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Thursday
Oct182018

THE AUSTRALIAN DIRECTORS WHO CHANGED THE SCIENCE FICTION UNIVERSE

2018 SCIFI FILM FESTIVAL: Despite a recent run of films that include Zak Hilditch's These Final Hours (2013), Hugh Sullivan's The Infinite Man (2014), The Spierig Brothers' Predestination (2014) and Luke Sparke's Occupation (2018), Australia isn’t traditionally known for its science fiction movies (The Time Guardian...anyone?), but there have been a number of Australian directors who have not just been world class at the genre, but helped to re-define it.


With the 5th annual SciFi Film Festival about to launch in Sydney (featuring no less than six new works from Aussie filmmaking talent), guest contributor STEPHEN VAGG looks at five local filmmakers who have glimpsed the future...

Jim Sharman with The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975): In the early 70s there were few hotter theatre directors than Jim Sharman – he was a twenty-something wunderkind whose CV included acclaimed productions of Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar and The Rocky Horror Show. Sharman reprised his theatre work with the 1975 feature film adaptation, adding …Picture to the moniker but maintaining the raucous, anarchic energy of the stage production (pictured, right; Sharman, right, directing Tim Curry). A famous box office disappointment before becoming the most cult-y cult picture of all time, its combination of kitsch, gender fluidity, sexuality, camp and tunes spawned countless imitators and created some of the most devoted fans in cinema history. While Rocky Horror was the world of many, notably Richard O’Brien, Sharman’s stamp was all over it. It wasn’t Sharman’s only venture into sci fi; in Australia he also made Shirley Thompson vs The Aliens (1972), arguably the first local science fiction film (unless you count On the Beach, 1959 or Summer of Secrets, 1976). Despite Rocky Horror being a game changer, Sharman hasn’t made a feature since the dire reception afforded the film’s sequel, Shock Treatment, in 1981.

Peter Weir with Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975): Picnic doesn’t have a reputation as a science fiction film – people generally consider if more of a mystery or period drama.  And yet, it’s a mystery that’s never solved about an event that never happened. Natalie Dormer, star of the recent mini series remake, calls the story science fiction… and the unpublished final chapter of Joan Lindsay’s novel is definitely science fiction. What no one denies is the film’s influence – it has affected countless other works dealing with death, femininity and adolescent sexuality, notably the themes of Sofia Coppola's finest work. Weir’s earlier The Cars That Ate Paris (1974) is also kind-of-sci-fi, which seems to have directly influenced the design for Death Race 2000 (1975). It’s strange Weir (pictured, above; Weir with actress Rachel Roberts) doesn’t work in this area more often, especially considering two of his best films were science fiction-esque, The Last Wave (1977) and The Truman Show (1998).

George Miller with Mad Max (1979), Mad Max 2 (1981) and Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome (1985): The Mad Max series can’t really claim to have invented the post apocalyptic road movie – that was already present in films like Damnation Alley (1976) and Deathsport (1978) – but those films remain that genre’s touchstone. Brilliantly transplanting Western tropes to a futuristic setting, they redefined the sci fi action film, especially Mad Max 2, and set new standards for world building and chase sequences which, to be honest, are still rarely matched, except by Miller himself in the most recent Mad Max Fury Road (2015). You can see the influence of Miller and Max on countless other films, books, TV series, video games, comic books, rock bands, directors… they revolutionised a genre.

Russell Mulcahy with Highlander (1986): In the mid 80s Russell Mulcahy was probably the most famous video clip director in the world thanks to his ground-breaking work with the likes of Duran Duran, Elton John, Spandau Ballet and Billy Joel, among many others (Ed: he directed the first video ever played on MTV, The Buggles’ 'Video Killed the Radio Star'). He made his feature debut with the visually stunning Razorback (1984) then followed it with this fascinating swashbuckler-sci-fi-fantasy-time-travel hybrid, starring Christopher Lambert (the US-born, Swiss-raised Parisian playing Scottish) and Sean Connery (the world’s most famous Scot…playing Spanish). The film was a box office disappointment at the time but became a major cult success, leading to a franchise of sequels (Mulcahy returned to helm the much-derided #2 in 1991)  and TV spin offs. Mulcahy backed away from sci-fi during his busy Hollywood heyday (Ricochet, 1991; Blue Ice, 1992; The Real McCoy, 1993; The Shadow, 1994), only to return to the genre in 2007 with Resident Evil: Extinction. (Pictured, above; Mulcahy, left, on-set with Connery).

Alex Proyas with The Crow (1994) and Dark City (1998): Proyas’ talent was clear from his early video clips (amongst them the Crowded House classics 'Don’t Dream It’s Over' and 'Better be Home Soon') and his debut feature, Spirits of the Air, Gremlins of the Clouds (1988), but he was not that well known to wide cinema audiences until he made The Crow (1994), a visually dazzling work overshadowed by the tragedy of Brandon Lee’s death. Proyas confirmed his promise with the stunning Dark City (1998), which helped define “emo sci fi” of the ‘90s and ‘00s, including the films of Christopher Nolan and the Aussie-shot The Matrix (1999). He scored big with the Will Smith sci-fi starrer I, Robot (2004), but stumbled with his genre follow-ups (Knowing, 2009, with Nicholas Cage; the ill-fated Gods of Egypt, 2016). Perhaps weighted down by the studio restrictions that ironically come with big budgets (his unfilmed project Paradise Lost is one of the greatest “if only” films of Australian cinema), Proyas is still young enough to come up with a few more classic films.

STEPHEN VAGG is a scriptwriter, journalist and commentator who divides his professional time between Los Angeles, Sydney and Brisbane. He graduated from the Australian Film Television and Radio School with a Masters Degree in Screenwriting and has worked for FremantleMedia, Network 7 and Network 10. His feature film screenplays All My Frends Are Leaving Brisbane (2007) and Jucy (2010) were directed by his wife, Louise Alston. In 2010, his book Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood was published.

Saturday
Sep082018

THE BURT REYNOLDS 'COLD STREAK'

Burt had one of the all-time great (bad?) 'cold streaks' – films that either disappointed or plain out underperformed. Guest coloumnist STEPHEN VAGG ponders, "What happened...?"

In 1982 Burt Reynolds was flying high. He’d been the number one box office attraction in the US for five years running. He was big enough to turn director (Gator) and stay director (The End; Sharky’s Machine), he had a powerful franchise behind him (Smokey and the Bandit), he was branching out into romantic comedies (Best Friends, Paternity) and musicals (The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas). It seemed the public would follow him anywhere.

Within a few years it was over – he’d ceased to be a major star. By the late 1980s, Burt was back to being a TV star again on B.L. Stryker; a few years after that he was mostly to be found in straight-to-video flicks. Until the end of Burt’s life people would talk about him having a “comeback” – but while there were great moments (Citizen Ruth, Boogie Nights), he never regained his former status.

Now these things happen in every actor’s career – indeed Burt survived a large number of turkeys and disasters before he became a huge star: big budget flops (Lucky Lady, At Long Last Love), films where directors were fired during production (Rough Cut) or people died during production (The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing, Shark!, pictured above). He’d always managed to bounce back. But from 1983 onwards, he didn’t.

Let’s look at the films in question:

Stroker Ace (1983; pictured, top) – Burt famously turned down a role in Terms of Endearment to do this; Jack Nicholson stepped in, and won a Best Supporting Oscar, while Stroker Ace flopped. In Burt’s defence, this would’ve seemed the surer commercial bet – it was an action comedy involving cars directed by Hal Needham, a combination which had been successful four times previously (Smokey and the Bandit I & II, Hooper, The Cannonball Run). Not this time, though. Burt’s luck had changed.

The Man Who Loved Women (1983) – this would have seemed a safe-ish bet. A remake of the 1977 Francois Truffaut film, directed by Blake Edwards, who was coming off Victor-Victoria and many other acclaimed romantic comedies. But critics were mean and the public stayed away in droves.

Cannonball Run II (1984; pictured, right) – another seemingly safe choice, an all-star sequel to one of Burt’s biggest hits. And it wasn’t an out-and-out flop at the box office but it was a disappointment, making half of what the original did.  Like Stroker Ace, Cannonball II simply wasn’t a very good film – it felt lazy and greedy. The original Smokey and Cannonball films had a good heart – this doesn’t. The public sensed it and stayed away. So Burt decided to go into something even more sure-fire…

City Heat (1984) – what could be more successful than teaming Burt with Clint Eastwood in an action buddy comedy? And indeed the film made some money… but not as much as everyone thought it would. Production was plagued with difficulties – original director (and writer) Blake Edwards was forced off the project by Clint, and Burt was injured during filming, causing him to lose a lot of weight and rumours to start that the actor had AIDS.

Stick (1985) –Burt returned to directing, and picked some strong source material, an Elmore Leonard novel. Burt liked what he did with his rough cut but says Universal forced him to reshoot the second half. The resulting film flopped commercially and critically. Burt would go on to direct three more movies, but none with much acclaim.

Heat (1986) – Based on another strong source material – a novel and script by William Goldman – and Burt is genuinely good in the lead role. If original director Robert Altman had stayed on the project who knows what might have happened? But Altman quit after disagreements with Goldman; he was replaced by Dick Richards, who Burt ended up punching out, and was replaced in turn by Jarry Jameson. Two more directors worked on the film (or three, depending on your sources). The resulting film was a mess and flopped. It was remade with Jason Statham as Wild Card.

Malone (1987; pictured, right) – Burt does more action, in this so-so thriller directed by someone called Harley Cokeliss. In an era of Arnie, Sly, Jean Claude and Seagal, no one cared. The failure of this film may explain why Burt turned down Die Hard – because who knew that Die Hard was going to turn into, well, Die Hard?

Rent-a-Cop (1987) – Burt teams with another 70s legend, Liza Minnelli, in a comedy crime film. Another flop which no one seems to like.

Switching Channels (1988) – a lot of people thought this would turn things around for Burt. A good director (Ted Kotcheff), excellent source material (The Front Page by Hecht and MacArthur), superb co stars (Kathleen Turner and Christopher Reeve). And Burt received some good reviews. But he feuded with Turner, and the resulting film was a box office disappointment.

Physical Evidence (1989) – this was originally written to be a sequel to Jagged Edge with Glenn Close and Robert Loggia but was rewritten – Burt stepped into the part originally meant for Loggia and Theresa Russell was a version of Glenn Close. For some reason they picked Michael Crichton to direct, despite it not being based on one of his novels or having any sci fi/technical angle. Burt actually isn’t bad but he has nil chemistry with Russell and the film was little seen.

Breaking In (1989) – Burt has a strong director (Bill Forsyth), excellent script (by John Sayles) and gives a very good performance as a small time crook which earned him some of his best ever reviews… and it’s a really sweet movie… but no one turned up to see it. (Pictured, below; co-star Casey Siemaszko, l, and director Bill Forsyth with Reynolds)

The scary thing about these films is you can see why Burt made them. They would’ve seemed safe bets on paper: remakes, sequels, buddy comedies, scripts by William Goldman and John Sayles, adaptations of Elmore Leonard novels, directors with strong commercial track records. None of the projects were crazy, weird, artistic choices – they were aimed at being broad crowd pleasers. And crowds weren’t pleased because, as Goldman once wrote at the peak of Burt’s fame, “no one knows anything”.

Maybe Burt could’ve turned it around with Terms of Endearment. It’s a shame he didn’t do The Emerald Forest with John Boorman – the two men had worked together magnificently in Deliverance, and Burt would’ve been perfect in the lead role. (Editor's Note: in addition to Die Hard, he also admits to passing on 'James Bond' as Sean Connery's replacement, M*A*S*H, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest, Star Wars and Pretty Woman.)  

Mind you, there is the possibility that Burt didn’t have much taste. After Boogie Nights he turned down a role in Magnolia because he didn’t like PT Anderson. His financial demands led to the premature cancellation of his hit sitcom, Evening Shade. He surely could’ve picked better projects in the last thirty years of his life.

Still, it was an admirable career. Anyone whose credits include Deliverance, Sharky’s Machine, Boogie Nights and Hooper, just for starers, deserves our admiration and respect.

R.I.P. Burt.

STEPHEN VAGG is a scriptwriter, journalist and commentator who divides his professional time between Los Angeles, Sydney and Brisbane. He graduated from the Australian Film Television and Radio School with a Masters Degree in Screenwriting and has worked for FremantleMedia, Network 7 and Network 10. His feature film screenplays All My Frends Are Leaving Brisbane (2007) and Jucy (2010) were directed by his wife, Louise Alston. In 2010, his book Rod Taylor: An Aussie in Hollywood was published. 

Saturday
Aug252018

SO WE'VE SETTLED ON THE WORST FILM OF THE YEAR THEN...?

The trailer primed the target demo (are ‘college stoners’ still a thing?) for The Happytime Murders to be the laugh-riot comedy experience of the year. Well, the reviews are in and…um, it isn’t.

Directed by heir to the Muppet throne Brian Henson (pictured, below) as the first bigscreen volley of his adult-skewing Henson Alternative corporate off-shoot, The Happytime Murders works over old-school private-eye tropes against the backdrop of an imagined LA where humans and puppets share a fragile co-existence; the film opens with a couple of moments of anti-puppet prejudice, suggesting a social commentary on racism may have once been on the cards (doesn’t happen). The script is the sophomore effort from Todd Berger, a part-time actor who earlier this year saw his debut feature Cover Versions (which he also directed) premiere DOA.  

The central character is grumpy gumshoe Phil Phillips, a visually uninteresting protagonist voiced by veteran ‘teer Bill Barretta, who is matched up with Melissa McCarthy (who shoulders some blame, having confirmed in a SlashFilm interview that she did a pass on the script after signing on) to solve a series of murders relating to…stuff, who cares? There is a nympho puppet and a lot of drug-addled puppets, meaning there’s lots of ‘hilarious’ puppet sex and puppet drug-taking. There is Elizabeth Banks working hard with no material, Joel McHale bringing nothing and Maya Rudoplh doing her best, but that’s it really.

Any hope that this might be an R-rated Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (or even this years Ted, because we need more films like Ted) quickly faded when reviews began to drop. One of the first to wield the hate-pen was Anthony O’Connor’s diatribe for the Australian site FilmInk, in which he lyrically states that watching the film is akin to, “being shot in the face with an icy cold blast of humour-retardant chemicals.”

International critics began to muster their best worst opinions. The gentlest barbs came from NPR’s Scott Tobias (“…the pace sags like Kermit’s limbs”); ReelViews’ James Berardinelli (“Everything about the movie is stunted…”); CNN.com’s Brian Lowry (…the puerile humour yields diminishing returns”); and, US Weekly’s Mara Reinstein (“…a witless comedy with poorly executed ideas…”). The nicest thing Variety's Andrew Barker said was the film resembled an, "adolescent YouTube sketch."

A heavier arsenal of negative commentary was launched by Johnny Oleksinski of The New York Post, who called it a “cliché-ridden, laughless bore” under the headline "...the most miserable puppet show ever"; Simon Miraudo of Student Edge surmised, “This is the worst thing any of the actors have been affiliated with.”; Derek Smith at Slant labeled it a, “relentless onslaught of puerile awfulness.” Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune nailed it, declaring, “The Happytime Murders is a one-joke movie, minus one joke.”

Henson’s derided film has stumbled to a frankly astonishing 22% on Rotten Tomatoes at press time. The Hollywood Reporter’s Frank Schreck backed it, saying, “It’s more than funny enough…”, while Aussie Matt Neal of ABC Radio called it an “ambitious cult-classic-in-waiting.” Advocates will point out it’s not even the worst reviewed film of the week, let alone the year; hitting Australian cinemas is Slender Man, an anaemic horror effort that has somehow conjured a 9% RT rating.

Ok, sure, but what seems to be the main theme of the wave of dud reviews is that The Happytime Murders is arguably 2018’s greatest floundering of talent and opportunity. Henson and his creative team weren’t re-inventing the wheel; bad taste puppet/people comedies have worked before, notably Peter Jackson’s cult classic Meet the Feebles. Everything was in place to suggest this could have worked too, if the slightest bit of inspiration, energy and ambition had been employed. It wasn’t, leaving a piss-weak puppet-noir bore made worse by crass, cringe-worthy crudity.

Tuesday
Aug072018

THE STORY SO FAR...: TARANTINO'S ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD

One of the few Hollywood auteurs whose name is as recognizable as the stars that flock to his projects, Quentin Tarantino is currently shooting what is shaping as the most highly anticipated film of his career, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood. The director has teased, “It takes place at the height of the counterculture explosion, at the time of the hippie revolution…at the height of new Hollywood.” So what do we know about the Pulp Fiction auteur’s latest…?

The LA industry began buzzing in July 2017, when Tarantino (via his representatives at William Morris Endeavour) announced his latest project - his first original script, five years in the writing, to be based on real events. The narrative was initially described as an account of the infamous Charles Manson murders. The cult leader (once a song-writing hopeful who lived with Beach Boy Dennis Wilson) ordered his followers to slay the residents of a home in Benedict Canyon; on August 8, 1969, five died, including actress Sharon Tate, wife of Roman Polanski and eight months pregnant at the time of her brutal death.

Under the work-in-progress titles ‘Tarantino 1969’, ‘Manson Family Murders Project’ or simply ‘#9’ (a reference to it being the director’s ninth film), top-tier talent began circulating for a myriad of roles. Jennifer Lawrence (as Tate) and Tom Cruise (as an LA County prosecutor) were initially attached; the director’s frequent collaborator Samuel L. Jackson met with Tarantino in mid-2017. With the departure of Lawrence, Australian-born Oscar nominee Margot Robbie firmed for the Tate part (pictured, below; Robbie and Tate); by November, Django Unchained star Leonardo DiCaprio publically declared his intent to work with Tarantino again, accepting a lead role well below his pay grade. When Inglorious Basterds leading man Brad Pitt (pictured, right; on-set with DiCaprio) confirmed his interest, the Hollywood suits closed the deal and fuelled a bidding war between studios and financiers (Tarantino detached himself from longtime production partner The Weinstein Company, with David Heyman replacing the disgraced Harvey Weinstein in the primary producer’s role).

Plot details began to emerge. With the turbulent social change that was the late 60s as its backdrop, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood tells the story of television star Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) who, with his stunt double Cliff Booth (Pitt) by his side, navigates the Los Angeles film industry landscape hoping to re-energise his profile and crack bigscreen fame. Tarantino now posits the murders as a defining event in the narrative but not the all-consuming focus, silencing initial concerns that the film would be his typically blood-soaked take on the horrific crimes. Recent reports suggest the film will adopt a portmanteau structure a la Tarantino’s 1994 masterpiece; at CinemaCon in April, he hinted his latest is “probably the closest to ‘Pulp Fiction’ that I have done.”

This more expansive story line explains an ensemble cast list that positions the already high-profile project as an event film (despite the departure of Cruise and Jackson). Dakota Fanning plays Manson disciple Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme; U.K. actor Damian Lewis has been cast as superstar Steve McQueen; as murdered hairstylist Jay Sebring, Speed Racer star Emile Hirsch; Hollywood icon Burt Reynolds as ranch owner George Spahn, who leased his land to Manson and his cultists; and, as talent agent Marvin Schwartz, the legendary Al Pacino (pictured, right; on-set, with his director).

An all-star line-up fills out key roles, including Kurt Russell, Scoot McNairy, Luke Perry, Clifton Collins Jr., Timothy Olyphant, Nicholas Hammond, James Marsden, James Remar, Martin Kove, Brenda Vaccaro, Zoe Bell and, as martial arts icon Bruce Lee, Mike Moh. The shoot will also reteam Tarantino with his Reservoir Dogs’ co-stars, Tim Roth and Michael Madsen. No announcement has been made as to who will play Charles Manson.

Sony Pictures had beaten out 21st Century Fox, Universal, Warner Bros., Lionsgate, and Annapurna to secure production and worldwide distribution rights. Tarantino spun the partnership as being the work of SPE boss Tom Rothman, who impressed the director with his in-depth film knowledge; other reports suggest the film came to Sony on the back of a deal that afforded Tarantino a US$95million budget, rare ‘final cut’ autonomy and a 25% gross-dollar bonus.

With cinematographer Robert Richardson lensing alongside Tarantino on their 6th collaboration, shooting began at Universal Studios and key location across the City of Angels (including, pictured above; the iconic Cinerama Dome, outfitted for a 1969 film screening) on June 18 and is set to wrap in mid-November. The release date had been set as August 9, 2019, the 50th anniversary of the Manson-Tate murders; it has been subsequently changed to July 26.

Compiled with thanks from reports originally published on The Hollywood Reporter, Screen Rant, Variety, Deadline Hollywood and Indiewire.

Tuesday
Jul102018

FROM TEEN DREAM TO GAY ICON: TAB HUNTER'S MEMORABLE HOLLYWOOD MOMENTS

Guest columnist STEPHEN VAGG recalls 10 of the late Tab Hunter’s finer moments from a filmography that came to symbolize the vagaries of Hollywood fame…

Tab Hunter passed away on Sunday July 8 in Santa Barbara after complications arose from a blood clot; he was 86. He owed his fame to his looks; Ken Doll features which suited the Eisenhower era and turned him into a teen idol. Arriving in Los Angeles as ‘Arthur Kelm’, he was given a silly stage name that made him a joke the moment he achieved stardom. But for a number of years he had the protection of Warner Bros, who put him in big budget films and encouraged a singing career.

His celebrity didn’t survive leaving the protection of Warner Bros in 1960, but he managed to keep working in European features, guest roles on TV, dinner theatre. In the 1980s he made something of a comeback via the films of John Waters, and in recent years his profile lifted with a well-received memoir and subsequent documentary, Tab Hunter Confidential (2015), that focused on his homosexuality.

Battle Cry (1955): Hunter’s first big hit was an adaptation of a Leon Uris best seller about marines in WW2. New Zealanders will get a kick out of Hollywood’s depiction of their homeland with people like Dorothy Malone (pictured, right; with Hunter) cast as 'Kiwis'.

The Sea Chase (1955): Hunter, John Wayne and Lana Turner are all cast as Germans (!) in Sydney (!!) at the outbreak of World War Two being chased through the Pacific by the British. (There were a bunch of “sympathetic German hero” films in the 1950s). Directed by Aussie John Farrow. The film is engrossing, though Hunter’s role is small.

Fear Strikes Out (1955): Like many a 1950s movie heartthrob, Hunter’s best performances in this decade were actually on small screen anthology shows. This was for Climax!, about the baseball player Jimmy Piersall who has a nervous breakdown. Although Hunter was excellent, the role in the film version was taken by Tony Perkins – which ended the real life romance between Hunter and Perkins at the time. (A story to be dramatized in the new feature, Tab and Tony, produced by Zachary Quinto and JJ Abrams.)

Forbidden Area (1956): Hunter is excellent in the first episode of the show Playhouse 90, playing a Russian sleeper, from a script by Rod Serling and directed by John Frankenheimer, with Charlton Heston looking bad-ass in an eye patch

Portrait of a Murderer (1958): Hunter scores again in an episode of Playhouse 90, written by Leslie Stevens and directed by Arthur Penn. He plays a murderer – he would be effective in such parts eg Gunman’s Walk (1958) The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean (1972).

Damn Yankees (1958): Warners insisted on casting Hunter in this big screen version of the stage musical, otherwise full of top line Broadway talent. He actually does okay but the film is stolen by Ray Walston and Gwen Vernon (pictured, right; with Hunter).

His Kind of Woman (1959): Hunter plays a soldier who romances kept woman Sophia Loren away from George Sanders. An odd drama, directed by Sidney Lumet, who had worked with Hunter in the early years of television.

Ride the Wild Surf (1964): Jan and Dean were meant to star alongside Fabian in this surfer flick but when their friend was involved in the kidnapping of Frank Sinatra Jnr they were replaced by Hunter and Peter Brown.  Art and Jo Napoleon directed but were replaced during filming by Don Taylor. Australian Olympian Murray Rose has a small role as an Aussie surfer.

Sweet Kill (1973; aka, The Arousers): Hunter as a serial killer in this interesting thriller, financed by Roger Corman, which was Curtis Hanson’s directorial debut.

Polyster (1981): The ageing heartthrob was exposed to a new audience via this John Waters comedy where he played opposite Divine. Hunter went on to a series of campy films including Grease 2 (1982) and Lust in the Dust (1985), which Hunter produced.