Magazine article American Cinematographer

The Production of "Steel Arena"

Magazine article American Cinematographer

The Production of "Steel Arena"

Article excerpt

For his first feature, a young film-maker, aided by a dedicated crew, injects an extraordinary degree of production value into a low-budget action film

The past few months have seen the wildly successful opening of a feature-length motion picture in the southern United States. The film is "STEEL ARENA", the story of the world famous Auto Daredevils, in a show known as the "Circus of Death," and the rise to stardom of its hero. Dusty Russell. My story is one of a year-and-a-half of grueling hard work in writing, producing and directing my first feature film, but, through it all, a rewarding, satisfying, learning experience one would believe was concocted in a Hollywood press agent's dreams.

The story began actually two years before I had ever imagined I would be directing a 35mm theatrical feature. At the time I was working for a documentary film company in San Francisco and programming classic films at a repertory cinema in my spare time. One weekend, while vactioning along the Sacramento River, I ran into a group of men enjoying a beach party. They were wearing uniforms which, on the back, read "Circus of Death". Intrigued, I crashed the party and learned these were the world famous "Helldrivers," relaxing after a Sunday afternoon thrill show. Thrill shows, I discovered, were a particularly American sport, in which the participants made their living by crashing cars through walls of fire, rolling them over, dive-bombing them into parked cars and generally destroying automobiles in the most creative and destructive ways the human mind can conceive of.

Two years later found me sitting in a cafe in Berkeley, California, with two independent film productions behind me. One, an independent documentary, which I produced in the remote rain forest jungles of Mexico and Guatemala, concerned the last remaining tribe of Maya Indians in the world, the Lacandones, and had just won a silver medal at the Venice Film Festival for Best Documentary. The other, an outrageous, wild and zany featurette called "TRICIA'S WEDDING", a satirical spoof on the White House wedding of Tricia Nixon, was taking the hip youth culture film audience by storm. "TRICIA'S WEDDING" was receiving rave reviews everywhere and has since become an "underground" film classic. Made at a cost of $12,000, "TRICIA'S WEDDING" showed a profit after its first night opening to 6,000 paying customers in San Francisco's Palace Theater, and Berkeley's Community Theater.

Now it was time to produce a full scale 35mm theatrical production. Remembering the "Daredevills" I had met, I thought they would make the perfect topic. The visual element of cars flying through the air, combined with the Americana of the sport of thrill driving, was the perfect combination to appeal to a mass audience, as well as provide an exciting cinematic vehicle.

I began to track down the "Circus of Death" I had met two years before and found them in their usual habitat, crashing cars at a county fair in San Jose. The owner of the show is Robert Hanna, who doubles as Dusty Russell, the star of the Circus of Death. Bob loved the idea of a film on Helldriving and agreed to act as Associate Producer and consultant, and to perform in any other way I might need him.

The hard work of writing the script began. I decided to base the story totally on the real-life experiences of thrill drivers and interviewed the various Daredevils for material. What I found was a fascinating array of colorful personalities. Dusty Russell, the star, an intense man dedicated to breaking the world's dive-bomb stunt record. Buddy Love, a character out of the fifties, complete with a pompadour hairdo, known for sliding on his buttocks through a ring of fire and human batter-ramming into a flaming wall of fire, while lying on the hood of a car. Dutch Schitzer, the last of the thirties' Atom Men, who lie down in a flimsy wooden coffin and blow themselves up with 20 sticks of dynamite. Gene Drew, charismatic promoter and announcer of the Circus of Death. …

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