From A Whisper To A Small Screen: C. Courtney Joyner Talks Distant Cousins (1993)

Dave checks in with screenwriting legend C. Courtney Joyner to talk about the movie he made with the equally legendary Pierre David.

“Do you know what the true highlight was about DISTANT COUSINS (1993)?” laughs a mischievous C. Courtney Joyner. “It was when I signed my deal. This was before I’d written anything yet, and Pierre [David] says to me, “Go down to Adele’s office, and she will ratify your contract. She’s in charge of business affairs.” So, I walk into the room and it’s Adele Yoshioka from Magnum Force (1973)! Can you believe it? I was like “Oh My God”. There she is with a lobby card of her and Clint Eastwood hanging up in her office too! Amazing.”

It seems funny for the guy who penned From a Whisper to a Scream (1987) for Vincent Price to be a little star-struck, but boyish enthusiasm defines Joyner’s personality. That was certainly the case when he got to work with the legendary Canadian producer.

“I went in and interviewed with his story editor first,” remembers the writer. “I, of course, was excited to eventually meet Pierre as I was such a huge fan of everything he’d done with David Cronenberg. He had recently produced Internal Affairs (1990) too, so I was like “wow”. He’s a great guy, and pretty much the most straight-forward producer – insofar as I got paid ahead of when I should do! He honoured absolutely everything. Very loyal too, but what we didn’t know, and what Pierre didn’t know either, was that he was just starting to get into the TV movie game.”

As Joyner alludes, Distant Cousins was indeed the start of a sea change in David’s career. Born in Montreal in 1944, the mogul rose to prominence in partnership with Cronenberg on The Brood (1979), Scanners (1981) and Videodrome (1983), with the decade continuing to yield a host of video store perennials like Of Unknown Origin (1983), The Vindicator (1986), and Pin (1988). Production of Distant Cousins, however, saw him sample the small screen, and it was a point from where he rarely looked back, as Joyner explains:

“It literally became the template for ALL these thrillers that he did. The formula that they had enabled the films to be made quickly, with shooting schedules working out at eighteen days. There is a fortuitous side to Distant Cousins in that the script was finished the same weekend that The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992) opened at the box office [1]. When that happened, everyone was scrambling for similar stuff, so CBS snapped it up immediately and offered us some of their network stars – Marg Helgenberger for example – and we were lucky to get her”.

Helgenberger brings a real presence to Distant Cousins – but when you factor in a chilling David Keith performance, as well as Mel Harris, fresh from thirtysomething, it’s hard not to be dazzled by the assembled cast. Then there’s William Katt too…

“Bill impressed me greatly!” admits Joyner. “It was the non-showy part too. Being the straight man in a thriller is a difficult thing to do, because until you throw the punch, you tend to just be a dramatic cipher for a long time. I think he and David Keith played off each other well”.

In the film, Katt plays Richard Sullivan, a successful advertising executive who lives happily in suburbia with his wife, Katherine (Harris), and cheeky young son, Alex (Brian Bonsall). One day, out of the blue, Katherine receives a phone call from a man claiming to be Richard’s cousin who happens to be passing through the area with his fiancée, Connie (Helgenberger). As this strange couple drop by for dinner with their financially comfortable kinsfolk, both Richard and Katherine welcome them with an outstretched arm of hospitality – but it’s not long before their suspicions are raised as to just who this peculiar pair really are…

Although Distant Cousins is unlikely to feature in the single digit placings of any ‘greatest television films of the ‘90s’ type poll, it’s still a finely crafted potboiler deserving of a contemporary market. Harry and Connie epitomise the classic Bonnie and Clyde persona – or, perhaps, even Mickey and Mallory – and their gradual exploitation of Richard and Katherine, and more so Alex, makes for indulgent viewing, not least with its surprisingly violent nature.

“Actually, we were one of the first TV movies to be rated,” Joyner says. “We got a rating for violence, and an audience warning too! It was kind of a whole new deal. The network left it all in as well! Fighting, burning, torturing… They did used to get a little sensitive about that, but they let it go!”.

Slated to make its network debut in May 1993, Distant Cousins found itself in the unusual predicament of being pushed back until 14th September, which meant that its home video release from New Line in June came first, albeit under a different title, ‘Desperate Motive’. It was a move that no doubt bewildered armchair goggleboxers when they settled down for a CBS movie premiere… Only to discover they’d picked it up from the rental store a few weeks earlier.

For Joyner, though, it’s a project that remains one of his most satisfying commissions, and an era that he looks back on with immense fondness.

“I like the movie! It holds up well. It was just great to be writing in that period. You know, scripts didn’t go into development unless they were going to get made. So, once you got past that initial point, you knew it would result in ‘something’. That was always exciting because there was always a finish line. With a company like Pierre’s Image, for example, the boss man was right behind that office door. You got your questions answered, and you knew he would make a project happen. I ended up doing a little bit of television afterwards, but this was a real entrée for me. Dealing directly with CBS, it was just really neat.”

[1] The Hand that Rocks the Cradle (1992) opened on 10th January 1992 in seven-hundred and sixty-six cinemas, which more than doubled the following week, and the movie went on to gross an impressive $88 million at the U.S. box office alone.

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