Remember the end of Easy Rider, with Captain America and Billy bleeding out in a ditch from shotgun blasts? Seven years later, William Dear let the bikers shoot back in The Northville Cemetery Massacre.
The 1976 biker revenge drama screens tonight, July 30, at the Alamo Ritz as part of the Weird Wednesday series, and Dear flew in yesterday to show his own personal 35mm print, with all the beloved wear and tear that one expects from the erosion of time on celluloid. He said, "I refer to it as a bloody, violent movie rendered in pastel pink."
This was Dear's second film, after 1975's sexploitation flick Nymph. It's almost hard to imagine that, a decade later, he'd be a mainstay of Hollywood's family-friendly fare, directing favorites like Harry and the Hendersons and Angels in the Outfield. But in the mid-Seventies, he shot one of the grittiest, loosest, biker dramas of the decade. "The original title was Freedom RIP," he says. "The Vietnam War was raging, but we weren't part of any Haight-Ashbury movement. We were filmmakers in Detroit, Mich., and we just wanted to make a movie."
This was low-budget territory, but Dear could call in favors from TV contacts for borrowed cameras and short ends of film, and they could edit at the stations after broadcast TV hours. Now he, co-director Tom Dyke, and producer Robert Dyke (whom he calls "my oldest and dearest friend") just had to come up with a story. "We sat down and thought, we want to make a film, what can we afford? And we went, well, a biker movie or a horror movie."Dear won the argument, and so they went with the biker flick. The story itself is pretty simple: The Spirits, an outlaw (but far from lawless) biker club, gets framed for a rape, and the local, upstanding members of society decide to wipe them off the road forever.
For Dear, it wasn't really about gearheads and gaskets. He saw it as a modern-day Western, with the bikers as the last cowboys, standing up to the corrupt sheriff. But he wasn't inspired by John Wayne and his white hats, but a bleaker visions that he caught, completely by accident, at a test screening. "My wife and I drove to Wyandotte, Mich., to see what I thought was a biker movie. It was The Wild Bunch." Midway through, he remembers, "I found myself in pain, because I was biting on the edge of my finger."
Now with some borrowed equipment, and the outline of a story, he needed actors. Yet again, he worried about what they could afford until a friend of his connected him with the Scorpions. "They were a bike club, not a bike gang, and they have their own strict moral club. You have to be a good, moral citizen to be a Scorpion." When they agreed to be in the film, "all we had to provide was the colors, the Spirits RIP."
The Wild Bunch's influence seeps and bleeds heaviest into the final sequence of the film, a long and bloody gun fight between the Spirits and the assassins that have been hunting them down. They located an actual cemetery ("sandwiched between a school and an apartment complex") but with almost zero budget for special effects, they had to jury-rig everything. Even the blanks were hand made, with a dash of black powder and some paraffin wax to seal the shell. That meant there was so little energy that a round couldn't even push the bolt back. Yet that didn't make the killings any less brutal, with Dear catching the spray in slo-mo on a hand-cranked Bolex at 64 frames per second. In the closing moments, corrupt cop Puttnam (J. Craig Collicut) blows a gory hole in the guts of one of the club members. Dear recalls, "He's a tough guy, and he said, for a moment there, his whole body went into panic, because he really thought he'd shot this guy."
It was so bloody that the MPAA gave the film an X rating, "not for any sexual content, but purely for the bloodletting." The distributors finally had to do their own cut to get an R, but tonight he's showing his original 1974 cut, "the first test print that went before the ratings board."
It was also the first of several collaborations with future Texas Film Hall of Fame-r Michael Nesmith, including their Grammy-winning video collaboration Elephant Parts. The Monkees' man provided the soundtrack, and yet again Dear has his Western obsession to thank for that. He was in the editing stage, and flicking through the LA Weekly, when he saw an ad saying Nesmith was playing a show at a hole-in-the-wall club/guitar store called McCabe's. Dear says, "The name McCabe's caught my eye because of McCabe and Mrs. Miller." He got in contact through the venue management, met up with the musician, and showed him an early, two-hour cut of Freedom RIP. "He turned to me and said 'This is a terrible movie.' I said, 'Yes, would you like to score it?' and he said, 'Yes'"
The result was one of his most successful collaborative partnerships, and one Dear looks back on with great fondness. He said, "I was kind of a flash and dazzle film maker, and he wanted a lot more substance. … He was the one who fought hardest in the Monkees to be taken seriously as musicians."
Dear is still working, and still making films he loves. "I've been fortunate enough to make a film every year," he reflects, and the only real change is that shooting schedules have gotten so short: Back in 1986, he had 57 days to lens Harry, but in 2013, he had 13 days to shoot Midnight Stallion, which stars Kris Kristofferson and features a cross-country horse race. Not that Dear is complaining. "If they gave me three days to make a film with Kris, I'd say yes. He's such a poet and an artist."
He admits, for most audiences, his reputation is as a family-friendly film maker, but he still likes throwing curve balls, like 2006's Fantastic Fest shocker Simon Says. He's currently producing Sharkaconda, directed by his son and regular second-unit director, Oliver. There's real family pride as he describes how Oliver designed the titular beast. "We trademarked it," he says with pride, "because when I saw it, I knew we didn't just have a monster. We had a movie monster." And, like a proud father, Dear gets to do the modern equivalent of putting the picture on the fridge: A time-lapse video of Oliver depicting Sharkaconda vs. Godzilla for a recent art show.
And if that's not enough, he's finishing a Blu-ray restoration of The Northville Cemetery Massacre, and collaborating with Oliver on a script called Blabbermouth. He says, "I'm not giving up."
The Northville Cemetery Massacre, July 30, 9:45pm, Alamo Ritz. Director William Dear in attendance. Tickets available via www.drafthouse.com.
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