SGT. BECKER’S WAR: An Interview With Josh Becker, Part 1

This is the most exciting part of Josh Becker Week, at least for Your Humble Reviewer.  Josh Becker is the ideal interview subject for a cult movie publication or website because he has all the necessary qualities for a good interview subject: he’s funny, he’s extremely opinionated, he has the necessary smarts to back up those opinions in an effective manner and he’s not afraid to let loose with provocative thoughts.  As the following interview reveals, he was in fine form and delivering the goods on all the aforementioned fronts.

This is the first half of Schlockmania’s marathon question and answer session with Becker and it covers the entirety of his career.  Read on and you’ll discover his thoughts on the state of Hollywood, his opinions on his own work and his feelings about his collaborators and friends from Michigan’s low budget filmmaking scene of the 1980’s – a group that includes cult movie stalwarts like Sam Raimi, Bruce Campbell and Scott Spiegel.  Be sure to return on Friday for part two of the interview, which will devoted entirely to questions about Thou Shalt Not Kill… Except.

You learned the ropes of filmmaking as a young man alongside Sam Raimi and Scott Spiegel.  What are your thoughts on the directions their careers have taken?

JB: Let’s not forget Bruce Campbell, too.  They’ve all done quite well for themselves, and good for them.  Early on I would have never suspected that I’d be the slacker of the group.

You have a big list of favorite films at your site.  What inspired you to assemble such an expansive list?

JB:  I was constantly being accused of hating everything, so I put together that “Favorite Film List” just to prove I love a lot of movies.

You’re pretty famous for your uncompromising criticism of Hollywood and its output, eventually bailing out on the city in the early 1990’s.  What do you think would have to happen in the Hollywood filmmaking culture to improve it?

JB: I actually bailed on Hollywood for good in 2001, after “Xena” went off the air.  The folks in Hollywood could try watching some good movies just to see what they’re like.  They used to make really good and great movies all the time.  I don’t think a great movie has come out of Hollywood in nearly 20 years.  All they understand at this point is precedent.  All of the big money-makers of 2011 – which wasn’t a very profitable year for Hollywood – were all sequels.  I suppose if you haven’t got the slightest clue what a decent script is, you may as well just make sequels, until the franchises fizzle out, which they always do.  I just watched “The Grapes of Wrath” for the 20th time yesterday and there’s no movie like it before it or after it.  Darryl Zanuck had balls, and some taste.  Taste is what is seriously lacking in the movie business these days.  The movie business is not run by people who love movies; it’s now run by bean counters.

As far as classic Hollywood filmmaking goes, what era do you prefer and why?

JB: The 1950s and ‘60s, although I’m very partial to the ‘30s and ‘40s, too.

The 1970s were OK for a while, until “Star Wars” came out and it all went to hell in a handcar.  That was the beginning of viewing kids as the main audience, and that’s when movies got stupid.  In the ‘50s you had “All About Eve,” “From Here to Eternity,” “On the Waterfront,” “East of Eden, “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” and these are not stupid movies.  In the ‘60s you had “The Apartment,” “Lawrence of Arabia,” “A Man for all Seasons,” “Midnight Cowboy.”  These are also not stupid movies.  Now we have “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Crash,” “Chicago,” and “The Hurt Locker.”  These ARE stupid movies.  When I was a child I spake as a child; but now that I’m a man I’ve put away my childish ways.

You’ve said William Wyler is your biggest influence as a filmmaker.  What is it about his work that inspires you and which films of his would you recommend to a novice viewer?

JB: I don’t mean to keep disputing you, but William Wyler is not my biggest influence, he’s my favorite director.  But it took me years to figure that out.  I would say that Michael Curtiz was a bigger influence on me early on because I watched “Casablanca” so many times as a kid.  I actually tape recorded the film on a reel-to-reel tape recorder (before cassette) in elementary school and listened to it all the time.  I did a helluva a Bogart imitation when I was eleven.  “Of all the gin joints in all the world, she had to come into mine.”  Regarding William Wyler, I think he made the most great movies of any director ever, and they’re all different.  He pretty much didn’t make a bad film from 1933 to 1967, and he always got the best performances out of his actors.  He said to Charlton Heston a few days into shooting “Ben-Hur,” “Chuck, you’re just not good enough.”  Heston asked, “Well, what can I do?”  Wyler shook his head, said, “I don’t know,” and walked away.  Heston ended up winning the Best Actor Oscar that year.

Out of the four theatrical features you’ve made – Thou Shalt Not Kill Except, Lunatics: A Love Story, Running Time and If I Had A Hammer – which is your proudest achievement?  Please explain why.

JB:  That’s sort of like asking which of your kids do you like the best?  I’d put forth that all of my films are somewhat overly ambitious (if not necessarily good), and due to that they each came out with varying results.  “Running Time” is something of a crazy stunt – being all in real time – and I think I pulled it off, with the help of some very talented actors, a very inventive cinematographer (if the camera keeps going around in circles, where do you put the lights?), and a young, energetic steadicam operator whose ass got kicked over and over again.  The film of mine that says the most, philosophy-wise, is certainly “If I Had a Hammer,” and I think it looks pretty damn good, too (photographed by Kurt Rauf, who also shot “Running Time”).

You’ve also done a lot of t.v. work.  What is your favorite example of this work and for what reasons?

JB:  I like most of my Xena episodes quite a bit.  Since I was the silly comedy director, and I’m friends with the executive producer, Rob Tapert, I kind of had unprecedented freedom.  Rob told me early on, “You know what I think is funny.  If you think it’ll make me laugh, put it in.”  He of course added, “And if I don‘t like it I’ll cut it out,” although he rarely if ever did that.  But Lucy and Renee were absolutely wonderful to work with, and they have extremely talented crew people in New Zealand, many of whom have gone on to win Oscars for “Lord of the Rings.”  Richard Taylor, who did the effects on my Hercules movie, has won five Oscars.  Xena was a very good-looking show that was made with a lot of enthusiasm.  The six seasons I spent working on that show were probably the highlight of my life.

From your super-8 productions to Alien Apocalypse, you’ve maintained a long friendship and professional collaboration with Bruce Campbell.  What is the secret to the longevity of this relationship?

JB:  We both make each other laugh a lot, we trust each other, and we both respect each other.  We also enjoy working together.  I also love his wife, too.  In a business where people quickly forget their friends, Bruce and I have always remained close, which is sort of a miracle.  Sam Raimi was just here in Detroit for six months making his “Oz” movie, and even though Sam and I were good buds in our teens and twenties, and I’m still good friends with his brother Ivan, and his parents, I never heard from him once.  But then again, “Nobody sees the great and powerful Oz, no way no how.”  Bruce, on the other hand, stays in touch.

In interviews, you’ve referenced a war movie script you’ve written called Devil Dogs with great passion.  Can you tell us more about this and what would make it different from current war-themed films?

JB:  The full title is “Devil Dogs: The Battle of Belleau Wood,” which was the very first battle the Americans fought during WWI, and it was mostly Marines.  As far as the U.S. Marine Corps is concerned it’s one of the most important battles in which they ever participated.  Belleau Wood, like Gettysburg, had no military importance, it was simply where the Americans and the Germans encountered each other.  28,000 Americans against 40,000 Germans, and Belleau Wood was as far west as the Germans ever made it during the war.  They were 75 miles outside Paris, and the Americans stopped them right there.  The lead character, Gunnery Sgt. Dan Daly, was the most-decorated enlisted Marine of all-time and had two Medals of Honor going into that battle.  The man basically had balls of steel.  Belleau Wood was a mile-square hunting preserve, and the battle, which was mostly hand-to-hand combat, lasted for a month.  I think it’s an amazing story that hasn’t been told yet.

On the subject of war movies, you’ve referenced The Bridge On The River Kwai as a perfect film.  What are the elements that make it perfect?  Any other favorite war movies you care to mention?

JB:  It has a brilliant script, beautiful direction and photography, and a terrific cast.  Both Alec Guinness and Sessue Hayakawa could not be better.  It’s the film I studied the most regarding the construction of a screenplay.  When the threads begin to tie up at the end of the film you didn’t even know there were that many threads out there.

Regarding other war films, I love “From Here to Eternity,” and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen “The Longest Day.”

In recent years, you’ve penned three books – The Complete Guide To Low Budget Filmmaking, Rushes and Going Hollywood.  Beyond the obvious technical differences, what are the differing rewards and challenges of writing books as opposed to making movies?

JB:  Screenwriting is almost entirely about structure.  There are so few words in a script that you’d better mean every one of them.  In a book there’s about ten times more words, so you can say a lot more.  Also, how you write a book – meaning is your prose any good – means a lot.  I generally spend a couple of months writing a screenplay;  “Going Hollywood” took an entire year.  It was a story I felt that I had to tell, and it didn’t seem like a script to me, so therefore it became a book.

What does the future hold for you as a filmmaker and writer?  Are there any big ambitions you still want to tackle?
JB: Yeah, I’d like to shoot about half the scripts I’ve written (I’m writing number 40 right now).  My good buddy Gary Jones and I have been noodling around with a deal to make SyFy Channel movies for about two years, which may have some life in it, but that remains to be seen.

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