Drive-In Redux

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Daddy-O!

The 1950s are back and in color! And we're not talking the '50s of Mom, apple pie, Eisenhower, Ozzie and Harriet, Pat Boone and Patti Page. We're talking the decade of rebels without causes, cool cats, down and dirty rock 'n' roll, hot rods, motorcycle gangs, raging hormones, push-up bras, poodle skirts, cigarettes and, especially, drive-in movie theaters.

These days, drive-ins are nearly as extinct as the T-Rex. But 40 years ago, drive-ins were teen-age passion pits. Every weekend, teens would flock to drive-ins, not only to neck, but also to watch such low-budget flicks as "Roadracers," "Runaway Daughters" and "Rock All Night."

Most of these quickie, black-and-white C pix were usually made by producers Sam Arkoff and James Nicholson's American International Pictures, which was founded in 1954. AIP was the training ground for such directors as Martin Scorsese and John Milius and actors Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda and Richard Pryor.

Thanks to "Rebel Highway," Showtime's new original film series, 10 movie directors--Joe Dante, Robert Rodriguez, Allan Arkush, Ralph Bakshi, Uli Edel, William Friedkin, Jonathan Kaplan, John McNaughton, John Milius and Mary Lambert--have gotten a chance to make their own '50s AIP flick.

And they had to make their films on an AIP schedule--in just 12 days on a shoestring budget of $1.3 million. Directors got to pick the title of their choice from AIP's library and were given creative control and final cut.

"Rebel Highway" roars onto the small screen Friday with Robert Rodriguez's ("El Mariachi") hot-rod adventure "Roadracers." The series will present a new movie every Friday. On Aug. 9, A&M; Records will release the "Rebel Highway" series soundtrack, "Fast Track to Nowhere," featuring such artists as the Neville Brothers and Los Lobos performing songs from that era.

"Making the movies was a lot of fun," says producer Debra Hill ("Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman"). "Really, to do a body of work with these directors would have taken me a decade. So this is great."

It's also been nonstop insanity. The productions shoot in and around Los Angeles and at a small sound stage in North Hollywood. "We shoot 12 days, are down for three days and then we start again," says producer Lou Arkoff, son of Sam Arkoff. "We have made 10 movies from October to July."

Arkoff, a frequent visitor to the sets of the original films as a youngster, came up with the idea of the "Rebel Highway" series. "What would happen if you remade 'Rebel Without a Cause' today, still set in the '50s but with '90s sensibilities? The answer is it would be more lurid. It would be sexier. Sal Mineo's character would have dealt with his homosexual problems. Natalie Wood would have been bedded down by James Dean. That's what an honest movie would have been in the '50s. But these movies were being made in the film code of the '50s".

The producers wanted directors who "feel the teen Angst ," Arkoff says. "You want to know something? I don't care if you are 20, 40 or 60 years old, we all develop certain ways of dealing with our emotions in our teen years. The way I deal with my father is something I developed in these anxious teen-age years. The way I deal with certain emotions is the way I dealt with them when I was 14. We take those Angst years with us."

As teen-agers, he adds, "we learn a sense of independence. It's when we grew up. It's when our hormones are first let loose. We can all remember the unhappy times and the happy times. Those qualities are what we wanted."

The first entry, "Roadracers," follows the adventures of cool, greasy-haired Dude (David Arquette), who wants to be a rock singer, and his sultry girlfriend Donna (Salma Hayek). The highlight of the film is a rumble on roller skates.

Rodriguez, 24, came to fame last year with his acclaimed debut film "El Mariachi," which he wrote, shot, sound-recorded, edited and directed for an astonishing $7,000. As far as he is concerned, "Roadracers" was a lavish production.

"We shot this one 'Mariachi' style," he says. "The crew couldn't believe it. We averaged about 50 setups a day. One day we got, like, 78 setups in 12 hours. I grabbed the camera and started shooting the shots I needed. Fortunately, I can operate the camera so they couldn't tell me to slow down."

The actors, he says, also enjoyed the hectic pace. "They were always on the set. They didn't need 20 takes to warm up to get into character because they were always into character on the first take."

Because the film is heavy on action, Rodriguez storyboarded all those scenes to save time on the set. "We had 12 days and a million bucks. I thought it was all the money in the world," he recalls. "I wrote all of these big action scenes. I had all my actors on roller skates."

"Roadracers" is not based on the original film. Like many of the filmmakers, Rodriguez simply used the title. "They didn't let me see it because it was so bad. It was like a father and son racing team and they don't get along."

The original director of the Showtime project dropped out of the project and the producers called Rodriguez in December to ask him if he wanted to do the film, he says. "They said, 'Could you write a script in 10 days?' We got to to start shooting in January.' I thought this would be cool. It's a hot-rod flick, you have to write it in 10 days, otherwise you are thinking too much. When you see it, you can tell exactly what it is--fast cars, rock 'n' roll. I set it all to music. I wanted to make a rockabilly opera, just nonstop music from beginning to end."

John Milius, who directed "Motorcycle Gang," made his directorial debut with the acclaimed 1973 AIP flick "Dillinger." Milius chose "Motorcycle Gang" because, he says, simply, "Why not? I never saw it. I just took a story that was kind of endemic to the period. What happened in those movies is that they always had a family crossing the desert and the family is beset by giant ants, cannibals or a hot rod or motorcycle gang. So in this one I have a dysfunctional family beset by a motorcycle gang."

Milius ("The Wind and the Lion," "Conan the Barbarian") describes making the movie as "guerrilla filmmaking." Unlike Rodriguez, he didn't preplan. "'You preplan, the plans will go awry. You have to learn to fall back to other positions."

Just before filming was to begin, the Jan. 17 Northridge earthquake interrupted shooting plans. "We couldn't get to any of the locations since mine was by far, location-wise and production-wise, the most ambitious of all of them because it all takes place out-of-doors and in the desert. We couldn't get to any of those places, so we had to find alternate ways of doing it. I thought it was very challenging and I enjoyed the challenge a great deal."

But would he do it again?

"No," says Milius with a chuckle.

Joe Dante, who directed "Runaway Daughters," ran into difficulty shooting a period piece in Los Angeles, though he was able to find a great drive-in in Azusa in the San Gabriel Valley. "There's not enough (of old L.A.) left with the earthquakes and everything. When you go to buildings, there are handicapped-access ramps and satellite dishes and parking meters from the wrong period. It was really a challenge on a budget like this to make a period-looking show that didn't have all the wrong things in the background."

Dante also ran into a problems with the vintage cars. "The cars very seldom would run so you would spend a lot of time kick-starting the motorcycle when you should actually be shooting something."

Dante ("Gremlins," "Innerspace, "The Howling,") was excited with the prospect of making a film in 12 days. "I've done features which have lasted two years from the time they started writing the script until the time the picture was released. My first picture ("Hollywood Boulevard") was made in 10 days. I sort of wanted to see if I could still do it."

By the time Dante came aboard the "Rebel Highway" project, the list of titles to choose from was pretty picked over. "Runaway Daughters" was the only AIP film he hadn't seen. "It's kind of obscure," Dante says. "When I looked at it I could see why. It's a 90-minute movie and it took them 70 minutes to run away."

Dante's "Runaway Daughters" follows the adventures of a young girl (Holly Fields) who thinks she is pregnant. When she tries to seek help from her high school boyfriend (Chris Young), he leaves town to join the Navy. She then sets out across the country with her two best friends (Julie Bowen, Jenny Lewis) to find him.

"I think it's the only intentional comedy in the bunch," Dante says. "It's probably more like the original than a lot of the other films. It is basically the same setup, the girls have the same problem and then they run away."

Roger Corman, who directed numerous AIP films, and Sam Arkoff have cameos in "Runaway Daughters." "They must have been thrilled," Dante says. "They did it for scale."

Like Milius, Ralph Bakshi, who directed "Cool and the Crazy," is another AIP veteran. Arkoff produced Bakshi's 1973 animated film "Heavy Traffic."

The original "Cool and the Crazy" dealt with drugs being introduced in a Kansas City high school. Bakshi's version chronicles young marriages gone sour.

"The '50s are my whole life," Bakshi says, laughing. " Everything is '50s with me. In the '50s, kids got married very young. So, that's what the story's really about--the fatality of getting married at 18 and 19 and being a working father at 20."

Bakshi's vision of the '50s is one of empty streets and luncheonettes. "The '50s, in certain parts of the country, were underpopulated. You didn't have as many cars and people as you would imagine."

Because there was so little pre-production time, Bakshi flew out from New York on his own time and money to scout locations. "'You'd be surprised how fast you can shoot a movie. Laurel and Hardy did it. All of those silent film guys, they started in the business shooting that way and made great films."

And coming off the 1992 live-action animated fiasco "Cool World," which was produced by Paramount, Bakshi was happy not to be involved in a big-budget feature. "I waited two days for them to light a scene" in "Cool World," he says. "I wanted to jump off a cliff."

Doing "Cool and the Crazy" reminded him of how he made his early animated films, "Fritz the Cat" and "Heavy Traffic."

"I didn't have the money Disney had," he says, "but what we had was the passion to do something."

"Cool and the Crazy" was a great learning experience for Bakshi. As he finished post-production on his film, "I saw Dante's rushes and Mary Lambert shooting. I learned a lot about direction by just looking at how two other directors approached the same subject and how different each picture looked. I finally understood--we are all different."

"Rebel Highway: Roadracers" airs Friday at 10 p.m. on Showtime.

BLASTS FROM THE PAST

"Roadracers": Directed by Robert Rodriguez ("El Mariachi"), July 22.

"Confessions of a Sorority Girl": Directed by Uli Edel ("Body of Evidence"), July 29.

"Motorcycle Gang": Directed by John Milius ("Conan the Barbarian"), Aug. 5.

"Runaway Daughters": Directed by Joe Dante ("Gremlins"), Aug. 12.

"Dragstrip Girl": Directed by Mary Lambert ("Pet Sematary"), TBA.

"Girls in Prison": Directed by John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer"), TBA.

"Cool and the Crazy": Directed by Ralph Bakshi ("Fritz the Cat"), TBA

"Jailbreakers": Directed by William Friedkin ("The French Connection"), TBA.

"Reform School Girl": Directed by Jonathan Kaplan ("The Accused"), TBA.

"Shake, Rattle and Rock": Directed by Allan Arkush ("Rock 'n' Roll High School"), TBA.

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