Director Dick Donner Just Died; He Was A Lovely, Lovely Man And A Real Pleasure To Work For

Back in the 1990’s, my partner at the time (Gil Adler) and I were hired to take over HBO’s horror anthology “Tales From The Crypt“. That third season was supposed to be the show’s last but Gil and I managed to turn the ship around. We reinvigorated the show but — more importantly — we reinvigorated the Crypt Keeper. That resulted in Tales running for another four seasons (during which time we also produced two “Tales From The Crypt” feature films, “Demon Knight” and my own personal Waterloo, “Bordello Of Blood“. For that entire span of time, I had, in essence four bosses (five if we include HBO who are wonderful to work for because they let you do what they hired you to do!): Walter Hill, Joel Silver, Bob Zemeckis and Dick Donner. Dick died two days ago, aged 91. No cause of death was attributed but, hey — he was 91! And he had a helluva run across those 91 years.

Among the films Dick directed: the “Lethal Weapon” franchise, “Superman” with Christopher Reeve (the movie that revived that franchise seemingly forever) and “The Omen”.

Now, even though I’ve written a lot of horror and produced a fair amount of it too, I am not a horror fan. My idea of a great “horror movie” is Nic Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now”.

But, when I got to work with Dick, his movie “The Omen” had already become a classic horror movie. Dick had a theory as to why it succeeded so well. It starts with the fact that plenty of Americans have “family Bibles” that, while they prize them as possessions, they have never — EVER — cracked them so as to read them. Can anyone blame them? Yet that book (that they hadn’t read) had a perverse hold on them. For the three people who might not know, “The Omen” leans very heavily upon the most possible literal reading of the last book of the canonical NT “The Book Of Revelation”.

Revelation is an example of “apocalyptic literature”. It was not the only such text written; it was the only such text canonized however. The work’s author (he calls himself “John”) relies on all kinds of symbolism that meant certain things to certain people back then but mean nothing to us today — unless you fill those symbols with newer invented meaning. It’s still invented meaning. When most modern people read Revelation without the requisite context, they think they’re reading literal prophecy. What’s worse, they think “literal prophecy” is a thing.

Dick’s theory was a lot of people with unread Bibles in their houses went and saw the movie — and heard all those pointedly prophetic quotes which scared the crap out of them. Or the references to “666”. Then they went home and found those Bibles and opened them to The Book of Revelation — where they found those very same freaky Bible verses including 666 — right there in their own houses!

That, Dick believed, was why “The Omen” was such a smashing success.

Movies I Adore: “Don’t Look Now”

Every now and then you have to quit bitching and moaning and shout your love for something. Being a filmmaker, movies have always “spoken to me”. I adore it as a form of storytelling. It’s so easy to get wrong. Soooooo easy.

But when a movie is right. It lives inside your head. It’s the storytelling and the look and the characters and the dialogue and the music and the casting and even the greens and set dec — it’s all sublime. There are lots of “directors” but only a handful of artists. I’ve had the pleasure of working with an artist — Bob Zemeckis.

In a way, Bob’s an “artist of the impossible”.

Bob was one of my Executive Producers when I did Tales From The Crypt for HBO. I wrote most of the episodes he directed. For starters, he is an incredible collaborator. He truly knows how to get the very best out of everyone he works with. Which is where the “impossible” comes in. At some point, in a Zemeckis piece, there’s going to be at least one shot that — if you’re looking and realize you’re watching it — is impossible. Meaning — yeah, the shot’s there in the movie but how the hell did they get it? It’s impossible!

When I was a young buck, a terrific documentary filmmaker I had the honor to know — Greg Shuker — turned me on to Nicolas Roeg’s “Don’t Look Now” — a psychological thriller starring Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland.

Don't Look NowI don’t want to give away a great ending but — that the ending works as effectively as it does, that it’s as memorable as it is — it’s a testament to the masterful work director Nic Roeg has done up till then.

Water plays heavily.  The color red, too.  Sutherland plays John, an art restorer preparing for a project he’s about to start in Venice, Italy.  He and Christie’s Laura own a farm out in the country where their two young children are playing on a rainy day.  Their young daughter drowns in the pond — something her father “senses”.  He rushes outside but too late.  He pulls her body — clad in its red mac — from the pond with a doleful wail.

It’s a few months later.  They’ve buried their child.  Their son is at boarding school as the restoration project in Venice begins.  On their first night, Laura and John make love (for the first time since their daughter died) then go out to dinner.  At the next table are two elderly English sisters.  One is blind.  They happen to be in the ladies’ room when Laura enters.

The blind sister is psychic.  She says she’s seen Laura and John’s daughter.  She was happy.  Laughing.  Laura is blown away.  She doesn’t know what to think.  But John — when Laura tells him — thinks it’s all nonsense and wishful thinking. 

And yet.  As the movie goes on, John begins to catch glimpses of a fleeing figure in red.  Is it the spirit of his daughter — or something else?

Roeg was a director of photography before sliding into the director’s chair.  His films look great.  He captures Venice’s wateriness — its dullness.  Its greyness and fog.  He captures the feeling one gets — being there — of wandering in circles — hopelessly lost.  But the Roeg’s real genius as a director was in how he cut.  He had a way of intercutting two scenes that no one else could touch.

An excellent example — the scene where John and Laura make love for that first time since their daughter’s death.  Roeg intercuts the sex — which is very intimate (there have always been stories that the sex between Christie and Sutherland was real) — with John and Laura, post-coital, get ready to go out for dinner.  You really get the feeling that they’re a couple — which makes the sex we keep intercutting back to feel more organic and real.

For my money, the sex scene in Don’t Look Now is one of the best 2 or 3 sex scenes in all of movie history (the caveat being that most sex scenes suck).  And — here’s the kicker — it’s between a married couple.  That’s a sex scene you never see — between married people.

Nic Roeg died a few months ago.  I still owe Greg Shuker — for introducing him to me.