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Drive-In Redux

July 17, 1994|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Daddy-O!

The 1950s are back and in color! And we're not talking the '50s of Mom, apple pie, Eisenhower, Ozzie and Harriet, Pat Boone and Patti Page. We're talking the decade of rebels without causes, cool cats, down and dirty rock 'n' roll, hot rods, motorcycle gangs, raging hormones, push-up bras, poodle skirts, cigarettes and, especially, drive-in movie theaters.

These days, drive-ins are nearly as extinct as the T-Rex. But 40 years ago, drive-ins were teen-age passion pits. Every weekend, teens would flock to drive-ins, not only to neck, but also to watch such low-budget flicks as "Roadracers," "Runaway Daughters" and "Rock All Night."

Most of these quickie, black-and-white C pix were usually made by producers Sam Arkoff and James Nicholson's American International Pictures, which was founded in 1954. AIP was the training ground for such directors as Martin Scorsese and John Milius and actors Jack Nicholson, Peter Fonda and Richard Pryor.

Thanks to "Rebel Highway," Showtime's new original film series, 10 movie directors--Joe Dante, Robert Rodriguez, Allan Arkush, Ralph Bakshi, Uli Edel, William Friedkin, Jonathan Kaplan, John McNaughton, John Milius and Mary Lambert--have gotten a chance to make their own '50s AIP flick.

And they had to make their films on an AIP schedule--in just 12 days on a shoestring budget of $1.3 million. Directors got to pick the title of their choice from AIP's library and were given creative control and final cut.

"Rebel Highway" roars onto the small screen Friday with Robert Rodriguez's ("El Mariachi") hot-rod adventure "Roadracers." The series will present a new movie every Friday. On Aug. 9, A&M Records will release the "Rebel Highway" series soundtrack, "Fast Track to Nowhere," featuring such artists as the Neville Brothers and Los Lobos performing songs from that era.

"Making the movies was a lot of fun," says producer Debra Hill ("Attack of the 50 Ft. Woman"). "Really, to do a body of work with these directors would have taken me a decade. So this is great."

It's also been nonstop insanity. The productions shoot in and around Los Angeles and at a small sound stage in North Hollywood. "We shoot 12 days, are down for three days and then we start again," says producer Lou Arkoff, son of Sam Arkoff. "We have made 10 movies from October to July."

Arkoff, a frequent visitor to the sets of the original films as a youngster, came up with the idea of the "Rebel Highway" series. "What would happen if you remade 'Rebel Without a Cause' today, still set in the '50s but with '90s sensibilities? The answer is it would be more lurid. It would be sexier. Sal Mineo's character would have dealt with his homosexual problems. Natalie Wood would have been bedded down by James Dean. That's what an honest movie would have been in the '50s. But these movies were being made in the film code of the '50s".

The producers wanted directors who "feel the teen Angst ," Arkoff says. "You want to know something? I don't care if you are 20, 40 or 60 years old, we all develop certain ways of dealing with our emotions in our teen years. The way I deal with my father is something I developed in these anxious teen-age years. The way I deal with certain emotions is the way I dealt with them when I was 14. We take those Angst years with us."

As teen-agers, he adds, "we learn a sense of independence. It's when we grew up. It's when our hormones are first let loose. We can all remember the unhappy times and the happy times. Those qualities are what we wanted."

The first entry, "Roadracers," follows the adventures of cool, greasy-haired Dude (David Arquette), who wants to be a rock singer, and his sultry girlfriend Donna (Salma Hayek). The highlight of the film is a rumble on roller skates.

Rodriguez, 24, came to fame last year with his acclaimed debut film "El Mariachi," which he wrote, shot, sound-recorded, edited and directed for an astonishing $7,000. As far as he is concerned, "Roadracers" was a lavish production.

"We shot this one 'Mariachi' style," he says. "The crew couldn't believe it. We averaged about 50 setups a day. One day we got, like, 78 setups in 12 hours. I grabbed the camera and started shooting the shots I needed. Fortunately, I can operate the camera so they couldn't tell me to slow down."

The actors, he says, also enjoyed the hectic pace. "They were always on the set. They didn't need 20 takes to warm up to get into character because they were always into character on the first take."

Because the film is heavy on action, Rodriguez storyboarded all those scenes to save time on the set. "We had 12 days and a million bucks. I thought it was all the money in the world," he recalls. "I wrote all of these big action scenes. I had all my actors on roller skates."

"Roadracers" is not based on the original film. Like many of the filmmakers, Rodriguez simply used the title. "They didn't let me see it because it was so bad. It was like a father and son racing team and they don't get along."

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