INTERVIEW: Martin Davidson's "Echo"; A Hollywood Vet's Tale of Dashed Dreams
by Andrea Meyer
(indieWIRE/ 11.14.00) — Whether or not you are familiar with Martin Davidson‘s name, you are sure to know his movies. Remember “Lords of Flatbush“? It was Davidson’s first, a 1974 cult hit about a group of greasers from Brooklyn dreaming about their future, that starred Sylvester Stallone and Henry Winkler in their first starring roles. What about 1983’s “Eddie and the Cruisers“? The rock n’ roll classic in which sexy newcomer Michael Pare died before he had the chance to become a star, which also starred Tom Berenger in one of his first big parts. Davidson has a knack for catapulting actors to success. In the early 70s, he was the ICM agent responsible for “packaging” “Midnight Cowboy” — that is, getting two of his clients, Jon Voigt and Dustin Hoffman, major roles.
As a director, however, Davidson remains relatively unknown. He has worked consistently in film and television, but never quite made that breakthrough success that would make him a household name. Now, decades after these early films, he’s returned to his original source, Brooklyn, for his latest film, “Looking for an Echo,” about a group of 50-something ex-doo wop wonders looking back at the good ol’ days with nostalgia — and wondering how they got old so fast and why they never quite made it. Andrea Meyer spoke with Davidson about young actors, Hollywood woes, and unfulfilled dreams.
indieWIRE: You spent years trying to make “Looking for an Echo” in the Hollywood system. What finally made you decide to make it independently?
Martin Davidson: It was 1997 or ’96, something like that, and I was asked to talk to a class at the University of Miami. On the flight from Florida, I was feeling pretty good about myself, and I was expecting [my wife] Sandy to say, “You were great; they got so much out of it,” and she wasn’t playing the game. And I kept baiting her. And she said, “You are so full of shit, it’s coming out of your ears. You go there and you pump these kids up and say nothing can stop you, blah blah blah, the journey is everything.” And you stopped taking the journey a long time ago.
So, I said, “Sandy, if you’re talking about ‘Echo,’ leave me alone. If you’re trying to motivate me to get that sucker made again, I quit. I’ve tried everything. It’s been to every single studio nine times. Every time some head of a studio dies, I’m thrilled, cause I’ve got another shot. I’ve changed the name three times. I’ve changed the date on the cover page. I’ve changed agents. No one wants to make the movie.” And she said, “Do it independently.” And I said, “I’ve tried independently.” And she said, “We could pay for it ourselves.” She said, “Can you do this movie for under a million dollars?” I said, “Where do we get the million dollars from?” She said, “We could get a second mortgage on our house.” And I said, “Are you out of your fucking mind? We should risk our house to do the movie?” She said, “It won’t be a risk. Whatever you do, you’ve got to get the movie made, because I don’t like what’s happening to you.” So I said, “Okay.”
iW: And that was it? You made the movie?
Davidson: When I got to New York, I started making phone calls and started saying, we’re gonna make the movie. I didn’t have the money, but I was making the movie, and it was a whole different mindset. I hired a casting director. I started rewriting the script. I started working with the guy who did the music. And at the same time, I was really trying to raise money, because I didn’t want to do it black and white and hand-held. I didn’t really think of it as edgy film. It was more of a warm film than an edgy movie in my mind. Eventually we raised four million dollars, but it all started with giving a lecture and Sandy not letting me off the hook.
iW: You have given early roles to many young actors who have gone on to become stars. In “Echo,” there’s this new kid, Edoardo Ballerini, who could be next. How did you find him?
Davidson: When he auditioned for me, I had seen a lot of interesting people. Then in walked Edoardo, looking skinny, almost unkempt. He was wearing a t-shirt out of his pants, with a hole in it, not very impressive, and yet I started talking to him and he became the most impressive guy I met. Whatever he said fascinated me. He sang Love me Tender, and my eyes felt like when you dolly in on somebody. I was dollying in. I wanted to get closer to him. There was something about his eyes. They hardly opened and yet they were sexy and they commanded. But mostly what I was impressed with was a stillness and courage about his work, how he sang the song, just his fingers strumming this acoustic guitar. And I thought, “Wow, I like this.” And he got the part.
iW: You also tried the actor thing. You tried stand-up comedy, you were an agent, and then thought you’d try directing. How did “Lords of Flatbush” come about?
Davidson: I felt that if I directed a film, it would have to be something I knew. No one was making independent films at that time except John Cassavetes. This is 1972. Independent filmmaking didn’t exist. So I wrote about growing up in high school. We made it for $160,000. The original conceit was taking the guys in the black leather jackets, the guys who had always been the bullies and making them the heroes. Sylvester Stallone has a whole scene that he improvised. He and I would do improvisations; that’s how the film got made. He is, I think, the most interesting young actor I had seen, most interesting to this day.
iW: What happened in the years between “Flatbush” and “Eddie and the Cruisers”?
Davidson: I went through all the ramifications of the film industry and ultimately found myself fifteen years later making movies I was not liking. I made a couple studio movies, “Almost Summer” for Universal and a romantic comedy called “Hero at Large” with Ann Archer and John Ritter. I was getting away from what I wanted to do. So I wrote the screenplay for “Eddie and the Cruisers,” which was a movie that was reflecting what I was feeling at that time. If in the beginning of my career I was feeling hope, at this point I was feeling loss. Fifteen years had passed, and I wasn’t happy with the journey. Something had gotten away, and I had to search it out, find what I felt when I made “Lords of Flatbush” that excited me. And I made this movie, again with unknown actors, same basic conceit as “Flatbush,” but instead of dealing with eighteen year-old kids, I was dealing with 35-year old men, closer to what I was at that time.
When the movie came out, three different studios wanted to distribute it, and unfortunately the one that offered the most money was a new company, Embassy, and they had never made a movie before. Embassy couldn’t get the picture distributed. The moment came and went and nobody cared. And six months later, somebody said, “Your picture is appearing on HBO this weekend,” and I didn’t even know.
When you make a movie, you put so much into it. You write it, it was a two-year deal to get it financed, and then there’s a two-week run in the theater and you never really get your shot and it goes away and you feel under-appreciated. You make a rock n roll movie, it should come out in the summer