Under the Influence

November 3, 2003 Richard Sarafian and Vanishing Point

There is no end to the spell cast by Vanishing Point. An appearance by director Richard Sarafian and a screening of the movie starring Barry Newman and a 1970 Dodge Challenger packed in DGA members at the November 3 installment of the ongoing DGA series, "Under the Influence: A Dialogue About Films" presented by the Independent Directors Committee (IDC) West. Many of those attending were youngsters when Vanishing Point premiered in 1971. One, then 11 year old, saw the low-budget, high-octane chase film in Kansas City, where it was double-billed with Tora! Tora! Tora!

"Twentieth Century Fox also played it second bill with Hello Dolly and recouped with my little film. What perplexes me was the critics hated it. It was the audience that kept bringing it back. The audience saw it and they wouldn't let it go," Sarafian said with delight during a Q&A discussion with the new chair of the IDC West, Stephen Gyllenhaal, that followed the evening's opening remarks by Committee member Anthony Russo and the screening.

"The IDC started the 'Under the Influence' series to rediscover those films and filmmakers that have fulfilled the promise of independent filmmaking and inspired the rest of us," Russo said. "Vanishing Point expresses an independent vision in the most complete sense. It is a fierce and passionate film that communicates a thoroughly personal and unique experience."

"It was, as most films are, a labor of love, with an extraordinary crew and the great director of cinematography, John Alonzo," said Sarafian, who began his Hollywood career directing Warner Bros. television Westerns such as Maverick, Sugarfoot and Cheyenne as well as episodes of I Spy, 77 Sunset Strip, The Wild Wild West and Bonanza. "[Alonzo's] soul, his heart was half the movie. He did an extraordinary job with no lights. Maybe one. We had only a 19-man crew. They all had such great energy. Dennis Parrish, the prop man, did it all — the sets, the props, all the detail — with such joy. My production manager was [Francisco] 'Chico' Day. Chico is famous: his breakdowns on Patton are now textbooks at UCLA. There we were in the desert working in the hot sun. We traveled sometimes as much as 400 miles a day — 200 to the location, shoot and head for the next hotel and party that night. It was a gas. It was a dance."

That dance crossed state lines and more imposing borders: the law enforcement authorities that speed demon Kowalski (Newman) defies, the country's racial and spiritual divide embodied by the Super Soul character (Cleavon Little), 1960s music and counterculture juxtaposed with the continuing war in Vietnam. "Cinematographer Janusz Kaminski, who did Schindler's List, wrote in an article about how Vanishing Point influenced him," Sarafian said. "Vanishing Point reached him when he was in Poland. The communists allowed the movie to be seen because, he said in this article, they saw it as an example of a decadent America. I never saw it as that. He saw it as reaching for freedom and that's the way I saw it.

"I did shoot a second ending, which was my initial vision. When Kowalski sees between the two bulldozers and the light hits his face and he hits it, I wanted a soundless moment. And Super Soul, rather than mourning his death, goes 'Yeah! He made it.' My vision was that he was moving on to another level, as we all are, each at our own speed, Kowalski faster than the others, but he was moving through. There was something else waiting for him out there and I think he realizes that. He sees the vestiges of cars, the old graveyard, metal being pulled back into the ground recycling, nature reclaiming matter, and he was a rocket. But [studio head] Richard Zanuck said, 'no, Richard, no, he's gotta die. It sells tickets."

To complete Kowalski's rendezvous with the bulldozers, eight white Dodge Challengers were pressed into service. "We had a great mechanic, Max Balchowsky, who kept one car going. We'd take parts in one, put them in the other until finally we'd burn up the car. It wasn't equipped to do what we asked it to do," Sarafian said. Barry Newman, who also attended the screening, was not Sarafian's first choice to play Kowalski. "I had Al Pacino and Gene Hackman who wanted to do it, and the studio gave me Barry. Working with him, I wasn't too sure at first because he wasn't the star. He had just done something called The Lawyer," Sarafian said. "But he fit behind that wheel. He went and practiced and he had that edge. He made it real for me and for the audience. He wasn't the anti-hero. He went beyond that. We could discover Barry in this film and feel comfortable with him as the guy who was the driving that car."

When he made Vanishing Point, Sarafian thought he was saying goodbye to the '60s. "What happened was it opened up a whole new genre of filmmaking going into the '70s road pictures. Two-Lane Blacktop and so many wonderful pictures followed," he said. "For a director, as you know, there's nothing like creating the sense of place. Getting out in the hot desert, finding those roads, something happened to me traveling those roads looking for the right location where I might be able to get the stunt going... There's so many shots that I did using long lenses, compressed shots, which we've seen a hundred times since.

"I remember when I first met John Ford," Sarafian said of one of his two idols, John Huston being the other. "He looked at me and said, 'So you smoke cigars, son?' I said, 'Yeah.' He reached in his pocket and [pulled out] big ones. He said, 'you know, there's magic in that film; in that celluloid there's magic. There is something in there that I have no control over.' I can say that about Vanishing Point. It was a magical experience."

And so was the DGA event for Sarafian. "This is an extraordinary moment for me," he said. "My first film, Andy, I made for $290,000 at Universal, union, 33 nights in New York — about a retarded 40 year old who's going to be committed — under the auspices of [a] 'New Horizons' [division] to find new young filmmakers. When it was reviewed by Time magazine the review said, 'as far as discovering new talent, the question is still open. As far as finding untalent, here it is.'

"They sent the film to the Cannes Film Festival without me. They said, 'you don't have a chance, kid.' Anyhow, during International Week, it won [for First Efforts]. It took me five years to get another film. I'm not complaining because I was able to do some really good television and feed the kids and learn my craft, and so it's just been one long dance and one joyous ride for me, and it ain't over. And thank God, I haven't run into the bulldozer yet because it's the next one, the next one is really the one that's gonna knock you out."

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