STARBURST: Why did screenwriting appeal to you as an art form?
Barry Sandler: As a kid I lived in the movies. I didn’t play sports and I was kind of an outsider and I found a refuge in movies, it was an escape that I had an extreme appreciation and passion for. I also used to write short stories and scribble down my observations of life and the people around me so it seemed a natural consolidation, to combine my love for writing with my life for film. That’s ultimately how it all began.
Crimes of Passion is so different from your other work. Where did the idea for the film come from?
When you say it’s different from my other work, it is and it isn’t. I tend to deal with certain themes in all my work and I’ve always been fascinated by masks and facades and the disguises we wear. But in terms of Crimes it’s certainly the most transgressive approach I’ve taken. In a way I was tapping into what was going on around me during the eighties, it was just at the beginning of the advent of the AIDS crisis… people had difficulties with their relationships, there was a lot of sex going on and it was very easily accessible and a lot of people were using it as kind of an excuse or a defence or a rationale or some way to avoid intimacy, to avoid relationships. I saw all these elements, these sexual dynamics, going on around me. And it was the end of the seventies, just going into the eighties, when I started writing the script. We were still very much coming out of the seventies era of sexual liberation and while in many ways I applauded that and very much was a part of it I saw also there were downsides to it as well. I thought using that kind of framework and arena for an idea for a film would be an intriguing avenue to explore.
So Crimes really came out of a specific moment?
It did, yes. And the script went through different evolutions too. At one time it was just Joanna and Shayne, and then I introduced the Grady character and the Grady character became much more prominent, and the focus shifted… I must have done forty drafts of the script before Ken (Russell) even saw it. So the emphasis kept shifting. In one draft Joanna wasn’t a hooker, and then she was. In another draft Shayne was a psychiatrist... it kind of evolved over a period of years and through many, many drafts.
Did you ever think a film company would be brave enough to take it on, because it is a very powerful film, it really pushes the boundaries?
It does push them. And when we went out with it, it was right at the beginning of the whole Reagan revolution when there was a very strong reaction to the seventies and the sixties and it became a very conservative, repressive time in America, so we were totally going against the grain with something pretty daring. In the beginning, we did have a hard time getting it going – there were certain filmmakers who were interested in getting involved in it – before Ken came aboard we had meetings with John Frankenheimer and John Carpenter… filmmakers were intrigued by it, not studios. And certain actors – I remember Cher was interested in doing it and I had a couple of meetings with her – but the studios wouldn’t touch it. It was too out there and too daring. And then around ‘83, ‘84 New World came on board. New World was kind of an exploitation company but Jonathan Axelrod, who was the Head of Production there, wanted to take it in another direction, he wanted to get into a more sophisticated area. ICM was my agent at the time and they also represented Ken and they knew I had this project and they knew it was a very risky, very daring project. And let’s face it, you couldn’t get more of a risky and audacious filmmaker than Ken Russell! So they said “What would you think if we submitted it to Ken?” and I said “Are you kidding me, my God, yeah!” When I was in film school in the early seventies there were a handful of directors that any film student would cut off their arm to have direct a script of theirs – Kubrick and Mike Nichols, Polanski, and Russell were at the top - and the idea of having my script submitted to Ken Russell, I just jumped at that and sure enough it worked out.
So once we had a package with Ken and the script, we went to Jonathan at New World because obviously, the major studios were not going to touch it: a) they were afraid of Ken Russell to begin with, and b) because of the material, and c) the era we were living in… it was going to be a tough sell. But Jonathan and New World were open to it. And then they co-financed it with Orion Films which was also a pretty daring company so with the two companies’ combined we were able to get it going. But it was a tough one journey.
Did Ken ever say what it was about the script that attracted him? Didn’t he read it on a plane?
He read it on a plane and when he got off the plane he immediately called his agent to say “I’ve got to do this movie” but he was very reluctant to get involved with another American film after the experience he had with (Paddy) Chayefsky on ‘Altered States’. He didn’t want to risk losing control. Apparently, he had turned down a lot of projects, but there was something about Crimes that connected with him. We talked about it, we had a great relationship that extended for years up until his death, and I know from watching him work – because I was there with him every day – that he was most intrigued by the China Blue/Shayne scenes. The scenes with Kathleen and Tony. And that kind of high-pitched almost surreal interplay fascinated him, dealing with themes of masks and facades, illusions and deceptions, with these two outrageous characters going at each other. He was less intrigued with the other aspect of the film which was the Grady home life. He wasn’t really connected into that world, into the American suburban idiom, so I think those scenes were less interesting to him than the scenes which were more outrageous, which were more Ken Russell kinds of scenes. He was interested in the themes inherent in the conflict between China Blue and Shayne.
Did he make any changes himself when he came on board?
That’s a great question because I remember the first day we met – I had it in my contract that no other writer could come aboard, I’d said I’d happily make the changes but there couldn’t be another writer, and he knew that and he had just come off that bad situation with Chayefsky who also had that in his contract, so there was a bit of trepidation or distrust in our first meeting because he wasn’t sure how much control I was going to exert and how much flexibility he was going to have. But I wanted to make it very clear to him that I was just so excited about the prospect of him directing this film, that I certainly respected his vision and I was willing to hand over the script to his vision and I think as the time went by he saw that I was much more open and I was not going to make those demands or take control away from him. By the second or third meeting, we were very much partners in the project. It was really a wonderful working relationship.
In terms of changes, it’s so funny you asked that because he wanted to shoot the script that he read, that he committed to, the script he read on the plane, and when we met with the studio the first time they had made changes, they wanted to water things down – as studios tend to want to do – and he said “No, I’m shooting this script, this is the script that I committed to and that’s the script I’m going to shoot” and he was emphatic about that. So in terms of your question, it was the opposite – he insisted on not making changes!
In fact, the only big change we made together was when Ken and Tony Perkins and I met for the first time, and Tony had just finished doing Equus on Broadway. He’d been there for two years after replacing Anthony Hopkins in the role of Dysart the psychiatrist. I’d originally conceived of Shayne as a man who pretends to be a psychiatrist, and goes out into the red light districts and tries to control these hookers through his disguise as a psychiatrist. Tony wanted to know if there was any way we could change that, if he could pretend to be something else, because he didn’t want to bring the character of Dysart to the character of Shayne. And the three of us sat around over lunch and Ken came up with the fabulous idea of making him this minister, this reverend - it was right at the heart of the mid-eighties where these TV evangelists would go on every Sunday and preach the gospel and people would send in money and then a week later they would be caught in some sleazy hotel with a hooker, so the hypocrisy was incredible. And Ken thought that to tap into that would be pretty amazing. So that was the one big change we all agreed to and we thought it was a great idea.
Anthony Perkins certainly pulls out all the stops during the movie.
He was just an astounding actor. He got so into his part – he created that whole little room, Shayne’s shrine to China Blue, and he designed it and put all the stuff on the walls – he was an amazing actor and he got totally into the character. I mean not to the point where you couldn’t talk to him between takes, he wasn’t that extreme, but he was really pretty devoted.
Kathleen Turner’s performance was so brave, especially at that point in her career when everything was taking off for her. Was she your idea?
This is fascinating. Ken and I spent two or three days in a screening room looking at different films with different actresses – I remember we looked at Jessica Lange and Debra Winger, Sigourney Weaver, whoever was hot at the time – and there was a lot of heat on Kathleen Turner because she was about to come out in Romancing the Stone and she’d already made her mark in Body Heat and apparently she really liked the script, somehow she’d got hold of the script and she wanted to do it. And because she had worked with William Hurt, who had just come off Altered States and had told Ken about how exciting it was to work with her, one of the films Ken watched was Body Heat. But he wasn’t quite taken with her. And I thought “You know what, I’ll show him The Man with Two Brains”, the film she did with Steve Martin, and that’s the movie where Ken fell in love with her because she’s so funny in it. Once that clicked we met her and she signed on. But, it’s worth noting, she signed on at the resistance of her agent, her manager and her fiancé, who didn’t want her to do this kind of radical sexual part when she was about to burst on the scene with Romancing the Stone and be America’s sweetheart. But she wanted to do the part. She was a pretty fearless actress.
Do you have any particularly favourite memories of working on set with Ken and the actors?
The memories I have of Ken, he liked to drink, he liked his wine, so he’d start drinking early in the morning and he got better and sharper as the day went on! I could never figure that out. But at one point Tony Perkins came up to me – and bear in mind that nothing was too outrageous for Tony, he would just take the character to the extreme limit – and he said, “What would you think about it if Shayne had a little monkey on his shoulder?” I said “What, are you crazy? What do you mean, a little monkey?” and he said “Let’s say he walks around with a little monkey” and I said “Tony, this character is so out there as it is, you give him a monkey and it’s going to become a cartoon!” and he said “I don’t know, let’s talk to Ken about it” So that’s when I started to worry because I knew Ken also has very little limitations, so we go to Ken and Ken says “Oh I like that idea but we can’t do it” but they saw how upset I was at the prospect so the next day Ken brings a little monkey with a monkey trainer onto the set! I know he did it to tease me, but I saw this monkey and I went apoplectic. Ken started to laugh. He knew that the idea of Shayne with a monkey was too over-the-top but it’s still funny that he brought the monkey and the monkey trainer onto the set just to make
When you were working on Crimes of Passion, did you ever think you would still be talking about
That’s a great question! You don’t think that - of course, you hope for it - but because we had such problems with the ratings board and the film that New World finally released was such a bowdlerised version that Ken and I both disowned it, we were very disillusioned by the experience. I remember that at the time there was a lot of promotion and publicity about the film getting an X-rating but no matter how many times Ken took it back and re-cut it the studio still said no, it’s got to be an R. The head of the ratings board actually called me – because I was also the producer - and said “Look, you should get your studio to release it as an X and re-legitimise the X rating!” Years before, The Devils was an X and A Clockwork Orange and Midnight Cowboy and those were considered respectable adult films but in the intervening years, the X had taken on the connotation of pornography with pornographic theatres and Triple-X ratings and all that. And so nobody wanted to touch the X rating. But because we had Ken Russell and Kathleen Turner and Tony in a legitimate film, they thought we could re-legitimise the X rating. But the studio didn’t want to hear it, so they made us cut the film and release it as an R, so we were pretty upset by that. And New World was excited because there was so much publicity about it and I said “Don’t get excited because if it comes out as an R, people are going to say well, it’s a cut version, it’s going to be a watered down version” and I was right. But, on the other hand, when the film came out on video they released it in the unrated version, and it did very well on video and then on Laser and then finally on DVD. But at the time it was originally released we only had the R version and Ken was very demoralised by that, as was I, so no, you don’t think in terms of what’s going to happen thirty years hence. But the fact is that the film has survived, its endured, and it has taken on this cult following which is so exciting and gratifying to me… there’s such a legend surrounding Ken Russell, and once the film came out on DVD and people started to discover it and talk about it, I began to get a very real sense that Crimes had a following. And now, of course, it’s on Blu-ray! It’s very gratifying to see.
Crimes of Passion is out now on Blu-ray from Arrow Video. You can read our review here.