Writer/Director Michael Farkas went to USC to study film. He quickly went on the make his first feature movie Prime Risk (1985) which has become a cult movie. After Prime Risk, he spent several years developing new scripts, then moved from Los Angeles back to Washington D.C. in 1988 where he opened Infocus Communications, a production company creating commercials, industrial, corporate, and government training and promotional videos. The company was acquired by CACI, Inc. in 1996, where Farkas continued with them as a writer/director of military defense productions. In 2015, he moved to consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, where he is currently a digital visual communications specialist and video team manager. He made no other feature apart from Prime Risk but planned a film about a Japanese soldier set long after World War Two. Unfortunately, that film entitled “No Surrender” has not found financing, although Farkas did make a promo trailer to promote the movie. He had Q’orianka Kilcher (The New World) cast to star as Samantha in the film.
How did Prime Risk come into being? Was it a long process?
My father had worked in the world of IT physical security. One of his company’s contracts was to physically shield printers, computers, and other IT equipment from radiating electro-magnetic signals into the atmosphere which can be picked up with specialized equipment (such as the spectrum analyser depicted in the film). That’s where I thought of the same principle being used to pick up electromagnetic signals from a bank’s Automated Teller Machine. I had always loved heist movies, such as “Who’s Minding the Mint?”, “Kelly’s Heroes” and “The Sting” from the 1960s and 1970s. After graduating University of Southern California (USC) Cinema School in 1983, I wrote the script for “Prime Risk” in about 3 months. Of course, one thinks about the envisioned movie for longer, perhaps one year before actually hitting the word processor.
What was the budget and was it easy to raise the funds?
In 1982, the movie was produced for $825,000 (U.S.). My father and I put together a limited partnership document and raised the money from acquaintances and business leaders known to our family from within the Washington, D.C. area. About 15 partners in total.
Your script has ingenious plot elements as well as an ingenious lead character in Toni Hudson. There weren’t too many roles like that in the 1980s that I can think of… I guess you were aware of that!? Is Julie your idea of the perfect girlfriend?
I’ve always been intrigued by strong and smart female lead characters. So yeah, I guess you could say we “write what we know”, or at least “write what we want”. Considering I was un-attached before, during and after the making of the movie, this is a character I enjoyed “hanging” out with.
I hadn’t seen an ATM rip-off movie before nor really since. Did you have it in for the banks?
Not really. I just thought the perfect foil for most people is their bank. It’s a shared experience to be inconvenienced by their bank… long lines, reduced services, emotionless/uncaring tellers, the “pen on a chain” that’s out of ink, unfair lending practices. It’s a common “groan” for most of us.
I find Toni an extremely attractive girl in Prime Risk… How did you end up casting her?
Strange and scary story. We had initially cast another actress. James Reed, my associate producer (who was a USC acting graduate), thought she had the “it” factor to be a major star. When she showed up for the first day of film production (we were filming the making the ATM cards scene) it was apparent that the actress was hung over from being drunk. I’m serious! She must have been SO nervous the night before, she could barely stand up while filming. When my editor and I reviewed the dailies the next day, we made the painful decision to halt production and immediate recast. My producer Herman Grigsby called a notable casting director (Barbara Remsen) and we saw Toni Hudson along with 2 other actresses. Toni was cast on the spot and we continued filming with her the next day. So we went down on our second scheduled day of production and recast. It was the same day I also picked up Sam Bottoms as the sympathetic FBI agent.
She’s perhaps not a great actress like say Meryl Streep… but she has something beyond the looks. No-one else could really play the character. What do you think?
I was desperate and just very lucky to have found Toni!
Lee Montgomery is an experienced actor. He worked for Disney which means professionalism. How did he get cast? And was he a help to Toni throughout production?
Lee had been quite a successful child star and he was cast though a long open call process that my producers arranged. He was actually one of three actors I was considering. The others were actors we knew at USC during college. Those were Anthony Edwards, who went onto fame as “Goose” in Top Gun, and also a long TV run on “E.R.”. The other was Eric Stoltz, who did “Mask” a few years later. In retrospect, I wish I had picked Anthony Edwards, because I think Lee and Toni didn’t quite get along so beautifully off camera. They hung out separately off set. So even as a director, we make mistakes with our decisions. I think the film would have been better with Mr. Edwards and Toni Hudson.
Did you have Keenan Wynn in mind for the villain? He was always good at that and was very busy towards the end of his life… And was he well during production?
My first choice was Darren McGavin. We tried to negotiate with his agent, but I think our money offer was not as lucrative as doing “Night Stalker” for television, and then he was cast in “A Christmas Story”. Darren wanted to do the movie and work with me, but we didn’t have enough budget to pay him. So we made a deal for Keenan Wynn. Still cost the production $30,000 to have Keenan for 1 week. Funny story about Keenan. He shows up for the first day of production, which is the opening scene scanning ATM numbers from inside the tree maintenance van. Keenan had a bad hip and was using a cane. He couldn’t climb in or out the back of the van. I didn’t know this and his agent didn’t tell us he was limping badly! I wanted my money back and remembering saying they sold us “damaged goods”! If you notice in the opening scenes, Keenan never climbs into the van. He just opens or slams the back door and we cut away.
What I like about Prime Risk is that it is neither too horrific and nor does it have a terminal case of the cutes… Thus, its cult status to me. What sort of tone and audience were you aiming for?
That’s just my personal choice and style. I was enamoured with Steven Spielberg’s work at the time and wanted to capture adventure and childlike wonder the way he did with “Close Encounters”. I didn’t think the subject material warranted an “R” rating from the MPAA to reach its audience. Really, was shooting for a mass, general audience.
And yourself, if you haven’t already answered. How did you come to be such a good director on your first feature? Did you study formally?
Thank you very kindly. I studied undergraduate at the famed University of Southern California (USC) Cinema school in Los Angeles. Really, the top-rated film school in the country (and still is!). Home to George Lucas, Robert Zemeckis, Ron Howard, John Carpenter, Kevin Reynolds, John Singleton, Rian Johnson, Jon Chu, and on and on…
How was the effect of the notes falling from the sky continuously at the end of the movie achieved?
That was photographed by the aerial 2nd unit, who was shooting all the single engine airplane sequences flying above rural Virginia while I was working the principle unit. It entailed simply opening the window of the airplane at about 500 feet above the fixed camera position and dumping paper out the window. No CGI (ed. Wow! looks like CGI!). A practical effect that was luckily captured in one take. We dumped over rural forest land owned by a family friend, so we didn’t have to clean up after ourselves.
Did the film get a cinema release? Did you shop it at Cannes or anything?
The movie’s original U.S. distributer was Almi Pictures which opened the movie in Kansas City, Missouri with 20 prints. They just did the minimum required to get a video release which was with Vestron Video. I was personally displeased that the movie didn’t get a wider theatrical run, but in movie biz the movie’s producer still doesn’t have a lot to say about distribution. I personally wanted the movie released in Washington, D.C. to make our limited partnership financers happy, so my family personally worked to promote, and distribute the film in Washington, D.C. theatres. I remember my sister Donna calling local TV stations to arrange interviews with me, and my mother Rita sold tickets and put up posters. Later on, worldwide distribution was handled by Manson International, and domestic TV and syndication was handled by MGM.
Prime Risk is a cult movie to more than just me I hope! Do you get much feedback these days?
Not much, but thank you so much for your coverage. I’m very glad that the streaming world is able to provide a conduit for older movies to live on, and Prime Risk can be rented on Amazon Video and Apple iTunes.
And, finally, was it the movie you intended to make? Would you have changed anything?
Every movie takes on a life of its own since filmmaking is such a collaborative effort. There were also tight constraints due to the small budget. I wish I had spent more time on planning, storyboarding, and casting, but for the money and time I had, it was a hell of a success.
For an article about Prime Risk PRESS HERE.