For six months, director Walter Hill has had to answer questions about whether his film "Looters" had anything to do with the Los Angeles riots. And then there's the fateful coincidence that he cast two of rap music's more notorious figures, Ice-T and Ice Cube, in leading roles. So how does he feel about the picture's new title, "Trespass," and its Christmas Day opening as opposed to the original release date of July 4?
Hill's half-joking answer: "The safest position for a filmmaker is to be immersed in your next film," which is "Geronimo" for Columbia Pictures.
Not that Hill doesn't want to discuss "Trespass." It's just that he isn't sure the movie can break free of real-life events. The gritty hard-action picture, set in East St. Louis, centers on a couple of white treasure seekers (the "looters") and a band of local black crime lords bent on taking them down. The film has nothing to do with the civil unrest and looting in Los Angeles last spring, the director said.
"Somehow, the riots tainted the movie," Hill says, and when the picture's release was pushed back, "inevitably, a lot of people came to the conclusion that you have something to hide, something to be ashamed of."
So does he? He says no.
"If the movie is successful on the terms I call successful, it should be disturbing . . . which it is to some degree," he said. "It's not a social statement and does not offer a cure--the action, the characters are fictional--but like any good story there's a certain amount of social truth to it."
The picture, which uses one setting and was made for $15 million, was described in one negative review as an urban, updated cross between "The Treasure of Sierra Madre" and "Rio Bravo." Bill Paxton and William Sadler play Arkansas firefighters on a mission to discover a cache of precious gold religious artifacts in an abandoned warehouse--only to become hostages inside when Ice-T and his retinue of fellow criminals, including Ice Cube, get wise to their scheme.
Written by Bob Gale and Robert Zemeckis, the script went through a number of rewrites from the first 1977 draft, with dialogue enhanced during shooting by "the two Ices," as Hill calls the actor-rappers, who, he said "brought a certain verisimilitude to their parts."
And it is also hero-less, filled with venal, greedy characters who are caught in a story line "that paints itself into a corner as it goes," says the director. It is also hip and violent--peppered with humor and irony. In short, "a spiraling nightmare with an apocalyptic ending," he said.
In the current issue of the New Yorker, critic Michael Sragow, a longtime fan of the director, writes that " 'Trespass' has the spare ruthlessness of a Jack London short story . . . Gothic quality of Poe . . . sardonicism of Ambrose Bierce . . . and the blaspheming explosiveness of contemporary black youth culture."
But incendiary it is not, said director Hill. Contrary to what others feared might happen if it were to have been released following the L.A. riots, when scenes of widespread looting was telecast for the world to see, Hill said that, if anything, the movie deglamorizes inner-city gangster life--no winners emerge.
Yet Hill said he fully understood the decision by Universal Pictures chairman Tom Pollock to pull the picture from release a week after the Rodney G. King verdict and the disturbances. He even took advantage of the extra time to re-shoot the ending.
What was more disturbing for Hill, who is best known for directing "48 HRS." and its sequel, was coming up with a new movie title. The studio came up with 50 alternatives and the filmmakers at least another 20.
Screenwriter Gale ticked off these discards: "Point of No Return," "The Intruders," "Burning Gold," "Greed," "Fire Trap" and "Blood and Gold," among others.
"Trespass," Hill said, reminds him of a title to a '50s-era RKO movie starring Robert Mitchum and Jane Russell. "Psychologically, changing the name was more devastating than moving the movie because it was like changing the name of one of your children. But with the two Ices and the title 'Looters,' I had to see (Universal's) point." It took weeks for him to settle upon "Trespass."
That hurdle passed, the next negative association--also unrelated--was seen in light of the controversy surrounding Ice-T and his recording of "Cop Killer," which he asked Warner Bros. to pull from release on his album "Body Count" last July.
Again, Hill shakes his head. When he cast the picture in the fall of 1991, he sought out Ice Cube after admiring his acting talents in "Boyz N the Hood" and Ice-T for his performances in "New Jack City" and "Ricochet."
"I'm a rhythm-and-blues man, myself. I'm not particularly a rap fan and (before production began) I'd never heard any of their records." That's changed. Several rap songs, including the title song performed by the "two Ices," complement the Ry Cooder film score.
As for the film's opening up against 20th Century Fox's "Hoffa" and TriStar Pictures' "Chaplin" on Christmas Day, Hill seems nonplussed--calling it a marketing decision.
Gale has an assessment, however: "Our chance lies in counterprogramming. There's so much sweetness and light this time of year, why not an action picture? 'Trespass,' unlike so many other current releases, delivers what it sets out to deliver in 101 minutes.
"For my money, that's holiday enough," he said.