Out on DVD and Blu-ray this week, Enemies Closer is a return to action for veteran director Peter Hyams. In an exclusive interview, Empire spoke to him about his reunion with Jean-Claude Van Damme and their original ‘90s collaborations on Timecop and Sudden Death. We also got him to talk us through a handful of his other classics, including Capricorn One, Outland and the controversial 2001 sequel, 2010.
"That was my first film as a director. I was a writer, and I didn’t want to write for anybody else. I wanted to direct my own films. It was at a time when television was considered like a bath of sulfuric acid, and if you stuck your toe in it you’d pull out a stump. But I’d made a TV movie of the week that people had liked, and people started coming after me. The producers Robert Chartoff and Irwin Winkler came to me and said they wanted to do a film about vice cops. I said okay, and spent about six months researching it in courts and with cops, and spent a lot of time with hookers. No, really! I talked to a lot of people. It was all very chaste. The film is actually made up of completely true incidents. Eliott Gould was a big star at the time, following MASH."
"This is my second film with Elliott Gould. I’d been germinating this idea for some time. Whenever there was something on the news about a space shuttle, they would cut to a studio in St. Louis where there was a simulation of what was going on. I grew up in the generation where my parents basically believed if it was in the newspaper it was true. That turned out to be bullshit. My generation was brought up to believe television was true, and that was bullshit too. So I was watching these simulations and I wondered what would happen if someone faked a whole story. I wrote the script and took it around. The reaction wasn’t, 'Gee, this is really interesting, just change the ending,' or anything like that. The reaction was, 'Get your car out of the parking lot!' It kind of baffled me and I put it aside for a few years. Then somebody asked whatever happened to it, and I made it! OJ Simpson was in it, and Robert Blake was in Busting. I’ve said many times: some people have AFI Lifetime Achievement awards; some people have multiple Oscars; my bit of trivia is that I’ve made films with two leading men who were subsequently tried for the first degree murder of their wives."
"I wanted to do a Western. Everybody said, 'You can’t do a Western; Westerns are dead; nobody will do a Western'. I remember thinking it was weird that this genre that had endured for so long was just gone. But then I woke up and came to the conclusion – obviously after other people – that it was actually alive and well, but in outer space. I wanted to make a film about the frontier. Not the wonder of it or the glamour of it: I wanted to do something about Dodge City and how hard life was. I wrote it, and by great fortune Sean Connery wanted to do it. And how many chances do you get to work with Sean Connery?"
"I kept saying no. The idea of being compared to Stanley Kubrick is laughable. You can’t compare me to him without it being very unfavourable (laughs) The book was about Russians and Americans, but it had no politics in it: everything was fine! So I said to MGM that I had three conditions. One: I wanted it approved by Stanley Kubrick. Two: there were changes I wanted to make to play up the politics. And three: Arthur C. Clarke had to sign off on it. The first time I spoke to Kubrick; the call was arranged and he called me. The first thing he asked me was how I did a certain shot in Outland. He completely disarmed me. He was just this really nice guy with a New York accent, although obviously he radiated intelligence. We spoke for two hours. After about an hour I asked if he approved of me making 2010, and he said, 'Oh sure!' and then carried on. When we were done I hung the phone up, and realised we’d spoken for two hours and I’d told him everything and he’d told me nothing!
About a month later I was sitting with Arthur C. Clarke, who I became friends with during the film. I asked him what it was like the first time he met Stanley. He said, 'Well, it was quite fascinating because we talked for three hours and I told him everything and he told me nothing.' But all through the making of the film, whenever I had questions, Stanley was the sweetest, most encouraging guy. He kept saying, 'Just make it your film'. I figured the only way I could survive was to make a film so different to 2001 that they couldn’t really even be compared. They’re different in tone and style and everything. I lucked out: people liked it. I never considered doing the other two books. I did 2010 and I felt I got away with it. If you fall off a building and you land on your feet and you’re okay, you don’t necessarily want to go and try it again."
"After 2010 MGM came to me with this script about two elderly cops in New York who retire. I said I wanted to make it about two young cops in Chicago who don’t retire. We went around a bit. There were a lot of cop movies around at that time, so I decided that if I wanted to be interesting I needed to do it with two actors you would not normally expect to see in an action movie. So I wanted Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines, and I got them and they were wonderful together. They just clicked."
"I worked with Connery again on The Presidio (above). He was one of the great people to work with: I loved it. He never, ever, ever thought about anything other than how to make the movie better. Gene Hackman was the same on Narrow Margin. Those discussions about how to make the movie better are some of the most stimulating you can ever have. The saddest days you ever have as a film director, in my opinion, are the days when you stagger home or to your hotel after having shot what you expected. What you want to do is be surprised. When you make a film with Sean Connery or Gene Hackman, they haven’t signed on to show up at 7am and say, 'Where do I stand, boss?' They’re signing on to help in the filmmaking process. What, am I going to tell Sean Connery or Gene Hackman how to act? A director’s job is to create a place where actors feel wonderful and brave and will take chances and try things. The director’s job is not to move puppets around. If they’re worried about your ability to make a coherent film, you’re going to have a problem. If they’re not, you’re going to have a wonderful time."
Timecop / Sudden Death
"It wasn’t at all planned from the beginning that I would make two films with Jean-Claude Van Damme back-to-back. I was approached to do Timecop, and I loved the auspices. (Producer) Larry Gordon was involved with it; Moshe Diamant was a terrific producer; Sam Raimi was involved... It was a really clever story, and I thought it was a chance to make the best movie Van Damme ever made. I said yes and we made it, and it was clear that it was going to be a hit because it previewed through the roof every time. It’s still his biggest hit. So Universal and Moshe Diamant wanted to team us again as soon as possible, so they put Sudden Death together. There was never any question that we would just do Timecop 2. I would never have agreed to that. The last thing you want to do is repeat yourself. That would be awful."
End Of Days
"The biggest mistake you can ever make with an actor is to underestimate them. Schwarzenegger became a giant star and he’s an expert on Schwarzenegger. He knows what he can do, so he was very game for being nudged into taking some more emotional chances on screen. I had him cry! I did the same with Sean (Connery) in The Presidio. I can’t make that. They were game for it. Jim Cameron was the kind of godfather of me doing that film, because of his relationship with Schwarzenegger. He told me I was doing it! Tony Scott was originally going to do it... No, wait. Tony Scott was going to do The Presidio originally. End Of Days was going to be Marcus Nispel, but it wasn’t working somehow, but they had Arnold and a start date, and Jim came to me and told me I had to do it.
This was the first picture Arnold had made for a couple of years. I think he had a heart thing. So this was Arnold coming back. And he wanted to try to make something good, and to take some chances. I applauded that. And we had very, very good actors around him, like Gabriel Byrne and Kevin Pollak and Rod Steiger. It was a very enjoyable experience. Half way through shooting I told Arnold I thought he should die in this movie. Of course Universal blanched at the idea, so I shot the ending both ways, and everybody agreed that the dying ending was the better one."
Universal Soldier: Regeneration
(This was directed by Peter’s son John, with Peter acting as cinematographer)
"Was I on set as a back-up? No, no, not at all (laughs). I was the DP, and I was on it before my son was. Then John came on. He had his birthday during the shooting of the film and I got him a watch as a birthday present, with 'Happy Birthday, Boss!' engraved on the back. That’s what he was: he was the boss. And he knew it! He totally accepted it. He repaid me by editing Enemies Closer. John Hyams is a really talented guy."
"This came about through (producer) Moshe Diamant again. He brought me the script and I read it, and Jean-Claude was playing the good-guy character that’s now Tom Everett Scott. I said, 'Look, we made a couple of films together and they were well received, but I’m not interested in doing the same movie.' I said I’d do it if we changed it and Jean-Claude played the bad guy and we made him the most incredibly flamboyant, totally nutty, incredibly lethal maniac. It’s a show-stealer. After JCVD I realised he could be really funny. He’s wonderful in that. He has a sense of humour, and also a boyish sweetness about him that’s very endearing. But in Enemies Closer he’s just absolutely nuts, with no curve when it comes to mood shifts: just 90 degrees. You’re smiling and talking and then you stick a knife in someone’s throat. He bought into it completely. What thrills me is that I think it’s one of the best performances he’s ever given."