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No Film for Chickens

Director Brian Trenchard-Smith on the making of Turkey Shoot and Dead End Drive In


turkey shoot
Turkey Shoot poster
 
Brian Trenchard-Smith saw his first film at the age of four - a Western, projected outdoors on a sheet in Libya, where his Australian father commanded an RAF base. From then on he was hooked.
Starting out editing news and making promos for Channels 10 and 9, Trenchard-Smith worked in London making film trailers, returning to Australia in 1970. Back home he joined others in lobbying Government and the private sector to fund the developing Australian film industry. For six years he was the founding editor of Movie magazine, committed to giving Australian films bigger coverage than their foreign competitors.
Identifying genre as the international currency of the movie market, Trenchard-Smith's 37 films to date tend to both celebrate and satirise genre forms. He is currently based in Los Angeles.

INT.     LONDON UNDERGROUND PLATFORM     DAY

England 1983.  Commuters stand in silent groups awaiting the next rattling arrival on the Piccadilly Line.

Work, consume, be silent, die - is etched on the faces of many. The Thatcher Years.

Only two men are having a conversation; one, a young movie geek, the other, a national newspaper film critic (although in fact he sees himself as a Cinema Critic).

                                       MOVIE GEEK
                         Glad the mail strike is over.
                                        CRITIC
                                         So am I.

He is about to launch into a haughty rant about militant trade unions when his companion steps away to look at a large movie poster on the curved wall opposite.

On the poster - in the style of Hunter With His Kill trophy photography - a tall muscular bald headed man carrying an MI6 stands with his foot on the corpse of a beautiful young woman while other hunters stand behind.   

                                    MOVIE GEEK
                    That's the bloke from Mad Max. Roger Ward.
                    I want to see that.

The gleaming dome combines with the curvature of the paramilitary hunter's moustache to conjure a diabolically evil face, a leer colouring the edges of cruel resolve. If that was the brief to the poster artist at press kit time, he succeeded admirably. 

Emblazoned below is the title TURKEY SHOOT, with the admonitory ad line: NO FILM FOR CHICKENS.

                                          CRITIC
                    They haven't press shown it, so it's obviously trash. 
                    If I bother to catch it, I might give it a paragraph.
                    Looks vile and sadistic to me.
                    I just don't understand people's taste these days.

Vile, sadistic, and trashy, with the added bonus of Roger Ward - sounds pretty good to the movie geek.

INTERIOR.        FILM CRITIC'S OFFICE      DAY

With the end of the mail strike - small packages have not been delivered for 10 days - there is a mountain of correspondence on the Critic's desk. Inside the final package is a small slender box about six inches long. The Critic does not glance at the covering letter. He wants to get straight to The Gift. He opens the box and immediately his nostrils are assaulted by a foul, pungent aroma.

There, on a bed of cotton wool, is a rotting turkey's foot. The luckless appendage had set out on its adventure through the postal system some 11 days before and is now at the height of  putrefaction. 

The Critic grabs the covering letter. It is an invitation to the Press screening of Turkey Shoot, mailed on the day before the mail strike, arriving now on the day of the screening. If he leaves immediately, he will get there just in time. This insult to his dignity and stature must be addressed.

CUT TO:   FORTIES-STYLE LAP DISSOLVE MONTAGE 

The Critic watches the movie, scribbling furiously.

Nearby, other nasally-affronted critics note each sensational act.

Superimposed titles of some of their phrases glide past camera.

Like:     "cut in half by a bulldozer!"

             "riddled with arrows!"

And:      "lesbian rape!" Ooh, now you're talking

Various angles of London Underground commuters reading newspapers intently.

Close up of the Turkey Shoot reviews excoriating the film, some quoting the fulminations of Australian commentator and film producer Philip Adams.
 
The words "senselessly violent" lift off the page, moving towards camera. As it does so, the word "senselessly" fades out, leaving only the word "violent" to dominate the frame.

Each commuting reader takes this in, along with detailed examples of at least six depraved-fun sequences he and his mates would love to see.

EXTERIOR     WARNER WEST END THEATRE 2     NIGHT.

The Critic is crossing Leicester Square. A light dusting of snow is falling. He sees a line around the block of the adjacent Theatre.

It is the line for the movie Turkey Shoot.

                                     *****

turkey shoot
UK crowd pleaser? Thatcher explodes

Its first week figures topped the house record for a February opening. In a blizzard! With a helpful assist from British postal workers. Certainly those odour-affronted critics sold a lot of tickets.

Perhaps UK box office was also influenced by the fact that the villain's name is Thatcher, the sadistic commandant of the B.F. Skinner Re-Education and Behaviour Modification Camp. 
 
You know that Russian proverb? No good deed will go unpunished. It's funny how things turn out.

Original concept: 1984 meets The Camp On Blood Island where they play The Most Dangerous Game.  A genre cocktail. Fast-paced total action and mayhem, with a little black humour, this time on a substantial budget.

Status in prep: A serious budget shortfall due to the Government changing its previous position on tax rebates for investors was causing the producers and I considerable difficulty as the shoot date approached. I had to keep modifying the scale and number of set pieces to trim the original 44 day schedule to 28 x 10 hour days.

Cut were the first 15 pages set in a corporate fascist city of the future where the heroes are captured in a series of chases. Next, a 4 page helicopter chase had to go, along with its pilot character to be played by the late actor and TV personality Graham Kennedy, because terms could not be agreed. So I had to quickly distribute his function to other characters in the story. This all brought the script down by a quarter of its length. I made stuff up every shooting day to fill out the contracted running time. But all the action I came up with had to be achieved without incurring loadings for any stuntman.  The prison camp had been built for 500 extras, but now we could only afford 75 on our biggest day. A range of challenges.  How could I ensure an audience? I decided to increase the level of  blood and black hearted laughs into a sort of  Lucio Fulci high camp splatter movie. Blood is cheap.

turkey shoot turkey shoot

Steve Railsback and Olivia Hussey  stood up to the pressure remarkably well. Roger Ward contributes a Warden From Hell performance worthy of that category's hall of fame. All the cast deserve praise. But Michael Craig is wonderful as the smoothly sadistic Thatcher. I love his delivery of the Re-Education Camp's mantra: "Freedom is Obedience. Obedience is Work. Work is Life." (That's the future that awaits America, if they don't come to their senses in November and put A Brain into the White House.)

One of my more hilarious memories was the day we cut Steve Rackman in half at the trouser belt level with a bulldozer. You know, the way people do. I wanted a shot of  his bottom half,  kneeling trapped against a tree, wriggling beneath the dozer blade. (True, I am a sick puppy.) We had the pants suspended by monofilament, but we were running very short on prosthetics. We had eaten sausages and steak for lunch; there were uncooked leftovers and lots of ketchup. Everyone pitched in to fill the Travelling Pants with a convincing set of innards, and squirt individually designed trails of tomato sauce. The things we do for our Art.

dead end drive in
Roger Ward with Olivia Hussey

Needless to say, critics did not share my sense of humour. And to be honest,  the film is far from perfect. The score is not my favourite, but a generation later sees it as part of the fun. But Turkey Shoot allowed me to push some  genre clichés to their outrageous extreme. All film makers find themselves in situations where the playing field tips and the goal posts shift. You just have to develop some elasticity and go with the flow, while still trying to preserve the core of your original vision. But ultimately, a good movie in these circumstances is a saleable movie.

Turkey Shoot broke box office records in some Australian drive-ins, scored a US theatrical release (albeit with censor cuts), and ultimately video audiences across the globe discovered it as a guilty pleasure. I recall all 130 RAAF personnel playing Afrika Corps soldiers in my Sahara remake put their hands up when asked if they had seen Turkey Shoot! As a result of its cult following, Umbrella put out a re-mastered uncensored DVD which looks great. If you are curious, the extras provide some insight into a director hanging onto a runaway train. Some critics considered my career was over after Turkey Shoot. Luckily my next film was BMX Bandits with Nicole Kidman. Both audiences and critics seemed to click with that one.

But I certainly was not starting every producer/ executive interview with: "Hi, I made Turkey Shoot!"  (Escape 2000 in the US) So,  at the premiere of HBO's Marilyn and Norma Jean, I met Quentin Tarantino. I gave my name and he said: "You made Turkey Shoot!"

turkey shoot
 Oriana Panozzo and Roger Ward in the scene that stuck with Tarantino

He went on to list all the things he liked about the film, including:  " I loved that scene where Roger Ward beats that girl ( the wonderful Oriana Panozzo) to death on the parade ground while she tries to recite the dissidents' mea culpa."  Which he then recited verbatim! At the Sydney premiere of Kill Bill Volume 1, Quentin dedicated the screening to Turkey Shoot, much to the shock of the assembled glitterati. As he put it later: "I like to stick a lighted weed up the ass of the snob."

*****

Quentin Tarantino is forgotten cinema's National Gallery, a film maker whose idiosyncratic sense of wicked fun pulses from the screen. Quentin loves all the movies that you will see in this festival.

dead end drive in
Dead End Drive In

Dead End Drive In is another favourite of his. He saw it in a downtown LA grindhouse in its first week of release. US critics had a higher opinion than their Australian counterparts...

" ...That increasingly rare surprise: a piece of schlock that turned out to be exciting and offbeat. It's one of those strange grindhouse classics worth looking for... Violently kinetic action, sometimes amazing visual style, density and energy...It's one of those movies, which apparently promising little, ends up giving you a lot, a  comic nightmare made hellishly real. "
 - Michael Wilmington - Los Angeles Times.

A critic who shares my taste for genre cocktails is a rarity. Thank you, Mr. Wilmington. There are too many self vaunting critics who behave like eunuchs at the orgy; they can't do it, so they bitch about people who can.

Dead End Drive In  had the temerity to be socially critical of its target audience's appetite for junk culture, while revelling in junk culture movie tropes. It's my socio-political-retro-future-action-exploitation flick, adapted by Peter Smalley from acclaimed writer Peter Carey's short story "Crabs".

Producer Andrew Williams had the foresight to recognise its movie potential. I took it in a direction and style Mr. Carey did not care for. Sorry, Peter. Indeed, it lacks subtlety. Quite deliberately. I lack subtlety. I had a particular vision in my head and this is how it came out, but the movie has developed a cult following lasting 23 years so far, and may point people back to the original source of inspiration. Because, in the beginning was The Word. Raise a glass to writers. They are under-appreciated.

I added a series of titles to set the scene for Dead End Drive In, projecting a dystopic future.

WHAT IF Mururoa Attol experienced a nuclear test accident poisoning our Pacific fishing grounds?

WHAT IF South Africa collapsed into bloody inter-racial war, causing gold and mineral exports to cease?

WHAT IF there was another Wall Street crash, destabilizing the interlocking economies of the entire world, propelling urban crime into overdrive?

These were valid questions in 1985. I wanted to ground Peter Carey's surreal story in socio-political foundations relevant to world audiences in the Reagan era. Then make a moody surreal movie out of it.

So imagine then, if these disasters had come to pass, our Australia as it might have been in the late 90's. Unemployment is rife. Manufacturing jobs have been shipped overseas to cheaper labour markets. The Automobile has become a sternly guarded possession. Karboy gangs compete with tow truck operators to  roam the highways, pirating vehicles, leaving the occupants dead.

WHAT IF one response from the beleaguered government to social and economic decay was to transform regular drive in movie theatres into benevolent youth concentration camps, the scrap heap for society's cast-offs, where the weak, the unemployed and unemployable are lured by DISCOUNT TICKET PRICES (!) and literally imprisoned? Elite society is now safe.

We see these inmates adjusting quickly, content to be supplied with free junk food, all night exploitation movies, loud meaningless music, drugs, contraceptives, everything their junk value system has conditioned them to desire. With life on the outside an increasing battle, things could be worse. And from the government's point of view, the arrangement reduces the cost of law enforcement and the prisons.

Into this hedonistic dead end comes an unsuspecting young man, who quickly decides he will not play ball. But his girlfriend thinks it's better than a teen runaway's life. Our hero's crisis of conscience comes when the government start shipping in Australia's unwanted Asian migrant community. This was an element in the story I wanted to expand, but was unable to. The US distributor even edited some moments depicting racism from the finished film. They felt those moments cut a little too close to the bone.

*****

35 split day/nights of shooting in and around Sydney's abandoned Matraville Drive In was a glorious experience I will never forget. The design of the Drive In by Larry Eastwood and Nick McCallum is nothing short of genius, beautifully lensed by Paul Murphy. This 1985 film demonstrates the high professional standard all departments of the Australian Film Industry had reached in the 15 years of its renaissance. Stunt co-ordinator Guy Norris performed the record breaking climactic truck jump stunt, and earned himself a well deserved international career.

dead end drive in
Dead End Drive In: Guy Norris drives into history

My most bizarre memory of the shoot occurred when at 3am, a car full of drunken hoons, whooping and hollering, their testosterone stimulated by sounds of  motorised mayhem, skidded round the entry barriers and roared into the drive in at high speed, perhaps hoping to join in the fray. We were about to do some gunfight scenes, so there were a couple of M16s loaded with blanks on set. Someone - who shall remain nameless - fired a burst in their direction, prompting a fast U-turn and exit.

I think they got their desired adrenalin rush. Perhaps they needed a change of underwear anyway.

Subsequently, a European resident of a neighbouring Matraville street took out a writ in the New South Wales Supreme Court to shut down the film because  the nightly sounds of gunfire and explosions were giving him World War Two flashbacks. Indeed, gunfire at 3am is grounds for complaint. (Personally I enjoy that sort of thing, but I guess it's not for everybody.)  Co-producer Damien Parer handled this potential disaster with great expertise. He hired a barrister and headed to court to request the right to discharge firearms  until midnight. But when the complainant's counsel stated that his client was a decorated war hero, it looked like we were sunk. Then the judge asked what the decoration was. The Iron Cross was the answer. It is said the judge's face hardened. We were allowed our requested firearms curfew. We finished those scenes in a couple of days. But it was a lesson to me to be more sensitive to environmental impact on the civilian population. 

The wrap party, commencing when shooting finished at dawn, offered a unique activity: playing dodgem cars with the few remaining working vehicles in the drive in. T-Bone that Fairmont! Rear end that Mazda! ... Without damage insurance consequences! Woo Hoo! Those were the days.

*****

I had a blast making Australian films in different genres back then. Perhaps one day I will come back and make some more. My Crimes Against Cinema now total 37 movies, 35 TV episodes  and 120 trailers. Although I stand at the outskirts of geezerhood producers, for whatever reason, keep financing my off-centre vision. So, to obsessive young film makers and would-be film makers out there, I say: Go for it! Digital cameras and the internet have democratised the business. If you really, really want to, you can make a movie. Follow your muse. Practice. Make mistakes. Grow. Just remember, style is nothing without a well structured script.

The old Australian Film Industry now stands at the threshold of the New Media Era. Limitless domestic and international opportunities, from documentaries to IMAX  3D feature films. We are the clever country. So let us evolve a clever New Media Industry. We can do it.

Brian Trenchard-Smith 23 June 2008
 

 
 
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