The antechamber to the Silver Pictures building on the Warner Brothers lot is a museum of major movie mayhem. The exhibits include a tank-sized machine gun that only Arnold Schwarzenegger could heft, a model of the giant blade-wielding “Predator” creature and a life-sized ghoul from “Tales From the Crypt” leering over the shoulder of the receptionist.
The da Vinci-ish flying machine from “Hudson Hawk,” complete with a mock-up of Bruce Willis, hangs from the ceiling, and posters of the three “Lethal Weapons,” two “Die Hards,””Commando,””48 Hours,””The Last Boy Scout,” etc. that have grossed nearly $ 2 billion box office worldwide to date cover the walls.
To the right of the reception desk is “Joel Silver the Pinball”– a Christmas gift from “Lethal” director Richard Donner — a customized pinball machine that emits explosions, gunfire, curses, and cryptic lines of dialogue instead of the usual bells as the steel ball ricochets from pin to pin amid hand-painted action sequences.
To the left is the inner sanctum of Joel Silver the Producer, who is currently ricochetting from his office to the high-tech futurist set of “Demolition Man,” in which Sylvester Stallone squares off against Wesley Snipes.
“It’s a hardware movie,” Silver details. “A lot of it takes place on this one giant set, a cryo-prison. In the idea of the movie the convicts, the prisoners in the future, are frozen in a cryogenic state, and they are rehabilitated as they sleep. We’ve built this giant, high-tech freezer system. Over the course of the movie we visit the set several times. The whole final action sequence takes place in that set. It’s pretty remarkable. We’ve set up a lot of very high-tech gear and equipment, which we of course utilize in the final pay-off.”
It is an axiom of classic drama, according to the playwright Anton Chekhov, that if you have a gun on the mantle in the first act, you must fire it in the third act. The Silver Corollary is “if you create a big set in a movie, destroy it in the final pay-off.”
In an homage to “Lethal Weapon 3” a building is also blown up in the beginning of “Demolition Man.””The City of L.A. allowed us to go into an old Dept. of Water & Power building downtown. Unlike ‘Lethal 3’ where we just photographed the city of Orlando blowing up their own building, they allowed us to go in and — if an explosion can be artistic — make a more artistic explosion. So it wasn’t just, you know, gone and rubble, which is what we did in ‘Lethal 3.’
“We actually created a crater in the middle of the building. And have the explosion and rubble more designed, so to speak. It’s fun to do that, because those big pyrotechnics always look great.”
Silver’s mentor, producer Larry Gordon, once warned a stunt coordinator about to prep his first Silver pic, “You’re going to be working with the Producer from Hell. He wants everything bigger and more spectacular.”
Silver does not deny it. “Every year you’re always competing against the most recent version of the state-of-the-art event that just came past. When we made ‘Lethal Weapon 3,’ I always insisted we’re not worried so much about ‘Lethal 2’ as we were about ‘Terminator 2.’ It was the summer before.
“‘Demolition Man’ has some wild stunts in it, but the fact is that it will be compared to ‘Jurassic Park,’ and that is impossible. It’s not like you can get up in the morning and say in this scene we’ll have a dinosaur come out of air and turn over a car. It’s very hard to always top movies from now on out. Some are untoppable.
“But the key to these movies, I like to think, is that it’s important to have interesting characters and try to get the action and stunts come out of that character…even though we’re working in this kind of formulaic notion of a Whammo Chart, as we like to say.”
The Silver Whammo Chart has a mythic rep in studio circles. When he set up a recent movie at Columbia, a studio exec confided to Silver Pictures’ head of development Wendy Wanderman, “I’ve never done an action film before. I can’t wait to see your Whoopie Chart.”
“Your Whoopie Chart. That one that plots the action.”
Whatever. “It’s an old AIP esthetic,” says Silver. “I think it comes from the old days of musical comedy, where you’d have a musical number every 10 minutes. If you have an action beat every 10 minutes, which is actually every reel or every 10 pages of script in the development, you never let the movie get slow. It never feels boring, because the audience really wants to see an action movie. If you keep the action coming, the picture will never drag. You’ll always keep them on the edge of their seats.
“It can be a big sequence or a small sequence. A small fight, a chase, whatever it may be. But you never go more than 10 minutes without something happening.” He snaps his fingers. “That’s in the formula of the action genre, which is that there’s a good guy and there’s a bad guy. The bad guy does bad things, and the good guy chases him.”
To keep his own shows jumping, Silver brings in stunt coordinator and second-unit director Charles Picerni as soon as the movie is set. “Die Hard” 1 and 2, “Last Boy Scout,””Ricochet,””Hudson Hawk,””Lethal Weapon” 2 and 3. The directors have been John McTiernan, Renny Harlin, Tony Scott, Russell Mulcahy, Michael Lehmann, Richard Donner.
“Demolition Man” is directed by Marco Brambilla, making his first feature film. But Picerni has been the constant.
“He gets involved right off the bat, as the writer is evolving the script,” Silver explains. “We have ideas for stunts, or for gags, and then Charlie meets the writer, goes to the locations, and begins talking about what we can do and how we can do it. Then once we have that, it goes in the script.
“In ‘Die Hard 2’ we sat around with the idea of having a fight on the wing of a 747. It’s easy to say, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if they could do that.’ Then we had to figure if we could, and if we could, where it would go. How to shoot it and how to create it. We couldn’t have it in flight, because that would be all special effects. We decided we’d have it on the ground. That was really an example of us having an idea, and Charlie sitting down and figuring out how to do it. We put it in the script that way.
“Charlie was out in the middle of Michigan shooting a guy jump from a helicopter to the wing of the plane, and then the whole fight. Then we came back to the set and built a portion of the wing and had Bruce (Willis) do his portion of it, put it all together, and it worked great.”
One of the first films Silver had a credit on, as assistant to producer Lawrence Gordon, was “Hooper,” Hal Needham’s paean to stuntmen. “I learned a lot from that picture. It was great training for me.”
In the opening whammo of “Demolition Man” 30 hostages of L.A. Riot III are blown up in that “artistic explosion.” What is Silver’s rationale when bigger and more spectacular means bigger body counts and more spectacular violence?
“These movies are entertainment. They’re cartoons. Comic books. They’re not meant to be real. When James Bond takes a guy and throws him into a giant pool of piranha fish and says, ‘Bon appetit,’ to the fish, the idea there is for you to smile. The idea is just fun. It’s not meant to be serious, and we say, ‘Yeah, ‘ when that happens. I don’t think you realize that there’s little fishes eating a guy up who’s going to lose his life,” Silver insists.
“It’s meant to be looked at as a roller coaster ride. You entered the theater , put on your seat belt in the chair, and you go for a ride. The thrills and the chills, the adventure. You’re on the edge of your seat. And you’re cheering and you’re excited, and you’re having a good time. When it’s over, it was just entertainment. Punch and Judy. It was not really meant to be serious.