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Whatever Happened to Michael Lehmann?

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Thursday, July 14, 2011 at the Aero Theatre in Santa Monica, California

Hudson Hawk director, Michael Lehmann, and writer, Daniel Waters, are surrounded by their fans

Last night my family and I saw Hudson Hawk, Daniel Waters and Michael Lehmann, and I got to talk to Lehmann. Normally, I would be too shy to talk to someone such as Lehmann, but I had a question I had wanted to ask him for years: how the hell did he convince USC to let him make Beaver Gets a Boner?

I first heard about Michael Lehmann in the film mag Premiere before I went to USC. It told about how the film school’s admissions office called him out of the blue asking him if he still wanted to go to USC. He had sent in his admissions application a year or two earlier, but it had been lost. At USC, as his 480, Lehmann made a twenty minute film called Beaver Gets a Boner. I’m not sure if the Premiere article mentioned this film, thus planting the desire to see it as soon as I could, or if other film students mentioned it, or both. In any case, I saw it and it was one of the most impressive student films that I saw at USC, including those made by George Lucas. Beaver was a film that made you wonder: How the hell did they get that made? It begins with a Boy Scout selling drugs on a school playground and builds from there.

USC was, and probably still is, a mostly conservative school. As Lehmann told me, it was hard to get anything original or daring made there, especially when it’s a 480, a class project that needs to be greenlit by a committee made up mostly of faculty members. (Of course, the same is true of Hollywood.) But the feat was not just getting Beaver greenlit, but in guiding it safely through the entire 480 process experienced. Despite being initiated by the director, 480’s were really filmmaking by committee rather than filmmaking by an auteur. The class was made up of at least four crews and everyone in the class had their own ideas about how the film should be made and most of them were not shy about telling you what was wrong with your film when the dailies and rough cuts were shown during class. As a director it’s hard to remain true to your vision when everyone’s offering advice about how to fix or improve the film. Many of these students want to be directors and they all think they know the film as well as the actual director. Despite this, Lehmann managed to create a distinctive film that, based on his later films Heathers, Meet the Applegates, and Hudson Hawk, clearly bears his mark. Beaver Gets a Boner is a film that more people should know about. So why isn’t the film better known? Over the years I had heard a story that when USC tried to show the film, Lehmann had called up and asked them not to show it. Why? He was supposedly embarrassed by it. (Sounds a bit like Stanley Kubrick and Fear and Desire.) However, Lehmann told me that this is not true. It may have problems with music clearances. (Did he mean the music performed in the film by the band Pop Defect? I don’t know.)

So how did they ever make Beaver Gets a Boner? How the hell did they make that film? Lehmann said that he simply challenged the committe, a sort of dare, and  they went for it.

Before last night I had mistakenly come to think at some point that Daniel Waters, who wrote Heathers and Hudson Hawk, had also written Beaver Gets a Boner. This had led me to believe that I had been mistaken to think that all of Lehmann’s early films may be auteur works, but that the auteur was the writer, Daniel Waters. However, last night I was reminded of something that I had once known: Redbeard Summers wrote Beaver Gets a Boner as well as Meet the Applegates. So once again I’m thinking that the main sensibility of these films is that of Lehmann.

How did they ever make….? This could also be asked of Heathers, Meet the Applegates, and Hudson Hawk. After that, the question is a bit pointless, meaning the films Lehmann has made do not go against the grain. They are not subversive. They do not buck the system. He’s become a journeyman director. The question then becomes: whatever happened to Michael Lehmann. Based on last night’s discussion, you almost have to conclude that Hudson Hawk happened. Lehmann and Waters talked about the film last night, only half jokingly it seemed, as the worst, or nearly worst, movie of all time. Waters said that it was hard to imagine how hard the critics at the time came down on the film. The film was not cheap. It became one of the legendary boxoffice bombs of the nineties, a distinction it shares with Last Action Hero, a film that, coincidentally?, takes also takes a playful attitude towards the action genre. (I was a bit suprirsed that they listed J. Hoberman as one of the critics in the attack force because Hoberman often talked about genre busting, and this surely is a concept applicable to Hudson Hawk.) Although Lehmann survived the financial failure of Hudson Hawk in the sense that he still has a directing career, can you really compare Air Heads or The Truth About Cats and Dogs, or any of his TV episode work which he has concentrated on, to his first work? It was a bit surprising to hear Lehmann and Waters talk so disparaging of Hudson Hawk during the post screening discussion. If they were embarrassed by it, it seems unlikely that they would have appeared at the theare to discuss the film. In fact, Lehmann told me afterwards that he is proud of the film.

So how did they ever make a film like Hudson Hawk? Joel Silver was impressed by Heathers. Waters and Lehmann said they thought audiences, tired of action film cliches, would appreciate a film that takes a less serious appoach. When Silver brought Lehmann and Waters on board, there was already a script written based on an idea that Bruce Willis had had in the back of his mind for many years. Lehmann and Waters described this script as “conventional.” The final film is not conventional, and this is entirely due to the unique visions of its director and writer. Even though they kept most of the original script elements (Willis was unwilling to cut much, it seems) while giving it their own unique spin. However, critics and audiences alike did not appreciate their effort. Lehmann told the story about how he word a Hudson Hawk shirt to a favorite deli and when the  server saw his shirt she said something like, “So you made that horrible film?” When Lehmann asked her if she had seen the film she said she didn’t have to. This was especially funny because earlier this evening my sister-in-law, upon learning where we were headed, said that she had heard Hudson Hawk was terrible. Twenty years later, the film is still being judged by people who have not seen it. I was fortunate to see the film when it was released twenty years ago in the summer of 1991. I liked it. I don’t remember reading much if anything as far as reviews go and went to see it solely because it was directed by Michael Lehmann, who I knew as the guy who had made Beaver Gets a Boner. However, if what Lehmann and Waters said last night about the reviews is true, then I wish that I could go back in time to tell those film critics that they should be ashamed for not encouraging the people who made and financed a film such as Hudson Hawk. Even if it didn’t work at all, which is not the case, the courage of filmmakers who attempt something different such as Hudson Hawk should have been encouraged rather than attacked. Even Bruce Willis appears to have been affected and never attempted another film like this, despite having been such a success in Moonlighting, a series with a sensibility somewhat similar to Hudson Hawk.

Back to Lehmann, Beaver and USC. When it came to my turn to direct a 480 I chose to do something “different.” I’m sure I was influenced by what Lehmann had done with Beaver Gets a Boner. However, instead of making another Beaver Gets a Boner, I ended up making another Hudson Hawk. See my film here.

Postscript

1. What about a rewrite? Is there anything to rewrite in Hudson Hawk? Daniel Waters says it’s a film in which anything can be cut. (He told us about something that was cut. Bruce Willis had a monkey who helped him with his capers. The monkey was killed by James Coburn in the film’s backstory. There were lines throughout the film in which Willis refers to his monkey and the fact that Coburn killed it. At the end of the film,  just before James Coburn falls to his death, Willis sticks a picture of the monkey on Coburn’s  forehead.  All of this was cut from the film, but the photo on Coburn’s forehead can still be seen in a few shots of the finished film.) I never liked the opening 20 or so minutes. Waters kept complaining that the film has no straight lines, but I think the first part of the film is too straight in comparison with the rest of the film. The film doesn’t really take off until Willis and Aiello start singing, “Would you like to swing on a star?” Perhaps something can be cut during this part. But what the opening really needs is the same attitude that is present during the rest of the film. Maybe the opening sequence with DaVinci can be cut or moved to another place in the film. It’s too long and only delays the true start of the film. The main problem is that the virtues of the film have little or nothing to do with plotting, but the opening 20 or so minutes are mostly about plotting, and introducing characters and situations. William Conrad as narrator gives the DaVinci sequences a big boost. I would have loved it if  he had done narration throughout the film.

2. Years ago, I heard Daniel Waters in the commentary for the Heathers LD tell how he kept a notebook of things he wanted to see in a film. It sounded like he built films from a shopping list of things he liked. Last night he said that Hudson Hawk was more or less made the same way. They took scenes from other films that they liked. I only spotted elements from North By Northwest, and that was the only specific film he mentioned.This is not something that I was taught in scriptwriting class in film school, but it may in fact be the best way to make a film. It means the filmmaker is something of a variety show host like Ed Sullivan. The filmmaker begins with the list of things that he or she likes, and finds a framing device, a way of linking them together. This approach can even work at the level of a single scene. (I wrote a bit about this writing method previously in my post about Super 8.)

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Written by David Kilmer

July 15, 2011 at 11:11 am

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