The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Alan Spencer (‘Bullet in the Face’)

I’ve said before – if not in this column, then certainly elsewhere on the ‘net – how a great deal of my long-term tastes were established during my teen years in the ’80s, and one of the shows that was must-see TV for 16-year-old me was the ABC sitcom Sledge Hammer!, created by Alan Spencer. As a result, my eyebrows shot skyward when I first learned about the IFC series Bullet in the Face, since the press release prominently featured Spencer’s previous credits. Too bad the network’s programming and promotional departments weren’t quite as enthused as I was: the show’s six-episode season was noticed by precious few, resulting in a quick departure from the airwaves.

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Thank goodness for Shout Factory, then, a company who knows a future cult classic when they see one: they released Bullet in the Face on DVD a few weeks back – sorry, I was at the TCA tour at the time, or I would’ve been able to promote it more heavily right as it hit the shelves – and were kind enough to set me up with an interview with the aforementioned Mr. Spencer.

After discussing his most recent endeavor in considerable detail, you will be unsurprised to learn that I took a bit of time to geek out as well, enjoying the opportunity to learn more about his friendships with Marty Feldman, Andy Kaufman, and Anthony Perkins, and to find out if we’re likely to ever see Sledge Hammer! return.

Bullz-Eye: How did Bullet in the Face originally come about? It seems to owe at least a spiritual debt to Sledge Hammer!, but from what I can tell, it appears that the project existed in some form – if only as a vague concept – before you ever came aboard.

Alan Spencer: Well, first of all, there’s nothing spiritual about Sledge Hammer! [Laughs.] Basically, the IFC network… An executive I knew at the IFC network said they had a concept in development that wasn’t working. It was called Dieter Horn in Night Port, and if you Google it or use any search engine, I think you can see information about it. They had made a two-minute trailer – kind of a sizzle reel, as people are wont to do – and a Canadian production company was behind it. The trailer shows a spoof of ‘80s tropes about a German cop called Dieter Horn, who was apparently a bad guy who became a cop, and it’s heavily rooted in the ‘80s. It’s never explained why it was German, by the way. I couldn’t figure that out. But it’s a spoof of a Miami Vice sort of city, and it was…  A lot of people are doing ‘80s parodies – MacGruber, and there’s a miniseries now (The Spoils of Babylon) – and it was an ‘80s spoof, and…that didn’t interest me. And I guess they developed scripts for it and it didn’t work, so it was a piece of… The term is “broken development.”

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Since I’m one of the few people that had done and sustained a successful half-hour action comedy, they came to me and asked if I’d be willing to supervise the writers and retool this. It was basically… I was given, like, carte blanche for whatever I could come up with to fix this. So, anyway, I took the one kernel, one idea from it, and threw everything else out. And the only kernel from it was the German, formerly a bad guy, turning into a cop. So that was it. I threw everything out, re-titled it, and came up with all new characters, an all new milieu, and the kind of a graphic-novel city I set it in.

I also threw out the ‘80s baby with the ‘80s bathwater, because a lot of people can’t reference the ‘80s. I lived through the ‘80s already, and that didn’t interest me to go through it again. I don’t have that hair anymore, I don’t wear the pastels, I wear socks… [Laughs.] So I didn’t want to deal with that at all. I wanted something new and fresh. Also, since I had some creative freedom, I really wanted to go for it, so they were kind of thrilled when I decided to write it myself. I just said, “Let me write it,” as opposed to going through the machinations that we would’ve to find some writers. So they were surprised and happy, but I think that was their agenda all along, to have me write it myself.

So I indulged myself. I didn’t imagine this getting made, so I wrote something very, very extreme, and going further than the restraints that I was used to working on in network television. And then, lo and behold, I was surprised. I got a call from the network saying, “We’re not going to make a pilot for this.” I said, “Oh, all right.” They said, “We’re going to go straight to series!” So it was a six-episode order with the contingency that I write them all. I knew something was up before I got that call, because on Facebook all of a sudden I was being getting friended by IFC executives. [Laughs.] That was kind of the hint that something was in the works. That’s how social media works now, right? If social media was existing during World War II, and if all my Japanese friends were unfriending me, I think I would’ve anticipated Pearl Harbor. That’s sort of how it works.

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The Light from the TV Shows: A Chat with Julian Jarrold (HBO’s “The Girl”)

Given how much media attention has been drawn by the upcoming Alfred Hitchcock biopic starring Anthony Hopkins, it’s no wonder that some may see HBO’s upcoming movie, “The Girl,” which debuts on Oct. 20, to be a pretender to the throne. In fact, they’re both perfectly viable entities in their own right, each covering a different aspect of the director’s career. Hopkins will be playing Hitchcock as he’s in the throes of making “Psycho,” whereas “The Girl” finds Toby Jones’s version of Hitch as he’s obsessing over Tippi Hedren (played by Sienna Miller) during the filming of “The Birds” and “Marnie.” Bullz-Eye caught up with Julian Jarrold, director of “The Girl,” just before a panel for the film at the summer Television Critics Association press tour, during which time he chatted not only about his look into the darker side of Hitchcock but also some of the other films and television efforts he’s tackled in his career to date.

Bullz-Eye: How did “The Girl” land in your lap? Or did you go looking for “The Girl”?

Julian Jarrold: No, it was sent to me ages ago, and…it was a little bit more based around the making “The Birds” and “Marnie,” but obviously it was still an exploration of this relationship. The writer (Gwyneth Hughes) had done quite a lot of research and come over here and met Jim Brown, the assistant director, and Rita Riggs (wardrobe supervisor), and Tippi, obviously. So he’d kind of pieced together this sort of fascinating script, and I loved Hitchcock, but I didn’t know this at all, so it was a bit of a shock, actually, to read it. [Laughs.] I knew he was odd, but I didn’t know he was that odd. Yeah, it totally changed my view of Hitchcock. Actually, what was fascinating was…I knew “The Birds” and “Marnie” and “Vertigo,” and they’re strange films. You kind of wonder where they’re coming from. And then finding out about this story, you certainly go, “Ah, I see where he was coming from…and where his personal obsessions are and his attitude to women and everything.” So it sort of illuminated all that. Which was very interesting.

BE: Tippi Hedren is here at the TCA tour, so presumably she’s supportive of the film, but how interactive was she you were making it? Did you speak with her in advance?

JJ: Well, no. I mean, she obviously spoke at length with the writer, and Sienna met her. But she didn’t come on set. I think she read the script. It’s obviously difficult when someone’s making a film like this. How do you compute that? Because it’s 90 minutes revolving around her life. But she said she saw it recently, and she seemed to love it. She saw it with her kids, Melanie (Griffith) and everybody, and it seemed to go down okay. But it’s difficult. It must be a painful, difficult thing to look at. You know, she had such a complex relationship with Hitchcock. It was daunting, because you mustn’t judge that. I wanted to show the sunny side of the relationship, where there was a sort of optimism at the beginning and he was such a fantastic teacher, but then how it changed and darkened and was abusive, really.

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King of the world, again? Catching up with the inaugural class of Bullz-Eye’s Directors Hall of Fame

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In March 2007, Bullz-Eye inducted its first class into the Bullz-Eye Directors Hall of Fame. It’s an unconventional list, to be sure, and that was the idea. With all due respect to Howard Hawks, David Lean, Charlie Chaplin, Cecil B. DeMille, Akira Kurosawa, et al., they will just have to wait their turn.

So what has our illustrious founding class of directors been up to since their induction? As it turns out, they’ve been rather quiet, though one of them finally decided to make his first movie in 12 years, and would you look at that, he’s completely changed the game for a second time. Let’s take a look and our directors’ newest credits. And, in some cases, debits.

Alfred Hitchcock

Mr. Hitchcock has not been terribly productive lately – for anyone who just snorted that he’s dead, don’t say that; he’s just…unavailable – so his legacy remains unblemished. And thankfully we’re past the point of anyone speaking of one M. Night Shyamalan as the next Hitchcock. Those were dark days, indeed.

Tim Burton

Burton’s been pretty quiet since his induction. He unleashed the bloody good musical “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” in late 2007, and produced “9,” the animated film about a group of puppets in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, last year. He does have two tantalizing projects on the horizon, the first of which is the much-anticipated “Alice in Wonderland,” a live action 3D affair that has Burton teaming up with Johnny Depp for the seventh time and boasts one of the creepiest trailers we’ve seen in years (two words: Cheshire cat). Then, in 2011, Burton brings one of his very first creations to life on the big screen. Yep, “Frankenweenie.” And they damn well better not change that title.

Steven Spielberg

As director and/or producer, our resident manchild has racked up some monster hits since his induction…but at a cost. His lone directorial effort is “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull,” which made $317 million but also coined the term “nuke the fridge,” which some view as the modern-day equivalent of “jump the shark.” He served as executive producer for both of Michael Bay’s “Transformers” movies (insert your own explosion porn joke here), and God help him, he even executive produced “Eagle Eye.” There is hope on the horizon, though, as Spielberg is elbows deep into the production of “The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn,” a motion capture adaptation of the Belgian comic book series starring Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Andy Serkis, and Nick Frost. After that, Spielberg is scheduled to direct “Interstellar,” a wormhole and gravity-centric film co-written by Christopher Nolan’s brother Jonathan, and he is producing or executive producing eight (!) other projects, including the awesomely titled, Jon Favreau-directed “Cowboys and Aliens.”

Martin Scorsese

He finally got his Oscar. About damn time.

It was actually one of the funniest set-ups in recent Academy Awards memory; the award for Best Director during the 2007 Oscars was given out by Scorsese’s longtime friends Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and George Lucas, all of whom were looking at Marty as if to say, “Hey buddy, do you think they picked us to hand out this award for a reason?” The theater, of course, went nuts when they read his name, and as he made his long-overdue walk to the podium, it reminded us of when Michael J. Fox received an Emmy for his work on “Family Ties,” and said, “I feel four feet tall!”

Marty has only released one movie since 2006′s “The Departed,” the Rolling Stones concert film “Shine a Light,” but he directed a short Hitchcock tribute called “The Key to Reserva” as well as the pilot episode of the show “Boardwalk Empire,” the story of Atlantic City man about town Nucky Thompson. His upcoming thriller “Shutter Island,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, was originally scheduled for last fall, but was abruptly bumped to spring. Usually that is an ominous sign; we’re hoping that is not the case here, but February is generally more hospitable to horror movies than it is to period-piece thrillers. Good thing “Shutter” has a supernatural element to it as well.

And just this Sunday, Scorsese was just awarded the Cecil B. DeMille Award by the Hollywood Foreign Press at this year’s Golden Globe Awards. Everything’s coming up Marty. As we said before, about damn time.

James Cameron

So there’s this movie, you might have heard about it…

Love him or hate him, James Cameron does nothing by half, and once again, he swings for the fences, and once again he hits one that lands over the fence on the other side of the highway from the ballpark. “Avatar” only needed four weeks to become the second biggest worldwide box office hit of all time. This despite the fact that Cameron released his movie in the face of rampant speculation that he had finally bitten off more than he could chew, and the movie could not possibly live up to the 12-year hype. Whoops.

Is it finally time to give the man the benefit of the doubt? He now owns the #1 and #2 spots on the all-time box office charts – and yes, we readily acknowledge that 3D and IMAX upcharges have played a large role in “Avatar’s” performance – and has done so without pandering or playing it safe. He could use some assistance on writing dialogue, but we’re none of us perfect, and Cameron’s good points as a director far, far outweight his drawbacks as a writer. Let’s just hope he doesn’t take another 12 years to make his next movie.

  

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