1. In May 1967, a week before the movie opened, there was a “world premiere” in Austin, Texas. We flew down on a private jet provided by Columbia Pictures, filled with what Alan Greenspan later called “irrational exuberance.” There was a parade from our hotel to the governor’s mansion, where Governor John Connelly was to award Sonny and Cher “the keys to the state.” We rode in open cars to the domed capitol building, Sonny and Cher in the lead car. We quickly got a sense of the fate that awaited our film. Along the entire parade route, about three miles, were no more than a couple hundred people, waving at us with scant enthusiasm. There were a few photographers along the way, and some weren’t even sure who the celebrities were.
2. In September 1966 Fantozzi said Blake Edwards wanted to meet me. Blake was one of the hottest writer-producer-directors, and one of the most talented men in Hollywood. He had made Days of Wine and Roses, The Pink Panther, A Shot in the Dark, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Great Race, and other important films. He had a television series on the air about a private detective entitled Peter Gunn, starring Craig Stevens and featuring a great thumping bass score by Henry Mancini that became a foundation of rock and roll. Stevens’s character, the epitome of cool, was modeled on Cary Grant. He always dressed impeccably and never got his hair mussed. His girlfriend Edie, a nightclub singer played by Lola Albright, was a beautiful West Coast blonde.
I met blake for breakfast in his spacious bungalow on the Paramount lot. Blake had a permanent entourage that included his uncle Owen Crump, his associate producer, as well as his set designer and decorator and a corps of assistants. Blake was a karate black belt, wirty, sandy-haired, muscular, wearing tinted glasses that shielded his eyes. He seemed troubled, and I wondered what personal demons afflicted a man who was so successful, but I admired his work and would have been intimidated had he not put me immediately at ease. He was flattering about Good Times and wondered if I had ever seen Peter Gunn. I told him it was my favorite series, which was true. I asked if he was planning to bring it back, and he said, “Maybe, but I want to do it first as a feature film, and I was thinking, because I have a lot on my plate, you might be the guy to direct it, with me producing.”
I was exhiliated and humbled. I didn’t know what to say, except “it would be an honor to work with you.”
“I want to get going on it, but I have two problems – you have a little time?”
“Sure,” I said.
“You know the character Edie?”
“Of course, Lola Albright.”
“Well – that’s one problem. I want to use Lola, but Bluhdorn thinks she’s too old.” Bluhdorn was Charlie Bluhdorn, an Austrian billionaire who, with a little capital and a shrewd business sense, cobbled together a bunch of small companies to form one of the biggest of the 1960s conglomerates, the Gulf and Western Corporation. He had recently acquired Paramount Pictures. Charlie loved movies and made it clear he would be a hands-on owner. He told Blake he wanted to show him a screen test that he, Bluhdorn, had commissioned of an unknown actress to play Edie in the movie version of Peter Gunn. The test was directed by Otto Preminger, a fellow Austrian, as a favor to Bluhdorn. Blake asked me to see the test with him. Delighted. We walked to the editorial building to Screening Room 8, an antiquated chamber with no air, furnished with forty old red velvet seats. A slate appeared on the screen identifying the test and its director, then an attractive blond woman appeared, wearing a tight blouse, tight pants – and with a thick German accent. The test was embarrasing; at one point Blake shouted, “Oh, my God!”
3. Had I paid attention to Lastfogel’s original advice, I would have passed on Minsky’s despite my friendship with Bud. I don’t know whether it was his belief in me or my own hubris and desire to become a studio director that made me accept. Certainly the hundred grand played a part, but it wasn’t a good enough reason. The truth is I hadn’t yet learned how to control the machine. If it had been a subject close to my heart, a smaller, more personal film, it might have been possible. But I had chutzpah, the goodwill of others, and the recklessness of youth.
4. So much has been written about the “freedom” young filmmakers enjoyed in the 70s. In fact, Coppola on The Godfather, Spielberg on Jaws, myself, and others were often at odds with studio management, usually over budget and schedule. We were constantly on the verge of being fired. Blatty and I created a scenario that would keep the studio at arm’s length. At the first production meeting, to decide where and how we would make the film, we met in the offices of Charlie Greenlaw, head of physical production, with his assistant, Ed Morey. David Salven and Blatty joined me. Greenlaw and Morey were tough old-school guys who would usually dictate terms to producers and directors. Blatty and I pretended to be on our best behavior, listening carefully to the cost-cutting measures they wanted to impose. At one point, I said, “You know, I’ve given this a lot of thought, guys, and I think I have an idea how we can save some money.” All eyes turned on me. I looked at Blatty, who knew what was coming; we rehearsed it. I produced a sheet of paper filled with meaningless numbers and pretended to refer to it. “We have to serve lunch and sometimes dinner to the cast and crew, so I’ve worked out a plan that I think could save us, at least fifteen grand.”
5. After the opening of The Godfather, when the film earned $50 million at the box office, Charlie Bluhdorn, the owner of Paramount Pictures, gave Francis a blue stretch limousine as a gift. Coppola and Peter Bogdanovich, who had just won major accolades for The Last Picture Show, Ellen Burstyn, and I went for a ride in the limo to celebrate out recent successes. We had the driver go along Hollywood Boulevard, and we stood up, the four of us, with the roof of the car opened, and shouted at curious pedestrians. “Academy Award, Best Picture, The French Connection!” I yelled. “Every major critical award, The Last Picture Show!” screamed Bogdanovich. “Fifty million dollars, The Godfather,” Coppola reluctantly chimed in. Ellen laughed and we enjoyed the ride and the warm California breeze in our faces. We were pranksters who made it big, making fools of ourselves.
6. Cabo de San Francisco is a poor fishing village in Esmeraldas, on Ecuador’s southwest coast. We chartered a helicopter from Quito, the capital, and landed in a field just outside the tiny village. Makeshift shacks were built on stilts over the sea. Hundreds of schoolchildren, accompanied by their teachers, ran out to greet us, waving Ecuadorean flags and cheering. They had never seen an American, let alone a helicopter. They stood, beaming, at attention and proudly sang their national anthem to us. Two laborers whispered to one another in Spanish as we passed them to tour the school. Wally tried to conceal his laughter. “What’s funny?” I asked him. “One guy just said, ‘Who is that?’ pointing to you,” he answered through his laughter. “The other guy said, ‘He must be the president of our country.’ ‘But he’s a gringo,’ the first guy said. And the other guy answered, ‘Of course he’s a gringo, you idiot.’”
The classrooms were small: blackboard, broken chalk, and a few erasers. No books. I asked the headmaster if they needed books. “Yes,” he answered sadly. I’ll never forget those eager, innocent faces. We must have seemed like Martians to them. For three years afterward I sent them boxes of books. But Esmeraldas wasn’t the right location for our film.
We went on to Pachamama, in the Amazon rain forest. The natives, known as the Achuar, had scarred, painted faces and colorful headgear. They lived in straw huts, surrounded by giant koaba trees and two-thousand-foot waterfalls that bounced halfway back up. Every kind of exotic bird flew across the area, which was rich with oil deposits. It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth, and though it would be difficult to film there, it had everything we could ask for, scenically.
Two hours by car south of Quito is Cotopaxi, on top of the Andes mountain range at 20,000 feet. We climbed Mount Cotogave way to snow-capped peaks that had once been worshipped by the Incas. Because of its position on the equator, this place had officially been designated “the top of the world,” indicated by an engraved marker. Wally Green and I had a foottrace there, which he narrowly won.
I told Wasserman I wanted to film Cotopaxi and Pachamama. He was known for never having a piece of paper or anything else on his desk, which made it easier for him to pound. After he listened to my presentation, he started to slap the wooden desk with the flat of his hand: “No way you’re going to Ecuador! You’ll get killed! You’ll get your cast and crew killed! We could never get insurance to film in a place like that!” When Lew pounded his desk, further discussion was futile. I thought I’d circle back another way – I would put together an irresistible international cast, set a start date, then announce to Lew that the only place the film could be made was Ecuador.
7. Help came from an unexpected source: Charlie Bluhdorn. Charlie heard I had a script that was set in a small South American town and in a jungle. He had everything I needed in the Dominican Republic, which was then virtually a “wholly-owned subsidiary of Gulf and Western,” and he told Wasserman that Paramount would co-finance the film if I agreed to shoot in the Dominican Republic. He said his recently appointed chairman of Paramount, Barry Diller (who replaced Yablans), would call me.
The next day I met with Diller. He had been a hot young executive at the ABC Network, not yet the entrepreneur he’s become. He was a vice president of ABC during one of its most successful periods, but the Paramount job was his first in the movie business. Diller read my script and was enthusiastic. He offered to have Paramount take over the production. Wasserman and Sheinberg agreed to pay half the costs and let me shoot in the Dominican Republic.
8. I checked into the Hispaniola, a third-rate hotel but the best Santo Domingo had to offer. We were assigned a local contact who was wired into various branches of the Dominican government, the army, and the police. He was able to arrange permits for us to shoot anywhere and get cooperation from the locals to be in the film and lend their vehicles and horses. He introduced me to a Dominican army colonel who was a power broker in the country. The colonel had recently shot and killed a man in a restaurant and never went to trial; he was not even charged with a crime. His explanation satisfied the authorities: the man he shot was a Communist and deserved to die.
9. Scott Rudin is a smart, prolific producer of films and plays. He’s also stubborn and abrasive, qualities I share. Often his failures are as interesting as his successes. He was under contract to Paramount when he brought in an original script he had developed for years with Jim Webb, then a novelist and military lawyer who was a Marine Corps first lieutenant and rifle platoon commander in Vietnam. Wounded in combat, Webb came out with a Navy Cross, a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and two Purple Hearts. By coincidence, he was a student at Georgetown Law School when I was directing The Exorcist on campus.
In 1987 President Reagan appointed Webb secretary of the Navy, but he resigned less than a year later over a disagreement with the President about the Navy’s overall size. Jim is complex, principled, and courageous. At times he can be argumentative and mean-spirited, but in fairness, he describes me as the only man in the country with a temper worse than his. An American soldier has no better friend than Jim Webb. He was an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War memorial designed by Maya Lin, calling it “The Black Ditch of Shame,” and campaigned successfully for another statue nearby, a depiction of three battled-scarred veterans.
10. The film was a box office hit, but many critics saw it as jingoism, especially in Europe, where my films are generally well received. In the film’s first few weeks of release, protests were lodged. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) described Rules of Engagement as “probably the most racist film against Arabs ever.” It was also denounced by one William Rugh, former American Ambassador to Yemen. The most widespread complaints came from Yemen’s ambassador to Washington, D.C., Abdulwahab Abdulla al-Hajri. He called the film a complete distortion and a slander against his people: “All of a sudden Yemenis, even women and children, have become terrorists and want to kill Americans,” he said. “It’s a total ruin for us. It ruins our image.”
In Webb’s original draft he set the story in a fictitious Middle East country. When I asked him where such a scenario was most likely to occur, his instant response was Yemen.
In several big cities around the United States, demonstrations were organized outside theaters where the film was playing. I was concerned for a number of reasons. I believed our scenario was plausible, but I had misgivings about bringing shame or hardship to one of the poorest countries in the world. So I called the Yemen Embassy and asked for Ambassador al-Hajri. I told him I was the guy who defamed his country and meet him, and I wanted to meet him, apologize, and explain my position. He invited me to the Yemen embassy in Washington, D.C., the following week. His Excellency, the brother-in-law of Yemen’s then-President Ali Abdullah Saleh, was educated in Cairo and Washington, D.C. He was his country’s top representative in the United States for three years.