It starts with grainy footage from a bank security camera. In walks a tall man in a trench coat, after a slow look around he swings out a shotgun and lets three shots fly before turning around and dishing out a forth slug to a security officer. After a slow walk out of the bank with a bag of cash the tall man makes his way to the car. A wounded officer pulls his weapon and yells “freeze!” The tall man quickly turns and fires one more shot, gets into his Ferrari, turns on some metal, and begins one of the greatest car chases I have ever seen. THE HIDDEN is 80′s classic, a perfect blend of sci-fi and action directed with incredible skill by Jack Sholder.
Sholder wasn’t going to be a director. In fact, he wasn’t going to be in film at all, he was going to be a professionally trained trumpet player. I have never heard Mr. Sholder play his music, I am sure he’s great, but I am happy as hell he decided to pick up a camera. In addition to THE HIDDEN, he made one of the best horror films of the 80′s ALONE IN THE DARK, directed the first NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET sequel, and cut some of the earliest trailers for New Line Cinema including THE STREET FIGHTER films starring Sonny Chiba.
Thank you for hanging out with us today. It’s really a pleasure to speak with you.
Oh my pleasure, happy to do it.
So we like to start out with kind of a quick discussion of the first film or set of films you saw that changed your life and really got you involved with film.
Kind of two I guess. I grew up in Philadelphia, there was a small theater where I lived that showed sort of art films, or I guess what passed as art films at the time. They showed a lot of English comedies and things like that. I remember when I was really little I saw THE WIZARD OF OZ. The thing that I remembered was the scene where they poured the water on the witch and she melts. Just totally creeped me out. I was only like 4 or something and really terrified. Another one that I remember was the original INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS which I saw at a Saturday matinee. That’s probably the scariest film of my life. Then back in that art theater I saw an Ingmar Bergman festival and I saw SEVENTH SEAL and I was like holy cow, I didn’t know people could do that you know? It was at a point when I was open to that kind of stuff.
That is a pretty heavy film; it’s essentially a discussion of faith with all kinds of symbolism. How old where you when you saw that and were you able to pick up on the ideas of that film?
I was in college. Yeah it was kind of like this stark black and white, the knight starts playing chess with Death and I was like whoa! I didn’t know you were allowed to do that and explore that kind of thing in the movies.
What were you going to college for at the time?
My goal had been to become a professional classic trumpet player but that one ended before I got into college. I was really good but I realized there were people who were put on this earth to play the trumpet and you know it was like being the best golfer in your state and then playing Tiger Woods. I figured I had other options and I moved to being an engineer which was a big mistake and then I became an English major because I wanted to write.
Wow you really jumped around there for a while.
Yeah they are all really different careers although actually the musical career and the English career were very good preparation for my film career because for me, film is on one level story which is English and on the other level its music because it occurs in time and has a structure both micro and macro. Just like the construction or movement of the symphony has one kind of structure and from bar to bar it has a kind of structure. That really in a sense gave me the sort of instincts to be a good filmmaker.
Wow I never heard the two compared like that before but I couldn’t agree with you more actually. They are both relying on timing and narrative. So at that point when did you decide to get into film?
Well I did a year at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and I became disillusioned of the idea of becoming a writer. I decided with the help of some drugs that words were meaningless. That kind of thing wasn’t good if you wanted to be a writer. I had a girlfriend who was really into film and I thought that it would be a cool thing to do and that was how I got into it.
Do you remember what your first job in the industry was like?
Well I had graduated from Antioch College and they had a filmmaker cooperative education program and so I got a job working for an Anthropologist at the National Institute of Health who had been following a doctor who was studying a disease called Kuru that struck one tribe in Eastern New Guinea. The doctor actually ended up getting a Nobel Prize. Actually I worked on my first film there which you’ve probably seen called NUTRITION OF THE FORE TRIBE OF EASTERN NEW GUINEA.
Yeah it’s a perennial favorite.
I am waiting for the Blu-ray.
Well it should be coming out anytime. Actually the disease was looked at as a good model for other diseases of the central nervous system. If they could figure this out it may help muscular dystrophy and things like that. It actually turned out that the way the disease was passed was that the relatives would eat the brains of the deceased victims so in a sense that kind of prepared me… well I guess I never did a zombie film. I learned what film was though and how to rewind it and splice it and work it through the lab and then I made some films in college. There was no film program, we just kind of ordered the equipment and hoped it would come up. After I left Antioch I looked up an Alum and he kind of got me going as an editor and I worked at that for about 13 or 14 years. Soon after that I got to New York and I was editing for this guy and making some short films and I had heard about this little company called New Line Cinema and I thought maybe they would be interested in distributing one of my films.
So, I sent one of them up and a few weeks later I got a call from Bob Shaye (Founder of New Line). He said he wasn’t interested in the film but in the course of the conversation he asked if I knew anybody that could edit a film trailer and I said yeah me. So he hired me and basically we spent a weekend locked in someone else’s cutting room and became best friends. I ended up getting an Emmy for some of the stuff I did but any time they needed a trailer cut or a picture re-cut I did it. I worked on a ton of all sorts of films from GET OUT YOUR HANKERCHIEFS which won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Film to all the Sonny Chiba films, all the John Waters films, yakuza movies, Italian rip-offs of sci-fi movies, a whole kind of array. I learned a lot about action by doing trailers for kung-fu movies and the Chiba movies. I saw how they did the action so I learned how you could create one piece of action out of 4 or 5 shots.
Do you remember specifically what Sonny Chiba films you worked on?
Well I worked on STREET FIGHT, RETURN OF THE STREET FIGHTER, STREET FIGHTERS LAST REVENGE, as a matter of fact I was partly responsible for the name Sonny Chiba. His name is actually Shinichi Chiba but New Line thought nobody wanted to see a Japanese movie so we had to give him an American name. I did TATOO HITMAN; I did the dubbing on that. It was an interesting time. It gave me a chance to take a hundred minute action film and to turn it into a two and a half minute action film. One of the things that I can say about my films is that they aren’t boring and that probably comes from my trailer background. Bob Shaye’s rule was that it was always ten minutes too long whatever film it was.
So when you’re working a trailer, we love trailers and our site was kind of built around the love of trailers, but are you trying to highlight the film or tell a two and a half minute story? I mean it seems like those are conflicting ideas.
Well you’re trying to sell the film. It doesn’t matter what the film is about. I mean there was a film called THE WORKING CLASS GOES TO HEAVEN, it was this whole movie about this guy who’s a worker and he really loves the factory and then one day he loses a finger and sort of becomes radicalized, a very political kind of movie and they retitled the movie LULU THE TOOL. You’re always trying to sell the movie as something they weren’t. If there was one scene where a girl took off her top you were sure that was going into the trailer. The idea though is to tell a story though, not necessarily the story the filmmaker wanted, but a story that got people into the theater.
And then from there you had the opportunity to direct ALONE IN THE DARK which was one of New Line’s first films.
Yeah. Along the way I had done some short films; I did one called THE GARDEN PARTY which was put on PBS, won some film awards. It was really the type of movie I thought I was going to be making. A kind of dramatic film, I never expected I would be standing around at 2:00 am to tell people to crash a car or kill each other. You take what comes though and at a certain point New Line, who had mainly been in distribution, decided they needed to get into production. They thought that they knew the niche market really well and if you made a film in that niche you could make a lot of money. So I came up with the idea of ALONE IN THE DARK and and they said if we like the script we’ll pay to direct it and that’s what happened.
Pretty impressive cast to be working with on your first feature length film: Donald Pleasence, Jack Palance, Martin Landau. Was that just as impressive or as intimidating then as it sounds now? I mean they were in considerably different spots in their careers back then I guess.
Yeah more impressive now. We got people who were somewhat down on their luck. Marty was pretty down, Jack Palance wasn’t really doing anything at that point. I have a picture that’s on my wall with myself, Landau, Palance, and Erland van Lindth the big fat guy in the movie, and Bob Shaye. Three of those people eventually got Academy Awards. I was pretty lucky to have a cast like that though and I knew it. Marty was kind of a mentor to me. That was a tough shoot and Palance wasn’t happy to be there and he would beat me up a little although I have a lot of respect for him, he didn’t make it harder on me than I could handle. Marty though would come up and kind of give me a back rub and say “hey Jack how we doin’ huh?” He’s a phenomenal actor and a great acting coach; he got me into the Actors Studio and is just a really wonderful man. Donald was actually the one that I was the most excited about. I had loved his work and thought he was one of the world’s greatest actors so I was thrilled to have him in the movie.
He was just coming of HALLOWEEN II at that time I think or…
I think that’s correct but I remembered him from the Roman Polanski film CUL DE SAC and he was just brilliant.
Yeah Criterion just released that on Blu-ray.
Oh really? I have to get ahold of that.
How did ALONE IN THE DARK do when it came out?
It really didn’t do all that well. The movie has a lot of fans now. It sort of moved into cult status at some point. I think people didn’t really get it when it first came out. It did okay but it didn’t do great. It kind of had that odd sense of humor to it and that’s probably where people are trapped in the house and someone takes a valium which is probably the sensible thing to do if you think about it.
Well all of your films kind of play with humor a little.
I agree. Even the least humorous of them make you kind of stop and think for a minute or gulp because it’s kind of an emotional moment. I’ve always been kind of a mixed-genre kind of guy.
So after ALONE IN THE DARK you’re thanked in the credits on NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET. What was your contribution to that film or relationship with Craven?
Well I had a close relationship with Bob (Shaye) and I would watch their trailers and films and if they weren’t sure what to do with their films they would invite me in. As autocratic as he can be he sometimes feels he needs a consensus. ELM STREET was the next film they did after ALONE IN THE DARK and he invited me to come to a screening and to see what I thought and give some notes. I also helped out with a little bit of music editing just to get it ready for screening and I wouldn’t really say I had any real creative input into the film but I was involved with it in various stages. Most of what I did though was creating a temp track for screening.
What was your first impression of the film when you first saw it?
I wasn’t that crazy about it. I didn’t find it that scary but that’s just me. What I thought was great about it was the concept and the cast. At that point the villain, the monster, was always like an extra or a stuntman like Jason. Jason wasn’t a personality he was just this thing that came out and killed campers. I also worked as an editor for the Weinstein’s’ called THE BURNING and basically what they did was study all the horror films and then rip off something from each one. You know, you have a monster, you have a backstory, bla, bla, bla. His weapon of choice was hedge-clippers. So everybody just had these faceless monsters but the thing about NIGHTMARE was they had this great actor who was playing a real character. New Line didn’t know that was why the film was a success. They thought it was because it was scary and lightning just happened to strike. It was just one of those things.
When it came time to do a sequel… at that point sequels weren’t like they are now. Now you make a sequel and create a franchise but then you just made a sequel to try and ring the last drop of money out of it by making a sequel and hopefully it makes 60 or 70% of what the first one did. That was the idea with ELM STREET. Wes never liked the script to the second one, he felt the script wasn’t really in keeping with his concept for the film and he basically, six weeks before they were scheduled to shoot, he backed out and that’s when they offered it to me. My first impulse was to turn it down because I didn’t want to do another horror film and I especially didn’t want to do a sequel to a horror film. I decided to do it though because I could make money and have a career and when the sequel opened it made more money than the first one. The day after it opened I had Dino De Laurentiis calling me from his car.
So the sequel for you was just like a key; this is going to unlock my career and let me have the career I want to have.
Exactly. ELM STREET 2 came out and now there was a director that everyone wanted to work with.
What do you think of the film?
I don’t think it’s my best work. I didn’t have much of a chance to give it a whole lot of input. I was just trying to get through it. It was very complicated. When all is said and done there are certainly elements of me in the film, certain choices that I made. I did some tweaking of the script but I have mixed feelings about it. It gave me a career and honestly I haven’t seen it in a very long time so I have to watch it again. I know the general feeling is that its one of the least favorites but I also get people who say they never liked it but then they saw it again and they liked it. To tell you the truth I don’t care because it did its job for me. What do you think about it?
Well it just doesn’t feel a lot like a Jack Sholder film. I think your films have a certain style and ability to kind of blend genres and ELM STREET 2 just doesn’t do that. There is a scene in THE HIDDEN with Kyle MacLachlan and the little girl who’s sleeping in bed and it’s a really kind of touching moment but then you switch gears and you’re in a gunfight or a car chase. ELM STREET is just kind of one gear I guess. It just doesn’t work for me.
Yeah. The script wasn’t great but it did the job.
Well it let you make THE HIDDEN which is one of my favorite films of all-time. I could watch that on a loop. I still marvel at that car chase and some of those action scenes. It’s a smart film that knows exactly what the job is.
Yeah that film I have seen a little more recently. There have been a few festivals that have screened it recently and I still enjoy it. You know sometimes you watch a film and maybe it’s a film by kind of a newer filmmaker that you’re not familiar with? It starts off by walking tightrope and you’re just hoping you’re going to make it to the other side. That’s the feeling I had with THE HIDDEN was that it kind of just stayed on the edge of the tightrope the entire film.
It just starts at such a breakneck pace. It’s really kind of ballsy to start a film like that with a chase. You just kind of drop the audience in the middle of this action and they have to kind of piece together what’s going on, what the motivations are…
Well the reason for that is that it started off with a bank robbery that was going to be a whole elaborate sequence and then it went into the car chase and New Line said you know we have all seen a bank robbery so we don’t want to spend all that money to shoot that scene. So I said why don’t we just show the guy walking out of the bank with the money and they said great! We can tear 3 or 4 pages out of the script and save ourselves $100,000. So that’s what I did. You just heard some gunshots and some screams and the guy goes walking out and the plate glass breaks and the guy gets into the car and off he goes.
When we screened the movie though it just seemed too abrupt and it bothered people that he kind of came out of nowhere so we had a discussion about shooting a condensed version of the bank robbery. I had the idea then of just shooting the robbery from the point of view of the surveillance camera. It wasn’t like an inspired vision but it gets the film off to an interesting start.
It did. I think in any other film it wouldn’t have worked that well. Walk us through the construction of that chase though.
Because of my English major background, I felt everything in the movie had to move the story along or move the characters along. So when it came to the car chase Bob Shaye said “Ah it’s just another bullshit car chase, you’ve never done a car chase, there isn’t going to be a car chase.” And I told him that I was going to make the best fucking car chase he had ever seen. So I went out and I had my assistant do a compilation of car chases like THE FRECH CONNECTION, BULLIT and by the way, THE FRENCH CONNECTION is the best car chase. Anyway, I figured out what I thought worked best which was… the reason THE FRENCH CONNECTION works best is that you’re in the car. Now most chases are that way. If you look at BULLIT most of the shots are of the car doing stuff. If you look at it now I don’t think it really holds up where THE FRENCH CONNECTION does.
There are two things that made our car chase good. The first was that…the idea that the whole thing needed to be shot from the point of view of the car and you needed moving shots for most of the chase and if you didn’t have moving shots you didn’t want to get way back and shoot the car with a long lense that would slow it down. When you shoot the car you want to have a really wide lense so the car almost runs over the camera. With a wide angle lense when the car is far away it’s really tight. When it gets closer it gets really big really fast. So that was one part, the other part is that it has to be a character thing. You’re not having this chase just to bang up cars, it’s a car chase where the point is you have the guy who’s driving the car can’t die, so he doesn’t care if he gets killed. Therefore, he doesn’t drive the car like someone trying to get away to save their lives, he just doesn’t care. So I tried to build stuff where there are a number of moments where the character makes choices that most characters wouldn’t make. Like hitting the guy in the wheelchair and trying to run people over or cause other cars to crash.
The film plays like a thriller that happens to have these sci-fi and horror elements.
That’s exactly right. It was my SERPICO or PRINCE OF THE CITY, my Sidney Lumet cop movie. I always loved Lumet cop movies and this is mine. Part of the reason I jumped at it was that it was a cop procedural on a certain level and I always loved that genre.
I don’t think you could have snagged a better actor for that role than Michael Nouri. He just had this tough guy persona and looked like he had been working the beat for a while. I know you said on the commentary track for THE HIDDEN that he was kind of difficult to work with but man, he nailed that part.
Yes he did. Yes he did. I actually thought he was really a brilliant actor. He had recently done FLASHDANCE and he thought he should have been a bigger star than he was and was one of the people who came in to read and I thought Michael Nouri, oh great. I never seriously considered hiring him but we were a few weeks from shooting and we didn’t have it cast. We had him come back again and he was again very good and we hired him. We found Kyle (MacLachlan) 3 or 4 days before we started. We found him on a Monday and cast him on a Thursday or Friday. I don’t think Kyle read with Nouri, we had Nouri read for another actor we were considering.
Do you remember who that was?
It was Jeff Fahey.
Oh wow, you actually ended up working with him anyway a few years later.
Yeah that’s right. Jeff was actually who I had wanted for the role and then in the end it came down to Kyle and Peter Gallagher. New Line really liked Peter Gallagher and I liked Kyle and they said Kyle was too frail looking and he didn’t look like he could pull it off and I thought that’s what made him so great. The interesting thing is that the whole time we were working I felt sorry for him because I thought Michael was stealing the film. Every scene he was magnetic, charismatic, and Kyle was very quiet and still and its Kyle’s movie but I think there was a real lesson to be learned there. I think it was John Wayne that said if you’re a movie star then that means the other guy does all the talking and you just say “yep”. Kyle had a quality about him, something going on with him that was interesting and mysterious, the audience really responded to that where everything Nouri was doing was right out in your face. That’s not a knock but the scenes you don’t understand or have an answer for are much more interesting than the things you do and I think that’s why he works so well.
One thing I have always wondered about is the relationship between Kyle and the daughter. He says at one point that the daughter is special and there is even a scene in the end where Nouri kind of reaches out to her and she gives him a look like she understands what has happened. Was there more to that in the script?
Well that’s something that I added. Basically the script was being sold with the writer to be the director and New Line didn’t want him and he just bowed out and didn’t want to do any re-writes on it. The relationship between Beck (Nouri) and his wife was kind of breezy and silly. It was full of clever quips and that kind of thing. I felt they needed to have a relationship that really meant something. The heart of the story is a study of what it means to be human. You have the Nouri character who’s a good human, you have one alien who’s playing a bad human and enjoying the hell out of it, and you have another alien who’s learning what it means to be a good human from the Nouri character. That was the way that it worked. So there had to be a relationship that went deeper, something deeper than just being cops between Kyle’s character and Nouri’s character. So I thought that if he sees he has a relationship and that he’s kind of lost something that that would give him a kind of tie-in and so at the very end when goes into Nouri’s body which was in the original script, he’s making a sacrifice. It will have an emotional meaning. So I figured the best way to give the couple a relationship was to give them a child that they could both relate to. Then I thought well what if Kyle’s character also had a child and his child was killed by the alien. Then the idea was that the child could see something that the adult can’t see just because she was a child. It was kind of a literary kind of concept, she was pure and she could see something special although she didn’t know what it was and that was the idea. She recognizes who he is and so at the end when she sees her dad she knows it’s not really quite right.
Does it kind of blow you away that we’re coming up on the 25th anniversary of the film and we’re still talking about it?
Yes. You know I talked about that picture I have with the three guys who won an Academy Award. I thought I was capable of that as well. I thought I could make good movies and I did. I am proud of THE HIDDEN and I am pleased that people like you regard it as something special. I feel lucky that I was able to do that.
You have a huge filmography. After THE HIDDEN is there another film that you have done that you want your fans to take a look at?
Well 12:01 is one of my favorites. In fact have you seen that?
I have not, no.
That’s another one that’s kind of a mixed genre. It was made for Fox Television and got an international release and it’s basically like the Groundhog Day thing but it came before that and it’s basically a romantic comedy, thriller, sci-fi, kind of flick.
You worked with Landau again there.
Yeah, Landau and a really nice cast in that one. That’s another film where I certainly didn’t write the script and in fact the writer of that script stayed with it all the way through but it’s another script where there was a lot of heart. There’s a car chase that isn’t too bad that I filmed in half a day. I don’t know. I was in the jury of the Brussels Film Festival and I think out of 175 films it got the audience award and the jury said that if I hadn’t been on the jury I would have had the grand prize so check that one out. There’s another one called BY DAWNS EARLY LIGHT that I did for HBO about the end of the world which is good. I call that my grown up movie since there wasn’t a whole lot of room for offbeat humor in that one. Although it sneaks in during a few scenes. That’s like my FAIL SAFE movie, my other homage to Sidney Lumet. WISHMASTER 2 is also good, that’s one of the few that I actually wrote.
You know I actually think that’s a better film than ELM STREET 2.
Yeah I think so too. The few times I allowed myself to read the comments and opinions, it’s kind of a mixed bag. I have been fortunate enough to make films that I really like. I mean there are a few stinkers in there; I mean have you seen Arachnid? That’s one I hope people avoid. It was like my pack with the devil. It was okay, you can live in Barcelona, eat great food, have a great time, but during the day you have to make this movie. Even that one though has its fans. Everyone has a stinker in there somewhere.
What advice do you have for people out there getting ready to pick up a camera and shoot their first film?
Be true to yourself. If you don’t give up and you just hang in there… I am living proof. I had a dream I was going to be a film director and I stayed with it and eventually it happened. Just hang in there.
Well thanks again for your time Jack, it has been a real pleasure.
Oh no thank you, let me know what you think about 12:01.
I will do that. Talk to you soon.
For more on the work of Jack Sholder, hit his IMDB page here: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0794791/
SEE YOU ON FORTY DEUCE,