The defining elements of Steve De Jarnatt’s 1988 feature Miracle Mile could just as easily condemned it to Netflix oblivion, instead of the deserved cult status it enjoys. The central romance between nebbish muso Anthony Edwards (pictured, below) and sweet diner waitress Mare Winningham is achingly pure, as only a ‘Hughes-era’ love story could be. And the threat to their dreamlike eternal togetherness – an impending thermonuclear ‘doomsday’ – seems as 80’s as shoulder pads. But the director’s second (and, to date, last) film boasts a legion of fans, who have hailed the long-overdue HD-remastered Blu-ray release; the pre-dawn hues and eerie expanses of an ethereally ambient downtown LA have been beautifully re-energised for collectors of unique American genre works. “I think if I had not held to my vision,” De Jarnatt tells SCREEN-SPACE, “no one would be watching it today…”
Miracle Mile was written in the late 1970’s, when Cold War tensions were rife and nuclear winters were a real threat. “Let’s say I had nightmares that needed to be purged,” says De Jarnatt (pictured, below). “The project definitely was my reaction to a childhood indoctrination into the inevitability of total nuclear annihilation. ‘Duck, roll, and cover’ [was] a mantra at school from an early age, being taught that we would just dust the radiation off the canned goods in the bomb shelter and live to fight the commies another day.”
The script was highly regarded amongst the studio execs of the day, but the fatalistic trajectory of the narrative and the unproven commerciality of nuclear disaster movies stalled a greenlight. “To me, it was a given that this dire outcome would be followed through with to the end in the film,” De Jarnatt recalls, citing such brooding classics as Peter Weir’s The Last Wave, William Friedkin’s Sorcerer and the Nathanael West novel Day of The Locust as inspirations. “It was never going to be about stopping things, and not really about escaping. There is no such thing.”
Instead, the story would combine the ticking-clock tension of a high-stakes thriller with the inevitability of a grand, doomed romance. “What can you do to find some grace and meaning in the last few minutes of humanity? [Accept] love,” says the director, who chose the iconic La Brea tar pits to bookend his protagonist’s journey. “Two people meet among the extinct species of the [La Brea] museum and at the end, they are perhaps going to be dug up to be put on display in some future museum. At least that semblance of a sort of immortality is all you can hope for.”
After Jane Alexander’s Oscar-nominated turn in Lyne Littman’s nuclear war drama Testament and the social phenomenon that was Nicholas Meyer’s TV movie The Day After, the Miracle Mile script was given priority and Steve De Jarnatt's vision neared a shooting date. But the defiantly unconventional story structure and that ending were still causing sleepless nights among the suits at Hemdale, the now defunct independent studio that had backed such auteur-driven hits as The Terminator, Platoon, River’s Edge and Salvador. “The setting up of all the diner characters then never cutting away to their story to see if they made it out of town breaks a lot of rules of drama,” admits De Jarnatt. “And I did spend eight years struggling to keep this ending, [which] was deliberately subversive. Some viewers cannot believe a film was allowed to end this way.”
Final say fell to Hemdale boss John Daly, who struggled with early cuts of the film. It took some minor reshoots but, says De Jarnatt, “finally he thoroughly embraced the darkness of the film.” An alternate ending was conceived, where the white light at the end coalesced into two animated diamonds that spun away (it can be seen on the extensive Blu-ray extras). But the studio head, now firmly on board with the director’s vision, would not allow such a concession. Recalls De Jarnatt, “Mr Daly actually said, ‘That’s too upbeat, let’s rip their hearts out!’ You do not find such adventurous film titans today, I guarantee you.” (Picture, left; the director on the 'La Brea Tar Pit' set)
Miracle Mile found much love from critics; Roger Ebert compared it to Martin Scorsese’s own nocturnal odyssey, After Hours, stating, “Both show a city at night, sleeping, dreaming, disoriented, while a character desperately tries to apply logic where it will not work.” (Notes De Jarnatt, “I had the whole film storyboarded before After Hours, which does have a similar looping inevitability that traps its anti-hero. But that makes a nice double bill.”) But a May 19, 1989 release date in a scant 143 theatres, at a time when the US summer movie season would not launch in earnest until a week later with Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade, meant Miracle Mile would only muster a total theatrical gross of US$1.15million. (Pictured, below; De Jarnatt with the Miracle Mile storyboards).
Despite its under-the-radar theatrical run, a new generation of critics have embraced it - in June 2014, Slant magazine said, “If the mainstream cinema of the Reagan era was intended as a soporific for the agitated masses, Miracle Mile was a small part of the wake-up call”; in 2011, Sound on Sight called the denouement, “one of the ten greatest endings of all time.” Humbled that his film has proved so enduring, Steve De Jarnatt believes the M.A.D. principles that calmed the global population three decades ago are now more tenuous than ever. “The scenario in the film is actually much more likely tonight than back the 80s,” he opines. “Missiles are still primed and pointed. I do have a fatalistic view that until an accident or God forbid, a terrorist act does occur, we cannot really fathom what would be involved, the scale and carnage.”
Having also suffered distribution woes with Orion’s botched release of his debut film, the Melanie Griffith sci-fier Cherry 2000, the non-response to Miracle Mile was a further disappointment. But despite not directing another feature, Steve De Jarnatt has no regrets. “I do wish I could CGI a few hair styles in the film,” he laughs, “but other than that, [given] the US$3.7million below-the-line budget we had, I’m very proud of what was accomplished by all the talent on the film.” He worked non-stop within the Hollywood system from the early 1990’s; his writing credits include The X-Files (Season 2 fan favourite, ‘Fearful Symmetry’) and American Gothic, while his diverse directing skills were utilised on such small-screen hits as E.R., Nash Bridges, Strong Medicine and Lizzie Maguire. (Pictured,above; co-stars Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham)
“People sometimes think I have been slighted somehow, never making another film,” he says, “but that was more by choice. I turned down several more and didn’t want to go broke putting it all on the line again on my own films.” He has turned to the halls of academia, teaching at Ohio University and has found a new following as one of America’s leading short-story authors; his work ‘Rubiaux Rising’ made The Best American Short Stories, 2009. “It is nice to not have to worry about budget and scale and just tell stories,” he says.
MIRACLE MILE is available on Blu-ray and DVD via US distributor Kino Lorber.