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O.C. Director's First Big Film : Movie making: With 'SoulTaker,' 26-year-old Michael Rissi of Placentia makes a major transition of his own in the world of film.

January 30, 1991|KENNETH WILLIAMS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a scene from Action International Pictures' new feature film "SoulTaker," the spirit of a deceased accident victim explains to the hero: "Led Zeppelin was wrong--there is no stairway to heaven." Maybe not. But for director Michael Rissi, the film itself could be a stairway of a different sort.

The ultra-low-budget sci-fi adventure--about a supernatural being whose job is to snatch souls from the dying for transport back to Limbo--is the first professional directing job for the 26-year-old Placentia resident. Rissi hopes it will be a stairway to future projects.

"SoulTaker" was originally intended to go directly to the video rack. But the film's producers were sufficiently impressed with Rissi's work to gamble on limited theatrical distribution. In October, AIP released eight prints of "SoulTaker" nationwide. According to studio officials, it did better than expected. Still, AIP had a great deal of trouble finding a theater in Orange County to run the film. Eventually diligence paid off, though, and Orange County moviegoers will have a chance to see the film this week. "SoulTaker" opens Friday for a weeklong engagement at the UA City Center theater in Orange.

In addition, the film was released last week on videocassette.

Despite the release problems and less-than-favorable notices (see accompanying review), Rissi stands by his work and is pleased with the outcome.

"I'm very happy that there's going to be a release in Orange County," he said recently. "Whenever I work on a project, I try to exceed expectations. I think we did that here."

Rissi got his master's degree in cinema and television in 1989 from USC, where he earned a number of filmmaking awards as an undergraduate.

His first major break came in 1987, while he was still at USC, when a short film--the film school's equivalent to a master's thesis--a thriller called "Snake Eyes," was optioned and later sold by AIP for home-video suspense anthology called "Terror Eyes."

According to Rissi, "Snake Eyes" opened a lot of doors and brought approving nods from industry insiders, although he received no money from its inclusion in the anthology.

"When they sold the anthology, I wound up getting the only good review out of all the segments, and Variety said that I was 'someone to watch.' It was my first real taste of official recognition," he said.

In the spring of 1989, producer Eric Parkinson asked Rissi to take over directing "SoulTaker" after squabbles had left the project without a director. Rissi says he was reluctant to get involved, however; he was afraid he would be taking over as "captain of a sinking ship.

"After reading the script, I noted that it had a lot of problems but that it had potential," he said. "The script was intriguing because it was an opportunity to do a film that dealt with life after death. This was before 'Ghost' and 'Flatliners' (were released). . . . The idea of doing a film dealing with a parallel universe interested me."

With the understanding that he would have the right to fine-tune the script, Rissi signed on with AIP and soon began work on location in Mobile, Ala.

Rissi is reluctant to go into detail about the kind of changes he brought to the script, which was originally penned by "SoulTaker's" leading lady, Vivian Schilling, but his additions were significant enough that it was released as "A Michael Rissi Film" in the credits and promotional materials.

Not surprisingly, the filming, which lasted about four weeks on a budget of $250,000, was plagued by problems from the beginning.

"The making of the film was emotionally a very difficult experience," Rissi recalls. "Working with such a low budget and entirely on location took its toll. Not only can you not control the weather, you have to figure out how to shoot scenes in the existing space. It was a very difficult project."

In one scene, for instance, the script called for a violent car crash.

"The day the car was supposed to crash, it wouldn't start. We lost half a day of production just trying to get it running. We ended up taking it to a repair shop to have it fixed just so we could crash it the next day," he said with a laugh.

In spite of such mishaps, Rissi is pleased with the film.

"I did the best job I could, and I'm satisfied with the feeling that you can watch the film and walk away from it without feeling ripped off. . . . It's not a work of genius. But it's fun to watch," he said.

Rissi is now in pre-production for a film based on Stanley Cohen's short story "The Battered Mailbox," a tale about a young hoodlum who goes around knocking down mailboxes and what happens when his pranks get out of hand.

Rissi looks at that project as an analogy to the crisis now boiling over in the Persian Gulf. It's a situation, he admits, that leaves him with mixed feelings. "The story is kind of a microcosm of the war and how things can escalate beyond control in a relatively short period of time."

Still, he is quick to point out that he is not a political filmmaker and that he is wary of celebrities who promote their political views.

"I think that when people in the entertainment business offer their views on politics, we'd do well to understand that these people are not experts," he said. "It reminds me of the time Don Henley said, 'Only in America could an actor be elected President.' But at the time I was thinking, 'Only in America could a pop musician's statments be taken seriously.' "

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