Across a career spanning almost 40 years, director, writer and cinematographer Peter Hyams has been responsible for some great and varied films. Of these, his genre work is – for this writer at least – his most compelling.
1978’s Capricorn One was a taut conspiracy thriller about a faked mission to Mars and the subsequent events to cover it up. 1981’s Outland was a claustrophobic western in space starring Sean Connery as a marshal trying to find out why miners are going psychotic on a mining colony. Then there’s the Space Odyssey sequel 2010, a string of thrillers – Running Scared, The Presidio, Narrow Margin – and a brace of 1990s Jean-Claude Van Damme films: Timecop and Sudden Death.
It was a pleasure, then, to be able to speak to Mr Hyams about how he got into filmmaking, his genre films, his conversations with Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg, his latest feature Enemies Closer – which again stars Jean-Claude Van Damme – and why he was so impressed by Alfonso Cuaron’s Gravity.
First of all, I wondered if you could talk about how you made the jump from news reporting and documentary making and filmmaking, and what made you want to do that.
Well, my background, first, was of an art student. I’d come from a very political family – a blacklisted family, actually. So politics and image-making and writing were all things I’d wanted to do; my family worked in the theatre for three generations, and I certainly wasn’t going to be a civilian. And I thought documentary filmmaking was an amalgam of all the things about which I was passionate.
After a few years of working in news, both local and CBS, A, I found out I wasn’t very good at what I was doing, and B, more importantly, I found that putting a few words together that elicited a response was more important to me than writing something that was factual. That taking a photograph that was good-looking and interesting was more important than being accurate. I felt that the camera wasn’t a recording device; I felt that the camera was a paintbrush.
So I wanted to write fiction, and I wanted to photograph in an emotional way. So I – this sounds brave, but I was not, and am not brave – I left CBS, and I thought, all I have to do was write a script, and people would want it. If I’d known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have done it. But I did it, and people wanted it, and they made it, and I started.
The first thing I ever wrote was a screenplay. They would not let me direct it, so I produced it, and a very big director called Herbert Ross directed it [T. R. Baskin, 1970]. That was for Paramount. Then I found that I really did not want to write for anybody else, and I said, I’m not going to do this anymore, I’m going to make a television film.
That was a time when television was considered a vat of sulphuric acid, and if you stuck in it, you’d withdraw a stump. I said, I don’t care, I want to do it. And the guy who was the head of television movies, who interested me, was an absolutely brilliant man named Barry Diller. So I went to see Barry Diller, and he gave me a job.
I was being offered a lot of things to write, by studios who offered a lot of money, and I said no. I said, you’ll get a bargain, because I’ll write it for you as long as you let me direct it. So I wrote and directed this television movie, and it was profoundly over-praised. Embarrassingly so.
You know, for somebody who’s young and new, when something’s well received, it’s like throwing chum into the water. People got interested in me.
How did you come to write Capricorn One, which was a big hit in 1978?
I was crazy about the space programme. That was my subject. I was pretty knowledgeable about it – I worked on it in television news. And CBS news had this thing at the time where there was a simulation, because when the Apollo spacecraft was in sections and had to do some fairly intricate manouevers in space, there was no camera on it. So they’d do a simulation from McDonnell Douglas.
I remember sitting there thinking, that’s a one-camera story. And if you could screw with the camera, you could screw with the story. When my parents grew up, they were the generation that felt that, if you read it in the papers, it was true. I was the generation that thought if you saw it on television, it was true. Then we found out that what the papers said was sometimes untrue, and later, we found out that television could do the same thing.
So I just thought, gee, wouldn’t it be interesting if we could control the story. To have this conspiracy – again, I come from a conspiratorial vantage point. And when I initially wrote it, the response from studios was not, “gee this is interesting, but it’s not our cup of tea,” or, “if you maybe changed the third act, then maybe [we’d like it]”.
It was, “Can you get your car out of the parking lot.” So it laid dormant for about three or four years.
Really? They disliked it that much?
What was it about the script they didn’t like?
I don’t know. I don’t know. Certainly, the Nixon administration ultimately helped me.
It did very much fit into the climate of the time when it came out.
Yeah. I’m certainly one of the few people who can say they owe their career to HR Haldeman.
Even then, when I made the film, it was kind of an outsider. It was made below the radar. Warner didn’t really believe in it, and when we previewed it, the reaction was insane – people got up and cheered – but they still didn’t really believe in it. And the success of that movie is really due to Richard Donner, because Dick couldn’t deliver Superman on time, so I became Warner Bros’ summer movie.
So I got the benefit of the full push of Warner Bros and their marketing, and the good theatres and all that. Had Donner delivered Superman for the summer, I think Capricorn One would have been dumped.
To be fair though, you had a great cast, and it was a fantastic film.
Thank you very much.
Did you write it as a thought experiment, or did you have any suspicions about the Moon landing conspiracy thing?
Oh, not even a little.
Because that’s obviously got out of hand since, the conspiracy theories about the Moon landings being faked.
It’s absolutely absurd.
On the subject of science fiction, the next film you did that I really loved was Outland. Could you talk a little bit about how you made that?
People sometimes attach the words science fiction to me, and I’ve always resisted it. I want to be considered as someone who wrote science feasible. I just wondered what life would be like – because I do think, at some point, there will be attempts by this planet to go and get resources and minerals elsewhere.
I certainly think Ridley Scott paved the way. And I think he made the best science fiction film ever made in Alien. The idea of a blue-collar existence in a very hostile environment struck me as very interesting – the claustrophobia of it.
It’s interesting that you use that word, because the way you shot it gives an amazing sense of claustrophobia, in the lighting and the camera placement – and the set design as well. Is that something you enjoy exploring in your cinematography, that sense of confined space?
It depends on what the story calls for. If you’re doing a film in the desert, I think the last thing in the world you’d want to evoke in people is claustrophobia. You want vast, horizontal filming.
I remember sitting with Steven Spielberg, who I think is nothing short of brilliant, and he was making Jurassic Park. And he was making it in 1:85, as opposed to 2:35 Panavision. And because it was such a big film and such a big subject, I said, “Steven, why are you doing it in 1:85?” And he looked at me like I’m the dummy that I am and said, “because dinosaurs are tall!”
And I went, “Oh shit. Yeah!” [Laughs] That’s why he’s Steven Spielberg.
Just like one draws, that’s the way I photograph. I believe each room, each place, has an event. The event is light, the event is geometry, the event is emotion of the place. I think when you light it, and when you stage it, you try to heighten it.
Someone once pointed out something to me: it’s often written that I’m known for using available light. I remember saying, “Where the fuck is the available light on a sound stage?” [Laughs]
I never use available light. Even when I’m outside I never use available light. So I love making light.
That certainly comes across in Outland. I understand you once spoke to Stanley Kubrick, before you made 2010, and he mentioned Outland.
Well, I wouldn’t make 2010 unless it was approved by Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C Clarke. So during the making of 2010, during that year and a half, I spoke to Stanley a great many times, and he was incredibly generous.
The first time, I wanted to talk to him to get his approval. It didn’t have to be done, but I wouldn’t do it unless he approved of it. I was waiting in my office, and the call was set up for two o’clock in the afternoon. The phone rang, and someone said Stanley Kubrick’s on the line. I remember standing up at my desk and taking the call.
I said, “Hi, Mr Kubrick,” and he said, “Call me Stanley”. I said, “Hi, Stanley.” And he said, in his New York accent, “How did you make that shot with the guy…” and I was taken aback. We just spoke for about two and a half hours, and he was asking question after question after question.
Finally, I said, “Look, the thing I have to know is, do you approve of me making this movie?” And he just said, “Oh, sure”, and just went off. I hung up the phone, and my assistant came in the office and said, “What was it like?”
I said, “We spoke for two and a half hours. I told him everything, and he told me nothing.”
A couple of months later, I was talking to Arthur C Clarke. I said, “Arthur, what was it like the first time you met Stanley?”
He said, “We sat down on a park bench, we talked for about two and a half hours. I told him everything and he told me nothing.” [Laughs]
That must have been incredibly exciting, though.
Oh it was. It was daunting and frightening. I figured that when I made 2010, the only thing I could do was make a film that was so different in approach and style, that it simply could not be compared. And I don’t think you can compare. It’s just so different.
However, when you’re talking with Stanley Kubrick, you’re talking with one of the great minds in the history of film. But I also feel that way when I talk with Spielberg.
I mean, I just saw Gravity. And I have to tell you, it’s the most awe-inspiring movie I’ve seen in my life.
It’s amazing. Did you see it in IMAX, by any chance?
I’d like to go and see it again in IMAX.
Yeah. Except, in a perverse way, I’m glad I didn’t, because it was so overwhelming – I saw it in a great theatre with a huge screen – it was so overwhelming as it was. You know, I’ve spent most of my life making films, and some of these films are considered very complex and complicated. And I spent an hour and 45 minutes watching Gravity going, “How the fuck did he do that?”
It is one of those films where you quickly forget you’re even watching a film.
Yes. You surrender. You absolutely surrender. Except I couldn’t stop gasping at the accomplishment, at what [Alfonso Cuaron] did.
It is a stunning film. But to return to 2010, you worked very closely with Arthur C Clarke, I understand.
Yes I did. I wanted to depart from the book in a very significant way, and I wanted Arthur on board. I didn’t want to go through the trauma of making something that Arthur or Stanley said they didn’t like. So I would send Arthur Clarke script pages every single night. They installed a computer in my office, and a computer in his office in Sri Lanka. This was in the fairly early days of computing, and I would send him the pages and get his comments every single morning.
Because the book was about a joint American and Russian mission, without any of the politics. Everyone got along famously, and I wanted to do the opposite. I thought it was very ripe for discussing the Cold War, which was raging at that time.
And again, it was right for its time, as Capricorn One was.
2010 used some quite cutting-edge computer effects, didn’t it, for the monoliths?
It’s one of the first films, that ever used CGI. It was done on what was at that time the most powerful computer in the private sector, which was the Cray computer. It took 90 seconds per frame to render. It was Jupiter, so every time you saw Jupiter, it was taken from JPL [NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory] and sent into the computer. It was every single cloud formation on the surface of the planet, and every wave, every band moved. We had the computer record this and put it in.
So it’s as accurate a depiction of Jupiter as exists, taken from the JPL photographs.
That’s amazing. Through the rest of the 80s and into the 1990s, you directed a series of thrillers. I think my favourite was probably Narrow Margin. That’s another film with that claustrophobic cinematography…
Well, it’s on a train!
But I get the impression that you really like these internal movies. That your cinematography’s at its most creative when it’s finding interesting ways of shooting in tight spaces. Is that something you’d agree with?
Thank you, thank you. I don’t know how to respond to that. Again, the thing that made Alien so dazzling was people in a confined space with a monster. If you’re in the middle of the desert with a monster, it’s not the same as being stuck in a room with some kind of malevolence.
After that, you did two films in succession with Jean-Claude Van Damme [Timecop (1994) and Sudden Death (1995)].
Yes, and I have another one coming out in January.
So I take it you must enjoy working together, considering this is the third time.
I enjoy working with Jean-Claude very much, and I enjoyed working with… [A fire alarm goes off in Mr Hyams’ office complex] Sometimes these fire alarms just go off.
I wondered what that was!
It’s a big complex here. Anyway, I enjoyed working with Jean-Claude, and I enjoy doing that kind of action, and trying to do it differently. I’d seen martial arts films dating back to Bruce Lee, and everyone was in love with slow motion and all that stuff, and I wanted to do the opposite.
I thought the script, the actual story [for Timecop] was really clever. I remember Universal came up with a phenomenal ad line for the film, which was “His wife was killed ten years ago. There’s still time to save her.”
I just thought that was so intriguing. The film that I’ve just finished with Jean-Claude, [Enemies Closer], I’m kind of proud of. It was done on a very low budget, and in a very short amount of time, and I think this is a Jean-Claude Van Damme no one’s ever seen. He plays an absolutely, flamboyantly, lunatic, evil person who… I think you’ll have to see it, but he’s funnier than you’ve ever seen him, he’s nuttier than you’ve ever seen him on screen, and there are no curves. So he’ll be one way, and then at a 90-degree sharp angle, he’ll do something that is so cruel and so violent.
I thought, to create that kind of character, with this really unexpected persona for Jean-Claude, would be really interesting.
He can pull off these really good performances, can’t he, as we saw in JCVD.
Yeah, when I saw JCVD, I saw that he could be funny. And in this one, he’s truly funny, and truly deranged, and quite, quite lethal. I said when we started, “I want this guy to be a mix of JCVD and Hannibal Lecter”.
Does he still do a lot of martial arts, or should we expect a more low-key thriller?
Oh, he’s quite savage. There’s not a lot of martial arts, but there’s a great deal of fighting. But it’s not balletic. It’s really violent, really vicious.
Well, I look forward to seeing that. You once said that filmmaking is a process of failure, because you always find blemishes in your work. But with a greater gap of time, isn’t it easier to appreciate what you got right about your earlier films?
No. It’s harder, and gets harder all the time. Because you raise the bar, and you expect more. You can see better, so to me, the gulf between where I am and the people who I admire is widening, not narrowing.
Peter Hyams, thank you very much.
Enemies Closer is due out in spring 2014.
Follow our Twitter feed for faster news and bad jokes right here. And be our Facebook chum here.