By Adrien Clerc
The story of the making of Taking Tiger Mountain is one of the strangest a movie-goer could possibly hear. It all started in the mid-seventies, when two friends, Kent Smith (director) and Bill Paxton (not-famous-yet actor) decided to make a film together, loosely based on the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty. They shot enough silent, black and white images in Tangier and Wales to make a full-length film, but hit a dead-end when it came to editing, and sold the footage to a friend, Tom Huckabee, who was still an aspiring filmmaker. Huckabee decided to leave the kidnapping story behind, and to think over the whole meaning of the images to make a conspiracy sci-fi movie. Huckabee’s Taking Tiger Mountain would be set in the apocalyptic world of Burroughs’ Blade Runner: a movie, and follow Billy, a young time-bomb assassin. Yes, it sounds crazy, and yes, it is.
In the following interview director Tom Huckabee goes back on the process that led to the making of the first feature with a Burroughs’ writing credit, and talks about feminism, LSD, Burroughs, and the future of sci-fi movies.
Hi Tom. Maybe we can start with the most simple intersection point… What interested you in Burroughs’ work?
The value of Burroughs to me was that he was on the fringe between acceptable and non-acceptable, that he was an explorer of dangerous worlds. There was a vicarious, transgressive thrill to his work in subject and form… the ideas were fun to think about because they expanded your mind, made the world larger, but just like acid, which was fun for eight hours, you didn’t want to stay there. My actual philosophy comfort zone is more with Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Tim Leary, William Faulkner, Hermann Hesse. I was never into opiates or boys, or noir, for that matter.
The idea you had – not to make an adaptation, but a movie set in the world of a Burroughs’ novel – is very interesting. Did it come to your mind before you saw Smith’s footage, or afterwards?
I saw Smith’s footage first in 1975. I may have heard of Burroughs back then but hadn’t read anything. In ‘76 I enrolled at UT Austin and probably started reading Burroughs then. I got the footage in ‘79 and looked at everything and logged it. There was 10 hours of silent non-sync 35mm techniscope, and its corresponding anamorphic work print. I started building scenes using the script they had which was loosely based on the J. Paul Getty kidnapping. There was no sci-fi element, no assassination, no prostitution, no feminism, or brainwashing. It was a dream film about a young American waking up on a train – with amnesia, maybe – who wanders into a Welsh town, meets a lot of people, has adventures, bad dreams, and then gets killed on the beach, or does he?
Once I had assembled all their footage into what seemed like a narrative flow, I started thinking about what the story could be. I didn’t like their story much, it was too languid for me,
Other people were putting in their two cents and this mysterious guy named Ray Layton, who behaved like a cult leader, but only had one follower, and I think he paid her, was hanging around doing avant-garde theatre. He had the idea to make it about feminist terrorists brainwashing Billy…. and the prostitution camps. I don’t know who came up with the idea that he was a draft dodger.
I discovered Blade Runner and realized it was exactly the right kind of world, happening in America, while our events were unfolding in Wales. I lucked into finding a backer who promised $30,000, and that’s when it got real. I remembered seeing another short film that Kent and Bill had made; a thinly veiled homoerotic portrait of Bill, called D’Artagnan. I thought it could be used to represent Billy’s brainwashing. By then I’d acquired the MKUltra transcripts and was heavily into The Job.
It took at least a year to write the script to conform to the footage, which by the way was 60 minutes. I knew I needed 75 min. minimum for it to be a feature. So I built five minutes of dream sequences out of outtakes, including one where I threw the film in the air and put it together as it came down – cheating a lot.
I should mention that I was fairly regularly during this time, maybe once every one or two months, on acid, mushrooms, and baby woodrose seeds… this, added with all the experimental film I was seeing, and avant-garde and erotic and left wing and feminist political literature I was reading, kept my mind open to outré thematic and formal tropes… so, say, if a scene wasn’t working I could always run it upside down and backwards… Also by then I was thoroughly versed in MKUltra brainwashing, psychic warfare, so in that respect I think I was getting a lot of that independently from Burroughs, maybe from the same source he was getting it.
Then I wrote the opening scene and shot it… and started dubbing in dialogue. I forgot to mention Woody Allen’s Tiger Lilly as an influence. First I hired a lip reader to tell me what the characters were saying and many of them were speaking Welsh.
And you found a way to get in touch with Burroughs?
In 1980, the bass player of my band, The Huns, had an out of town visitor, Adam Somebody, who said he knew Burroughs. By then I knew I wanted the material from Blade Runner and what I would do with it. Adam said he would ask him about it and that part of it went down super easy after James Grauerholz got involved.
How did you become aware of the making of Ridley Scott’s, Blade Runner?
I was the one who alerted Burroughs that Blade Runner was the official title of Scott’s film… I was killing time in a book store where Burroughs was signing books, looking at movie magazines, when I came across a big spread on Blade Runner in Cinemafantastique.
We had just an hour before we finished watching Taking Tiger Mountain on a Steenbeck flatbed [editor], fast-forwarding through most of it but slowing down for the sex scenes, signed contracts… I think I handed them a check for $100.00 and we walked across the street together to the signing…
They had made no mention that the same book I was adapting, Blade Runner, might be used in some way, if just the title, for the basis of a mega budget sci-fi by the genius who had brought us the most popular film among punk rockers like myself: Alien. My jaw dropped… I walked it over to James [Grauerholz] and his jaw dropped. It heralded to them that there might be hope for them in Hollywood, after all. James didn’t appear at all worried at being ripped off. There had been talk about them using the name, and a price already discussed: $5000.00, which at the time seemed like a good deal to them.
That’s an amazing story! I’m a big fan of Alien too – in fact it was one of the first movies that got me interested in cinema. It’s one of these films that make the screen it is using bigger, larger; it creates a new dimension of space. I saw Blade Runnera few years ago when it was reissued for the big screen, and some of it is amazing, but I was a bit disappointed – and still am – by the fact that the narrative is very, very conventional. What do you think of Blade Runner?
I totally agree about Blade Runner. Too bad it doesn’t have just 10 percent of Burroughs, and I don’t think Harrison Ford is that good in it. Sean Young and Daryl Hannah are fabulous – and Rutger Hauer, the evil ruler, and the toy maker… in fact all the supporting characters are great, but Ford is just Han Solo. It would have been fun to see Christopher Walken in that role.
I had dinner with Ridley Scott and Bill Paxton one night to pitch a story idea of mine… I can’t remember if we even mentioned Taking Tiger Mountain-Blade Runner, probably not, for fear it could have derailed the pitch, which he didn’t buy, although his girlfriend thought he should. I’ve recently submitted my most recent script, a four hour mini-series about Timothy Leary to his production company, we’ll see!
Fingers’ crossed! Do you know if Burroughs and Grauerholz knew Scott’s movie wouldn’t revolve at all around the topics of his book?
I think they knew the script was based on Do Androids Dream Of Electric Sheep? I think James had even read the script. I never saw the director’s cut, is it better? That sounds better to me… as the problem, like you say, was the conventional nature of the plot, which probably wasn’t helped by the pedestrian narration.
Yes the director’s cut is way better than the original one. I wondered about something, watching Taking Tiger Mountain. Were you aware, at the time, of Burroughs’ work with Antony Balch, movies like Towers Open Fire or The Cut-Ups?
I haven’t heard of either of those films.
Ok. Were you influenced by any other movies or filmmakers then, or were you just trying to create your own path?
Influences were all over the place since I was working with acquired footage and making it tell a story that it was not designed to tell. Things that spring to mind are Alphaville by Godard, everything by Kenneth Anger, every post-apocalyptic film that had come out by then, El Topo, The Prisoner TV series…. Maya Deren. Stan Brakhage. Buster Keaton. Stanley Kubrick movies. DušanMakavejev, Twilight Zone…. the young David Lynch. Truffaut, Passolini, Antonioni, Roger Corman, In the Realm of the Senses…. Robert Altman… John Boorman, especially Zardoz… Bruce Conner! Hollis Frampton, Michael Snow! Persona!
And outside cinema? Your movie seems to be heavily influenced by music.
Oh, yes, my tastes were punk rock… Throbbing Gristle, Devo, Talking Heads, but also the poetry of Jim Morrison, Philip Glass, Steve Reich, John Cale, David Bowie and Brian Eno – in fact the film was already named Taking Tiger Mountain before I or Kent Smith had heard of Brian Eno.
The other influences were from books, arts and drugs, Burroughs’ complete oeuvre but especially The Job, LSD, Xerox art, Yoko Ono, psychological theory, Antonin Artaud’s, Theatre of Cruelty. Otto Muehl. Hunter Thompson. Minimalist art like Carl Andre, Merce Cunningham, John Cage, Andy Warhol. Rimbaud, the Book of Revelations, Foucault… Jean Genet, Rothko… Man Ray and Duchamp… Cocteau! Eisenstein! Buñuel! Conspiracy Theory, Cattle Mutilations and The Anarchist Cookbook.
I was drawing on every avant-garde thing I’d ever known to try to make a horse race out of the footage Bill and Kent had shot in Wales… using every trick in the micro-budget, experimental, minimalist, transgressive handbook. It had its admirers back then, more now, but probably the best review I ever got was from Burroughs, saying, “I think ya got somethin’ there, kid.” That’s all he ever said about it that I know of.
I think he was right, you had something – the only problem was, I guess, that the “thing” it was. It’s not an easy-to-sell product. It’s interesting that you mention The Job. The makers of Decoderalso said it was Electronic Revolution that was the major inspiration behind their work, not the “fictions.” You were interested in the control theories that Burroughs developed; the power of the image and sound combination in mind-control?
Yes, of course, and Clockwork Orange was a big influence too, and the Kennedy assassination, Burroughs’ interest in Hassan-i Sabbah, which still interests me… sound frequencies that can make you vomit and whatnot.
Speaking of Hassan-i Sabbah, the way the woman’s group controls the mind of the character is directly taken from the old man of the mountain’s legend, isn’t it?
Well, actually, I think that’s a merger of Hassan-i Sabbah, the SCUM Manifesto, Manchurian Candidate, and MKUltra documents.
I love the idea of a cross-over between the SCUM manifesto and Hassan-i Sabbah! By the way, as you said you were influenced by The Job, were you interested in Burroughs’ views on women, the idea that they might came from another planet, that we should build two distinct societies, male and female…
I thought it was myopic and bigoted… stereotyping a whole gender, to me, was worse than stereotyping a race or religion. It stank of elitism, fascism… unenlightened… I saw it as a flaw in his character. So, maybe that’s something that is interesting about Taking Tiger Mountain, that it was equally influenced by Valerie Solanas, a militant man-hater, and also Burroughs, the polar opposite… something to offend everyone! I was pretty influenced by feminist thought, took a class in feminist art and literature, was sympathetic toward Valerie Solanas… About Burroughs, I was conflicted about the shooting of his wife, to say the least… I barely remember any female characters from his stories. When it comes to women, I’m much closer to Timothy Leary’s views than Burroughs’.
What about the homosexual undertones of the movie?
The homosexuality of Taking Tiger Mountain – in that it dovetails so nicely with the other Burroughsesque themes – was a happy accident courtesy of Kent. It dawns on me now how perfectly the feminist brainwashing group fits in with Burroughs’ views about women trying to control men. By then I was also thoroughly enmeshed in punk rock and its intellectual preoccupations. Genesis P. Orridge… situationism… ReSearch Magazine… The Clash…. turmoil in London, and all that went in the stew. It’s interesting to me that Orridge actually became a woman like Billy does at one point. The band that did my soundtrack, Radio Free Europe, was Texas’ answer to Throbbing Gristle.
You’ve said in your eulogy for William S. Burroughs that there will probably be Hollywood movies made from Junkie or The Wild Boys. Do you still think it’s a strong possibility?
Junkie, for sure….Wild Boys, yeah, it could happen. James Franco, the likely producer… he seems to be the patron of all things outré and literary at the moment.
Taking Tiger Mountainhasn’t been easy to see, to say the least, during all these years. Do you plan on releasing it?
I don’t know. There’s a young Turk in Dallas who says he’s going to pay to have a digital negative struck from the original techniscope which would mean that the film would look a lot better than it did on 35mm… He could use some encouragement, too, that he’s not the only one interested.