Interview: Director Larry Yust and cinematographer Isidore “Izzy” Mankofsky
On their Encyclopedia Britannica films, 1972's 'Trick Baby,' and 1974's 'Homebodies'
The following interview with director Larry Yust and cinematographer Isidore “Izzy” Mankofsky, was conducted in the summer of 2011 in Los Angeles, California. Yust and Mankofsky are together responsible for a pair of the most tonally unique and unusual genre films to be made in the United States in the 1970s—1972’s Trick Baby and 1974’s Homebodies—as well as a number of top-flight educational films made under the aegis of Encyclopedia Britannica. I had first gotten in touch with Larry in February of that year via email when arranging for a double-feature screening of Trick Baby and Homebodies at the late, lamented 92Y Tribeca, and he was gracious enough to not only invite me into his home when I was in town, but to later share with me the screenplay for his Take a Flying Leap, written as a vehicle for Homebodies star Paula Trueman and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
A version of this text appeared in issue #41 of Shock Cinema, and appears here with the gracious permission of that magazine’s editor, Steven Puchalski. It was in the pages of Shock Cinema that I first learned of the existence of Homebodies, arguably the greatest film ever shot in my hometown of Cincinnati, and as I had been an avid reader of the magazine since my undergraduate days, it was a dream come true to place my byline in that august publication, which remains an invaluable source of commentary and oral history for lovers of cinematic esoterica. Both Trick Baby and Homebodies are slated for 2020 home video release, with the former arriving on Blu-ray next month courtesy Universal Pictures Home Entertainment, the latter announced in a “New 4K scan” via Kino Lorber, its premiere engagement on disc. Both Yust and Mankofsky are still with us, and will hopefully enjoy a renewed appreciation of their works.
Larry Yust has only two feature films fully to his credit—he disowns the woebegone 1986 Jonathan Winters vehicle Say Yes—but they are sufficiently inspired as to make their author one of the more beguiling figures in 1970s American pop filmmaking. Who was this mystery man who had spun out two genre-bending thrillers and a host of ingenious educational films, and where had he got off to?
Yust’s story, I was to learn, was a fairly typical one of cinematic apprenticeship leading to mastery. His education was a combination of Stanford University theater, summer stock, and the Army Signal Corp. From here he directed a series of shorts for Encyclopedia Britannica—including much-remembered dramatizations of Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer—which remain high watermarks of classroom filmmaking. With Trick Baby, still to-date the only film adaptation of the work of pimp-turned-novelist Robert Beck aka Iceberg Slim, Yust crossed into feature films. This sensitively performed, cliché-abhorrent, totally sui generis Blaxploitation effort, concerning a biracial con-man posing as white, was followed by Homebodies, a film whose perilously balanced comic-horrific tone and Expressionist camerawork signified another great leap forward in Yust’s art. Arguably the paramount entry into the Oldsploitation genre, Homebodies shows the elderly residents of a Cincinnati townhouse that’s slated for demolition banding together to stop the encroaching developers from moving in, resorting to industrial espionage and homicide in order to do so.
Yust has not directed since the ill-starred Say Yes, but hasn’t lain fallow since. “I haven’t done more features, but I got into writing screenplays. I wrote a couple that made a lot of money,” he told me at his home South of Hollywood—and I believe it, for Yust lives in a gorgeous 1921 villa built with adobe dug from the site, down the street from the Wilshire Country Club (Posh Los Angeles was just then aflutter over the Royal Visit.) Still imposing at eighty, Yust is a very tall man with a deep voice, who vintage on-set pictures show garbed with vaguely Satanic sartorial brio. He leads me through a massive library, remnants of his father’s, the Encyclopedia’s onetime editor, where he shows off a 1771 Britannica (“One of three extant copies with the article on ‘Midwifery’… California is mis-identified as an island”). Passing through his rose garden, we enter a detached studio space laid out with printings of Yust’s panoramic photographs, the making of which have absorbed much of his creative energy in recent years. There his longtime collaborator, the cinematographer Isidore “Izzy” Mankofsky, a small, wiry study in Mutt and Jeff-like physical contrast to the looming Yust, waited on us to begin.
Nick Pinkerton- To begin: Where do you come from, and how did you get into the movie business?
Larry Yust - My father was the editor of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Our house was loaded with books; you saw remnants of the collection when you came in here. My father had been a book reviewer, he got every book published, and he seldom gave them away. I lived in a house, it was a big house, like a library… So I’ve always been around literature and artists…
I grew up out of Winnetka, Illinois. I was born in Philadelphia, and I was in Scarsdale, New York, ‘til I was five, and then Winnetka, which is like Scarsdale to Chicago. Britannica moved from New York to Chicago.
As a kid, if I didn’t do something during the day, I felt that the day was gone. I used to make models out of cardboard, houses; I started drawing and painting… I also sang in choirs in churches, and from that I got into singing in shows. I spent one year before I had to go into the Army, singing in really second-rate companies, traveling musical shows. And in college I sort of drifted into theater. I was going to major in mathematics, but I spent most of my time in Stanford hanging out in the theater.
NP - I know you put in some time in the U.S. Army Signal Corps. When would this have been?
LY - The Army came after Stanford. There was a year in-between, when I graduated I worked in summer stock doing the lighting and lots of singing in a couple of shows—a tour of the Midwest. I’ve forgotten the name of the company but it got booked into supper club-type things. In the Army, I wrangled my way into the Signal Corp, motion picture segment and spent most of my Army time in New York.
NP - At the Kaufman-Astoria studios?
LY - Yeah. Never shot a single film while I was there, but I had a good time in New York. There wasn’t any other filmmaking happening, because it was all military, and they really weren’t doing a damn thing, they were getting outside producers to do almost all their work. It was a vacation. That would’ve been ’52 or ’53. Out of the Army I went to work at the Walter-Reade medical center, that had just set up the second-biggest color television studio in the world. And we had the support of the Army and everything, supposedly to do medical shows… we did shows that were loosely connected with Army medicine, but very loosely connected, that was a great experience in TV. And from that I went to Britannica Films, y’know, my family was connected and I was sort of invited to come. It turned out to be a very good thing.
Isidore Mankofsky - I got out of High School I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I knew I could get drafted during the Korean War, I decided I didn’t want to take a forty mile hike with forty pounds of equipment on my back, so I joined the Air Force for four years, ’51 through ’55. When I got overseas, they had me in the motor pool, the “Repo Depot,” the repair depot. I hated it, so I persuaded my CO to transfer me to Special Services, where I was the manager for the football, baseball, basketball team and I also took pictures for the base magazine. And I learned to work in the darkroom, and when I got home I decided I’d be a still photographer. I went to a school in Chicago, kind of a dinky place, maybe still exists for all I know.
It’s very similar to what’s happening in the film business today, everybody who picked up a still camera thought they were a professional photographer. These days everybody picks up a digital camera, be it a cell phone or whatever, they think they’re a filmmaker. I came out the Brooks Institute of Photography and at that point… It was 1957 when I got out, they had a request for somebody to come up to Reno to work for KOLO-TV, and I shot my first documentary a month after I arrived there. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing but I did it anyway, and I worked in the lab and printed pictures and shot newsreels and got very experienced, and I went back to Chicago, got a couple of jobs, as an industrial photographer and working as an assistant editor, actually for a friend of Haskell Wexler’s…
NP - How did you two start to collaborate?
IM - I was playing handball—I played handball for forty years, in fact I played last week which I shouldn’t have done—and my opponent said to me, “You’re a cinematographer, you wanna interview for a job at Britannica?” I say, “Sure.” I interviewed with David Ridgeway, I went down to University of Florida, and me along with a couple other people shot 161 films in 13 months, half-hour chemistry films. Larry and I met briefly at Britannica, but I didn’t really meet Larry anything beyond a “Hello” until after the Florida engagement. I was on a contract at the time, I wasn’t on staff, got ready to come back, was working down there, Lindstrom, who was the editor, Swedish, his wife was due to have a baby and she insisted on having it in Sweden and he left before so… we’re left with 21 films to edit. And Ridgeway, who was a chain-smoker. I don’t want to describe how he smoked, it was pretty annoying—he never inhaled is what I’m trying to say—I said, “Well, y’know, David, I could do it but my contract runs out.” He said, “Don’t worry about it, we’ll hire you as staff.” So I edited the films, and we got back to Chicago and I started working with Larry—the films that he shot then were mostly with a gentleman called Archer Goodwin. There were three cameramen on staff, and so I helped out on a few of those films. And then we came out to California, did a series of physics films, and then came out again…
LY - Brittanica was originally ERPI Films, which was the first educational film producer there was—and also the first company to make any sound films, before The Jazz Singer. It was actually owned by… I guess it was Western Electric. And the movies they made were terrible, but while I was there it was changing, because of a very good boss of the company, and I ended up being able to come out here on my own, and Izzy came along after a while and we, Izzy and I, shot a series of dramatizations of short stories and short films, you may have heard of them.
NP - Even people who don’t know your work from you features remember your film of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.” Remember being traumatized by it, I should say…
LY - Well, they’re very good movies. I mean I had Izzy and we had good crews—because the shows were so different, I could cast people I couldn’t have possibly afforded, but they wanted to come and do the shows. They’re still some of the best stuff I’ve done, some of the best stuff Izzy’s done. The one called Dr. Heidegger’s Experiment, from Hawthorne, is an absolutely magnificent-looking movie.
IM - Larry left Britannica long before I did.
LY - I left, but I kept working for them. We did a film, an hour-and-a-half version of Huck Finn, pieces of it really, interrupted by in-between scenes Clifton Fadiman who was a TV personality at that time and an expert on books. That was the first literary adaptation I did, and also the first big film that Izzy shot with me.
IM - The thing that Larry figured out is it’s 30 or 31 films that we shot together.
NP - How did you come to direct a feature?
LY - At Stanford, directing was what interested me most, and I directed a lot of shows. It was very unstructured, you could pretty much do what you wanted. The theater was a good one, it was state-of-the-art for the time. That’s where I learned to work with actors, and set design, lighting, the whole bit—which has made me a nuisance on union shoots sometimes, because I can’t keep my hands out off anything. Izzy had shot a couple features before I shot Trick Baby. I had just signed a contract with Universal. I was one of the last guys, I think, who signed a 7-year contract.
NP - The short story adaptations had attracted Universal’s attention?
LY - Yeah. My first assignment was a Twilight Zone spinoff of some kind. I didn’t like the script. And then I got the phone call from Marshal Backlar, who I’d never heard of, who had made a movie called Pretty Poison. He and the same director [Ed: Noel Black] and I and possibly the same writers were going to do Trick Baby, but something happened between him [and the director], so he called me up, and obviously I was very excited, and he gave me the script.
I went home and read it and it was just awful. Literally un-shootable. I went back the next day and told him, I’m sorry, I’d love to do a movie with you but I can’t shoot that. He said, “Okay, want to fix it?” I said, “Sure.” I think that was in his mind from the beginning.
It was the easiest adaptation I’ve ever done. Because this novel by Iceberg Slim, the whole movie was there. I can’t imagine what these guys did—they didn’t read the book or they didn’t like it or whatever. The structure was there already. It was somewhere between 200 and 300 pages, and I just had to figure out what to stays in and what goes out. It was all good. I hardly had to write a word. I got that script out in a little over a week.
NP – How did adapting Joseph Conrad and Shirley Jackson prepare you to adapt Iceberg Slim?
LY – Well, his writing was just as good as theirs was. I had to do a hell of lot more work with Hemingway. I had to pretty much write his dialogue. He didn’t have enough. Of course he was easy to imitate. In fact, Clifton Fadiman, who worked with me on all of those films, was convinced that Hemingway had written some of it. But the Iceberg Slim, I’ve never had anything since that was so easy to adapt.
NP - I’d like to know a little about the casting process, because the two leads are so terrific.
The credit for casting has to go to Marshal. He brought in lots and lots of people, some names, character actors. I’d heard of Kiel Martin, but as soon as he came in, I went to see his Panic in Needle Park... And he was an easy pick. And Blue [Mel Stewart] also. He was the best Black character actor by far. We had difficulty finding the ingénue for that brief sequence in the hotel room. Part of that was Marshal’s problem because he wanted to have, thought we needed, and we ended up not really having, a nude scene. And that kept a number of other actresses who would’ve been better away. She’s okay, but next to everyone in that cast, she’s sort of a weak link.
NP - One thing I love in Trick Baby is the way you utilize the city of Philadelphia in the movie. The plot revolves around a real estate scam, and those images of razed blocks are so important to the mood of the movie. What was the scouting process like?
LY - Marshal had picked Philadelphia—I’m not sure why; the story takes place in Chicago—possibly looking for the kind of things you’re talking about. I was in Philly at least four weeks, or maybe five or six weeks, before we started shooting. I’ve always insisted on scouting my own locations, but a lot of things had already been laid out as possibilities. There was a young woman who worked for the mayor’s office, she was very knowledgeable about the city and also about Black life in the city. We did most of the casting in New York, secondary stuff. We saw a lot of people.
NP - How much of the movie was shot in Philly?
LY – 100%. No re-shoots, not a single insert in the movie. That toilet paper scam, the letter with a hole in the bottom of it, we shot that whole damn thing in a stinking crowded toilet in this bar. That’s 100% location filming. As you say, the locations are a key element of the movie. The story could play anywhere, but it plays so much better in that kind of location.
NP - It’s interesting that you’ve wound up photographing these urban panoramas. You seem particularly receptive to cities.
LY - Yes, I like cities. I like living in my garden, but I like cities.
IM - The locations of that film were really marvelous. Everything in the film is real, and it’s there in Philadelphia. The bars in the Black section of town, that hotel is a seedy hotel, the alley was a real street. In fact we even got in trouble once or twice in the Black neighborhood where the kids were getting out of school…
LY - We had a guy, he was Black mafia. A light-skinned Black man. He wore a hat and a raincoat, no matter what the weather was. Very elegant, the way he dressed. I never heard him say a single word, but if someone came and caused a problem, all he had to do was look at them and they were gone. He was very useful.
IM - He was a caricature of Hollywood casting for a gangster in a movie.
LY - My first day of shooting was in the skid row hotel, you know the movie, it’s the opening scene. I was on take six or something, and Izzy took me aside and said, you already have two perfect takes. Get on with this other scene or we’ll be in this fucking room all week!
IM - We were working in this little alley and one of the characters is driving down this street or alley, it’s only wide enough for one vehicle. The crew had made casual acquaintance with a bunch of Indian steel workers staying at the hotel, and because we didn’t have money for a camera car, I did it the old fashioned way and attached a platform in front of the car, and I had them jack up the springs so it wouldn’t bounce too much, and I told the actor don’t drive fast or slam on your brakes, because we put the camera on a tripod in front. We start going down the alley, he hits the brakes and almost throws me and the camera off, and right then and there, there are three or four gunshots. Real gunshots. Down the alley, a policeman had shot one of the Indians. I had been a newsroom cameraman, so I picked up my 35mm camera and walked down there and pointed it. I couldn’t get the shooting, but I got what happened after the shooting. The police were beating up on this guy who got shot. And I got that on 35mm. Some of our crew saw the whole thing happen. They were being a little rowdy and boisterous and having fun at our expense, probably drunk, but that’s about all they were doing.
A big Irish cop comes over, I think he was taller than Larry. He says, “WHAT ARE YOU DOING?” I said, “Nothing, sir, nothing.” I got my assistant to unload the camera and get it out of Philadelphia immediately. And he did. And then [Mayor Frank L.] Rizzo, who had been the police commissioner, who was a real bastard, he tried to get these Indians. The one that they were beating on died, and [Rizzo] tried to put the others in jail for life. At the trial, the defense attorney called. Most of our crew refused to testify, they were so afraid. I agreed to, and so did one other person, I forget who. And they called Universal and asked to see the film. Universal said they didn’t have it. I called the editor and asked, “Did you get my film?” He said, “Yes.” So they subpoenaed the film, and I had to go back to Philadelphia to testify. We went and looked at [the film] and sure enough, here was the guy beating up on this Indian. He said he’d just been standing there, wasn’t involved in it. And so that testimony was all thrown out and the Indians weren’t convicted. They were proven innocent of any charges. Eventually they sued the police and collected, the ones who were alive and the family of the dead one.
LY - That, I think, was our second day of shooting. And I went home. I went back to the hotel convinced that the movie was finished. We’d be shut down. But Rizzo, who was the mayor, and this bad cop [gave us] no problems the next day. I noticed after that, we didn’t have the heavy police protection anymore. Which was just as good, all we needed was this mafia guy.
NP - Where in Philadelphia was most of the shooting?
LY - Most of it was in North Philadelphia. The long foot chase is in the Italian Market. Actually the bar was fairly far out, I forget which street, possibly 50th Street. I scouted with bars that had been pre-selected for me to look at, maybe five or six. That particular bar was the best, but probably the most difficult to light.
IM - The bartender had two guns behind the bar. And it was a bookie joint for a numbers racket.
LY - In the background were regular customers very often. People who belonged there.
IM - The guy at the bar, the person who was dressed in the coat and the hat, immaculately dressed, was put on there by the bar owner to chaperone our leading man to make sure he didn’t get into any trouble.
LY - Kiel was the kind of guy who could get into trouble. He’s the best, if you want to call him an ingénue or a romantic lead, the best I’ve ever worked with. He was on coke and I think he drank rum with it, actually, which was a bizarre thing. Coke and rum and whiskey. And I don’t mean Coca-Cola. When he was sniffing in the movie, that was genuine sniffing. But it was controlled, it was part of the character. It didn’t worry me at all, and there was never any problem.
The day of the foot chase at the Italian Market, that was 40 or 45 setups. There was no double for him, he was doing all the running, going over a couple of fences and so on. I think he was the only one that had his own car. He showed up and he looked like death. Worst I’d ever seen him. This was toward the end of the shoot. He’d had a really rough night. I felt very friendly with Kiel, and I went up to him and I said, “Are you okay, Kiel? Are you going to be alright to do this?” and he said, “Just tell me where to stand, boss.”
So I went off about my business, and 20 minutes later he was ready. There he was, all 40 or 45 setups, not a single problem. Which may be why he died at 45. I mean, he could work with it, he could live with it. But the booze got him, not the coke. It’s a pity, because he was a really good actor.
I don’t think Kiel had any method training, in fact I’m sure he didn’t, but he was by nature a method actor. He really wanted to get into the character. And he was more Black than white during the shooting. He was hanging out with Black people. Mel was a much more conservative kind of guy and he didn’t do any of that stuff.
NP - What was his background?
LY - The comedy club, Second City, in Chicago. And then he was at one in San Francisco. Marvelous actor. Both of them did pretty well in TV. Neither of them did particularly well in film. But Kiel just drank himself to death. And he played a troubled guy on Hill Street Blues. It was right down his line. Panic in Needle Park, he was into that stuff.
NP – What was the reception to the movie? Was the film well-handled by Universal?
LY - Yes, Universal bought it right off. They saw what amounted to a first cut with sound, it wasn’t even fully foleyed or with music, and they bought it for a good price. I didn’t get any of it. They definitely made money on it. It was a figure that would mean nothing now, but it was very solid.
I think I saw a press screening at the Pantages. Marshal called me and said, “There’s going to be a sneak preview, but the word is out, at a theater in Inglewood,” which was all Black at that time. One of the big old theaters. I was a little bit scared to go, not because of any racial thing, but just seeing it with a real audience. Finally my wife and I went at the last minute and sat in the back row. The house was packed, and I think we were the only white people in the room.
The film started, and the guys went through the first con, and Mel/Blue goes up in the parking garage, steps out of his car and walks toward the camera. When I shot that, I saw that he did what I asked him to, which was get out of the car and walk toward the camera, you’re happy the con was successful. I didn’t even notice his walk. To the audience, this was the walk of a pimp who has just pulled off a big deal. And they burst out laughing. All throughout that screening, people were laughing and picking up on all kinds of things that I didn’t even know were there. It was a very nice experience. I’ve often thought that that happens to directors more than they will sometimes admit. They don’t notice everything that’s going on.
NP - You’ve mentioned Marshal Backlar but not James Levitt, who is also credited as producer on both Trick Baby and Homebodies. How does he fit into the picture?
LY - He was the producer in name only. He was an executive producer because his father put up the money. And that was Levitt of Levittown. His son was a nice guy who Izzy had to defend to the crew once, because they said, “Why is this lazy bum hanging around and not doing anything?” and Izzy in essence told the crew, “If you don’t like him, go. Because you wouldn’t have a job if he weren’t here.” I only met Levitt, Sr. once. He put up half a million bucks for the first film, I think 750 for the second. Not that much money. His son enjoyed it, probably learned something about movies. I’ve never run into him since. He’s an amiable guy, a nice guy. Never caused any problems.
NP - After Trick Baby, how did the next feature, Homebodies, come up?
LY - Curiously, the same way. Marshal began hiring writers to do an original, I think based on a short story one of them wrote. It was two writers. But I don’t think he’d hired a director. He called me and asked, “Do you want to read the script?” And I said, “Sure,” and it was the same thing. I came back and said, “This is a piece of garbage.” He said, “You want to rewrite it?” Ok. So that one was really an original screenplay, except for the idea.
NP - And how did you wind up shooting in Cincinnati, of all places?
LY - We were looking for a block of old houses where they were going to destroy them. We had Cleveland, St. Louis, and Cincinnati. Cincinnati was far and away the best.
NP - All those Italianate brick houses in Over-the-Rhine.
LY - They were gorgeous houses.
IM - If that street existed now, they would not allow them to tear it down. Those buildings were really something. They were three or four stories, but one apartment, as I recall.
LY - They were big apartments, beautiful. And there was a brick church at the end of the block, which was very handsome. We didn’t knock that down, but it’s been knocked down since. For a new redevelopment, just like in the movie.
NP - Urban blight and urban redevelopment has a part in both movies.
LY - Well, it certainly does through Homebodies. And that again, I don’t know how Marshal found these three cities, but he did a very good job. The building the guy falls from, and where the other is buried in concrete is in LA. And the interiors of the apartment were shot in one of the Gone With the Wind stages, actually. A big set, a three-story set.
NP – You put together such a incredible ensemble with the Homebodies cast, all of these venerable character actors, many with studio-era bona fides.
LY - That was very much Marshal. We were working together and we saw lots of people, lots of character actors who were famous to me at that time, like Walter Brennan. We had logical choices. The guy that played the ex-newspaperman with all the junk in his apartment, he was absolutely right the first time.
NP - William Hansen?
LY - And Peter Brocco, also, was a find. We spent several days preparing for his part at a blind school for middle-aged and elderly people who’d gone blind. And he was very good at it, I think. Ian Wolfe, I’m sure you looked it up, he has 20 or 30 pages of credits. A marvelous actor, a hugely good-looking man. One of the women was in [the play] Arsenic and Old Lace. I don’t think she was in the original show, but she toured with that show.
Mattie was the toughest one. We didn’t find a Mattie out here. So we went out to New York. [Paula Trueman] showed up at this room in the Chelsea Hotel and did chin-ups to prove she was in condition. Not letting us know, and us not knowing, that she was very nearly blind. We learned that when it was time for her to drive the car. She admitted to me that she didn’t think she should actually be driving the car, so we towed it. She was a great actress, an ex-dancer. She was understudy for a long time to a famous actress, Beatrice Lilly. Didn’t have a very good resume as far as movies went, but she was obviously so perfect, not just pulling herself up in the transom, but also reading lines. Which she had memorized, because she couldn’t read anymore, really.
We stayed in touch after that movie until she died, which was a good twenty years later. We had phone conversations at least once a month, sometimes more. I wrote a movie for her [Take a Flying Leap] which was optioned three times by Paramount, and was, unfortunately, not made. It was written actually for Baryshnikov. It was the best screenplay I’d ever written. And it turns out, it was one of those things that Paramount bought it so another studio wouldn’t do it. I wanted Baryshnikov and he wanted to do it. He was under contract with 20th. Actually, our ex-governor was suggested to me for the part. I had something in my contract, although they never bought the script, it was always an option, I had right to involvement in casting. Schwarzenegger was unknown at that time and I saw him and he seemed like a strange-looking, but nice enough guy, but no dancer. So I said that was not a good idea. That was in the first option, they optioned it two more years. I’ve always been sorry that movie didn’t get made, because it was a comedy and would’ve been really funny.
NP - The photography in Homebodies almost seems like it belongs to a German Expressionist movie at times. Were there any conscious stylistic influences being brought to bear in the making of the film?
IM - It wasn’t meant to be a bright film. The story called for it to be a little bit on the serious, sinister side, like, what are these people going to do next? So you keep the fill light down a little bit. It was intentional, let’s put it that way.
I had a gaffer on that film, I usually do, but basically I wrote it up myself. I told them where I want the lights and how I wanted it, and let them do it, and I’d go in and make the corrections. When you’re working on a film like that, you’re always working faster than you want to and you have to delegate some of your work to other people. Even on a six-week feature, you never seem to have enough time to do anything. That affects a lot of the lighting, especially on location, where you don’t have a place to put the lights, you have the hang them or shine them through windows. That affects the final product.
An incident that sticks in my mind more than anything else on that shoot was the explosion of the apartment building. They hired these people who are experts in dropping a building in place or in a certain direction. There was some disagreement about it, and they brought in a bunch of powder monkeys from Los Angeles. And these powder monkeys got in there, worked with their sandbags and their dynamite for a few weeks, and they’re all ready to shoot. We only had two cameras. One was up on the roof shooting toward it, and the other was down on the street. We asked the powder monkey, the explosives guy, “Where do you think it would be safe to put the camera?” He gave me a spot and I backed it up another ten feet, because I never trust these guys. Larry calls action, and the cameras are rolling, and we hear this “BOOM!” but the building didn’t come down. Apparently something happened and only part of the explosion went off. So now these powder monkeys gotta go back in there with all this hot dynamite in there and find out what happened.
LY - It was the boss who went back in. Everybody was trying to keep him from going in.
IM - They go back in, they find one separated wire, and another thing was, there was a lady living in a building next door who refused to get out. Finally, they got her out. So they go back in and they set it off and this time the building does explode, but a sandbag goes right over the top of the camera. I never trust special effects guys. They never really know what’s going to happen. But the explosion looked very effective in the end.
NP - There was a lady living next door?
IM - There was a small building next door, and she refused to move out.
NP – Life imitating art.
LY - I could have cast her in the movie, as far as looks go. She was the right age.
IM - Another thing, my key grip and a few other people stripped a couple of these buildings, the railings and hardware. In fact, I have pieces of the hardware from that building in my house now, doorknobs and things like that. They put them in the grip truck and drove them back to Los Angeles.
LY - They used some of it for the set.
NP - There’s some disturbing violence in Homebodies, but almost as disturbing is the architectural violence of the wrecking ball scenes. The movie is so good at giving you an idea of the life-force that’s in old buildings, you almost want to cover your eyes rather than see them come down.
LY - That, of course, was the real wrecking crew. They delayed their work and did what we asked.
IM - I think when they see that, it’s totally unexpected. These old people who kill people and start killing other people, it’s kind of a horror movie, but it doesn’t advertise itself as that.
LY - A lot of the commenters on the Internet feel very strongly that it’s very much a horror film. I never did, really. It’s like a black comedy to me.
NP - It’s very funny at times. One scene that stands out is the chase scene toward the end, where Mattie is being chased down by her former housemates, and it’s such a slow, plodding chase scene, with the paddle boats in Burnet Woods pond. It’s threatening, but very funny.
LY - The last shots in the movie, with the characters going into another apartment. I don’t know why it was, but I hadn’t seen that location before. It was completely unlike me not to have scouted a location before. And I walked into this location and I said, “I can’t shoot here.” So I walked down the street, it was a street of old buildings. So I looked in them, and a lot of them were built around courtyards, which was what I wanted. I looked in one and said, “This one’s perfect.” So I brought Izzy and said, “Let’s shoot here.” So we shot that one without telling anybody. And got away with it.
NP - Was that a usual practice for you, shooting in sequence?
LY - No, but in that kind of thing we did.
IM - I’ve worked with a lot of directors who want to shoot in sequence. That’s their choice. But they’re not prepared and they don’t know what they’re doing. So you shoot this way, and you shoot that way, and all that takes time. And you gotta do 8-10 pages a day, and 20-30 setups every single day, working 12-14 hours. That’s one of the things I loved about working with Larry. He was always prepared. And if he wasn’t, he was always able to improvise quickly enough that we didn’t have to take a lot of time out on the shooting.
NP - Working with older actors, was there ever a point when somebody blanched at something they had to do on-screen? Any of the violence, for example?
LY - No, I think the only one who might have would’ve been [Frances Fuller]. She had lots of Broadway experience and was sort of an old style New York stage actress. But not difficult to work with at all. I think the actors were really into it. Paula certainly was. For her, this was the best thing she’d ever done in her life.
NP - Last time we spoke, you were talking about the travails that Homebodies went through on release.
LY - It was a damn shame. The movie, like Trick Baby, was a quick buy. It was shot without a distribution deal, and then Joe Levine, who was at Avco-Embassy, bought it. He submitted the film to Cannes and it was selected as the US entry to the Directors Week competition—for first time directors, even though I was a second-time director. And that would’ve been very good for the film and very good for me, obviously. Then, literally the next day, Joe was pushed out of his company and his successors pulled Homebodies from Cannes, and the festival's second choice, Taxi Driver, was substituted. The new people who bought the Embassy name wanted nothing to do with it, and the film was hardly released in this country. It got a much bigger release in Europe than it did here, though it surfaced on HBO and had a successful run there. It was very bad luck for Homebodies, and of course bad luck for Paula, because she would’ve gotten more work out of that film, and she wanted work.
That didn’t hurt me in directing. I haven’t done more features, but I got into writing screenplays. I wrote a couple that made a lot of money. There was one book called Hungry Is the Sea. It was a novel by a South African named Wilbur Smith. At that time he had three or four books made into films. The money came from the manager of a rock star who wanted to get into the movie business. I got the job on the basis of another screenplay that I wrote and got a lot of money for, called Tai-Pan, from the novel by James Clavell. That film went into production and was 10 or 12 million dollars into production and the bank pulled the money out of it. That got me the job with this guy—he had the Welsh singer, Tom Jones—and I spent time with his mansion with two gorillas and tigers. Crazy guy but very nice. I told the producer and the director, “This is a real good story but it’s about a boat,” and they just made a movie about a boat called Raise the Titanic!, which was very expensive. It didn’t do any business at all. “Are you sure you want to go with this movie?” “Oh yeah,” he said. So we got started and I wrote the script, it was a good script, and it never went anywhere. But I got a lot of money for it. I kind of switched to writing screenplays for other people, and then writing them on spec and not getting any deals. But I also got tied in with the producer of the Tai-Pan movie. He was a very charming confidence man, and the kind of guy who you should hate and you actually love instead.
IM- A side issue on Homebodies: that’s where I met my wife. She was hired as a set photographer. The crew back then was just needling the hell out of her, just teasing her so badly. I asked her out and she said no, two or three times. And she finally said to herself, “Well, I’ll show him,” and she said, “Yeah, I’ll go out with you.” I asked Larry to join us. And Larry’s a very imposing guy, especially being a foot or so taller than I am. And he had a goatee. And he may deny this, but at the time he had a cape with a red lining in it, which he wore around town.
LY - No. That was on Trick Baby. It was too hot in Cincinnati.
IM - No, we went out to dinner on Homebodies. She wasn’t even on Trick Baby. We went to the most expensive, probably the only 5-star restaurant in the city…
NP - The Maisonette?
LY - Yes, it was then one of the top restaurants in the country.
IM - So when I came back to Los Angeles, I asked her if she wanted to come to Los Angeles, and I sent her a ticket. She thought it was going to be a one-way ticket, but I sent her a round-trip ticket, which she never used.
LY - So you know the Maisonette? I was engaged to a very trying young lady who was the daughter of the founder… But that’s another story.
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