Mr. Beaks Talks To Stephen Macht For The 30th Anniversary Screening Of NIGHTWING!
This is Part II of my NIGHTWING 30th Anniversary coverage. Yesterday, I chatted with the film's lead, Nick Mancuso. Today's it's the villain of the piece, Stephen Macht!
Like Mancuso, Macht's career started to take off following a run at the prestigious Stratford Shakespeare Festival in Stratford, Ontario. It was there during the mid-1970s that he was discovered by a Universal talent agent and promptly whisked off to Hollywood - thus forcing him to quit his teaching gig at Queens College in New York City. Smart move. After booking a series of featured roles on shows like KOJAK, THE SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN and QUINCY, Macht won critical acclaim as an Israeli soldier in Irvin Kershner's Emmy-winning TV movie, RAID ON ENTEBBE. From there, he booked parts in Robert Aldrich's THE CHOIRBOYS, THE MOUNTAIN MEN (starring Charlton Heston), GALAXINA (opposite Dorothy Stratten) and scores of television movies and shows.
All told, Macht is probably best known to geeks as the werewolf-dynamiting cop father of Andre Gower in Fred Dekker's THE MONSTER SQUAD. But he first registered for genre fans as Walker Chee in Arthur Hiller's NIGHTWING. The practical, spiritually corrupt counterpart to Mancuso's Youngman Duran, Walker is essentially a sleeker take on Murray Hamilton's Mayor Larry Vaughn from JAWS: he owns his own helicopter, holds court in a '70s-swanky office, and will gladly sell out his own people for a financial windfall - even when their lives are potentially at stake. For him, a plague of vampire bats is just the high cost of doing business.
As with Mancuso, I was worried Macht might not remember much from NIGHTWING. But once I got him started, the memories came flooding back. I'll apologize in advance for not touching on THE MONSTER SQUAD or GRAVEYARD SHIFT (this review should tide you Ralph S. Singleton fans over), but those movies are readily available on DVD. For a lively thirty minutes, we were all about NIGHTWING.
I guess the obvious place to start is how did the part come to you?
Stephen Macht: Well, I was thirty-six years old. I'm sixty-six now. So that was at a time when my career was just beginning to pop. I had a powerful agent named Lenny Hirsch at William Morris, and I went in to meet Arthur Hiller and the writer of NIGHTWING - who was Steve Shagan - just to talk about where I'd come from. I think they were originally looking at me to play Nick's role, but through the discussion and all of that, I came out as the more citified guy, more of the wheeler-dealer. Or, potentially, the bad guy. (Laughs) I don't know what would lead them to that conclusion. I guess I had a little more of the devil in me up front.
Beaks: Maybe you were just having a bad day.
Macht: Eh, I was one of those up-and-coming actors on the make. And those were the days when there were no restrictions on Jewish guys playing Indians. Actors could play any ethnic part. Since that time, there have been other, implicit rules that have been laid down. But I had played an Indian on KOJAK; I had played my own rendition of a high steel worker in New York, a Stanley Kowalski kind of guy, and I had a great time doing that. People had seen that, so I got up for this role because I was one of the few white guys playing Indian parts. I really identified with the Walker Chee part, a guy who's really only trying to bring the Indian nations of the Painted Desert into the twentieth century. Indians had been given the least fertile land, which then, because of oil prospecting, they found out was potentially very profitable land. So I was one of those Indian tribal leaders saying, "Now, we're going to cash in!" But I sensed there was a bigger morality tale than met the eye. I sort of gravitated toward that part, and I was cast as Walker Chee. That became the second modern Indian part that I played. And when I played Henry VIII in A MAN FOR ALL SEASONS, Charlton Heston came to me and said, "I saw [NIGHTWING], and I know that you've played Indians before, but how would you like to play a real Indian?" And I played Heavy Eagle in his picture called THE MOUNTAIN MEN, opposite him as a trapper - which, of course, was a Jewish boy's dream come true. To play cowboys and indians? And chase Charlton Heston's ass all over Wyoming? Come on!
Beaks: Well, he knew about playing other ethnicities. He played a Mexican in TOUCH OF EVIL.
Macht: Yeah! It was a great string of parts. I was really on a high. I went from playing an Indian in New York to the desert and got to know actual Indians. As a modern guy, I had never been in Nevada or the American West. And here we were shooting a picture in the West! And I started looking through all kinds of pictures of Indians and what not, and I have to this day those kinds of features. That came out later on as Heavy Eagle in THE MOUNTAIN MEN. But going back to [NIGHTWING], these were some good people. I had known Nick Mancuso from Canada because I had preceded him at Stratford, Ontario in Canada, and it was there I got scouted by Universal and brought out here under a "young star" program that was still in operation in 1976. They were the last of the studios that had that program, and I was under contract. Nick was Canadian, and I think he played at Stratford a year or two after I was there. But I was an American who'd come up from New York to play those parts. And I left teaching as a tenured professor at Queens College to come to California to pursue these dreams as an actor. So this was a great part for me to play as an actor. I really enjoyed it. To act with David Warner, who I had seen as MORGAN. I became friendly within him and Kathryn Harrold. And to work with Arthur Hiller, that was an interesting thing.
Beaks: Hiller was coming off a really huge hit in SILVER STREAK. And he had either just done or was about to do THE IN-LAWS. Overall, he'd had a very strong '70s commercially.
Macht: He's a very kind, sweet, gentle man. And I think he understood more of the Nick Mancuso part in the film than the bats. (Laughs) And that demonic urge that is embodied in Walker Chee and the bats... looking back on it now, as I am a student of Jewish mysticism and Kabbalah, there are... certain emanations that the mystic believes that have to do with love and power - the two opposing things that the balanced person is able to balance in their life. But when power tries to overcome love and establish itself as a reign, that's when the evil forces are unleashed on the world - and they can be pretty demonic. That's really what that picture is about. And I'm sure the studio was looking for a JAWS 3 or 4.
Beaks: You can really sense the conflict of tone on screen. This was a different movie for Hiller, In the past, he had done more character-based drama or comedy. This was strictly genre. And you can feel him trying to elevate the material. Sometimes the dramatic scenes are effective, but then... it's time for bats to attack.
Macht: You've got to raise the level of that movie. Zack Snyder or Robert Rodriguez... that kind of hand is needed. It bespeaks of wars of the world rather than just a middle class drama about a money-grubbing Indian and a peace-loving, more folklorish Indian guy. There are forces that are unleashed in the world, and those two things collide. I think that's what's really going on inside [Martin Cruz Smith's] novel. If you would talk to Indian shamans, I'm sure they would talk about that kind of folklore - which is analogous to what I told you is in the Kabbalah. At any rate, that's not what we did with it. I intuitively felt that, but didn't consciously know that. And it's taken me years to study various things that would lead me to that conclusion. But that's not to say we didn't have a great time. Like I said, I'd never been to the Painted Desert or Las Vegas, and there were... (Laughs) lots of interesting stories around it.
Beaks: How long was the shoot?
Macht: It was probably eight to ten weeks, if I can remember back. It was thirty years ago, so it's hard for me to remember. I flew from L.A. to Albuquerque, and when I wasn't being used, I'd come home. So I was back and forth. (Laughing)I was basing my character on my agent at William Morris. When you walked into his office, on his desk were rows and rows of three-by-five index cards - there had to be about twenty-five of them - on which he used to list all the projects and all the actors he was working with to try to fit them into a certain project. During one scene, when I had to deal with someone who came into my high tech, Indian pueblo office, I remember laying out all of the cards all over my desk with all of my dialogue on those cards. I set them all out, we rehearsed the scene, and then Arthur said, "Okay, it'll take about twenty minutes to set up the light and come back." So he set up the light [for twenty minutes]. Then we came back, and he said, "You know, without rehearsal, let's just shoot one! Okay Steven?" I said, "Sure!" So I got into position and he said, "Action!" And as I looked down, none of my dialogue was in the right order. It had been totally rearranged. And as I started to speak, I looked up and saw that Arthur was smiling at me. And he said, "Okay, take two!" I remember having to rearrange my cards, and he said, "That's why it's necessary to learn your lines, Stephen." I said, "Not in this scene, Arthur. Watch how I do it my way." So I remember that. And I remember the end of the picture... you know when the cave blows up and there's a big fire and the bats are flying? There was a shot that Arthur wanted of me entering into a helicopter right outside of the cave, flying up, and doing a big circle above the roaring fire. I said, "Oh, geez, this is great! I've never been in a two-man bubble helicopter before!" So I got in, we took off, he yelled "Action", and the [pilot] said to me, "Okay, Stephen, hold on. We're up about 200 feet, and we're going to across the fire, and there's usually a slight updraft with the hot air." Well, we hit that thing, and the chopper shot up 200 feet! I held on, but I was almost puking and screaming. We went about 300 feet further. Then we hit cold air, and the thing dropped about 200 feet! Scared the shit out of me! And I hear on the walkie-talkie, "We missed it! We missed the shot! We gotta do it again." So I looked at the guy, and I said, "No way, man. You land this sucker." I took out a white handkerchief, and I was waving that white handkerchief in this little bubble. Finally, he landed, and Arthur comes up and says to me, "What's the matter, Stephen? Why don't you want to do it again?" I said, "No way, Arthur. I give up. You want that done, you send up a double. You're not getting me up there again." I think it was around about then when I started to say that stunt doubles can do this stuff much better than actors - especially when you don't have a handheld camera on that actor in the bubble. I mean, it was a really wild ride. I learned a good lesson: don't ever do your stunts yourself.
Beaks: Especially when it comes to bubble helicopters.
Macht: Yeah. And I always remind Arthur when I see him at different things, "Remember that helicopter ride? You cut that out of the picture, Arthur!"
Beaks: Imagine how upset you would've been had you done it a second time.
Macht: All for naught. But it's interesting to me that [people] have fondness for the movie. I haven't seen it in about fifteen years. I think I had a VHS tape of it, but there's no DVD. It'll be interesting to see how it holds up - if it does at all. When did you see it last?
Beaks: I just watched it last week on a DVD rip I borrowed from a friend. It was the first time I'd seen it since I was quite young.
Macht: My memories of it are of a nice picture, but wondering if audiences today would see anything more in it than they did.
Beaks: It's a slow build. It really does emphasize drama and atmosphere early on. In a way, I think it was trying to mimic the JAWS model of not showing you the shark until later in the film. We don't see a bat until the forty-five minute mark. So it really does try to establish the characters and give you an emotional stake in what they're doing. Nowadays, filmmakers would just get on with it.
Macht: I knew it was much more leisurely, but I'm going to look at it from the point of view of if one does another film like that, what is it that tantalizes audiences? Arthur was interested in developing the humane side of this story and sort of indicating the metaphors that were there rather than dramatizing them. When you get into the horror genre, I think that's when the visuals and all the myths that lie beneath the unconscious fears, those are the things that are unleashed. I think that's why people went to and liked JAWS. JAWS brought back MOBY DICK, the white whale, that force of evil that comes out and brings out shit in everybody, as well as the heroic. I think those are the elements that maybe are a little soft in NIGHTWING. [Those elements] come to the fore and are focused on in other pictures that are done now.
Beaks: Do you remember doing much press for the film?
Macht: There was an opening. I remember appearing... I think it was at the DGA. There was an opening there. There wasn't a lot of hoopla, but I remember going there. I think my wife was pregnant. I have pictures of us going there. I felt very good to play that character. I know in the Indian culture there was a feeling of "Why are these white guys playing these roles?" That was a muted statement then; it came out probably ten or fifteen years later.
Beaks: When DANCES WITH WOLVES came out.
Macht: And I've gone on to play Indians, Greeks, Israelis, Italians... I've played all kinds of ethnic types. And enjoyed it! That's part of the grace notes of being an actor. I'd love to appear as an old grizzled Indian warrior in some movie, but I don't think I'm going to. (Laughs) Maybe of the lost tribe!
Any questions you wish I'd asked? Come on down to the Nuart this Friday at midnight and ask them yourself! Tickets are still available right here. Hope to see you there! I'll have my interview with cinematographer Charles Rosher, Jr. up in a bit. Faithfully submitted, Mr. Beaks
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Feb. 26, 2009, 3:22 p.m. CST
Feb. 26, 2009, 3:23 p.m. CST
Hell, yeah! <br /><br /> Now I can read the damned article...
Feb. 26, 2009, 3:26 p.m. CST
...Not bad. But the best? C'mon!
Feb. 26, 2009, 3:53 p.m. CST
by wampa 1
...but it sure smells good!
Feb. 26, 2009, 4:20 p.m. CST
that had a group of people (scientists?) living underground in a test compound built in case of overpopulation/eco-accident, that was attacked by bats? Did I dream that up?
Feb. 26, 2009, 4:32 p.m. CST
I have the photonovel somewhere... remember those? I think I have the ones for Invasion of the Body Snatchers... Close Encounters... the king of them all... the large format Alien photonovel
Feb. 26, 2009, 4:48 p.m. CST
Starring Lou Diamond La Bamba. Much better bats. Bigger, mean, uglier. Fuck Nightwing.
Feb. 26, 2009, 5:02 p.m. CST
This was above and beyond the others in terms of maturity, pacing, and believability. Good Movie, just happens to be about killer bats!
Feb. 26, 2009, 6:51 p.m. CST
how are you bro? Nice uh... part 2 and shit.
Feb. 26, 2009, 8:04 p.m. CST
by Bob Cryptonight
Feb. 26, 2009, 9:40 p.m. CST
by The Reluctant Austinite
You can get "Chosen Survivors" on dvd with "The Earth Dies Screaming" on MGM's Midnight Movie label. Thanks again, Mr. Beaks. Now if you could only interview David Warner, we'd have enough bonus material for a dvd release!
Feb. 26, 2009, 10:47 p.m. CST
Shame we couldn't get Warner. Would've been incredible.
Feb. 27, 2009, 3:53 a.m. CST
Brilliant, underrated character actor; also a sort of horror icon.
Feb. 27, 2009, 9:18 a.m. CST
by Le Vicious Fishus
Where's your WATCHMEN review? Outside of Mori and Harry's, I'm most eager for yours.
Feb. 27, 2009, 12:22 p.m. CST
I figured someone here would recognize that..
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