shock Cinema nº 29, fall 2005, pp. 26-29+46)