The Movie Seattle Saved

Thirty years ago, The Stunt Man starring Peter O'Toole was gathering dust in a vault. Its producers hated it and no studio would touch it. Then Seattle audiences made it the star of one of Hollywood’s greatest underdog stories.

By Matthew Halverson November 13, 2009 Published in the December 2009 issue of Seattle Met

ON A MID-AUGUST afternoon in 1979, William Arnold slumped in the dark of a pool-house screening room, dreading the whir of the projector. I am going to hate this movie, he thought. Even then, at the beginning of what would be a 30-year career as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s film critic, Arnold, 31, knew better than to prejudge a picture. But this wasn’t so much a writing assignment as an awkward obligation born out of his occupation’s influence, and the movie had all the makings of a bomb.

Earlier in the week, Noel Marshall, the Hollywood producer who had tried unsuccessfully to adapt Shadowland, Arnold’s 1978 investigative book about Frances Farmer’s psychiatric care, called from Los Angeles: “Could you do a favor for an old director friend of mine?” Richard Rush was bringing his struggling, unreleased film, The Stunt Man, to Seattle for an exclusive, one-night sneak preview on Saturday, August 25, but the film’s producers refused to spend money to promote it. “Richard’s made a fantastic film,” Marshall insisted, “but the people who financed it can’t stand it, and nobody wants to release it. I’d really like you to take a look at it.” Rush was counting on the last-ditch Seattle screening to build buzz and convince his investor, Melvin Simon Productions, that the film was worth releasing, but without any advance advertising, he needed a positive review in the P-I to lure an audience to the theater. So Marshall was leaning on Arnold, coaxing the young critic to fly to Los Angeles for a private screening at Rush’s home in Bel Air, California.

Arnold acquiesced—agreeing to Rush’s request that he run a review before the sneak only if he liked the movie—but instantly regretted the decision. Usually, when a producer or studio wanted to shelve one of its pictures, as Rush insisted that his producers were doing to The Stunt Man, it was for a good reason. Anyone who’d seen Simon’s campy vampire spoof Love at First Bite earlier that spring knew that even a halfway decent movie could make a lot of money. And if Rush’s picture couldn’t pass Melvin Simon’s less-than-exacting smell test, it had to be an epic dud.

So there Arnold sat in Rush’s pool house, thinking more about the flight home to Seattle than the movie he’d come to LA to watch, when Rush flipped a switch and the screen lit up with the image of a lone buzzard perched on a light pole. And for the next 130 minutes Arnold’s jaw hung slightly slack. Relative newcomer Steve Railsback played a young, on-the-lam convict who stumbles onto the set of a World War I action movie, where the film’s manipulative, dictatorial director, played by Peter O’Toole, offers him asylum if he’ll work as the leading man’s stunt double. Told almost exclusively from the convict’s perspective, who constantly questions whether his savior is trying to snuff him out on film, The Stunt Man was an unconventional—and at times off-putting—narrative that suffocated its viewer with Railsback’s paranoia as it played with the difference between perception and reality.

Arnold was dumbfounded. He had just watched “one of the most innovative and exciting films to emerge from the American cinema in a long, long time,” as he would write in his review on Friday, August 24—but Rush was convinced that the moneymen behind the picture wanted to kill it.

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Peter O’Toole’s scene-chewing turn as a megalomaniacal director earned him an Oscar nod.

Richard Rush was a cinematic enigma. He directed his first 10 movies before The Stunt Man (including several exploitation flicks such as The Savage Seven and Hells Angels on Wheels) with a propulsive, gonzo flair that infused the B movie genre with an unexpected level of artistic legitimacy and elevated him to something of a cult auteur.

He’d taken an abrupt turn with his latest, though. Part thriller, part love story, part Hollywood satire—hell, part _comedy_—it relentlessly toyed with its viewers, daring them to believe that the megalomaniacal director of the movie within the movie was trying to kill his new stuntman. Based loosely on a 1971 book of the same name by Paul Brodeur, the film was layered in subtext, narratively ambitious, and anchored by morally ambiguous characters. And according to Arnold it was “an absolute knockout.”

Rush’s standing in Hollywood was just as perplexing as his resume. Cult status like the kind he enjoyed earned you plenty of fiercely loyal fans but little clout. So it was odd that despite having never achieved anything nearing blockbuster success, the uncompromising perfectionist had developed a knack for wearing down studio executives to get his way. “It would be Tuesday, but Dick could talk you into believing it was Wednesday,” says Bob Relyea, then the head of physical production at Melvin Simon Productions and one of Rush’s few supporters within the company. “Or you’d at least come away thinking, You know, it may be Tuesday and it may not.”

So Rush was shocked to learn that after he’d lobbied hard to host The Stunt Man’s sneak preview at a University District cinema—where the young, arts-minded clientele would be more receptive to the film’s unconventional storyline—the producers chose ­Bellevue’s Overlake Cinema instead. Overruling him was one thing, but why would they make the savvy decision to sneak the movie in Seattle—which research had shown was a national box-office bellwether—only to inexplicably bury it in an obscure, out-of-the-way movie house? “The joke when it opened,” says former Seattle Times film critic John Hartl, “was that if you could find the theater you got in for free.”

Arnold had made it clear before he left Bel Air that he loved The Stunt Man and vowed to do whatever he could to help the picture succeed. It wasn’t until Rush showed up at the Overlake with the movie’s seven reels of film under his arms, though, that he realized how powerful the critic’s endorsement could be. By splashing the movie across the cover of the P-I ’s weekend entertainment guide the day before (“I didn’t have a boss, so I just did what I wanted to do,” he says) and raving in his review that it was “an affirmation of hope for an exciting new American cinema in the 1980s,” Arnold drew a movie-geek mob of hundreds to Bellevue. If the atmosphere outside the theater a half hour before showtime was any indication, even banishing the movie to Carnation wouldn’t have kept the crowds from tracking it down. “We had a line around the block,” Rush says. “And it was a noisy crowd, one that shouts at the screen and claps. I knew it was my kind of crowd, and I knew it was going to be good.”

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Drawing on his antiwar leafleting past, Jeff Dowd distributed fliers to promote The Stunt Man.

It was good. Rush sat in the back of the theater in an aisle seat, watching calmly as the raucous audience laughed and gasped and cheered at all the right times. And after the projector stopped, they hung around in the lobby, quizzing him on the production and filling out preview cards (the Hollywood equivalent of a restaurant comment card). Roughly 95 percent rated The Stunt Man as good or excellent. Maybe its residents were just happy to be out of the rain, but Seattle was establishing itself as a film-­loving city that was artistically hip without the attendant cultural elitism. “In the Northeast, audiences frequently went to films with an attitude of, ‘Let me see if I can figure out where this film is flawed,’ ” says Larry Jackson, a former managing director of a cinema complex in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and onetime producer who helped Rush in his quest to get The Stunt Man released. “But the audiences in Seattle went to films expecting to enjoy them, wanting to embrace everything they could about them.”

And yet. With the sneak preview over, Melvin Simon Productions had no plans for future screenings; it was as if Seattle—with its wildly enthusiastic crowd and its history for predicting box office success everywhere from Dallas to Detroit—didn’t exist. “They just didn’t think The Stunt Man was releasable,” Jackson says of the producers. “They said, ‘Well, Seattle is Seattle,’ ” and dismissed the city, he says, with a wave of the hand and a “Forget it, Jake; it’s Chinatown” finality. So Rush packed up his film, flew back to LA after the sneak, and stashed it in his pool house, where it would sit until after the new year, when he got another call from Seattle.

Randy Finley didn’t like to take chances when booking movies for the Guild 45th Theatre. He took it so seriously that during his 18 years as owner of Seattle’s Seven Gables Theatres chain, he recruited a small cadre of film-buff confidantes who would join him at screenings and then debate whether what they’d seen met Seven Gables’ standards: Could it generate compelling word of mouth? Would it get great critical support? Did they like the people behind the picture? He took a lot of pride in having run movies like The Black Stallion and Harold and Maude in his theaters when others wouldn’t. And he took even more pride in turning them into art house hits. “If you went to the Guild 45th when I was booking it,” Finley says, “you would walk out thinking you’d just seen one of the best pictures of the year—if not the best.”

Based on Arnold’s unequivocally favorable review, Finley knew The Stunt Man met at least one of his group’s three criteria. What he didn’t know was whether he’d like Rush or whether the movie could inspire devoted audiences to do the advertising for him. But after watching it with the fevered crowd at the Overlake Cinema that August night and then listening to the director passionately recount his fight to keep it alive, he decided he had to run it in the Wallingford outpost of his mini multiplex empire. “What happened to Richard should have never happened,” Finley says, referring to Rush’s struggle with releasing the movie. “All he did was make a good picture.”

Giddy at the prospect of having found another sleeper hit, Finley walked to the parking lot, still peeling apart the picture’s layers of subtext with Jeff Dowd, an employee who oversaw his theaters’ promotions and did some booking for Finley’s distribution company. But when they got to Finley’s car, they were hit with a bucket of cold water in the form of a note under the windshield wiper. It was from Ruth Hayler, another employee who’d also trekked out to Bellevue: “Randy, I don’t think this picture is going to make it. Jeff’s probably going to like it. Please don’t risk a lot of money on it. Ruth.”

Hayler was young and fresh out of graduate school, while Finley had been booking movies for a decade, but he couldn’t just ignore her opinion out of hand. What if hers represented a more mainstream, commercial audience’s response to The Stunt Man? If it hadn’t worked for her, it might not work for Finley’s loyal patrons, who trusted his judgment and expected cinematic excellence when they bought a ticket at the Guild 45th. Was he willing to jeopardize that trust—and the cash that came along with it—on an unproven picture with negligible support from its producers and a leading man that hadn’t had a hit in a decade? He and Dowd ultimately decided on the drive back to Seattle that if they handled the picture correctly, it was worth the risk; Finley called Rush within weeks of the screening to discuss setting up a test run at the Guild 45th the following summer. But they were careful to keep Hayler’s reaction in mind.

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Building buzz for a movie—at least the way Randy Finley and Jeff Dowd liked to do it—takes work. And it takes time. Months. “To make the movie work properly, things had to be set in motion,” Dowd says. “You don’t just throw the picture in the theater and open the doors, you know? You need to create awareness. You need to create a sense of ‘need to see.’ ”

Dowd was only 30 at the time, but he’d been winning hearts and minds for years with his intensity and a bullhorn. As a part-time student at Cornell, he was a vocal antiwar activist and a member of the local arm of the Students for a Democratic Society. After graduating and moving to Seattle, he joined the militant Seattle Liberation Front in 1970, helped lead a demonstration at the Federal Courthouse that turned violent, and was charged with conspiracy to destroy federal property alongside six other SLF members. (The press nicknamed them the Seattle Seven.) The charges were dropped in 1973, but Dowd had solidified his reputation as a grassroots organizer. “Jeff was very persuasive,” says Jackson, who was a classmate of Dowd’s before getting into the movie exhibition business. “Not eloquent, but passionate in a way that became infectious. He was also so dogged that there was no point in saying no to him. He was just going to get into your face until he got what he wanted.”

Rush saw the same tenacity in Dowd. “It was like he’d just climbed down from the police barriers,” the director says. “He was a real street fighter and approached his publicity that way.” And Rush needed a bulldog in Seattle. In early spring 1980, the president of Melvin Simon Productions, Milt Goldstein, had grudgingly agreed to allow the Guild 45th to host an eight-week test engagement of The Stunt Man starting June 27, but only on the condition that Finley put up $50,000 for advertising. And the Seven Gables was on its own to promote the picture locally.

That the movie would finally be released—even if it was in only one market—was a huge victory for Rush, but for his growing team of supporters in Seattle, there were still nagging questions: Why did they have to fight so hard to get this far when audiences seemed to love the picture? What did Mel Simon have to lose by giving it a shot? Rush thought he knew the answer.

Simon was a billionaire shopping mall mogul from Indiana and a Hollywood outsider who treated movie production like a hobby. As a result, he left most of the business decisions to Goldstein and his head of marketing, Jonas Rosenfeld. Both claimed publicly that they were having trouble finding a major studio to distribute The Stunt Man, but Rush was convinced something much simpler was at play: ego. Before Simon agreed to finance the movie, he had invited Rush, Goldstein (who was then the head of the independent studio Avco Embassy), and another studio executive to discuss the script over drinks at the Polo Lounge in Beverly Hills. The topic: Would The Stunt Man have commercial appeal in the overseas market? Goldstein’s answer was a flat no. Simon saw something that Goldstein didn’t and gave Rush $3.5 million to make his movie anyway. That meant that when Goldstein later joined the company—after The Stunt Man was well into postproduction—he inherited a picture he’d gone on record as saying had limited commercial appeal. If the movie did well, Rush surmised, Goldstein’s credibility as an arbiter of cinematic taste could suffer. “He’d taken a stand against Mel doing the movie from the beginning and continued to do so after he’d seen a finished cut,” Rush says. “He didn’t want to be wrong.”

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Well isn’t that a bunch of bullshit?” Goldstein says of Rush’s claim. “Who wants to be right or wrong? I want pictures to make money. We get the pictures into the theaters. We can’t put the asses in the seats. If you told me how to do that, I’d be a billionaire.” (However, Bob Relyea, who worked alongside Goldstein at Melvin Simon Productions and was aware of his battles with Rush, won’t dispute the director’s assertions. “I suppose I should be tactful,” he says, “but I have to say that I think Dick is right.”)

Dowd was confident that he could “put the asses in the seats.” But he knew from Ruth Hayler’s response to The Stunt Man that you had to do more than that. Preparing the audience for what it was about to see was just as important. Hayler had watched the movie again after Finley made the deal to host the premiere and had a completely different experience. Aware from her first viewing that there was no archetypal hero to root for, she was able to enjoy the movie for what it was: an unconventional head trip that relied on a mixture of comedy, drama, and action to intentionally disorient viewers and give them no choice but to identify with Railsback’s paranoid stuntman. This time she loved it. Dowd knew it was his job to help Seattle audiences adjust their expectations. “We had to explain to people that it was a roller-coaster ride of the imagination,” he says.

Finley didn’t have money for television advertising—which at that point was rare for movies and virtually unheard of for independent movies—so Dowd resorted to his grassroots methods. He printed up leaflets and handed them out to people lined up at other theaters for the summer’s biggest blockbuster, The Empire Strikes Back. He brought Railsback and Barbara Hershey (the film’s female lead) into town for an all-out media blitz, booking them on local morning news shows and drive-time radio. And Finley enlisted KING-FM and KZAM-FM to give away tickets for advance “word-of-mouth” screenings; when the crowds lined up before showtime, he took pictures and used them in print ads leading up to the premiere to create that “need-to-see” urgency that Dowd wanted. The savviest play may have been the way Dowd preyed upon Seattleites’ sense of altruism. Whenever he could, he enlisted the crowds at sneak previews, ratcheting up the drama surrounding the movie’s release, to convert them into foot soldiers in the fight to save it. “Look, it’s do or die for this picture here in Seattle,” he pleaded. “Please, call all of your friends and tell them to go on opening weekend.”

With virtually no support from its producers, The Stunt Man was becoming the most-talked-about movie in town weeks before it opened. But Finley and Dowd knew that buzz wouldn’t necessarily equate to box office, and the stakes were high. A successful run in Seattle could convince Melvin Simon Productions—or a larger studio—to distribute the movie nationally. If no one showed up, though, not only would it kill Rush’s chances of saving his baby, but the Guild 45th would have to scramble to find a halfway-decent replacement for two months at the height of the summer movie season. “We had the house on the line for this picture,” Dowd says.

Three weeks. That’s how long Larry Jackson (who in June was helping Rush negotiate a separate eight-week test run at the Avco Centre Cinemas in Westwood, California) estimated The Stunt Man needed to perform well in Seattle to attract interest from the major studios. Three good weeks, he thought, and everything else would be gravy. Take out weekdays, when theater attendance typically drops off anyway, and that left six days. Six days of solid returns and Richard Rush might finally have a chance to show the rest of the country this picture he’d toiled on for years.

It ran at the Guild 45th for 43 weeks.

“I was in the business for 57 years,” Bob Relyea says, “and I never saw anything happen like that.” From its opening weekend in Seattle, The Stunt Man was an overwhelming success. And whether it was thanks to Finley and Dowd’s guerrilla marketing blitz or the unconventional story that resonated with local moviegoers who wanted to embrace adventurous filmmaking, one showing after another sold out. And they kept selling out, well into the next year. Hayler, who still books movies at the Seven Gables Theatre in the U District, won’t say how much money the movie made at the Guild 45th, but Finley and Rush claim that it was close to $1 million—and that was in 1980, when tickets were $4 apiece. “I remember this neighbor of mine who went to it based on what I told him about it,” former P-I film critic William Arnold says. “He was profoundly moved by it. It told him something about life that nothing else ever had. He ended up going back five or six times.”

A little over two months into The Stunt Man’s test run in Seattle, Twentieth Century-Fox picked up the movie and agreed to distribute it. It earned just north of $7 million nationwide—a box office failure that Rush blames on Fox’s refusal to order more than 300 prints—but in February 1981 it was nominated for three Oscars: best adapted screenplay, best actor (Peter O’Toole), and best director. “Seattle audiences really saved that movie,” Arnold says. “I’m trying to think of another instance in which another city had that kind of impact, and I can’t.”

Arnold never lost touch with Rush after their first meeting in Bel Air, and true to his word, he kept lobbying on behalf of the movie right until it premiered. And the director, whom Arnold calls an “amazingly generous, smart, good guy,” showed his gratitude for the critic’s work by inviting Arnold and his wife, Kathie, to join him at the Academy Awards that spring. “I had better seats than Robert De Niro,” Arnold says, sounding a little amazed 30 years later at the string of events that started in Rush’s pool house. The Stunt Man was shut out at the ceremony, but Rush went home with the moral victory of having seen his picture outlast everyone’s expectations but his own. And Arnold? He took home a more tangible trophy, a signed poster that still hangs in his home office: “To Bill and Kathie—Two great gladiators, my best comrades in arms in the battle against tyranny and windmills. Love, ­Richard Rush.”

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