After All These Years … Mike Marvin Talks The Wraith
A dynamic if occasionally confusing confectionary of Clint Eastwood, David Lynch, John Hughes and George Miller, The Wraith remains one of the definitive guilty pleasures of 80’s sci-fi horror and a perennial favorite for those nostalgia nights in the company of a few select friends, a six-pack of beers and a bag of chips. In spite of its dated synth/soft rock score, awkward dialogue, bewildering concepts and – for the most part – unsympathetic teenage ciphers, it does retain a sleek brio and self-confidence that continue to hold the attention.
The literal borrowings from High Plains Drifter, Shane, The Road Warrior and The Thing are often distracting, but if its influences are plain to see, less visible to the casual viewer are the pain and tragedy involved in its troubled production. With the recent special edition DVD release of The Wraith (review here) from Lionsgate and the 25th anniversary of the film fast approaching, we asked writer/director Mike Marvin to talk about the genesis of the project and share his memories of making the film way back in those heady days of 1986.
Michael Doyle: What was your background in film prior to writing and directing The Wraith?
Mike Marvin: I came into film through the world of ski movies. I started out making ski movies at Lake Tahoe, and then I began writing scripts in an attempt to sort of make the transition into the mainstream of Hollywood. So I started writing while I was still doing skiing and sports documentaries. I later supervised the ski sequences for a number of films. One was a film that I wrote, produced and directed all the ski action for that was entitled Hot Dog: The Movie – which I actually plan on remaking this winter and next winter. The other was another cult movie called Better Off Dead with John Cusack.
MD: Weren’t you also involved in the ski sequence for the James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me?
MM: What I did was I designed the base-jump part of that opening sequence. In other words when the guy skied off the edge of the cliff and popped the parachute. We had actually done that a couple of years previously and it was subsequently used in The Spy Who Loved Me, but it’s sort of uncredited. It was a very specific thing, but no, I didn’t actually work on the movie per se.
MD: How did the opportunity to make The Wraith come along?
MM: The Wraith originated over at Disney Studios with Kim LeMasters, who was one of the head of development guys over there. He wanted to do a car action movie, and so we started working together to get it made.
MD: The Wraith is essentially a western. We first see Sheen emerging from the wilderness on his motorized steed like a traditional western hero; he has scars on his back like the reincarnated sheriff in High Plains Drifter, and at the end of the film we have a character shouting “Come back!” in a reference to Shane.
MM: Yeah, that’s right. Exactly.
MD: I’m speculatingn, but were those films an influence on the writing the script?
MM: Yes, they were. I was a fan of those movies and still am actually. I mean, the story of The Wraith is a little bit like High Plains Drifter – a little bit – so I would have to say yes. It was basically a sort of western car action movie with some other stuff in there, too.
MD: The film also recalls the vigilante movies that prospered in the wake of Death Wish like Vigilante and Young Warriors. Were those an influence also?
MM: No, they were not. I was never really dealing in a revenge-fantasy kind of thing. We were never in that place. I mean, ultimately it is a revenge movie, but I never thought the emotional underpinnings of The Wraith to be a revenge or vigilante movie, but a lot of people thought it was. I don’t know. Maybe I was just too close to it.
MD: The character of Skank says, “Whoever he is – he’s weird and pissed off,” which is of course a famous line from John Carpenter’s The Thing.
MM: Yeah, we stole that line. [Chuckles] I loved that movie. When we shot that scene, Dave Sherrill [Skank] yelled that out, and I don’t remember what was in the original script, but it was something else. I thought it worked and sounded funny, but yeah, it was originally from John Carpenter’s The Thing. I think that film is great. It’s one of the great unassisted horror movies in the sense that everything they did was a practical and mechanical effect. Obviously, there was no CGI back then like there is today to make things easy. Can you imagine what it was like for those guys to just sit there and hope that the crab-looking spider beast walked across the room right? I think The Thing is Carpenter’s best film.
MD: Have you always been a fan of horror movies? Which ones do you admire?
MM: Well, none that include car action, but I was inspired by a few. The first horror movie that really scared me was a Warner Brothers film called Them, which starred James Whitmore. That was great, and interestingly enough I actually got a shot at doing a remake of that. There were a couple of other movies that I liked, but the whole horror-scary thing didn’t happen for me until much, much later. You know, to me The Exorcist was a real horror movie and Alien was a real horror movie, so those three were big influences on me in my approaching the dark side, even though The Wraith never really comes up as feeling like any one of those movies except for maybe the desert being in Them and The Exorcist.
MD: You cast several young actors with rather famous parents such as Charlie Sheen, Nick Cassavetes and Griffin O’Neal. Was that a deliberate commercial consideration on your part?
MM: Not on my part. No, I remember that I originally wanted Johnny Depp for the film, but the studio didn’t want him. It was the head of the studio that wanted the sons of the movie stars, but in the case of Griffin O’Neal I actually wanted Johnny Depp for that part, but I was overruled on that one.
MD: Nick Cassavetes, who plays Packard, the leader of the bad guys, is now a successful director. What was he like to work with back then?
MM: He was great. I liked working with Nick Cassavetes a lot. Not only was it fun, but we’ve remained friends for the last twenty-five years since we made the film. In fact, I talked to him just yesterday. I’m helping him produce his next movie.
MD: Though Sheen toplines the cast, he is almost a peripheral figure for a lot of the running time, who flits in and out of the movie. Would you agree with that?
MM: Yes, I do agree, but I think the presence of that character is always there even when he isn’t on-screen. I mean, when everybody thinks about that movie, they still think of Charlie and know that he’s in it. I don’t know. That’s actually a good question.
MD: How much input into the script did the actors have?
MM: None. Zero.
MD: I had heard that they changed some dialogue and improvised different things in an effort to develop their characters.
MM: Well, there were a couple of things, but it was really minimal. Aside from sporadic ad libs the script was pretty much shot as it was written. I mean, there was a little improvisation, but it wasn’t very much really. Either that or I don’t remember it very well. [Chuckles]
MD: What are your memories of some of the other members of the cast?
MM: They were all great. Randy Quaid and I met on that movie, and we became good friends and played golf together for a long time after that. I really liked Randy a lot and have always been an admirer of his work. Obviously, Charlie, Nick and I have remained very good friends, but I haven’t heard anything from Griffin O’Neal in years. Jamie Bozian and I have stayed close, too, but I haven’t spoken with Sherilyn Fenn since 1986 … and those were the primary cast members.
MD: And Clint Howard, of course, whose Eraserhead hairstyle was quite literally one of the film’s high points. Was that a nod to David Lynch’s movie?
MM: Yes, it was. That hairstyle was my idea. As a matter of fact I meant to say that Clint sent me an email just two days ago. I wrote him a letter to check in and see if he wanted to play some golf. He and I have also remained good friends, and the same thing with his father, too. I used his father, Rance, in a movie I directed in 1991.
MD: The car chases and stunts in The Wraith are all well executed and exciting. How difficult were they to shoot?
MM: They were very difficult because originally I had something like three weeks to shoot them, and on the second day of shooting we crashed a car on the mountain and one of our guys [camera operator Bruce Ingram] was killed and the other guy was left a paraplegic. Everybody else was really hurt desperately, and suddenly we went from having two and a half to three weeks to get all that stuff done to saying, “Hey, let’s just get this movie over with.” So I shot all of those car sequences in about eight days.
MD: That accident obviously cast a pall over the whole movie.
MM: Yes, it did. [Sighs] Yeah, it did.
MD: How did you settle on the model for the Wraith’s car?
MM: The Wraith’s car was a Dodge-PPG. It was actually the pace car for the Indianapolis 500, and I have to say I didn’t really have a vision for the car itself. It was just a stroke of good luck that that car existed, and to be honest with you, I don’t even remember how that car came to be used. I’m sure it came through the art department or somebody knew of it and brought it to me and I just said, “Oh, that’ll work,” and that’s how it happened. I do remember that it wasn’t easy for us to get those cars. Dodge Pittsburgh Plate Glass found the original fibreglass molds when we built the duplicate cars and each one of those cars cost us about $50,000, and that was way back in 1985.
MD: One critic suggested that the prominence of the car’s logo during certain scenes implies “an intriguing link-up between big business and the after-life.” Is that something you were intending?
MM: No, I never wanted to use any logos or decals or any of that business in the film. I didn’t want to tie it in to Dodge or anybody else. What happened was in the one scene where it’s prominent right at the end of the picture – that was an uncreative producer’s solution to an uncomplicated problem. In other words – “Shoot that!” I was just told to shoot it. I said, “No, I don’t think so,” but at the end of the day it was my first movie and I didn’t really have the final word on some of the things like that.
MD: Would that producer be Buck [“The Twilight Zone”] Houghton?
MM: No, Buck Houghton would never have allowed that to happen. No, it was John Kemeny. Buck was a great man and it was because of him that the movie got made in the first place. He was pushed out by the studio and Steve Deutch in a rather typical, unsavory Hollywood way. I mean, Buck knew what he was doing. He was an expert, but favors were owed and debts were owed and so the movie was handed over to a basically incompetent producer.
MD: Out of curiosity, what was the budget for the film?
MM: I don’t know what the exact budget was, but it was about 2.9 million dollars. That’s always sort of remained a secret. A lot of money was stolen off that movie.
MD: The visual effects by Peter Kuran and Alan Munro are very impressive in spite of the low budget.
MM: Yes, they are. Well, Peter is a real talent and so is Alan Munro. My memories of working with those guys are all good. Alan was actually in charge of all that stuff and Peter worked really closely with him. Alan actually designed the title sequence for The Wraith, and he later became a pretty successful commercials director.
MD: There have been lengthy discussions on the Internet dedicated to the significance of the Wraith’s glowing leg braces that successively disappear. Would you care to clear that up for us?
MM: Yeah, sure. As the Wraith settles the score with the members of Packard’s gang and knocks them off one by one, he begins to get stronger and stronger. Then one more piece of what is supposed to be holding him together artificially begins to disappear. His crutches are then starting to vanish as he gets his satisfaction.
MD: There also seems to be confusion in some audience members’ minds about how the Wraith acquired the futuristic car and suit, and for that matter what exactly he is. Some think he is a ghost, others an alien.
MM: Okay, I always envisioned him as emerging out of a sort of secondary dimension or reality, but I never saw him coming back from the dead as a ghost. I always thought he was a dimensional crosser, so when he was killed in the first place, instead of him going into the abyss or into the darkness or the void, whatever you want to call it, he goes to a place where he is able to literally cross dimensions. Originally, my idea with the Wraith car was instead of using a steering wheel, he would reach into the dashboard itself and then we would cut to inside where the engine was and we would now be in outer space. His hands would be sort of through the firmament and he would control the car almost by some kind of electrical connection. That was the idea.
MD: When the bad guys are killed, their eyes are burnt out. What’s happening there?
MM: Right, there were two reasons behind that. Firstly, it was kind of like St. Elmo’s fire or the strange way that lightning strikes and burns everything around it, sometimes the most obvious thing remains intact. In this case it was completely the reverse. The cars would go down a fiery inferno and everything inside would melt, but the bodies would be untouched. I don’t know if you’ve heard anything about when bodies spontaneously combust and they burn up but everything around them is fine. Again, in The Wraith it’s the reverse. Everything around these guys burns, but the only thing on the bodies that burns out is their eyeballs. Now that being said, the second part of this idea is that the last thing the bad guys see before they die – if you notice the way I structured the collisions – is a bright flash. There is always a flash frame in there, and that’s what happens – car gone, eyes gone, body intact.
MD: The soundtrack features a lot of established rock and pop artists such as Ozzy Osbourne, Robert Palmer, Billy Idol and Motley Crue. Did you have any problems securing those songs?
MM: No, that was all done through Scotty Druthers, and in truth one of the big creative battles I had on the movie was over the music. I wanted it to have more of a score. I particularly didn’t want to have Ozzy Osbourne on there. The other guys I was okay with and also Bonnie Tyler, who recorded an original song just for the movie. I felt that some of the driving sequences would have been better served with a hard driving score rather than rock and roll songs, but you know what? I think part of why the movie succeeds is because of those songs. I was probably wrong about that. I mean, everybody really liked how those songs connected with those sequences, even though I didn’t necessarily agree with it.
MD: As well as the music, the film is also really of its time. It’s rife with those 1980’s preoccupations of cars, babes, bullies, nerds and clean-shaven loners.
MM: Yes, exactly. Yeah, you’re absolutely right about that. All of that stuff was very popular back then.
MD: Did you have final cut on the film?
MM: No, I didn’t have final cut. I mean, every day on that movie was a fight for the cut. Interestingly enough, I wasn’t interfered with too much until I actually delivered my cut. Then it got really dicey and difficult, but I got about ninety percent of what I wanted.
MD: What exactly was lost in the excised ten percent?
MM: Well, originally The Wraith was structured differently and there’s really no point in getting into it now, but the first act of the movie was much different and better. The sub-story of how Randy Quaid figures out what’s going on went straight out. There was a line in The Exorcist when Father Merrin finds a medallion or something buried in the rocks when he is out on a dig in the dessert. He looks at it and goes, “Wrong period,” and then he says something like “You fight evil with evil.” Anyway, in the scenes in The Wraith that weren’t used – some of which weren’t even shot – Randy’s character enlists the psychic connections of a prairie witch, and he starts piecing it all together. The studio didn’t want to spend the money and finish that storyline out and so we only shot part of it and the rest was left on the editing room floor. We literally shot everything around the prairie witch, but I didn’t have her and I didn’t have those scenes. It’s a shame because it would have been very cool.
MD: We’ve spoken of the tragic and frustrating aspects of making The Wraith, but can you share anything that was perhaps amusing or diverting about the shoot?
MM: Well, the most amusing thing to me is that we are still discussing this movie twenty-five years after it was made! The Wraith wasn’t a movie where – and as I think about it now I’m trying to recall a moment of levity, something that was funny or fun … oh, I can give you one. The whole time I was doing the movie I didn’t know that Johnny Depp was living in our hotel with Sherilyn Fenn. He was her boyfriend at the time and was holed up in the hotel room and I never saw him once when I was shooting the picture! The entire time we worked on the movie he was there in the hotel with us, and I didn’t find that out until afterwards. I wish I could say something that was funny or light, but when a guy gets killed on a picture because the producers are pushing too hard, it’s really hard to find amusing anecdotes.
MD: Did you ever consider making a sequel?
MM: Yes, I probably did three different scripts over the years. I did a draft about ten years ago and then another draft about four months after that, and right now I think probably the best thing to do would be to remake the movie. The Wraith was obviously copied in films like XXX and The Fast and The Furious, but if you look at The Crow, that’s definitely a copy of The Wraith, almost beat by beat.
MD: What were your ideas for the sequel?
MM: Well, there is a script out there right now actually that David Sherrill wrote about a year ago. I can’t remember any details about that one, but the idea for my script was basically the same as the original movie but everything was in reverse. This time the guys coming back were Packard’s gang and they were the complete opposite of Charlie Sheen’s character. Where he was trying to right wrongs, they are still just plain bad guys and they come back and terrorize everybody. They were still dimensional crossers, showing up in their cars and all that stuff, but Charlie comes back and fights them again and meanwhile all the living humans are caught in the middle of it. I don’t know if it would have ever worked, but at least we tried.
MD: In the twenty-four years since the release of The Wraith, how do you think it has aged as a film?
MM: Well, I saw it at a theatre screening over here about six months ago and I really had mixed feelings about it. To be really honest with you, I don’t understand why it has become such a cult movie and why there are fan clubs all over the world dedicated to it. I mean, The Wraith is a strange movie. For one thing, most people can’t even say the title! If I’m talking to somebody and they say, “What movies did you direct?” I’ll say, “The Wraith,” and they always go, “The what? The Race? Did you say The Race?” [Sighs] I get that a lot from people. I then say, “You know, like the Wraiths from Canterbury,” and then finally they’ll go, “Oh, The Wraith!” Okay, there you go.
MD: How do you feel about that title?
MM: I never thought it was a great title, actually. The original title for the film was Turbo Wraith Interceptor. I wanted to go with Turbo Interceptor, which was a steal from The Road Warrior because Mel Gibson’s car in that movie was the last of the Turbo Interceptors.
MD: You say you are confused by the lasting affection people have for the movie, but you must be pleased about that.
MM: Yes, I am. Interestingly enough, I’ve had the good fortune of having The Wraith and Hot Dog: The Movie become cult movies in the United States, particularly in the case of Hot Dog, which is a significant cult film. As far as The Wraith is concerned, I get a lot of calls from fans around the world about it, but in the last ten years I’ve probably had maybe a half dozen inquiries from people in the movie business as to what the plans are for doing a sequel or remake. It must have a struck a chord with a lot of people because there’s actually a guy out there that is building Wraith cars! His name is Lyle and I had lunch with him about two or three years ago. He’s built a Wraith car for each one of his kids, and they are beautiful. They look like the real thing. I told you about us getting the original molds to build the Wraith car, and back then everybody thought that the molds had been destroyed so another car couldn’t be built but this guy found them at a junk heap someplace. I don’t know how he did it, but somehow he traced them down and rebuilt about four of five of them.
I mean, there really is a sort of fanaticism connected to this movie that doesn’t exist with The Fast and the Furious or The Crow or any of the others but on this one it does. I don’t know if in twenty-five years they will be talking about The Fast and the Furious, but it seems strange to me that there are fan clubs out there for The Wraith that are still talking about it today. People are really obsessed with this movie!
Order yourself a copy of The Wraith below. Big thanks to Mike Marvin for his time.
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