“We Don’t Have a Script, But We’re Working on It”: Michael Pressman on Doctor Detroit and Transitioning from Film to TV
One of the most interesting filmmakers to emerge from Roger Corman’s New World Pictures in the 1970s – a period in which great directors like Jonathan Demme, Allan Arkush, and Joe Dante were making their first movies for the company – was Michael Pressman, whose 1976 action-comedy The Great Texas Dynamite Chase remains one of the smartest, funniest, and most energetic exploitation pictures of its era. Throughout the late ’70s and early ’80s, Pressman directed one distinctive film after another, exhibiting astonishing range – the only thing his movies of the era have in common is that they have nothing in common. Pressman went from the broad family comedy The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (his first studio assignment, written by future Risky Business auteur Paul Brickman) to the brilliant and sensitive gang drama Boulevard Nights, which the Library of Congress selected for its National Film Registry in 2017. At his best, as in the 1982 Richard Pryor picture Some Kind of Hero, Pressman shows his knack for disparate tones and styles within the same film; that movie, in which Pryor plays a Vietnam vet struggling to adjust to civilian life, deftly juggles tragedy, comedy, and a hint of action in a film that deserves to be far better known and regarded than it is – had it not been marketed as a silly Pryor farce, an error that set up false expectations in both the critics and audiences, it would be viewed today as a classic of its era alongside Who’ll Stop the Rain and Cutter’s Way.
Pressman followed Some Kind of Hero with the most unabashedly entertaining movie of his career, the vibrant and hilarious Doctor Detroit. Released in the summer of 1983, the movie tells the story of Clifford Skridlow, a socially awkward literature professor who, through a series of plot developments too complicated and peculiar to go into here, is forced to adopt an alter ego as a hard-partying ladies’ man and pimp. The premise essentially exists to service the movie’s star, Dan Aykroyd, who plays both Skridlow and “Doctor Detroit” with comic gusto in his first solo outing following the death of his friend and collaborator John Belushi. The movie is designed to showcase Aykroyd’s talents for verbal and physical comedy as well as his transformative abilities, and it’s a tour de force performance. In Pressman’s hands though, the movie becomes something more than just a star vehicle; taking his cues from Aykroyd, he develops a visual style as bold and infectiously good-natured as his leading man. The palette is vivid, the camerawork fluid and elegant, and the ensemble surrounding Aykroyd impeccably selected and directed; the blocking in the many group set pieces is a template for how to stage comedy for maximum impact. Pressman had major studio resources behind the film, and it shows – the visual detail in every corner of the frame is spectacular for what was essentially an escapist summer comedy.
Unfortunately, the expense of all that production value became a problem when Doctor Detroit opened the same month as Blue Thunder and Return of the Jedi and failed at the box office; Pressman’s feature career stalled, and he spent the rest of the 1980s directing TV movies. Today he’s one of the top directors in episodic television, where his versatility has served him well – hiding in plain sight on network TV and streaming services like Amazon, he consistently produces impressive work on everything from Law and Order: SVU to Sneaky Pete. I spoke to him about his approach to directing in general and his work on Doctor Detroit in particular on the occasion of Shout Factory’s new Blu-ray release of Detroit, which boasts a gorgeous transfer and numerous fine extras, including an informative commentary track by Pressman. It’s a great – and very fun – introduction to the work of this underrated director.
Filmmaker: I wanted to start by asking not just about the origins of Doctor Detroit but of your career in Hollywood in general, because I’ve always been a little envious of your filmography and the way you bounced back and forth between comedy and drama.
Pressman: I’ve always had an equal love of both. Off the top of my head, I can tell you three directors I’ve tried to emulate. One was my teacher at CalArts, Alexander Mackendrick, who made a gritty New York masterpiece, Sweet Smell of Success, but also made one of the great comedies of all time, The Ladykillers. Studying with him for three years gave me a real appreciation for understanding both genres. I also love Billy Wilder, and Sydney Pollack is number three – he’s always been considered a dramatic director, but Tootsie is one of the great comedies of all time. Probably the greatest influence for me growing up was Charlie Chaplin, who I fell in love with at the age of 12, so my first love was really comedy in terms of learning about it and appreciating it. The first movie I directed, the Roger Corman movie that I put together, was a comedy – The Great Texas Dynamite Chase. It really turned out funnier than I thought it would, and it was off of that movie that I got the sequel to Bad News Bears, because Don Simpson, who was recently hired as an executive at Paramount, and Michael Eisner, who was the new head of the studio, were looking for a young director. They had no script, they had no Walter Matthau, they had no Tatum O’Neal – but they had a release date. I remember Paul Brickman and I going to our first meeting, where we were told, “Okay guys, you have a release date and you’ve got a franchise. The rest is up for grabs.” There was a script that didn’t work that the producer Leonard Goldberg developed – and he ended up being my producer on Blue Bloods over thirty years later.
We made Bad News Bears in Breaking Training when I was 26, and it came out when I was 27, so I really leapt into a Hollywood career. When I was sent the script for Boulevard Nights, it was an incredible opportunity to show my drama chops, and then I did another emotional drama called Those Lips, Those Eyes. Then the Richard Pryor movie came to me, and that was a mixed bag because it was a drama with comic elements in it and I think the audience was very disappointed that it wasn’t an out-and-out comedy. But because I had done a Richard Pryor “comedy,” I was approached about doing Doctor Detroit, which at the time was called Doctor Abe. It was based on a novella by Bruce Jay Friedman, and it didn’t really fit Dan Aykroyd’s nature.
Filmmaker: So Aykroyd was already attached when you came on board?
Pressman: Yes, it was a package deal. I remember getting together with seven people and all of us saying “let’s do it” — Mike Ovitz, Bernie Brillstein, Freddie Fields, Dan Aykroyd, Bruce Jay Friedman, myself — but I used to say that I was given a package without a present inside, because we had no script. It went through many drafts, and it was tough because it was a mix of high style comedy and a sort of French farce — a double identity film — with a fantasy fable and this broad Saturday Night Live-type sketch humor. It was kind of a mixed bag, but maybe that’s why it has aged better than some comedies. It lives in its own time and space.
Filmmaker: One of the credited screenwriters is Carl Gottlieb, who had previously worked on Jaws and The Jerk, among other things. What was his involvement with the picture?
Pressman: The movie started with Bruce Jay Friedman’s concept, and then Robert Boris, who had written Some Kind of Hero, came up with a lot of new material that made the movie better but was kind of stream of consciousness – his script went on forever. Carl was the guy who put it all together: we gave him the ingredients and he cooked it and made a good meal. He kind of saved the project. He came on a month before we began, and I remember Sean Daniels at Universal saying to me, “I have good news and bad news. The good news is that you’ve got a script and the trucks have left for Chicago. The bad news is we don’t have a script, but we’re working on it.” The first few weeks of shooting were pieces that we could collect while Carl wrote – the college exterior, the night out, some driving stuff — but I remember when we got back to L.A. after three weeks of shooting in Chicago the studio was terrified. The head of the studio was freaked out by the footage he was seeing and said, “Dan Aykroyd looks like he’s sleepwalking. He can’t even stay awake.” I said, “Okay, we’ll take care of that.” I realized he hadn’t even read the script, because one of the things Carl had put in was that the character can’t stay awake because he hasn’t been able to get to bed.
Filmmaker: Was the studio nervous about Aykroyd in general, given that he’d never carried a movie before? He’d always been teamed up with Belushi or whoever.
Pressman: I think there was worry and concern, though when the film was finished they felt good about it. It tested through the roof. Then the movie came out two weeks before Return of the Jedi and didn’t really open.
Filmmaker: Well, I think Aykroyd’s great in the movie, but what makes it work is the chemistry he has with everyone else. Was it a problem getting everyone on the same page in terms of that heightened tone you were going for?
Pressman: No, they all understood it. We had a kind of relaxed improvisational rehearsal process, and then I tried to do as much of the movie as possible in master shots with all of the actors in the frame and overlapping dialogue. You see how everyone relates in the frame and that helps with the chemistry. That was completely by design – if I felt something could be done in a master with just one cut for emphasis I’d do it that way. I wasn’t in a situation where I had to please anybody getting overs and close-ups. I didn’t get stuck all day long shooting coverage. You know, when I started my career and I was directing features no one ever talked to me about coverage. In the world of television, I deal with it all the time.
Filmmaker: Was making that transition into episodic TV directing jarring?
Pressman: To me, working in movies is like working in oil as a painter. You’ve got a big canvas that has to be filled up, with deep background and the foreground and everything that moves. When I couldn’t get features off the ground after Doctor Detroit, it was the heyday of TV movies, so I did a slew of those and really developed my skills. But those are like working in watercolors, with a softer palette. The television episode is a pencil drawing. Now, there is an art to a pencil drawing. And that art is making very, very swift, intuitive, impulsive decisions based on a very simple idea that you’re trying to accomplish. When I first started directing TV episodes I was already a producer, so I was working for myself and was able to do one-ers sometimes. Those days seem to be gone – now the style of television, and the style of the viewer, has changed. You’re always shooting multiple cameras and getting a variety of angles and things are just cut and shot differently. When I shot Justified, I think we were always using three or four cameras.
Filmmaker: That sort of “data collection” approach to direction seems very different to me from what you’re doing with Doctor Detroit, where there’s clearly a very precise visual design at work. But there’s also a nice, freewheeling looseness. How do you strike that balance?
Pressman: I go in knowing where I’m going to place people and what kind of camera equipment I will need, and in prep I can say if I see something as one or in cuts, but I like to stay very, very open and improvisational to the situation. The ideal is to have a plan but seem like you’re making it up so the actors have room to create.
Filmmaker: How much latitude did you give Aykroyd in terms of improvisation? He’s known as one of the most brilliant comic minds in film.
Pressman: Well, I gave him a lot of latitude within a structure. He was open to anything I wanted him to do, but I couldn’t tell him what to do. He created it, so I gave him the platform. He was a comic genius, is a comic genius, and he created the character of Doctor Detroit. He created the voice of Doctor Detroit. He created how he looked, how he walked, how he responded. He added key lines to the script. And you know, he fit into the ensemble. He was a part of the team. He didn’t separate. It wasn’t like all these people were in a movie and then in walks the comic genius. He played with everybody, and everybody did this. They came together, and that was different, but it was him honoring the genre. I don’t think he felt restricted at all, but the studio was concerned that he was being restricted because they weren’t seeing “crazy Dan.”
Filmmaker: Did their worries continue through post-production?
Pressman: Yes, I think there was a lot of concern during the editing, because it was a hard movie for the studio to understand. I know we had some test screenings that were unsuccessful. We did a lot of tightening and cutting and cutting. When we finally screened it for a big audience, it went over really well. But they didn’t know what to make of it completely. But you know, it’s sort of a sign of something that’s really special. Sometimes you get a film where an audience doesn’t know what to make of it, and it catches on.