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“Hit Me”: Steven Shainberg’s Abusive First Film Outing

"Hit Me": Steven Shainberg's Abusive First Film Outing

"Hit Me": Steven Shainberg's Abusive First Film Outing

by Kevin Dreyfuss

Although now widely read and acknowledged as the poet laureate of the
noir gutter, it wasn’t always praise and esteem for novelist Jim
Thompson (“The Getaway,” “The Grifters,” “After Dark My Sweet,” et al),
who died in 1977. Years ago, when director Steven Shainberg was just
getting out of college, Thompson was a forgotten voice, out of print in
the US. So forgotten, in fact, that Shainberg and his then-producing
partner were able to option five of his books at once “for basically
nothing.” One of those novels was “A Swell-Looking Babe,” which would
become the basis for Shainberg’s debut feature film “Hit Me,” written by
novelist and longtime collaborator Denis Johnson, produced by Greg
Goodman and to be released by Castle Hill this Friday, October 2nd.

The journey from print to screen for this harrowing story of a lowly
bellhop saddled with a mentally-disabled brother out to get his own
bloody piece of the American Dream was a true odyssey, spanning years
and enduring the odd natural disaster here and there, as indieWIRE found
out when we spoke with Shainberg.

indieWIRE: What initially attracted you to the material?

Shainberg: When I was in college I read all of Thompson’s stuff…This
was before “The Grifters,” before “After Dark My Sweet,” and basically
no one in this country was interested in Thompson at all. He was
basically a forgotten writer at that point, and I had been very very
interested in his work and other writers of that ilk, like David
Goodis. And so I had five of the books under option, and there were all
sorts of ways in which those five books were going to get done. At one
point HBO was going to do a Jim Thompson series, at another point we
were trying to get the books set up individually at studios with major
directors, and that process went on for like a year and a half, and then
I realized that I just hate that stuff. And so I decided to go to film
school, and when I made that decision, I went to my producing partner
and said look, if I get into the American Film Institute I’m going to
go, and I want to take one of these books with me as a potential project
after I graduate. And that’s “A Swell-Looking Babe,” and you can have
the rest of them. That was fine by him….One fairly obvious reason
being that I knew when I got out of film school, probably nobody was
going to give me 10 million to make a movie. If I was lucky I was going
to get maybe a million. So I needed something that was contained and
shootable for not too much money. There was that aspect too, and then of
all the books that we had, this was the one with the most compelling
first person point of view. And that’s very appealing to a filmmaker
because it immediately places your movie in the eyes of someone, a
singular person traveling through the story.

iW: So how long a process was it raising the money to make this?

Shainberg: The movie was going to get done at smaller studios like Live
[now Artisan] after “Reservoir Dogs.” And there were a lot of casting
stipulations — which is perfectly normal — that I wasn’t too happy
with, and I just ultimately decided that I would rather make the movie
for less and have control, not just over the casting but over the movie
completely. For example, many of the conversations I would have at
places like Live would have to do with the downer ending, and I just saw
the writing on the wall. It’s like, if you want to make this movie, the
guy’s gotta have all the money at the end, or there’s gotta be some
gimmicky twist, some nonsense. I just thought I‘d better do this movie
for less money somewhere else, and that’s when Greg got involved. And
basically we spent about a year beating the bushes, so to speak.
Calling everybody that we knew, calling everyone that his parents knew,
and I knew. Which is basically the only way to make a movie like this
right now.

iW: So how was it directing your first full-length feature? I heard
something about a flood on the set towards the end of filming?

Shainberg: God, that was unbelievable. It was the end of December. We
had taken a break for Christmas, and we were going to come back after
the first of the year, and I think we had six days of shooting left,
something really minimal. And it rained so badly in LA that the stage
we were on actually flooded. And it was a fairly large set,
particularly for a movie this size, that the production designer [Amy
Danger] had painstakingly put together. The floor was beautifully
painted, and everything was just ruined. And you could only sort of
walk in there, and think of Coppola in “Hearts of Darkness” saying,
“Where are my helicopters going?” I kept reminding myself, “I know
people have been through much worse than this, this is just a little
bump.” It’s one of those production things that just happen and you sort
of shake your head and I hope it’s not going to be a huge problem
getting the insurance money.

iW: In terms of the original novel, which had all sorts of subplots
about Freudian, Oedipal mother-lust and McCarthyist witchhunts, how did
you choose what to keep and what to excise?

Shainberg: Well, the mother thing was kind of interesting, but it had
been dealt with in “The Grifters,” so that was out. The McCarthy thing
didn’t make sense because I wanted to do it present day. And we
actually did play with some modern day equivalencies, like we tried to
invent some things that would put pressure on him and his father in a
similar way, but we chose not to do that. Other changes that we made,
like for example, turning the father into his semi-retarded younger
brother, it just came out of something weird. I was actually visiting
Denis in Portland, we were working on something else. And we took a
walk, and this guy lived near Denis, this 300 pound fat guy who’s
semi-retarded and used to sit outside on the stoop. And we chatted with
him for a little while and then kept walking. And then Denis said
something like, hey, what if that was the guy he was looking after? And
it was immediate, we both thought, yeah, that’s much better.

iW: So when it comes to distribution, what were the adventures in
distributor-land like?

Shainberg: It’s a nightmare. I have one story that in a lot of way
sums it up. When the movie was at Toronto, a woman from a French
distributor came up to me and said, “Your movie is very beautiful, very
beautiful. Well done. But such a sad ending.” And I said, “That’s
true,” although I don’t completely agree with that. And she said, “Have
you thought of making a happy ending?” And I said, “You know what,
there are fifty movies here at the festival. 49 of them have happy
endings. And this one doesn’t.” And I think that fact, coupled with
there not being a major star in the movie, made getting distribution
incredibly difficult. Basically, independent film doesn’t exist
anymore. It does if you have two or three stars in your film, but it’s
just very difficult. You see movies that are called independent movies
have stars in them like Sam Jackson and Vince Vaughn and what have
you…people who are basically in studio movies. And the companies are
owned by big studios, and what is actually an independent movie now, is
like few and far between.

I would define independent film as a movie that is not financed by any
of the smaller film companies. Because then, those are movies that in
all likelihood are made without stars. And then they have to rely just
on the material. I mean, look, somebody would look at my cast and say,
what’s the fucking guy talking about? He’s got Philip Baker Hall, and
William Macy, and Elias Koteas, and those are relatively strong
independent film names. But they’re not big enough to really appeal to
a distributor. It’s a quandary when you take a project into a company
that’s going to give you, say, two million dollars to make your movie,
which is not a whole hell of a lot of money, they still want you to
deliver stars. How do you pay those people? You can’t.
It’s very frustrating, because the truth is, there’s a lot of actors I
could have made this movie with who would not have been as good as
Elias, but the film would have been more appealing to distributors.

iW: In terms of writing and directing, do you see them as a cohesive

Shainberg: You know, I remember running into Steven Soderbergh maybe a
year ago, and he was talking about how much he hates writing. And we
were laughing, because it is a horror. But it’s really not either/or,
it just basically unless you are Peter Weir or Mike Nichols, you don’t
get sent good material. If somebody sent me a good script, I would do
it, and I mean that, but it never happens. Not once. I can’t even
point to an exception. And it used to drive me insane. And then, even
worse, once in a blue moon, I’ll read a book in galley form or whatever,
and I’ll love it. And that happened with Jerry Stahl’s memoir
Permanent Midnight.” And I was like, I have to do this, and of course,
it’s already taken, it’s already gone. And you end up writing these
letters and trying to get to the producer, and it never works. If
someone sent me something and I sat down and read, like it happened with
Gus Van Sant and “Good Will Hunting“…I mean, I heard he read the first
fifty pages of that and he just knew he was going to do it. I read
about that and I thought, that is a totally foreign experience to me.
And I don’t think that is because I am egoistic or just have the highest
standards, no, it’s not true. I just don’t get stuff. So you kind of
have to do it yourself. Which in the end is maybe just how it should be

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