Interview: Genre film virtuoso Brian Trenchard-Smith discusses upcoming BMX BANDITS Blu-ray
It's no secret Brian Trenchard-Smith is my favorite director. From the first time I saw the Henry Thomas versus the quarry monster film, THE QUEST, I was hooked. While I could go on and on about the man and his films, we are here to celebrate the upcoming release of BMX BANDITS on DVD and Blu-ray from Severin Films. This marks the first Blu-ray release of a Brian Trenchard-Smith film and the first time BMX BANDITS has been officially released on DVD in the United States.
I had a few questions for Mr. Trenchard-Smith regarding BMX BANDITS (which marks the screen debut of Nicole Kidman) and Severin Films was kind enough to put me in touch with him. In it, we discuss the action and stunt work of the film, the legacy of Nicole, Brian's idea for a fencing/parkour teen action film, and RAD. Read the entire mammoth interview after the break!
Brian Kelley: You had just come off of TURKEY SHOOT and STUNT ROCK, and DAY OF THE ASSASSIN before those. How did you land on a BMX film as your next project?
Brian Trenchard-Smith: Because the producers approached me, having been some of the few people who actually appreciated Turkey Shoot, which had been screened at the Australian Film Institute – awards screenings, where the films would be shown to the entire membership before nominations were made. The AFI at that time would’ve been little better than an undergraduate film society of snobs, so several of them practically ran screaming from the theater when Turkey Shoot was screened. It got a lot of hostile press. But these two guys, Tom Broadbridge and Paul Davies, said, “It has a bit of action. Maybe we should go speak to him.” And they did, and I think they detected my sense of humor by that point, and then said, “Would you like to do it?” And I said, “Sure” because Genres-R-Us is my motto, any genre known to man, maybe a couple that I’ve invented. There was a desire to get started straight away, and I’ve never met a firm offer I didn’t like… The script is set in a dock-side industrial suburb of Melbourne, which I didn’t think was as visually interesting as you could get, why don’t we move it to Sydney and make use of the harbor views and the spectacular northern beaches as backdrops for the action. I then re-wrote all the action scenes for particular places that I knew had never been fully exploited on film, say, the Manly Water Works just across the harbor, as part of my concept for the BMX action being putting BMX bikes where BMX bikes aren’t meant to be. Sending them down the chutes of the Manly water slides seemed like a particularly interesting thing, especially if we could get the camera to follow or precede them, so we made special rigs to enable that to happen. That was the germination of the project and we duly went and shot it for one of my longer shooting schedules, in fact, for 41 days. We had child labor law issues because our leads were, a couple of them were under 16, so there was a limit to how many hours a day you could work them, but with the use of riding doubles and clever scheduling, we were able to make it 41 ten-hour days for just over a million dollars.
BK: Speaking of the child actors, what did you cast based on? Their look, purely on acting ability, or did you want some physical ability as well?
BTS: No, I went on acting ability and look first, which is what I think you must do for something like this. For another film – take my Grant Page pictures, where I made him a major character in the film – that’s obviously based upon giving the audience the pleasure of seeing the actor do his own stunts without a doubt. In this case, we were perfectly set up by the nature of the concept to double the kids in any tricky riding sequence. Because we wanted to emphasize safety, they all had to wear helmets, masks and gloves, so it was easier to disguise the identity of the stunt riders. So we went for looks. Angelo D’Angelo was a young Italian hunk with some acting ability, this was his first role. I think he had a one-line part in something else, but this was his first significant role. James Lugton, it was his first role. He was sixteen years old, still going to high school, attending drama classes after school. Nicole Kidman came along in a general audition, we had about 200 people between the three characters, and in the top bunch was Nicole, and it was very clear to me that she should be the one. We had originally thought of somebody else who’d been in a previous film of mine, but her mother didn’t want her to do it, so we then looked at girls, and Nicole stood out head and shoulders, you might say, from the others; she was quite tall. In fact, that’s something the producers said to me, “You can’t cast her. She’ll be taller than the two leading boys!” And I said, “Does that matter? The camera loves her.” And sure enough, it did. She displayed strong acting ability, just this natural instinct for interpreting the text.
BK: It’s impossible to watch BMX BANDITS now without the benefit of hindsight and knowing about Ms. Kidman’s career, but watching it now, you can tell that she has some great ability. She still acts like a beginner actress, but you can tell that she’s going to go somewhere. When you finished the film, did you stay in contact with her, or did she fall off your radar and, all of a sudden, she was a movie star all around the world?
BTS: I did remain in contact with her for about two years, and she did occasionally ask my advice. When I was editing the film, when I made my first “good cut,” I showed it to an American producer who was doing Five Mile Creek in Australia for the Disney Channel. Because I did a couple of episodes for him, he liked what I’d done, so I said, “Why don’t you have a look at my latest Australian feature?” And he said, “Gee, she’s good. As a matter of fact, we’re looking for someone to play a sort of Irish waif in season 3 of Five Mile Creek, sort of Little House on the Prairie meets STAGECOACH. She was duly cast and I directed her first episode, to ease her into the season. After we finished the film and screened it for the Australian Film Institute, just about everybody who was anybody in the industry came to that screening. I think about 400 people were there, and I’d invited Sydney’s leading actor’s agent June Cam to that screening, and I said, “Take a look at these three young people. I think they’ll all go far.” She signed two of them the next day. From that day on, Nicole was sort of the go-to sixteen-year-old for television or feature films, she stood out straightaway. She never stopped working from that moment onwards in Australia, and then of course, when she got Dead Calm, that brought her to the attention of Tom Cruise, and the rest is history. That’s pretty much when I lost touch with her. I fly below her radar, and have ever since, but I’m very pleased that my predictions – on the PAL DVD in Australia, they actually have press coverage, a photo gallery which they don’t have on the American release, but there is a newspaper article in which she is giving me a peck on the cheek and I am predicting her future stardom and the fact that she would become “Australia’s Katherine Hepburn.” Sure enough, she’s well on her way to doing that, because my analogy was that Katherine Hepburn had very significant roles in every decade of her life and ended up playing feisty grandmothers in her eighties. I predicted Nicole would do the same thing and, well, she’s halfway to her eighties, and I’d say that we will definitely see that happening. Very strong roles in her fifties, sixties, seventies are ahead of her. Some actors have their time and the public is done with them, but I don’t think that’s ever going to be the case with Nicole.
BK: Let’s talk a little bit about the stunt work and action sequences in the film. You talked about developing the action sequences around the locations that you had available to you. Did you draw any inspiration from any other films in designing these action and chase sequences?
BTS: Not really. I’d looked at action and chase sequences a lot in my life. Obviously, you see how some people do it, and there are different styles of action staging. I just brought my own style, to try and bring the action in your face as much as possible. I like a lot of low wide angles and, with vehicles or people in some way, bring a thrust into the foreground or passing through the frame very close to camera. It’s not unique, but it’s something that I like doing. I like setting up the geography of an action sequence so that everyone knows where all the moving parts are, and then you can obviously cut in closer and get different people’s perspectives on what is happening, but I wouldn’t say that there was any particular influence. I just follow my instincts and do it my own way.
BK: Who handled stunt work on the film? Who was your stunt coordinator?
BTS: Well, I used Bob Hicks, who was one of the three “bad guy” drivers in the car chase in THE MAN FROM HONG KONG. He was the second guy to go, but he also doubled for the motorcyclist. So I wanted to reward him with a stunt coordinator’s gig, as opposed to just a stunt guy who hits the dirt for others. He was a very safety-conscious person, and I wanted to make sure that the kids were well looked after, including the stunt doubles, who, as I said, we were able to disguise quite easily with the helmets. In the case of Nicole, of course, we could not find a girl as slender and of her build, so we actually had her doubled by an 18-year-old boy. Anyway, he always helped to coordinate those, and he always drove the car in any scenes where there was a near-miss.
BK: You said that safety was a main concern. Were there any close calls or scary moments on set?
BTS: No, but when I think about it, when you have fifty BMX riders pedaling towards our actors and throwing bags of flour at them, I suppose there was potential for disaster in that, but it just all worked perfectly. It was not something you could rehearse. Once that flour started getting thrown around, it was a big clean-up job if we wanted Take 2. I guess that didn’t occur to me. The attacking force, they were largely underage, ranging probably from 11 to 16 or 17. I suppose there was potential for an accident there, but it simply didn’t happen. They just swooped down, threw their bags, made sure they didn’t hurt anybody, and it all worked out quite well. We did a lot of insert coverage of individual moments, filmed in a cul-de-sac not far from where I lived. I have a habit of seeing locations and filing them in my memory and thinking, “That might be useful for something one day.” It was a cul-de-sac in an industrial estate that was just adjacent to the neighborhood where I lived, literally a half-mile down the street. It was an ideal place for that particular action.
BK: The BMX craze didn’t spawn as many films as some other sports, and the movie other people always talk about in the same breath as BMX BANDITS is RAD. Have you seen RAD?
BTS: Yeah, I did see RAD when it came out. Obviously, Hal Needham did a good job on the action, because that’s his particular specialty. I thought it lacked charm. I didn’t think it had the soul that BMX had. It was trying to reach for an older age group, and in doing so, I think it lost something. I deliberately went for the 14-and-unders, probably the 15-and-unders. By now, the age ceiling has shrunk a little bit further, because kids are dating and practically getting divorced at 12 these days. Childhood is being eroded year by year, but I wanted to capture the spirit of the Ealing comedies and British films of the ‘50s and ‘60s that were clearly aimed at children and delivered action and fun in a largely cartoonish way. If you look at the basic premise of the plot, the crooks clearly want to or intend to kill the children at some point, so how do you disguise that and make that palatable to an audience of kids and parents? You make the crooks buffoonish, the gang that couldn’t shoot straight, so that takes (curse? - unintelligible) off the underlying purpose. It was said to me at the time, the producers were a little concerned that some local distributor would think, “Only if it were more adult, we’d get more adults coming to it.” We wanted to widen the audience, but I think we had mutually incompatible audiences. If you make it too realistic and too threatening to the kids, then you’re going to lose a goodly chunk of your kid audience. Over the six weeks that the film showed, over that summer holiday period, which in Australia was December 15 - January 30, it did a million dollars in Australian box office, and 60% of those ticket prices were at kids’ half-price rates. If we had made the film any more threatening, we would’ve lost a chunk of that audience. We certainly wouldn’t have gotten a G rating. The Blu-ray, as you’ll see, was taken from a British print and it was categorized as PG. That was fair enough, just a bit of parental guidance because of the dangerous stunts and, of course, the use of guns. That didn’t put off the British audience because that would’ve got a G or U certificate in 1983 were Disney cartoons. So in Australia, the categorization was very simple, it was either G or NRC, which meant “Not Recommended for Children.” And then there was M, which was “Mature,” and then R, which restricted anybody under 18 from coming in. So the last thing I wanted to happen was for the film to be categorized NRC; it’s absolutely recommended for children, that’s the sole purpose of it, and I do, in my narration on the DVD, criticize myself for the use of guns or the amount of times that the guns are used, displayed or people are threatened with them. I felt the Australian censors were quite generous with us there. Their next category up from G was something as innocuous-sounding as “Parental Guidance Recommended.” So I forget what you had actually asked me…
BK: (laughs) We were talking about RAD.
BTS: Sorry, Hal, I don’t think RAD has it, plus they’ll bring out RAD on DVD and Blu-ray as a result of this release, who knows.
BK: What if BMX had not been an option and you wanted to make the same movie, what sport would you have gone after instead of BMX?
BTS: You mean a movie that involved kids in a sporting endeavor? Well, I can say that I have always wanted to make a film about competitive fencing, being a competitive fencer myself. I tied for bronze in my fifth year at the Southern California Veterans’ Epee. Maybe I’d make the ROCKY of fencing. It has visual potential, and if I was to do it next week, I would somehow combine sporting swordsplay in genuine combat sequences between the heroes and bad guys, and throw in a lot of parkour. That would be my idea of a PG-rated teenage action picture.
BK: If you were asked to remake BMX BANDITS today, and if the price were right and you took the job, which child actors that you’ve seen recently would you seek out for the lead roles?
BTS: My goodness, that would require a bit of thought… the Fanning sisters naturally spring to mind as experienced moppets who are coming up and becoming proto-young women, but there are others too and I would need to really think about that. There seems to be a bit of a gap between the cute and quirky kids, the girl from KICK-ASS, that generation of kids are certainly interesting but they seem to have a blaze of glory around 11, 12, 13 and then start coming back around their later teens.
BK: There are very iconic shirts that the kids wear in BMX Bandits and also appear on a lot of the posters. Do those exist anymore, or are those long gone?
BTS: I still have a couple of them. Holes are appearing in them. As I have expanded in age, I have given them to my sons, but unfortunately, they were just made for the movie and for some reason not exploited as an accessory to sell both at the time of the picture and later. I actually have a couple of pictures of myself holding different animals while wearing one of the shirts. I have a small snake around my neck, a large boa constrictor wrapping around me in another, and I’m petting a lion in another one. I will send those to you; they will enrich your blog.
BK: I think if somebody got ahold of the design and the rights and printed those shirts, they’d sell fairly well in the community that is in love with BMX BANDITS.
BTS: Yeah, I guess I should do that. This re-release has kind of crept up rather suddenly, but certainly, somebody could make some money out of that. I mean, people are printing STUNT ROCK shirts and they sell them at the Drafthouse. The actual rights to the designs of certain things are either lost in the mists of time or nobody cares, but that is a thought. Maybe the Drafthouse should print some BMX T-shirts and screen the Blu-ray…
BK: They’re actually screening a print of the film.
BTS: So they think it’ll sell out or at least draw a crowd.
BTS: Well, being such a great movie geek/college student town, I guess no one has a problem going to midnight screenings because students never sleep except during lectures… A pity I couldn’t be there to introduce it, but I think that would cut into the profit margin. (laughs)
BK: [THE QUEST] is how I first became a fan of you. I forced my parents to rent that VHS almost every weekend for as long as I can remember being a child.
BTS: Really? (laughs) Well, I am very happy to have corrupted your youth. That’s great! I’m proud of the film, and I think it does a good job. It won second prize at the Montreal Children’s Film Festival when it was played there, and Harvey Weinstein asked who had the rights to that. It seems to be confused. Various people have died or gone bankrupt, and no one’s been game to say, “Hey, I’m going to run with this and deal with whoever comes out of the woodwork later.” Somebody should. If I was in Australia, and not based here, I’d probably do that myself. It’s a little hard to do it long-distance. I think it’s timeless like BMX in its own way. In tone, BMX was almost deliberately dated when it was made, so in a way, it’s a little time capsule of Australia in the early ‘80s and will be comfortably interesting to people, well, forever.
BK: The iconic “swoosh” sound from BMX BANDITS, anybody who’s seen it knows the “swoosh” sound. There is a Vietnamese kids’ [kung fu] movie called LUCKY SEVEN that uses that sound when the kids have a chase on BMX bikes. I was wondering if you could tell me how heavily you were involved in picking that sound…
BTS: I was very involved in picking the soundtrack, and I brought in an additional composer because I wasn’t happy with the music. That composer provided us with the “swoosh” sounds because I believe in having a dense soundtrack, in filling space. It’s not LAST YEAR AT MARIENBAD, let’s hear every detail of what is going on. So what helps the bikes feel airborne, when they do get airborne and when it passes camera, is the “swoosh” sound. That was very much my design as part of the general, over-the-top cartoonish sensibility that the film has.
BK: It works so well that we were watching this Vietnamese film and immediately recognized that sound effect. They stole it directly from BMX BANDITS.
BTS: Yeah? Well, good for them. It’s quite easy to hear the sound and then re-create it on a synthesizer, and so they did.
BK: You’re still cranking out films. What’s the status of THE CABIN?
BTS: THE CABIN is still sitting in Ireland, waiting for post-production to be completed. It was part of three Hallmark Channel movies that were made back-to-back, and they’re busy working their way through them. I made my cut, the Irish producer said that he really liked it, that the film turned out a lot better than he expected. The American co-producers, I think, are involved in a big miniseries at the moment, which is consuming their attention, so I haven’t even seen what they’ve done to it, but I don’t think there’s very much they could do to it. So I await word as to when it’ll come out. I certainly don’t think it’ll be called THE CABIN, which sounds like a horror movie. In my view, it should be titled WORST VACATION EVER – obviously, it turns out that it’s not. I think that title would cater to that audience. As the baby boomers get older, they don’t always want to see I SAW THE DEVIL. Unless they’re baby boomers like me. (laughs) It’s not really quite their taste, they want something a bit more comforting and reassuring, softer, sweeter entertainment, and making a romantic comedy with Lea Thompson was great fun and provides a need for an audience over forty.
BK: Anything in store after that?
BTS: Well, I’m supposedly going to do at least four episodes, maybe more, of a series called Chemistry. I’m awaiting the start date of that… So that will be for HBO/Cinemax, and that’s a show like Hung or Californication that deals with a relationship between opposites that is driven by sexual chemistry, that is quite funny. I have written a big action picture for Sydney, Australia, and whether I can get the backing for it remains to be seen. I still want to push my revisionist Richard III. Shakespeare was wrong. All I need is maybe $15 million and a very good CG company that can do digital sets and just shoot the whole thing on a green-screen stage, which is the wave of the future more and more. There’ll be seamless integration of visual effects and not just obvious visual effects, but two actors walking and talking in a vast cathedral and it’ll look like it was shot in a vast cathedral. The cost of that is coming down, and that will enable lower-budget films to scale up.
BK: Do you have anything to add about BMX Bandits coming out on Blu-ray?
BTS: I certainly have one thing to add: I want to say that the transfer is absolutely amazing. It is spectacular. Obviously, you have certain expectations for Blu-ray, but when it’s a 1983 film with any deterioration of the negative, it doesn’t look like it’s been taken from a used print. The quality is astounding, and I’ve never seen it look this good. The subtlety of the coloring and the lighting and John Seale’s photography – one of many films he’d shot in Australia; I’d given him his first job as DP on DEATH CHEATERS. So I was pleased to have done that, and I ended up doing four things with John, and I think BMX is the one that will live on forever. I do fully endorse the Blu-ray, and I congratulate [Severin Films] on taking the time and the trouble to do it right.