The sound of a light spring rain over pre-dawn Bucharest was pierced by a lady's cry from a hotel window.
“You’re killing me!! You’re killing me!!”
The sweaty red-haired American director immediately stopped f**king the sultry local babe he’d just met.
They had warned me to watch my back in Bucharest. Now I panicked that police...or mobsters -- or both -- were going to burst in and haul me away.
Flash back a month.
My most recent “film credit” – if you could call it that -- had been in real-life: throwing the head of a studio into a pool at a black-tie party. The asshole — the actual guy The Player was based upon -- had insulted the cool African music ensemble I had hired. Even his closest ass-kissers couldn’t suppress their glee as the vain mogul struggled gracelessly out of the pool in a dripping-wet tuxedo. If only I hadn’t thrown his blond bimbo in as well, when she went off like a foul-mouthed Banshee. However profoundly satisfying the moment, and its attendant bragging rights, it wasn’t the wisest career move in Hollywood.
So I jumped at a directing offer shortly thereafter from a cheapo B-horror producer -- one who Hollywood only touched at arm’s length: the legendary, semi-notorious Charlie Band. Not an evil guy, as some disgruntled writers and directors allege. In truth, still a kid at heart, with a boyish devotion to horror films, he’s maybe produced a hundred by now. But his enterprises seemed to go bust every few years. Sometimes crews weren’t paid, yet Charlie’s estates in Hollywood and Italy always seemed to grow nicer.
In any case, Band had a script by a brilliant and incorrigible buddy/collaborator of mine, Matthew Bright (Freeway), and they wanted me to direct. “The Call of Mr. Sumatra,” a darkly comic tale about three boys who lose their heads, only to have them re-animated as flying shrunken-head super-heroes. If only Tommy wasn’t still in love with Sally! A difficult “romance” of sorts. Matthew’s script was nuanced and hilarious.
Whereas Band’s straight-ahead horror plots went directly to video, this was going to be a more sophisticated piece designed for theatrical release...but at the usual low budget, of course.
Another bright spot was that Paramount had invested in Band’s video operation, and somehow I could shoot on their famous “New York street” set -- located in Hollywood, of course — but that was exactly the look we needed.
As I had to work within a short shooting schedule, I planned and plotted every last detail, every last shot. I’m a believer in Murphy’s Law: “What can go wrong, will go wrong.” Although ready to roll with the punches, I was prepped!
Until someone pointed out that everything was looking too good: “Charlie will somehow, someway throw a wrench in.”
A day later -- one week before shooting was supposed to start -- I didn’t immediately feel the anesthesia taking effect as I sat across the desk from a superior persuader than I.
“Rick,” said Charles Band, “I want you to make the film that you want to make!”
“But there’s no way you can realize your vision on an 18-day shoot.”
Yeah, slave driver that I can be, I certainly could use more days!
“So I’m sending you to Romania! We have great local crews there, a street that can look like New York... Hell, you can shoot for 35 days! All I want is for YOU to have your vision...and I’m going to see that you get it!”
The next day, on a plane to Bucherest, Romania, sitting between my cinematographer and Charlie’s right-arm associate producer, Pete Coulsen, the anesthesia wore off.
WTF!! How were we ever going to make Bucharest look like the old-time Lower East Side?!! The film was a twisted take on the famous 1937 film, Dead End, with Humphrey Bogart and Bowery Boys — the whole look, language, feel of my film was a working class N.Y. neighborhood. Romania!!?
Later that night at the hotel bar in downtown Bucharest, my mood sank even lower. As booze not only failed to bring me up, it took me further down. The two sexy ladies across the bar didn’t divert their eyes when I glanced their way, as non-hookers do when drunken idiots stare. One of them came my way. Katya.
She struck up a conversation in reasonable English. I briefly told her my sorry tale...and that I wasn’t in great shape for any “hook-ups” that night. She didn’t care. Katya was “working” her way back to the university, hopefully that fall. She wanted to know everything about life in America, about making movies.
So who am I judge another’s life and circumstances? Katya was bright and surpisingly well-versed in classic films. Romania had been poor and chaotic after the Russians left and their dictator, Ceausescu, fell. When she told me that Pretty Woman was her favorite movie — an inspiration that people could overcome difficult circumstances — the poignancy of the moment made my eyes well up; my latent machismo had to fight back tears.
When the bar closed, we continued talking in my room. God, I had such high hopes for my little film! Katya held me. I wasn’t in the mood for anything physical, but we snuggled as the dawn’s light illuminated the city below. It was a pleasant spring morning, the windows a bit open, a soft rain began to fall. It was very romantic.
Finally...we kissed...and kissed. And kissed.
The liquor and depression seeming to have worn off, Katya and I fell into fervent lovemaking. And as I found the right spot, she really started to make noise, finally screaming:
“You’re killing me!! You’re killing me!!”
I quickly rolled aside, suddenly worried.
“Ooohh,” she moaned softly, and in her strong accent, “You kill me sooo good, Rick! Now I kill you!!” She mounted herself upon me and returned passion’s favor.
My mind questioned about the cultural translation and choice of words (but only for the briefest moment).
The following morning, I was taken to Bucharest’s supposed “New York” street.
“No f***ing way!” The iron-work on some of the windows looked vaguely, vaguely Spanish. Pete Clauson offered that we could set the story in New Orleans, maybe. My cameraman Steve started laughing and apologized.
That afternoon, we set off for the countryside. I had left Katya my U.S. contact info, but in the foggy-headed morning rush, didn’t get hers. But did I really want it, my mind wondered, or should I have really given her mine?
My brain also did some math as we visited some Band productions shooting around Romania. Yes, they had more days to shoot, but the local crews could only manage half the shots and camera set-ups per day that we get in the States...at a third the cost.Yeah, the math started to make sense all right.
“Oh that Grigore! He should have been here with the truck, that is why I am late.”
Or, "Serghei didn’t bring this," or "Nicolai, I am so mad at him, he didn’t bring that." Always someone else’s fault. The only law in post-Communist Romania was Murphy’s.
As we headed further away from Bucharest and up into the Transylvania mountains, I was struck by the beauty of the countryside. The postcard picturesque village of Brashov really took me back in time. I thought of just leaving the production, renting a room above the quaint tavern, and writing novels. My mind couldn’t help but imagine Katya there with me, working on her thesis, of course, as I gave Hemingway and Fitzgerald a run for their money.
The next night, we were directed to a traditional tavern way in the hills; we had to walk a pleasant trail the final distance under the setting sun and rising moon. The magic hour, as they call it in film.
A band of gypsies played inside. This was like the coolest place I had ever been to, although my PETA friends would have some problems with the menu of beef, boar, venison...and bear.
The music wailed. The wine flowed. And the gypsies managed to somehow solicit each of our party separately for a generous tip, none of us knowing the other was also being hit up.
But so what? We could afford it; they struggle on pennies comparatively. And their music, or the wine, or something about that night changed the thinking of tough-producer Pete Coulson. He agreed to scuttle the Romania shoot and get us back on the Paramount lot. He sent back numbers showing it would cost too much to bring American cars over, re-dress the street...our film had under-age kids, pubescent girls who might get kidnapped -- we’d need to hire body-guards, etc., etc. Etcetera!
So back in the U.S., Charles Dutton and half my cast and crew had already taken other work. But I got to shoot the film on that fabulous “New York” set, although I was only given 16 days and had to tear up some of Matthew Bright’s favorite pages. Charlie Band renamed the film Shrunken Heads just as his studio was taken over Paramount's financial auditing department. We got lost in the shuffle somewhere, although my strange little movie ultimately found a loyal cult audience.
And Katya? I expected her to contact me, but she never did. Sometimes I think of her when I’m alone on a rainy night. I hope she made it back to school.
P.S. Charlie Band and I have remained cordial. He has been gracious with festival screening rights, and I and other filmmakers owe him thanks for all the movies he produces and opportunities he creates.