an interview with Max Allan Collins
by Matthew Clemens
Until recently, mystery novelist Max Allan Collins was perhaps best known for his long stint as the writer of the syndicated comic strip DICK TRACY (1977-'93). But with sales on the upswing for his award-winning historical detective novels about Chicago private eye Nate Heller (CARNAL HOURS, BLOOD AND THUNDER), and with the surprising success of his independent suspense film, MOMMY, Collins may finally be putting the square-jawed sleuth behind him.
The "Renaissance man of mystery fiction" (a designation bestowed by Edgar winner Ed Hoch) is also the author of a number of bestselling movie tie-in novels (WATERWORLD, MAVERICK, IN THE LINE OF FIRE), is writing a series of NYPD BLUE novels, and was co-creator of the notorious TRUE CRIME trading cards; then there's his comic book work (BATMAN, MS. TREE, MIKE DANGER), and the various rock bands he's played with....
Having worked as prop master on MOMMY, I saw Collins in action on his first go-round as a movie director. In April of '96, shortly before the broadcast premiere of MOMMY on the Lifetime cable network, while he was in the midst of preparing the Widescreen Director's Edition MOMMY laser disc for the Roan Group, I sat down with Collins, Al to his friends, to talk about his movies.
CLEMENS: MOMMY is the first movie you've directed, and I understand was only your second screenplay.
COLLINS: That's right. But my first script, THE EXPERT, went through twenty drafts, so I'd really been to school.
CLEMENS: THE EXPERT was an HBO World Premiere, and was an enjoyable enough action movie. But as somebody familiar with your books, I can't say it seemed much like your work, except perhaps for the sadistic warden played by James Brolin.
COLLINS: The Brolin stuff is almost 1OO % percent as I wrote it. I love that character - it was written with Rip Torn in mind, and when they shot it in Nashville, Jim Varney of ERNEST fame auditioned for it, and did a brilliant job. I lobbied for him, and when he didn't get the part, I wrote in a new scene, a new character, especially for him, as a cameo.
It's a very uneven movie. After all those drafts, I quit when director Bill Lustig made script changes that I couldn't abide. There was this sort of Richard Kimble character, who was the moral center of the piece, and the punchline of the movie was the sadistic warden realizing he'd been wrong about this man. The Kimble character's cellmate, a Ted Bundy-ish psycho, was the real killer of the innocent man's wife. In the early stages of filming, Lustig unilaterally decided to have the Bundy character murder the Kimble character, and I flipped - "Jesus, Bill!" I remember saying, "the fucking one-armed man doesn't kill Richard Kimble!" And then I quit the picture.
Of course the other problem, the major problem, was the lead actor, what's his name...Jeff Speakman...rewrote all his own lines and scenes. He refused to do anything "negative," it would be against his "image." Even though it was the story of how his character broke into prison to kill a guy.
CLEMENS: Which kind of seems inherently negative.
COLLINS: Kind of. The whole last act got rewritten - who by, I don't know, maybe Bill - so that Brolin's character died earlier; budget considerations - they only had Brolin for a limited time. In all of my versions the warden didn't die till toward the very end. I had Brolin's sadistic warden held hostage, and being tortured in the electric chair, the Bundy character trying to force out of him the code to unlock the prison security system. I wrote a lot of good stuff that didn't get used.
CLEMENS: How come with all this rewriting by Lustig, you have the only screen credit?
COLLINS: Directors aren't allowed to take a screenwriting credit for rewrites. Actually, the story credit isn't mine, it's a pseudonym of Larry Cohen's; Cohen wrote the original screenplay, but after umpteen of my drafts, only Cohen's basic premise and a couple of character names remained. Also, after Bill Lustig left the picture two-thirds of the way through shooting, I came back on to do some new scenes, kind of trying to put Humpty Dumpty back together, and also wrote a bunch of stuff for postproduction.
CLEMENS: The ending seems awfully soft.
COLLINS: Well, in my final script, when the liberal shrink - who has had her eyes opened when Kagan, the Bundy character, terrorizes her and holds her hostage - sees that Kagan has fallen onto a power station and been electrocuted, she says, "Well, that's one thing I never tried on that sick bastard." The Kimble character says in true DRAGNET style, "What's that?" And she says, "Shock therapy."
And of course the point of every version of my script was that the "hero" was an idiot to break into the prison. He breaks in as a vigilante, and his stupidity causes people to be taken hostage, prisoners to escape, people to die; and his growth as a character comes from realizing this, and devoting himself to freeing the hostages and cleaning up his mess. All this was lost, because the star didn't want to look "negative."
CLEMENS: I've read that your bad experience on THE EXPERT led you to raise the money to make MOMMY.
COLLINS: First of all, I don't really consider THE EXPERT a "bad" experience. Frustrating, yes, but overall constructive, and I still consider Bill Lustig a friend, and a talented filmmaker. We'll probably work together again. It was in the midst of the constant rewrites of THE EXPERT...did you know it was a DIRTY DOZEN script, for most of its life, until Speakman was cast?
CLEMENS: No! I figured it was a straight action-adventure, martial arts flick from the word go....
COLLINS: Not at all. Lustig and I wanted a cast of character actors - somebody like Ed Ward or Lance Henriksen in the lead, backed up by Fred Williamson and Charles Napier and Robert Forster. Ex-Green Berets on a final mission, invading Death Row after the death penalty is repealed, to perform the executions the state had reneged on. I had this great bit where Williamson was to be the guy who went in to execute everybody; he goes in laden down with weaponry - and promptly gets killed. Then, thanks to him, everybody on Death Row is suddenly armed, and the shit hits the fan.
CLEMENS: Sounds like a better movie. What happened?
COLLINS: Speakman was thought to be a good box-office investment, so the DIRTY DOZEN idea was jettisoned and, at the eleventh hour, I did a page one rewrite, turning it into a one-man show. Too bad.
CLEMENS: So in the midst of this you were raising the MOMMY money?
COLLINS: Yeah. That grew out of my frustration that, after countless novels of mine had been optioned by Hollywood, nothing had ever got made. I approached a businessman friend of mine, Jim Hoffmann, and we went out and beat the bushes in my hometown of Muscatine, Iowa, and managed to raise the money.
CLEMENS: All of it?
COLLINS: Well, we figured we needed a million, and got a little better than half-way there. The rest we finessed with freebies and barter and discounts. Muscatine's a little town on the Mississippi River, and having a movie shot there was a really big deal. Everybody got behind it.
CLEMENS: How did you land Patty McCormack? She's notorious for having turned down roles designed to exploit THE BAD SEED. She even turned down an official sequel....
COLLINS: That's true. But Patty says that proposed sequel didn't understand the Rhoda character. And the other things were, well, sort of disrespectful, like a cameo in that bad TV remake of THE BAD SEED, and a bit in Martin Short's movie, CLIFFORD, all of which she passed on.
As for landing her, we just found out who her agent was and sent along the short story version of "Mommy." I wrote it as a sort of screen treatment, but not liking to work for free, sold it to Jeff Gelb for his anthology, FEAR ITSELF. When I sent the story to Patty, that book hadn't come out yet.
CLEMENS: And Patty responded well to the story?
COLLINS: Yes. She said she loved it, but she wouldn't commit to the picture without seeing a script.
CLEMENS: You're a notoriously fast writer. How long did it take you to write that script for her?
COLLINS: I don't know if I should say. Considering the fact that this movie has consumed most of two years of my life, how can I admit that it was a three-day script? But I never wrote anything in more of a white heat of creativity. This was a story that sprang to mind in an almost complete form.
CLEMENS: I notice the short story is amazingly close to the script, even down to the dialogue.
COLLINS: Right. Again, I wrote the short story with a movie in mind. There are differences...the story takes place at Christmas, while the movie takes place in April or May. And I added a murder to the movie, the janitor, which is probably the most overt reference to THE BAD SEED in the picture.
CLEMENS: You assembled an amazing cast for such a low-budget production. How did you pull that off?
COLLINS: Well, I went to actor friends. First I got Miguel Ferrer to say yes - I've known Miguel for years, through our mutual friend Bill Mumy, who I knew through our mutual interest in comic books...
CLEMENS: You play in a band together, don't you?
COLLINS: That's kind of overstating it. Bill and Miguel and I, and artist Steve Leialoha and Chris Christensen, play together at comics cons now and then, as SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT. We did an album a few years ago, with a fairly notorious song called "Pussy Whipped" that became a big alternative-radio hit in my corner of the midwest. My other band, Crusin', had to learn it, because there was this assumption in my part of the world that I was the singer on that song. I wasn't - it was Miguel. Obviously.
Anyway, Miguel said yes, and then another actor friend I knew through comics circles, Brinke Stevens, also said yes. Brinke was happy to have a chance to do something with her clothes on, I think. She's really an underrated actress. And I've been blessed to have a friendship with my role model, my hero, Mickey Spillane, and got him to agree to play a small part, as Mommy's lawyer. So with them aboard, and Patty, that was a major part of our investor's package. Helped us raise the dough.
But Miguel dropped out, when a Tony Scott picture came along...that was the agreement: if a real job came along, he could drop out. I showed it to Mark Hamill, who I'd met through Miguel and Bill, and he liked the script but had conflicts with voiceover work; he asked for a few weeks to try to rearrange his schedule...but ultimaetly he couldn't get out of his commitments. Just a few weeks away from the movie's start date, now, and we were panicking - we felt we needed name talent in this part, the sort of Lt. Columbo character.
I thought somebody associated with horror would be an asset, so we sent the script to Jason Miller, through his agent, and got a quick yes; Miller, I'm pleased to say, really liked the writing. What a great world-weary take he brought to the role. Then it looked like we had enough money left in the kitty to afford one more name, and I wanted to get a STAR TREK actor. I figured that was a good way to attract video rentals. And because Majel Barrett was doing business with Tekno-Comics, where Mickey and I were launching the MIKE DANGER comic book, I was able to network my way to her. Now we're about a week away from start of principal photography. But Majel also liked the script and said yes in something like 24 hours.
Then, again at the eleventh hour, when a soap opera actor I'd lined up to play Mommy's boy friend fell through, I called another friend, Mike Cornelison, an Iowa actor who did a fairly successful stint in Hollywood about ten years ago, including a famous bit with Albert Brooks in LOST IN AMERICA. Mike is also the guy who discovered Frank Darabont.
CLEMENS: THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, FRANKENSTEIN Frank Darabont?
COLLINS: One and only. Mike produced and starred in the short film, "Stephen King's WOMAN IN THE ROOM," which was highly praised and is something of a video staple, as part of THE NIGHTSHIFT COLLECTION. That was Darabont's first writing/directing gig. I think Mike's performance in MOMMY is incredible. Just the right combination of sensitive and sleaze.
The miracle, of course, was Rachel Lemieux, the eleven year-old local girl, with no real prior acting experience, who we found at an open audition at the Muscatine mall. She has had incredible reviews, nationally. And she's as important to the movie as Patty - I think both of them are great. Rachel is the "good seed."
CLEMENS: Are you surprised by the strong national response to MOMMY?
COLLINS: Overwhelmed, although, frankly, I knew I'd been pretty crafty in coming up with this switch on THE BAD SEED...you know, having the mom being the evil one, and the child the one slowly suspecting the awful truth...and being smart enough to cast Patty. Do you think Hollywood would ever have the simple common sense to do that? Whenever I mentioned this idea to my Hollywood pals, they'd say, "Nobody remembers THE BAD SEED." Wrong. We attracted attention all over the place, starting with Leonard Maltin and that ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT piece that ran before we even had a distribution deal. The L.A. TIMES did a huge spread on us.
CLEMENS: The reviews seem to have been mostly positive. Some of them raves....
COLLINS: The big score was ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY, particularly when they paired us with the somewhat similar and bigger budgeted MOTHER, and preferred us. I'm mostly relieved. I mean, I already know what I think of the picture...I love it, but it's flawed, I know its flaws better than anyone. The hardest thing, I guess, is this line I'm walking. In my mind, my audience, my people, are the psychotronic, horror, cult movie fans...I mean, hell, I write box copy for Mike Vraney's SOMETHING WEIRD tapes! But my investors are conservative midwestern businessmen. It's a tough straddle, though I think we achieved it with MOMMY...we're a video-store hit, a market where B-movies are usually pretty edgy, pretty violent and/or sexy...yet we sold to the relatively conservative Lifetime, for cable.
To the FANGORIA crowd, I'm sure we seem tame. But to a mainstream audience, we're somewhat bizarre. I pulled my novel version from St. Martin's Press when the fuddy duddy editor there objected to Mommy shooting her boy friend in front of her little girl; this editor wanted all the dark humor excised, so I just yanked the book and will do it elsewhere.
See, I think some of the B-movie, splatter fans are possibly too numbed, too jaded, to appreciate what is a fairly low-key black comedy. A couple of reviewers have said that the movie starts out funny and then shifts gears into serious. Personally, I think it does get more serious, but also funnier - a mom putting her kid to bed, saying, "Say your prayers, dear," as she plans to strangle the girl in her sleep?
CLEMENS: The worst review I saw MOMMY get...I think the only bad review I saw...came from a rival filmmaker.
COLLINS: I know the review you're talking about. I don't consider that guy a rival, and I appreciate the fact that he gave us space in his 'zine at all. That's supportive in and of itself. But there's obviously some jealousy at work here. His whole review was based on his outrage that Leonard Maltin would give us a good notice. I mean, we come out of nowhere with this project, you know this is my first film, it's not even shot on 35mm, and yet we score, if not a home run, a good solid base hit. And few if any of these so-called outlaw filmmakers are getting on base, not in the Blockbuster or cable TV sense, which is where I have to succeed to keep getting my projects backed by my investors. I admire what these young alternative filmmakers are up to, I like their energy and their passion and their dedication, even if many of them share with bigtime moviemakers the same core problem of shitty writing. I'm a professional writer, twenty-five years in, and this is not a hobby, or a dream, but a reality. By the same token, I didn't do MOMMY as a sort of elaborate test film, to attract Hollywood attention. The plan is to stay right here in Iowa making high quality, low budget productions, flying in under the radar.
CLEMENS: No more Hollywood work for you?
COLLINS: They're not going to hire me to direct traffic. I'm always glad to sell my books to them, or do screenplays for them, but afterward, I'll run home with the money and make my own movie here.
CLEMENS: What's next?
COLLINS: We're in preproduction on MOMMY 2: MOMMY'S DAY. The script is done, cast is lined up, everybody's coming back, locations here in and around Muscatine are selected. It's a better script, and in no way a rehash - it deals with Mommy's redemption. I have three other screenplays waiting in line, ranging from a sexy "USA Up All Night"-style horror comedy to a noir Christmas movie, plus several published short stories that were, like "Mommy," disguised screen treatments. A likely one is a story that appeared in one of the HOT BLOOD anthologies, "Reincarnal."
CLEMENS: You've been a writer for a long time. Was the collaborative nature of making movies a shock to your system?
COLLINS: Yeah, but a pleasant one. Invigorating one. I'm working with some great people. Phil Dingeldein is our director of photography, also his own camera operator and our editor. I supervise all the editing, drive Phil fucking crazy...but we really complement each other. Our righthand man is a guy named Steve Henke, whose touch with lighting is remarkable.
CLEMENS: Taking on the directing duties of MOMMY was a last-minute decision for you. What prep did you have?
COLLINS: None. But as soon as I finished shooting the film, I went out and bought several how-to-direct books. Don't laugh - I really did. And to my relief, it seemed like how I'd approached things matched up pretty well. Ever since, I've been prepping for the next production by more reading but particularly by studying movies much more closely. Analytically.
On the other hand, it's not like I was a complete novice. I minored in film in my graduate work at the University of Iowa, I was involved in the shooting of several rock videos...Brandon Lee was an extra in the Seduction of the Innocent, "Truth Hurts" video, if you can believe it...spent time on the Denver PERRY MASON movie sets when I was working on a TV mini-series project with Raymond Burr that unfortunately died with him, was a consultant on the DICK TRACY movie, and worked side by side with Bill Lustig during the preproduction of THE EXPERT, including walking locations in Nashville, tailoring script rewrites to production needs. Acting, well I did a lot of that in high school and lately I've been the reader on audio versions of my books; I've performed with rock bands, forever. But what probably best prepared me was, what? Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen years of comics scripting? I learned to think visually a long time ago.
CLEMENS: You mention your rock bands. Let's touch on music for a minute. How much did you contribute to the score of MOMMY?
COLLINS: The score itself is by Richard Lowry, who's a talented filmmaker in his own right. I asked him for a traditional "terror" score in the orchestral manner of Bernard Herrmann, and he did a terrific job. One reviewer wondered if the score was meant to be tongue-in-cheek, and of course to a degree it was - I mean, MOMMY's a black comedy at heart. To tell you truth, though, the movie played funnier before the score was laid in; Lowry made the film more frightening.
CLEMENS: You wrote the songs in the film.
COLLINS: Three of them. My longtime musical partner, Paul Thomas, wrote the ballroom instrumental, the TWIN PEAKS-ish number. I wrote the "Mommy, Mommy" theme for a children's choir, which I had my dad direct...he's a former high school music teacher who's directed choruses and choirs for fifty years. I also wrote the ballad, "The Party," and "Movin' On," the uptempo number that encapsulates three different James M. Cain novels. My band, Crusin', performs them. I asked Lowry to incorporate the "Mommy, Mommy" theme, this sad little eerie kid's song, into the fabric of his score, and he did, beautifully.
CLEMENS: So is this "Renissance man" thing getting out of hand?
COLLINS: Oh, probably. But the real reason I use my own songs, and have my own band record them, is that I can afford me. Music clearances are too expensive on our kind of budget.
CLEMENS: Are we going to see your detective Nate Heller appear in an M.A.C. Film Production?
COLLINS: How I wish. Those novels are big landscape historical pieces and out of our budgetary league. I just sold the rights to another production company. They're starting with CARNAL HOURS.
CLEMENS: Are you going to write the screenplay?
COLLINS: I don't think so. They told me my approach to screenplays was too "novelistic." My response was, "You mean, coherent?"