Dave talks to Ken Lamplugh about the journey that led him to writing for PM Entertainment.
His time at PM Entertainment might have been fleeting, but writer Ken Lamplugh was responsible for some of the most iconic films in the low-budget action house’s catalogue, namely CIA Code Name: Alexa (1992) and Private Wars (1993). The movie that started Lamplugh’s stint, though, was MAXIMUM FORCE (1992); and while it doesn’t quite hit the heights of those aforementioned standouts, it’s still a fine actioner that marks the culmination of many years of graft, as the scripter explains:
“Screenwriting was never initially an ambition of mine. I knew from the jump that I was headed towards some kind of career in filmmaking, but I always figured – or hoped – that it would be in the realm of make-up effects. I don’t think I really ‘got’ the concept of screenwriting back then – and some may argue that I still haven’t gotten it! But all that changed when I actually read a script. I was hooked.”
“Reading early or unproduced drafts then comparing them to the finished product was, and still is, especially fascinating to me. James Cameron’s ‘First Blood II: The Mission’ and John Milius’ original version of Extreme Prejudice (1987) are a few examples that spring to mind. I can, though, pinpoint the exact script where I had that light bulb moment when you go, “Hmmm, maybe I could actually do this.” That script was Fred Dekker’s ‘The Creeps’ – which, of course, became Night of the Creeps (1986). Great visual storytelling, funny, lots of knowing winks to the reader – just entertaining as hell. I definitely stole a lot from Dekker and that script in particular in regard to my early writing ‘style.’ I’d like to think that I’ve since developed my own unique voice, but I’ll always point to that script as my initial source of inspiration.“
In terms of getting into the business, Lamplugh credits friend and collaborator John Weidner with helping things fall into place. Weidner, a native New Yorker, had already amassed a handful of jobs as a second AD on the likes of Chuck Vincent’s Slammer Girls (1987) and Gregory Dark’s Dead Man Walking (1988), which he co-wrote with the prolific Rick Marx (Doom Asylum (1987)). However, it was Richard Pepin and Jospeh Merhi who he saw as a more promising way in to Hollywood.
“Me and John met through mutual friends in the local indie community,” remembers Lamplugh. “At the time I was doing make-up effects, mostly on Roger Corman-produced stuff like Jim Wynorski’s Transylvania Twist (1989) and The Haunting of Morella (1990). John’s real ambition was to direct, but he figured writing was a logical steppingstone, especially at PM because they were big on promoting from within.”
“One day, out of the blue, John asked if I wanted to team on some pitches and see if PM would pay us to write something. I thought why the hell not! Despite having backgrounds that couldn’t have been more different, we shared similar sensibilities. John’s a film school grad, punk rocker, and into the whole Cassavetes-NY indie thing. Meanwhile, I’m a half-Asian military brat (my father was a career soldier), and a Fangoria-reading monster obsessive, raised on a steady diet of drive-in fare, who joined the Army in lieu of university. So we were kind of strange bedfellows, but we spitballed a few ideas and approached PM with the pitch for what would eventually become Maximum Force – which they surprisingly sparked to.“
“They gave us four to five weeks to write the initial draft. I’ll admit I was a bit out of my element, but John, of course, had a few screenplays under his belt so he understood the format. And most important of all, he had a computer! We basically sat in a room together for the next month, torturing each other, throwing stuff back and forth, with John inputting everything as we went. After turning in that first draft, PM had notes, which took another two weeks to address. We turned that draft in, got the thumbs up and within a few weeks they were discussing casting. Five months later they were shooting. Boom. Instant writing career.”
Easy right? The simple scenario of two ambitious wannabe filmmakers, finally getting their big break and scripting some primo video-era bangers. Well, perhaps the preceding account happens to gloss over a couple of dead-end opportunities that didn’t swing the way Lamplugh intended.
“Erm, yeah, there’s a few omissions,” chuckles the scribe. “Not least when we pitched and got paid to write a teen sex comedy thing called ‘Mondo Beach Party’. That was mine and John’s first script together. Then we got paid to write an action script with sci-fi elements for Walter Gernert and Greg Dark, the producers of Dead Man Walking. It was very much inspired by several movies we were big fans of – notably Robocop (1987) and The Hidden (1987). It was about a squad of cops who, without their knowledge, are implanted with microchips that control their behaviour, making them more aggressive and fearless. Of course, it also renders them completely bonkers, resulting in much carnage and black humour. It was called, appropriately enough, ‘Implant’. Sadly, Dark, who aspired to high art, deemed it “too commercial”. Too commercial!? God forbid! Anyway, we were given the boot and another writer was hired to rewrite us. We got paid off and received a ‘script consultant’ credit, whatever that means. Typical Hollywood story. They ultimately filmed it as Street Asylum (1990) starring Wing Hauser. Pretty much totally forgotten today – unlike our other well regarded, world renowned, ahem, ‘masterpieces’ like Maximum Force!”
Speaking of which, despite this cop-based crime-thriller being the weakest of Lamplugh and Weidner’s PM threesome, Maximum Force still packs a punch. It features Sam J. Jones, Sherrie Rose, and Jason Lively as a trio of chip-harbouring police officers selected by their soon-to-be-retiring captain (John Saxon) to take down a notorious crime lord, Max Tanabe (Richard Lynch), by any means necessary.
Though much violence ensues as Jones et al battle the blonde-haired gangster’s goons and city higher-ups in his back pocket (Mickey Rooney’s chief of police among them), by and large Maximum Force is a relatively restrained affair for director Joseph Merhi. Working to a tight fourteen-day schedule, gunplay and stunt sequences seem pared down compared to PM’s usual strain of glorious excess. Bookended by a bombastic open (exploding helicopter – tick) set against the concrete backdrop of the Sepulveda Dam in Encino, and a skyscraper close that lifts it from a slight lull, Lamplugh and Weidner’s script works overtime in between. There are decent-enough set pieces, and Ken Blakey’s smoke and pastels photography adds a stylish aesthetic sheen – but it’s the aperitif before the meals Lamplugh and Weidner rustled up under Pepin and Merhi’s stewardship.