If Richard Rush’s “The Stunt Man” veered left when other more conventional action-comedies of the early ’80s veered right, so too does Rush’s loopy, feisty and overlong work about his signature film, “The Sinister Saga of Making ‘The Stunt Man’,” in relation to more generic making-of docus. Commissioned by Fox Video as part of a planned “Stunt Man” DVD package intended for release this year, behind-the-scenes look at the business of Hollywood filmmaking appears threatened, per Rush, with an uncertain future. Fox Video would be savvy to release the entire package without delay; feature and docu fit hand-in-glove, and DVD auds as well as the fervent “Stunt Man” cult crowd are primed for its release.
Reported concerns at ancillary distrib about pic’s length are, on one hand, well-founded. Just as feature is hobbled by scenes that far outstay their welcome, so “Saga” becomes nearly lost in its own story, with Rush coming dangerously close to sounding like a bitter guy at the bar recounting his tale o’ woe. This ignores, however, the beauty of the DVD format, which liberates the viewer to put the loquacious Rush on pause or eject for revisiting another day — something many non-hardcore viewers are likely to do.
Work is unquestionably personal in every respect, from borderline-amateur f/x devices, which in a goofy manner mimic some of “The Stunt Man’s” visual tricks, to Rush speaking openly, in favorite environs ranging from his ultra-cozy Malibu home to the sylvan UCLA sculpture garden. Yet choice of locales sometimes feels odd and off-putting, qualities that hamper the project as a whole.
With characteristic eccentricity, Rush begins his adventure in his private plane, where he speaks to the camera about his initial interest in adapting Paul Brodeur’s novel. We get a hint of what excited Rush about the novel, but little more; Rush disappointingly fails to describe the book, and how he went about adapting it with co-writer Lawrence B. Marcus. Intriguingly, he states that Francois Truffaut and Arthur Penn — both helmers were early contenders to make the pic — borrowed elements from the story for the former’s “Day for Night” and the latter’s “Night Moves.” Rush also reveals another example of what some have considered his habit of poor career moves (including passing on “Jaws”): He gave up rights to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”
Unlike many film artists who are hesitant to reveal their films’ inner meanings, Rush happily explains how he worked to make “The Stunt Man’s” form mirror its content. This meant finding a way for the viewer to be included in fugitive Cameron’s (Steve Railsback) confusion about what was real — his physical peril, his escaping the law — and unreal — the staging effects and sleight-of-hand practiced by puckish helmer Eli Cross (Peter O’Toole), who impulsively hires Cameron as a stunt man when he stumbles onto the set. The structure thus demanded that there be two p.o.v.s in each scene. Rush concludes that “the polemics became part of the story, dramatizing the rhetoric of the screenplay.”
Anecdotes of casting and production inject pleasure into the docu, as when O’Toole recounts his sheer joy at playing Cross, or when Barbara Hershey describes her feelings of being in the moment during a crucial film-within-film scene involving an offscreen O’Toole. Docu includes a purple and overacted scene between Railsback and Hershey that Rush regrets having had to trim; in retrospect, it was a wise decision.
Fans will especially get a kick out of such details as Rush explaining his exploration of “rack focus,” an optical device with which he became closely associated, and d.p. Mario Tosi describing his challenges dealing with the pic’s memorably mobile camera crane, which Rush suitably dubs (though mispronounces) as Cross’ “deus ex machina.”
Fatigue begins to set in, though, as Rush exhaustively details pic’s notoriously difficult time getting to market. By Rush’s account, the search for a distrib was bedeviled by an exec he identifies only as D.B. Studio marketers didn’t know how to sell a pic that combined black comedy, adventure, romance and irony, until Rush exasperatedly took it upon himself, and screened the final cut for Seattle Post-Intelligencer critic William Arnold. Helmer reports that, in a decision anathema to sound journalistic standards, Arnold would immediately print his review if it were a rave, and hold it if it wasn’t. It was the first of pic’s endless string of raves, which still didn’t grease the marketing wheels.
Like Tom Laughlin’s earlier “Billy Jack,” pic was essentially self-released, first in Seattle, then in L.A. It garnered strong B.O. along with the reviews, compelling Fox to craft a release campaign designed to curry Acad favor, resulting in three Oscar noms (though no wins, as Rush is sarcastically reminded off-camera by co-producer Bart Pierce).
Viewed in linear fashion, docu is a hard sit, composed mostly of Rush talking to the camera. While generally spiced by sometimes sly, sometimes crude visual jokes and the helmer’s soft, ironic sense of humor, “Saga” is less sinister than it is a sometimes inflated self-portrait, which will play much better with “Stunt Man” fans than with those encountering pic for first time in DVD.