Gavin Schmitt Interviews Alan Spencer
Alan Spencer started off his career by sneaking on to the set of “Young Frankenstein” as a child. After that, the only thing he could do was keep writing. Since that time, he created the 1980s police comedy “Sledge Hammer!”, the films “Hexed” and “The Tomorrow Man”, and has worked extensively as a script doctor, polishing numerous successful movies.
Now he’s back with a newer, darker police comedy — “Bullet in the Face”, where a homicidal maniac is recruited by the local police to help take down two kingpins of crime. I spoke with Alan for a few minutes in January 2014.
GS: “Bullet in the Face” is in the same mold as “Sledge Hammer!”, but without the constraints of 1980s network television. Was there any thing you were able to do now that you had wanted to do then?
AS: Interesting question. When “Sledge Hammer!” was originally developed, it was written as a screenplay in the late 1970s. It was very violent, and if it were a movie would have been rated R. And then when it was developed for TV the first time, it was actually developed for HBO. So, that kind of temerity about the project — the language and over the top violence — was preserved. HBO is more than happy to push the envelope; they push it, lick it and mail it.
So when ABC picked it up, obviously it was toned down for the standards of the day. It was an 8:00 show, or family viewing hour. But even though it was toned down, it was still considered “bizarre” and “out there”. Basically, “Bullet in the Face” is returning to the original conception, which was a more graphically violent comedy. I guess you could say the constraints were taken off. This was how I always thought, I just wasn’t allowed to do it. Sledge Hammer was a good bad guy, in a way, and Gunter is a bad bad guy.
GS: Your characters not only cuss and murder, but quote from literature. We know your screen influences were Marty Feldman and Mel Brooks, but what of literature and philosophy?
AS: There’s also the influence of alcohol, don’t forget that. I’m inspired by a lot of things, as we all are. I was a fan of “Star Trek”, I knew Gene Roddenberry and I’m friends with some of his actors, including Brent Spiner. He has a web series called “Fresh Hell” and he just did his first live show with him singing in it. Apparently it went really, really well. “Star Trek” was always tapping into literature and Shakespeare.
I don’t know if you’re familiar with Joe Dante’s Trailers From Hell; various people, including myself, do commentary on film trailers. When I was a kid in school, Shakespeare was being taught and it was pretty boring. This was augmented by the fact the teacher reading it was boring, and didn’t give the words any meaning. Then I saw a horror movie with Vincent Price called “Theater of Blood”, where he played a Shakespearean actor killing critics. It was a black comedy, and he killed them all in Shakespearean fashion while doing the soliloquys. That got me into Shakespeare. Vincent Price is the best Shakespeare teacher ever, and years later I had the opportunity to tell him I passed all my classes thanks to him. He told me if I killed my critics he would give me extra credit.
Gavin, there is a kind of weird perversity about mixing literature with extreme violence and craziness. Putting a little intelligence behind it makes it all the more fun and disturbing.
GS: Gunter Vogler strikes me as a cross between Jack Nicholson’s Joker and Klaus Kinski. Was there any cue in the script for how to act the part?
AS: Not really. He was described as handsome, and his eyes were mentioned a lot. Many people have made those analogies — certainly the Joker, or what the Joker would be if he was drafted as a cop in Gotham City. So that certainly makes sense. And the Klaus Kinski aspect has come u pa few times, I think mostly because of the accent and the demonic grin. Some have called the actor, Max E. Williams, a “young Klaus Kinski”, but it should be pointed out that Max is not like this character in any way, shape or form. He doesn’t speak with a German accent and is the nicest guy in the world — a very sweet, humble, down to earth person. But I’ve often found people are the opposite of who they play; villains tend to be really nice people and the boy next door is just the polar opposite. It’s like a funhouse mirror.
The Kinski analogy has come up before and it’s appropriate. Everybody knows the stories about him, and the tales of his volatility. I know someone who interviewed Klaus Kinski in his home. They were welcomed in and the first question was, “Mr. Kinski, when you’re doing your typical movie…” and at that point, Kinski interrupted him, stood up, and screamed, “I don’t do typical movies!” He then left the house. I think Gunter’s demeanor is on par with Kinski’s and that’s a good analogy that you’ve made.
GS: I’m glad I’m not alone in thinking that.
AS: Oh no, you weren’t hallucinating on your own.
GS: The way Eddie Izzard delivers his lines is very much akin to his stage show. Did he ad lib or just make your words his own?
AS: Both. There was a lot of ad libbing that was not used, but the stuff that I liked I preserved and we worked on that together. He was given freedom and he was very respectful of the script. He started from the page, but would throw in his Eddie-isms. Other times, he was given to flights of fancy. When you have a talent like Eddie Izzard — and I appreciate, by the way, you pronouncing his last name correctly — not unlike Robin Williams on “Mork and Mindy” or Marty Feldman on “Young Frankenstein”, it is very improvisational. It’s like a jazz artist who knows where the music begins and ends but is free in the middle. Or compare a horse with reins — you don’t hold them too tightly, you have to let them get into the unexpected.
There’s a scene with Eddie talking to a snow globe, and there’s an improvisation about leprechauns that is entirely his conception. I played into it and added bagpipe music to the background. It was a great collaboration. When you get someone like Eddie Izzard, you have to give him freedom. But he was also respectful to the material, so it was a happy marriage and the best of both worlds.
GS: When you cast a talent like that, you have to let him do what he does best.
AS: Oh, absolutely. And you end up rewriting the scene for him. When I found out he played piano, we incorporated that into the script because there was a piano on the set. The thing about Eddie Izzard is that he’s something of a Renaissance man. He learns different languages and he gets very proficient, and then goes and performs stand-up in different countries with their own languages. He just came back from his first tour in Germany. Getting back to the piano, though, I had Tannhauser play “Moonlight Sonata”. Eddie asked me why I chose that particular piece, so I explained the psychology and my thoughts behind it. He understood and then he learned to play it, practicing between takes. He did really well, which he obviously didn’t have to do — we could have shot around him, but that’s the kind of commitment Eddie brings. He challenges himself, adds to his repertoire, and that’s how you get the ultimate Renaissance man. And I can honestly say, Gavin, he’s one of those few performers where there’s nothing he can’t do. What I appreciate most about him, though, is just that he’s a pleasure to be around and work with. He doesn’t show up on a set acting like a star, and is just a wonderful human being.
GS: In interview after interview for over a decade now you have referenced your love of “The Prisoner”. What about the series struck you and has it influenced your own writing?
AS: The short run of it, and how it didn’t wear out its welcome like a lot of shows do. Many high-concept shows run out of gas and stay beyond their expiration date. And then people get disappointed, frustrated, and end up turning on the show. Laura Palmer’s murder not getting solved, or “The X-Files” losing Mulder and still trying to go on… but “The Prisoner” didn’t wear out its welcome. And it’s one of those few shows that is left open to interpretation. Television normally is black and white, even after it went into color. Everything is explained, and sometimes things are over-explained. These days they seem to think the audience is a bit more sophisticated, at least on cable. How often do you deal with ambiguity and surrealism on television? “The Prisoner” is a series you can endlessly revisit and see different things.
What I enjoy about the DVD of “Bullet in the Face” coming out is that it’s in good company. Shout Factory is making a great name for themselves in the realm of preserving classic television. Shows like “Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman” that an entire generation has never seen, as well as overlooked shows like “Freaks and Geeks” and “Hill Street Blues”. And now you can binge watch. “Bullet in the Face” is the sort of show you can binge watch comfortably, unlike “60 Minutes” or “The Today Show”. To me, “The Prisoner” is like a perfectly cut diamond.
Not unlike “The Prisoner”, I think I ended “Bullet in the Face” appropriately, with ambiguity, just in case there weren’t any more. If you watch, it’s not spelled out definitively.
GS: You have called Sasha Baron Cohen the closest we have to Andy Kaufman today. Do you still think so?
AS: I stand by it and I sit by it. In the world of comedy… in politics, I think Rob Ford is the closest thing, but in comedy, yeah. He turns a mirror on people and gets them to react, and it’s something of a logical extension of what Andy did. And he’s also a very skilled actor, excelling in his roles… he was superb in “Sweeney Todd”. To me, “Borat” is a movie I could see Andy doing — it’s his foreign man character coming to America and interacting with people. It’s a proud tradition. I should say there will never be anyone like Andy Kaufman ever again — they broke the mold while he was still in it. I miss him greatly, an it amazes me to this day that there are people who believe he is still alive somewhere. But I guess, in a way, he is. He hasn’t been forgotten.