Australian director Mark Hartley’s new documentary, Electric Boogaloo: The Wild Untold Story of Cannon Films, casts a critical yet essentially sympathetic eye over the career of Israeli producers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, cinephile cousins who bought a struggling US film production company and turned it into the quintessential ’80s independent, before it all came tumbling down. Francis Lamb quizzes the director about the lost days of maverick movie production, multi-million picture deals secured during lift rides, and cinematic vertical integration, quixotic ’80s-style.
Golan-Globus made films with reckless abandon, conjuring audiences for genre mash-ups that existed only in their heads, leaving us some indelible images: a moustachioed, out-of-shape Franco Nero sporting a white bandanna as a ninja [in Golan’s 1984 Enter the Ninja], Shabba-Doo and Boogaloo Shrimp break-dancing on the ceiling [in Joel Silberg’s Breakin’, from the same year], or stony-faced Lawrence Tierney explaining that ‘tough guys don’t dance’ [in the so-named 1987 movie, written and directed by Norman Mailer].
There’s a reciprocal swing between exploitation and art in the best cinema that’s not as easy as it looks: Cannon cut an idiosyncratic swathe through the decade, borrowing a few moves from old pros like Roger Corman and doping out Miramax’s approach in the ’90s. Their legacy speaks for itself: they funded John Cassavetes’ swansong Love Streams and Zeffirelli’s film of the opera Otello, gave Mickey Rourke his definitive role as Charles Bukowski in Barfly and let Jon Voight go way, way over the top in Runaway Train. There’s even prescience about the abject flops, as their unrealised Spider Man or cut-rate Captain America attest.
Electric Boogaloo closes Mark Hartley’s loose trilogy of documentaries on exploitation cinema, complementing entries on the Australian and Filipino genre film industries. Just days after its world premiere at the Melbourne International Film Festival in August 2014, Menahem Golan died, but not before having completed work on a rival documentary giving his own version of events. Titled The Go-Go Boys: The Inside Story of Cannon Films, it beat Hartley’s movie to the punch, having premiered at Cannes three months earlier in true Cannon style.
Francis Lamb: What initially attracted you to the story of Cannon Films?
Mark Hartley: I’d made two other documentaries, one called Not Quite Hollywood, another called Machete Maidens Unleashed. The first was about Australian genre films that had been completely neglected by the Australian film industry. They weren’t put in any of the history books because in Australia we embraced our art-house films and anything that wasn’t art-house was considered exploitation. I loved the films, I loved the filmmakers and I figured that if I didn’t make that documentary no one would. I never really wanted to be a documentary filmmaker at all, my background was in music videos, and I just wanted to make narrative films. Then I made this other documentary after that, and people kept on clamouring for me to make one more film documentary. I had this huge window between us getting the financing, and getting the cast and developing this feature film I made last year [Patrick], where I figured if ever there was to be a time to make another documentary this would be it. At the same time, the reason to do these documentaries was to meet the people that were my film heroes growing up; I’d just read Michael Winner’s autobiography, and he had great stories about Cannon in this book. I’d read Andrew Yule’s Hollywood a Go-Go, the other Cannon book, and I thought it’s a great story about these two outsiders going to America and trying to take on the studio system. Subsequently, we didn’t get our funding, Michael Winner died, and I kind of lost all interest in doing it. We went and made Patrick, and during the production Brett Ratner came in with this money, and suddenly it was up again and I had to throw myself back into the world of documentaries.
FL: Did Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus themselves have any kind of input?
MH: They agreed to be involved to begin with, and obviously they then started to think of their legacy and if they really wanted to hand it over to some Australian they’d never heard of. As I mentioned, there’s Andrew Yule’s book, which is a total hatchet job, and I’m sure they were very wary of that, so they came back and said they’d really like to be co-producers. That wasn’t going to be possible with the way we were financing it, and also a lot of the interviewees we’d approached had said they’d be involved but as long as Menahem and Yoram didn’t have anything to do with it. We told Menahem and Yoram they couldn’t be producers, but we’d still very much like to tell their story. All communication stopped, and the next thing we heard was that they were making their own documentary about themselves. So, it’s good that it gave us an ending for our film anyway, the battle of the Cannon documentaries.
FL: There are some very polarised opinions in your documentary….
MH: Certainly we had people like Frank Yablans [former head of MGM] who really didn’t want to be interviewed at all; we had a very relentless person in our Melbourne office who literally coerced him into doing it. He said: ‘I’ve got nothing good to say about them.’ Then you have, at the other end of the spectrum, the maestro Franco Zeffirelli – if you ever want someone to sing your praises, it may as well be a filmmaker as acclaimed as him.
FL: What do you think the key was to Cannon’s international appeal?
MH: The thing was, back in the early ’80s, the studios had locked out so many independent distributors overseas, they couldn’t get American studio films, and Cannon filled that niche. They could make American-style films with recognisable American stars, of yesteryear a lot of the time, and they could provide these distributors overseas with American product, so that’s why they were seen in lots of territories.
FL: Golan-Globus were making films at the height of the home video craze….
MH: Basically, everything was sold for theatrical screenings; they didn’t really exploit video. They bought Thorn EMI and part of that was getting Elstree studios and the Thorn EMI catalogues. You know, catalogue is king when you talk to most people, but even when they bought Cannon itself, which was an existing company, they didn’t really exploit that library either, just the fact that the original Cannon had a means of exhibition through certain relationships with theatres, and that’s what they were buying really, the name and that circuit.
FL: How much did they change their approach when they took over Cannon and came to the US?
MH: It’s very interesting when you look at the top 20 films in Israel, certainly in 1980, when they went to America; Golan-Globus had 18 of them, so they were the Steven Spielberg and George Lucas combined of Israel, in terms of making popular cinema. They were making crowd-pleasing comedies, Lupo and films like that, which were almost like Israeli Crocodile Dundee-type movies, fish-out-of-water films. They were making thrillers and musicals, they were just making meat-and-potatoes films over there, and obviously when they went to America they went a bit more high concept and diverse. I mean, Cannon would be making a breakdance movie at the same time they were making a Charles Bronson revenge movie, a musical, an impenetrable art-house film…. and all these films were side-by-side, sold the exact same way.
FL: Do you see any parallels between them and Miramax? Both companies had a policy of mixing genre fare with art-house films, and pursued this ideal of making Oscar-winning films.
MH: Sure, I think the statement that’s made in the film is that Miramax cared about quality and at Cannon they cared about quantity, and Miramax had people there to nurture projects, and they had people they would listen to. With Cannon it was Menahem: he was the beginning, middle and end of production. You could get into an elevator with him at the ground floor, come out on the third floor and you had a five picture deal, and you knew you’d be shooting a film in three weeks. Nothing was stopping you if Menahem said yes.
FL: So there was more of a Roger Corman model of production, perhaps?
MH: Yes, but Roger Corman was smart and savvy in terms of script; he had smart people looking after the script process. At Cannon, the secretaries read the scripts, and that’s not a joke; Menahem and Yoram didn’t read half of them, they couldn’t keep up.
FL: What about their influence today? There’s a Cannon vibe to the recent cycle of Marvel superhero movies, or preposterous thrillers like White House Down or Olympus has Fallen. Olympus has Fallen was made by four guys who worked at Cannon – Danny Dimbort, Avi Lerner, John Thompson and Boaz Davidson; all featured in the documentary. As Avi says, they learned what not to do at Cannon, and now they’re making Cannon-style films that are finding audiences, that’s the difference. So certainly, the legacy of Cannon is the producers that came out of the company. [In the documentary] we interview David Womark, who produced Life of Pi, and Pieter Jan Brugge, who produced Michael Mann’s films. So it’s interesting – unlike with Corman, where all the protégés have created the New Hollywood of auteurs and filmmakers, with Cannon there are no filmmakers that have had any success, it’s all the producers that are now running Hollywood, and that shows where the sensibility of the company was.
– Francis Lamb
Electric Boogaloo: The Wild Untold Story of Cannon Films is released on 5 June 2015 in UK cinemas.