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Victor Salva’s horror stories

Times Staff Writer

WHEN film director Victor Salva first read Dan Millman’s classic new-age memoir, “Way of the Peaceful Warrior,” he immediately bonded with the book about a troubled young man who is freed from his selfish strivings by the teachings of a grizzled, guru-like gas station attendant named Socrates.

“It’s a story that changed my life,” explains Salva, who has finally turned the memoir into a film, “Peaceful Warrior,” which stars Nick Nolte and Scott Mechlowicz, and opened June 2 in six cities, including Los Angeles. “Here was this book that says you must take responsibility for your choices, learn from your mistakes and never live in the regrets of the past or the worries of the future. Its message was the total opposite of what I was feeling when I read it.”

Actually, what Salva was feeling when he read “Peaceful Warrior” was something like total despair, since he was in prison on a child molestation conviction.

To say that Salva was at rock bottom in the late 1980s would be an understatement. Like the gymnast in “Peaceful Warrior,” who dreams of going to the Olympics, Salva had his eyes set on cinematic stardom. He’d just made “Clownhouse,” a low budget horror film about three boys terrorized by circus clowns, that screened at Sundance and was bankrolled by Francis Ford Coppola, then one of the most influential filmmakers in Hollywood. To shoot the movie, Coppola even gave Salva the cameras George Lucas had used to make “American Graffiti.”

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But in 1988, as he was fielding offers to make high-profile studio films, Salva was charged with having oral sex with 12-year-old Nathan Forrest Winters, while directing the boy in the movie.

After confessing to the crime, Salva was sentenced to three years in state prison, serving 15 months before his release in 1989.

Now 48, Salva has made six films since leaving prison, largely low-profile horror flicks, his biggest box-office successes coming in the two “Jeepers Creepers” movies. But the tag of convicted child molester has dogged his every step. When he made the teen drama “Powder” in 1995 for the Walt Disney Co., Salva’s molestation victim picketed the studio’s industry screening of the film, passing out leaflets about the filmmaker’s conviction to executives leaving the theater. The leaflets said, in part: “Please don’t spend your money on this movie. It would just go to line the pockets of this child molester.”

Winters told the Associated Press that Salvo’s return to filmmaking “just makes me sick. I’m not going to stand by. He should not be allowed to live his life as if nothing happened.” In 2003, when “Jeepers Creepers 2" was released, a number of critics cited Salva’s crime in reviews of the film. The Orlando Sentinel’s Roger Moore wrote that Salva was perhaps too talented for an exploitative horror movie, “but this is all that Hollywood will let convicted child molesters do.”

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Having rarely spoken about the issue in the past, Salva sat down recently to discuss his troubled life, saying he wanted people to know the man he is today, not 20 years ago. “I made a terrible mistake, one I wish I could take back every day of my life,” he said over lunch at an eatery in Beverly Hills. A bulky man with a scraggly beard and a soft-spoken manner, Salva only sipped iced tea, having recently undergone gastric bypass surgery to lose weight.

“I pled guilty to a terrible crime, and I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to make up for it. For almost 20 years, I’ve been involved with helping others, I’ve been in therapy, and I’ve made movies. But I paid my debt to society and apologized to the young man. And all I can hope is that people will give me a chance to redeem myself.”

In “Peaceful Warrior,” the film’s young gymnast, played by Mechlowicz, is spoiled and self-absorbed. His only thoughts are of the trappings of success until he meets Socrates, a raspy philosopher with sorcerer-like powers -- sort of like Carlos Castaneda’s Don Juan without the peyote. The movie feels especially timely, coming in an era when many young athletes are flouting rules of social behavior or using performance-enhancing drugs to pursue their goals.

However, the cliches of the story put off some reviewers, with Variety’s Robert Koehler describing Socrates as “a mystic who’s good with a wrench and much too in love with the sound of his own voice.” The movie definitely is heavy on new-age maxims, as when Socrates tells his acolyte: “Sometimes you have to lose your mind before you come to your senses.”

For Salva, the material hit home, especially after having endured the wrenching experience of jailhouse confinement. “Prison is a very dark place,” he says. “When you go in, you literally walk -- naked -- under a sign that says, ‘Abandon hope all ye who enter here.’ You’re really thrown on the garbage pile of humanity. It was a very humbling lesson to learn that there were people who belonged in prison and that I had to count myself among them.”

Salva was transferred to Soledad state prison early in his jail sentence after being badly beaten by another inmate. “The prison is like a big pressure cooker,” he says. “Everyone is furious at being in there, and if they know what you’re in there for -- a sex offense -- either you’re going to be somebody’s puppet or beaten beyond recognition, as I was.”

Just before Salva went to prison, he spoke to Coppola, who told him the experience would have value. “Francis said, ‘It will make you a better artist,’ ” Salva recalls. “He left out one important part -- if you survive it.”

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The industry’s reaction

SINCE the earliest days of Hollywood, people have argued over how to weigh an artist’s accomplishments against his misdeeds. Long after the villains and victims are in their graves the debate rages on. When the academy gave Elia Kazan an honorary Oscar in 1999, nearly 50 years after he’d informed on his communist sympathizer friends before the House Un-American Activities Committee, the move prompted a huge uproar, accompanied by emotional protests and fiery op-ed pieces.

In 1921, when comedian Fatty Arbuckle was at the peak of his success, he threw a wild party where a young starlet named Virginia Rappe went into severe convulsions and died of a ruptured bladder, allegedly after having been sexually assaulted by the 300-pound actor. Even though he was eventually acquitted, the scandal forced Arbuckle into retirement. However, after the worst was over, his industry friends hired him as a director, and he worked under a pseudonym until his death.

Roman Polanski was arrested in 1977 after police said he drugged and raped a 13-year-old model while taking pictures of her for French Vogue. Although he later fled the country, fearing he would be jailed for years, Polanski went right back to work, making “Tess,” which earned him a best director Academy Award nomination, an award he later won for “The Pianist.” That Oscar provoked a new round of recriminations over whether Polanski’s behavior should disqualify him from receiving a respected artistic honor.

In Hollywood, a town where the sinners have always easily outnumbered the saints, not many people are willing to cast the first stone. Even the most heinous acts have been forgiven, especially if they involve a gifted artist or an executive who’s kept the box-office machine humming.

Barely two years after Columbia Pictures chief David Begelman was fired in 1978 after a bizarre check-forging spree was made public, he was hired to run another studio that needed a hit maker. It was Cliff Robertson, the man who blew the whistle, whom no one would employ for years. In 1987, Matthew Broderick was driving on the wrong side of the road in Ireland when his BMW crashed head-on into another car, killing a young woman and her invalid mother. He pleaded guilty to the charge of careless driving, was fined the equivalent of $175 and went on with his career.

Throughout Salva’s tribulations, Coppola has remained his loyal patron. After Salva’s release from prison, Coppola gave him $5,000, which he lived on for a year. When MGM was nervous about hiring Salva to direct “Jeepers Creepers,” Coppola, then producing a slate of films at the studio, vouched for him.

“Someone had launched a campaign against Victor, saying, ‘How can you give this guy a movie to make?’ ” recalls Coppola. “Some of the financing for the film fell through. One of the actors resigned when he learned about the case. So I helped Victor get the job. I was criticized for it, but my attitude is, he has a talent, and that talent in itself is good. We don’t have to embrace the person in believing that their art is a contribution to society.”

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Coppola was on hand for some of the filming of “Clownhouse” -- since it was made, in part, at Coppola’s home in Napa Valley. “I didn’t know of anything improper going on, although I witnessed some things that caused me to raise an eyebrow,” he says. “Only in retrospect did things really add up. You have to remember, while this was a tragedy, that the difference in age between Victor and the boy was very small -- Victor was practically a child himself.” (Actually, Salva was 29 to the boy’s 12.)

Coppola is not surprised that some people will never forgive Salva. “They’re entitled to feel that way,” he says. “But he has a real gift as a filmmaker. The punishment has been completed, and he should be a citizen again.”

Rebecca Winters Sousa, the victim’s mother, says her son has moved on with his life. “I am really proud of my son for speaking out when ‘Powder’ was released because it wasn’t easy,” she says. “But as long as Victor is kept away from kids, I don’t have a problem with him working. Everybody has a right to his life, so I have no animosity. I have forgiven him a long time ago.”

One sticking point to the debate over Salva involves his work as a horror director. Most of his films are populated with young men who are terrorized by killers, convicts and scary monsters. Some critics believe Salva has elevated the youth-in-jeopardy tone of the horror genre. Reviewing “Jeepers Creepers,” Slate’s David Edelstein compared Salva to the young Steven Spielberg for his “graphic ingenuity,” saying “he’s aiming for a more fairy-tale, dreamlike irrational dread -- a child’s dread, not of psychos in hockey masks but winged demons who hide in the shadows.”

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Of one’s life and one’s art

BUT his detractors find a darker parallel between Salva’s crime and his films. At the time of “Powder’s” release, a police officer in charge of the Los Angeles Police Department’s unit for sexually exploited children was disturbed that Salvo was allowed to be in a position of authority on a movie set, saying “as long as he’s in a position to be around kids, he’s a threat to kids.”

After seeing “Jeepers Creepers” in 2003, New York Daily News film critic Jami Bernard told the San Jose Mercury News, “It’s a naked exploitation of Salva’s own inner disturbances. He’s just rubbing our noses in the very crime he committed.”

For Salva, his preoccupation with young men in fearful situations comes from a very different place. “All these films about young men in scary situations are a mirror on my own childhood,” he says. “When you’re a filmmaker, you make movies about what you know.”

When Salva was a boy, growing up in Martinez, Calif., he and his younger brother would play in their room with toy-monster models of Frankenstein, the Mummy and the Creature From the Black Lagoon. It was a “coping mechanism” for dealing with a turbulent childhood. “Home is supposed to be the safest place in your life, so when you live in a scary environment, like we did, that fear made those monsters feel like your friends and protectors,” he says. “They were always on your side.”

Salva’s mother was 18 when he was born. His father deserted the family soon afterward. He was replaced by a stepfather who, as Salva puts it, “rescued us from utter poverty, although there was a huge price to pay.”

The stepdad came from an abusive family and was unable to break out of the cycle. “He’d been drinking since he was 14, so it was very volatile -- liquor put him in touch with his anger,” Salva recalls. “He was physical with us. He’d hit me or sometimes slam me or throw me across the room. It was like living with a landmine. You never knew when it was going to go off.”

Salva’s escape was movies. Raised in a strict Catholic household, he was rarely allowed to go, except on his birthday, when he would see the big picture playing in town. When “Jaws” opened, he’d been grounded, but he and his pals sneaked out to see the film at a local drive-in. “I liked it so much that I told my parents how good it was, which only got me in more trouble,” he recalls.

By the time he finished high school, Salva had made 22 short films, which he would show in the school cafeteria, doing the narration himself. He says he did well in school but struggled at home, especially after his parents learned he was gay. “I was thrown out of the house at 18 -- they told me to stop being gay or get out,” he says. “I’ve always had a really difficult time with my weight and my sexuality.” (In “Powder,” the film he made for Disney in 1995, his hero is an albino who is disowned by his father and harassed by school bullies, the role of an albino outcast being a pretty clear metaphor for a tormented gay kid.)

After attending film classes at a junior college, Salva began writing scripts. In 1986, he entered “Something in the Basement,” a film he’d shot in his backyard, in various film festivals. One judge who admired the film was Coppola, who gave the filmmaker $250,000 to make “Clownhouse.”

After Salva left prison, he eventually moved to Los Angeles, where he worked various odd jobs, including as a telemarketer for 1-800-DENTIST. He would write scripts on the weekend and then, posing as a delivery boy, would take them to various production houses around town. It took years to get hired again as a director. Even then, his jobs have been on ultra-low-budget films; “Peaceful Warrior” was made for roughly $4 million.

“I lost many movies because of my situation,” he says. “There are a lot of people who are afraid of me, because they only know what they’ve read. The past has closed a lot of doors.”

“Peaceful Warrior” is being distributed by Lionsgate, which has a history of embracing controversial subject matter, as well as employing baggage-laden filmmakers. The company’s most recent release, the horror film “See No Evil,” was directed by Gregory Dark, a man with a long history in porn films.

“We knew about Victor’s past, so we were aware and concerned,” says Lionsgate President Tom Ortenberg. “But he’s taken responsibility for his actions, which not everybody does, so we felt he’d paid his dues and could move on.”

But Salva admits it hasn’t been easy to move on. Under state law, as a convicted sex offender Salva must register his whereabouts with local police. He’s been in therapy for more than two decades. He does volunteer work with Forgotten Souls Redeemed, a group based in Chino Hills that runs weekly workshops with juvenile sex offenders, encouraging them to express themselves through writing journals and poetry. The group’s leader, Delores Abdella Combs, says Salva has been an inspiration for the kids. “Most importantly, he’s living proof that you can change your life and be a functioning member of society.”

Salva knows that every time he is up for a job, his past is part of the equation. “I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop,” he says. “I don’t bring up my past unless someone asks. If they do, I say, ‘How would you like to be defined for the rest of your life for one bad thing you did 20 years ago?’ I have no expectation for people to forgive me. All I can hope is for people to recognize my right to redeem myself.”

For Salva, that’s what makes “Peaceful Warrior” hit close to home. He sees himself in the film’s young hero who has an emptiness in his life that he can’t explain. “It mirrors my own troubled journey,” he says. “It’s about crashing and burning and learning from it. We all have enemies, and because of what I’ve done I have more than most. But if you work on yourself and find an outlet for your feelings and struggles, you can have a chance to survive.”

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Patrick Goldstein writes the Big Picture column, which runs Tuesdays in Calendar. Send comments to calendar.letters@latimes.com.


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