EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Stewart Raffill, director of TAMMY AND THE T-REX, MAC & ME and THE ICE PIRATES

Tammy And The T-Rex. Mac and Me. Mannequin 2: On The Move. The Ice Pirates. With such a number of unique films to his name, we tracked down British-born director Stewart Raffill to talk about crazy product placement, Paul Rudd using your films to troll talk show hosts and putting Paul Walker’s brain into a robotic dinosaur.

Originally from Coventry, Stewart Raffill moved to the United States  to pursue a career in screenwriting and directing.

Over the years, Stewart has directed a number of films including The Sea GypsiesThe Adventures of the Wilderness Family and Across the Great Divide. Stewart also made a number of cult genre films including The Ice Pirates, Mac and Me, Tammy and the T-Rex and The Philadelphia Experiment, a film about the alleged and infamous military experiment.

While this was primarily what we wanted to talk about, Stewart’s love of nature, such as  his first film, Napoleon and Samantha, which was based on Stewart’s own lion, Major, and other projects like Snow Tigers and Lost in Africa led to a BBFC crossover in that he knows Tippi Hedren, star of Roarher menagerie of wild cats and visited the set a number of times.

How were you involved in the production of Roar?!

I wasn’t there all the time, but I visited the set because I used to be involved in animal training when I was younger. When I made Snow Tigers, the two tigers we used, I rented from Tippi.

So how did you end up moving out to the States?

It was a long time ago and the first job I got was training animals for the movie business. I used to work with horses in England as I always wanted to be a jockey, but I’m 6″ 7′.

I used to work on the Tarzan movies and was even the stunt double several times. I was on set so much watching all the film-makers, so I started making my own movies and made my first film at 22.

I think the first film I saw of yours was The Ice Pirates which has a very strong cult following these days. How did you get involved in that project? 

I’d done High Risk with Anthony Quinn and James Brolin and the producers from MGM were trying to make this movie called The Water Planet. The studio was having financial trouble, so there was only $8 million to make the movie, which was budgeted for $17-18 million. I’d always made independent films, so they came to me and asked if I could make it for $8 million.

I said we’d have to completely re-write it and make it a comedy, which I thought would make it more fun than playing it for real and so I got hired!

When you work in the studio system though, you have to please so many people. It’s like every dog has to piss on the lamp post. It takes a year just so everyone can say they contributed.

MGM also hired a new studio head three weeks before we began shooting the film and he hated our producer and tried to cancel the whole movie after we’d spent 18 months putting it together. We’d hired people and were building sets, so I went to the producer to find out what the problem was.

Turns out the producer was a close friend of Paul Newman’s and the studio head had said something derogatory about Paul Newman’s wife and so the producer had punched him!

Ice Pirates is a strange film as on one hand, it feels like it’s trying to be a family-friendly “Errol Flynn in space”, but on the other hand, there are a lot of adult-themed jokes about castration. Was this a result of studio interference? What tone were you trying to go for?

I was just trying to figure out how to make a movie from $8 million! It wasn’t my concept. We just put everything we could in it to make a joke and funny and told the story. The studio dictated who I had to have in it. Angelica Huston was a friend of the producer who asked me to put her in, John Matuszak was a footballer who was revered by one of the financiers, so he was in it! That’s the way it goes sometimes, or at least it did back then.

At the end of the film, they were meant to arrive at Earth and they fly over the beaches of Malibu with everyone swimming in the water and the studio head cut that out!  He never told me and it was gone. I had to drink vodka to calm myself down.

You then went on to direct Mac and Me

That was the weirdest movie i ever worked on! I’d just finished The Philadelphia Experiment, which I’d thought was a bit load of nonsense but when we approached the Navy to film in their shipyards, they said they didn’t want anything to do with us, so I thought maybe it was real!

But with Mac and Me, James Brolin recommended me to the producer. Now, the producer had got the money for the film from a guy who supplied McDonald’s with their meat.

I see. How much of the budget was provided by Coca-Cola and McDonald’s?

It was all McDonald’s basically. Well, not them per se, but a company that had all the contracts to supply food to McDonald’s in the Western United States.

So this guy wanted to do something to flatter himself to McDonald’s and have all the proceeds go to their charity fund.

So McDonald’s weren’t even officially on board with it? How did you manage to have that entire dance scene in one of their restaurants?!

Well, you’re working for a company that supplies them and who they were happy with, so that’s how it happened. It was the first movie that was co-advertised with such a big company.

However, the moment Disney heard we had this deal with McDonald’s, they went in and hammered out a three year deal to get all their toys put in their Happy Meals and have that relationship with Coca-Cola.

As such, the McDonald’s people were then not particularly enthused with us as they now had Disney, but they ad to fulfill their arrangement with us.

Another thing that was tricky was that the producer wanted the film to have a disabled protagonist. In this instance, someone who had spinal bifida. So we had to find a kid with that condition. Luckily we did and we found a great kid who could act, but doing all the action with him was terrifying as he was in his wheelchair.

There was also no script.

Every weekend for the four weeks of pre-production, I was locked in my hotel room writing the script because the producer had already hired the crew! So we shot a first-draft screenplay that we ended up shooting.

It is a rip-off of E.T...

Oh absolutely! It’s a total rip-off of E.T., but then every film is derivative of something. We have so many superhero films these days that are essentially telling the same story, except the main character has a different outfit on.

That’s true, but none of these superheroes regenerate by drinking a can of Cola.

That is true! (laughs) You just do the best you can with what you have.

After Mac and Me, you did Mannequin 2: On The Move, which you’ve spoken extensively about to Blake Harris on How Did This Get Made?, but briefly, how did you end up on that project?

You have contacts and agents, but I’m usually bought in when people need someone who can write AND direct.

There are often tight deadlines because usually it’s all part of some tax evasion scheme, so I come in, write it and do it and that’s what Tammy and the T-Rex was.

A guy came to me who owned theatres in South America and he said, “I have a T-Rex.”

It was animatronic and was going to a park in Texas. The eyes worked. The arms moved. The head moved. He had it for two weeks before it was going to be shipped to Texas and he came to me and said, “We can make a movie with it!”

I said, “What’s the story?” and he said, “I don’t have a story, but we have to start filming within the month!” and so I wrote the story in a week.

So how did you come up with the idea? Because it’s a crazy concept…

You obviously couldn’t play it as an actual monster, because it wasn’t that good of an animatronic beast and I had to work with what was available, so that was the concept I came up with.

The casting was interesting because we had two young cast members in Paul Walker and Denise Richards. It was Paul’s first film and he so adorable and friendly. He was 17 years old and had the most amazing smile. Denise hadn’t done anything either. At the end, when we did that sexy dance scene, she was so nervous as she was almost virginal and then she ended up marrying Charlie Sheen! It’s funny what happens.

So I wrote it, we shot it and all the locations were within 25 minutes of my house! During the production there was actually a big fire that destroyed lots of properties. In fact, it some shots you can see all the smoke in the background.

Now that I know you’re friends with Tippi Hedren, is the lion that attacks Paul Walker one of hers?

No. That belonged to another friend of mine.

You have another friend that owns a lion?!

I only ever used her tigers for a film. I had my own, but hers worked together as they were raised together. We took them up to Bamf in Canada and I filmed them in the wilderness up there.

Like Ice Pirates, there are loads of tonal shifts in Tammy and T-Rex. It appears to be a kids film, but there’s lots of adult sex jokes and that weird scene where the two cops want to slap around a traumatised woman. What market were you going for with this film?

I was just trying to do a film for people that like wacky movies. In other words, you laugh at the experience that I was facing which is, what the hell are you meant to do with this material? I was sticking all this shit in it, just to make it work. Of course, when you only have a week to work on a script, it is a bit thin! I’m also the biggest plagiarist, I’m constantly asking the cast and crew if they have anything better that they can add.

All the actors on the film though were great. Denise played that scene where she’s talking to the dinosaur for real and as best as she could. She never was a great actress, but she was pretty.

When you make films like that, they’re group endeavors. In this case, we have a dinosaur head for two weeks, so what are we going to do? So you just smoke a lot of pot and try and figure it out!

Do you ever expect films like that to have a life 25 years later? Do you ever expect people like Paul Rudd to constantly show clips from Mac and Me on Conan O’Brian? 

Absolutely not! I had no idea it would happen. It’s just the serendipity of life. It was never expected, specifically with Mac and Me where I kept thinking, “Oh shit, this is going to be so embarrassing.”

It’s weird – lots of kids loved that movie and it still makes money to this day.

In terms of residual cheques, one project that I’m sure keeps paying out is Passenger 57, which you wrote the original script for. 

Yes, I wrote the original screenplay. In fact, I remember sitting in a coffee shop thinking, “What the hell am I going to call this movie?” and there was a Heinz bottle of ketchup in front of me and it had Heinz 57 on it, so I called it Passenger 57!

The original story for that film was very different. They only ended up using the first quarter. I’d written for someone like Clint Eastwood and then it was optioned by Warner Brothers.

It would have seen Clint Eastwood on a plane flying home from Spain and it gets hijacked by Iranian terrorists who take it to Tehran. So everyone is put in cages, but Clint works out where he’s been taken and he eventually gets out, rescues all the other prisoners, finds the Mullahs and then takes them prisoner and everyone fights their way out of Iran.

The action was incredible, but it was too much money. The head of Columbia Pictures said that he would have loved to make that film, but the Iranians would have blown up a plane or something. So Warner Brothers bought it and kept re-writing until only the first quarter or so remained.

I’m guessing you never wrote the line, “Always bet on black” if you had Clint Eastwood in mind?

(laughs) No, I didn’t! But it’s a great line, and it’s the best residuals that I get.

 And now you’re a novelist…?

I wrote the book Rage which is a political thriller and a little bit politically incorrect. It’s not very friendly towards the Muslims.

We live in a world where everyone pretends everyone’s normal and everyone’s the same, but it’s not the truth.

Ok…

It’s basically a cautionary tale about the dangers of terrorism in the name of religion and proliferation of nuclear weapons. I was reading about the U.S. Ohio-class submarines and how each one carries 176 nuclear weapons and each one of those missiles is 30 times bigger than the one dropped on Hiroshima. So the story is about a group of officers that take over one of those submarines and threaten the Middle East to stop them terrorising the West.

America has 14 of those submarines around the world. Can you imagine that?

So it’s a bit like Crimson Tide?

Well, mine’s a bit more political, but it’s really about terrorism and the power of these nuclear weapons and what happens if they fall into the wrong hands.

I just finished another novel that I’m trying to get adapted into a miniseries as people like to binge content these days. That’s the way the industry is going!

Stewart Raffill, thanks very much.

For more information about Stewart Raffill’s upcoming projects, visit www.stewartraffill.com

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