Donald Cammell Evening, Curzon Soho, London
In April 1996 Donald Cammell committed suicide in his Hollywood home. He left just four feature films: Performance, the cult-classic he co-directed with Nic Roeg, the science fiction classic Demon Seed, White of the Eye and finally Wild Side.
Soon after completion of what was to be his final film, the financiers Nu Image took the film away from Cammell and re-edited it into an exploitation film for the cable television market. Cammell took his name off the film and it was credited to Franklin Brauner at the time of Cammell's suicide in 1996 the film had received little international distribution and only in the form not authorised by Cammell.
At the instigation of Hamish McAlpine of Tartan Films together with Nick Jones of the Film Four Channel, Wild Side has now been recut and restored to the film Donald Cammell had intended. Cammell's long term editor, Frank Mazzola, recut Donald Cammell's Wild Side in the same room where they had edited Performance 20 years ago. Using Cammell's notes and with help of his widow and co-writer of the film, China Kong, Mazzola has been able to restore the film to Donald Cammell's original version. "After Donald and I were removed from the show, the producers butchered it and reduced it to a commodity that could be sold in their demographic markets. I've added an additional 20 minutes and re-edited practically every sequence of the film. There were also things that we were never able to finish that I'm putting in. Nu Image took out all the nuances of style Donald and I did together and replaced it with straightforward narrative - they ripped the heart and soul out of the film. It's the most challenging thing I've ever done, but it's a Donald piece, his signature's all over it."
Question and Answer Session with China Kong, Frank Mazzola and David Cammell, hosted by Mick Brown
My names Mick Brown and we're very honoured and very privileged to have with us tonight three people who all in different ways were connected with Donald Cammell, his life, his work and with his films. China Kong, who was married to Donald and collaborated with Donald for many years, and co-scripted, and produced Wild Side; David Cammell, Donald's brother who was also associate producer on Performance, and co-produced The Ultimate Performance; and the legendary Frank Mazzola, Hollywood editor who worked with Donald on three (and a half) films including the "director's cut" of Wild Side.
I hardly know where to begin it's such an extraordinary film, but just to get in context I'd like to sketch in some of the background to the making of the film and I wondered if China could tell us something of Donald's state of mind when he made this film as it had been a long time since White of The Eye.
China Kong: I think he was very happy when it was financed, as it was such a wild script, very unconventional. Just to get someone to finance it was amazing. So when it was financed he was very happy. Chris Walken came on almost immediately. It was written for Chris Walken and Joan Chen, as a couple. So he was very elated to be working again. It had been many years, and he always felt it was a privilege to work. He didn't feel it was owed to him. He was an unusual filmmaker and at the same time if he could get financing it was a good thing.
Let's face it, it had been difficult in the years he had been in Hollywood. After Performance he had a reputation as a maverick director. And so to get financing was a source of great relief. And the script itself came form a short story that you originally wrote.
China Kong: I wrote it in 1994. It was a short 20-page story that I wanted to write. Actually I had seen a BBC documentary on a bent cop and became fascinated with - which the Tony (Steven Bauer) character - in Wild Side - is based on. It kind of blossomed from there.
Had you in the final analysis envisaged it as a film?
China Kong: I always hoped that we would write a script but I realized in writing the short story that it was not everyone's cup of tea. I was surprised that Donald liked it so much to tell you the truth I had never written anything in the short story format. He thought it was hilarious and said let's do it.
How did you collaborate together? What was the nature of your collaboration?
China Kong: Well Donald taught me to write at an early age and as he worked with most talent he would find out what you did best. He thought my talents were in the dialogue and characters. He encouraged that. I would write the dialogue and characters and he would then shape it and give it an unconventional structure.
Would you sing the dialogue backwards and forwards to each other?
China Kong: Not really no. I would go in a different room and write the scenes. He was very professional. He expected you to really work. He was a disciplinarian in that way.
The film was produced in the first instance by Nu Image, could you tell us something about this company?
China Kong: They were a low budget action type outfit. The original producers were actually the producers from an American TV show called Cops. It was reality based TV. I think that's why they went for this script, as they liked this cop, they thought he was the good guy. It was very subversive in how he got the financing. We tended to do movies that way in which we had couched in a cops and robbers story something else.
It ran into trouble very early on - in the casting of Ann Heche. Nu Image didn't want her, and she was obviously the right person. They were pushing several other people. How can I say - busty. They thought Ann was too strident and too strong willed.
She brings an extraordinary tenderness to the love scenes. That's one of the remarkable things in that in the midst of this mayhem and Christopher Walken going over the top you have this tender love story at the heart of it. Moving forward when Donald presents the final edit that's when the excrement really hits the air conditioning system.
China Kong: They hated it. They hated the homoerotic undertones of the cop and Christopher Walken's performance. The huge bend-over scene. I've no idea what they thought was going on there as it was very scripted. They thought it was weird, and they just wanted to get straight to the lesbian sex, which they thought more, titillating. They didn't like the film at all.
Frank, obviously you were very close to this process having done the original edit and therefore captured some of the flak...
Frank Mazzola: When Donald and I were first cutting the film you could see in the documentary that we were having a good time. We'd walk in the room and kind of look at the footage and people would all start laughing. We thought we were on track and it was moving perfectly. Then we ran our rough-cut for the studio and they completely freaked out. Elie Cohn, who was one of China's favourites, got up and in a rough cut everything plays long as you try and figure out what you're gonna use and what you're gonna toss out. But Elie immediately got up, walked out of the room and said too slow.
This got Donald flipped out. There was a big discussion, tempers flared. It then became a real war, as they wanted to cut out the things that really were Donald's signatures: the flash-forwards, flashbacks, montage sequences throwing away time. That was the style of the film, the subtlety of nuance, and the relationships between the girls being built in a really sensitive way, which they thought was too long but I think works beautifully. There were a lot of scenes, the opening scene between Chris Walken and Stephen Bauer after the tie up sequence. To me they were like Laurel and Hardy in the subtlety of nuance that were happening between them which developed a relationship immediately. We realised that there was going to be a lot of humour in this film.
I think that sequence runs for four and a half to five minutes, they stripped it down to a minute and a half. All they had was quick stuff and basically they began ripping the heart and soul out of the film from the very beginning. They continued to try and do that throughout the film.
Donald and I would compromise to make some things work. But we'd leave in a lot of the stuff that we felt we had to leave in. Then we had another run in and they freaked out again, as the whole montage at the beginning of the film, which is basically the first 25 minutes. We then catch up with time, and realise the sequence took place when she was raped, so it was basically a flashback. They wanted to take that out completely. And they sent a memo to our office saying there was to be no flashbacks, flash-forwards; everything was to be linear. They basically put us in a vice. Donald wouldn't go for it.
At a certain point Donald wanted to move on to our next project, The Cull. He said I have to move on as I have this other project that is gonna happen. Go back in there, slug it out as best you can and try to keep in as much as you can and just do the best job that you can do. The next day he called and said I gotta get back in there. It was his child; he just couldn't cut it loose. We went back in there and had one more run-in, and we were fired on the spot. We were all off the film.
They then pressed ahead and released their own cut.
China Kong: The story in their version doesn't make any sense. There was footage in there that was outtakes. It was traumatic for Donald.
David, you were close to his response was he devastated?
David Cammell: He was. I wasn't really involved in this film except marginally. We always kept in touch and fortunately we always lived in separate continents our careers but he was terribly distressed. Donald considered Elie Cohn a friend so he felt betrayed. Drew mentioned in the documentary that Donald was carrying a gun around with him. When he mentioned to me he was thinking of shooting the producer I managed to convince him it wasn't a good idea. I flew over and spent the last 6 weeks with him and said goodbye to him then. He was in a positive mood when I left him. Indeed he was in a positive mood when he died.
Did Donald actually see the HBO version, their cut?
China Kong: Yes we were invited to a screening. It was so horrific I think he just went numb about halfway through. It was so awful. It was then he made immediate action to take his name off the picture.
It became obvious to him that he'd made his own version, this video version, that he'd been working for months on. So he was satisfied at that point with that version, his directors cut. What we have now is very close to what he did.
Would he be pleased to see this version?
China Kong: Yes. I think he thought it would eventually come out. He always planned ahead for everything.
How was this cut executed?
China Kong: It was from a rough-cut he had done with Frank but Frank was still working with the other company. Donald went in to an avid bay to do his own cut which he worked three months on. That was the template for this version. He had to put his signature on it.
Frank, how did it feel to return to fell the film running through your fingers in a way it was supposed to?
Frank Mazzola: Well three weeks before Donald decided to step across we met up. There were various tapes that we had, a rough cut, our directors cut, a fine cut that Donald was playing with at the end. But there was a lot of footage we didn't have that we wanted to get back into. We discussed a lot of the sequences that needed work. The opening is completely different as we discussed that it needed some help.
From our conversations regarding sequences that needed work and the opening of the film - which Donald never did see. I think he would be pleased with as the opening they had was of the flying over Long Beach without any of the inter-cutting. For me personally it's as Donald says - homage to Donald. I always had idea over how that opening should play and I was re-reading the script and there's a line that says when Anne character goes into the women's room to throw water in her face like she's being reborn. That kind of triggered me into that whole idea that she opens up in to a red room surrounded by water, and there's a phallus which is an airplane that comes out of the water, and she tries to struggle to get out of the red room which takes us into the opening of the show which is essentially a flashback.
There's a lot of sequences that because of the jump-cuts I had to make putting it back together needed some work as they couldn't go back exactly but they're extremely close. There's also been some embellishments I was able to achieve as I had a negative and additional footage to play with and work on. Every sequence in this film has been recut to where Donald would have liked it. What you're seeing now is something I think Donald would be happy with.
In that last conversation we had when it was run on television and, like Donald, I was freaked out. I wrote a letter to Variety and The Reporter taking my name off it and to explain that it had nothing to do with the cut Donald and I wanted to do. It was butchered. The full responsibility should fall on the Nu Image producers that did it. I called Donald and he said hold off as I'm dealing with Hamish McAlpine and we're talking about getting the UK rights so at least we can run it in the UK and then we'll get it right. I backed off at that point. The beauty for me personally is that we can bring it back to the UK in a format that Donald wanted.
There are obvious thematic and stylistic similarities between this film and Performance and several critics have said admirable as this film is it doesn't represent a stylistic advance for Donald Cammell. I wonder if you could explain if there were ways that Donald felt this was a stylistic advance?
China Kong: It's hard to judge. I think he was very concerned with telling a story. If you can get that story across and it moves people then he was happy. He didn't think I must do the latest and most advance thing. He didn't think in those terms at all. He didn't really care about fashion. So as far as being an advance, that's only something that outsiders can say about a filmmaker, writer or any artist. An artist can only do what they do. They express themselves and try to show what is in their heart.
Essentially there's a sense that all Donald's films are circulating the same themes. He kept returning to the same themes time and time again, didn't he?
China Kong: Yeah, I think he was rather obsessed with these themes. He never stopped being obsessed with sex, power, money, and corruption - all the things that make the world go round. So I think they are just variations on a theme.
Frank Mazzola: I think Performance is its own unique piece that'll never be duplicated. A lot of people are looking for another Performance and this is another painting. You can't compare it to Performance.
David Cammell: Every time I see some of his films I see, as I'm sure other discerning members of the audience do, that there are certain recurring themes which again anybody in any art form recognise and indeed have looked for. I've no doubt if anybody was to bother with particular aspects but to me there are certain (verbal and filmic) phrases which you will find repeated, presumably communicating something important to him. If you think of the end of Wild Side it has a correspondent with the end of Performance where they're both going to a mythical land as it were.
China Kong: He was very interested in transformation in himself and in his work. So it very much reflects his thoughts on that.
What was Donald 's approach to rehearsals and actors? Was it script based or an interpretation of characters or a bit of both?
China Kong: With Wild Side he didn't really have much rehearsal time. He actually wanted more. We rehearsed a lot. Donald was very interested in the rhythm of the dialogue. He liked a musical structure, and so you get the feeling that there is a musical type symphony happening. The actors loved it. There's a lot of dialogue in this movie, almost too much. He wished there was more time. They all worked out thoroughly.
I would say it was all scripted. But if you rehearsed, as much as Donald liked to, sometimes you could incorporate what the actors like to do. He would never improvise on the set.
Frank Mazzola: There was a lot of improvising in the editing suite.
Would you like to go back to Nu Image and now show them the film now?
Frank Mazzola: Well it's opening up in two venues in Los Angeles and that's specifically so they can come see it. They'll be covered pretty heavily and the people running it at two different venues are really excited about it.
I don't think any of us thought it would be funny or have so much humour in it. At what point was that intentional?
China Kong: It was very intentional. I think that's the reason Chris wanted to do the picture. In fact if I don't hear laughter I get worried.
It's a fantastic over the top performance from Chris…
China Kong: The whole thing is operatic and over the top. It was very much envisioned that way.
Going back to an earlier question about the degree to which the script or performance is improvised how coached was Chris in going over the top?
China Kong: Donald definitely encouraged him to go way over. Chris was very brave. The original producers didn't get the humour at all. They wanted to make it a street thriller.
It was mentioned earlier on how Donald planned everything and how he planned his death I was wondering did Donald think of himself as a failure?
China Kong: Donald always knew he would die by his own hand. Whether he thought of himself as a success or failure didn't really matter to him. He wanted to have that final experience and to have control over it and to experience it. I think he was frustrated as he had many trials and tribulations but I think he was very proud of the work that he had produced.
And contrary to popular belief he loved life. He was very funny, erudite, and you couldn't imagine someone so dry and ironic. He had ups and downs and he was a man satisfied with the work he did though he wished he had done more, much more. I think the frustrations of that took its toll.
Frank Mazzola: I saw Donald a couple of weeks before he died and we had one of the most beautiful conversations I'd ever had with him. It was extremely positive. We talked about getting back to this film and getting it right. And we also talked about all the other projects we had tried to get off the ground over the years. He was in a very high place in my memory. When I left him I figured this is just about the most positive I have seen him since we first worked on Performance. He seemed very positive and objective about his future and the things he wanted to do.
I think that's what puzzles many people the fact he went out at a time when everything seemed to be turning for the better. After the debacle of Wild Side he had a new movie, everything seemed to be in a good place. Is that an indication that you go out when you're on top?
China Kong: I think he just thought it was the right time.
David Cammell: You can go on theorising and no doubt we will.
Mick Brown is the author of Performance Bloomsbury Movie Guide Number 7
Donald Cammell's Wild Side including The Argument by Donald Cammell and China Kong is published by Screenpress Books. As well as featuring the screenplays, the text is annotated by Frank Mazzola
Those interested in the films of Donald Cammell and Frank Mazzola are encouraged to go to http://www.mazzolafilmco.com/
Source: Donald Cammell Evening, Curzon Soho, London 30/06/2000
Questions posed by Mick Brown and the audience