Director Robert Zemeckis’ latest film, The Walk, hits theaters next week, but it’s too soon to say where it will fall in his filmography quality-wise. We hope it’s more Contact than A Christmas Carol, but we’ll settle for Cast Away. Kurt Russell also has some new films hitting theaters in the very near future, two westerns in fact ‐ The Hateful Eight and Bone Tomahawk ‐ and we’re incredibly excited about them both.
The two crossed paths thirty five years ago in a little film called Used Cars, and in 2002 they recorded a commentary track. It’s a known fact that Russell’s commentaries are always worth listening too thanks to his boundless enthusiasm, fun anecdotes, and a laugh that could probably be harnessed and used to power a small country. That’s never been more true than it is here as he has an incredibly fun time reminiscing about this playful, raunchy, fast-moving comedy.
Keep reading to see what I heard on the Used Cars commentary.
Used Cars (1980)
Commentators: Robert Zemeckis (director/co-writer), Bob Gale (producer/co-writer), Kurt Russell (actor)
1. Zemeckis and Gale flew up to Calgary, Canada to meet Russell as their only experience of him was via the Elvis television movie and some of his work for Walt Disney.
2. The film was shot in Mesa, AZ, just outside Phoenix. I lived in Mesa from 2012 to 2013, and the place has barely changed in over three decades.
3. Zemeckis points out a very visible boom microphone operator in the side mirror of the car that the camera moves into.
4. Russell recalls thinking how silly that gum and bumper gag was, adding “There’s no way it’s believable.”
5. Gale mentions doing research with Zemeckis as to the ins and outs of used car lots, and specifically he says they visited a college friend named Alan Tonkin whose dad had the biggest Ford dealership in Portland, OR. “Rob Tonkin,” says Russell. “I was up there playing baseball, Ron Tonkin had Ron Tonkin Ford or whatever.” This is a good time to mention the excellent documentary, The Battered Bastards of Baseball, which is about a Portland team put together by Russell’s father, Bing, in the early ’70s. You should go see it.
6. Russell remembers Steven Spielberg visiting the set a few times which prompts Gale to point out that the idea for the film came while he (Gale) and Zemeckis were working on the script for Spielberg’s 1941. “[John] Milius told us this story that he and Spielberg wanted to do someday about used car salesmen outside of Las Vegas. He wanted to put George Hamilton in it Kurt.”
7. The Fuchs brothers were originally going to be played by different actors, but after Jack Warden turned down the role of Roy Fuchs someone suggested making them twins and having one actor play both.
8. They point out Alfonso Arau’s entrance as Manuel, and Gale says he’s a big director in his own right now. “Like Water for Chocolate, and here he is scratching his balls.”
9. This was Warden’s first R-rated movie. “He had such a good time saying ‘fuck’ and ‘shit,’” says Gale, but Zemeckis says this is where he learned his lesson about letting actors swear because they love to out-swear each other.
10. Gales says that when Spielberg read the first draft of the script “he was appalled at the idea that politicians could be corrupt.” Zemeckis adds that “he didn’t like the line in there where we say that the president lies.”
11. Joe Flaherty’s character was originally going to be played by John Candy, but they got a call after rehearsals and costume fittings had already begun. Apparently Candy’s agent had double-booked him onto two films filming at the same time ‐ possibly Stripes? ‐ so they had to replace him.
12. It took the trainer two months to get the dog to do that screwdriver gag. The bit where he plays dead involved a sedative though.
13. Zemeckis blames the studio for screwing up the film’s original release which resulted in it not going nationwide as planned. “The reason it was botched,” says Gale, “was because our sneak preview went so well.” The studio bumped it forward a month from its original release date, and not only did the rush mean it hit some theaters with no advance marketing but it also opened one week after a little film called Airplane.
14. Michael Talbott apparently spent much of his down-time trying to score with local ladies. “He’d walk up to a girl and say ‘Any of you girls want to have sex with me right now?’ We’re like, ‘Michael, you’re never gonna pick up a girl that way,’ and he said ‘All I have to do is get one to say yes and then I’m laid!’”
15. Warden shared some acting advice with a young actor on set whose plan was to talk slow so as to get more screen time. He instead pointed out that you should talk fast “because they won’t be able to get the scissors in and cut anything out.”
16. Zemeckis points out a near miss with a cameraman as the car rolls at the 18:46 mark.
17. Universal Pictures passed on the film, so they took it over to Columbia Pictures. Frank Price, the studio president at the time, had sold used cars as a young man so he quickly said yes.
18. They got notes from the studio suggesting there was perhaps a bit too much swearing.
19. They filmed the TV ad scene in a stadium parking lot while a football game was going on to take advantage of all the cars in one place for free. Re-shoots ended up being necessary though when the studio insisted the fake glasses were to offensive ‐ they were originally a pair of “Mr. Dick Nose” glasses with a penis-shaped proboscis. Those originals are still visible when Rudy (Russell) grabs the glasses out of the box. A glimpse of the original scene is below.
20. Russell recalls the bit (above) where Margaret’s (Cheryl Rixon) dress rips revealing her bare breasts and his then-wife’s comment about visiting the set. “Season’s [Hubley] like eight months pregnant at this point. Divorce is in the air!”
21. The two little kids who fall out of the back of the car as it leaves the lot were actually the children of one of the stuntmen.
22. The scene with the strippers atop the cars features a stunt that’s almost entirely missed by the camera. “We missed the stunt!” says Zemeckis. “I couldn’t believe what lousy camera operators… those were the days before monitors, I didn’t know what the camera operators were doing.”
23. The excessive littering by the characters was intentional, and it cracks these guys up something fierce every time.
24. Gale occasionally comes across as something of a prick. He mentions during the stripper scene that the script supervisor volunteered to be one of the girls, but they only used her in the wide shot because she wasn’t very attractive. Later, Deborah Harmon’s arrival prompts him to say how difficult it was to find girls who were both cute and funny.
25. The bit where Jeff shoots up the cars for the commercial involved live ammunition. “Which was completely insane,” says Zemeckis.
26. Stuntman Terry Leonard handles many of the film’s car crashes and jumps, but the stunt that scared him most involved kicking in the screen of a live television. “We had him grounded… he was wearing rubber underwear.”
27. Russell and Graham had daily discussions-turned-arguments regarding the Iran Hostage situation and what should be done about it.
28. The fight scene between Jeff and Fuchs left some people concerned that it was too violent, so they added a “cartoony” piece of music to it. “It’s the best fight I ever did,” says Zemeckis. They shot the fight live first with the stunt guys tearing up the room, and then they went in and shot the close-ups with the actors.
29. They’re shocked at what they were able to get away with in regard to letting the car burn. “We’re burning tires and diesel fuel back there. You could never do that in California. We just got black smoke going back there for a whole day!”
30. The girl in the bar with her arm in a sling is a stunt woman who was injured doubling for Harmon.
31. The big line of cars was accomplished by hiring extras for $15 per day, and they had to bring their own cars.
32. The scene where Jeff walks backward into the road and is narrowly missed by a car speeding toward him still terrifies Zemeckis. “I can’t watch this. This is the craziest thing I’ve ever done in my career. When I watch it right now my scrotum shrivels up.” Graham apparently had no idea how close the car comes to clipping him.
33. Russell is doubled by Dick Warlock during the big action finale where he moves between moving cars. The actor did as many of the stunts as he could while Warlock ‐ who has been doubling Russell for decades ‐ handled the most dangerous scenes.
34. Zemeckis is no fan of director’s cuts and agrees with Martin Scorsese on the topic. “I don’t believe in these director’s cuts. I think movies have to live in the time that they were made.”
Best in Context-Free Commentary
- Russell: “I always thought if they’d done this with Bill Murray it’d been a big hit.”
- Zemeckis: “This movie is structured on a classic Frank Capra movie except that everybody lies.”
- Zemeckis: “I hate going in the makeup trailer. It scares me in there. I don’t want to hear bad shit that they’re saying about me.”
- Gale: “We’re lucky we didn’t kill someone on this show.”
- Gale: “Here’s a Zemeckis trademark. Lightning.”
- Zemeckis: “We had crew members sabotaging us, telling the studio we were out of control.”
- Zemeckis: “This is an El Dorado that we rented, smashed it, Bondo’d it, and gave it back to the rental company that night.”
- Zemeckis: “As great as this movie is, I’m glad I’ve out-grown it.”
It’s rare for a commentary to match the tone and momentum of the film itself as well as this one does ‐ the three men are having a hell of a good time with what they remember as well as what they’re seeing onscreen, and the track is almost as foul-mouthed as the film itself. Zemeckis seems consistently surprised at what they got away with back then, Gale retains the most detailed memory about the production, and Russell just laughs and laughs and laughs. It’s an incredibly fun listen and highly recommended.
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