"It's pretty remarkable what they did."
The comment comes from sound editor Gregg Barbanell
as he recalls hunkering down to work with the legendary editor Verna Fields
on what was then and to this day still is the only American film to be shot entirely on location in Singapore. The 70s were coming to a close and Barbenell was fresh out of CalArts, a BFA in Film under his belt (he'd studied with Alexander Mackendrick
), and here he was in the company of Oscar winners and nominees. The likes of Ben Gazzara
would come around to loop his voice on a few scenes. "They were still all swapping stories about how they 'just got away with this' and they were laughing about it then, but I think there were some incidents that were pretty scary. There were all kinds of shenanigans."
The Making of Saint Jack in Singapore.
By Ben Slater.
240 pp. Marshall Cavendish Editions.
Shenanigans indeed. The making of Saint Jack
has to be one of the most extraordinary back stories in cinematic history, and Ben Slater
has done a bang-up job of its telling in his book of just over 200 swift and compelling pages, Kinda Hot
. Shooting an adaptation of a novel
's, by the way) in a city-state widely believed to have banned it, a tale of sin, corruption and treachery in a country rapidly clamping down hard on the dins of iniquity that had made its reputation - that's the core of Slater's story, and he sticks to it.
Sure, there's background on director Peter Bogdanovich
and his relationship with his live-in guest who'd come up with the idea of filming the book in the first place, Orson Welles
; with his producer, Roger Corman
, who'd given Bogdanovich his first break; and with his other producer, Cybill Shepherd
, with whom he'd be breaking up over the course of the shoot. But he leaves the lurid details of that last relationship to the likes of Peter Biskind
and gets on with the story, lingering just long enough, and not a moment longer, to relate the need-to-know basics of the history of Singapore, to convey its unique atmosphere and to establish the very high stakes of flying in with a full crew and lying to the government (they told officials they were shooting an entirely different sort of story).
As there is in the film, behind the scenes, there was intrigue, back-stabbing, plenty of sex and booze, but also genuine camaraderie. "Making Saint Jack
was one of the great experiences of my life," Gazzara tells Slater. "I loved it." The character he plays, Jack Flowers, "is the descendant of every Yank who ever carved himself a good time in Singapore," writes Slater in an insightful reflection on the film towards the end of Kinda Hot
. "A strain of melancholy humor pervades, a sense of regret and longing countered by a smiling acceptance of all of life's absurdities, cruelties and humiliations... Finally, there is that pungent, vivid sense of place. Singapore becomes the first and last major character in the film."
That character captured by Bogdanovich as the decade waned no longer exists. "Saint Jack
is very unrelenting, very uncompromising and dark," the director tells Slater. "It has a lot of integrity to it... I think it's one of my best pictures and I'm very proud of it."
Ben, when I finished your book, I was thinking that it's odd, in a way, that in most discussions of American movies in the 70s, now widely seen as a golden era of sorts, you rarely hear Saint Jack
mentioned. A couple of possible reasons come to mind. For one, when it comes to what might be considered the milestones of the "New Hollywood" of that era - films such as Easy Rider
, Mean Streets
, The Godfather
- as varied as these films are, you realize that the filmmakers were not only remaking the studio system but also, simultaneously, suggesting various revisions to American history and identity.
, on the other hand - in part because of the way it was released, particularly in the States, as a sort of "pimp on the loose" story, as you explain in Kinda Hot
- doesn't really fit neatly into this little canon. It's a Singapore story, not a story about America. Or is it? Don't stories about Americans abroad often have as much to say about the American character as films set in America itself? The Quiet American
, The American Friend
and others come to mind.
The point you make about the so-called "New Hollywood" dealing with particularly American myths and rarely, physically straying away from the States is very true. Those films either explore the immigrant experience in America or American characters' sense of rootlessness within their own country. I'm not sure this is the reason for Saint Jack
's lack of commercial success in the US (as Bogdanovich pointed out me, people forget Mean Streets
was also not a hit), but it may be why it hasn't joined the critical canon of 1970s "American Masterpieces" in the same way that The Last Picture Show
As for the way that the film reflects upon the American abroad, you could say that it fits into a much broader literary tradition that includes Henry James
, whose short novel Daisy Miller
for the screen. In Kinda Hot
, I locate Saint Jack
at the end of a long line of films made by Americans and Europeans that were fascinated by the idea of "The East" or "The Orient," and the exotic attraction of these foreign places. This includes everything from You Only Live Twice
to Shocking Asia
, and the hundreds of Hollywood films that created ersatz versions of Asia on studio soundstages.
So, yes, it definitely speaks about America. The failure of the American Dream to take hold on foreign soil is a conscious theme of the film. In that sense, the Vietnam War, which is more than on the periphery of Saint Jack
, becomes a really important counterpoint to Jack Flowers's modest ambitions. But given Singapore's rather unique circumstances, with only a handful of films being made there by Singaporeans from the late 60s to the early 90s, Saint Jack
does become a Singapore story. More than a document of a lost era, it seems that Singapore, with all its contradictions and complexities, seeped into the pores of the film.
A second possible reason for Saint Jack
falling through the cracks of histories of the period is that the two most prominent figures involved, Ben Gazzara and Peter Bogdanovich, don't easily fit the mould, either. Hopper
, all these guys had a certain countercultural cred, not to mention the long hair and more than a few beards between them at the time. But for all his work with Cassavetes
, Gazzara looks like he might have fallen out of the Rat Pack. Both he and Bogdanovich look as if they'd be far more comfortable with a glass of something on the rocks rather than a joint in their hands. Don't get me wrong - Gazzara comes off as an extremely likable fellow in the book, and I'd love to spend a night out on the town with him myself.
And as for Bogdanovich, besides that ascot and his near-obsessive respect for the lions of the old studio system - and thank heavens for it, too; otherwise, we'd never have Who the Devil Made It
and Who the Hell's In It
- after Targets
and The Last Picture Show
, two films that most definitely do fit into this mini-canon, he shifted gears radically, toying with Hollywood formulas, such as the screwball comedy, What's Up Doc?
Ultimately, is there any benefit to looking at Saint Jack
through the lens of the legend of the 70s-era cinema? Or are we better off simply watching it on its own terms? "I loved it because it was so un-Hollywood and I was so sick of Hollywood," Bogdanovich tells you. But he doesn't say, "anti-Hollywood," does he?
First things first. Bogdanovich doesn't wear an ascot! It's a cowboy style bandana tied round his neck that everyone thinks is a cravat. It makes an appearance in the final pages of my book... Actually, I think Bogdanovich fits in with that generation of filmmakers as much as Spielberg
(sans beard). Were any of them really, genuinely countercultural? Maybe Altman, but the rest were very ambitious, egocentric men who were completely absorbed in the power of movies and their own desire to make films as good as the ones that had transfixed them in their youth. Bogdanovich's interest in reviving screwball comedies and musicals was closely akin to Spielberg reviving the monster flick with Jaws
, Lucas redoing Buck Rogers
with Star Wars
taking on "The Women's Picture" with Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore
. However, perhaps his fidelity to the films of the 30s and 40s was more intense than that of his peers.
Gazzara was from the first generation of Method actors, along with Brando
and James Dean
. Unlike them, he never found a truly defining performance in film. His career stumbled and skipped along without much direction even though he is a terrific actor. He never became an A-list star the way Brando did, even though he desperately wanted a piece of that success. Cassavetes gave him some great roles, and Saint Jack
is the natural progression from those, but he was not a legend waiting to be re-invented, the way that Brando was for The Godfather
I do think Saint Jack
does belong up there with the best of that era, but there's a danger of getting stuck in that groove for too long. Bogdanovich told me that if that era was a "Golden Age," it didn't feel like it at the time. We have to be careful not to get too misty-eyed. After all, it was also the decade when Burt Reynolds
was the biggest thing ever - and Bogdanovich even worked with him.
Many of the great 70s films were un-Hollywood in the way that I think Bogdanovich means when he used the phrase - they had flawed heroes, ambiguous endings, a downbeat vibe, not to mention improvising on location. Saint Jack
took things further and completely left America behind. But another sub-plot of Kinda Hot
is how Bogdanovich's "Hollywood" attitude was quite at odds with the European crew who had been making un-Hollywood films throughout their careers.
After the book came out, fairly recently, as a matter of fact, you introduced a screening of Saint Jack
in Singapore. Was this the first screening since the famed 1997 showing at the Singapore International Film Festival
? How was it received this time around?
It was the first time the film had been shown since 1997, and after the main newspaper here ran an article about the two screenings, the tickets all went in a couple of hours, such was the curiosity to finally see Saint Jack
. Watching it with an audience after spending a couple of years wading through it alone on DVD was really refreshing for me. On one hand, it worked as this vivid document, triggering so many memories for the Singaporeans who saw the places they remembered from their childhood, or had only heard about, and the fashions and the way people spoke; and on the other hand, people did respond to the story, the humor of it, and then the tragedy and the near-silent tension of the film's final act. I'd heard that in '97 the audience was a bit disappointed; they found the film rather slow, but audiences this time really got absorbed.
How would you describe the general level of awareness of and interest in the film in Singapore now?
Not enough people know about it! I'm amazed after all the media coverage that I still meet Singaporeans who have no idea what I'm talking about, and then, when I start to fill them in, they get really interested and can quickly see why it's significant, as opposed to thinking I'm totally insane to write a book about some obscure movie.
How did you end up in Singapore yourself?
In a nutshell, I fell in love with a Singaporean and came here to be with her. It's an old story, as Jack Flowers would say.
When did the idea of writing Kinda Hot
Before I came to live here. I had some work lined up, but I wanted a personal project to get stuck into, and Saint Jack
presented itself to me. As I was watching it, I had a revelation that I would make a documentary about the making of it - suffice to say, that never got off the ground and I just got wrapped up in my new life in Singapore. When I started a blog about films (the now defunct harrylimetheme
), I quickly ran out of things to blog about, so I turned to what I knew of Saint Jack
, and that's when I felt that it could be a book. Plus, I got a great response from readers, many of whom had clicked through from the link on Greencine Daily
. So thanks again for that.
One last question, but it's a tough one. Roger Corman told you that, as you put it, "Warner Brothers, through Orion [also now defunct], have the worldwide rights" to Saint Jack
"and they've chosen to leave it in the vault." Let's say, for the fun of it, that I'm a distributor and those rights are available. What's the "elevator pitch," the quick argument for me picking it up and getting the DVD in stores?
I'm not sure about how to reduce Saint Jack
to a quick sell, and perhaps that's part of its problem. It was a tricky film to market in 1979, and it's probably even harder now. As you know, the DVD is available in North America and Australia, so it's not entirely out of circulation. But if you were able to distribute a DVD for Europe and other territories, I would tell you that it's a pungent glimpse into a lost world - when long-haul travel was exciting, pimps could be saints, and American films were great.
David Hudson writes GreenCine Daily, where he'll be covering the Berlinale and SXSW in early 2007.