Arguably, he’s best known for bringing the iconic character of John Rambo into the world with the 1982 ‘Nam-scarred survivalist classic First Blood, but another underappreciated film from his CV is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. 1971’s Wake in Fright was an early addition to the Australian New Wave cinema movement, and remains a vivid and disturbing depiction of the country’s hard-drinking, fiercely masculine subculture of that era. We talked to Kotcheff earlier this month when the film received a cinema re-release and he was kind enough to extend the time to talk about his subsequent career to the film.
HeyUGuys: How was the film which first brought you recognition, Wake in Fright, received initially?
Ted Kotcheff: Critically, it got great reviews everywhere. The film was first released in Australian in 1971 where it got a strong critical response, but the popular reaction was lukewarm. I think that perhaps some Australians were affronted by the depiction of the Aussie male. Jack Thompson, one of the actors in the film, told me later that at one cinema, a man got up and pointed at the screen, yelling “this is not us!”, while another voice bellowed “sit down you fool, it is!” (laughs).
The film went to on play at the Cannes Film Festival of that year and was embraced by the French, playing in Paris for nine months. In America, under the title Outback, it got superb reviews from Pauline Kael and critic Rex Reed chose it as one of the best films of 71’. Unfortunately, [distributors] United Artist didn’t believe in it and spent zero money on advertising. Then it disappeared for a long time, as you know.
First Blood seemed to chime with both critics and audiences, and it still holds up as a fantastic piece of pulp action cinema. Could you talk a little about it? Was Stallone attached when you came on board?
Not at first. I helped work on the script, which was based on novel by a fellow Canadian named David Morrell. We got the first draft finished and the producers asked who I’d like for the main role, to which I responded that it would be great to have Sylvester Stallone. At the time his career was not in great shape. The two Rocky films had been huge successes, but the other films he made, such as Paradise Ally and FIST, had failed at the box office. The received wisdom in Hollywood was that Stallone only worked as Rocky, so my decision to hire him wasn’t championed.
I sent the script to Sylvester regardless, and he called me the next day to say he loved the idea. I’ve never had such a quick and positive response from a star in my whole career in the business (laughs). He only had one request, and that was to do a rewrite on the script with me, to which I agreed. One of the biggest strengths Sylvester has is a great populist sense of what works. He knows what audiences like and dislike in a film. He said to me, “Ted, this guy is a congressional medal of honour winner and he’s being chased by a bunch of kids who are weekend warriors. He shoots them down by the dozen. The audiences are going to hate him. He wouldn’t go out and massacre everyone after what he’s been through in Vietnam with his comrades and all the killing.” I agreed so we took that out.
That was the major change, but the other idea he had was to keep John Rambo silent throughout the film. Directors love extreme ideas like that (laughs). I thought it was interesting, but when we began working on it, I argued they’d be moments where dialogue would be necessary, to which he agreed. That idea ended up having a very sedentary effect on the script, however, and made Rambo a laconic figure.
We always considered Rambo to be on a suicide mission, which was how the original script ended. The moment he crosses that bridge he knows his outcome and it’s not going to end well, but he’s doesn’t care because as far as concerned – there isn’t a place left for him in American society anymore. The way it was written originally, [Colonel] Trautman was going to put an end to it all but instead hesitates, so Rambo grabs his weapon and pulls the trigger, blowing himself away. We shot that, which was brilliant, but Sylvester came over afterwards and said the audience would hate us for putting this character through everything only to have him killed at the very end.
I suggested we could fix this by cutting away from that scene earlier on and then doing a simple shot of Rambo alive and walking out with the colonel. The producers went crazy at me for intending to go over schedule and budget, but the shot only ended up taking a couple of hours. At the first test screening [with the original ending intact] you could see the audience going crazy for the film. There were actually people yelling at the screen which I’d never experienced before. They loved this character and then he blows himself away. You could have heard a pin drop. Every test card said the same – a great film but who decided to do this ending and kill Rambo?
Did the themes in First Blood lead you to make your next feature Uncommon Valor?
Yes, absolutely. When the producers approached me they didn’t have a script, but pitched an idea about a father who goes back to Vietnam for his son, which I loved. Having seen First Blood they felt I was good a good fit for the subject. I still feel Vietnam was the stupidest war the United States has ever committed to. 83,000 young American men were killed due to a dubious domino theory that because the Vietcong had become communist, the whole of Asia would follow. [Vietnam] veterans would come up to me regularly around that time, and I was written to by members of the veteran’s association. They loved both First Blood and Uncommon Valor.
It was obviously still a very raw topic for many Americans.
With First Blood, there was talk that the subject wouldn’t appeal to an audience because Americans didn’t want to be reminded of the war, but boy were they wrong. The film touched a nerve that we had fucked over the veterans. Brian Dennehy, who plays the sheriff in the film, served two tours of duty in Vietnam. He was involved in a hostile shoot-out with the Vietcong the same night he was informed by his sergeant that a plane was leaving the day next day to take him home. It landed in San Francisco at midnight and they dump him out in the street. Twelve hours before that he was engaged in combat in another part of the world, now he’s wandering the dark street of San Francisco with no one to greet him. The veterans were treated so badly over in here.
Your 1987 film Switching Channels is the antithesis of those worlds, and was your first comedy in over a decade. What drew you back to that genre?
I like doing action and drama, but I also love social comedy, too. This was offered to me and I immediately responded to the material. I think my interests in different genres stems from my experience of directing weekly hour shows on television early in my career. One week would be a dark thriller, while the next would be a hysterical comedy. When I got in the film business I never wanted to be confined to one genre because I liked doing all of them.
How was it directing three stars (Kathleen Turner, Burt Reynolds and Christopher Reeve) who were amongst the biggest stars of the decade?
It’s always a challenge dealing with movie stars because they’ve placed their careers in your hands. They have to learn to trust you and in return, you have to get the best out of them, plus they’re always worried that you’ll show them up in a way which might hurt their careers.
Because of his precarious box office position, Sly was nervous and watchful of me when we started filming on First Blood. In the scene where one of the deputies falls out of the helicopter and dies, I told Sly that when he reached the body, it has to be a very dramatic moment for the character. Every person Rambo had killed in Vietnam and all the comrades that had died by his side had to be going through his head. This guy’s body is what Vietnam means to him and I needed to see it in his eyes. The next day after we’d screened the dallies from that scene, Sly came up to me and said it was the best piece of acting he’d ever done and he owed it all to me. From that day on I could have asked him to stand on his head and read the bible backwards, and he would have done it because he trusted me (laughs). You have to earn the actors’ trust.
Another much-loved comedy of yours, Weekend at Bernie’s, has a pretty dark premise. How difficult was it to find the right balance for the humour in the film?
I had known the film’s writer Robert Klane for a while but we’d never worked together. He came to me one day and said he had an idea for a film which was this image of two guys dragging around a dead body they have to pretend was alive. He didn’t a beginning or an end, just the one idea. We met up in a motel in Santa Barbara to work on expanding it. We’d constantly argue what was funny and what wasn’t, but we dug very hard to find the comedy there. It could have easily gone sour.
It’s a great physical performance by the actor who played Bernie.
I thought he was terrific with the subtle changes in his face and demeanour. He never gave it away, but you could sometimes see a sort of knowing look in his eyes. He was able to get a performance strictly from his eyes which is one of the most difficult things to do.
Of all the films I’ve made, the two which get the most recognition around the world are First Blood and Weekend at Bernie’s (laughs).
Wake in Fright is out on DVD right now.