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Steve De Jarnatt talks to Live for Films about Miracle Mile, Tarzana, Cherry 2000 and more

Steve De Jarnatt is one of the most undersung directors of the 1980s, and made an undeniable imprint on the minds of  Sci-Fi fans with his two and only films, Cherry 2000 and Miracle Mile. The latter was one of the rare films to simply have the guts to blow the world up at the end. The film seems more timely than ever with the escalating tension between Trump and Kim Jong Un.

Before he made those two features, De Jarnatt directed a surreal noir short feature as a student filmmaker, which he somehow got Eddie Constantine and the cult favourite Tim Carey to appear in. He also directed a pilot episode of the Alfred Hitchcock Presents revival in the ’80s. Jarnatt after Miracle Mile spent a long time directing and writing for TV for shows like American Gothic, The X-Files and E.R. He currently lives in Port Townshend, Washington, and is writing short fiction.

Did you feel any trepidation doing “Man from the South” because of how iconic the original episode was?

In retrospect, you go, “wow, Steve McQueen, Peter Lorre—how you gonna top that?” When it’s your first professional job… listen, I turned down 30, 40 movies to direct probably before that, so I was picky! I didn’t think twice about doing that, particularly when we got the cast together. I was already on board, and then this miraculous cast came together. It had a few issues in the beginning. I almost got fired the first day, but by the end of the week I was a hero at Universal.

It originally was a four-part omnibus before it was turned into a reboot of Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I was the student filmmaker who hadn’t worked with a professional crew before. The other three were all big TV directors, and they all went over budget—so they were really on me.


How was John Huston to work with–and did he give you any directing advice?

It was an absolute joy, I think he did so he could get 50 grand to leave the latest woman he lived with. I can’t remember if he was editing or had finished The Dead, but he could always use a little bit more money. He was on oxygen, so I ended up doing lots of one-takes and I wouldn’t ever do, like, five takes.

I did a couple long, integrated master-type things on the first or second day (it was only a five-day shoot) and it was perfect. I was like “let’s do one more for safety.” and he gave some advice: “Well, kid, you already got it—you’ll be chasing your tail and you’ll never get it back.” And I either arrogantly or shyly said “let’s just do one more.” Later in the shoot I printed the first take and he gave me a wink.

Everybody was on their best behaviour—except the soundman, he was an asshole.


How was Timothy Carey to work with on your short film Tarzana  (I have heard he was quite the character)?

Tim… you know… [sighs]…

We thought we had $12,000 to shoot this thing, but we really only had about 7 or 8, so after three days Tim had used up all the film. Lots of the crew, even camera people, just quit: it was a dead production. We shot three more times using three different DPs over two years.

Tim… you know, that outtake exists because at four in the morning, I’m sitting there and I didn’t say “cut.” I should’ve, perhaps, but then it wouldn’t exist. He was a very strange guy, and I got on with him great, I kind of understood some of his quirks. He had some communication things where he would get stuck. You would have to repeat his words at him and he would proceed. If you do that—and I’m sure it was a game he played—if you did that he would love you because you figured out this little thing that he had, and most people wouldn’t put up with that. You have to go to Tim Carey-land if you are to do that, and appreciate it and learn to love it, even if it’s not what you planned on.

When the Hitchcock thing came up, he called up Universal and said he was my manager and was supposed to get 50% of everything I make. He knew all the guards at every studio and he would get on the lot. I think I got paid ten grand to direct that, and 5 went to the DGA to join that and taxes—I was lucky I get a dollar on that.

When I did Cherry 2000 soon after and I didn’t cast him as Six Finger Jake—because he was, like, “I Am Six Finger Jake!”—I betrayed him, and he hated me. He used to call me up once a week and he would talk for an hour and just improvise crazy stuff. You just went like “yeah, Tim,” and he was a little exhausting. Somebody once said Tim was the reason Kubrick moved to England, and I kind of believe it.

I know his kid a bit and he is a good guy, but on his IMDb he “owns” Tarzana. Tim made his own print of it and the outtake, which he called Cinema Justice. Romero shows it along with Tim’s films, like The World’s Greatest Sinner and I’m cool with that. About Tarzana, I have to clear the music for it to be on even YouTube or anything.

(Note: Steve was currently sorting the complicated music rights for Tarzana when this interview was conducted. It has been resolved now, but it will only appear on the French and German Blu-Ray, not Arrow’s version).


How was it getting those guys, because it was still at the time you could get these weird and wonderful actors for cheap for your student film?

I wasn’t going to be allowed to make a film, because I was a writer. I didn’t do what student filmmakers do now, when you make a film noir and get your friend and put him a fedora. I had the gall to find Eddie Constantine and pay him $50. He hadn’t shot a film in English in 12 years and was really nervous. It’s not a big role, but—that face. Tim got paid the most of anybody on the film, I think $500.

Miracle Mile

One of the things I love so much about Miracle Mile is its radical shifts in tone. Was it hard to get that just right in the writing or editing process?

The opening was the main thing I struggled with in the writing and editing room after the shoot. I reshot certain aspects of it twice. Once you get the set-up with the characters and the phone rings, everything stayed more or less the same, with some minor changes here and there. Obviously some things in the script we had to change because we couldn’t shoot them, but besides that, the switch in tone was always there.

The main change was it was an older guy, an average Joe trombone player who hadn’t been in LA for a long time. His ex-wife is there, and he barges in in the middle of the night to see his ex that he hasn’t spoken with, and I think there was a kid in it too. In a way, it was a stronger emotional thing, because you had all this backstory, and of course that was transferred onto the grandparents in the finished film.

People keep talking about wanting to remake it. I don’t want to remake it, or really want it to be remade, unless it was by somebody brilliant. I wouldn’t mind it going into development and getting paid, but if it happened I would like them to go back and do that version. I would actually like Gus Van Sant to shoot it in black and white, frame for frame.


What did you think happened to the surge of apocalyptic films, and do you think with everything going on with Trump, North Korea, and so on that there will be a new slate of them coming out?

It’s definitely in the zeitgeist right now, and people are worried about it. I usually tell audiences after they see Miracle Mile that it’s much more likely to happen tonight then back then. Everybody is highly trained on hair-trigger alert, but who is really in charge of that? when you dismantle the State Department and everything, you still have these things there. There have been a huge number of near misses, but when you have to make a decision in a couple of minutes about the fate of mankind.

It’s a scary time and I don’t think it would happen with Russia. They’re two lovers right now, but they could easily have a falling out: Trump and Putin in a Twitter war, and now were all gonna die! [Laughs]

When we were trying to get it made, the Cold War had been out there for a while, but it had kind of been forgotten in a way. I think today you would move quicker and be like “holy shit.” We seem to adapt to the insane circumstances we are in too easily right now—our lives continue, and I don’t think he is gonna kill us but there is so much chaos that you can’t grasp anything.


Did you ever have any pushback due to the ending?

I wrote it for Warner Bros. off the back of Tarzana, which literally got me from being a busboy to being a Hollywood director overnight.

I later found out they wanted it for Twilight Zone the Movie, and to just have him wake up at the end with it all a dream, and then it started happening again—which I don’t think would please anybody. I eventually bought it back from them, but Hemdale never had a problem with the ending. The head of Hemdale, John Dale, said the alternative “diamond ending” was too upbeat: “let’s not do that.” You don’t get studio heads telling you “let’s take out the happy ending!” It did take me ten years, because I wouldn’t change much in it.

Cherry 2000

Were you annoyed how all these other films of that ilk have an ending where the world is saved in the last minute?

Well, yeah, and that’s what I would fear if somebody redid it is that happens. You don’t know why it happens, there are no generals, he doesn’t get on the phone. He could’ve just made the phone call back to Chip’s dad and find out early. It’s about somebody in the middle of the night not knowing how to handle the situation because they are just an ordinary person, and running this gauntlet of circumstances.

Even when people see it today, people are like “you can’t do that, movies don’t do that.” I wrote this right before 1980, the December of ‘79 is when I think I turned the script in. Let’s say if the older version came out with Paul Newman, which there was some chance of… that could’ve been a big thing.

Testament and The Day After made them think there was an audience. I had mixed feelings, because I, of course, wanted to be the first. However, The Day After helped, because it showed that people would watch an apocalyptic film. If they did Miracle Mile now, they could have figure out how not to have cell phones, because it would be a different movie.


I know Nicolas Cage and Kurt Russell were attached to it at some point, and I know Cage was pretty close to doing it. What happened there?

Nick Cage was definitely attached and we were gonna make it. Kurt Russell, I just had like two three-hour lunches with him, and by the end he was like “I gotta do this movie.” We offered him like a half million, and this was when it was at Orion as an $8,000,000 movie. I think he has a great on-screen presence thing and is a great guy, [but] he was a little career-conscious. I still wish he would do something with a really great director and win an Oscar. He is totally capable of doing that, people really like him.

Nick, that was early on and was after Valley Girl. [Then] we were gonna make it for $2,000,000. Mike Medavoy at Orion sent over Cherry 2000 after the original director fell out. I was like, “uh, Nick has turned everything else down and I don’t want to let him down.” An hour later Nick’s attorney called: “Listen, Nick is gonna do Peggy Sue Got Married and a couple other pictures, and then we are gonna slot your little film in, in a year and a half or two years.” I was like, “let me talk to Nick,” and he was away without a phone. Medavoy sent me the script of Cherry 2000, and after reading 20 pages I jumped on that.

Then Nick came back, saying, “No, he was just supposed to bluff, I want to do it, let’s do it,” [but] I was like, “I can’t, I’m on this picture now.” I don’t think that would’ve been as good. Nick can be great, but he was gonna do the character he did in Peggy Sue Got Married in Miracle Mile. I think there would be a cult, but it would be a lot smaller cult! I wanted Jennifer Tilly, who really hadn’t done much, but I don’t have any regrets.


Do you remember Crispin Glover’s audition for the voice of Chip, and was there any reason why you didn’t go with him?

I’m trying to find that, I hope I have that on cassette. Crispin was like Nick Cage’s best friend. I think Nick’s weird acting sometimes was just him trying to top Crispin in a lot of those films. His agents were like, “just give him the job, he was in the Back in the Future, he is big,” but I was like, “Na, he has got to audition.” He auditioned over the phone, and we put on speaker phone and could barely stop from laughing. It took him like 10 to 15 minutes to do the phone call, and he prefaced it by saying “I think Chip is retarded and really stupid.” Then he did it in that voice, and I thanked him for his performance. We ended up hiring some kid who completely blew it on set, but another actor came in and did it in post.


What is story about Jack Nance refusing the role of Fred the Cook—Is it true that he really turned it down to focus on his day job as a security officer?

I hear that, and I have him on tape somewhere, but he wasn’t offered anything. I remember him coming in and he was like “I love Eraserhead, blah blah blah.” All I really remember was him saying “I don’t wake up in vacant lots anymore.” He was “on the program” or something at the time.


I assume when you made Miracle Mile you storyboarded everything, because it would easily go over budget?

It was 4:4 all in, with seven weeks shooting at night. Back then, the completion bond company said it would be $25 million, and I was always under the threat of getting fired if I ever got two days behind schedule.

I was very prepared with Cherry: I just jumped onto a moving train, everything was changing and I just tried to shoot everything I could each day. I kind of disowned the film, but it has its following now, and it’s an endearing, odd, quirky film—and the score is great, as are the character actors.


I’m sure you’ve been asked this a thousand times, but why only the two features made so far—because I’m sure you have had development deals over the years…

I had loads of deals from all around til Miracle Mile came out—I like to say that  I started my career at the top. When I did Cherry, which was barely released, my heat was gone. With Miracle Mile, some people never forgave me for changing that old script, because it was a really highly regarded script. It was in the first time they did that “ten best unproduced scripts” list. I had another script on the second or third list called Hair of the Dog, which is a dark country-western thing set in the mid ’60s. If I really wanted to make another movie, I would’ve put my energy in getting that made: I would like to hand it over to some interesting director to go make. But I didn’t want to put my heart and soul in and sell everything I own, which is what I did with Miracle Mile.

Look, I’ve got a nice house, I got six acres up here and cool stuff. If I made a movie, it would all go, I think. I learned to be a workmanlike director later on, a hack if you will, directing TV shows. There is a difference when you go and make YOUR movie, and I’m just too old for that. I still may try to do something, but I went into television. I wrote 15 pilots and got four made, wrote for X-Files in the beginning and American Gothic, I directed a bunch of episodes.

It comes to a certain point even there where you have create a show that gets on the air, and I came very close, one at Fox about a rock band that John Hawks and Mark Ruffalo [were involved with]. It was about a big rock band—that could’ve clicked and went on, but you go to another level of television. But I worked in television for 12 years, and that peters out at some point. I got off the train and now I’m writing short stories for no money.


How do you put your vision into a show that you obviously don’t have much control over, like E.R.?

E.R. was wonderful—and actually, the way that I like to film stuff, which is all SteadyCam, wasn’t that dissimilar. They are wonderful and are such a machine, and with a lot of these shows, they don’t really need a director [laughs].  For E.R., I was highly prepared: I storyboarded and pre-shot everything, and did those long, elaborate oners. You can have whatever your plans are, but then they know how to open up and make it work.

I came back and did a second episode of that, and there are so many people in the rotation that you know their regular directors. Every year there is a slot for like two new people, they had a sort of an unwritten rule that you did two episodes, or you come on as a main director. I only did two of those, but I did like 10 episodes of a Llifetime medical show, and that just paled in comparison. The cast could never remember their lines and the crew could never do the shots.


What’s the story about the Harlan Ellison adaptation you worked on for years?

He was a fan of Cherry and Miracle Mile, and sought me out—and was chewing me out because I said something disparaging about Cherry. I got the Harlan Ellison treatment: “don’t you dare disparage your own film.” The story we were gonna do is “Killing Bernstein,” and we were trying to do it as a TV movie or something. We were trying to get development money. It was set in the Northwest, and it was about some guy killing his girlfriend or his wife and she comes back, and I think it was cloning or whatever. Recently he called me up and was, like, “I’m going to bat for you on Demon with a Glass Hand at MGM to direct,” but even then he chewed me out.

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