Director Ian Barry on The Chain Reaction, Cult Movie Airtight and plenty more…

*contains spoilers and strong course language

Ian Barry (1946-) was born in Sydney. Growing up as a child, he was inspired through his Uncle Harold’s backyard cinema which seated fifty, to make movies. He describes his Uncle in retrospect as “the architect of my life”. Armed with an 8mm camera bought by his aunt, Barry started to make many short films. He worked for the ABC as an editor after graduating from the mailroom. His celebrated 16mm short film Waiting … for Lucas (1973) led him to befriend Sandy Harbutt and Barry worked on that director’s cult movie Stone (1974) as editor-on-set. The ensuing years saw Barry try to raise funding for a screenplay named The Sparks Obituary. He made a 1978 short film based on the script to help lure investment. In the meantime, he made The Chain Reaction (1980) which is a deserved cult classic. He was blacklisted due to budgetary issues over that movie but returned to make memorable Aussie tv movies such as Seventh Floor (1994), Blackwater Trail (1995) and mini-series Ring of Scorpio (1991). These led to international films such as Robo Warriors (1996) and further tv movies Inferno (1998) and another possible cult classic Airtight (1999) which was shot in Sydney. Barry continued to work on television until around 2018. Here I have blended an interview with Barry, along with excerpts from his unpublished diaries which he happily shared.

Director Ian Barry works at home

Where are you from originally?

Sydney.

 What interested you first in filmmaking?

Henry Fonda in Jesse James, a western directed by Henry King (1886-1982 in sleep) in 1939. The movie had that devastating Easy Rider end.  The hero gets it in the back and the curtain falls leaving the audience, namely me, shattered. Aged almost eight, I wandered out of the little cinema my uncle had built, shocked by the hero outlaw’s life and murder, to see my Uncle rewinding the nitrate print he’d borrowed from the local cinema. As I watched his bench light reflecting sparkling abstracts in the 35-mill film strip, a notion struck me; ‘if that stuff can make me feel this rush of emotions, I want to make it.’

Director Henry King

What can you tell me about your early career and your short films such as Waiting …For Lucas?

Diary Excerpt about Stone: “So, you’re the boy genius…” the bikie moll actress said to me. I was twenty-six and we were in the now extinct Fourth and Clyde saloon bar making a movie and I was never in a candy shop so good.… Movie making is like alchemy; the outcome, usually belies its’ ingredients. So much of the craft and manufacture of a movie is pure mystery. The complexity of writing a flawless and gripping screenplay, the use of light, the abstraction of performance and the wondrous variance of juxtaposition in the process of editing, makes a successful outcome almost miraculous. That actress in “Stone” had seen that I was a kid, obviously wet behind the ears, but entrusted with the movie’s editing ‘scissors,’ having had the good fortune to be buoyed upon the wave of a reborn movie industry that the Gorton government had launched only four years or so prior.

Conservative Prime Minister John Gorton initiated financial support for Aussie movies

An amateur, low budget piece called Waiting… For Lucas was my first completed foray into production. I’d half made two of my stories prior; a sci-fi eight-millimetre flick called “The Trudgants,” about a flight crew who survive crashing on a remote island and “The Hitch Hiker,” which ground to a halt with a Mother’s Day police arrest.

A young Bob Ellis

Diary Excerpt about The Hitch Hiker:  In planning my second 8-mill’ movie a year or so later (1964 – now professionally employed), I naively sought police permission to stage the arrest of a psycho killer at Central Railway in the heart of Sydney scheduled for early a.m., ‘Mother’s Day’ morning. My movie was called “Hitch Hiker” and the Desk Sarge’s considered advice to me was to “go back to all the rest of those pooftas at the ABC.” However, his blunt, homophobic rebuttal only fuelled my foolhardiness. I forged on and staged the scene that fateful Sunday; amateur actors in ill-fitting suits, wielding black painted water pistols were arrested mid shoot and ended up where the movie’s villain should’ve ended up… The late great writer, film reviewer and leftie commentator, Bob Ellis (1942-2016 liver cancer), wrote in the Nation Review that “Lucas” was “worth walking over fourteen miles of broken bottles” to see. Consequently, it played at the Sydney Film Maker’s CO-OP for three months and was subsequently blown up to 35mm and run at the Double Bay Village cinema and screened to the legendary ex-Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam. “Lucas” starred Diana McLean and Sandy Harbutt. At the premiere, Sandy gave it a standing ovation and declared it a “ball-tearer.”

Stone director Sandy Harbutt in recent years

Diary Excerpt about Stone: Ongoing friendship with Harbutt led to involvement on Stone, a ‘bike action’ pic that became a cult movie and Harbutt’s only foray into film-making. Stone was to be written, directed and to have Harbutt in one of the lead roles. The AFC, principal investor explained to Harbutt that his sole directing experience was in the field of TV commercials and they wanted the security of an experienced drama hand on set… Sandy astutely suggested an editor-on-set arrangement and the AFC were happy. Despite being a drama editor of only five-year’s experience, I knew what’d cut together, the main requirement of me on the movie, but I didn’t know lenses and production gear and politics. “Stone” was to give me a glimpse into all that and more… Sandy’s character, the head bikie in the ‘Grave Diggers’, was the hero of the piece. His nemesis, an undercover cop who tries unsuccessfully to infiltrate the gang, was played by Ken Shorter. Harbutt and Shorter had evolved under the tutelage of Hayes Gordon (1920-99 heart disease), Canadian God-father of the Ensemble Theatre which lives on. After Shorter starred in a TV series called You Can’t See Round Corners, he went to seek work in the U.K. Some time had elapsed before Shorter returned to honour the handshake deal he and Harbutt had about Shorter doing Stone. 

Was there a lot of drugs on the set of Stone?

Only dope… only marijuana.

No LSD?

No.

Cinematographer Graham Lind

Did you indulge?

Only involuntarily… If you remember the movie… The Gravediggers’ headquarters, it was a feudal medieval dungeon setting at a military emplacement. The scene where there’s a 360-degree pan that goes in and out of focus and there was a roomful of smoke from a reefer… That was quite interesting, the Director of Photography Graham Lind (1941-2001) … He worked for Ross Wood of Ross Wood Productions and Ross Wood (1916-80) had been the camera operator on Sons of Matthew (1949). Ross was a great worker of camera mechanics. He got something from an aerial bomber… he got these elements from out of the lenses and created this weird lens which had two elements and had handles on them and the focus puller on cue would wiggle the handles so you got this weird distortion and so we set up that particular scene. Sandy obviously liked reality in filmmaking and thought: Bugger it, we’ll roll some real joints… So, what happened was that gradually as the air grew hazier and filled with dope-infused smoke… all the crew were really stoned… I was, as I said, involuntarily stoned.

The blurred lens scene from Stone (1974)

Was Sandy Harbutt stoned for much of the movie or did he keep straight for the production?

I never recall him being stoned a lot, he was quite on the ball and lucid most of the time… although between Graham and myself, we talked about a bit of coverage… Yeah, that was a really funny part of the shoot as we went into those underground locations and I remember there was a call very early Friday. We were down there filming and we didn’t come out ‘til 10am Sunday morning… It was about 48 hours… occasionally we took a bit of a kip. Stone was a personal passion of Sandy’s and he was really infectious. I mean everyone was totally consumed by that movie, probably more than I’ve ever worked on films since.

Early Aussie film Sons of Matthew (1949)

What can you tell me about the two cuts of Stone that exist?

Here’s my recollection about the cuts. I was on set for the long shoot and usually the editor is cutting alongside the daily shooting… so, really, it’s only a short period after the shoot that the director sits down and sees the editor’s cut. But because I was editor-on-set, the rushes were just building up and building up but no-one was cutting. So, I think it was probably about four weeks after the end of the shoot I had the movie together. It ran quite long, it may have been two hours. So, I screened it to Sandy and I remember we looked at it on a cine in the cutting room and he said: Fucking, wow, man – that is a masterpiece. I love it. We don’t touch a frame… That is verbatim – we don’t touch a frame. That was my first cut. The first cut was mixed with a fully mixed soundtrack mixed at United Sound by Peter Fenton (1936-) … When I guess it was screened to the exhibitor, the people who saw it, the full cut… there was obviously a reaction that it was somewhat long… I remember now being at Atlab and cutting into the final mix which was not the ideal way to finish a picture. I’m not sure what it runs now, probably 95 minutes. So, that’s my recollection.

Would you have preferred the original cut?

No, I thought it was long as well.

How was Sandy in the editing room?

Enthusiastic. He and Ross Wood, the major private investor, fell out badly in post – a long and sad story.

Aussie legend Ross Wood

You worked on a documentary called Raffles (1979) and you made the short film The Sparks Obituary (1978) around the same time to raise money for a feature…

After Chain Reaction I was hired to make commercials in Singapore and while there, the head of the production company had the idea of a documentary on the Old Raffles Hotel. I wrote a tongue in cheek script with humour to reflect the eccentric history of the place. It was called “No Room at the Raffles”. Jon Noble (no info) the producer, tried to get John Cleese to do an on-camera presentation. Eventually we got Robert Morley (1908-92 stroke) who was doing a play in Melbourne – but that fell through when Morley was crippled with gout and had to return directly to England. We ended up with the late Noel Ferrier (1930-97 undisclosed).

Cinematographer Brian Probyn

Tell me about The Sparks Obituary …

The Sparks Obituary was shot in 1978. And here is a great little piece of information. It is probably the only movie ever shot with four Academy Award winning directors of photography. I rung up Russell Boyd (1944-) (ed. winner for Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, 2004) and he shot two days. Johnny Seale (1942-) (ed. winner for The English Patient 1996) shot the other two days. We used some film school facilities and they had Brian Probyn (1920-82) (ed. he didn’t win an Oscar but won an AFI award for The Mango Tree 1978) and then there was Andrew Lesnie (1956-2015 heart attack) (ed. Oscar for Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring 2001) …

Andrew Lesnie with his Oscar for Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

I would have loved to have seen the feature of that movie…

Here’s a story… I had close contact with David Elfick (1944-) over that short movie and David and George Miller (1945-) sat down and watched the movie and were blown away by the concept. And they had the idea of making a feature which I had written. David in the middle of talking about Sparks said to me: You know what? Do you have any other scripts? … My Chain Reaction script was originally called The Man at the Edge of the Freeway and I showed him that and he said: I could raise money for this quickly, how about we shoot that and turn our minds to Sparks… I said: Fine… and we did put that budget together in a matter of two or three weeks and so then we went to complete that movie… But, in the meantime, there was this guy from the States called Marshall Schacker (?-1987), he worked for Lorimar pictures… We had a meeting with him and he showed interest in Sparks. We gave him a copy of the short half hour movie and Marshall went back to the States and we got detoured into Chain Reaction… During the post-production of that movie, it comes out that Lorimar had got a picture in development called Brainstorm with Christopher Walken and if you remember that, it is pretty much the concept (of Sparks Obituary) … David said to me: I think we have grounds for a law suit… We didn’t sue.

A moment from Brainstorm (1983)
A scene from the ripped-off short film The Sparks Obituary

There are some beautifully composed shots in The Chain Reaction which probably ate up precious time to set up… and thus caused the film to run behind schedule… but they all add up to the movie being a cult item… if you did it today would you ride roughshod over those more intricate scenes for the sake of money?

Interesting question – When I shot The Chain Reaction I was pretty much fresh from the cutting room. I’d directed only once professionally before – a cinema short. So, I was somewhat slower than now – after directing hours and hours of TV drama, I’m pragmatic and pretty efficient with time – experience has taught me a technique to maximise my time for on screen benefit.

Ian Barry (right) directs Aussie tv show Sea Patrol

Back to the script of The Chain Reaction and someone said it was lying around in a drawer… Was it written before The China Syndrome was released?

Three Mile Island happed in 79, Windscale had happened almost 20 years earlier, The anti-nuclear movement was huge in the 70’s but it was mainly older age groups protesting… After a meeting with Dr Helen Caldicott (1938-) (ed. an Australian anti-nuclear activist), I thought I’d write a mainstream, matinee movie aimed at a youth market who seemed pretty blasé about nuclear radiation and waste storage. Silkwood was in early pre-production at the same time and with the same title; “Chain Reaction” – obviously two movies released at the same time with the same title would be a problem. I remember David my producer getting on the phone to LA about it. They didn’t come out ‘til much later and went with the more factual title “Silkwood”.

Silkwood (1983) trailer

The script seems to have been inspired by you and your wife coming across Glen Davis one drizzly day and a bit of The China Syndrome… maybe even George A. Romero’s The Crazies… What were the influences on the script?

The location came after the script. “China Syndrome” came out when we were in production and it wasn’t on the horizon a couple of years earlier when I was writing my screenplay. While I’m a fan of George A. Romero, I’ve never seen “The Crazies”

Was the acronym W.A.L.D.O inspired by A.N.S.T.O. (Australian Nuclear Science Technology Organisation)?

More or less – but it was more that I wanted the first mention of it in the movie to be possibly a name of someone… a mysterious ambiguity. And then the mystery is revealed as a clandestine organisation later.

ANSTO inspired the acronym WALDO in The Chain Reaction

Do you think that the second unit stunt work was pushing the envelope and racing against time in a way that could never be done again after the Midnite Spares (1983) accident and the ensuing regulation? It is kinetic and real but looks bloody dangerous…

With the action in The Chain Reaction we were stretching budget, schedule, stunt facilities, everything. We were, by today’s standards and even then, ‘shoestring.’ The tragic death of focus puller David Brostoff later, changed industry safety standards totally. (ed. Brostoff worked as ‘additional photographer’ on The Chain Reaction).

Diary Excerpt about The Chain Reaction: Early in the shoot, it became clear that the schedule issues exacerbated by the earlier AFC ordained budget cuts were driving us into the ground. We had to create a splinter crew and allocate some shots and short sequences to it. David was firsting a few shots involving the antagonist passing a jack-knifed Kenworth truck on a winding mountain dirt road. George (Miller) was directing and didn’t have radio contact. He sent Davey Bracks (1949-) in our antagonist’s limo’ after the semi-truck, not knowing that the semi was in the arduous process of trying to U-turn and position for the scene. Bracks, our stuntie, ran into and under the truck. It was a miracle no one got killed or injured. The antagonist’s car, yet to be captured in a single movie moment, was a write-off. The seriously stretched budget couldn’t run to a replacement. It was a major set-back. Dave, the mechanic genius we’d recruited from “Mad Max 1” was called in. He strolled around the wreckage, brow furrowed, grim and brooding and then declared, “give me five days with it.” When Dave the mechanic returned the LTD Limo to us, he confessed he “had to weld all the doors shut.” The only way to get into the vehicle was climb through a window. I hadn’t yet used the car on main unit, so there wasn’t one frame where anybody got in or out of the car. Whenever Ralph (the antagonist) would approach his car, you would always have to cut away – to a ‘seagull’ or something… anything. When you’d cut back, Ralph would be settling behind the wheel. So many mishaps occurred that gradually the legend of the valley being cursed became accepted as a chronic production factor. The legend went that the Reverend Samuel Marsden (1765-1838 an incipient chill) was granted land there by the then Governor and Marsden, a cruel man, ran a sort of Abu Ghraib type of place (ed. it was a prison during the Iraq War where atrocities were perpetrated by the US army and the CIA) and victimised the local indigenous people. In the end he exterminated the valley tribe through systematic killing. The valley, we were told had been burdened by a dark curse ever since.

Alleged mastermind of Aboriginal massacres Samuel Marsden

The Chain Reaction is a ground-breaking Aussie genre movie. I saw it as a thirteen-year-old in Adelaide with a couple of mates on a Saturday afternoon at Hoyts. The cinema was full, which was rare for an Aussie movie… It hit bullseye for me. You obviously have a love for the genre… Who were your directorial influences and which movies in that regard?

John Carpenter and his Escape from New York, De Palma, Cronenberg, William Friedkin and of course Romero for my genre influences. I was lucky enough to be also greatly influenced by Sidney Lumet, Coppola, Frankenheimer, Nick Roeg, Alan Parker and Lean, of course, who was an ex film editor….

Director John Carpenter was an influence on Ian Barry

You didn’t work in features for a number of years following The Chain Reaction. Was it a case of projects not coming to fruition? Was there blackballing for not coming in on budget? Or was it a personal choice?

How did you hear about the blacklisting?

I was only guessing about your blacklisting. I thought how could such a great talent go unused for so long? …

That’s a very good guess Jason… What happened was that Chain Reaction was to have a budget of $630,000 a year and a half before we shot it… When we got it up with the Australian Film Commission and a few banks whatever… We thought the budget was $630,000 at that stage. Only two weeks before we began to shoot, the AFC rang David and said: We have to reconsider The Man at the Edge of the Freeway and we believe it to be a non-cinema feature – it’s a telemovie…. They then went on to say: We’re reducing our investment and by virtually half… and that reduced the budget to $450,000. I said to David: That requires a rewrite… And we put that to John Danville at the AFC and he said: No… So, David and I had a moment of truth meeting and he said: What do you reckon?… And I still remember saying: You know what? Let’s go out and begin shooting. They’ll love the rushes and they’ll reconsider their investment… Well they didn’t and we shot the movie. So, guess what? It came in at about $650,000. So, it went $180,000 over the reduced budget. And at that time in the late 1970s, every movie that the government subsidised would go over budget…. So, they were very understandably sick of this situation… so when we went over, they said: There’s the line in the sand. You are going to be penalised… and this happens in the form that you David and you Ian will be stripped of all equity… So, David and I don’t own any of the picture.

Latin poster for The Chain Reaction (1980)

But the other thing that happened was that my phone stopped ringing… You see what happened was a local production company had seen Chain Reaction and they were impressed by it… So, I get offered my first commercial in Sydney and then it led to more commercials… but the whole chapter, it didn’t occur to me that no-one, no producer had called me out to make a movie and it was only probably a year or so into that period of three years, a guy came to my door and I had never met him before, but he had a screenplay and I think he had gone to Brian Trenchard-Smith (1946-) and Brian was back in L.A. and he said: You should talk to Ian Barry… And so this guy had this movie and he went to the AFC and he told them: I want to use you or approach you to direct this… And they said to him: Forget about that – you won’t get a completion guarantee on it… Then he told me that and I realised I’d been blacklisted… No phone call telling me to retrain as a refrigerator mechanic or something. So, I rang up the representatives in America of Film Finances Inc. (ed. the world leader in completion guarantee contracts) and I told (the representative there) about my version of how Chain Reaction went over. Immediately, she made a few phone calls and shortly after I got a call.

Actor Ralph Cotterill gets held-up in The Chain Reaction (1980)

Diary Excerpt about The Chain Reaction blacklisting: My first movie… I’d written and directed, was the first Australian movie to sell pre-released to an American Major. It sold at Cannes to Warner Brothers for over eighty five percent of its budget, was released globally and had a second re-release domestically and yet “creative accounting” still maintains ‘Chain Reaction’ is yet to break even. As a consequence of a punitive show trial staged by the AFC to make us (Producer Elfick and IB debut director) an example to an industry that had begun to consider budget overruns, especially in the art department, the norm… we were stripped of our equity and I was blacklisted.

Who’s your favourite character from The Chain Reaction? There are so many to choose from…

I have a fondness for… I loved what Bisley could do with Larry but I do love Richard Moir’s portrayal of Athol Piggott. You know…

He even walked the part…

He sure does. And one day … Richard was brilliant, amazing… a very private person even when you are working with him… There’s a line when Larry takes off in his car with Athol and Larry floors it and, of course, Athol goes white and pulls his gun and says: Do you want a spare head in that hole of yours? …And that was Richard… It was scripted with the usual ‘hole in the head’ and out of the blue on take one he did that. He was always adding little bonuses. Richard is a comic genius who is unfazed today despite suffering severe Parkinson’s.

Brooke Shields in Seventh Floor (1994)

Let’s jump forward to Seventh Floor… I think Seventh Floor is a good movie and the artificial intelligence aspect is ahead of its time… it’s even kind of personal in the end like the movie Her (2013). Do you have any memories of that production?

Diary Excerpt about Seventh Floor: I’m on set, shooting Brooke Shields in bed. It’s a bad day. I have a ridiculously impossible call sheet. Props disintegrate in actor’s hands and Special Effects have been tricky and time consuming. The location, an old wool bond store in the Sydney docklands, is noisy and Sound is demanding many retakes. We are at least an hour down. Under such pressure you can fail to smell the proximity of big money. In the design of Brooke’s bedroom set we ‘d taken advantage of a wool bale loading shaft and used the opening in the floor above as a sky light, scrimmed it for lighting effects and rolled the scrim aside for top angles of Brooke stretched out in bed. It was early afternoon with the scrim (ed. a scrim is a piece of gauze used to diffuse light) rolled aside and a shitload of time pressure mounting.  A lot of directors say their job’s the loneliest on set. It’s because you’re where the buck usually stops. If rushes are mediocre, the coverage (shots required) is lacking, naturally and understandably, the director is rightly in the cross hairs. My A.D. had just got through with recounting a litany of fuck ups which he sugar-coated in a plethora of excuses.  As a postscript, the office had rung to say, “Friday was a no O.T. day.” … My angry retort was, “so, speed up the lighting, get me the right props, get the actors out of make-up before they’re too old to play the part…” At that moment I gazed upward in my frustration only to be dazzled by a giant 24-carat Rolex on a sun tanned wrist that was shot out of the cuff of a three thousand dollar Armani on an uninvited guest who was being given a chair at the lip of the overhead skylight to look down upon me like I was Christian meat at the Colosseum…

Another shot of Brooke in Seventh Floor (1994)

So, I concluded my frustrated tirade to my first with; “And… and get that fucker off my set,” indicating with an upward gesture aimed at Mr. Armani. I notice a micro second later, the guest discreetly removed. Seventeen hours later, after finishing a Saturday morning set of tennis, I realise not only had I evicted one of the youngest billionaires on the planet, but a simple act of cordial hospitality on my part, could’ve advantageously indebted him to me. Still dripping tennis sweat and clutching a post-match beer, my opponent (Richard Moir) relaxes back in his deck chair and opens a hard cover edition of “Awaken the Giant Within” and I see the author’s back cover portrait is the same lantern jawed, salon tanned face, that beamed his pearly whites down at me on set the day before! “That’s him! That’s the guy! The guy I threw off my set yesterday!” …My tennis opponent is shocked; “You kicked Anthony Robbins off your set?” Okay, so Brooke’s best friend is worth four billion and has a hangar full of Jet Rangers and Ferraris, it’s the principle; even if it did cost me an entry into an inexhaustible source of wealth driven by a dynamic young financing philanthropist.

Billionaire Anthony Robbins

Then of course, on that same show, was the dinner at Beppi’s with the Yakuza. Okay, granted their movie investment would’ve been ‘black’ and possibly unlikely, but I had it on good advice that the old Hollywood company, Lorimar made movies on black money for years. Why not me? I’d been discreetly informed that the star of our movie, Brooke Shields was a highly regarded fantasy of Japanese men of a certain age. Some of them were possibly financiers of our movie and I was informed they’d booked flights specifically to dine in person with Brooke. And apparently it had been an inducement to secure the Japanese investment for our movie. The private, wine rack lined function room at Beppi’s had been booked and the gang of eight had landed … That afternoon Brooke pulled me aside to share a private dilemma: “I don’t know what to do. John (producer) has been very keen to ensure I’m there. But, see… I’ve got front row tickets to Paul Simon and I’m meeting him later backstage.”… “Wow, Brooke, an opportunity of a life-time,” I said with genuine glee and a perverse motive to derail this obviously grubby event. The producers and I attended the Brooke-less Yakuza dinner and detailed to the bevy of Tokyo underworld, the fickle and whimsical ways of Hollywood starlets such as young Brooke.

Advertisement for Blackwater Trail (1995)

You followed this with another strong tv feature Blackwater Trail… Like The Chain Reaction it has a strong Aussie ensemble and it was released the same year as Seven (1995) … You seem to have found your mojo again with that one… What do you remember about that film and working with Judd Nelson?

Diary excerpt about Blackwater Trail: Blackwater Trail was a cliché driven piece; a murder mystery with a serial killer taunting police by leaving a clue trail of biblical quotes. The producers needed a ‘name’ import to secure the British investment, and Judd Nelson (The Breakfast Club) was cast. Dee Smart, Peter Phelps, Mark Lee and Danny Roberts followed. Undaunted by the date, January Friday the 13th (1995), we started to shoot ‘Blackwater’ with priest Bret Climo and Dee Smart in a cat-and-mouse suspense sequence. Following wrap on Day One, I get a phone call from producer Chris Brown; “the (U.K.) network are on a plane. They want to rewrite the dialogue.” I hang up and ponder a common network propensity for throwing spanners into the wheels of production. Why they consistently wait until a production starts shooting to tinker with the script, can only be a power play ploy… Then, late one night after rushes, Jamie my first answered a phone call. “Phelpsie, for you” and when Jamie hands me the phone, I immediately hear the din from some night venue and a voice raised to make its point; “Hey man, you’re a director. You’re always saying ‘trust me,’ so I’m saying trust ME.” … It’s Phelpsie on the eve of shooting his character’s long, ranting Mea culpa, finale scene, having been unmasked as the movie’s killer. Pete goes on to warn me that, “I won’t be saying those words, tomorrow.” …  I’m weighing the unpredictable consequences of what he’s saying… “Okaaay, so what will you be saying?” … There’s laughter and raised conversation behind Peter’s voice so, his answer is distorted and incoherent… “Can you repeat that?” I said. … “I’d be doing something, but not that…” … “Y’know, Pete, it’d help me do my job if I knew what.” … “You’ll see, that’s what I’m saying.” Years later, unequipped with verbatim memory, that was the gist of it. I was ‘smelling’ the odour of ‘Judd’ behind the call and the following day my suspicions were borne out. Pete’s Mea culpa was set in the visually impressive bowels of a sugar cane processing plant. There was a maze of tangled pipes and dark nooks and crannies.  And in the gloom, meeting face to face, Judd appeared with a knowing smirk – implying ‘hey, did you like last night’s gag?’ But as it transpired, when the slate went up and I called ‘action’ Pete delivered the monologue word for scripted word…

Judd Nelson (right) in Blackwater Trail (1995)

Do you know the budget and the length of the shoots for Seventh Floor and Blackwater Trail?

Both between 2.5 and 3 mill. They were made for tv. Both shot in 25 days.

Then came Robo Warriors… Had you seen, or were you a fan of, Robot Jox (1989) and Robot Wars (1993)?… There’s a credit for Stuart Gordon for the original characters.

On Robo Warriors? Don’t believe so. Never met Stuart or saw “Jox” I was aware of “Fortress” being made on the Gold Coast. I think Timmy Welburn (1939-) cut it – he’d cut Chain Reaction, Blackwater, Seventh Floor and Ring of Scorpio which I was shooting same time as Fortress.

The cock-pit rig used in Robo Warriors (1996) near Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines

Were there any problems shooting the movie in the Philippines? It looked fun to make…

Diary Excerpt about Robo Warriors: I lived in LA for 8 years. The week I arrived, Viacom sent me a script; an alien world, action, chases and war between two giant robotic machines. The strange thing, was that I thought the Producer said on the phone the budget was three… as in ‘million.’ Viacom’s answer to my subsequent “financial query” was, “think ‘Star Wars’ on a shoestring” and that meant going to Asia. Sri Lanka was out because of a violent resurgence of the feuding Sikhs & Tamils. “Robo Warriors” added a new dimension to Murphy’s Law; everything that could go wrong DID go wrong. From bribes, standover threats, feuding film family fisticuffs on set, to you name it. Everything was by the seat of the pants.  During preproduction and the shoot, I never saw one set floor plan or a dimension; only beautifully drawn illustrations, artists impressions of what the art department would like to build, but can’t afford to. Senega, My Designer’s conceptual artist, would have been great drawing for Heavy Metal. He saw everything through a fish eye lens. The only problem was that Senega would give me a sketch of a vast cathedral and the construction department would give me a confessional booth.

Robot Jox (1989) trailer

And to look at a couple of your tv movies – Inferno is good, cheap science fiction fun. You filmed it in the United States… How did you get involved with that one?

The Producer, Paul Mason (1960-) on Robo Warriors was ecstatic about the end result and called me up, asking if I’d do it.

You worked with James Remar a couple of times. He has real screen presence but he’s usually the bad guy… I thought he helped make Inferno and Robo Warriors memorable… Did you have a hand in his casting? Or was it a coincidence you worked together twice?

No, I liked James in 48 Hours and I thought he was ideal for a burnt out Robo-fighter who reluctantly makes a comeback – I liked working with him so much, I got him in for Inferno.

A kind of timeless scene from Brazil (1985)

Finally, to look at Airtight which you reportedly wrote, produced and directed… it has a timeless quality to its production design… almost Terry Gilliam’s Brazil (1985) without the budget. What were you aiming for?

Wow, you got it; Brazil on three million USD. Viacom didn’t know I’d written screenplays. I didn’t tout that in LA, too many young, hip writers. But a colleague found out I had all these spec scripts and set up a meeting with Perry Simon CEO of Viacom Productions. It was a Friday arvo and Perry said what have you got? I sent over a copy of “Smoke City” and by ten a.m. following Monday I had 3 mill USD – ON MY proviso that I could use the exchange rate and shoot in Australia… I came up with the new title “Airtight” because the yanks thought “Smoke” had bad connotations.

A scene from the very cheap Airtight (1999) which also has a timeless quality

It works better with repeated viewings… and Andrew McFarlane has a nice view from his office!… It’s all very tongue in cheek…

Very – My composer, Roger Mason called it ‘camp sci fi’ – it was always planned to be crazy comic strip – I had the perfect Designer in Tim Ferrier (1962-).

Was that script lying around for a long time? And did you have the locations in mind when you wrote it?

Airtight is why I believe a script is never dead, especially in LA, I’d been hawking that script around in Australia since 1982 when I wrote it – In L.A. I’d raised the money in 48 hrs on an eighteen-year-old script.

And did you have to build that main air shaft? It was shot in Sydney?

We did. We shot 90 percent of that movie in the old Wide Bay Powerhouse which is abandoned now. But it had a hugely high roof and Tim Ferrier (1962-) put together really only one vertical and one horizontal shaft.

No malfunctions?

No, it worked like a dream… obviously we had safety. As you know, pre-Midnite Spares (ed. the 1983 movie where a focus puller was killed when hit by a car) there was a fair amount of freedom about what you could do. Now the highest paid guy on a film set is the safety officer. He has total authority. He played it by the book and it was completely accident free.

Can you tell me the budget and the length of the shoot for Airtight?

Budget 3 mill U.S. I think that was another 25-day shoot. Maybe a little under.

David Puttnam and Alan Parker at Cannes in the 1980s

People sometimes used to judge television as an inferior medium but this has long since changed in today’s world of Netflix… Were you happier working in that medium in the end, as opposed to feature filmmaking? You had come a long way since painstakingly making The Chain Reaction on a tight budget… I guess it all comes down to a regular pay check!

My career has had a lot of hired gun assignments. As mentioned in my “7th Floor” anecdote; raising money was not my forte – I spent 5 years trying to raise the budget for ‘Sparks’ the first screenplay I wrote. That had David Puttnam (1941-) backing it, the AFC investing in it and the British actor, Edward Woodward (1930-2009 pneumonia) cast in the lead and yet I just couldn’t get the end money.  So… Yes, the pay-check played a part in choosing a lot of projects. That said, after the politics of “Chain Reaction,” I found the scale of shows I worked on were free of that and creative freedom was mine. Television is great; it’s so fast and the pressure is such that your first decision is your only one and you better be within the vicinity of right – I like that.

Director Ian Barry should not be forgotten…

You worked with a couple of Hollywood legends such as Debbie Reynolds on The Christmas Wish (tv movie 1998) and Jason Robards Jr. on Going Home (tv movie 2000). Pure professionals? Any anecdotes?

Pure, pure professionals and a joy to work with. Both in their 70’s when we worked and they still absolutely loved the process. Both always word perfect and you never had to cut because either blew something. Debbie loved crew – she once said to me that if she was off set, she was probably swapping blue jokes with the grips at the back of the grip truck. Despite hundred-degree Fahrenheit conditions in a Pasadena summer, Jason would never hide out in his air-conditioned Winnebago. Even when the DP was lighting and the set was being re-rigged, Jas’ would stand there by me telling anecdotes about “Sergio and Betty” (Lauren Bacall) and his stellar career – this is a man who’d been in Pasadena General Hospital only days before with adhesions from a recent surgery – the man, what a consummate trooper.

Thanks…

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