W.D. Richter on the making of Buckaroo Banzai (and the sequel)
Posted by dailypop on May 23, 2012
I still remember the weird fever-dream-like excitement I had when I saw Buckaroo Banzai in the cinema with my Dad and brother. It was a weird film that had all the logic of a Bronze age Marvel Comic Book filtered through a hazily remembered Republic serial and fitted with the height of mid-80′s fashion.
It was perfection in celluloid and it made almost no sense at all.
A multi-talented genius who specialized at brain surgery, theoretical physics, rocket car racing and led a band called the Hong Kong Cavaliers, Buckaroo Banzai was exploring the adventure that his parents had set him on many years ago. His father had attempted to break through the dimensional barrier, an experiment that was sabotaged by the Hanoi Xan (possibly a reference to the Shadow villain Shiwan Khan), an evil mastermind determined to rule the world through fear. Buckaroo and his crew once more attempted to break the barrier and brought something back, thus opening up our reality to an interdimensional war of the electroids from the Eighth Dimension.
What’s more, the film insinuated a lush background and legacy to Buckaroo’s adventurous life with allusions to past stories, a network of associates across the globe and a monthly Marvel Comics series. Only recently has a somewhat ongoing comic book seen publication from Moonstone Press (see below in the recommendations section), but the fan base cropped up almost immediately for this oddball sci-fi epic.
A shoddy VHS transfer hit the market but was so dirty and poorly mixed that it was nearly unwatchable. When the DVD was released, thankfully it was remastered. Several bonus features including an alternate opening, interviews and a discography of the Hong Kong Cavaliers (with album titles such as ‘Your Place Or Mayan?’ and ‘Can’t Happen, Captain Happen’) were included, which felt like a long deserved love letter to those followers who held a torch for the beloved movie.
Even though the closing credits promise a sequel, there has never been another Buckaroo Banzai movie (though there was a proposed TV series at one point). In this interview, writer W.D. Richter tells the behind the scenes story and exposes a myth or two…
Where did the idea for the end credits even come from?
Well, actually, an unlikely source was [producer] David Begelman, who was really our enemy for the entire movie. He was the guy who said, “Go ahead, you can make this movie,” but he never got it on any level. And so, when it ended just with a kiss, he said, “it needs something else.” And we had no money, at all, at that point. And he said, “I’m going to pop for some sort of choreographed ending that we can talk about.” We got a choreographer in because there was no way I would know how to movie around all of those people. So it kind of emerged from the end of the postproduction.
It holds up.
Yeah, I know. I’m always happy when I see it. And I can look at it from some distance because, like I said, I didn’t create it myself out of thin air. It was a good job! Not to me, but to him.
The song you picked: At the time, were you thinking, “Yeah, this is a hip, badass song?” Or did you know it was appropriately cheesy?
Wow, what a tricky question. I like to think that we were aware of what we were doing. Actually, the sequences were recorded to Billy Joel’s ‘Uptown Girl.’ Because nobody had composed the music ahead of time, so we needed something that has a rhythmic cadence that we could pick up on later and put our own music in. So, I always see that and I can hear that reverberating in the canyon there — in the cement dam. That was the home stretch of cutting it, too. I don’t know if we had a lot of choices. It was a strange experience making that movie.
The non sequitur aspects of ‘Buckaroo Banzai’ almost remind me of something like ‘Scott Pilgrim.’
Earl Mac Rauch has a marvelous brain and, you know, he throws that stuff in — that’s one of those things I like about his writing. I never know what anybody is going to say next. And I just said, “I’m going to do it. If somebody stops us … ” And the studio almost did several times — but we just kept going. Normally, Hollywood wouldn’t let you make that movie. It’s a fluke.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t there a never-seen work print that was screened without permission?
We certainly had a work print longer than a release print. I don’t recall that we previewed something that we’d call a work print, but somebody made a copy and it got out of the edit room. At that time it was kind of hard to make a copy — I don’t know if it was done in a lab. It wasn’t mixed, there were two soundtracks. I’m vague on that. That thing started circulating and then I was starting to hear rumors that that was my cut, and what was in the theaters was sort of “with a gun to my head.” It’s not really true.
Have you ever seen the released work print?
I’ve never seen this version of it. Of course, a movie is in constant flux. We’d take stuff out, put it back in. There wasn’t a final work print that was signed off on, because then that would have been the same as the release print. So there’s some version that’s part of the editing process that somebody was showing around at the time and I don’t even know where. Did they make a videotape of it and pass it around? It’s a mystery to me. I would love to see someday what everybody is seeing, because it couldn’t have had much music in it. It must be really crude.
Begelman was crazy. He would sabotage the movie in any way. When he said he didn’t like the home movie footage up front and he was taking it out, I didn’t have final cut. That was lifted as a giant lift. But the rest of the stuff, I think maybe I regret one or two missing references to Hanoi Xan that Lizardo made — but Begleman there would come down on us and say, “that’s not going to be in the movie because you can’t talk about a villain who’s not even in the movie. That’s ridiculous.” So we lost some stuff, but it was always a battle. We certainly won more fights than we lost. And that’s why the movie exists.
Why do you think there is still interest in this mysterious work print that may or may not exist today?
I have to deduce from the fact that it is kind of something that people want to see — that they like the movie and they didn’t get enough of Buckaroo and really liked it. And I know people thought that they would see a sequel that we were talking about at the time.
Well, yeah, it’s mentioned in the end credits.
[Laughs] That seems like a real cheat, to put it there and not make the movie. But again, if the movie had gone out to make a fortune, we would have made it. But [Begleman] is the strangest person I’ve worked with. Then he committed suicide, verifying our feeling that he was insane. But it was constantly wacky stuff like, “You can put on that choreographed ending, but, you know, I don’t really believe in this movie.” So, I have to say that people want to see this work print because they just think that they are going to get a few more treats. You know, maybe another Jeff Goldblum moment that they are deprived of now. We couldn’t put it in the DVD because we couldn’t find the footage because Begleman didn’t run a normal studio. We found some of the negatives but not a work print where you could say, “that’s how we cut it.” There’s a lot of that film in a vault somewhere and it’s in pristine condition — the negative — but you can’t get at it.
Why was there never a sequel?
I believe MGM owns the theatrical rights. The other big insanity for ‘Buckaroo’ is that the paper trail for the rights is almost impossible to follow. Warner Bros. wants to do an adult animated version of ‘Buckaroo.’ PolyGram sold it to MGM as a big bundle — all these films move around. And then, finally, you’re sitting at a studio that you found out purchased part of someone’s library and they are reluctant to do anything with the title because they don’t know for a fact that David Begleman, who was a notorious double dealer, might not have sold the international rights in perpetuity to some guy in Bangkok. And even if they are enthusiastic about doing a sequel, they’ll say, “our legal department is saying we don’t have a clear chain of title here, so we’re not going to stick our heads up, invest money, and then discover that some guy says, ‘Oh, by the way, I have all the international rights.’”
So we will never see ‘Buckaroo Banzai against the World Crime League’?
Technically, we have not violated our promise to the audience. We try to keep the franchise and the brand alive, anyway, because we never know when somebody is going to say, “Yeah, make something else.”
In your best guess, what scenes do you remember shooting that aren’t accounted for?
When the secretary of defense comes landing in his helicopter in the parking lot with the buses, he goes inside the bus for a kind of strange rant — walking up and down the aisle to pump everybody up in a pathetic failed attempt and nobody takes him seriously. There’s stuff like that. Maybe another scene with Buckaroo and Penny Priddy somewhere that didn’t seem critical to the movie to me, either, when we finished. I don’t personally miss some extraordinary thing. It’s curious, now, the film, for people who care about it, has a life of its own. You could put stuff back in it and I don’t think they’d take it as critically. If it’s a little clunky here and there, they might just say, “It’s fun to see it.”
What would you need to do to be able to get to that footage?
To get access to it you probably need access from MGM, but what good would that do you? You’d be in there looking at all of the negatives and you’d need an editor with you. Maybe all of the dailies are in there — and they may well be. But even if you got your hands on all of the dailies, you’d still need an editor. You need somebody writing a check to find the lost footage. All of these lost treasures are somewhere unless they’ve been smelted down. It’s lost to viewers more than lost in time and space, or something. It’s frustrating.
But they let you do a special edition DVD?
The very first one was on VHS. [Years later,] a guy who had worked on a mix of the feature got wind he was going to be asked to do a quick and dirty mix on ‘Buckaroo Banzai’ — throw it in without any features into their general DVD slush pile release pile. He contacted me through our website and said, “I don’t know if you know this is happening.” And I didn’t. So I cold-called the MGM DVD people and I introduced myself and I said, “Do you have any idea at all what this title is?” She said, “No, I don’t. It’s just on our list.” So I explained the film and the fan base and she said, “Wow, that’s really neat. Let me see if I can get you some money.” And she did – it was like $10,000 or $15,000 in order to get a higher quality transfer and some of the extra features.
So if that guy hadn’t called you…
I would have just learned that a low rent version had gone out again. And that would have been it for all time; nobody is going to do a third one.
There’s a rumor floating around that the script for ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ originated from the script for the ‘Buckaroo’ sequel.
This thing about ‘Big Trouble’ once being a ‘Buckaroo Bonzai’ sequel script is absurd. The ‘Big Trouble in Little China’ writing credits clearly show where the script started. It was a gaslight-era western making the rewrite rounds because the studio wasn’t happy with what they had from the original writers. I suggested it be made into a contemporary story and was hired to rewrite it. Elvis lives.