"Our movie was turned down by every studio in town," said Sidney Furie. "I believe in admitting that, because maybe it will encourage others not to give up."
Furie is the intense Canadian-born director who earned legions of devotees 22 years ago with his innovative spy thriller "The Ipcress File." Now, at age 52, he seems to have a commercial smash with his movie "Iron Eagle," starring Louis Gossett Jr. and Jason Gedrick. Not only is the film jangling box-office bells all over the country (selling $12 million in tickets in two weeks), it is encouraging audiences to jump to their feet cheering.
"Yes," said Furie the other day, sitting in his office at the Hollywood Centre Studios (Francis Coppola's former Zoetrope Studios). "It seems we caught the mood."
That they did.
"Iron Eagle" is about a youngster (played by Jason Gedrick of "The Heavenly Kid") who learns that his pilot father has been shot down and is being held prisoner in a Middle Eastern country. Realizing that the State Department can do nothing to free him, Doug enlists the aid of a retired Air Force colonel (Gossett), "borrows" an F-16 and sets off to the rescue.
The story, combined with a general mood of gung-ho in the country plus a desire by many to hit back at Middle East terrorists, has made the movie a big box-office hit from Day 1.
Even Furie seems surprised at the way it has taken off.
"People keep calling and asking how I judged the country's mood so well," he said. "The truth is, I didn't. We (he co-wrote the script with Kevin Elders) starting writing the story during the Olympics, which we found very inspiring, but that was long before 'Rambo' came out and encouraged all this chauvinism."
Elders was production supervisor on the movie "Purple Hearts," a story about wartime Vietnam that Furie directed. He had never written anything before.
"But he could talk," said Furie with a grin. "Boy, could he talk. And after we returned from making that movie in the Philippines, we sat down and said, 'Let's make the kind of movie we used to sneak in to see on Saturday afternoons.'
And so Furie and Elders began writing a story about "a heroic young person who's involved in something daring."
"We knew we wanted to make a movie in which the audience could feel involved," Furie said. "And this seemed the right kind of story. I admit I consciously set out to make a mass-entertainment kind of picture; I did think, 'Will millions go for this?' But there's no alternative these days. Nothing else works. And there's nothing sadder than an empty theater."
But having written "Junior Eagle," as it was then called, nobody seemed interested.
"It was hawked all round town," Furie said.
Now that he's the one laughing, the one who's going to make money from the project, you might expect him to slam the studio executives who gave him the thumbs down.
"Not me," he said. "If I'm honest, I have to admit that had I been in charge of a studio I might have said no, too. There were no names attached to the script when it was going around--Gossett came on board later--and you couldn't fault some executive for wondering whether the story could really work; could an 18-year-old kid really fly an F-16?"
Finally, the script landed on the desk of Joe Wizan, the former head of 20th Century Fox. He liked it and sent it to producer Ron Samuels. Samuels did more than like it.
"It was just the kind of story I'd been looking for," Samuels said the other day. "It reminded me of the old John Wayne Westerns. It was a patriotic adventure about a boy setting out to rescue his father. I knew immediately I wanted to make it."
Since the story involved jet planes--and not just any jet-planes, F-16s--a scramble began to get hold of some.
"We knew it was no use approaching the U.S. Air Force," Furie said. "They have a longstanding policy about not cooperating on any film which involves the theft of a plane. They're very sensitive about that, probably because they know how easy it is to do."
But the Israeli air force had no such qualms as long as Furie paid part of the cost of getting the planes airborne. And so, for six weeks, the unit filmed in Israel while real Israeli pilots flashed around the skies. (Jim Gavin, who choreographed the aerial footage of "Blue Thunder," did the same for this picture.)
"Some critics of the movie took the line that a young man could never take one of those planes and fly it," said Furie. "But, as we found out, in Israel 18 is considered the ideal age to fly these planes; that's when the reflexes are at their peak."
Wizan, Samuels and Furie thought they might have something good when the movie was finally finished. Even so, they were terribly unprepared for the reaction to their first preview.
"You always go to those affairs wondering, 'Will anyone really care?' " said Furie. "And the people who came to the preview at Torrance looked a pretty tough lot to us. But as soon as the planes appeared, they started cheering; the atmosphere was absolutely electric."
And so, according to reports, it has stayed.
"The Ipcress File," his first success, was a sophisticated, clever movie. "Iron Eagle," on the other hand, goes straight for the stomach. That would seem to say a lot about how movie audiences have changed.
"They have," Furie agreed. "As I said, today you've got to aim for mass entertainment; a movie has got to be an event or it just won't work. It's a sad thing for any creative film maker to have to sit down and think, 'Is this the kind of thing millions of people will want to see?'--but what's the alternative?
"And listen"--here his face broke into a smile--"I've made a lot of movies over the years (among them "Lady Sings the Blues," "The Entity"), but this is the first time I've ever had a good review in the New York Times."