Monday, February 18, 2013

The "Never Got Made" Files #90 - #92: The Many Journeys of C. Courtney Joyner

With Shout Factory releasing PRISON on Bluray this week, we figured it was time to unleash our mega-interview with that film's writer, C. Courtney Joyner, about some of his unmade projects over the years. Enjoy!

We’re a pretty easy going bunch here at Video Junkie, but we do have some rules.  And rule number 187 is that you must love C. Courtney Joyner.  If you don’t, you are gone, simple as that.  And if you don’t know who Joyner is then you best learn quick, partner!

C. Courtney Joyner is first and foremost a screenwriter responsible for some of the most memorable B-movies of the late 80s and early 90s.  He made his debut as a co-writer on THE OFFSPRING (1987; aka FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM), Jeff Burr’s horror anthology that proved to be one of the best omnibuses of the decade.  The success of this feature was quickly followed by PRISON (1988), the pinnacle of Hollywood’s glut of horror prison pictures at the time.  The hard hitting action/horror hybrid led to the sci-fi sequel CLASS OF 1999 (1990).  Returning to Mark Lester’s land of futuristic education dystopia, this sequel offered some of the hardest hitting cyborgs this side of Arnold Schwarzenegger and holds up to this day in terms of slam-bang action.

The success of PRISON also lead to a working relationship with producer Charles Band, who was forming his new company, Full Moon Entertainment, from the ashes of Empire in the late 1980s. Joyner scripted two of the best features from Full Moon’s golden era (PUPPET MASTER III: TOULON’S REVENGE [1991] and DOCTOR MORDRID [1992]) before stepping into the director’s chair for the mini-mogul Band.  And while he might be self deprecating about the quality of his two directorial features (TRANCERS III [1992] and THE LURKING FEAR [1994], which he both wrote as well), each feature holds up well and proves he did his best with limited resources.  Seriously, tell me any other Full Moon film that has a series of steadicam shots like TRANCERS III.  He has worked steadily since with over 25 features to his name.  In addition, he has authored several film books and contributed fiction to several anthologies.

Professional work aside, there is an even bigger reason to like Joyner – he is a film fan just like you and me.  His knowledge on cinema is both diverse and seemingly endless.  It is also enthusiastic and genuine (perfect example: a recent Facebook posting by Joyner of a rejection letter from Don Siegel circa 1977).  When I called him to talk about some unmade film projects, we spent nearly a third of the time talking about everything ranging from SH! THE OCTOPUS (1937) to Charles Bronson features.  In fact, if you’ve ever wondered why old Chuck is so pissed in the strip club scenes of MURPHY’S LAW (1986), it is because a certain Mr. Joyner was the man ogling Bronson’s love interest Jan (Angel Tompkins).

Joyner somehow survived Bronson's wrath:

Thankfully I was able to look past Joyner’s salacious past.  Assuring me he was fully flowing with some vitamin B12 and ginkgo, Mr. Joyner graciously allowed me to pick his brain on nearly a dozen unrealized projects from his past.


With such an expansive career over three decades, you just know Joyner would have other unmade scripts that I couldn’t unearth anything about.  And we started off right away as he told me about this unheard of early project that happened while Joyner was still in college at U.S.C. (amazingly, he wasn’t in the film department).  Joyner’s aforementioned love of genre cinema found him investigating one of the 1930s/40s most iconic and memorable bad guys – Rondo Hatton. The duality of the large actor, who suffered from the pituitary disorder acromegaly, proved to be an inspiration for the fledgling screenwriter. “When I was in college, a friend of mine started discussing Rondo Hatton’s life with me,” Joyner explains.  “And he didn’t really know who Rondo Hatton was, but he had read a really interesting article about his involvement with Sawtelle battle hospital here in Los Angeles.  He in fact was a counselor for soldiers who were coming back with facial combat injuries.  This was such a direct contrast because back then he is shooting THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK and these horror movies at Universal.  Anyway, I got very interested in this.”

Joyner started doing his research on Hollywood’s “brute man.”  Film historian David Del Valle got him in touch with Gale Sondergaard, who shared the screen with Hatton in THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK (1946), and Martin Kosleck, who co-starred with Hatton in HOUSE OF HORRORS (1946).  Both actors were able to give the investigative screenwriter some first hand information on working with Hollywood’s leading bad guy.  Looking to gather further insight, Joyner called Universal Studios in the hope of meeting up with someone from the make-up department who might have worked with the legendary Jack Pierce.  It was here that Joyner made the shocking discovery that Universal was – as oft is the case in Hollywood – simultaneously developing a project on Hatton.  “Nick Marcelino, who was the head of the Universal make up department then, said, ‘Oh, are you working on this project with Virgil Vogel,’” Joyner reveals. “And I’m like, ‘What?’ He says, ‘Yeah, we’re doing the Rondo Hatton story here as a television movie.’  I was devastated.”

Director Virgil Vogel on the
set of THE MOLE PEOPLE (1956)
However, the disappointment was short-lived.  At Marcelino’s insistence, Joyner contacted the veteran director Vogel about the project.  “I’m like, ‘My God, you directed THE MOLE PEOPLE,’ he explains with enthusiasm.  “He couldn’t have been nicer and I had one thing he really wanted to see which was [a copy of] Rondo Hatton’s death certificate.  So he invited me to lunch at Universal.  I went there – I was still in college at this point – and Virgil was working on this project with a writer named Robert Heverly.”

Joyner soon found himself co-scripting the project now titled HOLLYWOOD’S STRANGEST LOVE STORY with the television veteran Heverly.  Unfortunately, the interesting project never got past the writing stage.  “It was going to be for NBC and I was paid,” Joyner says, “but the network decided not to go ahead with it. So that started my collaboration with Virgil.”

#91 - NIGHTCRAWLERS (early 1980s)

Director Jeff Burr
While his first screen credit may have eluded him, Joyner didn’t have time to be disappointed.  His relationship with Vogel soon found him a busy man.  “I was working a lot with Virgil Vogel at Universal at that time,” he relates of his time at the studio in the early 1980s.  “I was very lucky and Virgil and I got to be very good friends.  So by the time I got out of college, Virgil and I were working together on some spec MAGNUM P.I. stuff and I was doing rewrites on AIRWOLF and all kinds of things because of him.”

Also at that time Joyner began collaborating with the man who would eventually end up getting him his first onscreen credit – fellow U.S.C. student Jeff Burr.  “Jeff Burr wanted to do a feature and so I wrote NIGHTCRAWLERS as a feature for him to direct,” he discloses of the beginnings of their working relationship.  “Jeff had done a film [in college] that I actually did the make up on called DIVIDED WE FALL that he co-directed and co-wrote with Kevin Meyer. NIGHTCRAWLERS was going to be the first shot that we tried to get a feature going with Jeff as director.”

While plot specifics are a bit hazy, Joyner does remember the general idea behind the picture and it shows his excellent understanding of exploitation elements.  “It had vampires on motorcycles that lived in the sewers of Los Angeles and they come out at night and drink the blood of street gangs,” he says.  Wait, people that suck the life out of you in L.A.?  No way!  The group did try to get the feature going by taking it to one of Burr’s old bosses.  “We took it to Jim Wynorski [at New World] because Jeff had worked for Jim back when we were all in college.”

Ultimately, the project never happened, but this spec script did pan out professionally for Joyner in many ways.  As mentioned before, he went on to co-script Burr’s feature debut.  But NIGHTCRAWLERS also helped secure Joyner his first-post THE OFFSPRING gig.  “That was the screenplay that Irwin Yablans and Bruce Cohn Curtis read at Voyager Pictures and that’s how I got hired to write PRISON,” he reveals.

#92 - SUBTERRANEANS (1987/1988)

The Joyner-scripted PRISON is notable for a number of things.  It marked Renny Harlin’s U.S. film debut, effectively opening his avenue for a residence on ELM STREET and subsequent big studio success.  It also was the first lead role for relatively unknown Viggo Mortensen, who would soon find himself a leading man and eventually co-star in the biggest trilogy of all-time.  Perhaps less notable is that PRISON was the last film from Empire Pictures to be granted a theatrical release (via New World).  A modest success during its limited run of less than 50 theaters, PRISON showed Empire’s Charles Band that Joyner had a firm handle on successful shockers and the screenwriter was brought into the fold. Unfortunately, the Empire was about to fall.

SUBTERRANEANS was a pre-existing picture that Joyner was assigned.  Band has previously taken out an ad in Variety for the film in 1987 that featured tiny sinister simian-esque monsters carrying away a buxom beauty.  “Charlie would call you in the office and sometimes he would show you a poster, sometime he would show you a model,” Joyner explains of the producer’s movie making methods. “There were all kinds of different ways he would get projects initiated.”  The inspiration for this feature came from a far more practical purpose: Band’s recently purchased studio in Italy had a set in it he wanted to use. “The set was like an oil rig that was built for another project, not an Empire picture.  It was a standing set that was over there in Italy, maybe from Dino De Laurentiis or somebody.  So the whole thing was written around that standing set.”

Project announcement in Variety 
(alongside the ill-fated PULSE POUNDERS):

Roger Corman would be proud, no doubt.  As Joyner got to work on the screenplay, he fashioned a story that would have stood tall in the 1950s monster-mania era. “It involved giant worms,” he reveals, “kind of a REPTILICUS deal where they’re drilling and then they drill into this nest of worms.  They don’t know that is what it is so they go down into the caves to try and hunt them.”  To put the exploitation project more succinctly, he says, “The men get eaten and the women get raped.”  Sold!

Film announcement with projected
principal photography and delivery dates
As PRISON was unspooling on screens the summer of 1988, Joyner was working with director Danny Steinmann on preparing this killer worm magnum opus.  A veteran with three solid exploitation pictures (THE UNSEEN [1980], SAVAGE STREETS [1984] and FRIDAY THE 13th PART V [1985]) under his belt, Steinmann proved to be Joyner’s fondest memory of the unmade film.  “He was a pistol,” Joyner recalls. “I loved working with him. He was something.  He was a real New York guy.  His main thing that I remember is that he directed all of the narrative sequences with George C. Scott and everybody for the National Geographic specials.”  The relationship also allowed Joyner to unleash his inner film geek. “He had also done a very famous X-rated movie around the time of DEEP THROAT called HIGH RISE.  That was around the time of MISTY BEETHOVEN and stuff.  So I quizzed the hell out of Danny about the New York exploitation film scene, and he loved to tell tales.  He was a real character.”    

Film announcement with a little white lie
SUBTERRANEANS went through the normal scripting process with table readings, notes from the producer and the like.  Casting was never started by the director, but Joyner does recall that noted director of photography Sergio Salvatti had signed on to shoot the picture. Unfortunately, unbeknownst to many in the company, Empire was going through its death throes.  Despite the claim “principal photography has begun” in Variety, the film never went before cameras and by the fall of 1988, Empire was seized by Credit Lyonnais for its failure to make payments on a loan.  Joyner survived the ordeal unscathed as he went on to script CLASS OF 1999, resulting in his biggest box office hit.  And Band, never to let a good title die, morphed SUBTERRANEANS into the SUBSPECIES franchise for Full Moon, complete with a similar poster.  Steinmann, however, never recovered.  After this and toiling on the unmade LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT PART II in the late 1980s, Steinmann’s film work came to an abrupt halt after he was involved in a motorcycle accident.  He retired to Delaware due to his health, but still remained positive about his films, appearing in documentaries and offering several audio commentaries.  Sadly, he passed away in December 2012 at the age of 70.

Also interesting is the SUBTERRANEANS artwork lived on as it was used (most likely unauthorized) for an English VHS release of the Filipino fantasy film SALAMAMGKERO (1986).  Thanks to Torsten Dewi at Wortvogel for the scan:

Make sure to check out part two where we dive into some of Joyner's unmade works from the 1990s.

2 Reactions:

  1. Anybody who loves SH! THE OCTOPUS is A-OK in my book. TRANCERS 6 is probably the worst film of all time, though.

  2. @ Marty McKee: Nah, "Trancers 6" is not the worst movie of all time, not even Band's worst movie. I would suggest that it's not even director Jay Woelfel's worst movie. Have you ever seen "Demonicus"???


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