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Tim Hunter talks River’s Edge, Twin Peaks, Eerie Indiana, Riverdale, Breaking Bad, Looking Glass and more

Bryan Cranston and Tim Hunter on the set of Breaking Bad

Tim Hunter very graciously allowed me to interview him to tie in the UK release of his new feature Looking Glass which is his first feature in a decade. It’s a psycho-sexual desert noir starring Nicolas Cage and Robin Tunney. I’ve sat through more of the recent Nicolas Cage films that I care to admit so I can say it’s without a shadow of a doubt Looking Glass is one of the better ones. The film plays like a mishmash of Rear Window and my favourite Nicolas Cage film Red Rock West. Tim has also written or directed such cult-classics such as River’s EdgeOver The EdgeTex and has worked extensively in TV alongside his feature work on shows like Twin PeaksRiverdaleBreaking Bad and Eerie Indiana.

You’ve got a new film out, Looking Glass—how was it getting back to film direction?

It was great, because you are more in control than when you do a TV episode. It becomes yours and people look to you to direct it, and it is largely yours to organize—as long as the producers and the star are in synch with what you’re doing. Compare that to a TV episode, where the job for me at least is to figure how I can adapt my style to the larger style that has already been set by the show and producers and writers. I like that process, because I like going to show to show, and I like the craft exercise of seeing what I can bring to the different looks of different shows and meet those different requirements, but when you direct a movie, it’s your movie, and it was exciting after pretty much a decade.

What was it like working with Nicolas Cage on this film?

Cage was wonderful to work with. He does so many pictures in a given year that you could mistakenly fear that he just comes in and goes from one to the next without caring very much. He showed up and he knew this material cold, and knew what he wanted to do with it. He had very interesting feelings about the complexity of the guy, so I had a really good time working with him. Once we got going, he said that he could trust me. We were able to work together and expand some of the emotional scenes and climactic scenes between him and Robin Tunney (who plays his wife), because I wanted to get a little more out on the surface of what the issues were and what he was feeling. The original script was so much in subtext, and this script isn’t Rules of the Game. He was open to that, and couldn’t be more professional, and it was a huge career high point for me to work with him.

Did he come up with the wiping his glasses with a dollar note?

That was him, that was Nic—he knew somebody who had done that, and put it into that scene. He looked over at me at one point to make sure I was seeing it and I took him aside and was like, was I getting it on camera? and he was very happy. The other thing he came up with that surprised me was the scene where the local cop says: “did you do it, did you do it?” and Cage’s character gets very flustered and doesn’t know how to react to it. That was something where he just came to the set and the other actor and they said, ‘hey, we are going to try something,’ and there it was. I think what Nic liked about it, besides whatever darkness in the script and character he responded to, was the fact he could give a quiet and nuanced turn compared to some of the more extravagant performances in the kind of films that bookended Looking Glass. I’m a sort of quiet fellow, so I was delighted: he picked very carefully where he wanted to do a little more and push it a little further, and so did. I love the performance—it’s nuanced, and funny also, I think.

Do you ever tell him to tone it down, or did you trust him?

I don’t remember ever telling him to tone it down—he liked to discuss it. He liked me to remind him where the character was in the progression of the linear narrative, but you are bouncing around on a shooting schedule so you are shooting the end, then the scene from the beginning, and it can all get confused. He liked it when I could remind him where he was at in the story, and talk to him a bit about how the guy would be feeling. He responded with “I can do that” and would just go off and play it. For the most part I think he had a very firm hand on what he wanted to do, and I was happy to see him push it in places, when he is looking through the window, and he cuts loose at the bar and gets a few odd looks. There is a scene where the kind of seductive woman, who in the script is called “the strawberry blonde,” comes in and talk over the motel counter. He said going in that it was one of his favourite scenes, and if you look at just the way looks at her, it’s delicious all the stuff he does in that scene.

What attracts you to making so many films and TV shows that deal with the seedier side of small-town life?

I think it’s a coincidence. Producers get a sense of what you’ve done and what you can do and they tend to typecast you a little bit. I have an option on a novel by a woman named Yannick Murphy called This is the Water. It’s also set in a small New England town, about a group of swim team moms seeing their girls through a season of competitions, who don’t know a lurking killer is moving in. That is a dark side of a small town story also, so I guess you’re right, I don’t know. I do know that when the producers gave me the script to River’s Edge, my initial worry when I read it wasn’t it was a small town script, but it’s another teen script, because I had done a bunch of stuff with Over The Edge and Tex, and even that Horse picture I did, Sylvester. I didn’t really want to do another teen picture, but then I read that Neal Jimenez script and just called the producers Sarah Pillsbury and Midge Sanford and said I had to do it.

What can you tell me about your experience of working on Eerie Indiana?

Joe Dante brought me into it, and that’s pretty much all there is to it. I did a couple of episodes, including the Tobey Maguire episode—Tobey remembers it and so do I. The other episode, I can’t tell you what it’s about, I can’t remember. It was very fast, very cheap and kind of fun, and just another freelance stop. I do get more residuals for it, bigger than almost anything else I’ve done except for Twin Peaks, which takes the cake for replays. I get checks for 3 cents for Eerie Indiana, but there are a lot of checks for 3 cents!

Do you consider Eerie Indiana to be Stranger Things O.G.?

I’ve only seen the first few episodes of Stranger Things so I can’t answer that question

How was it directing Crispin Glover (if in fact you can direct Glover?)

Well, Crispin is in my new horror picture, Smiley Face. It’s almost a cameo part, but he’s there and that was fun. Not a part along the lines of Layne in River’s Edge, but it was fun to work with him again, since we’ve stayed in touch over the years. When we were casting River’s Edge, we knew Crispin wouldn’t come in for a couple of weeks to audition because he said he wanted to work on the part, so we were in a state of suspense for a couple of weeks. Theoretically, we wanted to choose him, because we didn’t have any money, and he had been in Back to the Future so he was a catch for us. When he did show up to audition, he was in the wardrobe with the wig and the hat, with the performance exactly the way he played it in the picture. The producers and I had to sort of decide what would happen to the picture if we cast Crispin, but he gave this performance so we ultimately decided it would be an asset. It shifted the moral balance for me: before, on the page the Dennis Hopper character Feck was the most extreme, amoral character in the piece, but once Crispin came in with that interpretation of the part, Hopper almost becomes the moral centre of the film—it completely changed the dynamic of it.  I remember half a dozen times shooting River’s Edge having occasional skirmishes with Crispin to pull him back down a little bit from extreme line readings, but basically we knew what we were getting. I let him run with it, and with all the eccentricities of that performance. He was very generous with the other actors, he wasn’t grandstanding in any way. It didn’t get in anybody else’s way, and everybody loved working with him.

What’s the story behind The Wipers songs in Rivers Edge? I’ve always heard it was Dennis Hopper who was the Wipers fan—is that right?

I’m so used to thinking of that score in terms of Slayer, Fate’s Warning and Corrosion of Conformity that I forgot the Wipers were in it. Nobody suggests anything to me on that: basically, we didn’t have any money. The Enigma/Metal Blade label came on board, turned over the entire catalogue, went through everything that they had, and come up with all that stuff. I don’t think Hopper suggested It, though I remember hearing of The Wipers from Carol Sue Baker, a music supervisor that I had done a lot of work with, who had a good in with a lot of the Portland bands—but I don’t think Dennis suggested it.

And do you have any Dennis Hopper stories you can share?

I’m not great with anecdotes, but Hopper had recently gone sober and cleaned up his act, and was proud of himself deservedly for doing it. He showed up in very good shape, and of course, the kids in the cast idolised him. And he was very generous and would rehearse the hell out of it with Dan Roebuck, Crispin and Keanu, and the other kids. He rehearsed so much, I actually think he over-rehearsed in a couple of places, because you do it so much and when the camera rolls you’ve played it so much you can’t remember the lines. [laughs] The big speech he gives in his house, where he talks about being run over and sees his missing arm on the street—if you look at it, look at it from the point of view of a director trying to cut the performance of an actor who maybe over-rehearsed it and lost some of the dialogue in pieces. You will see it’s cut very specifically, and a little bit oddly, to build the performance from his different takes. On the other hand,  when we went to do the hospital monologue at the end of the picture, he just unspooled that wonderful take on take 1, and we just looked at each other. “That’s it,” and we never did another take.

You wrote Over The Edge with Charlie Hayes—how did the two of you end up working together?

I was in the first year of the AFI way back in 1970. Lynch, Terry Malick and Paul Schrader were in that class. I wasn’t too fond of the AFI, I thought it was more of a political organization than a filmmaking organization. I fled after the first year and got myself a job teaching film at the University of California Santa Cruz, and I started teaching film when I was 23. I became good friends with Charlie Haas (the co-writer of Over The Edge), who was a student. We knew each other well and after a couple of years and were looking for something to write together. We found this newspaper story in the San Francisco Examiner (I think) on teenage crime in a bedroom suburb of San Francisco called Foster City. It was a man-made town that had been built on reclaimed land on manmade canals, and people were taking their little boats across one backyard one another. They had built this town as a bedroom suburb, but there was nothing for the kids to do, and within a few years they had a very high percentage of juvenile crime. The headline of the newspaper story was “Mouse-Packs: Kids on a Crime Spree!” We wrote the film under the title Mouse Packs, and it only became Over The Edge later.

Anyway, we went up there and talked to those kids and researched it, and started writing the screenplay, which took us a couple of years to write. I left UC Santa Cruz and Charlie graduated, we both came to L.A. He is quite a brilliant writer in many ways, and he had a job writing in-house publicity and funny stuff for Warner Bros. Records. I got a job as a publicist on a local PBS drama series, and we finished the script in L.A. The first person I gave the script to was George Litto. He specialised in representing the blacklisted writer (my dad, Ian Hunter, was blacklisted) and Ring Lardner Jr., and Waldo Salt. He was also instrumental in setting up M*A*S*H with Lardner and Altman. George bought the script, basically, and almost right away we made a first-timer deal on it. They weren’t going to let me direct it, because I had done student films but I hadn’t directed a “real” film yet, so I suggested Jonathan Kaplan, who was my childhood friend. He was also the son of a blacklisted composer and was part of our left-wing red diaper baby circle growing up in New York in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Jonathan had gone to work, starting with Roger Corman films, and then he had done Trucker Turner and White Line Fever, which was a big hit for Columbia. They hired Jonathan to do it, and after submitting it a number of times and surviving a number of initial turndowns, Mike Medavoy bought it for Orion. It was really their first picture, but they never released it, because there had been some other films about gangs where there had been some outbreaks of violence in the theatres, and they were scared of it. They basically buried it until it was discovered a couple of years later by a guy running the movie end of the Public Theatre in New York, and they did a revival of it. That got it fairly widely reviewed, and after that it got a small national release.

When Charlie and I knew we couldn’t film in California, they decided on Denver. It was shot in Aurora, mostly, now it’s mostly massive high-end shopping centres, but then it was just rolling hills of tract houses under construction. Charlie and I went ahead to cast the supporting ensemble of kids. We found all those kids in Denver by going to schools and just asking to see the stoners, the deadheads and the kid who were having trouble. So we got the ensemble together out of the Denver special school system, while Jonathan went to New York with his casting director to find the five leads.

How was it working with Disney at that odd time when they tried to make more adult-centered films?

That’s exactly right, I was lucky. One of the things we discovered while researching Over The Edge was that the only writer that any of these miscreant kids ever read was S.E. Hilton. We starting reading her books, and I actually approached the publisher to see if anything else was in the pipeline. Tex was forthcoming, but they just had galleys, so I got an early look at Tex. I thought I really wanted to do it, and Matt Dillon was discovered during Over The Edge, so I thought “this was a movie star in the making.” I was able to take the book, Matt and Charlie and I as screenwriters, and set that up at Disney with me directing for the first time. Ron Miller, who presided over Flubber and all those pictures, was kind of stepping aside, and they hired a guy named Tom Wilhite. When Tex was made, it was under the brief tenure maybe two or three years, of Tom Wilhite, before the Michael Eisner regime came in (there was a couple of interim people actually.) It would never have been made later, it was just good timing, I had a package, the book was good, and Tom was open to it. And, Tom’s orientation was not necessarily to do blockbuster films.

They were making Tron at the same time I made Tex, and I used to go into the screening room and see the Tron visual effects when they would come back in from the lab and screen them every day as they came in. Charlie wrote a bit of Tron too, he was such a good dialogue writer. I was kind of the cash and carry story guy, so I would make sure it would hit the emotions at the right time. For me, it’s sometimes very nice to do a small picture that can kind of sneak in under the shadow of a big picture, everybody was preoccupied with Tron and Tex just kind of sailed through.

The biggest problem on Tex was finding the girl: we auditioned a hundred people and I couldn’t find anybody. Then my wife was going through a bunch of headsheets, pulled out Meg Tilly’s picture, and said “what about her?” and we brought her in and she was right for it, although she had braces on when she did her audition.

Which has been your favourite TV show you’ve been involved in?

I have a number of favourites, from Homicide to Twin Peaks to Mad Men to Dexter and a couple of the Hannibals were memorable. I have a soft spot for some of the soap operas, because you get to be Douglas Sirk for seven days, or Minnelli. I have a soft spot for Falcon Crest, which I did a couple of episodes of!

Are those more difficult to do than a Breaking Bad or Riverdale?

No, what’s difficult is just making the schedule, depending how many pages you need to shoot in a day and how difficult those pages are. How many scenes you need to shoot on a given day. You are often shooting eight pages of a script a day on a TV episode. If you are only shooting three scenes and they are good-sized dramatic talk scenes, then there is no problem, but if your eight pages are divided up into 10 scenes and you shoot a half-page scene and move to another location and rehearse it, light it, block it, and you have to do that ten times a day, then it’s very hard to make a TV schedule so it’s really just the luck of the draw. In terms of genre opposed to the other although I haven’t done too much comedy but I’m quite comfortable with that range of melodrama of police procedure to mystery to noir to soap opera to horror.

What did you think of the new Twin Peaks?

I’ve only seen the first eight of them so far, and then I had to go off and shoot. I haven’t caught up with the bottom half. I liked it very much—I can watch David shoot anything. I felt like he put an awful lot on the shoulders of Kyle MacLachlan to just do episode after episode of being the clueless idiot savant, and to a lesser extent the evil bad guy with the spirit of Bob inside of him. It’s going to take an awfully long time for him to find himself as Agent Cooper again so I did feel like he put so much on Kyle to sustain that.

What was your stand-out memory from making the original series?

What I remember from Twin Peaks in a more general sense was we all felt we were doing something special, something different. The directors got a lot of support from David Lynch and Mark Frost to do it the way they wanted to do it. They were even forgiving if we needed some overtime, which never happens in the business today. I believe David and Mark had to put up some of their own money to pay for the overtime, but they never complained if they needed it. It was such a wonderful cast, the scenes were so good. I do remember the scene with Leland Palmer confessing under the sprinkler system in the police station, because we had to build a plastic moat around the entire set with drainage, and we shot that scene late into the night. They had to drain the set—it was quite a spectacle, I remember that! I remember in the first episode there was a scene with Kyle in a vet’s office. I said “well, can you get llama?” and they said “sure.” It was Topanga Canyon and there was a llama farm. There is a moment there where Kyle and the llama kind of quite noticeably make eye contact with each other, that made me happy.

Then at the end, when I went back, the whole dynamic of the show was kind of us against the world. It was clear ABC didn’t know what to do with it. They knew they had something on their hands, but weren’t really comfortable with it. There was always the tension of, were they going to keep it going? And then they finally axed it. David and Mark went off to do features, and the show went off to the writers to run it at the end, and David would come back and do his sort of cryptic guest star episodes. That whole story with Windom Earle, I guess, wasn’t as compelling as the Laura Palmer plotline, obviously. I went back at the end and did the second to last episode and was very anxious to see everybody, because there had been a lot of camaraderie on the show. I found everybody to be really cynical and disillusioned—even Kyle was cynical at the end, because the network had abandoned it and the story had gone to hell. They told me when I showed up that the cameraman had slowed down and I would not be able to get more than 16 shots a day, and on a TV episode you can do 40 shots a day. I said that was “ridiculous that can’t be, let me see the production reports.” And I looked back on all of the previous episodes that they had been doing, and lo and behold, they were doing 16/17 set-ups a day. I had to rethink the whole thing for how I was doing to shoot it with just half the number of shots that I would’ve normally used. I found myself watching Ozu’s Tokyo Story to just find a sort of minimalist approach to it. I also refer to that episode as my kind of Japanese-style Falcon Crest, because it had gotten kind of soapy and had to shoot it in a kind of minimalist style.

What do think about the current state of TV, especially the move towards Netflix and similar services?

There are an awful lot of shows out there. Some of the shows from England and these European countries and Scandinavian countries I like, all the police procedural stuff. All the good mysteries coming out now. I haven’t necessarily fallen in love with a lot of the better American shows. I still need to catch up with Fargo and shows people take very seriously. I do go on to Netflix and Amazon and watch the Euro shows a lot.

Looking Glass is out on Digital HD now and the DVD is out on the 23rd of April. You can order it here.

River’s Edge is out on a nice Blu-Ray from Signal One Entertainment. You can order it here.

Interview first published on Psychotronic Cinema. You can follow me on Twitter.

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