From the vault of Zombie Hamster: Dave’s 2016 natter with the Deathstalker himself.
“John… John… I just sold a movie to this company, and I told ‘em I had a script, and, erm, can you write one in two weeks?”
It was the New York lilt of Jim Wynorski that guided John Terlesky into what would be his first credited screenplay, which in turn led to his directorial debut. For Terlesky, though, it had been a fifteen year journey to get behind the camera; a long-term yearning that he traces back to his first acting jobs.
“When I first started acting in TV and Hollywood, I had a screen test for Legmen at NBC,” the Ohioan informs me during our hour long chat. “They actually took me over to Universal to see how I looked on film, and that very day I walked out of the dressing room and onto set, and as I looked at the camera guys I was just thinking how it looks so much cooler [than what I’m doing now]”.
However, in the decade and a half that followed, it would be acting that would see Terlesky out of his twenties and into his thirties, and the gigs came thick and fast for him, with roles in Wynorski’s Chopping Mall (1986) and Empire Pictures’ Valet Girls (1986) – but it’s for another Wynorski movie that his on-screen career is perhaps most fondly remembered.
“I’d worked a couple of times with Jim, one of which was Deathstalker II (1987), a film that we had actually rewritten together. We went down to Argentina to make it, and it was a very turgid sort of sword and sorcery film, and when we got there we saw wooden swords painted silver, cheesy sets and all that kind of stuff. I mean, I’m not really that guy anyway, so we looked at each other and just decided that we can’t make a serious film here! So they pushed the schedule back a week, and Jim and I sat up on the top floor of our hotel, watched cartoons in Spanish, and re-wrote the entire movie as a spoof.”
When, ten years later, the above-noted phone call replete with pending deadline came from Wynorski, Terlesky saw it as an opportunity he had to take, albeit one in which he felt he was in the position to underline a few conditions.
“I said, “Jim, I can do that. I’d like to do that, but I want to direct a scene. Not inserts. Not drive-bys. I want to do a scene.” He agreed, and off I went to spend the next two weeks writing for sixteen hours a day. I turned it in, they bought it, and I ended up directing the opening sequence and a bunch of second unit stuff too!”.
The resulting film, THE PANDORA PROJECT (1998), bears a dual directing credit for both Wynorski and Terlesky. Released as part of CineTel’s never-ending conveyor belt of DTV material that has since morphed into primarily SyFy fare (“They were great. They were very good to me,” says Terlesky), Pandora is a neatly constructed actioner buoyed by a fine triple-header of B-movie talent.
Daniel Baldwin plays Captain John Lacy, who is called into action to retrieve a deadly weapon that his former colleague, Captain William Stenwick (Richard Tyson), has stolen. However, more pressing for Lacy is that the clock is ticking on his wedding that weekend, and he faces a race against time to get back and take the hand of Wendy Lane (Erika Eleniak) at the altar.
What lifts The Pandora Project above its rather po-faced peers is the playful nature of Terlesky’s script. Far removed from a moody lone gun prone to moments of brooding introspection, Baldwin delivers an engagingly jaunty performance which is in perfect step with Tyson’s cartoonish villain.
Another element that makes Terlesky’s debut stand out is the splicing in of stock footage from some multi-million dollar productions, most notably Clear and Present Danger (1994).
“There were a few companies doing that,” muses Terlesky. ”It was just extra money for these studios as they had all these trims laying on the floor, and they could now monetise the trim bin. Then the DGA got involved and wanted fees for the footage, but for three or four years people were doing all kinds of stuff with stock footage. It was Jim who had access to all these expensive clips, and he knew that it blew the production value through the roof”.
It really does too, with such seamless additions transforming a briskly-shot million dollar feature into something blockbuster-esque.
With Pandora providing CineTel with their ideal type of production – on time and on budget – it was no surprise that company bigwig Paul Hertzberg saw the potential for further collaborations with Terlesky.
“They just asked me what else I had, and one of the movies I’d seen recently was La Femme Nikita, which I really liked, so off the top of my head I pitched them a rip-off of that! They liked the idea, told me to write it up, and said maybe we’ll let you direct it. So I wrote the script, and y’know, they played coy for a long time, but they finally said yes!”
SUPREME SANCTION (1999) is undoubtedly my favourite movie in Terlesky’s canon – though some of his early ‘00s work such as Malevolent (2002) and Chain of Command (2000) comes mighty close. There’s a real level confidence that’s apparent right through the picture, and with the project destined for a HBO premiere right from the get-go, you have to wonder if the financial security that underpinned the production gave the helmer a little room to breathe. One thing’s for sure, such early financial backing solidified Terlesky’s position as a big asset for CineTel.
“You have to remember that it was 1998. Back in those days there was no Game of Thrones, and aside from Sex and the City, there was no real tentpole series on their books. It was mainly movies, and on Friday and Saturday nights they had the ‘Guilty Pleasure’ movie – a failed release or something that had gone direct-to-video, but they were genre films nonetheless. For Supreme Sanction, it was a gigantic sale for CineTel. Usually all their films had pre-sale contracts to the tune of fifty percent of the budget, but for this it was $900,000 of a $1.3 million budget. It pushed the production company into profit with one sale, and they had not gotten that on any other movie”.
While Terlesky is honest enough to admit a smidgeon of influence from Luc Besson’s superlative female assassin feature, it’s fair to say that there’s a world of difference to Supreme Sanction. Absent is the stark vulnerability of Anne Parillaud’s Nikita; in her place, Kristy Swanson’s Jenna is a far more authoritative figure, irrespective of a few nagging flaws in her psyche. Swanson is excellent here, in a period where she was obviously keen to carve out a reputation in more adult-orientated fare – but Terlesky is quick to add that it may have been a production she regretted agreeing to.
“I don’t know if she really wanted to be there all that much,” he recalls. “She spent a lot of time yelling at her agent in her trailer, so I guess she just basically needed the money”.
If there’s a moment in Terlesky’s pre-TV directorial career that epitomises his knack of orchestrating impeccably constructed genre sequences, then look no further than the beach scene in Supreme Sanction. Deftly shot, and guaranteed to both hook you into the picture and pull up the director’s name on IMDb, it’s the little things about it that sink you back into your chair, stroking your chin in appreciation at the way Michael Madsen drinks his coke from a polystyrene cup or the awkwardness exhibited by David Dukes as he bumps into a couple of fans of his character’s TV show. All of this is capped off by Swanson watching from afar, sniper rifle in hand, crosshairs on Dukes, and a palpable level of tension that’s in direct contrast to the serenity of the location.
One of the key trends of late ‘90s direct-to-video ware was the mostly terrible urban movie; impoverished attempts to breathe a second life into the Blaxploitation genre that invariably came up short. Thankfully, if there was a figure out there to lend this brief fad some credibility, both artistically and by heirship, you couldn’t do much better than to turn to Mario Van Peebles.
While Van Peebles was struggling to recreate the career defining brilliance of New Jack City (1991) he was still a figure to prick up the ears of any discerning student of film. Fresh from the trichotomy of writing, directing and starring in the unfairly ignored Love Kills (1998), Van Peebles took the role of executive producer and lead actor in Terlesky’s third feature, JUDGMENT DAY (1998). With Ice-T joining him in these roles too, as well as Tiny Lister and Coolio too, it made for a cast to salivate over, which is an assertion that Terlesky is happy to endorse.
“Yeah, it was a nice cast. Mario had some cred in the marketplace, and I just really enjoyed working with him. Ice-T was great too, and he actually gave me the song that we used in the end credits for practically nothing. He was a consummate professional on set. I think the guy might have a photographic memory too. He would come in, not knowing a line, and after reading it through in rehearsal once or twice, he would just nail the scene. Always on time. Always did great work. A total pleasure to work with”.
The Asylum might get all of the heat today with regard to their low budget riffs on the box office behemoths of the day, but it’s a trait that been happening in Hollywood for decades, with CineTel happy to take advantage of the popularity of a cinematic cash cow.
“It was basically whatever movie was a hit last year, they wanted to rip off,” remembers Terlesky of the genesis for Judgment Day, “The previous year was Armageddon (1998) and Deep Impact (1998), so it was just the done thing”.
What wasn’t the done thing in his directing career to date, though, was shooting a script he didn’t write, with the final screenplay being credited to the mysterious ‘William Carson’.
“Oh, that’s me!” Terlesky concedes. “I re-wrote what they had, but I had some disputes with them about it, and I ended up asking for my name to be removed. Carson is the guy that they’re looking for in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966)!”
There may have been scripting issues behind the scenes on Judgment Day, but they barely show on-screen in what may go down as the only South Central Sci-Fi in existence as enigmatic cult leader, Thomas Payne (Van Peebles), kidnaps Dr. David Corbett (Linden Ashby): the only person capable of devising a way to stop a giant meteor from hitting earth. It’s left to agents Matthew Reese (Ice-T) and Jeanine Tyrell (the always outstanding Suzy Amis) to rescue him, which in itself is the highlight of the movie as we’re treated to an initially fractious relationship becoming tentatively cordial as they battle away to save the world from destruction. It’s an ambitious narrative that teeters on being just plain goofy at times, but with Van Peebles’ (not so) conspiratorial ranting, as well as Terlesky’s fine penmanship and directorial control, it’s an absurdity that against all odds succeeds in being incredibly enjoyable.
It’s a compliment that, on the face of it, seems relatively hollow. But when analysing Terlesky’s first three movies, such an important attribute is injected into the spine of each one – and as anyone with an affection for B-movies will attest, the inclusion of this basic virtue is vital to their longevity. What’s the secret to this consistency? With Terlesky’s movies, the presence of Maximo Munzi and Daniel Duncan as director of photography and editor, respectively, obviously plays a huge part in creating the synergy for each film.
“You do develop a rapport with these people,” admits Terlesky. “I met Dan through CineTel, and I just thought he was a great editor who was super easy to work with. He was fast and he worked for the going rate. The same applied to Max too, as I’d seen his reel and he’d shot some beautiful stuff. I had a great collaboration with him, and tragically he’s passed away since. I hadn’t seen him in a while, and he actually stopped by the Castle set a few years ago. That was the last time I saw him, and looking back on it, I’m wondering if he was ill when he stopped by and just didn’t tell me”.
Nearly two decades on from the start of his career behind the camera, Terlesky leads a hectic schedule directing episodes of some of the most watched shows on American television, from Revenge and Criminal Minds, to Agents of S.H.I.E.LD and Castle, while this fall he assumes the role of Executive Producer on the spin-off of the phenomenal James Spader crime-drama, The Blacklist. Looking back on his early work, he remains proud of the movies he made and considers it a fundamental stepping stone to where he is now.
“I thought it was very much an apprenticeship. I know that implies a master and tutor, and I didn’t really have that, but it was more the notion of being left alone. For a director that’s just so great. I could change the words, I could change something on the spot, and as long as the crew could pull it out of their ass I had free reign. It’s much more scrutinised in network TV!”
The gulf in resources may be the most startling aspect of John Terlesky’s working life between now and then, but he’s under no illusion that his early work still retains those key qualities to ensure their durability.
“These films may just be genre material y’know, but we didn’t set out with the intention of just making junk. You do try to apply what craft you can to it.”
An honest assessment if ever there was one, and the key reason why in 2016 they still warrant some much needed love and attention – not to mention a little recognition to prevent them falling into obscurity.