Exclusive Interview with Wayne Kramer (The Cooler, Running Scared)

Over the last 20 years Wayne Kramer has carved out a unique place in American cinema through his four feature films. His first completed feature was The Cooler, with William H. Macy, Alec Baldwin and Maria Bello. It probably should have been a bigger hit than it was, but there were issues with MPAA, which made what now looks like one of its most ludicrous decisions ever. And although Baldwin got a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination for his role in the film, it also should have been more of an awards contender. That said, The Cooler was a smash on DVD.

Kramer followed that up with Running Scared, which got mostly negative reviews at the time—but many who didn’t like it the first time have since reappraised the film. It has gained a rightful cult following as one of the most uncompromising action thrillers, all in the guise of a deranged Grimm’s fairytale. It remains the crowning achievement of actor Paul Walker’s film work, whose career was sadly cut short.

Crossing Over was made with a certain fat rapist, Harvey Weinstein, and was sold as a kind of rip-off of the Oscar-winning Crash (not David Cronenberg’s film). As much as Weinstein liked to bring actresses up to his hotel room, he was equally fond of bringing his scissor-hands into the editing room with films he produced. Weinstein threatened to send it straight to DVD, if his editing demands weren’t met. He teamed up with another of the film’s producers and threw Kramer out of the editing room and recut the film by a full 30 minutes, dismantling the layered and interesting film he was trying to make. There are still some great performances on view but it’s clearly a compromised film.

Finally, Pawn Shop Chronicles (also known as Hustlers), an incredibly enjoyable, Pulp Fiction-esque collection of overlapping stories all set in and around a pawn shop. There’s a meth-addicted white supremacist (is there any other kind?), a terrible Elvis impersonator played by Brendan Fraser.

Like every filmmaker, he has plenty of projects that he’s trying to get made, but trying to get smart crime films made in a somewhat over-saturated landscape of Transformers and superhero films isn’t easy.

The Cooler is being re-released—how do you feel about it coming out on Blu-Ray and the special features that will be arriving with it?

I’m thrilled that the film is finally getting a Blu-Ray release in the UK (although it’s still lacking one here in the US), and I think the 101 team has done a great job. Phillip Escott has put together a really in-depth making-of doc, which is longer than the film itself and pretty much covers everything you could want to know about The Cooler. I haven’t seen the final disc yet, but the packaging and extras look impressive.

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You’re usually a director who writes your own scripts, but for this one you worked with Frank Hannah. What’s the story behind the collaboration?

Frank is one of my oldest friends in the US. We met in ’88 or ’89 when I used to frequent a comic book store where he worked in Huntington Beach – we would get into discussions about film and comics, and eventually we started to hang out. About a decade later, I sold my first studio script called Mindhunters (originally titled UNSUB) to 20th Century Fox. I had originally wanted to direct that project, but the studio wasn’t interested in a first-time director. I was looking to write something low-budget that could be my directing debut, and soon after Frank sent me an email with four or five one-liner script ideas, looking for my input on which one he should write. The Cooler leapt out at me, and I told him he should definitely work on that one. The idea stuck with me and I kept nudging Frank to write the script. I wasn’t looking to collaborate with anyone on a screenplay since I prefer to just go it alone: collaborations require a bit of stepping delicately around someone else’s sensibilities, and you don’t always end up in sync over the direction of the piece. But at some point, I realized that this could be the perfect indie film for me to get my directing shot with, since it landed right in my wheelhouse: noirish crime drama with a high-concept hook and a great love story driving everything. So I called up Frank and suggested to him that we might work on it together, but only on condition that I would be attached as director. I certainly didn’t want to put the full-on effort into it and have the script go to another filmmaker. To Frank’s credit, he agreed to me being the director and we were off to the races. I think he felt it would come together a lot quicker than it did, but we eventually got there.

The Cooler was your first major feature. How did you get such an excellent cast involved? Was there one casting choice that brought the others on board or got the film funded?

Frank and I had decided right from the start that we were writing this film for Bill Macy. By the time we got financed, Bill was looking to discard his indie/loser character image, and passed several times on the project. Finally, with some arm-twisting from Ed Pressman (executive producer/financier), he agreed to meet with me, and I was able to convince him that if he was never to play the loveable loser character again, this was the one to go out on. I also emphasized that he was the romantic lead this time out and he ended up with the girl. Somehow, between Ed and myself, we managed to convince him. After Bill was onboard, it became a lot easier to cast the rest of the roles, since everyone wanted to be in a Bill Macy film. Alec Baldwin had already done a few films with Bill, so he was more receptive to the project knowing Bill was involved than had we approached him with no other attachments.

I’m interested in general in the background of how the film was made. Were there other actors considered for the main roles?

When Bill kept passing, we were forced to consider some other actors. I think we were seriously considering Kelsey Grammar at the point right before Bill came back into the picture. I’m not sure if there was an offer made to him, but I was pretty resigned that my dream casting of Bill was not going to be realized… and then suddenly things turned around and Bill was in – thanks to Ed Pressman not willing to take no from Bill and encouraging him to take a meeting with me. The role of Shelly was written with Chazz Palminteri in mind, an actor I had met on another project a few years earlier. He read the first draft and gave me some encouraging notes, but then got distracted with something else he was doing and I didn’t hear back from him — and by the time the film got going, Ed was suggesting Alec and that seemed like dream casting, so I jumped at the chance to work with Alec. Chazz and I got to work together on my next film Running Scared and have become great friends. I was just with him in New York two weeks ago.

There was a major spat with the MPAA over the rating, and it almost ended up with an NC-17. Reflecting on how the MPAA has changed over the past 15 years, do you think that would happen now?

It’s really hard to say. They don’t seem as confrontational with indie filmmakers these days – or maybe it’s just that theatrical films have become more conservative in my opinion. I think fewer films are posing ratings challenges to them, especially with the ‘anything goes’ attitude of pay TV and Netflix lately. The members of the body have most likely also changed, since I think you have to be the parent of school-going-aged children to rate films.

Do you think the documentary This Film Has Not Yet Been Rated has done a lot to liberalise the MPAA by revealing its massive double standards?

I think the doc definitely opened the public’s eyes to the inner machinations of the group. We weren’t permitted to quote precedent in our appeal, and I think that’s changed now. I know the MPAA doesn’t like publicity and scrutiny, and the doc certainly put them on the defensive. I also think you have to know how to play the game with them. The problem with The Cooler is that we didn’t get the film rated prior to finishing the post-production on it. We had already debuted at Sundance and some other festivals by the time they hit us with the NC-17. Most films submit to the MPAA before they’ve locked picture. I’ll never make that mistake again.

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Given that The Cooler is a move about gambling, what’s your personal favourite gambling movie?

I’d say my favourite film that features gambling is Casino Royale (2006) – but my favourite film that is about gambling would have to be Robert Altman’s California Split (1974).

How lucky do you feel about getting in when you did, at the last real gasp of medium-budget indie filmmaking with theatrical releases?

This comes up quite a bit these days when you see buzzed-about Sundance films turning up on Netflix with no fanfare, and it makes me feel extremely lucky that we got a decent theatrical release (we never went super-wide) with a strong awards push from Lionsgate. That really doesn’t happen much today. The Cooler would definitely be a Netflix or Amazon pickup with today’s blockbuster-superhero movies eating up all the theatrical screens, while so many quality indies get lost in the shuffle after a successful festival run. Nobody wants to spend the marketing dollars on indie films either. Running Scared (which was also an independent film) had a decent-sized theatrical release as well, although poorly attended. But that’s another story. It’s possible that Running would also be a VOD release today.

What was the biggest lesson you learned about shooting in Vegas?

The biggest lesson I learned about shooting in Vegas was not to shoot in Vegas. We actually shot the film in Reno, with just one day in Vegas to capture a few exteriors with the cast and some helicopter fly-over shots. It became apparent in pre-production that on our short schedule and budget, it would have been impossible for us to make The Cooler in Vegas. You can’t control the casino floor, and you only have limited off-hours to get all your shooting done. We would have had to break down our equipment and lighting every night and waste precious time setting them up again the next day. Security would have been an issue as well. Vegas makes too much money to shut down for an indie film. We found a casino/hotel in Reno that was being refurbished and they allowed us to control the location and do whatever we wanted to it production-design-wise, since they were tearing it up anyway. They were literally doing construction while we were shooting: sections of the casino floor were disappearing behind us as soon as we wrapped a scene.

Any urge to return there to make another film?

Well, since I was never really there… I don’t have another Vegas project percolating, but I’m definitely open to something coming along. I think I was persona non grata in Vegas after the film, because we took a shot at Steve Wynn about his Disneyfication of the Strip. Since his recent fall from grace, I think I might be able to sneak back into town. I do hear from people who frequent Vegas that a lot of gamblers at the tables are always referencing The Cooler – asking the dealers where the Cooler is, or accusing an unlucky player of being the Cooler. I’m happy to be the co-creator of modern Vegas mythology!

You’re originally from South Africa. Has your upbringing had any particular impact on your filmmaking?

We didn’t get television in South Africa until I was eleven, so my exposure to popular culture came exclusively from movies. But many acclaimed films were heavily censored or banned outright in South Africa, and it wasn’t until VCRs hit the market in the late 70s that I was able to get my hands on smuggled-in copies of A Clockwork Orange, The Exorcist, The Warriors, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Last Tango in Paris, etc. I guess my thirst for these controversial films (and enjoyment of them) has instilled in me an unconscious desire to push the envelope with regard to content and subject matter.

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Running Scared was shot in a mixture of New Jersey and Prague. How did you navigate trying to fit that process together?

I didn’t have a choice really. The Prague shooting was dictated by budget and you do what you have to do to make it work. I think it worked in Running Scared because much of the film takes place at night and moody locations can obscure a lot of what you don’t want the audience to see. Also, we were fortunate to be able to build a lot of the film’s sets (and match them to the real deal in New Jersey) for far less than shooting in the US. would have cost us. It never seemed like we had enough time or money during the shoot, but in retrospect and judged by today’s filmmaking climate, we had a pretty decent indie budget and schedule for Running. That movie couldn’t be made today with the same style and visual ambition, which costs a lot to get on screen, because nobody’s financing hard-R-rated films at that price.

The film has gained a massive cult following over the years. When did you know it really had a new life after its disappointing theatrical run?

It pretty much started to gain a following as soon as it hit home video and pay TV. I think high-school kids were discovering it and passing it along to their friends. Due to the controversial nature of the subject matter (child endangerment), I felt the film was never going to be well-received by critics, and I was right. Critics – well, most critics, I shouldn’t say all of them — are the most rearview mirror-looking, reactionary group when it comes to violence and extreme cinema. They’ll give a pass to celebrated filmmakers like Scorsese and Tarantino, but if the film isn’t art-house branded, they’ll have their knives out for it. Just take a look at the Rotten Tomato score for Tony Scott’s masterpiece, Man on Fire. It’s rated at 39 percent, even lower than Running Scared. C’mon… Man on Fire is fucking incredible and stylistically ground-breaking. It’s a top twenty film for me, maybe even top ten. Scarface in its initial release was also critically massacred. It received Golden Raspberry nominations. Today the Scarface reviews are all revisionist. The film is number 104 on IMDB’s top rated films of all time. I will say that Running Scared did receive critical support from diverse and respected critics like Roger Ebert and Andrew Sarris. And certainly from the Hollywood creative community. I remember David Geffen called me up to tell me how much he loved the film and to ignore the reviews. He was pissed off at the L.A. Times review, which called it the worst film of the year—and it was only February!

It’s very much a (very violent) fairy tale, not unlike Freeway and Drive. What do you think screenwriters and filmmakers can learn from using fairy-tale logic in otherwise contemporary films?

I’m not sure how to answer that one. It’s so project-specific. I also think the fairy-tale template has been done to death by now, although I’m sure someone is coming up with an original, contemporary fairy tale take even as I say this. The Grimm’s fairy tales are particularly dark and nightmarish, and mirror today’s fucked-up world pretty accurately, so it’s tempting to infuse modern films, especially crime films, with certain Grimm’s themes. I think the more subtle one goes the better.

In fairy tales there is often a paedophilic aspect to the villain, and in Running Scared you really took this to the extreme. There’s a standout scene that’s so creepy, and so pitch-perfect, that I wonder if there was any pushback from the studio?

There was a ton of pushback. Nobody wanted that scene in the film. I think I was the lone defender of it, along with Michael Pierce, my producer. It helped that Paul Walker and Vera Farmiga were supportive. That scene is the reason Vera wanted to do the film. But a couple of the other producers and the financiers all wanted me to revise the script to remove that section – and even in post I was receiving pressure to nuke it. I pushed back hard and told them to wait until the first preview. To me, that was always going to be the signature scene of the film and especially because, against expectations, it becomes a showcase for a supporting character. And I love shit like that. People who are disturbed by that scene and question why it’s in the film simply aren’t paying attention. It serves as a barometer for Vera’s character to understand true evil and to gut-check herself about who her husband is and what he could be capable of. After the first preview, when the audience were on their feet and applauding at Vera’s handling of the paedophiles, all opposition went away to the scene. It is consistently the most referred to scene in the film. I always felt that if Harvey Weinstein had gotten his hands on Running Scared, he would have cut that scene out. The same with the sex scenes in The Cooler, which I was also pressured to tone down on that film – and was able to resist thanks to the support of Ed Pressman. It makes a huge difference when you have producers who respect the creative process on your films. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case on Crossing Over.

You used Paul Walker in Running Scared and also in your most recent film, Pawn Shop Chronicles (UK name: Hustlers). He was obviously a very talented actor, but his work with the Fast and Furious franchise didn’t give him a chance to show his range. What led you to choose him?

To be honest, Paul brought the financing for Running Scared. I was sceptical at first, but after I first met with him, I was won over. He proved to be a gift to me as a filmmaker every single day on set. He always had my back and appreciated my style of filmmaking.

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I quite liked Pawn Shop Chronicles, but it had some pretty harsh reviews. Do critics really matter that much when it comes to audiences finding your films?

In the case of films like Pawn Shop Chronicles and The Cooler, very much so. You need as much good ink as you can get, and since everyone checks Rotten Tomatoes these days before deciding to part with their money and time, being faced with a super low score is the kiss of death to a small film. Critics have the power to really hurt a film’s reputation and its financial health. I also find critics tend to take a pile-on approach to kicking the shit out of a film. If everyone is hating Gotti this week, a lot of critics who may be okay with the film decide they don’t want to swim against the tide, so they join the kill party and add another cut to the corpse. And by the way, I watched Gotti and didn’t think it was terrible at all. I thought Travolta gave a solid performance. But that film was D.O.A. because a few critics out front decided to take it down.

I also feel that most critics have one frame of reference for crime films, especially multiple narrative films, and that’s Tarantino. You’ll never read a critic referencing Elmore Leonard or Walter Hill or Peckinpah, or Don Siegel, it’s always Tarantino – as in ‘this film is subpar Tarantino,’ or ‘this film is a poor man’s Pulp Fiction,’ or ‘a Tarantino rip-off.’ It astounds me at how limited their film history is, or maybe it’s sheer laziness and the Tarantino shorthand is the easiest way to get the job done. It pisses me off immensely. I have great respect for Quentin’s work, but he didn’t invent the crime genre. We all take our influences from the same films and books and anyone with half a brain can tell that my style of filmmaking is nothing like Quentin’s. I don’t think Quentin has ever shot a sex scene or featured much nudity in his films. I hardly ever use popular culture references and never employ needle-drop scores or heavy song soundtracks. Most critics missed the influences for Pawn Shop, going straight to Tarantino rather than picking up on the Creepshow and early Coen Brothers vibe. Then again, the film was treated shoddily by its producers and distributor, and even today few people know it exists. I don’t even think it’s found an audience among Paul Walker fans.

How annoyed were you about the film getting retitled overseas?

I wasn’t happy about it, but the decision was out of my hands. I think, ultimately, it just led to confusion about the film. I read some comments on the YouTube British trailer where people were wondering how Paul could have starred in another film after his death. I think after the disastrous US release – and not really a real release; VOD plus a couple of the worst-attended theatres around the country (fourteen in all, maybe), and the theatre in Los Angeles (smaller than my home theatre) didn’t even have a poster to announce the film – the foreign markets wanted a do-over. I think every other country that got the film changed the title except for Australia.

There’s a bumper-sticker reading “At Least Jesus Didn’t Write Battleship Earth” in the film. Any pushback from Scientologists about that one?

I’ve never heard anything. And, honestly, Scientologists would have to know the film exists to bother with any pushback. Also, the film has good-natured fun with Catholics and Jews and Elvis fans and you name it, so Scientologists could hardly feel singled out. For some reason, Illuminati conspiracy theorists seem to read a lot into my films. Their theories on this one are quite amusing (same with Running Scared).

What have you seen recently are the movies or on TV that you really like?

I really liked American Animas, Destroyer, Cold War, Private Life, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, A Star is Born, Monsters and Men, The Old Man & The Gun and The Mule.

What do you see as the future for films like the ones you make? How difficult is it to get projects made at the moment?

I’m trying to remain optimistic, but it’s extremely difficult to get the projects I gravitate toward made these days. The competition for big-name talent is ferocious, and the entire industry is cannibalizing itself. I had an actress interested and ready to commit to a NYPD action-drama script of mine that I had been pushing up the mountain for years – and Netflix swooped in and stole her for a series within a matter of days. You can’t compete against that.  Trying to attach actors that trigger the financing is a nightmare. They’re all chasing the big name directors or the Sundance darlings. I was there once, but it doesn’t last.

When critics gleefully annihilate your films, they don’t seem to realize that they’re fucking with your life and your ability to make a living. We’re supposed to feel bad for them when they lose their long-term gigs at magazines and newspapers, but do any of them give a shit when they cut a filmmaker’s career off at the knees? I think not. In retrospect, a lot of critics seem to be onside with Running Scared now, but when it mattered, they were happy to shiv it in the ribs and leave it bleeding on the jailhouse floor. The same can be said for Crossing Over. Even knowing that the film was severely fucked with by Harvey Weinstein, that dude Capone at Ain’t it Cool named it his worst film of the year. Yup, kick ‘em while they’re down. Meanwhile, people are writing to me today and telling me that Crossing Over was ahead of its time and the film should be re-released because everything in that film, even the most extreme ICE behaviour like separating a mother from her child, has become standard ICE practice under Trump. Maybe we’ll see a Director’s Cut in the future. I have no idea who even owns the rights today after the Weinstein Company meltdown. But the film sits with a 16 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, so it can’t possibly be worth your time, right?

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What are you currently working on?

I’m putting most of my efforts into getting my project Trophy off the ground. It’s an action-revenge film that takes place against South Africa’s barbaric canned lion hunting farms and I’m working with Shaun Redick, the producer of Get Out and BlacKKKlansman on it. If you want to see scumbag trophy hunters get their just desserts, then this is the film for you.

And finally, given that you and the MC5’s guitarist are often confused on The Google—so much so that when you type in “Wayne Kramer director” you still get a picture of the other guy—what’s your favourite MC5 song?

I’m embarrassed to say that I don’t know my alter-ego’s music as well as I should, so I’ll have to go with “Kick out the Jams.” But we did hook up for a fun dinner awhile back (with our wives) and he couldn’t be a nicer guy. Yeah, his picture has usurped mine all over the Internet. The crazy thing is, he looks a lot how I’ll probably look in 20 years (which is more or less the age difference between us), so I just think everyone assumes we’re the same guy.

The Cooler is out on Blu-Ray from 101 Films from 24/12/2018 Buy Here

Hustlers (Pawn Shop Chronicles) Buy Here

Crossing Over Buy Here

Running Scared is available in an all-region Blu-Ray from the US Buy Here

Ian Schultz

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