Ted Kotcheff on Making First Blood, Changing Rambo’s Suicide Mission and (Not) Working with Kirk Douglas
Most filmmakers are lucky if they can master one genre in their lifetime, but over the course of a sixty-year career Ted Kotcheff has conquered several. He helmed a grimly funny suspense classic (Wake in Fright); a literate, witty Gregory Peck Western (Billy Two-Hats); fast and funny comedies (Fun with Dick and Jane, Who is Killing the Great Chefs of Europe); and dramedies where the laughs coexist with unsettling insights into the dark side of the human condition (North Dallas Forty, The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz). All of his films are characterized by a vibrant pictorial sense – no one is better at framing that is simultaneously dramatically expressive and beautiful for its own sake – and an impeccable sense of balance between comedy, drama, and action. His precision is at its most accomplished when it seems the least evident, as in a farce like Weekend at Bernie’s, which received mixed reviews at the time of its release but looks better with every passing year thanks to Kotcheff’s impeccable sense of visual comic rhythms – it’s an exceptionally edited film, all the more impressive for how casual it seems on first glance.
In recent years Kotcheff has worked in television, supervising a dozen seasons of Law and Order: SVU – where, by his estimation, he auditioned over 27,000 actors. And speaking of actors, Kotcheff changed film history forever when he cast Sylvester Stallone in what would become one of that actor’s two iconic roles, as ex-Green Beret John Rambo in the 1982 action classic First Blood. Though the sequels (which Kotcheff declined to direct) took the series in a more cartoonish direction, the original First Blood remains a masterpiece of serious action filmmaking, a perfectly calibrated thrill machine made all the more suspenseful by its moments of contemplation and poignancy. Kotcheff’s use of the anamorphic frame is stunning in its dexterity, as he uses his widescreen compositions to both ratchet up tension and to convey the isolation of his central character, a Vietnam vet adrift in an unforgiving landscape. It’s a perfect example of what Kotcheff does best, intelligent but unpretentious, stylish but not self-conscious, and riveting but restrained. First Blood and several other Kotcheff gems will screen at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles as part of Character Witness: The Films of Ted Kotcheff, a retrospective beginning on June 23. Information on the series, which Kotcheff will attend, can be found here. First Blood also screens tonight at Brooklyn’s BAM, also with Kotcheff in attendance.
I spoke with Kotcheff via Skype about the making of First Blood a couple of weeks before the retrospective honoring his work.
Filmmaker: The book First Blood had been knocking around Hollywood for quite a while before you turned it into a movie. How did you first become aware of it?
Ted Kotcheff: The head of Warner Brothers, Bob Shapiro, was an ex-agent of mine – he used to be the head of William Morris in England when I lived there. He sent me this book by a Canadian writer, David Morrell, and said I should read it. There had already been a couple of attempts at scripts, but I didn’t read any of them; they had all been rejected by Warners anyway, so it would have been a waste of time. I read the book and loved it, so they hired me to do the script. I worked very intensely with a writer named Michael Kozoll for three months and we delivered what I thought was a pretty good script. I submitted it to Warner Brothers and one week went by, two weeks went by…three weeks went by. I thought, “This cannot be good.” Finally Bob Shapiro said, “Come to my office.” He told me the board at Warners had decided they didn’t want to make the film, because Vietnam was one of the worst military disasters in centuries and everybody hated the war. He said, “The right wing thinks the veterans are a bunch of losers and the left wing thinks they’re baby killers. We’ve got Ronald Reagan as president now and old-fashioned patriotism is back in. This is not a patriotic film.” I said, “Jesus, Bob, couldn’t you have thought about this three months ago before I busted my ass to deliver a script?” He apologized, and I just thought it was another film that was going to go down the toilet.
Filmmaker: So how did it end up at Orion?
Kotcheff: A year went by and I met Andy Vajna socially. He and his partner Mario Kassar were building their production company, Carolco. Andy told me, “We’re a very small company, doing very small films, but now we want to get into some big films. If you’ve ever got something you want to do…” I said, “There’s a great script over at Warner Brothers, but they’ll never give it to you. These big companies, if they reject a film they’re not going to give it to another company because if it becomes a success, the idiot who made the decision not to make it’ll be lucky not to get fired.” Which, of course, is exactly what happened – I think he did get fired. Andy and Mario loved the script, and they spent a year getting it away from Warners. They got the money to start making the film by pre-selling some foreign territories – I think the budget was around sixteen million dollars or something like that – but they didn’t sell the American rights yet. They wanted to wait until the film was made.
Filmmaker: And was Stallone involved at this point?
Kotcheff: Once they had the money, they asked me, “Who do you want?” I said, “The perfect guy for this would be Sylvester Stallone.” There was a moment of hesitation, because the perceived wisdom in Hollywood at that time was that Stallone was only successful in Rocky movies. The other films he had made – Paradise Alley, F.I.S.T., Nighthawks, I can’t remember what else – they had all died. I said, “I don’t give a damn what the perceived wisdom is, he’s perfect for the part. He’s tough, but he’s also empathetic and capable of great sensitivity. I can’t see anybody else playing that part.” They said okay, and I sent the script to his agent on a Thursday night. Now, ordinarily stars will take months before they get back to you with a reply. The next morning Sylvester Stallone phones me and says, “I love this script and I want to be in it. I only have one proviso. I understand you’re going to rewrite the script.” I said, “Yes, I’ve got some ideas for strengthening it,” and he said, “I’d love to participate as a writer.” I said, “Great.”
Filmmaker: He was an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter by this point, so…
Kotcheff: He’s a terrific writer, with a great populist sense – he really knows what audiences like to see and what they don’t like to see. He made two major changes to the script that made a big difference. The first is that originally Rambo got a hold of a gun and started knocking off National Guardsmen, these weekend warriors who worked at drug stores. Sylvester correctly pointed out that audiences would hate this guy if he did that – he was a Congressional Medal of Honor Winner, a Green Beret, he shouldn’t be killing these guys just putting on uniforms for the weekend. As soon as Sylvester said it I knew he was absolutely right; I felt that this should be a guy who’s sick and tired of violence. Of his own people being killed. Of the Vietnamese people being killed. The last thing he wants is to come back to America and start killing people.
Filmmaker: Given where the series went it’s kind of amazing that you started off with that approach. What else did Stallone contribute?
Kotcheff: One day he came in and said, “I’ve got a crazy idea, Ted.” “What’s that, Sylvester?” – I refused to call him Sly. “Rambo never says a word in the whole picture.” I loved it. I love radical ideas like that – you’re the hero and you never say one word. I said, “Let’s do it!” We didn’t tell the producers, of course – we just got to work trying to eliminate all the dialogue. Ultimately we couldn’t – it started to feel forced. But it had a salubrious effect on the script, because the lines that remained became more powerful. Like that famous line, “They drew first blood, not me.”
Filmmaker: And at the end, when he has his big monologue, it’s so much more powerful because he says more in that scene than he has in the whole movie up to that point.
Kotcheff: You’re right, and that leads to the other major contribution that Sylvester made. I always conceived of Rambo’s story as a suicide mission. America doesn’t want him, and he decides that he doesn’t want them – he knows when he comes to that bridge at the beginning of the film that things will probably turn out badly. In the original ending, Rambo says to his colonel “You made me. Now you should kill me.” The colonel has his gun out and thinks about putting Rambo out of his misery, but he can’t do it. Rambo reaches up and blows himself away, commits hari-kari. Well, we shot the scene and Sylvester gave a spectacular performance. Everyone was thrilled with it – except Sylvester. He took me aside and said, “Ted, we’ve put Rambo through so much…the audience has suffered with him through all of this, and now we’re going to kill him? They are going to hate this, I’m telling you.” I thought about it for a minute and came up with an extended tracking shot we could do – we would end the scene before the colonel takes the gun out, then follow Rambo and the colonel outside the police station as they walk down the steps in front of this town Rambo has almost destroyed.
I was getting it set up and the producers rushed over to me: “Kotcheff, what the fuck are you doing?” I said, “I’m shooting an alternate ending.” “An alternate ending? We agreed on the ending. It’s a suicide mission. You’re over budget and over schedule, you don’t have the money to do two endings.” I said, “I don’t take shit from producers. Get off my set. I’m going to get the shot. It’s only going to take me two hours.” I told them, “I’ve got a hunch – when we find an American distributor, they’re going to want this ending. They’re going to want Rambo to survive.” Sure enough, we got the shot, finished the film, and took it with the original ending to Orion for distribution. And Mike Medavoy, who ran it, said, “I love this film, but I hate the ending.” Andy Vajna was so angry he leapt across the desk and tried to punch Mike Medavoy in the face.
We went to a suburban theatre in Las Vegas to test the film, and I knew it was going to be a success – the audience was so involved. Then Rambo commits hari-kari. You could have heard a pin drop. A voice in the silence says “If the director of this film is here, we should string him up from the nearest lamp post for doing this to Rambo.” I turned to my wife and said, “Let’s get the hell out of here,” and ran out of the theatre. The cards came back and all five hundred of them were practically identical – everyone thought it was a great action movie with a horrible ending. You could see consternation growing on the faces of the producers as they read card after card.
Filmmaker: It’s so ironic that Kassar and Vajna opposed the suicide ending so strongly, because they basically built their empire on this character, and they never would have been able to do those sequels if you had killed him! Did they ask you to do the follow-up, Rambo: First Blood Part II?
Kotcheff: I didn’t want to do the sequels. They offered me the first sequel and after I read the script I said, “In the first film he doesn’t kill anybody. In this film he kills seventy-four people.” It seemed to be celebrating the Vietnam War, which I thought was one of the stupidest wars in history. 55,000 young Americans died and so many veterans committed suicide. I couldn’t turn myself inside out like that and make that kind of picture. Of course, I could have been a rich man today – that sequel made $300 million.
Filmmaker: Well, it’s interesting, because even though he kills dozens of people in the sequel, your film actually feels faster paced and more intense. Why do you think that is?
Kotcheff: People think pacing comes from playing everything fast, but that’s not true – if you do that it becomes flat and boring. You’ve got to juxtapose emotions and thoughts and experiences and movement to give it pace. I was brought up as a musician, so when I’m working on a script I give the scenes different headings, musical headings. This scene allegro, next scene andante, largo, and so on. I go through and write these headings so I don’t forget how I envisioned it, because when you come to the hurly burly of making a film, there are so many distractions.
Filmmaker: Well, I think that’s the hallmark of your cinema, is that kind of rhythm – no matter what genre you’re working in, you seem very concerned with keeping everything in balance for maximum impact.
Kotcheff: You know, I think action movies are the easiest to direct. Comedies are the hardest, dramas come second, and action movies are relatively easy, because you have this built in structure of the pursued and the pursuer that you can use to build suspense. In comedy, well…if you think it’s so easy, say or do something that makes me laugh.
Kotcheff: There you go, now you know how easy it is. [laughs] But you know, I think Sylvester was a little nervous about doing an action film with me at that point in his career, because he hadn’t had a successful one and I hadn’t directed one.
Filmmaker: How did you overcome that?
Kotcheff: Do you remember the scene where the nasty state trooper falls out of the helicopter and dies? I had Sylvester stop six or eight feet away from the trooper’s body and told him, “I’m going to do a close-up of you. And in that close-up I want to see every dead body that you saw in Vietnam in your eyes. Every one.” He nodded and did it wonderfully, then the next night when we saw the dailies, he came over to me and said, “Ted, that close-up is the finest bit of acting I’ve ever done and I owe it all to you. Thank you.” That totally cemented our relationship.
Filmmaker: The other key performance in the film is Richard Crenna as the colonel, but wasn’t Kirk Douglas originally cast in that part?
Kotcheff: Kirk Douglas was doing a play with Burt Lancaster up in San Francisco about Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn later in life. I sent him the script for First Blood and he liked it a lot. I watched the play and we had dinner together and he went on and on about how terrific the script was. I thought, “Great!” Sylvester was all for it because Kirk Douglas’ film Champion was a great source of inspiration for him when he was playing Rocky. Kirk came to British Columbia the third week of shooting and we put him up in this lovely lakeside cottage, and immediately he began quarreling with the lines. He had a very disagreeable habit of talking about himself in the third person, and he’d say “Kirk doesn’t say these lines. Kirk doesn’t like these lines.” Or he’d want somebody else’s line and I would say, “That’s a feeling the sheriff would have, not you.” He’d say, “Doesn’t matter. It’s a great line. The sheriff doesn’t say it. Kirk Douglas says it. Kirk Douglas should have this line.” Also, any suggestions he made were like something out of a 1940s B-war film, this kind of bad military talk…now, Sylvester and I agreed that Kirk Douglas was a big star and would help our film, so we did everything we could to try to please him. We would shoot in the freezing cold all day and then work late into the night rewriting his scenes. But he was never happy with any of our changes, and I kept thinking, “Why the hell did he accept this part?” Finally, I went to Andy and Mario and said, “Boys, I know you want this guy. But he’s going to wreck our film, not only artistically but monetarily, because he’s going to slow production down. I’m telling you, he’s going to put two weeks on the schedule arguing about the lines.” So I went to see Kirk and his wife in the cottage and said, “Kirk, here’s the situation. I gave you a script and you accepted it and told me you loved it. We’re shooting the script that you loved. If you wish to act in that script, I’d love to have you, but if you don’t, you may leave.” He said, “Kirk’s leaving.” [laughs]
I phoned my casting director, Lynn Stalmaster, and said, “Lynn, I have to shoot this character in three days. We’ve blown a whole week trying to please this guy.” He suggested Richard Crenna, and I said, “Great idea!” Crenna came up the night before we needed to shoot him and said, “Ted, I’m putty in your hands. You’re going to have to feed me my performance spoonful by spoonful, day by day because I don’t know where I’m going or why I’m sitting here or what I’m doing.” He was a lovely man, so I was very pleased that he went on to become a star in the sequels.
Filmmaker: He’s great in the movie. As are all those supporting players – Brian Dennehy, Chris Mulkey, David Caruso…you had an excellent cast. Was there a rehearsal process?
Kotcheff: Yes, I always rehearse. Part of my vanity is that I want to elicit great performances from my actors – it’s funny, when I first became a director, I remember an executive saying to me, “Kotcheff, what are you? Are you a character director or a shooter?” I said, “I think I’m both. Isn’t that the job of every director?” “No, you’d be surprised. There are guys who never talk to actors and they shoot great films.” I said, “Well, I’m not one of those, sorry.” To answer your question, I usually have a week or ten days of rehearsal before shooting commences, because it’s the best way to iron out any problems, especially with the script – you don’t want to be ironing out script problems on the set where it costs $100 a minute. You do it beforehand and discuss the character and what you want to emerge out of the scene.
Filmmaker: What about your compositions? First Blood has some exquisite Cinemascope framing…do you plan those shots out ahead of time, or come up with them on the day?
Kotcheff: I started in live television like Frankenheimer and Sidney Lumet, and there you had four cameras and had to write out every shot. I got used to that, but I learned early on that you have to shoot what’s happening in front of you – you have to be prepared or you waste a hell of a lot of time, but you’ve also got to be ready to be inspired because sometimes reality is more interesting than you can anticipate. You’ve got to be ready for happy accidents. In the motorcycle chase in First Blood, it was an accident when Brian Dennehy’s car flipped over. We reacted to that and reconceived the whole scene.
Filmmaker: Do you use multiple cameras when you shoot action scenes?
Kotcheff: Rarely, even though I came out of television where there were four cameras all the time. I’ve done it – I won’t say I haven’t done it. But generally I hate multiple cameras. I think there’s one right place for the camera for every moment. There aren’t two right places side by side. There’s just one.