Exclusive Interview: Cult Filmmaker and Producer Wayne Crawford (Part Two)


Part two of our intimate interview with the late filmmaker Wayne Crawford.

A true independent filmmaker who always saw himself as a leading man, Wayne Crawford wrote, produced, directed, and starred in a number of projects, several of which became bona fide cult films and even fan favorites.

Sadly, Mr. Crawford passed away on April 30th, 2016, but this two-part interview, which was conducted in 2010 while he was teaching in Singapore, details his entire career, and he left behind a legacy to be proud of.

In part one of this exclusive interview, Crawford discussed starting out scrounging around for work, and quickly aligned himself with a writing and producing partner named Andrew Lane, whom he would collaborate with on his most memorable and money-making projects, including writing the now-classic ’80s classic VALLEY GIRL and producing the post-apocalyptic cult film NIGHT OF THE COMET, which has gone on to become a much-beloved movie for many fans of the genre.

In this final installment, Crawford discusses co-writing and producing the biggest film he would ever star in, a delightfully weird action/fantasy hybrid called JAKE SPEED. Filmed on location in South Africa, that film would change the course of Crawford’s destiny, as he fell in love with the continent and would live there for many years, making independent action films and televisions series.

SHOCK: The movie I first saw you in as an actor was JAKE SPEED. I saw it in a theater when I was a kid. I never forgot it. It has a unique Indiana Jones / ROMANCING THE STONE kind of vibe to it.

CRAWFORD: Yeah, in a way, yes. It’s kind of our fault, but I’ve learned that the business is filled with people who are pretty smart, and everybody wants to succeed, and there’s a million different opinions, but I think that some of that movie – as an action adventure movie – was what killed it, I think. It didn’t live up to the potential that it might have had. It was a sold as a straight-ahead action adventure, but it’s not that. At its heart, yes, there’s an adventure there, but it’s this quirky little fantasy. When it was released in the UK, and I’ve lost the poster, but they had such a great take on it. I think the guy who did the poster for Jake Speed was exactly the guy who did the poster for Indiana Jones. It’s not the same movie. It’s not even the same kind of movie. It works in a different space. The British poster was a picture of someone reading a book called Jake Speed, and an arm was coming out of the book and holding a gun. The tagline was, “Next time you get into a good book, make sure you can get out!” They captured the spirit of the movie. The spirit of the movie isn’t the hero with explosions all around him, holding the girl, because that leads you to believe you’re going to get something straight ahead. It’s not straight ahead. This is a movie that’s almost 30 years old, and I can tell you that several times a year, I get an email from strangers, letters from strangers, or someone will send me a one-sheet poster of Jake Speed. A lady just sent me a poster and asked me if I would sign it. She said that it was her husband’s favorite movie growing up, and she wanted to give him this poster as a present for his birthday. That’s just one instance. It never stops. I’ve met families that watch this movie every month and sit there with their children. This movie has a peculiar life. I’ve thought about it often. It’s probably because it’s an interesting cross between positive thinking and naiveté. My business partner and friend said to me just a few days ago, “Man, I wish we could reedit that movie.” I said, “Yeah, I know what you mean.” It’s not a perfect movie. It has a lot of flaws. I understand why it struck a nerve. Jake Speed was bigger than the previous movies we’d made, but it was still small for that kind of movie. Valley Girl was released in April. Night of the Comet, if I remember, was released in November. These were times of the year where a small movie that didn’t have a big advertising budget could open. They stayed in theaters long enough for word of mouth to possibly develop. That was important. I absolutely believe that those release dates were critical for the success of those two movies. Now, Jake Speed, because it was New World after Roger Corman sold it … the guys who ran it were wonderful guys and were determined to become a big new studio … I really do think that it was an error to release it right at the start of the summer season of 1986. Tragically, for us, at the time, I think Poltergeist II and Cobra were at the top of the box office. We were trying to go head to head with movies that had huge marketing budgets. I know these guys really believed that they could do it, but we really pleaded with them not to release it at that time. They were so convinced that it could work. We couldn’t keep the movie out there long enough. If it had been a hit, it could have taken us to another universe. That was the greatest time I ever had making a movie. I worked on three continents on that. I worked in Africa, which is where I settled to live for almost 15 years. Africa became a part of my life. It changed my entire direction of my career. Jake Speed was the most important movie of my career. I will always have fond memories of it.


SHOCK: Any memories in particular you’d like to share?

CRAWFORD: Well, not only did we make VALLEY GIRL and NIGHT OF THE COMET, but we owned substantial pieces of both of those movies, and they were hits. The distributor decided not to pay us what we think is our fair share of the profits. Lawsuits ensued. We really hadn’t been paid much from those movies. We did have two hit movies that Hollywood thinks, “Hey, who are these guys? If they can do this for so little, what else can they do?” So we had an attorney at the time, a terrific guy, who I still think practices. He represented Woody Allen. He knew we were in desperate shape because we couldn’t support litigation. We had to earn a living. We were hot. He was going around, trying to find us a deal. We had opportunities to do housekeeping and development deals for a number of studios. The way those deals work, you never know if you’re going to make a movie or not. He got us an offer from New World, and they wanted to give us a similar deal, but they were willing to pay the rent for our offices and get us some fees. So we were back in the chips again and it was a very generous deal. They said, “You’ll make movies with us. If you write or find the script, we’ll make it!” We thought, “Well, hell, the other studios had more prestige, but they weren’t offering us creatively what we wanted.” We made a deal for JAKE SPEED, and Andy and I wrote it rather quickly, and we started sending it around to a few people and we were getting really good responses, though some of that may have been colored by the fact that we’d just done two hit movies. I look back now and realize that some of them weren’t as forthcoming with their constructive criticisms. We were getting phone calls from people in much, much bigger positions than we were in, telling us great things about the script. The people at New World liked it, and they took us to lunch somewhere in West Hollywood, and all those New World guys were there. They didn’t know what we really had planned. They didn’t know that Andy would direct it. They didn’t know that I wanted to play Jake Speed. They just think they’ve got this script and two hot producers. At this lunch, we proceeded to tell them who is going to do what, and they were getting pretty annoyed, as I recall, when I said I was going to play Jake Speed, and one of them said, “I don’t make deals with fucking actors!” (Laughing.) So I said, “Okay: Thanks for lunch!” We thought that was the end of it, and we left and I remember standing outside, and saying to each other, “Well, that didn’t go well, did it?” (Laughing.) Now what are we going to do? We never thought to buckle. It was never about the money. Yeah, we needed to stay alive, but we wanted to do what we wanted to do. When you’ve got a creative person on a project, it’s kind of hard to move them from that position. If you have any conviction. No, man. I can’t remember if it was that afternoon or the next day, they said, “Yeah, okay. All right. You can do it.” New World didn’t have a lot of money, but they committed to it. I’ve always been the guy to jump on a plane to chase down the wildest leads, and I remember getting on a plane to go to meet some people at a film market in Milan, and that was a wild goose chase. I knew we would have to raise some money just in case New World didn’t have what we would need. They didn’t have deep pockets, and that trip didn’t produce anything. I came back, and then I went to the Cannes Film Festival. We set the movie in Africa in a mythical country, and then you might ask, “Well, what do you know about Africa?” Neither one of us knew anything. I told myself that I would go to the Cannes Film Festival and start knocking on some doors of anybody who would open up. I’m looking for people that – in my way of thinking – who were either from Southern Africa, Zimbabwe, Botswana, maybe Melawi. I’m looking through books and reading about it, and also politically this was during the Apartheid regime. South Africa was going to be tough, and I didn’t have a political bone in my body at that time. I knew that South Africa would be difficult, but I thought maybe Zimbabwe would be good. So I go to the festival and I’m looking at the directory, and I’m going to people’s hotels that I don’t know, pounding on their hotel room doors, telling them what I want to do, and I get no joy from anyone, but I finally get to a man named Etienne de Villiers, who was a young guy running a big company in South Africa, and I remember knocking on his door and an attractive young lady – his wife – answers the door, and she’s in a towel. She’s very polite, and said they we about to go out. I awkwardly stepped inside and told Etienne that I wanted to do a movie in Africa and that I needed to find some local money somewhere – not a lot, but enough to perhaps cover some costs for the production. Etienne told me I needed a visa to get into South Africa. God bless him, he said, “I tell you what: I have friends in London. Give me your passport.” He got me a visa, and he arranged for me to go to South Africa. I stayed with his family for a week, and it was such a gracious act on his part. He introduced me to a number of people. I looked around Zimbabwe and then went back to LA. I did all this on spec. It could have been a total disaster. Etienne was really instrumental to getting this film financed. I think we arrived in Zimbabwe in August ’85 to start preproduction. We hired people in LA, and John Hurt, who plays the bad guy, had won an Academy Award, and he was on a list that was approved by New World. We didn’t think we’d get him. We sent the script to his agent, and within a week, he said, “Yes.” We never met him until he showed up on set. He was affordable. He was a character. We spent a lot of time together. He was on the movie for four weeks. We went out to eat and everything. He’s got a million stories. I said to him, “John, I was so shocked when you said ‘yes.'” He said something, “I was shocked too.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “Well, it’s a funny story how that happened. If you want to know the truth, I didn’t even read the script. My wife read the script. She loves to fish. When she found out that this was shooting in Zimbabwe, she wanted to come out here to fish.” There was one of the largest man-made dams in the world in Zimbabwe, and they had a particular fish called a Tiger Fish there that was found only in a few places in the world. When John’s wife read the script, she told him he had to do it. She came with him. She was Tiger Fishing while we were shooting! You just never know why somebody says yes. I think we shot eight or nine weeks in Zimbabwe, then we shot for a week or a week and a half in Paris, then another week or so in LA. I tell ya, it was so great. I’m telling you, man. We had great, great fun shooting that movie. My one regret on that is that – and I would tell this to all young filmmakers – don’t quit writing on your script until you have to. You can sometimes get so caught up trying to get the deal that you don’t keep thinking about the script. I wish we had done another draft. It could have gotten sharper. It was such great fun to shoot, though. You either love this movie or you hate it. My partner, Andy, didn’t fall in love with it. I did.

SHOCK: Talk about your co-stars in JAKE SPEED, Dennis Christopher and Karen Kopins.

CRAWFORD: I met Dennis through casting. He was a terrific guy. I never really became friends with anyone in the cast, and that’s kid of a sad thing about making movies. You don’t really have much interaction after the movie. But Dennis was a sweet man to work with. I have high regard for him. He was always there to do his best work. And Karen hadn’t had a lot of experience. She was in Once Bitten. But she did a terrific job, and it was fun for her, I think, to be in this. It takes a lot of trust to go from Hollywood and travel halfway around the world to be around strangers and not know what’s going to happen. It must be intimidating. To her credit, she really did well. All beautiful women should remember this: I think audiences will love you more when you’re beautiful if you’re not afraid to roll in the mud and not look beautiful. To her credit, she was really willing to do some of the scenes where she’s covered in all sorts of crap. She never complained. Everybody in the cast was great. It was an interesting experience for everybody. We were in that location for a long time, so we got to experience the culture. That’s why I love shooting on faraway locations. It goes beyond making a movie. I’ve shot in lots of places. It changes your life. It changes your opinion about all kinds of things when you see and meet all kinds of people. As an American, I took a lot of things for granted. I always thought that it aught to be mandatory for a kid to go live somewhere else while he or she was still in school, just to see how fortunate they really are. How so much the rest of the world lives. I would be gone so long sometimes, that when I’d come back to America that I’d realize the country was not the same place it was when I’d left. This United States is not the country I grew up in. I often feel like a fish out of water. I don’t understand what’s happening or what I read or witness. I don’t know, man.


SHOCK: You did another movie that was similar to JAKE SPEED two years later called QUIET THUNDER. Tell me a little bit about that one.

CRAWFORD: (Laughing.) QUIET THUNDER was actually…in ’87 there was a period of time in South Africa … I’d met some people that were South Africans, and there was money available there. In ’87 I went back to Africa and shot a movie that I didn’t particularly like, but it was a deal I made. That movie was called WHITE GHOST. It was a Vietnam movie with William Katt and Reb Brown. It’s too straight ahead for my taste, but it was a good deal. Everybody made money. As soon as we finished it, an opportunity came up to make another movie really quickly. I kind of had an idea, and I had a bunch of friends around who were writers. We quickly threw around some ideas and what the situation was, and I barked out a bunch of scenes that these friends would write. This is not how you write a movie, but we needed a script in a hurry. That script came together in a hurry. Even though QUIET THUNDER is corny, it was what I was getting from my time in Africa. It was speaking to me about the mystical things, and it has that element in a small way. I don’t know if the director really understood it. Then I hired a young lady named June Chadwick, who had been in V, a big science fiction series. She’s done some things. She was a lovely woman, actually. I made two more movies with her after that. We had a very long relationship. We shot this film very quickly. 24 days, I think, in the middle of winter. Johannesburg gets very cold in winter. It was a tough shoot and we made it for almost nothing. You look back on your career and say, “Here are the movies I’m proud of, and here are some movies I made that fall into the category of earning a living.” JAKE SPEED is a movie I’m proud of, NIGHT OF THE COMET is a movie I’m proud of. QUIET THUNDER falls into the category of earning a living. It had some things in it that I liked. It’s not a terrific movie, but it was fun to do. It was important for me, in certain ways, because I then started thinking about directing. I hadn’t started directing yet, but I started thinking very seriously then about directing. It was a great experience shooting in South Africa. The movie I did right after that, Andrew and I and June … We wrote a movie called Headhunter, using a pseudonym. It was not a terrific script, but it did give me an opportunity to meet a really interesting filmmaker, who is now a novelist. His name was Francis Schaeffer. He was sort of my evil twin. We got along famously. He is a character. It was great fun to work with him. HEADHUNTER was another deal that worked out. I think everybody had a pretty good time. I knew I wanted to work with Frankie again. A guy named Gary Rosen got one of his first gigs on Jake Speed, and he’d written a script called RISING STORM, which was renamed REBEL STORM, and I starred in it, with Frankie directing again. Gary’s a big deal now. He’s a partner with Legendary Pictures and does big studio films. June was in that one too. Her part was written for a man, and I changed it so that it would be a woman. That was another great experience. We shot out in the deserts of Namibia. The movie is much, much bigger than its budget. While no one really saw the movie … it’s very edgy material. It was even banned in some places. I would consider RISING STORM something I’m really proud of. I saw it with an audience a few years ago, and I was really pleased with how it plays. I love that it pisses people off. I love that it’s a about something. It works for me. On the surface it’s one of these goofy action adventure movies, where the future is all doom and gloom, much like MAD MAX. But what I like about it is that what brought us to this wasn’t technology, an asteroid, a world war, an atomic bomb, or whatever. It was us and a way of thinking and succumbing to … remember the president is Reverend Billy Bob II, and he’s on television hawking his version of the New Testament and people have allowed themselves to be controlled. After that movie, for many, many years I have seen the rise of that kind of thinking and people who hide behind things. To me the movie speaks to me. My favorite moment in the movie is when I get out of prison and my younger brother in the movie and I are trying to ascertain how we got to this sorry state of humanity. Before I went to prison I was smuggling vitamins and all sorts of other shit, and I say, “It’s not as easy as it used to be to sneak people in Mexico!” It’s an upside down world! People are fleeing the United States. Mexico has closed its borders! (Laughing.)

SHOCK: There’s a lot of fart gags in Rising Storm …

CRAWFORD: (Laughing.) I know! Most of those were not in the script. I thought that too when I saw it recently. I thought, “Wow, there’s more farts than I thought.” But it played really well for the audience! (Laughing.) I don’t think there’s such a thing as a cheap laugh. If you get a laugh, it’s a laugh. It counts. You can’t have more fart gags than BLAZING SADDLES.  

SHOCK: You play a certain type of hero. I might even venture to say a misogynist “ugly American” type of guy. That’s a recurring thing in some of your movies. How much of you is in these characters?

CRAWFORD: Well, what happens with that character … these are characters that have developed a certain shell. That shell is easier to get them through the day. When people crack through it … but in those movies there’s always someone who can crack his shell. You have to have enough patience to understand who he truly is. There’s more to him than what he chooses to present. There’s more substance to him than even he realizes. That’s a very good question. I’ve never really thought about it. He seems to learn something by the end. I’ve done this type of character several times, you’re right, but not because I’ve set out to do it, but this kind of character either comes my way or subconsciously comes my way. But I think he ends up being a better person at the end than when he started out. Generally, the hero protagonists are thankless roles. Most of those types of characters don’t change. Jake Speed was like that. That’s what he is. But Jake Speed has his own flaws. I’m attracted to those kinds of hero parts. “I don’t want this job, get out of my way,” but as it progresses, he reveals more and by the end he’s closer to more people than he was before. It’s bold. You dare to offend somebody and see if you can get them to like you too. It works sometimes, and it doesn’t work sometimes. As an actor, there’s a part of you in everything you do. But is that you? No. You get to live in this imaginary situation and you bring the character’s baggage and sometimes your baggage …  I don’t know. Someone once told me, “That’s the guy you do. If I had that guy in a script, you’d be the person I’d call to play him.” Maybe it’s my alter ego. Arrogant, a jerk, rude. But people who know me really well know that I’m the biggest softy on the planet. Years ago, when I was in college, I had to ask total strangers for help. I was stranded at an airport and I was trying to get home. I didn’t have enough money. It was the most humiliating experience I ever had in my life. Also, the way people reacted to me. It was as if I were a leper. After hours of this, I was feeling hopeless, and this old black guy – and I’ll never forget this because I never even approached him – came up to me and said, “Are you having a problem?” I said, “I don’t know how it happened, but I’m five dollars or ten dollars short. I’ve got to get home.” As fate would have it, he was on the same flight. He gave me the money, and we were getting off the plane, and my father was there to greet me. I told my father about this guy, and my father and I went around the airport trying to find this man to pay him back. When we finally found him, he didn’t want the money back, but my father insisted, but he wouldn’t have it. That stuck with me my entire life. Because of that one experience, I find it impossible not to help people. I was in Malaysia a few weeks ago with my wife and daughter, walking in the middle of thousands of people, and somebody starts tugging on my arm, asking for help. My wife turns to me and says, “They can pick you out of a crowd.” How do they find me? I may present myself in my characters as not very approachable, but the truth is that I can’t say no. I guess what I have to say about those characters is, “I’m sorry. I apologize, but that’s not me.”

SHOCK: Africa must have been special for you. You shot some other projects there after JAKE SPEED and QUIET THUNDER.

CRAWFORD: I spent so much of my life there in Africa subsequently. It felt that I’d come home. It was the strangest place. I did not feel like a foreigner. I did not feel like I didn’t belong. I felt that it was where I needed to be. I’ve probably shot eight or nine movies there now. Two television series, one of them was a family adventure called OKAVANGO: THE WILD FRONTIER. I did 52 episodes. Then I did a safari documentary, and I had another show that was on the air. I then moved to North Carolina so that I could start teaching at a university. I was there in North Carolina for a few years, and then I got an opportunity to teach in Singapore, which is where I am right now. I’m almost finished with that. I’ll never lose the wanderlust. I’m not the sort of person to settle someplace. I’ve got this urge to travel. Not just travel, but live in different places. Meanwhile, I’m still trying to put new things together. It doesn’t get any easier as time goes on, but I’m not going to give up the fight. There are more things I want to do. I actually made a creature feature called Snake Island, and it falls into earning a living, but it was a horror movie with some humor in it. It’s very loopy and doesn’t take itself seriously. You’ll probably never guess, but TRUE ROMANCE is my all-time favorite movie. I’ve watched it more than any other movie. Right after that is CASABLANCA. I can’t watch movies in the horror genre. I’m not the audience for that.    

JAKE SPEED, from left: Karen Kopins, Wayne Crawford, 1986. ©New World Pictures

SHOCK: Is there anything else you’d like to say, Wayne?

CRAWFORD: I always try to do the best that I can do. There’re things that I live by. Andy says Jake Speed is me. JAKE SPEED is indeed my alter ego. That’s the best and worst of me. That’s the closest to being who I am, probably. I’ve always tried to do three things. And these are words to live by: You finish what you start, you live up to the deals that you make, and just because you can do something – just because you have the power to do something – it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the right thing to do. That’s what you and your conscience have to wrestle with. That’s the only censorship I believe in. You’ve got to think about it. When I was a younger man, I was clueless. There are some scenes I did in those first few movies that I think, “Oh, my God.” Just because you could do it, you could have thought about it first and taken the edge off that. Some of that stuff wasn’t really necessary. I have problems with some of that now. We aught to look at our values more. Never give up because everyone else will.

Wayne Crawford (1947-2016).



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