The Screwballs trilogy, Recruits (1986), State Park (1988) and of course Valet Girls (1987): a perfect cross-section of low-brow, direct-to-video ‘80s comedy. All directed by Rafal Zielinski, a Canadian journeyman who Dave was convinced would be thrilled to look back on his early career…
“I was embarrassed making them. I was always trying to steer myself back towards the art movies. That’s the real me! Those ‘80s movies were fake me!” protests the helmer in a lengthy Skype chat from his American home.
Fakery, forgery or flimflam, the fact of the matter is that Rafal Zielinski will forever be associated with the comedies that he made in that decade. Although with a little persuasion there is the occasional chink in his poker-faced derision of such bawdy entertainment: “I’m a Buddhist, and I do feel that you have to make the best out of every opportunity that presents itself to you. So each of those projects, while they were never my cup of tea, as a craftsman I had to give my best. I wanted them to look as beautiful as possible, and to maximise them to their ultimate. Treat them with love, passion and make the best movie I can. Having said that, perhaps I didn’t approach them with the best attitude on set…”
Growing up, Zielinski spent his childhood globe-trotting while his father was busy working for the Ford Foundation. Stays in Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Cairo all helped provide him with a well-rounded perspective of different cultures, although it would be Stowe School in England which led to his first film endeavour, thanks to the Duke of Edinburgh award enabling him to make a documentary about the temples in Southern India. M.I.T followed where he graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Art and Design, and although Zielinski went on to make a handful of documentaries, he got bitten by the drama bug in the late ’70s with Hey Babe! (1983) – a trippy, vaudeville-based venture about the burgeoning friendship between an alcoholic has-been (Buddy Hackett) and a precocious twelve-year old orphan. Aside from the neon ‘problematic’ sign that hangs over the picture, at its core is a really unique coming-of-age movie that found favour at the Toronto and AFI film festivals. However, its journey to the big screen was an arduous one, as Zielinski explains:
“It took an age to make Hey Babe! as we got into a partnership with a Hollywood company who sort of pushed us around a bit. They wanted to re-do things and all that. It did, though, get into a number of festivals – AFI, Toronto, and it opened at Taormina [the historic Sicilian film fest] as well.”
Not too shabby for a film that took four years to escape from distribution hell, the blame for which Zielinski aims squarely at the foot of Tinseltown.
“It was funded by TeleFilm Canada who were great, and I should have stuck with them instead of making those silly Hollywood movies. You know, I should have just stayed in Canada and used Government financing to do art movies. Something much more personal, like Atom Egoyan did. He just worked the grants system. He got a name by making what he wanted to make, and he just didn’t care about Hollywood. In retrospect it might have been a better way to go about things.”
As the old saying goes, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride, and the fact of the matter is that when the call came from a certain indie movie mogul, it was an offer too good to refuse for an ambitious twenty-six year old filmmaker.
“Well, I had a whole list of projects that I wanted to go and do but I thought, “Oh wow, it’s Roger Corman! This will be cool!”. And to be honest, Screwballs did make a lot of money”.
The third screenplay cranked out for Corman by legendary B-movie auteur Jim Wynorski (after Scorceress and Forbidden World (both 1982), Screwballs brazenly rode the coattails of Bob Clark’s Porky’s (1981) franchise, landing at the US box office two months prior to Porky’s II in 1983. Of course, New World Pictures were no match for the power of Fox (who, in a delicious twist of irony, would end up buying New World in 1997, fourteen years after Corman jumped ship while still retaining ownership of his library), and Screwballs opened in only seventy-five locations compared to the fifteen hundred of Clark’s sequel. Nevertheless, Zielinski’s uncouth filth-fest performed admirably, even if it does fall short of its peers in terms of quality. It’s a cookie cutter affair in terms of narrative, with five horny students setting out to deflower the most beautiful girl in school, Purity Busch (Linda Speciale). With a brisk running time and Wynorski’s Mad Magazine-style chaos and wit, it’s a riotous hour and a quarter – albeit one that could do without the tired mimicry of the ’60s setting and jukebox soundtrack. Thankfully, Zielinski’s sequel (well, in name only) is more The Last American Virgin (1982) than Lemon Popsicle (1978).
Loose Screws (1985) sees Wynorski and co-writer Linda Shayne retain credit for the first movie, although it’s ‘Michael Cory’ who takes sole responsibility for a script that the L.A Times asserted as being full of “the lewdest language this side of Hustler”. Such prudish summation is way off; Loose Screws merely amps up the innuendo, with Cockswell Academy being the education establishment where four boys spend the duration of the movie trying to seduce their new French teacher, Mona Lott (Cynthia Belliveau). While Wynorski and Shayne’s screenplay for the original is leaner and sharper, the mysterious ‘Cory’ lays on an admirable level of smut with character names alone ranging from Brad Lovett (played by Bryan Genesse!), to Hilda Von Blow and Tracey Gratehead. It’s not just a celebration of filth, though, as DP Robin Miller – who began his career behind the camera on The Brood (1979), Scanners (1981) and Videodrome (1983) – gives us some colourful cinematography that really does pop. The contemporary ‘80s soundtrack also gives it an urgency that the first picture lacked; ‘Loose Screws (Breakin’ Away)’ by Errol Francis and the Francis Factor will pitch a tent in your brain and refuse to go home.
Directorially, Zielinski clearly seems much more at home on the sequel too, although he’s quick to point out Loose Screws was a gig he landed solely due to his departure from another feature:
“For my third film I had arranged to do another art film, a personal project, and I had succeeded in getting New World Pictures to fund it. But then there was a regime change at the studio, and behind my back they hired another writer and rewrote the script. They only told me this one week before shooting, and said that if I didn’t like it, then they’ll get this new screenwriter to direct it as well. I freaked out. It was a gorgeous, sensitive, coming-of-age movie, but they had turned it into some silly comedy. I was so destroyed by this. I felt I’d been, well, raped. I thought it was the end. Then, when Roger Corman offered me a Screwball sequel, I just grabbed it because I had such low self-esteem”.
It’s of small comfort to Zielinski but the film his beloved art flick became, Breaking all the Rules (1985) – or ‘Fun Park’ as Zielinski originally called it – didn’t even get to see the inside of a cinema. Zielinski’s script was re-written by David Preston, fresh from scripting Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (1983), while megaphone duty went to James Orr – a nasty-sounding character who Zielinski still harbours resentment for.
“It was his first thing, but he was friends with the new regime at the film company. He was such a devilish character, but karma caught up with him. As a result of my film he got a deal with Disney, and he started dating Farah Fawcett but he beat her up. The police came, and then Disney got rid of him. His career was pretty much destroyed as a result of that.”[i]
Sticking with Corman (who was now operating under the Concorde banner), Recruits came next for Zielinski. A shameless Police Academy (1984) clone, Recruits was shot from a script by Charlie Wiener and B. K. Roderick, but the idea was spawned from the dollar sign eyeballs of big-time Canadian producer Maurice Smith (Screwballs, Loose Screws, Oddballs (1984)). A passable film at best, Recruits struggles to create the throng of memorable characters that its better-known inspiration did, despite familiar faces like rent-a-nerd Alan Deveaux showing up – an actor that the usually awesome Canuxploitation dot com had the temerity to label as ‘the poor man’s Eddie Deezen’. Outrageous!
Zielinski’s masterpiece is undoubtedly Valet Girls; an assertion that was greeted with abject horror by the filmmaker, who won the Special Jury award at Sundance for (the admittedly excellent) Fun (1994). Nevertheless, it’s a wry and satirical look at the mechanics of Hollywood, and a neon-filled delight that sparkles with a colour palette that would make Nicki Minaj gasp.
Meredith (billed as Meri D.) Marshall plays Lucy, an ambitious wannabe pop star who convinces her best friend, Rosalind (April Stewart), to start working with her as a valet parking girl in the hope that they get posted at some high end mansions so they can hobnob with the movers and shakers of La-La Land. Lucy soon gets her wish, and they find themselves collecting car keys at the home of a big shot agent (Jack DeLeon) who’s holding a star-studded soiree where Alvin Sunday (Michael Karm), the hottest record producer in town, is rumoured to be in attendance. All Lucy needs to do is sneak in, find him, and demo one of her tracks. Easy!
On the face of it, you could easily shrug off Valet Girls as either a failed subversion of Martha Coolidge’s Valley Girl (1983) or a wearily mediocre ‘80s sex comedy. But, scratch beneath its glam facade, and therein lies a right-on feminist tale about three ambitious young women making their way through a male dominated industry. The agent’s mansion is Tinseltown personified (“this place makes Sodom and Gomorrah look like Salt Lake City,” one character cannily observes), its walls bursting with movers, shakers, sycophants and servants. Sleazy industry types salivate over topless girls, and wannabe screenwriters glide around the room pitching whacked-out concepts to corpulent money men. In fact, it’s the latter scenario which makes for a brilliant, sometimes meta running joke within the movie, as an eager beaver hack persistently harasses a pervy producer with an abundance of ideas (one of which, ‘Space Sluts in the Slammer’, was at the time pencilled in as a project for David DeCoteau by Charles Band).
Speaking of whom, the Band-produced Valet Girls marked a change of working environment for Zielinski after four years under the frugal management of Corman, and his experience at Band’s Empire Pictures couldn’t have been more different.
“Valet Girls was one of the films that I loved making the most. It was set in Los Angeles and you have to remember that Charlie Band and his [now former] wife Debbie Dion were pretty anti-establishment. They were rebels, so I loved that. With Corman, it tended to be more of a heads down, ‘make the movie’ experience, while with Charlie it was just a case of having fun, and make it as crazy as we can.”
As Dave Jay rightly indicated in his book Empire of the B’s, Dion was keen to adopt a Julie Corman role and show that the indie behemoths were capable of cranking out more than just ribald T&A with a dollop of gore. While Valet Girls is a beautiful example of this, Zielinski makes a point of underlining just how much the shackles were removed:
“There was so much freedom. I wanted to have a band playing at the swimming pool, so I chose the most bizarre art-house band imaginable, The Fibonaccis, someone you would maybe see at Coachella these days, and they were cool with that. There was a party animal character in the movie too, so I suggested hiring Ron Jeremy, which is something that nobody was doing at the time. Those two worlds, B movies and porn, never crossed-over, so whenever there was an opportunity to push the boundaries we did it.”
Released on both sides of the Atlantic by Vestron Video who shamelessly pitched it as some kind of whores-for-cash exploitation movie (the cover synopsis read ‘Three enterprising and shapely college girls whose uniform includes spiked heels, hot pants, and very little else will do anything for your business’), Valet Girls hasn’t seen any physical release since the days of VHS. Having said that, eagle-eyed Band-worshippers may have been fortunate enough to have briefly seen it in all its day-glo glory (it was lensed by Nicholas von Sternberg) when it had a handful of airings on the sadly since defunct MGM HD cable channel.
As for Zielinski, he soon found himself on the set of Spellcaster (1988), another Empire Pictures movie which served to reaffirm his admiration for Band:
“If the bank hadn’t shut Charlie’s whole operation down, I really would have hoped to have shot some more movies for him. I met some cool writers, and we started to develop some really great ideas. In Spellcaster, we were shooting in Rome, in a castle, and we hired Adam Ant to play the magician! There was just a degree of freedom that I’d never experienced before on a movie set.”
Zielinski’s third Screwballs landed in 1988. Titled Screwball Hotel and utilising the services of Recruits scripters Wiener and Roderick, it’s advisable to give it a wide berth. Instead, try making a bee-line for the vastly underrated State Park: a slight but satisfying teen camp comedy with an ecological backdrop and a fine soundtrack.
The first few years of the 1990s led to Zielinski taking a few gun-for-hire gigs (“I put $100,000 from a real estate deal into Ginger Ale Afternoon (1989) and lost everything”), but the release and subsequent critical adoration of Fun in 1994 led to a new dawn in his career, typified by – yep – arthouse movies like Age of Kali (2005) and Bohemia (2011). A little late, but Zielinski finally seems to have reached the destination he set sail for at the end of the ’70s.
“I thought those ‘80s films were just a stepping stone to big Hollywood movie. Again, I was pretty embarrassed making them. But now a lot of them are cult classics, so now I kind of wish I had treated them a lot more seriously. Like I’ve said, I was always trying to make the best movies but in the back of my mind I was always thinking how dumb it all was. I wanted to be like Scorsese or Antonioni.”
But Scorsese can never boast that he shot a Jim Wynorski script, right?
[i] Orr was convicted of this in August 1998, having met Fawcett on Man of the House (1995), a comedy he directed starring Chevy Chase
Follow Dave on Twitter @thedavewain