As I say each time, I am sincerely delighted that interviews are something I have finally made a regular part of this little blog of mine! When the opportunity presents itself to ask a few questions to someone who contributed to the awesomeness of the 80s, I will continue to share those answers with you right here. Again, lucky for me (and hopefully you), I do get to share a little more awesomeness with you.
This time that awesomeness is Martha Coolidge. She is probably best known to 80s fans as the director of Valley Girl (1983) and Real Genius (1985). She was a trailblazer by becoming a female director of feature films at a time when that was almost unheard of. Not only did she help make those two 80s favorites, but she has gone on to an extremely accomplished and award-winning career as a director highlighted by a term as president of the Directors’ Guild of America, such films as Rambling Rose (1991) and Introducing Dorothy Dandridge (1999) among many others and most recently on the popular television series CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. We like to focus on the 80s here and, to me and many others, it doesn’t get much better than Valley Girl and Real Genius. You are certainly in for a treat in that regard as we get on to some selections from my interview with Martha Coolidge…
Q: I read that you were a professional singer and stage actor at one point in time. When and how did you discover that you first wanted to be a filmmaker? How did that opportunity come your way to do so?
Martha: When I was very young, my father had a hobby of making 8mm movies and using us kids as the actors. He edited them with a little set of rewinds at home. After he died when I was nine and the oldest of the three siblings, I became the “director”. I assigned all the parts and actions to each character and played the lead. Even though without a camera, I was still the director. This came naturally to me. Not that much later, also emulating my father who sang in a madrigal group, I began singing seriously first in church choirs (and we didn’t go to church), in school groups and finally as a solo singer with a guitar. By the time I was fifteen, I was singing in coffee houses in New Haven and at Hootenannies. I loved it and kept that up while joining the school theater groups and starting to perform. By senior year of high school, my natural discomfort acting on stage gave way to me trying out directing off stage and I found my calling. By this time, my slightly older friends, all lovers of foreign movies and American Independent films, (we had a great local art house plus got the big spectacle films first run) became enthralled with “filmmaking”. I thought they were all crazy as it seemed so competitive. I went to RISD [Rhode Island School of Design] and in my first year came across a two-dimensional design teacher, Hardu Keck, who was in love with movies. So in class we made them: visually oriented, abstract and short but I got hooked. I continued to sing in clubs and Frat parties at Brown [University] and to perform as an actress in School plays, but by my second year I was a hard chore Avant-garde filmmaker. I became the first RISD film major by doing it as independent study within the Illustration Department, and I still dropped out before my senior year to take my films to New York and pursue my dream.
Long story short, I loved story and actors. I ended up as a special student at Columbia Grad Film School where I started working with scripts and actors, then applied to NYU Graduate Film School. Though I was told I “couldn’t be a woman director because there weren’t any,” they accepted me. I took a year off to go work in TV and film in Canada and then returned to NYU where I earned my Masters Degree and worked on-and-off in commercials. At NYU, I started making documentaries due to lack of money and issues with the screenwriting teacher. There was a great respect for documentaries at that time and I had stories I wanted to tell that way. Later, when I was already a working filmmaker in New York, I completed my last year at RISD and got my BA.
By that time, I was aware of how impossible it was for women in Hollywood, so I stayed in New York like other women filmmakers of the time and made films independently. I moved into narrative filmmaking after having started the AIVF [Association of Independent Video and Filmmakers] and helping start the IFP [Independent Feature Project] and finally decided to go to Hollywood. It was a long road and that wasn’t the end of it. It took years more but that is how I got to theatrical filmmaking from being a printmaker at RISD.
Q: You are often referred to as an “Actor’s Director,” so what do you feel you particularly do that gets you that recognition?
Martha: I believe that the consistently good performances that actors give in my films is the reason I’m called an “Actor’s Director”. I certainly made it my business to learn everything I could about all the techniques of acting and I haven’t stopped. I always afford the actors a comfortable and creative working environment. And I present their best performances in editing and never let them look bad. But I consider this a normal part of a director’s job description. Perhaps the title is more about the fact that some directors aren’t as performance oriented as I am.
Ultimately being a good director is a unique combination of male and female qualities: You are a four star General, an inspirational leader and strategist as well as the most nurturing mother in the world. All good directors, men and women, have both these sides very well developed. We have to have a vision but we also must be good communicators to show people our vision and give them the confidence that we know what we are doing. We are mom and dad, boss and confidant and both men and women can be good at all aspects of directing, but not many have it all in spades.
Q: You have directed a lot of comedies, especially earlier in your career. Was this by choice or simply a case of where the best opportunities existed?
Martha: It’s the big canvas pictures that made me want to direct film and, I guess when all is said and done and as happy and thankful as I am for my career, that part – that I haven’t done pictures like that – is disappointing and something I still strive to do.
Comedy turned out to be something I had a knack for. I’m not a laugh riot as a person (unless you get me in a room with dry New Englanders) and I was never the class clown but I have an eye for funny: People, ideas, ironic situations, odd coincidences and characters and being able to direct comedy and different kinds of comedy has brought me great joy, and success.
Martha received what was to be her big break when she directed her first feature, Valley Girl. It was released in April of 1983 and would end up a huge success while also helping to launch the career of Nicolas Cage. The film is about a girl from the valley (played by Deborah Foreman) who meets a punk from the city (played by Cage). They are from different worlds and find love. Somehow she must decide whether her individuality and the boy she loves or the approval of her trendy, shallow friends is more important to her. Valley Girl is simply adored by many (especially girls) who grew up in the 80s and also happens to include an outstanding soundtrack. Here is the original trailer for Valley Girl…
Q: How did the opportunity to direct Valley Girl come your way? What (if any) preparation did you do on the subject matter before beginning production? How familiar were you with that lifestyle and manner of speaking?
Martha: Well, the irony about teen films is, though this is a youth oriented business, the filmmakers are never really teens so we are never really of that generation – if the film is contemporary. But I was uniquely prepared. I had just spent several years in the Rock n Roll clubs of Hollywood, New York and San Francisco while working on my film for Zoetrope so I really knew the new music scene. I knew the un-hip image the Valley had for both Hollywood dudes and movie people. When I was given the script by my friend, writer/producer Andrew Lane, I was pleased to see how instantaneously I “got” what the Hollywood “tribe” would be like, the dichotomy between them and the hippy parents and the label crazed Valley Girls. I also understood that the story was a funny take off on Romeo and Juliet. I helped Andy and Wayne [Crawford] craft the final script into a tight love story about romance, peer pressure and conformity vs. individuality.
I had always believed that our teenage years are the most dramatic (operatic) in our lives, so the drama was easy for me to understand. As for the “Val speak,” I didn’t know it (or surf jargon from whence it came) but I knew to research what was real. The cast and I went to visit, hang out and even work in Valley high schools and we did find out what was real and what was fabricated – like Moon Zappa’s elaboration “gag me with a spoon.” The real phrase is simply “gag me.” So we never used the phrase from her song. I hired Sean Frye, a teenaged son of a movie Costume Designer, to create the punk Hollywood look – which was therefore authentic at the same time as original. All the music was from the scene I had gotten to know so well. I selected each song along with my great music supervisor, Michael Papale.
Q: Was the film always intended to be a love story? Are the Romeo and Juliet references/story line similarities intentional?
Martha: Even in the original script, the characters’ names were Julie and Randy – yes, it was intentional and it was a love story. So I worked to bring it even more out front. I created a Valley look and sound (and values) and a Hollywood look and sound (and values). This heightened the stakes for Randy and Julie just as the differences between the families did in Romeo and Juliet. The parallels were always meant to be fun and not super serious, but were based on truthful observations about the local conflicts and real teen pressures. It’s not about marriage, but about love and growing up and differentiating enough to love.
Q: The characters were so compelling and that all starts with Nicolas Cage as “Randy”. I read that you both had to convince Cage that the film was right for him and the producers that he was the right guy for the part. What did you see in Cage that made you feel this relative unknown should be the star of your film? You must be proud of the success he has gone on to have since then.
Martha: Yes, I’m proud of him and very happy for the lucky sequence of events that led me to him. In his first audition/interview, it was obvious to me that he was perfect for Randy. He was shy and the producers weren’t convinced that he had the looks to be a teen heart throb – but it was clear to me that he was fascinating, manly, boyish, funny and very talented. He was also sexy and attractive in a totally goofy way. The way that makes you want to take an actor home and take care of them. He came back in for the callback with Deborah [Foreman] and clinched the part. When I asked him to come back in I told him I was “going to make him a star.” I don’t know why I chose those words, but I did. Since then he has said, “It’s all my (Martha’s) fault!” Ha, ha. I did have to do some convincing with him as well since he was worried our shoot would interfere with his reshoots on Coppola’s Rumble Fish in which he had a small part. I told him that “Francis was like family to me” and that I’d take care of that! I didn’t know until I called Zoetrope that Nick’s real name was Coppola!
Q: How was the experience of working with the young Nicolas Cage? I read that Cage’s process included living in his car during filming to make his character more real.
Martha: During the making of the film, I did find out he was living in his car. I remember chastising him about the danger of living in his car in Hollywood and how we couldn’t call him. He said he’d use pay phones. (We didn’t have cell phones then!) He was living in his car to get into the character. He was 18 years old! Later, during Birdy, he lived with bandages around his head, which made it difficult for him to eat – so maybe we were lucky.
What was especially wonderful about the way Nick worked is he would come in with so many ideas for his character and different things to try. Yet he didn’t hang on to them if they didn’t work. He was tremendously inventive.
Q: Tell us about your choice to cast Deborah Foreman as “Julie”? After this performance, I have always been surprised that she did not go on to become more of a superstar actress.
Martha: Deborah was such a perfect Julie, and a talented girl. She had a body of work and did go on to star in some indie features. She made an appearance in my film Real Genius and then later got married. The last time I saw her at a big Film Festival Valley Girl reunion, she looked almost the same!
Q: I know you have explained this many times before, but why is Deborah Foreman’s character not featured on the movie poster?
Martha: The poster story is unusual. Deborah had worked in the business and she was pretty strict about being paid. When the company needed the actors to be “generous with them” about hours or rules, Deborah was not as forgiving as some of the others. When the poster came up for whatever reason (and it may have been simply that she wanted to be paid) the company brought in a model rather than Deborah. I was shocked and thought it was petty and a really bad idea. But there was nothing I could do about it. The funny thing is it happened again on the Special Edition DVD – Nick and I came in to do interviews for free but Deborah didn’t.
Q: Did you expect the film to have the incredibly positive reception that it ultimately did? It has grown even more into a cult classic, but still had a strong opening and domestic gross in theaters as well. What changed for you personally after the success of Valley Girl? Were you prepared for the opportunities it would create?
Martha: When I read Andy and Wayne’s script, I knew that this was an incredible opportunity. I’d had what I had thought were going to be much bigger breaks – working on two different films that I was going to direct for Coppola and Zoetrope (which were cancelled) – several development deals with studios that ultimately were abandoned, and directing an indie feature in Toronto that went belly-up part way through. But when I got to this little, modest love story, I knew I could make something really great out of it and that it would/could change my life. I was paid $5000 which meant I had to borrow money from my mother (embarrassing at the age of 34!) and live through the year in my friend, cartoonist designer, Ron Cobb’s garage. But I knew it would be worth it. Even so, you can’t really know how much it’s going to change your life and what is going to happen. I was more prepared than most and had already had more disappointments than some, so I jumped at the opportunity and took the kudos when they came gracefully.
All the studios were interested in the finished film, several made bids for it and, when Atlantic decided to release the film themselves, Paramount came after me signing me to a four or five picture deal including giving me a suite of offices on the lot with an experienced secretary who could have been my mother. I was told the offices had been Stallone’s and I remember the desk area was raised above the floor on a platform. My secretary and I took up two rooms and the rest of the offices remained empty. I didn’t really know how to make the most of the opportunity given to me at the time and, as exciting as it was to be hot, all they offered me were teen comedies, one raunchier than the last. So I turned them down one after the other. Other offers came but I had signed an exclusive deal with Paramount (not so smart) so I couldn’t take outside films. After I made Joy of Sex for them, a pretty bad experience, MGM bought me out of my Paramount deal and I moved over to the Culver City lot. I have wished since then that I had been better prepared to make the most out of my opportunity, and swore I’d be more prepared if I got another chance.
Q: Speaking of 1984’s National Lampoon’s Joy of Sex, I read that you were let go from that film for differences regarding gratuitous nudity. How did that go down?
Martha: Paramount insisted on topless girls running down the hall because they thought the formula demanded it and it was totally gratuitous. I hated putting them in for no reason and argued against it. But when the film was previewed the audience, particularly young women and girls, hated the nudity so Paramount then asked me to cut as much of it out as I could! They had thought they were going to get a Porky’s but the script was more from a girl’s point of view (as was Valley Girl). It was actually a romance and certainly the women writers and I weren’t the people to get a Porky’s from. The movie wasn’t what the execs thought it would be, they freaked, took me off the movie, cut it down and tried to make the humor broader which made it more disjointed.
The entire budget was miniscule and the music was given only $20,000! For comparison the Valley Girl sound track (not including score) cost $150,000. The whole Joy of Sex experience was pretty miserable. We were under constant pressure and scrutiny to do the impossible, we had eight days of prep, 20 days to shoot and my A.D. quit because he was so angry. I learned that I can’t always save the day or be a hero and you have to protect yourself at all times. I did find some very talented actors though!
Q: I also read that there was requirement for Valley Girl that there be naked breasts in at least a certain number of scenes during the film. Is that true? It seemed to be especially important in the 80s as the Porky’s formula was being imitated.
Martha: On Valley Girl, the execs made me promise to put at least four scenes with naked breasts in the film. I guess they put it that way because they felt awkward and wanted to be specific. I told them I had no problem as long as I could do it so it made sense. They said they didn’t care how it was done, they “just wanted to see them.” We shook hands on it. They considered the film an “exploitation genre film” meant for guys. The real success happened when we showed them the finished film. They jumped up and gasped, “It’s a REAL movie!” They no longer obsessed about how many times they saw naked breasts in the film (which was barely three and one frame of a fourth). Andy, Wayne and I made a movie we could be proud of. When the studio saw it, they knew it was better to have a good, real film than a mediocre exploitation film. It put them on the map.
I have never made it a secret that I am a big fan of the film Real Genius which was also directed by Martha Coolidge. It was released in August of 1985 and again was relatively successful and again helped launch the career of another young actor. Val Kilmer plays genius “Chris Knight,” a senior who is paired with “Mitch Taylor,” a boy genius going off to college at just the age of 15, to head a team developing a laser for what they believe is a class project. When they find out that their professor intends to turn their work over to the government for use as a weapon, they decide to ruin his plans and “Chris” also teaches “Mitch” that there is more to life than work. I like the review by movie critic Salem Alaton when he wrote, “Producer Brian Grazer craved a feel-good picture, and she [Martha Coolidge] turned in the summer’s best, and she didn’t cheat to do it. There’s heart in the kookiness. Real Genius has real people, real comedy and real fun.” Here is the trailer for Real Genius…
Q: How did the opportunity to direct Real Genius come your way?
Martha: Brian Grazer, to his great credit, loved the humor and sensibility of Valley Girl. He came after me and never questioned my gender. I turned it down twice before I accepted it because, even though it was funny, it had a lot of penis and scatological jokes. It felt like the Paramount teen comedies I’d passed on before. But after a Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel polish I reread it, liked it and saw some great potential in the story. My meeting with Brian cemented my decision. He exclaimed with infectious exuberance, “Making a movie should be fun!” And I so much wanted to work with good people and have fun! It was. Brian was supportive, great to be around and knowledgeable about comedy and film production.
Q: I read that you spent months researching laser technology, policies of the CIA and interviewing dozens of CalTech students. What do you remember about that process and how do you feel it impacted the film?
Martha: I insisted on researching the subject and we brought in top-level consultants from the military, weapons development experts and universities. We researched Cal Tech and MIT and based most of the stories, and the visual depiction of the school on Cal Tech, particularly on Dabney Hall. There is a page on the Cal Tech website that enumerates the specific Cal Tech inspired elements of the script, at least those that they have identified.
Brian brought in comedy writer P.J. Torokvei and what a wonderful time we had! We created the story, came up with an ending and fully developed the characters. P.J. wrote unique characters like Jordan the hyperactive genius girl and much of Chris Knight’s smart wise-ass remarks. I researched space based laser development that was big at the time and came up with the black money funded research project. We met many wonderful scientists and science students including the legendary Cal Tech mathematician grad who had supposedly lived in the steam tunnels. My assistant was a Cal Tech graduate who ultimately deserted science for film, though he ended up doing both by producing Nova. The dorm graffiti was copied from the real graffiti in the dorm by scenic painters and then the decorator brought in Cal Tech students to embellish and create more. The original comedy is all there, but I believe as silly as a comedy is, it has to capture real issues and personal conflict or people won’t care. It is the combination of humor, the truth of the story and the real science in this picture that has made it successful for so long and has influenced many people to go into the sciences. Brian’s original goal, and mine, was to make a film that focused on nerds as heroes. It was ahead of its time.
Q: I asked Gabe Jarret a similar question in my interview with him; how was your experience of working with Val Kilmer? He had only appeared previously in 1984’s Top Secret, so how did you end up choosing him to play “Chris Knight” in your film?
Martha: Choosing Val was relatively easy. Out of dozens and dozens of young men who tried out for the part, Val made a standout video of himself for his first audition since he was in New York. He captured the handsome, smart whacky side of the character. The only other person we even really considered was John Cusack. Val was the best guy for the part, but not so easy to work with. He was intellectually challenging and erratic, not so surprising since that was the character. It was a big demanding part and he often avoided working by asked a lot of questions and was sometimes late to the set and moody. He was almost in every scene for about 75 days – and I’m sure he was nervous. I’ve learned to give young actors space and discipline, encouragement and pushing when they need it. I like actors with ideas and he had many. Ultimately, we gained a lot of trust and worked very well together. He gave a hell of a performance.
Q: What made you choose Gabe Jarret to play the role of “Mitch”? What memories do you have of working with the 15-year-old Jarret (including filming, as we discovered in my interview with him, his first two kisses)?
Martha: We spent an enormous amount of time looking for an actor for the young genius. Originally, we were seriously considering hiring a true young genius that had graduated college at (I think) 14 and was starting law school. We found Gabe late in pre-production. In the end, Gabe had the right combination of seriousness, gawkiness, intelligence and emotion that we needed. He studied with an acting teacher I brought in to help him with some of the more difficult emotional moments of the part. Working with young people like Gabe is a really refreshing experience because they do bring you back to the basic joy of acting and making movies. His naked honesty was a great contrast to Val’s complex shenanigans.
Shooting kissing scenes is usually awkward and when it involves very young actors it’s harder. First, I worry what it’s going to be like with the whole crew watching and I try to create as intimate and relaxed an atmosphere as possible. Of course it was flu season and I forget if it was Gabe or Michelle but one of them had a cold. Then I felt guilty! But as with all acting scenes you get the actors comfortable and the get out of the way and let them work.
Q: Michelle Meyrink was in so many great 80s films. You cast her in 3 films in a row, so you must have seen something special in her and felt comfortable working with her. What can you tell us about working with Michelle?
Martha: I loved Michelle. In some ways she reminded me of me, but more so of my sister. She said I reminded her of her sister – so it was mutual! Most of all I loved her as an actress; her extreme vulnerability and seriousness touched me and made me laugh. Her face was an open book. She left Hollywood eventually but gave us some really wonderful portrayals of teenage girls with all their colors and conflicts. She took to Torokvei’s “Jordan” dialogue like a duck to water. Ever since then, she’s had many geeks lusting after her.
Q: Do you remember editing a lot of scenes out of Real Genius? For instance, the trailer shows several scenes not in the final film like Kilmer floating outside of the window in a lawn chair.
Martha: Yes, we cut the balloon scene out of the movie late in editing which is why it is in the trailer. The film was too long for a comedy so something had to go. That was a visually interesting scene but didn’t forward the plot. There were other short scenes cut but that was the main one. I saved all those things for the special edition, but like so many studios TriStar lost the extra footage including the TV coverage (so when it came time to make the TV version we had to do it with looping). Film storage is overrated.
Q: In my interview with Jarret, we discussed the popcorn scene. Any other interesting stories you can share with us about filming Real Genius?
Martha: If there was ever a film that deserved a special edition, it’s Real Genius with all the behind-the-scenes footage, crazy gags, interviews and extra scenes. For example, our Special FX guy became an expert on popcorn (which, by the way, weighs 2 pounds per cubic foot). In order to build the exploding house, he had to design all kinds of hydraulic systems to move the popcorn inside. To get that much popcorn, we had to make half of it as we couldn’t buy that much popcorn from commercial companies in that short a period of time. We popped 40 tons ourselves on the lot for 6 weeks with huge poppers outside so the whole lot smelled like popcorn. We bought another 100 tons with a six week advanced order. When we shot on location we stored the popcorn in 38 40-foot tractor-trailer trucks parked up the road. It took more than a day to clean up the site to do take two, so we had to go shoot other scenes in between. It was also amazing to watch. I’ll never forget tons of popcorn gushing out of that house.
Q: Were you pleased with the final film you created in Real Genius?
Martha: I am very pleased with the final film. It was harder to feel so good at first because, as you may remember, it came out [August 7, 1985] within three days of the other two “science” films [Weird Science & My Science Project] and even the critics mixed up the titles in the papers. Ours was by far the best reviewed and I think the most successful over the long run, but there is no doubt that they hurt each other coming out at the same time. Today, I have more people telling me that this is their favorite film than I ever had before. It has remained an active video rental, and one of the most successful features ever shown on HBO. It’s certainly earned its place in the lexicon of 80s classics.
Q: Do you keep in touch with Kilmer or any of the other cast members?
Martha: One of the only people I have not kept up with is Val. He sent me a letter some years back, but basically he went on to big pictures and I became very busy as well. I’ve kept in touch in one way or another with many others from Valley Girl and Real Genius but not Gabe [Jarret] either (there is a big generation gap after all) or Deborah [Foreman]. I became really good friends with Bill Atherton who is from New Haven, CT like I am, Joanne Baron, Vilmos Zsigmond, P.J. Torokvei, Martin Gundersen and stayed in touch on and off with Nick Cage, Heidi [Holicker], Robert Prescott, and even Dean Devlin (yes, the producer who was an actor then). Some were friends already like Andy [Lane], Fred Elmes, Colleen Camp, Delia, and others. I worked with many again.
Q: I read a quote from you saying, “Music is the soul and the heartbeat of a film. It says so much more than what the actors or the scene can say alone.” Your 80s films included such great music choices. You told me that music took up a large portion of your budget in Valley Girl ($150,000 not including the score) and that in Real Genius you paid $75,000 just to use “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” Can you expand a little more on the importance and challenges of music in your films including your process for choosing the perfect songs for the perfect moments? (Like choosing Modern English’s “I Melt With You” for Valley Girl).
Martha: Music is closer to pure emotion than picture and it works subliminally. I love when music adds another layer to a film rather than only underscoring what is already there. Though the job of music in many movies is just that, it also helps move a film along but sometimes it brings in an element that we wouldn’t notice if it weren’t there, like mystery, spookiness, emotional tension, agitation, confusion, etc.
That favored-nations deal for all the songs [in Valley Girl] was put together by my attorney Peter Hoffman. Michael Papale and I chose the music. Sometimes I’d hear something on the radio and sing it to him as I did with “I Melt With You” when I heard it on KROQ. Or he’d throw a brand new, just recorded track at me like “Electric Avenue” and I’d love it. The film release brought the languishing “I Melt With You” back and up the charts.
Q: Can you explain the delay in releasing the soundtrack to Valley Girl and why there are songs included in the music credits that don’t actually seem to appear in the film?
Martha: Very late in post production, CBS insisted on some changes in the music (i.e. taking out The Clash and putting in Men at Work). The studio pissed off the record people because they wouldn’t remake the negative and prints for the last reel to bring the credits up to date. They didn’t care if the credits were correct, they just didn’t want to spend that large amount of money. So CBS pulled the record (soundtrack album) at the last minute. The film was released with the new songs in it and some of the music credits were completely wrong. The studio put out a little record of their own, but it took years for Rhino Records to put together the real soundtrack album!
Q: It is reported that you were supposed to direct Some Kind of Wonderful (1987), but had a falling out with John Hughes which prevented that from happening. Howard Deutch was re-hired to direct the film. Would you consider taking us through how that really went down?
Martha: I have actually never talked about this before. I was hired to direct Some Kind of Wonderful, developed the script, then fully prepped the film for months and was fired four days before shooting. The press release claimed we had “creative differences” but that wasn’t it. I actually had a great time with John, rehearsing and getting the film ready to go. There were no signs of any problems. Mary Stuart [Masterson] was attached and I cast Eric [Stoltz], Kim Delaney and Kyle McLaughlin in the other two leads. I had Eric get long extensions and make his hair a darker red to give him some darkness and mystery. He was very steamy. Mary Stuart is always gorgeous as was Kim Delaney.
Prior to my involvement, apparently Howard Deutch had been involved with John and the film and they had a falling out. I didn’t know it, but on the weekend prior to our shoot, John and Howard met and made up. John decided in a gesture of friendship to make the studio give the movie to Howard to direct. John never spoke to me. When I came in on Monday morning I got a call to come over to see Michael [Chinich], John’s partner and producer. No one said anything to me, but I could feel that something was wrong. The walk to the next building felt like I was walking a gang plank. Michael was in tears when I got there and talked about his crushing disappointment in the film and his company. He directed me to sit and told me what a great job I was doing. I thought maybe Eric had died and the movie was off. Then he said that they would be making the film but not with me. He said that I was fired, with no reason, and I had to leave the lot right away. I was in shock. I insisted on talking to my actors before I left. They were already on the lot meeting with Howard. Kim and Kyle were also fired and they wanted to fire Eric Stoltz as well. He was traumatized. He had just had a terrible experience on Back to the Future before this. The studio drew the line with Eric though and said no, he was to stay. I was called to Ned Tannen’s office, the president of Paramount, and he apologized. He said I hadn’t done anything wrong, I was a pleasure to work with and this was a whim of John’s, but John was very important to the studio so they had to do it even though it would hurt the film, and me. He promised to make it up to me and get me a film as soon as he could. Even in shock, I realized that until I started shooting I wasn’t even “pay or play”. But my full check for the entire salary was waiting for me by the time I got home.
Then I found something out about Hollywood. I got about a hundred phone calls from people I knew and didn’t know. They told me not to be too upset, that it happens to everyone and that I was in good company being fired by John Hughes. Major heads of companies called me and were very kind. It was one of the first times I felt truly like I was a member of the community. The experience was awful, a real artistic coitus-interruptus and I hired a publicist to help me through the “Artistic Differences” public story that the company and my agents had agreed upon. After a couple days, I left town.
Years later, I ran into John on an airplane in a small first class cabin flying back from Japan for 12 long hours. He greeted me cheerfully and acted like nothing had ever happened and he had never caused me such pain. I was polite to him but felt good that I was returning from Japan with Rambling Rose and he had Curly Sue.
The thing that galled me more was I had told him my story about my disastrous plane and train trip back and forth to New York one week. My plane was delayed then diverted, the train had a collision, the food ran out, a heat wave hit, etc. I wanted to make a film out of the experience. Before I knew it, he wrote Planes, Trains and Automobiles and it was in production. The moral of that story is to never tell a good writer your best stories.
Q: I am a huge fan of the TV series Psych and remember that you directed an episode last year (2009). The show seems like it would be fun to work on. How was your experience working on the show and with the talented cast including James Roday and Dule Hill?
Martha: I had a great time on Psych, and when I met James Roday, I was in for a surprise. James told me that it was Val Kilmer in Real Genius that inspired him to become an actor. He said he saw the film and said “I can do that” and, indeed, you can tell that in ways he is channeling Chris Knight. The tone of their comedy was comfortable for me.
Q: You are one of the pioneer females in directing. What particular challenges, especially back in the 80s, do you feel you faced by being a FEMALE director?
Martha: Being a woman director has continued to be a challenge my entire life. It got much better in the 90s and then got worse. Even though there are more women directors now, there are fewer opportunities for us all. The statistics have declined and now fewer women are coming into the feature and episodic business and even into film school. I think it’s because they read and hear how difficult it is. Maybe they don’t want to work that hard without a real shot. I’m teaching now and I’m shocked at how few women in proportion to men are going into directing. It’s worse than it was when I was in school at NYU! And there were no working women directors then.
Now, of course, I’m facing both the gender issue and the age issue which is real. I’ve been blessed with a good career and I’m a better director now than I’ve ever been. But jobs are hard to come by for all directors, mostly because of the economy, just harder for women, minorities and older directors. I’ve thoroughly loved directing CSI: Crime Scene Investigation because I really “get” the show, love the writers and actors and it gives me a chance to kill people and take on darker subjects than what I usually am offered. The movies that come to me now are mostly gender driven women’s pictures which feels so odd, and all of them are independent films. I’ve been writing and developing my own films as well.
Q: You were the first female President of the Directors Guild of America (2002-2003). How was that experience? That has to be something you are deservedly proud of.
Martha: The Presidency of the Director’s Guild was not only an honor for me but also history-making. I heard that in the 60s the president would address the membership “Good evening fellow directors and Mrs. Lupino.” [Ida Lupino] It was important to break that ceiling and open the door for the many women and minorities who are in the Director’s Guild in larger numbers. I also helped instigate programs that have pressured for more hiring of women and minorities in television. Easier to do than with features where there is little concern to be politically correct on each specific film. It was such an important experience in my life and I learned so much that I could never cover it here, but it changed my perspective on everything from business to politics. Ultimately being president demanded a whole lot of work and I needed to spend more time being a director. I let the job pass to the next guy. It’s a great guild and great for any member who gets involved. The more women and minorities who get involved in the leadership of the guild, the greater the chance that some will rise to the top and lead the guild to new horizons.
Q: You have been in the industry for almost 40 years now. From your perspective, how has it changed both for the good and for the bad over those four decades?
Martha: Wow, I wouldn’t say “good or bad” because value judgments on existing conditions are hard to overcome and dangerous. For example, it was impossible when I was in New York wanting to be a film director for women to do and yet if I’d said that was “bad” it might have stopped me from trying. Anyway, there are many differences and some make it seem almost impossible to get into the field. The biggest changes are due to the economy and how the industry works. My entire career the studios have been going downhill in terms of their power and reach- even though they have become global and consolidated. Many other kinds of media entertain and reach people via other platforms, so the audience has been fragmented and it’s harder to reach a large audience. At the same time, cost of production has escalated. The studios like to hedge their bets and make a few big, broad spectrum entertainment films and basically nothing else. This leaves smaller production to independent financiers, small companies and foreign entities at the same time as finding investors is very, very difficult. Little films can be made on digital cameras relatively cheaply and they can go viral on the internet or be festival hits. Filmmaking is popular and hundreds, dare I say thousands, of young people graduate every year in every country specializing in it. So the result is tremendous competition for any job and filmmakers are working for nothing or next to nothing just for the opportunity to work. This has helped to undermine the unions, the artistic environment and living conditions for anyone in the field. Many young and experienced people are moving out of Los Angeles to the latest states that offer tax breaks and to foreign countries where production is cheaper and wages are lower. The simple fact is it’s harder to make a living in this business than it is to work in it. When I started, we all started out working for free, then found low paying starter jobs, but the economy was good then and families had money to support young people. It was easier to get a “day job” back then to keep yourself going. Now, young people are interning for extended periods while carrying enormous school debt and with families who are struggling. I don’t think salaries are ever going to come back to where they were. Not in any near future. I see young women deciding not to be directors because they look at the miserable statistics of how few women directors are working and decide it’s too difficult. This makes me sad. There are fewer women in my classes than there were at NYU when they told us we couldn’t do it!
On the positive side, with more interest in filmmaking and easy tools to work with, young people are visually literate and can make films, videos, etc. quickly and cheaply. The result is very talented people are emerging and rising to the top. It is the “language” of our time and I’m glad that everyone is more literate. We will benefit if we can get these talented people to careers where they can make a living. In overview, things seem similar to before, student and short films going to festivals, people starting in low paying or free positions but the pressure is much greater, the economy terrible and many will fall by the wayside.
Q: What has Martha Coolidge been up to more recently? Filmmaking or otherwise?
Martha: As usual, I have my fingers in many pots. I have several films ready to go, some that I own and some with other producers. Blowing Up is a comedy based on a true story about a small town nuclear reactor melt down in 1961. It’s sort of Peyton Place meets Dr. Strangelove, written by Nick Kazan with me Producing and Directing. It’s not an expensive movie but tough to set up in this environment. Likewise, Saving Seymour, a comedy about a young woman trying to pass the Bar Exam who inherits her troublesome 90+ year-old grandfather, should be easier. There is also Deja Vu, a romantic comedy of a rekindled romance in France.
I am also finishing a screenplay of my own, a thriller called The 3L3T3. I’m teaching directing at Chapman University, sitting on the board of the Academy of Motion Pictures and advising on other university committees. I’ve been involved for many years with a program run by Martin Gundersen trying to encourage film and television shows to be more accurate in their depiction of science. We hope to keep making the smart guys the heroes and encourage Americans to go into the sciences.
I am incredibly honored that Martha took the time to answer my questions so I could share them with you here. She was extremely generous with her responses and even provided many of the great pictures featured above. I appreciate the insights on her fantastic films and her struggle to become a female director, but also especially for explaining the events surrounding Some Kind of Wonderful. We only touched the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all of the significant film and television work she has done. You can find out much more about her and all of her projects at Martha’s official website www.marthacoolidge.com. I want to take this opportunity to again thank Martha Coolidge for her incredible contributions to film and 80s pop culture and for taking a stroll down memory lane with us for a little while as well. I certainly consider it a privilege.
That will do it for this very special issue of Kickin’ it Old School. Thanks as always for reading and hope you are enjoying the interviews as much as I am. If you want a summary of all of my Back to the 80s Interviews posted thus far, please click on that link. If you are interested in reading any of my other 80s related issues, please click there for a summary of those. You can also always click on the Archives in the upper left hand column or use the Google Search Box at the top of the right hand column to find any other issues you may have missed. If you are a fan of Kickin’ it, PLEASE CLICK ON THE FACEBOOK LOGO in the upper right hand column. This will take you to the Fan Page where I ask you to then click on the “Like” button. Even if you are not a Facebook member yet, please consider joining and registering as a fan at that page. You can also follow @OldSchool80s on Twitter by clicking on the FOLLOW ME ON TWITTER LOGO also in the upper right hand column. This will take you the page and you can just click on the box that says “Follow”. I am sending daily 80s tweets, so sign up to get those. Let other 80s fans know about it as well! Peace and much love.
Quote of the day: “If I had permitted my failures, or what seemed to me at the time a lack of success, to discourage me I cannot see any way in which I would ever have made progress.” -Calvin Coolidge (The 30th President of the United States and who just so happens to also be a cousin of Martha Coolidge)