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Victor Salva's horror stories

In his new film, the `Jeepers Creepers' director trades nightmares for hope. But it's not exactly a happy ending for the convicted molester.

June 11, 2006|Patrick Goldstein | Times Staff Writer

WHEN film director Victor Salva first read Dan Millman's classic new-age memoir, "Way of the Peaceful Warrior," he immediately bonded with the book about a troubled young man who is freed from his selfish strivings by the teachings of a grizzled, guru-like gas station attendant named Socrates.

"It's a story that changed my life," explains Salva, who has finally turned the memoir into a film, "Peaceful Warrior," which stars Nick Nolte and Scott Mechlowicz, and opened June 2 in six cities, including Los Angeles. "Here was this book that says you must take responsibility for your choices, learn from your mistakes and never live in the regrets of the past or the worries of the future. Its message was the total opposite of what I was feeling when I read it."

Actually, what Salva was feeling when he read "Peaceful Warrior" was something like total despair, since he was in prison on a child molestation conviction.

To say that Salva was at rock bottom in the late 1980s would be an understatement. Like the gymnast in "Peaceful Warrior," who dreams of going to the Olympics, Salva had his eyes set on cinematic stardom. He'd just made "Clownhouse," a low budget horror film about three boys terrorized by circus clowns, that screened at Sundance and was bankrolled by Francis Ford Coppola, then one of the most influential filmmakers in Hollywood. To shoot the movie, Coppola even gave Salva the cameras George Lucas had used to make "American Graffiti."

But in 1988, as he was fielding offers to make high-profile studio films, Salva was charged with having oral sex with 12-year-old Nathan Forrest Winters, while directing the boy in the movie.

After confessing to the crime, Salva was sentenced to three years in state prison, serving 15 months before his release in 1989.

Now 48, Salva has made six films since leaving prison, largely low-profile horror flicks, his biggest box-office successes coming in the two "Jeepers Creepers" movies. But the tag of convicted child molester has dogged his every step. When he made the teen drama "Powder" in 1995 for the Walt Disney Co., Salva's molestation victim picketed the studio's industry screening of the film, passing out leaflets about the filmmaker's conviction to executives leaving the theater. The leaflets said, in part: "Please don't spend your money on this movie. It would just go to line the pockets of this child molester."

Winters told the Associated Press that Salvo's return to filmmaking "just makes me sick. I'm not going to stand by. He should not be allowed to live his life as if nothing happened." In 2003, when "Jeepers Creepers 2" was released, a number of critics cited Salva's crime in reviews of the film. The Orlando Sentinel's Roger Moore wrote that Salva was perhaps too talented for an exploitative horror movie, "but this is all that Hollywood will let convicted child molesters do."

Having rarely spoken about the issue in the past, Salva sat down recently to discuss his troubled life, saying he wanted people to know the man he is today, not 20 years ago. "I made a terrible mistake, one I wish I could take back every day of my life," he said over lunch at an eatery in Beverly Hills. A bulky man with a scraggly beard and a soft-spoken manner, Salva only sipped iced tea, having recently undergone gastric bypass surgery to lose weight.

"I pled guilty to a terrible crime, and I've spent the rest of my life trying to make up for it. For almost 20 years, I've been involved with helping others, I've been in therapy, and I've made movies. But I paid my debt to society and apologized to the young man. And all I can hope is that people will give me a chance to redeem myself."

In "Peaceful Warrior," the film's young gymnast, played by Mechlowicz, is spoiled and self-absorbed. His only thoughts are of the trappings of success until he meets Socrates, a raspy philosopher with sorcerer-like powers -- sort of like Carlos Castaneda's Don Juan without the peyote. The movie feels especially timely, coming in an era when many young athletes are flouting rules of social behavior or using performance-enhancing drugs to pursue their goals.

However, the cliches of the story put off some reviewers, with Variety's Robert Koehler describing Socrates as "a mystic who's good with a wrench and much too in love with the sound of his own voice." The movie definitely is heavy on new-age maxims, as when Socrates tells his acolyte: "Sometimes you have to lose your mind before you come to your senses."

For Salva, the material hit home, especially after having endured the wrenching experience of jailhouse confinement. "Prison is a very dark place," he says. "When you go in, you literally walk -- naked -- under a sign that says, 'Abandon hope all ye who enter here.' You're really thrown on the garbage pile of humanity. It was a very humbling lesson to learn that there were people who belonged in prison and that I had to count myself among them."

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