Ted Kotcheff ensured himself at least a footnote in pop-culture history as the director of First Blood, the 1982 action-adventure that unleashed John Rambo on an unsuspecting world.
The Canadian-born filmmaker has several other impressive credits on his lengthy resume, including The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kratvitz (1974), with Richard Dreyfuss and Houston native Randy Quaid; North Dallas Forty (1979), which featured Nick Nolte as a quarterback for the fictitious North Dallas Bulls (and confirmed some people’s worst suspicions about the real-life Dallas Cowboys); and Weekend at Bernie’s (1989), a raucous dark comedy that, for many of its fans, stands as a textbook definition of “guilty pleasure.”
"And then a voice rang out: 'If the director of this film is in this moviehouse, we should grab him and string him up from the nearest lamppost.' ”
More recently, Kotcheff has found gainful employment for the better part of 14 seasons as an executive producer of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
But when pressed to name the project for which he’s proudest, he usually mentions a title unfamiliar to most movie buffs and TV viewers: Wake in Fright, a harrowingly intense 1971 drama about a seemingly civilized schoolteacher (Gary Bond) who gets in touch with his baser instincts while interacting with the Down Under equivalent of good-ol’-boys in a remote Australian mining town.
Although it’s long been held in high esteem by serious cineastes and many of Kotcheff’s fellow filmmakers (including Martin Scorsese), Wake in Fright — fleetingly released decades ago in the United States under the title Outback – was unavailable for viewing anywhere for decades. But now there’s a digitally restored 35mm print in circulation, and it’s currently playing at the Alamo Drafthouse Mason Park.
Kotcheff, still hale and hearty at age 81, was eager to talk about Wake in Fright at the recent Fantastic Fest in Austin. But he seemed just as happy to also answer questions about another film that, years after its initial theatrical release, continues to attract attention.
CultureMap: John Rambo actually dies at the end of the novel that inspired First Blood. And I understand that’s also what happened in early drafts of the script. Have you ever wondered what a different sort of pop-culture impact the character would have had if you’d offed him like that – and not allowed him to survive for sequels?
Ted Kotcheff: What happened was, originally, the movie was conceived as the story of this Vietnam veteran who’d been kicked around from pillar to post. He didn’t feel there was any room for him in American society anymore – he was a piece of machinery that was broken. But then something happens. When he returns to that town where he’d been told to leave, he’s on a suicide mission. This was it — he had to die. Because he didn’t want any more of America.
CM: And I take it that’s how the character came across in scripts that went out to people like Al Pacino, who was offered the project before Sylvester Stallone came on board.
TK: When I cast Sylvester, we worked on the script together. And thing about Sylvester is – he has a very good populist sense. While we were shooting the film, we had a pretty good idea what it was all about. But we rewrote the ending various ways – something like 16 times – until we came up with the idea that the colonel, the character Richard Crenna plays, comes in there to put him out of his misery, to shoot him. And when he can’t do it, Rambo commits hari-kari. That’s the “alternative ending” you can see on some of the DVDs.
CM: It’s really quite shocking in its abruptness. Stallone just pulls the gun while it’s still in Crenna’s hand – and pow!
TK: And after we shot that, Sylvester comes over to me and says, “God, we put this character through so much. He jumps off cliffs, he gets shot and has to sew himself up, dogs are sicced on him – and now we’re gonna kill him? The audience is really gonna dislike this.”
And then he said, “Also, looking at it from a crass commercial point of view, I’m sure that whoever distributes this film” – because we didn’t have a distributor yet, we made it independently – “they’re not gonna want him to die at the end.” And I said, “You got a point, Sly. I have an idea – I know how to do this.”
CM: And that’s when you shot the ending where he survives.
TK: And the funny thing is, the producer wasn’t happy. He asked, “What are you doing, Kotcheff? What are you shooting? We already agreed, this is a suicide mission. We can’t have him surviving.”
And I said, “Just leave it to me, it’ll only take two hours, we can shoot this other ending.” And he was like, “We’re already over-budget. We can’t afford two hours of shooting.” But I finally convinced him to allow me to do it.
CM: And then?
TK: We had the first test screening in a suburb of Las Vegas. And I have to tell you, I never had another audience respond like that. They were yelling: “Great! Get him! Get him!” They were so involved with the action, it was just amazing. And then, he commits hari-kari. Well, you could have heard a pin drop in the cinema. And then a voice rang out: “If the director of this film is in this moviehouse, we should grab him and string him up from the nearest lamppost.” So I said to my wife, “Let’s get out of here before they string me up.”
CM: So it was a no-brainer to make the change?
TK: All the response cards we got back had things written on them like, “This is the best action film I’ve ever seen, but the ending…” And all you saw were exclamation marks. Every card had the same reaction. So I just turned to the producers, and said, “Boys, I just happen to have this other ending.” That’s how it happened.
CM: You had to wait a bit longer for Wake in Fright to get the release it deserved. Do you feel a bit like a father who hasn’t seen his son for many years, ever since the guy went off to war, and now he’s back – and reasonably intact?
TK: That’s a very good metaphor. It certainly has been one of the most miraculous odysseys I’ve ever had with a film. I mean, I made that film 40 years ago. Forty years ago. And now it’s been resuscitated and being re-released. The film continually surprises me. It keeps coming back to life.
CM: Even the folks who have been its most ardent admirers haven’t been able to actually see it again for decades. What do you think there is about Wake in Fright that made it so memorable for so many people?
TK: I think part of it is, the movie has a kind of exotic quality because of the setting. It’s a raw, naked setting. But also, we all have a deep desire for self-knowledge. And I think we all have some inkling that there’s a shadow side to our make-up. And we’d like to get in touch with it. Sometimes, I think, we unconsciously put ourselves in situations where we can encounter ourselves.
This is a movie, really, about a sort of existential situation. The guy in Wake in Fright, he starts out as so arrogant about other human beings. He’s a guy who comes to realize that nobody is superior to anybody else. And that we’re all in the same existential boat. That we’re all going to go through the pain of living. And then end up in a hole.