Sunday, January 2, 2011
LADIES AND GENTLEMEN...MICHAEL ZELNIKER!
Many, many years ago I frequented two drive ins in my youth. The Douglas Drive in on Douglas Avenue and The Portage Drive In on Portage Road. Say what you want about us Midwestern types but imaginative we ain’t. Anyway, there are viewing experiences that I will always remember concerning the drive in. I can remember taking my little sister to see Fulci’s ZOMBI and she was terrified. I can remember being in the back of my parent’s station wagon with a brown paper grocery bag full of greasy popcorn watching Beneath The Planet Of The Apes. I’ve seen The Devil’s Nightmare and Invasion of the Bee Girls so many times with so many varied titles that I am an expert in both of these movies. Only one double feature sticks in my mind more than anything; the exquisite pairing of Jack Hill’s Switchblade Sisters and George Milhalka’s Pinball Summer. While much has been written about Switchblade Sisters, Pinball Summer tends to get short shrift. I recently revisited the film and saw it as a perfect teen comedy. Right up there with so many of the greats; Porky’s, Meatballs, the list goes on and on. I did a little web snooping and actually found the star of Pinball Summer, Michael Zelniker and he was willing to subject himself to a lengthy interview where we talked about Pinball Summer and many, many other things.
Douglas Waltz – So, you’re going to let me talk to you about Pinball Summer, huh?
Michael Zelniker – Pinball Summer, my goodness. That anybody would want to talk to me about Pinball Summer is a miracle in itself so, what the heck. Here we go.
DW – It’s a great movie, I just watched it again yesterday.
MZ – Oh boy. Um. You know I haven’t seen the movie in maybe 30 years. So, it’s nice to know that someone is enjoying it.
DW – Oh yeah, I saw it the first time when I was a kid at the drive in.
MZ – Really? And when was that and where was that?
DW – That would have been at The Portage Drive In and it was on a double bill with Jack Hill’s Switchblade Sisters.
MZ (laughs) – Okay, and when was that?
DW – That would have been 1981.
MZ – 1981, my goodness. And so you’re a Michigander?
DW – Oh yeah, still in Kalamazoo.
MZ – Is that where I’m calling you?
DW – Yup, that’s where I am right now.
MZ – That’s a point of interest for me because I’m actually trying to raise the financing for a movie titled Michiganders. It takes place in rural Michigan in 1978. It’s a story about three generations of a family. And so any time I come across a Michigander it’s always a point of interest for me.
DW – Oh great! That sounds like a great movie. I would watch that.
MZ – Well that’s good. I’m not sure that’s a compliment as you enjoyed Pinball Summer, but there ya go.
DW – Now Pinball Summer was shot in Montreal?
MZ – Yeah, that’s my hometown I’m originally from Montreal. Although at the time I was already living in Toronto and this was the first lead I ever played in a movie so it was very very exciting for me and had a great old time working on it. The guy who plays my sidekick in the movie is still a good friend of mine and so there you have it. Every now and then the movie resurrects itself in my life. I think what makes the movie work so well is we didn’t send it up. You know we played it for real. I think often with these teen exploitation movies people send them up and don’t play the characters for real and I think anytime you’re winking at the audience whether it’s in one of these teen movies or something much more significant or serious. Like Steve Martin says, ‘Comedy is deadly serious business.’ And if you’re winking at the audience or sending your characters up then I think that movie isn’t going to necessarily play well. But with Pinball Summer we played it for real.
DW – Yeah when your character Greg has his girlfriend Donna fooling around with Bert the biker guy and you stole his motorcycle you could tell that your character was pretty ticked off.
MZ – Right. And indeed around the whole pinball contest. It was a serious undertaking for us. How do you take something like that seriously? Well, if the story tells you to take it seriously then you take it seriously. And that’s what we did.
DW – Right, if your character has that one thing he’s good at like that documentary that came out King of Kong where this guy’s whole life is playing Donkey Kong and he takes it very serious.
MZ - Right.
DW - The one weird part of the movie is in the pinball tournament. You guys are playing a Pinball Summer pinball machine with pictures of the cast on it.
MZ – Oh yeah? I’m not even aware of that.
DW – The machine that you and Bert go head to head on is an actual Pinball Summer pinball machine with artwork of everyone from the movie on it. So you’re playing a pinball machine of the movie you are in. And that’s just a little surreal for this kind of movie.
MZ – Yeah! I mean what a nice touch and what a nice piece of art direction but I’m sure I noticed it on the day that we shot it and I’ve seen the movie a couple of times but I’m certain that I must have noticed it somewhere along the way but you’re telling me something I didn’t know before so I’m unable to give you a well informed answer as to why they chose to do that.
DW – Fair enough. Now on the DVD release they are going with the alternative title, Pick Up Summer? Why did they go with that?
MZ - Well, that’s what happened when the movie was released in The United States. I can’t remember the name of the company that picked it up for distribution in the U.S. but whoever that was they chose the title then so, for a long time the alternate title has been Pick Up Summer and that is an American derivation to make the movie more commercially interesting to some people. I don’t know.
DW – One rumor is that pinball was on its way out and arcades were on their way it.
MZ – Yeah, that’s a reasonable explanation. My understanding is that when the movie was picked up in the U.S. they chose the title Pick Up Summer. In fact when the movie was released theatrically, because it was briefly released in the US, unbelievably so, some friends of mine were living in New York at the time and it played in a theater in New York in Times Square, one of the big theaters and on the marquee it said Pick Up Summer starring Michael Zelniker so they took a picture and sent it off to me.
DW – Yeah, I distinctly remember when I saw it at the drive in it said Pinball Summer. As I mentioned I recently rewatched it to see how much I could recollect from the initial viewing from 30 years ago. I remembered you and your sidekick chasing that trophy around a lot and Sally with her top off playing pinball.
MZ – Right, well that’s a memorable moment.
DW – Although for some reason and it might be because I was a teenager at the time, I remember her being more well endowed than that.
MZ – Right. (laughs) Her name is Joy Boushel. I still remember her name although I haven’t had any contact with her. I left Canada in 1984 so I’ve kinda lost touch with a lot of the people that I have worked with in my years back in Canada. I don’t know what Joy is up to, but she was well endowed.
DW – Joy did a lot of horror movies.
MZ – Oh is that what she’s done?
DW – Yeah, you guys have one thing in common in that you both worked with Cronenberg.
MZ – Oh, you’re kidding?
DW - She was in The Fly and she played Tawny, the girl he picked up at the bar and takes home for hours and hours of sex. And then you were in Naked Lunch.
MZ – Yes I was. You know it’s funny, I’ve seen The Fly and I don’t remember Joy in it. I do remember the part you’re discussing but I don’t remember that it was Joy. Maybe I did know at some point but my memory isn’t so good.
DW – Now because you spent a lot of time with this scene; the motorcycle gang. The shack that they had. Was that built just for the movie?
MZ – Yeah, that was something that was built for the movie. There’s an area just outside of Montreal where we shot a good deal of the movie so, the coffee shop where we all hung out and the shack, the pier that I drove the motorcycle off of, many of the roads that we were driving around on all of those locations were, I can’t remember where it is but it’s just outside of Montreal just off the island maybe on the South shore. A lot of those locations were within a mile of one another. The biker shack was actually built for the movie. So that when we set up to pull it down we were obviously able to do that.
DW – So, did you jump the motorcycle off the pier?
MZ - No, I didn’t actually do that. In fact, they started to train me I had never ridden a motorcycle before. They started to train me and I had an accident so, the insurance shut all that down. In fact the scene where I’m driving the motorcycle where you’re on my face I’m hooked up to a rig and not actually driving it. And the shots where you seen me completely on the motorcycle, that’s a stunt guy who actually did the jump off the pier.
DW – The writer of the film, coincidentally, has the same last name as you.
MZ – Yes, the writer of the film is my brother Richard.
DW– Did that help getting you into the movie?
MZ – No, in fact it made it harder. The director was concerned that I was the writer's brother.
DW – Okay
MZ – He and I got to know each other a little bit. The casting director suggested me and I auditioned and the audition went very well and then he and I went out and had some drinks together and that reassured him
DW – Now, here’s an interesting thing; you’re one of the only members of the cast that didn’t go on to be in My Bloody Valentine.
MZ – It’s true a couple of people did go on to be in that film Carl (Marotte) is in it, right?
DW – Right.
MZ – And Karen Stephen who played Donna my girlfriend.
DW – And Thomas Kovacs who played Bert is in it.
MZ – Oh, is he in it, too?
DW – Yup, he’s in it.
MZ – I was doing something else at the time. I had already hired on to something else when they were casting it so I never was offered that movie. I’m not saying that I would have been offered something, but I was already working on something else.
DW – Yeah, that’s considered a classic slasher movie.
MZ – Yeah, and after Pinball Summer I did another Teen Movie called Hog Wild. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen that.
DW – I saw it on your IMDB listing and I’m going to track that down. It looks like fun.
MZ – If you have a penchant for teen comedies then I think you’ll like Hog Wild. It’s populated with some very good actors. And I think there’s some very good stuff in that movie. It’s a little more sophisticated than Pinball Summer is. I think it’s a slightly better movie. I think the script is better and so on. But after Hog Wild that was sort of the end of my teen exploitation movies. I paid my dues, I gave my bit of skin and I was done with that.
DW – Yeah then you went on to be in films like Bird.
MZ – Bird is one of the movies that I am most proud of in my career. I got to work with Clint Eastwood. Work on a period of musical history that is very special and the real Red Rodney, the character that I played, was still alive at the time. I got to spend a couple of weeks with him. The movie played at the Cannes Film Festival. Forest Whitaker and I were asked to go and represent the movie. What’s not to like? This is the granddaddy of all film festivals. I was able to go and represent a movie that I was very proud of so that turned out to be a wonderful opportunity in my life.
DW – And then there was Naked Lunch with David Cronenberg.
MZ – Yeah, Naked Lunch. Also a great opportunity. Working with David, again on a piece of literary history and working with David who is a great director and, I think, one of the great storytellers. It was just great. It was fun playing Allen Ginsberg and a movie that I’m really proud of. Bird and Naked Lunch are the two movies that people mostly recognize me for and are interested in talking with me about.
DW – Except for when I automatically recognize you from Pinball Summer.
MZ – There ya go! How did you get to come in touch with me?
DW – Oh, well I’d seen the movie originally back in the drive in days, I had a VHS copy which then led to the DVD and I have recently been on a teen comedy jag, reviewing a bunch of them for the website and then I decided to see if I could find anybody. You were the first actor listed so I searched the internet and found your blog (http://michaelzelniker.wordpress.com/). Which was very interesting.
MZ – Thank you. Yeah I actually started teaching a number of years ago at one of the big conservatory schools here American Musical and Dramatic Academy AMDA Anyway they have had a campus in New York for 40 years and they opened in California about seven years ago and through several circumstances I started teaching there and have found a second calling in life. I’m a little bit older in my career now and don’t feel really excited about a lot of the opportunities that are available to me as an actor and what’s great about this opportunity teaching at the school is its provided me with a chance to give away this work that I love so much and spent my adult life trying to learn how to do well. And I get to give it away to young actors just starting out. Over the years people have been urging me to write a book and I really don’t know how to get that started so a little more than a year ago I was watching the Julie and Julia movie and I thought, ‘Well, I can probably write entries so I decided to write this blog.
DW – That’s a good way to get started. Plus Blogger has a thing where you can publish your blog in book form.
MZ – Oh yeah?
DW – Yeah, once you get enough entries to fill a book they will print it for you and they are very nice.
MZ – Wow.
DW – One other movie of yours I haven’t watched yet, but am getting ready to watch is Snide and Prejudice.
MZ – Oh yeah, this is directed by a guy named Philippe Mora who is probably best known for a movie.. is it called Communion? Do you know the Whitley Strieber book?
DW – Yup.
MZ – Whitley Strieber wrote that book about close encounters about these people who believe that they have been visited by aliens. Philippe directed that movie and it was very well done with Christopher Walken. You know a movie that could be very badly done. He’s from Australia and he’s always wanted to make a movie about the rise to power of the Nazi Party and just couldn’t raise the financing. So, he found an odd way to make the movie and he set it in a mental institution and has the institution populated by figures who believe that they are Nazi war figures. And so I played Joseph Goebbels. What you get is just great fun. This movie, Snide and Prejudice we made it in two weeks. Under enormously difficult conditions and it’s kind of thrown together and yet, in a certain kind of way, it works. The movie never had much play, but it’s worth watching. It sounds like you have an eclectic taste in movies and Snide and Prejudice would fall into that category.
DW – Well, if I wasn’t going to watch it before I am now. Actually when you mention Philippe Mora the first thing that comes to mind for me is the film The Beast Within.
MZ – Oh, I don’t know it.
DW – It deals with a guy who reincarnates himself by raping this woman and her child becomes him after he starts to hit his teen years.
MZ – Wow!
DW – It’s a pretty intense movie. It has Ronny Cox as one of the leads. It’s all shot down South in a tiny little town. But I’ve always liked Mora’s work so I will have to watch this.
MZ – Philippe assembled a very good cast these are not actors who normally do any kind of exploitation movies.
DW – Sounds good.
MZ – And if you’re interested in any of my movies I did co write and produce a small independent film called Stuart Bliss. Which is a movie that I am really proud of. We traveled the film festival circuit with it, we won a couple of best film awards for it and we traveled all over the world with it. A distributor took it out and we actually played in five cities around North America, including Los Angeles and Toronto, which is very difficult for a small, independent film. It’s a strange, little dark comedy that I had a blast making. We made it for very little money.
DW – Well, that’s another one I’m going to have to find then. I like a good dark comedy.
MZ – Yeah, it is a dark comedy it’s about a man who believes that the world is coming to an end and with the stuff that is happening to him, who can blame him? The subtitle on our script had that famous phrase; ‘Just because he’s paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after him.’
DW – The other one of yours I was going to see was called Rats.
MZ – Well, it seems you like these sort of genre movies and Rats is definitely a movie that falls into that category. I did that movie in Bulgaria. I did that movie with a director named Tibor Takacs who you may know because he does a lot of these genre type movies and he and I had done a couple of movies before. I think I’ve done a total of four movies with Tibor. Rats was a Nu Image picture and they make a lot of genre movies. Another movie we did in Lithuania, was it called Earthquake? Maybe it was called Earthquake. (According to IMDB it is called Nature Unleashed: Earthquake) So these are places I never expected to get to in my life and I had lots of fun getting to travel to places I never expected to go and always have fun working with Tibor.
DW – Well, I have seen a lot of killer rat movies, but never this particular rat movie.
MZ – So, what draws you to these kinds of movies?
DW– I like these movies because they show a lot more ambition than your typical, shot by committee Hollywood movies.
MZ – Well, I’m with you there, although I am more attracted to movies that are about people. People undergoing difficulties walking through everyday human condition stuff.
DW – Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today.
MZ – Thank you, it’s always a pleasure to connect with people who love movies. I find it inspiring so, thank you.
DW – Goodbye and have a Merry Christmas.
MZ – You as well, Goodbye.
There you go fans! I must say that Michael was delightful to talk to, patient with my constant yammering and an all around great guy.