Monday, July 16, 2012

The "Never Got Made" Files #73 - #75: Lusting for some William Lustig

We’re pretty big fans of director William Lustig here at Video Junkie.  From 1980-1990 he delivered a sextet of fantastic films (MANIAC, VIGILANTE, MANIAC COP, HIT LIST, RELENTLESS, and MANIAC COP 2) that hold up to this day as great examples of exploitation cinema.  Engaging cinema aside, Lustig is a favorite for us for a whole different reason. Back when we launched the print version of VJ, we sent out a bunch of letters to filmmakers we liked and were hoping to interview.  Only one person responded and that was Mr. Lustig.  So he was our first (and only) interview to grace the print pages of our legendary 2-issue run.  Thankfully, Lustig has maintained that approachability over the years and wasn’t averse to answering a few questions via email about some unmade projects he toyed with back in the day.  So many thanks to him for putting up with our pestering for decades!


Following the worldwide box office success of MANIAC (1980), Lustig switched gears with the revenge picture VIGILANTE (1983).  Featuring an appealing exploitation cast (Robert Forster, Fred Williamson) and hard-hitting action in gritty NYC locales, Lustig’s sophomore feature also struck a chord with international audiences and succeeded at the box office.  While his former star Joe Spinell was looking to get MANIAC II off the ground (something Lustig never worked on), Lustig briefly considered sequelizing his second film for Film Ventures International. “I can’t say there were serious plans, but we toyed with the idea,” Lustig said back in our original interview.  “We actually wrote a treatment which I kind of modeled after I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG (1932), the Paul Muni picture.  Robert Forster, because of what he did at the end of the picture, is on the lam.  That is the storyline we took.”

Robert Forster on the run being hunted by cops?  Color me interested. Irvin Shapiro’s Films Around The World saw potential (and profit, no doubt) in the sequel and took out an ad in the 1985 Cannes issue of Variety. “The VIGILANTE II ad was taken to test the pre-sale market based on the original's international success,” Lustig reveals today, “there was never a script nor did I have much interest in really making it.”  Regardless of intent and any interest raised, the film never got much further than that as earlier distributor Film Ventures International went bankrupt in November 1984 after Film Ventures chairman Edward Montoro disappeared into thin air in August 1984.  The resulting bankruptcy litigation kept Lustig occupied for years, to the point he seriously considered leaving the film business.  Naturally, any thought of the further adventures of vigilante Eddie Marino vanished as quickly as Montoro did with a few million bucks.


Around the time of VIGILANTE’s debut at Cannes in May 1983, Lustig and producer Andrew Garroni announced a more promising project in NEON JUNGLE, an action flick which, according to Variety, “deals with the drug industry in New York.”  With visions of NYC sleaze as captured by his first two films, we can only dream of what this project would have been like.  “I remember NEON JUNGLE was written as a VICE SQUAD set in Times Square,” Lustig says.  VICE SQUAD set in Times Square?  You’re killing me, man!

Showing once again that he had his finger on the pulse of New York citizenry and being one step ahead of the entertainment industry, Lustig hired a relatively unknown New York crime writer and screenplay neophyte to pen the script for NEON JUNGLE.  So what was this newbie’s name?  Nicholas Pileggi.  “Nic was writing Wiseguy, the book which GOODFELLAS was based on [at the time],” Lustig reveals. “I hired Nic because of his New York magazine articles about New York's criminal underbelly. We did a draft and for some reason I lost interest. I think maybe Nic was unavailable to do another draft.”  The film bounced around for a bit with Variety even penciling in a March 1985 start date.  Alas, it didn’t happen again for Shapiro’s Films Around The World. “I never could get the script to work to my satisfaction,” Lustig tells of the unmade project.


This proposed remake is perhaps the most peculiar unmade project from Lustig’s past because it did get made, but not before morphing into a complete different project.  The first mention of a potential remake from Lustig of Jules Dassin's BRUTE FORCE (1947) came in June 1989.  “Lustig reports that he first started tracking down the rights to BRUTE FORCE six years ago as a result of test marketing of his picture VIGILANTE,” states a Variety article on the subject. A tough-as-nails prison classic starring Burt Lancaster, BRUTE FORCE was something that could have fared well in the 1990s with the right players involved.  Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.  “It got made as a totally different type of prison film called THE EXPERT,” Lustig explains.  “It was a horrible experience and an even more horrible film.”

Speakman KOs a good film
Originally written by Larry Cohen, BRUTE FORCE was originally scheduled to begin filming in 1992/1993.  What happened between that time and eventual filming in June/July 1994 was a major overhaul by producers to appease their action star.  Who was this powerful thespian? Stallone? Schwarzenegger? Van Damme?  Nope.  It was the one and only Jeff Speakman.  Hot off the resounding “success” of THE PERFECT WEAPON (1991) and STREET KNIGHT (1993), Speakman threw his clout around like Seagal tossing stuntmen and Cohen’s script was significantly rewritten by novelist Max Allan Collins to cater to the kenpo kicking and charisma challenged star.  Lustig stayed on the project, but it was not a happy affair as the two repeatedly butted heads.  “You needed to buy Speakman two plane tickets – one for him and one for his ego,” Lustig says.  Lustig continued on to make the film, but eventually left during production due to the age old Hollywood story of “creative differences.” Stunt coordinator (and Speakman friend) Rick Avery took over and received sole screen credit as director.  It is too bad as buried somewhere inside the film is the germ a good movie.  Perhaps most notable is Lustig’s casting of Jim Varney of Ernest P. Worrell fame as a sleazy mechanic type named Snake.

2 Reactions:

  1. Very interesting about Pileggi being involved with NEON JUNGLE. I wonder if he took a pass at the HIT LIST screenplay at some point; it's been 20+ years since I watched it, but I swear some of Rip Torn's dialogue in that is also heard in GOODFELLAS!

  2. What an awesome article! Just finished Vigilante and was searching for info on imdb...this site is the tits!


All comments are moderated because... you know, the internet.