"Ronny Howard and I were talking about this recently," Kurt Russell says while hanging out in a Beverly Hills Four Seasons suite to discuss his new movie Grindhouse. "We used to see each other (at auditions for these 'grindhouse' movies). 'Hey, Ronnie, how you doing?' 'Hey, Kurt.' 'So, if you get this thing, are you actually going to do it?' 'I don't know, man. That scene where he's eating the rat...' "
Russell laughs, but he's hit it right on the mark. The grindhouse genre that packed drive-in theaters with ultra-low-budget, ultra-violent, ultra-sexualized exploitation flicks in the 1960s and '70s was infamous for such revolting acts.
Grindhouse, a modern-day double feature directed by Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez, is no different, and that's why Russell signed on to star in Tarantino's half of the equation, Death Proof. The two maverick directors, long in love with the usually terrible movies of the grindhouse era, have paid homage to that love — again in spite of common sense, good business sense and, since it is them we're talking about, even modern movie conventions.
After all, what other A-list directors would consider pooling their efforts to craft a three-hour-plus double feature that would, essentially, diminish their individual returns and quite possibly turn off a movie-going public that had long outgrown such fare? After all, what if that same movie-going public didn't get why their movies were scratched up, blemished by flashes and quite often missing whole reels (usually for comic effect)? After all, what if zombie apocalypse movies (Rodriguez's Planet Terror) and slasher flicks combined with high-octane car movies (Death Proof) no longer thrilled audiences?
Rodriguez learned long ago that he was better off following his own instincts.
"People would tell me with El Mariachi, 'You can't be your own (director of photography),' " he says poolside at the Four Seasons, a black cowboy hat planted on his head. "I wasn't smart enough to know I couldn't do it. Had I known that you couldn't do it, I probably wouldn't have. I always wanted to keep that sort of innocence about (filmmaking).
"And, actually, by accomplishing that (with El Mariachi) it helped me to realize, 'Don't tell yourself what you can't do. You don't know what you can't do yet.' "
Tarantino agrees. Sitting beside Rodriguez and inexplicably decked out in a leprechaun-green sports coat over blue-green scrubs, he explains, "You know, one of the things about me, I'm very knowledgeable about film structure, the conventions of it. And not just American cinema — Italian and Japanese, too. But when it comes time to write my movies, as much as I'm trying to make it cinematic or this or that, when I'm writing it, it really is about the page. I don't really follow movie rules. I follow novelistic rules.
"And you know what? There are no such things as rules in a novel. An author can do any goddamn thing he wants to do, any way he wants to do it. I always just demanded the same freedom as a screenwriter, and I think my scripts, when you read them, they are novelistic in a way."
That novelistic approach, however, is predicated upon one of the most thorough cinematic intellects working in Hollywood today.
"You cannot possibly keep up (with him)," Russell insists. "Never, ever, ever get him into a game of movie trivia. There's nobody that can touch him."
He even calls Tarantino a savant.
"In fact, if you want to have a conversation with Quentin that he might not remember, do it with your back to the movie screen. He cannot concentrate."
This passion for filmmaking is no less apparent in Rodriguez or his milieu. Like Tarantino, he has never shied away from challenging the language of film — though he is hesitant to say he sets out to change the way movies are made.
"It's really a self-challenge," he explains. "With (Sin City), I didn't know if audiences were ready for that. I just thought it was something I really needed to do, something I really wanted to see. And I was really prepared for people not to get it at all. It's black and white, it's an anthology, it's all voiceover. It could have easily been a failure, but I just felt I needed to take the challenge. You almost don't want to do anything safe, because it kind of bores you."
Rodriguez also points out that this is "the first of many Grindhouses. We have so many ideas."
"I think we wanted to start off first in the horror genre," Tarantino says. "We thought that would be a really great way to kick it off. But part of our thing is to hopefully explore other grindhouse genres. I've always wanted to do a spaghetti western. I've always wanted to do a blacksploitation movie. Women in prison movies. You can just go on and on."
Yet Michael Biehn, B-movie god and hero of many of James Cameron's action classics (and star of Planet Terror), says, "They don't necessarily love (only) these kinds of films. They seem to love all films, all genres, everything."
But what was it like to work with two directors on such an ambitious project? Was there any competition between them to top the other? Biehn shakes his head.
"No, no, not at all."
Beside him, co-star Jeff Fahey — sporting a grizzly beard several inches long — says, "It would've been difficult for them to have an argument. They have creative differences. But they're very aware of the relationship they have. They love each other."
Biehn and Fahey are on the opposite side of the road from Russell, having starred in the opposite halves of the Grindhouse double feature. But, then again, that road leads to the same place. The disparity between the two of them and how they create an uneven balance is part of the fun for Tarantino.
"I made Death Proof, he made Planet Terror," he says, pointing to Rodriguez, "and the two of us together made Grindhouse." He grins. "And they are three very different things." ©