GTO 3987 on Mulholland

GTO 3987 on Mulholland

Friday, May 15, 2020

Making Terminal Velocity (1984)

Making Terminal Velocity (1984) By 1984, my repertory company had already formed and was fully functioning. Since returning from France, I had made two films immediately back-to-back--Desert Center and Success--followed the following year by Fait Accompli. All three films featured Gérard Ismaël who came from France to live in the States at about the same time I returned from Paris. Gérard had starred in Just Jaeckin's The Last Romantic Lover with Dayle Haddon and Fernando Rey (Frog 1 from The French Connection and its sequel) and had worked with Claude Lelouch. Friends put us together. All three movies were shot, in part, on El Mirage which is a dry lake bed in the California desert where years earlier I had worked on the CBS TV movie Sole Survivor.

It wasn't until 1984 that I once again made the trek to El Mirage with a film crew. I intended it to be something akin to Sam Peckinpah's The Getaway and chose Terminal Velocity as the title. Those interested in drag racing know this term as referring to the speed at which a dragster is traveling as it crosses the finish line at the end of the quarter mile. I liked the literal speed reference but I also saw it as being a conceptual speed that kills as the events in the movie would be proceeding at a terminal pace for several of the characters.

Wanting something a bit racier for my film hero 'Carter' (played by Joel Hile who was a member of my repertory company) than the 1980 Corvette I was driving at the time, I went to my friend Matthew Ettinger who then had an interest in Street Rods, a dealership that specialized in some very hot cars. He offered me a burgundy Corvette convertible LT1 with ZR1 option. It had loads of horsepower and was extremely fast. A great screen car!

We traveled to the desert in a Winnebago which, given daytime temperatures exceeding 125 degrees Fahrenheit, was a blessing with it's air conditioning and other creature comforts though Joel asked to drive the Corvette (accompanied by leading lady Julie Silliman ) and that was fine with me. On the lake bed, it was so hot that the handkerchief I would drench with water and tie around my neck before leaving the motor home would be bone dry by the time I called 'Action' for the scene. At one point, the windshield of a Pontiac Tempest we were using shattered when actor Tom Hutchinson rolled onto the hood in a fight scene. The extreme desert heat had made it brittle. We spent half a day finding a replacement in a local junk yard and having it installed.

Back in Los Angeles, we added Swedish actress and artist Margareta Sjödin to the cast as the gang leader's wife. She visited as we were shooting a car chase in the underground parking of my apartment building. The sequence included multiple gun shots and a scene where one of the actors is being dragged by Tom Hutchinson's car as he is making his getaway. The combination of gun shots and squealing tires and related commotion set off numerous car alarms in the vicinity and attracted the attention of the building's landlord who took one look through the basement door and said, "Oh, it's you" and left us to ourselves.

From my apartment, we moved on to the, by then, deserted Tiny Naylors restaurant located at Sunset and La Brea where Tom smashed his car through a collection of shopping carts and other debris abandoned there before the restaurant could be demolished. The scene had him winding down from the violent action of the previous garage/shoot-out sequence and I suspect we were the last crew to film at that historic location as it was torn down days later.

We also shot in a downtown Los Angeles tenement house that would have fit nicely into Barbet Schroeder's Barfly. I'd knocked on a door of one of the tenants and asked if we could shoot a scene in their apartment and, inexplicably, they said yes. Thus, an hour later, Joel Hile barged through the door and fired off a full clip from his 9mm Browning (using blanks from Ellis Mercantile on La Brea) killing some poor character who had been hiding out in the apartment. It was effectively the film's opening scene. Today, I would probably have taken pains to notify the neighbors that we would be shooting a scene with fake gunshots but those were different days and, besides, given the nature of the building and its tenants, I really didn't expect that shoot-outs were an uncommon occurrence.

When it came time to edit the movie, I made an appointment with the owner of a company in Burbank that rented editing equipment. When I was seated across from him, I spoke these words (as closely as I can recall them), "I have a proposition for you and there is no reason in the world for you to say yes, in fact, you should ask me to leave right now but here it is: I need to take one of your editing machines to a house in Thousand Oaks and keep it there for a long weekend while we edit my latest film which I need to deliver to my producer's rep ASAP. I have no credit nor references nor cash so all I can offer you is points and if that isn't the damnedest proposition you've ever gotten, I'd like to hear what was."

A moment or two of silence followed as the man exchanged looks with his assistant and then looked to me again to see if I was serious. I was. "What is the title of your film?" he asked. Terminal Velocity, I told him. He thought for a minute and said, "You've got a deal." Later that day, we were loading the equipment into a van.

When the film was completed, I sent out flyers to producer reps listed in a directory. These were companies that would attend the major film markets around the world selling films in various markets. Several responded to my flyer which included a rendering of the poster and a synopsis of the story. I did a deal with a fellow named Bob Katz who lived in Malibu. We didn't have name players in the cast but the title and poster did their work and soon Bob was making sales and delivering checks that rewarded our endeavors and made it possible for us to go on to the next film.

There's no business like show business...

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