Tom, thanks for taking some time to talk about your upcoming re-release of Taking Tiger Mountain. Before we dive head first into the film, let’s start with you. You’ve written, directed, and produced for a long time. What are some of the projects our readers may know you from?
First, let me say thanks for your interest, Justin.
Frailty is the most popular film on which I had a significant role, although mostly what I did was conspire to get Bill Paxton to sign onto it. Once that happened, all I did was hide and watch. Bill was born to direct, but he was picky, and I’m proud of having helped enable his directorial debut.
Other things I’m proud of movie-wise are Traveller, starring Paxton, Mark Wahlberg, and Julianna Margulies. I was very involved with all aspects of post production, especially the soundtrack that included 18 re-recordings of classic Americana songs by contemporary artists signed to Warner Nashville, i.e., Randy Travis, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Mandy Barnett, where I got to work directly with Bill’s dear friend, Seymour Stein, legendary Svengali of punk rock and new wave, and producers Andy Paley and Kyle Lehning.
Traveller was a great film that most people missed, despite high praise form Siskel and Ebert. The current copy circulating on digital platforms looks like shite, an affront to the legacies of Paxton and director/DP Jack Green. The answer print I supervised looked awesome, but somehow it got switched out for a print we’d rejected, when a new distributor picked up the rights. I’m saying this in hopes it creates a minor kerfuffle that leads to it getting fixed. Meanwhile, check out the Italian language version to see what it really looks like. I’m a meticulous pr*ck when it comes to quality control, having done that job for Lucasfilm and Disney for 15 years.
In 1987, Paxton and I produced Martini Ranch’s “Reach,” a musical short to promote Bill’s band with Andrew Todd Rosenthal. It was directed by James Cameron and based on an unproduced script Bill and I wrote called Lonesome Cowgirls: Amazons on the Wild West. It starred Bill as a bankrobber in the future pursued by a posse of cowgirls led by Kathryn Bigelow. Cameron and crew at Lightstorm remastered it to 4K a couple of years ago as a tribute to Bill. To see it you need to search for “New Edit,” because the old version is ubiquitous on the WEB. Actually, here’s the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CBKxwLRSLHs&t=449s.
Reach is a companion piece to Taking Tiger Mountain Revisited, because they are both apocalyptic feminist action flicks starring and produced by Bill Paxton on which I was also involved. The main difference is that one is directed by Jim Cameron.
Frailty was definitely one of my favorite horror films of the 2000s.
I’m glad you liked it. To reiterate, my contribution was mostly as a catalyst. I’m credited as executive producer, which may make people think I had something to do with financing, which I didn’t. Besides “finding” the property and foisting in on Bill, I may have made small contributions to the script in the final stages of development, but I wouldn’t want to take anything away from the sole author, Brent Hanley, nor chief producers Paxton, David Kirschner & Corey Sienega, nor other D-boys and D-girls who may have helped out, mainly in the way of softening it’s rough edges, as it was much edgier in it’s original form. Brent was/is a big, tough hippiepunk from Irving,Texas, and it was his first script. He was not ready for prime time, or prime time wasn’t ready for him. It caught up.
The only other thing I’d say about Frailty, where I come is, is that it fits nicely into my oeuvre, as I like dealing with sensitive subjects—sex, politics, religion, drugs, etc. — all the things I was taught not to talk about at the dinner table growing up in a nice Southern, protestant, middle-class household in the cusp between the 60s and 70s. These are things I had in common with Bill, except that he was raised Catholic and dinners with his family were no-holds-barred riotous affairs, where no subject was off limits. Prudes, ninnies, and twits didn’t last long.
Is it fair to assume that you two had a relationship dating back to Tiger Mountain? Did you remain in touch through his passing?
I met Bill on a plane to London on Feb. 28, 1973. I think he shot the footage in Tiger Mountain between January and September 1974 in Los Angeles and Wales, respectively. We’d already made six or seven films together by then. I spoke to him a couple of days before he went in for heart surgery.
I was lucky enough to speak to Lance Henriksen last year and he spoke glowingly of his friend “Billy”. What was it like working with and knowing Paxton for you?Bill supplied the energy, like Con Edison, the passion, the contacts, great ideas, and gave a hundred percent to anything he was involved in, although I’d say he was a better sprinter and relay racer, than distance runner. He was the best cheerleader I ever knew. The problem was keeping him down on the farm, so to speak, because his dreams were always bigger than whatever corral he was working within. By the time he was a star, he was getting offers left and right everyday, and it was hard getting a word in edgewise. It’s a double-edged sword when your all-time best, on-again-off-again collaborator shoots way ahead of you in status.
So, let’s turn to Taking Tiger Mountain Revisted, your current project. Can you tell us about the history of Taking Tiger Mountain and how Revisited more recently came to be?
You know, Justin, it’s a long story, and at the risk of seeming rude, I’m tired of telling it, the long version at least, and there is no short version. Your readers could refer to the press kit and sundry online interviews with Bill or me, for The Weirdest Behind the Scenes Story of a Mega Low Budget Art Film Ever Told. That said, yesterday, I remembered an incident that may not exist in the official record, that is, something that happened to all of Bill and Kent’s footage, not long before they shipped it to me at UT Austin in 1978.
In the summer of 1977, three years after production wrapped in Wales, Kent had an office upstairs in a little two-story adobe business complex a couple blocks west of McArthur Park on 7th street in LA. One morning he arrived to find the place ransacked. The stereo, TV, anything hock-able, was taken, plus fifty tin cans of 35mm negative and work print. Kent asked around the hood and found a local fixer; maybe he paid the guy a couple of hundred bucks to look into it, after explaining that, essentially, it was worthless to anyone but him; and a few days later the guy returned with the fifty cans filling up his trunk and back seat. The kids who had burgled the complex and/or the local pawnshops didn’t know what to do with it, thank G*d.
The script is an adaptation of William S. Burroughs’s Blade Runner (a movie), which itself was original meant as a screen adaptation of Alan Nourse’s novel Blade Runner (not associated – at least directly – with the film based on works of Phillip K. Dick). My experience with Burroughs is limited to reading The Wild Boys, but I immediately sensed the overt sexual themes and wild gender politics of his work in your film. The opening of the film alone screams Burroughs influence as far as I can tell. What attracted you to this story and what were the challenges of transforming his words to the screen?
The movie was mostly done from a script and picture-editing point in 1980, when I met a handsome young journalist and gadfly from San Francisco, Adam Block, who said he knew Burroughs. I’d been obsessing over the text of Bladerunner (a movie), since it depicted what was happening in America during the future apocalyptic times we envisioned unfolding around the world, as a backdrop for our intimate, sexually-perverse little thriller in the boondocks of Wales. I wanted it to be part of the pseudo BBC radio broadcasts, like the kind Kent and I heard nightly on NPR, when I crashed on the sofa at his place in Echo Park for six months in 1974.
Also, I’d edited one three-minute section of the film, using the Burroughs cut up method. Plus I’d written a proto-eulogy for the Beatnik pope, “William Burroughs is Dead,” self published in a little monograph of poems. Anyway, Adam, a fledgling fan of my band the Huns who was dating our bassist, said he would be seeing Burroughs the following weekend and promised to give him my book and inquire about the text.
True to his word, a few days later, Adam, whom I barely knew from Adam and only saw in person that one time, called to say, “First, your poem went over like a lead balloon. Burroughs hated it.”
“Oh, shit, what an idiot I am. I’m sorry, Adam. I hope that didn’t hurt your…”
“Wait, wait,” goes Adam. “I told Burroughs all about the Huns and Tiger Mountain, and he’s amenable hearing more about it. Call his manager, James Grauerholz, a buddy of mine, totally cool. He’s got Burroughs set up for a national tour, reading his shit at punk rock clubs. They’re coming your way, to Austin in a couple of months, for a reading and book signing on his 65th birthday. You can hang out and watch the film together.”
“Get the fuck out!” I didn’t say, because it wasn’t yet in vogue, but you get the idea. Just that much, the phone call, made me the coolest person I knew, blew up my ego so big I needed a second car to carry it in.
Anyway, for Burroughs fans and bullet counters, the voice-over radio broadcasts on the train at the beginning up till the point Billy Hampton he enters the Castle Hotel—the first three or four minutes of apocalyptic whatnot occurring in NYC that you hear— homeless people warming themselves at heaps of nuclear waste and fresh water sharks feasting on spaniel-sized rats in the Hudson River—were Burrough’s only direct contribution to the film. His spiritual influence, however, on Kent Smith and myself, especially, and other people involved with the film, was enormous. We were all snot-nosed kids, even Bill, who was still throwing newspapers in Hollywood, hustling for bit parts in movies, wondering if he’d ever break through. Burroughs was the Man, although I wouldn’t have used that term back then, and Burroughs would have been more offended by that than he was by my poem. “The Man” was his stated, perpetual, mortal, and moral enemy.
I’d like to take a moment to thank Burrough’s executor, James Grauerholz, for his gracious, selfless, and ongoing support of the project. I hadn’t spoken to James in 35 years, when Bill’s death and the coincidental rerelease of Tiger Mountain brought us together again. In an email he lamented eloquently over the shocking, premature passing of a guy he never met, referring to him as a “Johnson,” although I didn’t get the meaning. He said that it was queer or hobo slang for a straight guy who was hip or cool, someone that wouldn’t narc on you for crimes of vice and venial sins. I don’t know how James got that idea about Bill, maybe from watching him on talk shows and memories of his daring, pan-sexual performance in Tiger Mountain? Anyway, it was an accurate assessment. I’d like to think I’m a Johnson, albeit one who’s less discreet than he could be.
With this newly reworked version of the film releasing, is there a distinct difference between it and the original vision?
TTMRevisited has a happy ending, for one thing, and the presence of the Holy Ghost, The original version finished down beat and left a nihilistic taste. So even if you liked it, you wanted to rush out to see a romantic comedy to clean your palate. Which is why I tell people, now, when viewing Revisited to wait till the end of the credits, instead of moving onto the next thing in their lives, so they don’t miss the ending of the story.
I knew it was missing something big when the first version dropped in 1983, but I didn’t know what. It was G*d — who was no where to be seen, except in bits of improvised dialogue in Bill’s voice overs at the very beginning and toward the end. When I got the idea for the coda, it was like Bill was speaking to me from the Elysian Fields.
I knew I wanted a happier ending, since I’m now philosophically opposed to nihilism. I don’t believe in torturing a lead character (and the audience) by putting them through the ringer with nothing left to show for it in the end, not even hope. I thought about Ridley Scott’s “Gladiator,” how it ends. Do you remember. After Joaquin Phoenix kills Russell Crowe in the arena? I
Let me offer the suggestion that Tiger Mountain is like a combative dialectical tango between the experimental misogyny of William Burroughs and the avant garden misandry of Valerie Solanas, meeting in the middle with the enlightened populism of Ridley Scott.
Did coming back to the editing and mastering process lead you to make any significant stylistic changes? Or was it as “simple” as finishing a previously unfinished product and getting it out there for the world to see.
I viewed it like you would a page one rewrite of a screenplay. Every shot and unit of sound was reconsidered. Just about every second of the film is changed in some way. Six or eight minutes were cut. Four or five minutes were added. A lot of visual elements were added as layers, because it’s easy to do that in digital. You can add weather, dramatic lighting, and set decoration, even butterflies, pretty easily, quickly and cheaply, in such a way that most people won’t notice.
It’s always been easy to add and subtract elements from a soundtrack, which we did a lot of, too, although some things I wanted to lose, like references to the mention of dates in the radio broadcasts, couldn’t be cut without also losing irreplaceable dialogue, because they were baked together onto the 3 track mag stripe which I’d been wise enough to save over the years, while I tossed out the original 12- tracks of stems.
It was a bitch lugging all that shit around from house to house over 35 years in the days before digital. Now, you can put that much data in your shirt pocket.
The film plays this month at Oxford. Will it be making any other festival rounds or otherwise playing where our readers can see it?
It’s won an award at a little festival in Amsterdam, which I plan to pick up personally in May, during a tentative three-month whistle stop tour of the UK, western and eastern Europe, culminating in Israel. Otherwise, it’s been accepted at a GLBTQ film festival in Florida and Byron Bay International in Australia.
It’s likely to play in festivals or one night stands in DFW, Houston, Austin, New York, San Francisco, etc., if not all the other cool towns in North America.
In exchange for coach fare, a warm place to defecate, and reasonable per diem, I’ll host a screening at your or your friend’s house.
It comes out on DVD via Etiquette Pictures in July, I think, which will have both versions, so you can see for yourself what was changed. The crummy old VHS version circulating on the Wild Wild Web, —which only shows 60 percent of the 235:1 frame ratio and was struck from a 35mm anamorphic release print, meaning it’s like four generations removed from the original—doesn’t count. I try to scrub those when I find them.
Before we go, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask where could follow you and keep up with your projects on social media and beyond.
For people weary of avant grade, transgressive, regurgitated art films from the 70s, try my sophomore directorial effort, Carried Away, for free on Amazon Prime (or buy a dvd from me at carriedawaythemovie.com)
I’ve also got Confessions of an Ecstasy Advocate, Jonathan Demme Presents Made in Texas, and the upcoming feature-length doc Picasso’s Christ.
Drop me a line. I’m easy to find, thick skinned, and soft at heart.
Thanks again for the chat and thanks for putting this out for the world to experience.
G*d bless you, Justin. May you never run low on hope, faith, and love, until the emergence of the existential object at the end of time.