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Ace stuntman and action-comedy auteur Hal Needham will never be spoken of in the same sentence as the Kubricks or the Godards of the film world. But nor would he want to be, it would seem; as he was famously quoted at the height of his career, ““Directing, it’s a snap.” His passing on October 25 at the age of 82 from cancer brought his life to an end but his legendary status grows stronger.

Born Harold Brett Needham on March 6, 1931, in America’s deep-south, Needham served his country as a paratrooper in the Korean War before settling on the west coast and drifting into rough’n’tumble bit parts in the booming TV industry (he doubled for Richard Boone in over 200 episodes of Have Gun, Will Travel).

Soon graduating to stuntman status, it was during this period that he pulled off what many consider to be one of his greatest stunts. For the series You Asked For It, he leapt from a single-engine airplane and tackled a horseback rider to the ground (pictured, right). In a 2011 interview to coincide with the release of his autobiography, ‘Stuntman!’, he recalls, "The rate of speed that we closed on that horse was unbelievable. That plane was doing about 58 mph. I had to jump 15 to 20 feet before I even got to him and I had to catch him, not the horse."

He was soon co-ordinating and performing stunts on such films as How The West Was Won, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, The Bridge at Remagen, Major Dundee, The Great Race, McLintock!, McQ and The War Lord. In 1970, he devised and performed a groundbreaking horse-stunt for Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man, in which he climbs on the back of harnessed stage-coach horses at full gallop. “We worked with the horses for six months to get them ready,” he says, “(and) it took us two days to shoot the damn thing. And we made a lot of money, but it was scary. If you didn't make it, you'd have six horses and a 4500-pound stagecoach running you over."

His career took a fateful turn when he was cast as stunt double for a young Hollywood up-and-comer named Burt Reynolds on the set of the series, Riverboat – a gig which led to steady TV work with the actor in Gunsmoke and Dan August. Over the next dozen years, Needham and Reynolds (himself, an ex-fallguy) became close friends, working on films such as White Lightning, Lucky Lady, The End, Nickelodeon and The Longest Yard. On 1976’s Gator, a stunt involving a rolling pick-up truck was a near-miss. “That fender only missed me by 18 inches,” Needham remembers. “Had the truck gone straight and not turned over, it would have landed right on top me."

Having shot 2nd Unit work on several of Reynolds films, Needham was keen to step into the director’s chair. When the star brought him a script about a free-wheelin’ bootlegger evading dimwitted cops across America’s heartland, Needham took it on as his directorial debut. 1977’s Smokey and The Bandit would become a blockbuster hit and solidify one of the most profitable actor-director partnerships in movie history. Hooper, Smokey and The Bandit II, The Cannonball Run (pictured, below right; Needham and Reynolds with co-star Dom DeLuise) and its sequel and Stroker Ace were hugely popular with mainstream audiences, if never with the critical community. (Needham famously took out trade ads, featuring quotes from his bad reviews behind a wheelbarrow of cash, wryly rubbing his financial success in the nose of his detractors).

Though he can take a lot of credit for introducing the profitable charms of Arnold Schwarzennegger to moviegoers, having directed him in 1979’s Cactus Jack (aka, The Villain), Needham began to fall out of favour with young Hollywood executives when his big-budget fantasy Megaforce, BMX adventure Rad and broad wrestling comedy Body Slam all flopped in the 1980s (though all, it should be noted, have achieved VHS-fuelled cult status).

Needham had no pretensions as to his standing in the industry. He once said, ““I know one thing; I’ll never win an Academy Award. But I'll be a rich son of bitch.” He was proven wrong in November of 2012, when he was awarded with an honorary Oscar at the Governor’s Awards. 



Ed Lauter, one of Hollywood’s greatest ever below-the-line players, passed away on October 16 at the age of 74, succumbing to the asbestos-related cancer mesothelioma. Over his 42-year career, the New York native played a lot of characters prefixed by ‘Sheriff’ or ‘Sargeant’ or ‘Colonel’ or ‘General’ or ‘Major’. Such titles suitably surmise his standing amongst the casting directors, actors and filmmakers who have worked with him over the last four decades.

Lauter’s distinctively ambiguous facial features (a trademark of all the great bit players) could convey warmth or menace, fear or affection with the cock of a brow. Amongst the 204 roles against his name were scores of TV guest-spots, from his 1971 acting debut in Mannix to his six episode arc on ER; he wisely, even effortlessly, picked scene-stealing parts in a plethora of B-movies (The Chicken Chronicles, 1977; Extreme Justice, 1993; Nobody Knows Anything, 2003).

From his big-screen debut in 1972’s The Magnificent Seven Ride! to his most recent appearance opposite long-time friend Clint Eastwood in Trouble With The Curve, not a single decade has passed since the 1970s that hasn’t featured a memorable character role for the late, great Ed Lauter…

The 1970’s:
Lauter became the must-have support player very early on in his career, with no less than four roles in 1972 – The New Centurions (opposite George C Scott, who would direct him that same year in Rage);the Bill Cosby vehicle, Hickey & Boggs; and, most significantly, Robert Benton’s ground-breaking western Bad Company, starring Jeff Bridges. In 1973, he solidified his reputation as the hot-wired ‘Hawk Feather’ in Richard C Sarafian’s Lolly-Madonna XXX (pictured, right), leading to several years of steady work in such commercial fare as The Last American Hero (1973), The Longest Yard (1974), The French Connection 2 (1975) and Breakheart Pass (1975). The decade culminated in two of his most memorable roles – as the hot-wired ‘Maloney’ in Alfred Hitchcock’s final film, Family Plot (1976); and, as ‘Duke’, holding his own against an unhinged Anthony Hopkins in Richard Attenborough’s Magic (1978). 

The 1980’s:
Lauter kicked off the new decade by indulging his unforeseen comedic skills in Ira Miller’s fake-trailer anthology Loose Shoes (co-starring a pre-stardom Bill Murray), before delving back into the action-thriller genre parts with Death Hunt (1981), opposite Charles Bronson and Lee Marvin, and The Amateur (1981), starring John Savage. He side-tracked into arthouse cinema with Nicholas Roeg’s Eureka (1983) in the same year that he took on the role of Joe Camber in Lewis Teague’s Cujo (pictured, left), a short but compelling performance that many consider amongst his finest parts. Hollywood responded; in quick succession, he was cast in the Tom Selleck vehicle Lassiter and director Richard Lester’s all-star farce Finders Keepers (both 1984), the studio comedies Real Genius and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun (both 1985) and such star vehicles as Rob Lowe’s Youngblood and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Raw Deal (both 1986). Deeply appreciative of Lauter’s talent. the A-list directors soon came calling; before the end of the decade, he would feature in Roland Joffe’s Fat Man and Little Boy and Oliver Stone’s Born on the Fourth of July (both 1989). 

The 1990’s:
The booming home video market and the expansion of cable-TV provided Lauter with a bottomless pit of character parts (he did guest spots in The X-Files, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Highlander and Walker, Texas Ranger). But by this stage of Lauter’s career, the casting agents of influence knew his worth. The last decade of the old millennium was a busy time, with Lauter securing major roles opposite Steve Martin in Herbert Ross’ My Blue Heaven (1990); Jennifer Connelly in Joe Johnston’s The Rocketeer (1991; pictured, right); Brendan Fraser (and a young Matt Damon) in Robert Mandel’s School Ties (1992); Oscar-winner Nicholas Cage in Mike Figgis’ Leaving Las Vegas (1995); and, Nick Nolte in Lee Tamahori’s Mulholland Falls (1995). 

The 2000’s:
Lauter focussed to a greater extent on TV commitments in his final decade, but film roles would come his way that personified the rock-solid professionalism and industry standing he had etched out over his career. A pivotal role in Roger Donaldson’s Cuban missile drama, Thirteen Days (2000); the provider of well-executed cheap laughs as ‘The Coach’ in Joel Gallen’s parody, Not Another Teen Movie (2001); solid if smaller roles in Seabiscuit (2003), Seraphim Falls (2006) and The Number 23 (2007). Finally, Oscar recognition attached itself to Lauter when he co-starred as the faithful butler to Berenice Bejo’s Peppy in the Best Picture winner, The Artist (2011).

The late Ed Lauter has four films ‘in the can’ awaiting release, amongst them Alfonso Gomez-Rejon’s much-anticipated remake of The Town That Dreaded Sundown. All to appropriately, he plays a sheriff; of the remainding films, his character names are ‘Pastor’, ‘Mr’ and, ignominiously, ‘Snub Nose’. They will be played to perfection, no matter how small, bolstering the work of everyone around him. It is what Ed Lauter, and all the truly great character actors, did best.



There is a bittersweet irony that the Toronto theatre that hosted the premiere of The Big Chill three decades ago has been converted into a Pottery Barn homewares store. But the demise of an old movie palace to make way for a soulless franchise can’t dilute the love that the town’s film festival goers have for director Lawrence Kasdan’s tale of idealism, friendship and change. Many of those original audience members turned out for a 30th anniversary screening and cast-and-crew Q&A session earlier this week.

The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), then known as ‘The Festival of Festivals’, was seven years old when it hosted the World Premiere of The Big Chill. TIFF was a well-liked, generally well-attended event that was on the cusp of being one of the world’s leading festivals. Similarly, the film’s cast were respected actors but not marquee draws and director Kasdan had scripts for Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back to his name but only one directorial effort, the decidedly unsentimental (though critically-acclaimed) Body Heat. There was a sense of synergism about the pairing.  

““I was at that screening as a member of the public, so I do remember what it felt like,” says Piers Handling, Director and CEO of TIFF (pictured, right). “In addition to helping its stars break through and its influence on cinema generally, The Big Chill represents a landmark in TIFF’s own history. It showcased the Festival’s ability to seek out and attract up-and-coming contemporary classics and helped the Festival move to the forefront of the international landscape.”

Attendees at the premiere went wild for the tale of baby-boomer pals gathering at the funeral of the most idealistic member of their college clique, who has committed suicide (played by Kevin Costner, his flashback scenes entirely excised from the final cut). The chemistry between cast members, amongst them William Hurt, Kevin Kline, Glenn Close, Meg Tilly, Tom Berenger, Mary Kay Place, Jobeth Williams and a scene-stealing Jeff Goldblum, was entirely infectious; the film would win the People’s Choice Award at TIFF that year.

"The film had something to do with friendship,” Kasdan told reporters on the red carpet ahead of the September 5 retrospective screening. “It's not a particularly rose-colored version of it; it's what really happens. People rub each other wrong, but the friendship survives and helps you deal with the world." Kasdan and screenwriter Barbara Benedek spent a great deal of time fine-tuning the personalities of their characters. “"We thought that maybe if we were specific enough there'd be some universality", he said. "The characters came from studies of people we knew. These were real people on the screen".

The launch provided by the Toronto’s enthusiastic audience fuelled the film’s marketing and subsequent box office success, almost in spite of studio ambivalence. Kasdan (pictured, left; l-r, Berenger, the director, Goldblum, Kline and Hurt) recalls, “[The studio] said, 'How can there be seven protagonists? It's impossible’. The subject matter also wasn't exactly in their wheelhouse. The head of Columbia Pictures said to me, after the first test screening, 'I didn't know it was a comedy.'" On the back of three Oscar nominations (Picture, Original Screenplay and Supporting Actress for Glenn Close) and a blockbuster soundtrack of classic 60’s hits, The Big Chill took US$56.4million domestically (a staggering US$143.4million in 2013 currency).

As was to be expected, the 30th anniversary screening took on a celebratory mood. Audience participation was encouraged, with spontaneous dancing breaking out in the aisles and classic quotes (“It’s just good investigative journalism”) echoed verbatim. Kasdan, Benedek and producers Michael Shamberg and Marcia Nasatir accompanied the cast (excluding Goldblum and Hurt, through work commitments, and the late Dan Galloway) on the Prince of Wales Theatre stage following the screening (the film restored to 4k clarity by the studio archivists). Variety’s senior film critic, Scott Foundas, had the enviable task of moderating.

“This movie's been available in your living room for 30 years, and yet you all came out tonight. I really appreciate it," Kasdan told the sold-out audience, adding for comic effect, "You'll have no trouble recognizing the cast. They haven't changed a bit.” (Pictured, right: l-r, Gleen Close, Mary Kay Place, Kevin Kline, Meg Tilly, Tom Berenger and Jobeth Williams)

"It was an extraordinary experience to have challenging work that also made you laugh,” said Mary Kay Place, (who played the maternal Meg) “and then to have as much fun during the day working as you did at night dancing and playing charades and singing Broadway show tunes at a piano at Jeff's and Kevin's." Tom Berenger, cast as TV actor Sam Weber, recalls his stunt-leap into the front seat of a convertible as pretty tame action-hero stuff. “Anybody could have done it,” he says, “that was a pretty low car.”

Canadian native Meg Tilly, so memorable as the beatific Chloe (pictured, right) and who had all but retired from acting, perhaps best sums up the love shared by both the film and the festival audience. “It was one of the cosiest sets I’ve been on,” she said. “We all rented condos on the beach and Friday nights we’d get together and have parties and dancing and food.” The reuniting of the cast was a special moment for the actress. "I'm so happy they had the idea to bring us all together to do this," she said. "It's such a gift, I get to see everybody again and I haven't seen everybody in so long. To see their happy smiling faces, that was such a blessing. I'm really grateful."



US exhibitors had no faith in a campy space opera from an untested director, so they booked the gritty action epic Sorcerer into their theatres a week after Star Wars launched. Ten days later, William Friedkin’s expensive reworking of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear had vanished and a new Hollywood mentality had been born. With a remastered version of his film debuting at the Venice Film Festival this week, the director of The French Connection and The Exorcist has been very vocal about the monumental flop that he considers his crowning achievement.

The Venice Film Festival has been kind to William Friedkin (pictured, above), the 78 year-old Chicago native who won the Best Director Oscar for The French Connection (1971) then would make the film many consider the greatest horror movie of all time, The Exorcist (1973). Most recently, he secured the Italian festival’s Best Directing honours for his Matthew McConnaughey vehicle, Killing Joe (2011).

The acclaim reaches its zenith in 2013, with the Festival organisers voting to award Friedkin the prestigious Golden Lion Lifetime Achievement award. Alberto Barbera (pictured, left), the Festival’s Director, stated in his submission to the Biennale Board of Directors, “William Friedkin has contributed in a prominent way – the revolutionary impact of which has not always been recognized – to the profound renewal of American cinema regarded as ‘the New Hollywood’.”

“[The award] was very unexpected, I must say, and I'll tell you what makes it even more so," Friedkin told the Los Angeles Times earlier this week. "When Venice started the lifetime achievement award in 1970, the first guy to win it was Orson Welles, whose Citizen Kane made me want to direct movies. And when the festival started up again in the late 1940s after World War II, the first guy to win the Golden Lion was Henri-Georges Clouzot for Wages of Fear. It's all kind of a circle and I'm kind of overwhelmed to get the award."

The significance of French auteur Clouzot’s masterpiece is profound. To accompany his honour, Friedkin’s all-but-forgotten passion project, Sorcerer (1977), the English/Spanish remake of Clouzot’s influential work, will be relaunched in a fully-restored version in Venice. In technical speak, the 4k film resolution scan of the original 35mm camera negative will ensure the film is viewed with greater clarity than its original release print.

The initial failure of Friedkin’s opus hurt everybody. By mid-1970’s standards, its US$22million budget was exorbitant, but Friedkin had delivered two ground-breaking blockbusters and could write his own ticket. The film’s US$12million box-office take proved crippling; the slow-expansion release pattern that distributor 20th Century Fox had planned was shelved when George Lucas’ Star Wars commanded every screen available. “The zeitgeist had changed by the time [Sorcerer] came out," Friedkin told The earlier this year.

Star Roy Scheider (pictured, right) bounced back by reprising the role of Chief Brody in Jaws 2 and getting Oscar-nominated for All That Jazz in 1979, but it was tougher for Friedkin. His controversial procedural Cruising, with Al Pacino as an undercover cop in the S&M gay nightclub scene, earned more headlines than dollars. Everything he lensed for the next decade (Deal of the Century, 1983; To Live and Die in LA, 1985; The Guardian, 1990; Blue Chips, 1994; Jade, 1995) tanked.

He recently confided to the Venice Film Festival website, “I consider Sorcerer my most personal film and the most difficult to achieve. To realize that it’s going to have a new life in cinema is something for which I’m deeply grateful. To have its world premiere at the Venice Festival is something I look forward to with great joy. It is truly a Lazarus moment.”

Sorcerer (so named after the truck that is central to film’s narrative journey) will move from its Venice berth into an arthouse release pattern before a new life in its restored form on Blu-ray. The rebirth of his most cherished project could not come sooner for the ageing auteur. “Sorcerer is the film that came closest to my vision of what I wanted to make,” he told the LA Times. “I have a great fondness for Sorcerer, more than any other film. It's the film I hope to be remembered for."



Mankind’s first sharks-in-a-tornado film, Sharknado, has a confirmed Australian cinema release. An internet sensation reflecting the hysteria that the Snakes on a Plane marketing team only ever dreamt of, Anthony C Ferrante’s basic-cable network feature debut (!) has entered the pop-culture subconscious. But, as reflected upon by SCREEN-SPACE below (yes, we sat through its recent pay-TV premiere so that you didn’t have to)….well, it’s a little bit silly….

The Opening Bit…
The ne’er-do-well fishing boat captain Carlos Santiago (Israel Saez de Miguel), like 'Quint' from Jaws crossed with Ledger's Joker (how does such a murderously ruthless young man take command of a commercial fishing vessel?) faces off against a suit-wearing Asian yuppie called Palmer (Marcus Choi) over the boats shark-fin haul. Shouldn’t the details of their deal have been finalised back on shore? What the scene does do is set up a film that addresses the brutal, shameless act of commercial finning. I look forward to that film….

Jaason Simmons…
The man of a thousand vowels (pictured, right) went on a spiritual journey after he left his co-starring role in the phenomenon that was Baywatch. He lived a rural existence far from Hollywood which helped him with personal issues (he came out as proudly gay in 2008) and subsequent professional growth (he has starred on London’s West End and in an Australian play by respected actor/writer, Jeremy Sims). With Sharknado, he has come full circle; he plays one of the most grotesquely blokish Australian surfie stereotypes in a performance that is excrutiating to watch yet deceptively awesome.

Weather and the Physics of Nature…
As the titular front bears down upon the Californian coastline, the intermingling of stock footage and lead actors is bewildering. Swirling black clouds and surging waves cross-cut between blue skies and a gentle rolling surf. Mid-film, the hillside home of leading lady Tara Reid (more on her later) is flooded, the water failing to drain away resulting in a bloody shark pool of gravity-defying sea-water that blocks the heroes escape.

The ‘Fish Out of Water’ Conundrum…
Sharks need water to breath. Sharks in tornadoes are caught in a maelstrom of oxygen and its various gaseous elements. These sharks would not fly around for an hour or so and then eat people. These sharks would die.

Helicopters and Tornadoes…
Tornado strength winds rotate at between 100 mph and 300 mph. In a key climatic moment, heroes Cassie Scerbo (pictured, left) and Chuck Hittinger pilot a two-person helicopter into the outer rim of the sharknado to release an explosive device that will dissipate the gale force winds (a different but equally contentious field of science). Spoiler alert – they (mostly) survive; super-spoiler alert – this action is, of course, impossible.

Old People Swimming…
Our heroes flee to a retirement village situated in the hills above Los Angeles. Here, despite the Downtown death and destruction that is unfolding in full view, the residents are taking a soothing dip in the village pool. It takes the thrashing of a group of sharks that have landed in the pool due to the storm to get the final two bathers out. Old people are idiots.

That Kiss…
Having extricated himself from the acidic stomach of a great white shark, uber-hero Fin (Ian Ziering), splattered head-to-toe in shark goo, plants a big one on his ex, April (Tara Reid; more on her later). The actress does not even wait for the director to yell cut before she pulls away, wipes her mouth and laughs.

Tara Reid…
Tara Reid (pictured, below).

The Nod to Classic European Cinema…
As the action fades to black, a single-word title card fades in – ‘Fin’. It is the hero’s name, of course, but its origins stem from the cinema of Ingmar Bergman and Jean-Luc Godard. As of 2013, it is now also seen in Sharknado.

(Editor’s note – Credit where credit is due. Ian Ziering, who appears to be fully aware of the legacy he is creating, gives all of himself in the lead role and should be credited, along with director Anthony C Ferrante’s grasp of tongue-in-cheek terror, for helping to craft a modern bad movie classic. I really enjoyed this film).