Ross Playstead grew up in California, Massachusetts, and Washington. After attending UCLA, he worked at a bank then became an accountant after he got married. He enjoys writing screenplays, reading, listening to music, and cooking. He has taught his three daughters to love movies, both new and old. He still sees movies regularly with his family in Los Angeles.
Rachel N. Playstead: I'm Rachel Playstead and I'm here with Ross Playstead in his home, thank you for letting use you for our Oral History. You grew up mostly in California, right?
Ross Playstead: California, Washington, Massachusetts.
RNP: And you were attending UCLA in the late seventies.
RP: Seventy-five to eighty.
RNP: Okay, so you were in your young years in the seventies. You were a film student, right?
RNP: What did you study as a film student?
RP: When I was actually a film student: film production mostly, cinematography, screen writing. I took three different screen writing classes.
RNP: What made you interested in movies? What made you want to go into the industry?
RP: I always loved movies. I saw my first Alfred Hitchcock movie which was Vertigo, I was about five, I didn't understand it probably at all, but it was very impressive. It was on television, I didn't see it in a theater until sometime in the late seventies.
RNP: Did you grow up with a lot of movies?
RP: Yes, when I was very small, we watched a lot of things on TV, it was probably the golden age of when old Hollywood movies were first being released on television because I remember seeing there was a program on NBC on Saturday night called Saturday Night at the Movies. And they played kind of famous big movies that were more current, at least a couple years old. But I remember seeing the Day the Earth Stood Still on Saturday Night at the Movies and by the time I saw it would have been 10 years old. So, they were still mining for what movies throughout the fifties…
RNP: So the movies that you tended to watch during the seventies and 80s, when you were more of an adult were they still… [what] you grew up with? The genre?
RP: I guess so? When I was in college, I would see a lot of movies because I took a film history class. I might see two movies in that class, um, I had an English class I didn't much care for, and at the same as that class there was a screwball comedy class that was going on in the film department (this was actually before I was in the film department). And I would often cut the English class and go to the screwball comedy class. And during the seventies there was a lot of revival theaters in Los Angeles, the New Hart, the Vista, the Fox Venice, the Beverly, (which I think is the only one that still exists as a revival theater) and you could go see a double feature at night. A couple of French films, a couple of old [Humphrey] Bogart movies; it had a new show every day, so there was a new double feature everyday, unless there was something like Seven Samurai which was already three and a half hours long. That would only be one film, but there were a lot of opportunities in Los Angeles to see old films as well as, you know, brand new stuff.
RNP: So what do you think is the ratio of old movies you saw to the new, modern movies?
RP: When I was in high school, I almost only saw modern movies in theaters, you know neighborhood theaters in the South Bay and in Torrance or the South Beach or Manhattan Beach or something, there were a number of older neighborhood theaters. It was the era when people used to go to the multiplexes that were inside the mall and the theaters were fairly small. I was much fonder of bigger theaters with a large screen. There were a couple in my neighborhood that were pretty nice. Probably in the fifties and sixties.
RNP: So, what kind of movies did you see? Did you see a mixture of dramas and sci-fi? Or was just sci-fi kind of things?
RP: I was very taken with sci-fi, but I didn't call it sci-fi, it was considered a bad, a derogatory term. People in the seventies who were science fiction fans considered the movies from the fifties that, you know, the monster movies Tarantula, It Came from Beyond, different kinds of things as sci-fi, it was kind of kitschy, they had science fiction … Uh, I probably saw just about every movie that might be called science fiction that came out in the seventies. But that was probably, you know, 50 movies or something over the 10 year period, but I would see lots of different things. Like there were certain things I was not very fond of, I didn't really like musicals, it seems like, well, there weren't very many made at that time, but I was not familiar with, say, Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly movies, with a lot of dancing in them, which, you know, gives it a much more interesting visual element. I've seen several Roger Hammerstein films of musicals that were made in the fifties, or the actual musicals from the fifties, and they tended to stop the action, stop any visually interesting thing, while someone was sand the song, so they might stroll through the forest or something… It was really easy to avoid musicals during the seventies, though, there were very few made. When I was in high school, referred to fantasy films I used to watch, kids movies, you know, like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory or Dr. Doolittle, the one with Rex Harrison, the old one, were some of the very few fantasy-oriented films that you could see during that time period.
RNP: So I think you said before, when Star Wars came out, you actually went to the premiere.
RP: Not to the premier, I went to the day it opened, the first show. Darth Vader was not there, I had never heard of Darth Vader, of course. I went because I had seen Lucas's first movie, THX 1138, which is a science fiction movie more serious than Star Wars, in, like '71, with a friend of mine, and I'd seen American Graffiti. Which were very different movies, but I liked them both a lot, and the idea of the same guy who had done those two movies doing a sort of space adventure movie, although I had been looking forward to it since it was first announced, I did not have a clear idea of what it would be like, from the first time I heard about it because I only knew the title, I didn't have Entertainment Weekly so most of the way that I would learn about new movies coming out was from the Los Angeles Times, probably. There were no nightly entertainment programs on TV, or anything like that, not that I watch those.
RNP: Do you remember the day that you saw it? What was it like, what happened?
RP: Actually, I had to leave my favorite class, which was, I think, Celtic Literature (or Celtic Mythology, I can't remember which one I was taking at the time) a little early in order to get down there in time. It was playing, I was going to UCLA, it was playing at the Avco theater in Westwood which is on Wilshire Blvd, not in Westwood Village, proper, and when I went down there, I saw it with my roommate Sean, we went down there to catch the first show and there was a small crowd of people and the theater was probably half full, maybe two thirds or something when we saw the first show there. So, at that particular moment, it's not like there was a huge gang of people waiting to see the very first show, you know, that movie sort of created the culture of science fiction adventure movie fan base, because, you know most of the science fiction movies from the seventies prior to that were dystopian. They (pandering for a word) depicted, that's the word I'm looking for, post-apocalyptic situations, people trying to survive, last people on earth kind of situations. I think, you know, budgetary concerns may have something to do with a lot of those movies being made, because you can figure out that there were not a lot of abandon, awful lot like Star Wars was one of the most expensive science fiction movie that had been made up to that point, it would be 2001 was 5 million or so, of course it was in '77 dollars compared to '68 dollars, but they did a lot of effects for it. But when we saw the movie, I just thought it was fantastic. The, some of the shortcomings of it that you see now: budgetary problems, kind of, not necessarily the best acting in the world, even from people who turned out to be much better actors later on, you know, didn't really concern us because it was like "Wow, this is the first time I've seen a science fiction movie that was an adventure and that had such scope." Because, you know, they were on this desert planet, they were in a number of different locations there, the bar scene was unlike any thing that was done in a movie before, and the number of different spacecraft in the movie, because I had seen 2001: [A Space Odyssey] when I was ten or something, probably twelve, 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Stanley Kubrick movie, and there are, what, three, I think, maybe four, spacecraft in the whole movie. One of them being the ship Discovery, I think, that's taking the two astronauts and the crew that's in hypersleep, or they've probably been out, you know, it's very different kind of movie, very serious, Star Wars was an action adventure movie. It was a mash-up of several genres, I mean it had touches to westerns, and swashbucklers, sword-fighting, not very good sword fighting as we see now, but they made an effort. And I think at a time, we gave them an A for effort.
RNP: Was there? Since you were one of the first people who saw it, did you go out and tell everybody to go see it because it was so big?
RP: Oh, yeah. We got a, as first-day attendees, we, Sean and I, received little buttons that said "May the Force be With You" and people would go "Huh? What's that mean? What's that?" "Oh, we saw Star Wars." "Oh, how was it, I heard of it, was it any good?" "Loved it, it was great." You know, but, it was also very different from – the tide of popular culture was sort of changing from the counter culture movies of the early seventies to, you know, sort of more popular entertainment. Lucas and Spielberg were, um, were seemed to be trying to mime the old Hollywood adventure kind of filmmaking.
RNP: Did you know that it would, when you first saw it you thought it was fantastic, but did you know it would become such a huge thing and that it would actually last throughout all history?
RP: You mean, until now? No, I had no idea. No, uh, you know, people who saw it that first day, everybody went out of the theater very enthusiastic, you know, very exciting movie, I had never seen, you know, battle in space like that before. The aliens, it just had so many different elements that hadn't been in a movie before, but, I don't know, I don't know if I had the same feeling then as now that just because I like something doesn't necessarily mean everybody will. I remember after I saw it, uh, a couple days, I think, 20th Century Fox's stock went up, like, 50% or something, and my Mom said, you know, she knew I had seen it opening day, "Why didn't you tell me it was going to be such a big thing?" "I didn't know!" You know, I was hoping I would like it but I had no idea that it would become kind of a phenomenon. We mentioned before, not here, that it was still playing in theaters a year after it came out, which would never happen now, because people would be watching it at home by then. You know, in the seventies, it was before the big releases of movies for their playing in thousands of theaters throughout the country on opening day. You know, opening day was not something that everybody would go to a movie on opening day because it would usually only play in a few handfuls of theaters in the whole country. Even, you know, big blockbusters, things that they were expecting to be big blockbusters, would only play, Star Wars played in the Avco, the Changy it played somewhere in Orange County and, when it became very popular, which I believe was, you know, by the weekend – I don't remember what day it came out, because they used to release movies on Wednesdays, and more recently it's always on Fridays. But, you know, it became big pretty quickly, and, during the summer, because it came on in May, if you wanted to see it, you had to stand in a long line, usually you would go in a group, and somebody would go and buy the tickets, which meant standing in a long line that went east along Wilshire Blvd and then the other people would go and get in the line going into the theater which would go west along the sidewalk on Wilshire Blvd and, you know, over the years it seemed like we did that a lot because the first two sequels, Empire [Strikes Back] and Return of the Jedi were both released at that same theater, the Avco in Westwood, and typically my friends would go on opening day again, years later, to those movies when they came out, and, uh, you know…
RNP: Was it… was there a similar attitude toward movies after Star Wars, like, was there more of an interest in these bigger movies, sort of like, 'cause wasn't Back to The Future kind of a big thing, or was it not quite as much, in the 80s?
RP: Well that was all a decade later, I think. Um, yeah there was the – after Star Wars came out and the same year, Close Encounters came out, which – very different kind of movie in a way, but you know, there's a lot of special effects in it, a lot of spaceships in it, there's, you know, the action isn't different, but I think those movies sort of whetted the appetite of people for a science fiction adventure, you know, things with special effects, stuff that you couldn't see in your everyday life, and, but, for a large part, for a couple of years, um, the things that the studios released seemed pretty lame in comparison. I think the next movie that was probably really big, was probably Alien, had, you know, a high level of special effects, very exciting, scary in this case, story. I remember when the movie came out, that there were older people who, you know, considered science fiction to be the stuff of teenagers because the only things they were familiar with movies, maybe, was "Buck Rodgers" from the 30s, the old serials, which certainly Star Wars is indebted to, you know, somewhat for, you know, some of the ideas it uses and the tone for as far as action and mystery, but a lot of older – well, many of the young people from kids to people into their thirties were very excited by Star Wars and were open to it, and you know, a lot of older people thought it was kind of dumb and were not attune to science fiction setting and you know, considered it kid stuff, the kind of thing for people who read comic books and stuff like that. Which, you know, nowadays, everybody is familiar with that kind of stuff and is willing to watch it, but, you know, there was, uh, until that point, if someone like science fiction or horror or westerns were considered sort of just entertainment, nothing not necessarily really worth your time. People were more into dramas. You know, things in the sixties were like the big blockbusters like [unintelligible] to Dr. Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia. People more familiar with, you know, real-world scenarios, and, um, they weren't as interested in fantasy science fiction movies, it was kid stuff.
RNP: Um, why do you think, you said Star Wars was cool and that's why people were really interested in it. But why do you think there was all of a sudden that switch from sort of dramas of the early seventies to this sort of focus on special effects and, you know, "cooler" things?
RP: I think there was a change in attitude. People were kind of burned out by bad times and depressing movies. You know, there had been a lot of the early seventies movies [that] were influenced by the counter-culture, you know, I think of almost anything with Jack Nicholson from the seventies, Five Easy Pieces, King of Marvin Gardens, even to some extent, China Town. You know, they're very kind of downer sort of stories and I think a lot of people in the sixties, going form, you know, going from peace, love, freedom-a kind of hippie attitude where they had been, sort of, disillusioned because of thing like the assassination of Robert Kennedy and Dr. King and it kind of created a tenure of, you know.. People weren't interested in something that was light and frothy and fun, they were... Even if you think of the French Connection, which was the best picture winner, '72 or three or something, kind of very violent, very .... Very not happy kind of movie and there was sort of a whole seat change in the seventies from introspection and, I don't want to say depression, but, there were definitely bad parts to this change too, it was, you know, in some ways a, in the later seventies, people referred to it as the "Me Decade". You know you have cultural artifacts such as Saturday Night Fever and people with this whole hedonistic lifestyle instead of, you know, love everybody, it's like: "You're number one". But on the other hand, you also have a kind of push toward more just pure entertainment. I think there was sort of a burnout as people from all the filmic bad news to-. And there was also a sort of change in that you had younger filmmakers who were not so much influenced by self-expression of things they'd seen in the French New-Wave and trying to do, you know, show a camera to reality they were more like, "Hey the things we really like are the old Hollywood and King movies:" Gunga Din, Westerns, they were looking more toward, say, Lucas and Spielberg and some of these people where pointing toward Kurasawa, a Japanese director they really liked, and Kurasawa van certainly be heavy but also there's a lot of action and expressing themselves through action with kind of the really disturbing, down storytelling.
RNP: So I once read somewhere that it said that the seventies were the "Golden Age" of movies and how more people were actually going to the movies [and] then you've this divide between the depressing ones and the sort of happier ones but people where still going to see the depressing ones. Why-what made them more interested in the sort of sadder movies of the seventies because the movies-.
RP: I think it was really the whole tenure of the times and they were, I mean – Movies have that dual nature of being business and being art and nobody really tries to make a movie that's going to lose a lot of money. People are always hopeful that whatever thing they are making is going to find an audience that is going to like it but during that time the people were open to a more serious, more pessimistic view of life you know. And market wise, the Hollywood producers who, ever since television came in, where trying to find an audience, trying to bring the audience back to the theaters and when something like Easy Rider- which was made for very little money- and made tons of money at the box office. And when they looked at that counter-culture, these young people out there who were interested in these hard-hitting stories of real life and, you know, bad things. And previously, you know, there had been counter-culture movies going back, probably to Rebel Without a Cause. But except for Rebel Without a Cause, most of them that you think of where lower budget movies kind of made by marginal producers and they were not a pictures made by big Hollywood studios, they were usually trying to court older people who – trying to court everyone, but, you know, they were not specifically targeting the youth audience, I mean, something like Bonnie and Clyde and [that was] a huge hit and Easy Rider. [They] kind of said to them, "Hey, there's this huge audience [that] will go and see these movies if we, you know, grime it up a bit. But, as I said before, you know, they often refer to '69, seventies being this big watershed here in America where you went from the optimism of the seventies to the pessimism-the optimism of the sixties to pessimism of the seventies after several assassinations and, you know, some of the cultural heroes dying – Jimi Hendrix and a lot of people who died of drugs or other things and you know, the Beatles broke up. All these things that-the positive what they looked at [were] positive influences in the sixties of, you know, [of a] great big beautiful tomorrow [which] got cut off around the turn form '69 [to] '70.
They often point to Woodstock being the last big hurrah of, you know, the whole hippie moment. And, very shortly thereafter, there was a big concert in the San Francisco area called the Altemont where the Rolling Stones hired the Hells Angels tom do security and some people were killed by the Hells Angels – allegedly. But people were killed in the audience at this big concert and so it was like in a short time you went from peace, love, freedom to, you know, things are bad and screwed up. And, also, in the early seventies, we had Mr. Nixon and the whole Watergate scenario. And, you know, there was this whole feeling that, we're going to change the world after all that, you know, that they could not get rid of the people in power who were doing bad things and, you know, the Vietnam War getting to go on and on the other bad thing that I was thinking of, you know there were protesters at Ohio State who were shot by the National Guard. And, you know, all these things went one after the other. There was a culture of, kind of, going from an extroverted type of thing – bright colors, all these different things – that the world was your oyster – down to a situation where you couldn't succeed against the man. And [people would] end up with these non-entertainment movies. Not that they're – I don't mean to diss Jack Nicholson movies or anything, but yeah, there was a change. Certainly you could get, even later on, like in the late seventies, Taxi Driver. It was right in the same era, and Scorsese is considered you know, part of that generation along with Spielberg and Lucas. Coppell is kind of the elder statesman, Dupall, guys who had a real strong connection to the traditional Hollywood movie. Taxi Driver is certainly much more of a pessimistic movie and it, of course, couldn't have come out during Watergate as that didn't happen yet [or] have Watergate as a text or subtext. So, you know, there is never any solid demarcation of anything in any kind of cultural movement. There is often a precursor and things that come out…. Sometimes clearly defined genre of a movement in film or whatever… A couple years after the major trend is over….
RNP: So, do you think in response of the previous decade… Do you think that's why the trend to make sort of more uplifting movies continued on, even after the sort of Star Wars kind of period is because people were attracted to the happier things? [Is] that why it continued on through the 80's?
RP: Yeah, I can't remember in the 80's that was any big issue that would cause big resurgence of the darker kind of movie. I'm sure there were a number of the darker movies made during the 80's, David Lynch was making movies in the eighties. There's definitely a movement in a number of different areas to use film in a more sensory kind of way, I mean to use the whole toolbox of close-ups, moving camera, things that can create on-screen excitement as opposed to Hollywood classic way of setting up the camera and letting the action happen in front…. Don't cut, until you have to... You know there was much more interest, even in, you know, it may seem strange, I sometimes think of Black Stallion, ostensibly a kid's movie, but you know, it is very, very intense in using the camera in showing things, you know, letting you see the action. There had been a lot of dialogue, and I had no idea if it was influential or not but you know. In all these movies there was a lot more action, think of Indiana Jones or the Raiders of the Lost Ark – it's endless action from beginning to end. There're cool moments where it stops and with a little bit of moments of exposition form here to there. You know, when they explain what the ark is, the Ark of the Covenant, at one point. But, pretty much, other than that it's a lot of action and Spielberg uses the camera to intensify what you're seeing onscreen. I mean, you have a huge close-up of a mummy's head with a snake going through his mouth. With something that, years before, on something that is theoretically a pure-entertainment movie for everybody, they probably wouldn't have done it. It would have been considered too graphic of an image, too intense. There's just a lot of heightened use of the old toolbox of all different types of techniques, including special effects.
Before Star Wars every studio had a special effects department but they were usually called on to do fairly mundane things, not for explosions… For example, [The] Avengers, and the sheer volume of effects in that movie: the explosions, the things crashing through buildings and all these different kinds of things – if it were not for all this post Star Wars buildup of effects as a major part of what goes into a big blockbuster movie wouldn't happen. What would happen back in the day... David Lean shot Lawrence of Arabia; he went to the actual desert. Anything you saw on the screen had to be there in real life. Certainly they still use locations whenever they can; even Empire Strikes Back was shot in twenty different locations to get the Ice Planet... A lot of them are in the US where they filmed the interiors, but probably Yoda's world... They were willing to spend the money on this kind of special effects.. You can't point to any movie made before 2001: [A Space Odyssey] that had as many-even a fraction of the use of effects. Well, Forbidden Planet I guess in the fifties.. You know, it just didn't happen. Usually effects were used to fix things and they still use them to fix things... They sometimes used effects, like Disney world movies, to save money. They wouldn't on puRPose go in and say, "We're going to spend half of our budget in special effects to do things we can't actually film".
RP: I don't think I ever answered your question about Back to the Future.
RNP: You pretty much answered it. Why did people continue seeing movies throughout the eighties? Were their reactions similar with movies in the eighties like Back to the Future, big hype sort of things?
RP: As I mentioned before, when Star Wars came out, it was playing in probably twenty-five theaters in the country the first weekend. It played at the Avco Theater, I know for a fact, for at least eight months. It was still playing in the theater a year after the original release date. It was playing in a different theater, but it was still a big first run... Now, and I don't know exactly when this happened, but now, when a movie comes out-and certainly this is all confused and confuddled by DVD's and video, by such time such things didn't exist in 1977. Almost everybody that you know who was interested in the movies can go on opening day and see whatever big new movie is coming out. They're playing in thousands and thousands of theaters, throughout the country. [It] used to be so that if you wanted to see The Sound of Music or even Star Wars, you had to go to a first run theater. Most places they would be in downtown, you know, here in LA they were back in the seventies back in Hollywood and at Westwood. Thus were the big Mecca's of where to see new movies and that's the way it always used to be, they would play in those bigger theaters. Originally there would be movie palaces down in downtown-for months. They would eventually be released into neighborhood theaters in the valley or in South Bay or something many months after they had been released in those first run theaters. Now they'll play at the big multiplexes, often on multiple screens, so that you can have hundreds of people in the one location seeing you know, the same movie at the same time. You don't have to wait unless you're waiting for the video to see the movie. Now I think that it's led to different practices and there's a certain expectation that when a lot of money is spent on a movie that will get instant return, be able to report huge box office grosses.
RNP: Do you think it is actually possible have become – like during the eighties especially – became more for business rather than an art form? Because you're saying that it is both a business and an art form but do you think because they are get people to come and watch their movies, see it more often... That it became a more sort of formula that they followed?
RP: I think we may think of it that way, but I'm not sure that it wasn't always that way. The way the business works has changed. In the distant past before the thirties and forties movies in the theater were like the number one form of entertainment. Most people didn't go to plays so you could go to the movies or listen to the radio, both of which were actually new media. No one really had a radio before nineteen-twenty. Now, you know, you can watch television, you can watch DVD's, you don't have to go to the theater. You can sometimes see brand new movies on your computer, you know, the very day they're released in the theater. So, there's much more incentive for the people making the movie to make it seem like if you don't see this theater-if you don't see this movie in theater, on the big screen with the big sound system and all that, you're going to be missing out. Whereas back in the day people just used to go to the movies every week. It just was part of their routine and they probably just usually went to their local theater. When I was a kid in the sixties I think I remember going to see a new movie in a downtown theater-only a handful of times. You usually would go to a someplace in the suburbs where you lived. I've always preferred the experience of going to the theater, you know, being there with other people or not. I've seen movies virtually alone in some cases-certainly there were many more people who saw Star Wars in that theater the day it opened then I saw in the same theater the year before... The Ingmar Bergman movie of the Mozart opera The Magic Flute, and there were literally like five people in the theater. You know, the experience of theaters is something I like whether it's in a new, large-screen theater like some of the ones we have here in the Valley or any sort of Premiere old, smaller neighborhood theater where they sometimes show strange movies that you can't see otherwise. People have so many different options now that the business side of it and the return on investment is much more prevalent. I don't know when they started reporting the grosses of movies in the Times like every Monday. I know it was sometime in the seventies or maybe they already were and I wasn't aware of it... Nobody talked about that ever I was – people in the movie industry might talk about that now, you know, on Monday people will say, "Oh, did you hear that The Avengers beat the box office record of Harry Potter or, you know... People at work were asking about The Hunger Games recently after it did really well the opening weekend. It's kind of like, "Oh, If it made fifty million dollars it must be worth seeing".
RNP: Usually they reflect sort of attitudes of the day do you think they can also affect attitudes of the day, like how people see the world or of how they think of things?
RP: Yes, I think that the less obvious it is in the movie... Not sure, for instance... In the sixties it was the first time that you really had African American actors in major roles in movies. I suspect that a lot of people's minds were not affected at all by certain movies that were about race issues. Like In the Heat of the Night which was specifically about black detective who had gone to the south for some reason and was being hassled by local police. It was an overt situation, people who were not interested in that probably stayed away. Sometimes I think, when in movies it's like... It's not a movie per se, but, you know, it's Star Trek the old sixties TV series they had characters from different places who were just there and nobody really talked about it as being, "This is weird, this is"... Everybody was there doing their job and I think things like that where we have just a situation that doesn't shout out to anybody. It's just depicted. You know, I think that probably some of the Sidney Poitier movies from the sixties that were just stories of people with a black character in it. Maybe something like, probably from the fifties, The Defiant Ones where you have him and Tony Curtis were escapees and they were hand-cuffed together throughout the movie.
RNP: You remind me of how during the seventies there was this whole movement like Blackula
RNP: Did you have any interest in them? Did you ever see one or do you know anything about them?
RP: Only vaguely. I remember when they came out those movies were basically not unlike the counter-culture movies of the period, but because somebody discovered that there was a market for movies with black casts. And some of these movies were probably good. I can't say that I saw a lot of them. Some of them didn't play everywhere – it's not like today where you can see a Tyler Perry movie anywhere -- they only played in black neighborhoods and regions where they might find a receptive audience. Blackula for instance was made by American international pictures which was one of the low budget studios I was talking about earlier. Pioneered the counter culture moves. They were making counter culture moves in the 60's long before the big studios. There were a bunch of movies that Jack Nicholson was in before anyone had ever heard of him. They made more acceptable movies of the period like Shaft.
You know 1969 Gordon Parks made a movie – not a Blaxploitation type movie, but a movie with primarily African American actors, that was much more a family drama kind of thing. So at the same time that studios like AIP were making Blaxploitation movies other people were trying making serious movies for black audiences. I think the impetus of quote 'Blaxploitation' movies was to do kind of no unlike the cheesy low budget movies that were being made for teenage audiences to make the same kind of thing for African American audiences. At virtually the same time, Sydney Poitier made a few movies in the 70's that were comedies and they were almost like a situation comedy. One was called Up Town Saturday Night with Bill Cosby and I can't remember who else was in it, but it was almost like the Honeymooners the old Jackie Gleason show about two guys who were married and had jobs and would come up with these schemes like get rich quick or I can't remember…but I actually saw this movie it played at my local theatre in Redondo Beach…but it was a more…a bigger budget movie, had people you've heard of and it's main raison d'etre was to be a comedy. Bill Cosby was a pioneer in African Americans trying to be an average American -- African American -- a likeable character and present a positive image of how black Americans could be or are --instead of racial stereotypes.
RNP: Do you think that the movies of this time period were inspired by the black power movement of the 60's. Part of the Civil rights movement like the Black Panthers influenced the rise to these types of movies.
RP: I don't know. The Black power movement was kind of a subset of the whole black empowerment movement that you have with Dr. King and others the whole civil rights movement. I guess you could say that because to some extent some of those exploitation kinds of movies usually involve violent situations. Like Shaft and a movie called Coffy about a female private-eye I assumed it was violent in comparison with others movies made at the time. Made with the whole low budget aesthetic – provide something that you can't see in the major A-list kind of movies. Do it cheaply give people something for their entertainment buck, but quickly and as low budget as possible.
RNP: Can you tell us stories revolving around Jaws and the blatant fear or terror from that movie that people got?
RP: I was thinking about that the other day and how after Jaws there were all these people who didn't want to go into the water at the beach anymore for fear of a shark. A decade earlier there were people who didn't want to go in the shower for fear of Norman Bates. I didn't know anybody personally who said they wouldn't go into the water because of Jaws and that a shark was going to get them. I lived in a beach city and everyone went to the beach and no one had ever been bitten by a shark. So I think that maybe if the movie had been set in Southern California they would have had more of a reaction. When I saw the movie there is a famous moment in the film when Richard Dreyfuss and the police chief [Roy Schneider] go out on the boat to check out somebody who is missing and they find the boat of the person who is missing and Dreyfuss puts on his scuba gear and goes down and is scoping out the hull of this boat that is submerged now and there is a big hole in the side of it and a head suddenly appears in the hole and everyone in the theatre just shrieked and jumped and I remember sitting there and thinking there is going to be something really scary and disgusting that suddenly appears in that hole as soon as he's approaching it, but he gets closer and suddenly it's there in the middle of the frame and everybody jumps. I knew it was going to happen and I was just waiting for it and it was kind of satisfying that it happened and everybody screamed in the theatre there was a big reaction to it. So certainly the movie was working in terms of having an effect on the audience.
It was a big era of I think in a way the studios were trying to fuel things like that because it gave them more publicity that people heard Oh this movie is so scary that people are saying that they won't go into the water just like the year before when The Exorcist came out and considered to be incredibly scary and people were theoretically vomiting in the theatre and people were being carried out of the theatre. It was certainly gross and kind of effective in its way, but in the 60's there was a famous producer who made kind of low budget horror movies and every one of the movies he made would have some kind of gimmick and one of them was everybody who went to the theatre had a life insurance policy created for them so that if there were frightened to death that their family would be paid off and they refer to it showmanship of producers coming up with these crazy schemes to get people to go into the theatre and like I said I never met anybody who said that they wouldn't go into the water because of Jaws. Jaws is probably one of those movies that kind of created the whole exciting…scene – Close Encounters, Star Wars, Alien
RNP: Alien…Mom told me a story that Alien even made you jump.
RP: Right. It was the first movie I ever saw where I actually physically reacted. In Jaws I was just sitting there waiting for the moment thinking, 'Wow, this guy is playing the audience really well and everybody is going to jump in about a second.' In Alien it was a little more unexpected – even to me. Of course, I always blame that on the fact that it was a midnight show and I'd already seen a creepy movie beforehand.
RNP: Do you think…rise in horror movies in the 80's …Freddy Krueger, Halloween those kind of things – The Blob… The Thing…
RP: You can kind of look at all horror movies before The Exorcist and after The Exorcist. Before The Exorcist they didn't seem to have nearly as much gore and they were more supernatural and trying to make you shiver somewhat not as much blood and guts. Certainly there was some made beforehand there was a whole low budget genre before in the 60's and a big precursor to the Exorcist probably in terms of gore and stuff would be … [1:15] low budget period… Hollywood horror type of movie….certainly all slasher movies… Halloween… influenced by Psycho. There were other 60's horror movies influenced by Psycho, but the whole genre of kids in dangerous situations being stalked by killers with a knife in the 80's. I don't know what the cultural need was for this at the time. They blamed the whole cycle of horror movies in the 30's on the depression and the horror movies of the time being fantasy escape from reality into something that was scary and titillating and I'm not sure what people were saying in the 80's…I don't remember…study the what was happening then. I can't remember.
RNP: The movie industry continues popping out blockbuster films. Huge amount of teen movies in the 80's John Hughes
RP: Halloween was a low budget horror movie. Not very much money and people were unfamiliar. With most of those movies it's one of those attractive things for producers being able to put together a movie in a genre that would sell itself. "We're doing a scary slasher movie." You don't need to say it has Jamie Lee Curtis in it or [unintelligible] Here's the movie this is what's going to be in it everyone knows. Not long ago at [unintelligible] people were actually making fun of that whole set-up. And certainly on TV we've seen some parodies of the whole guy in the woods with the knife kind of genre. This again, was largely movies being made for people who actually were going to the movies. In the 80's when my wife and I would go to the movies and we were in our mid-20's and we would sometimes be among the oldest people in the audience when we went to see Pretty in Pink or the other John Hughes movies you were talking about. Or there were a lot of other ones…Better Off Dead…comedies…they were making movies for who they perceived were going to the movies and I think the audience responded saying I'll go to see movies about teens. There's been this big divide like every year when people complain about the Academy Awards that nobody has seen many of these movies that are nominated for the Academy Award. They're highbrow adult movies. Most people go to see the action movies, the comedies, the and its because nowadays the big grossing movies that people go see are genre movies. They're science fiction movies, they're thrillers, they're fantasy and adventure movies, they're comedies. They're the kind of movies that in the past would have been made by the low budget arm of the studio. Nowadays you have horror movies that cost a ton of money and special effects to create two-headed monsters and back in the 40's all the horror movies were made cheaply and the best ones basically never showed you the monster.
RNP: So if you could what would you say was the movie that encapsulated the whole 70's and 80's movie the best of the best? Captured all of it
RP: I would probably have to go with Empire Strikes Back or Raiders of the Lost Ark they were…Empire Strikes Back had a much bigger budget than Star Wars they had a lot more special effects. There seems to be a lot more attention paid to the form…of the movie. There was an old Hollywood adventure movie writer brought in to write the script and Raiders of the Lost Ark was just non-stop action. For me there was… [Unintelligible] Not that the good guys win, but it never made sense to me that Indiana Jones was chained up to a pole at the end of the pole and he was supposed to be the action hero… They were technically really well done people who weren't convinced by Star Wars may have liked Empire Strikes Back better. It worked on a somewhat more professional level. Those were the prime examples of the new kind of big blockbuster. In the 60's people would…after television came in and movie studios were looking for what the audience wanted to see because the audience did not rely on those kinds of movies anymore, they changed things around. They created wide screen movies, they shot things on location, they made big literary epics, they tried to show you something in the world that you couldn't see in your backyard. Then in the early 70's they said, "Oh, maybe what you really want to see what is really happening in your backyard." The movies about people and real situations like The Last Picture Show which takes place in this little town, just a drama. With the big action movies it started probably with Star Wars. Star Wars and Close Encounters both came out in the same year. Star Wars was probably still in the theatres when Close Encounters came out. It was like something for the science fiction aficionado the effects that you had in 2001: A Space Odyssey were being used for a completely different puRPose a kind of exciting kind of experience…that's not cerebral was more visceral. That's what both of those movies really have is this sort of visceral sensation. When you think about it they have several different locations. Indiana Jones in Raiders is in South America, he goes back to the college, he flies to Nepal or Tibet or something, he flies to Egypt, they're on a little island in the Mediterranean, and same thing in Empire Strikes Back: there's an ice planet, a swamp planet, city in the clouds and it's all kind of sensation you don't get by staying home.