Detroit home boys Josh Becker and Sam Raimi get the Kenjji treatment.
Cover Story by Jim McFarlin
Nowadays Josh Becker lives on what he declares to be "the last dirt road in West Bloomfield." It may not be the last one, but it is all dust, grit and gravel, the back road of Babylon. His is a pastel one-story house, small but airy, and on this particular afternoon very bright. "This is what $750 a month gets you out here," he says with an accepting smile.
It's certainly not the palatial bachelor pad in Beverly Hills (California, not Michigan) one might expect of a Hollywood filmmaker with four critically admired independent movies on his résumé, a director whose television credits include the '90s pop-culture milestone Xena: Warrior Princess, or the man responsible for the highest rated made-for-TV movie in one cable channel's history. Still, it's got to be a damn sight sweeter than the iPod-sized apartment Becker rented when, at the age of 17, he left behind family, friends and home in Franklin to venture to Los Angeles in pursuit of his childhood ambition.
"And just to torment myself, I lived right across from Paramount Studios," he recalls, rolling his own — an American Spirit cigarette from a nearby tobacco canister — on the living-room sofa. "I could see it from my window. I never got through the gate, never even figured out how. The point was, 'If I just go to Hollywood, I'll be discovered.' It was the Lana Turner syndrome. So then you get to Hollywood and go, 'Oh, I see. No one is waiting for me. I get it.'"
Becker, now 48, has lived in this sylvan hideaway more than four years, and he's well settled. The living room's western walls are covered floor to ceiling with bookshelves, and the hardcovers, mostly historical biographies, appear to stuff every available inch. The presidential profile Andrew Jackson: His Life and Times by H.W. Brands rests above the toilet tank. Becker's three cats, Alice, Anna and Bridget, sisters all, gambol and explore underfoot. Duke Ellington's Live at Newport 1958 plays saucily in the background.
After considerable prodding, Becker is persuaded to load his DVD player with a short subject he filmed more than a quarter-century earlier, a nascent comedic romp called The Blind Waiter. It's silly, high concept and frequently hilarious, crammed with slapstick and wincing one-liners (Patron: "Is that coffee I smell?" Waiter: "It is. And you do."), an undeniable Three Stooges homage. It's notable as the first starring vehicle for Birmingham-born actor Bruce Campbell, the Evil Dead and Adventures of Brisco County Jr. headliner whose cameo as a clueless French maître d' provides the comedy relief for the spring movie blockbuster Spider-Man 3. Then, suddenly, as the 1980s featurette rolls on, a round, peachfuzzed face appears as a member of the kitchen's staff: A young Sam Raimi.
"Yeah, Sam was in all my movies," Becker says matter-of-factly. Just as suddenly, the 800-pound disparity in the room cannot be ignored. Raimi, who grew up around the corner from Becker near 13 Mile and Telegraph, is currently riding the crest among A-list Hollywood directors and this weekend will thrill rabid fans worldwide with his latest creation — the aforementioned special effects spectacular Spider-Man 3, at $258 million the most expensive movie ever made.
On Thursday, May 17, Becker will host a "Thursday Night Brew & View" screening of his most recent film, If I Had a Hammer, at the Magic Bag in Ferndale.
What's wrong with this picture?
"Let me tell you about this thing called irony," Becker cracks later, breaking into a laugh as his porterhouse arrives at a favorite haunt, the Harbor Steak House in Keego Harbor. His eyes turn serious. "Look, I've done OK," he reasons. "I'm probably ahead of 97 percent of the people who try to do this kind of thing. But it's important that I have the perspective of having an A-list director grow up around the block from me. Not to mention that just among my group of friends that I made movies with, I am the underachiever of the bunch."
That bunch, of course, includes the brat pack of Renaissance Pictures, the company formed here in 1979 to produce the horror neo-classic Evil Dead and such other notable films as Darkman and Evil Dead 2. Among the principals, Raimi and his longtime production partner Rob Tapert seem to be doing all right. Campbell is co-starring in the new summer TV series The Burn Zone on USA Network and is currently the suave national pitchman for Old Spice cologne. Even Scott Spiegel, who played the chef in The Blind Waiter and co-wrote Evil Dead 2, was an executive producer of Quentin Tarantino's 2005 horror hit Hostel. "Now that Scott has Hostel, he's moved ahead of me too," Becker reflects. "Scott and I were kind of neck and neck there for a long time and now he's definitely in the lead. He's just finishing Hostel 2."
It's virtually impossible for men not to quantify success in comparison to their peers, but Becker is not some frustrated filmmaker in self-imposed exile, bitterly lamenting his fate on a lonely gravel road. Far from it. By his count he has completed 35 screenplays and is actively pushing to get two of his scripts into production.
His first book, The Complete Guide to Low Budget Feature Filmmaking, is now in its second printing, and his next work, a memoir of his first stay in Los Angeles as a teenager, is ready for the printer. He personally answers e-mail questions about films and filmmaking every day on his Web site, www.beckerfilms.com. His latest made-for-cable movie, Stan Lee's Harpies, inspired by the Marvel Comics mastermind and shot last summer in Sofia, Bulgaria, with Stephen Baldwin in the lead, lands on the Sci-Fi Channel at 9 p.m. June 23 and 28. His 2005 TV movie Alien Apocalypse starring Campbell — "the highest rated Sci-Fi Pictures Original of All Time!" the cover blurb on the DVD version boasts — will be rebroadcast on the cable channel June 16.
He's been keeping busy.
His first and third movies, Thou Shalt Not Kill...Except (featuring Raimi in an acting role) and Running Time (a black-and-white homage to Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, filmed in one continuous shot and starring Campbell as an unrepentant ex-con), are being rereleased as high definition, deluxe edition two-disc sets, complete with new interviews and Becker's earliest Super 8 movie experiments, by Novi-based Synapse Films.
"Josh has been an absolute pleasure to work with," enthuses Synapse co-owner Jerry Chandler. "He's a very interesting person, and what we love is that he shares our enthusiasm for these films. A lot of times a director will just hand over their film and say, 'Take it.' They do not want to be involved with their past work. When someone like Josh comes along who wants to do the commentary, wants to dig through and find old films they shot when they were kids and give them to us, it makes our job so much easier and the product so much better."
Becker contends he has resettled in the wilds of West Bloomfield for one reason only: because Los Angeles, to put it mildly, sucks. "I wish I could remember who said LA has the most assholes per square inch of anywhere in the world," he says. "That's the irony of my life, that I love movies so much, I love the history of Hollywood, but I hate living in that place.
"I made If I Had a Hammer in 2001 as my direct response to 10 years of directing television, which should have been the happiest years of my life. Yet they weren't, because l was living in Los Angeles. I mean, they were all good shows in their own silly way, Xena, Hercules [The Legendary Journeys], Jack of All Trades, even Real Stories of the Highway Patrol. But I'll bet I lived 20 years in LA, and every single minute I was thinking about moving somewhere, somehow. In the four-and-a-half years I've lived here, I've never once thought 'I gotta move.' This is where I live. This is where I'm not lost. I mean, there's a million people in Los Angeles from somewhere else trying to be filmmakers, but a big part of who you are is where you're from. And you know, I think that matters."
In one man's opinion, LA really misses him.
"Josh is the first filmmaker I met who cared about script and story," says Bruce Campbell, responding to an e-mail inquiry. "He helped me get a sense of a film's three-act structure and why it's important. He's an odd rebel in his own way, but he's also a traditionalist. He's a slave to format, themes, story and structure. Filmmakers could benefit from reading his writings about the importance of a decent script."
Desperate to escape Hollywood in his teens after living there for a year, "I figured the only logical thing to do was hitchhike to Alaska, because what would Jack London have done?" Becker says, grinning at the memory. "I found myself in Alaska nine days later going, 'OK, so am I a better writer now?' I wanna go home! There's a lot of mosquitoes here!' So I hitchhiked from Alaska back to Detroit and began making movies with Bruce and Sam Raimi and those guys."
Raimi's spectacular success, particularly in the superhero movie genre, comes as no surprise to Becker. "As kids, Sam loved comic books and I hated them," he says. "He had the Spider-Man poster on his wall, a Spider-Man statue in his room. I was really good buddies with his older brother, Ivan, who got co-story credit on Spider-Man 3. Sam was his little brother, and I always thought he was kind of a pain in the ass, with all his Spider-Man comics and shit. We'd say, 'Take your stupid comics and get out of here!' Shows what I know."
Becker has always been more a fanatic for cultural history, as evidenced in If I Had a Hammer. The period film revolves around the night of Sunday, Feb. 9, 1964, when the Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, but the story centers on a young upstart rock 'n' roller with more attitude than talent and a beautiful folkie activist who attempts to stage a protest rally on the night of the Fab Four's premiere. "You would never know it, but my inspiration for this movie was The Magnificent Ambersons, one of my very favorite films," he says.
"That movie is about a change in time, when the younger generation is entering into a whole different world than their parents knew. So I started thinking, 'When did that change occur in my lifetime?' and prior to the Beatles, even though rock 'n' roll existed in the 1950s, it was put down, quashed, and folk came back. I'm also saying that the guy is the worst part about the contemporary world, because he believes he can be famous without being talented. It seemed somewhat comical back then, but now it's commonplace. You've got celebrity for the sake of celebrity."
Becker is plotting a change in time himself, a return to his early, comic Blind Waiter era: he wants to write and direct slapstick comedies. "Because I think I can do it well," he says. "Not everybody can. It's what kept me working on Xena because the directors in New Zealand (where the series was shot) just weren't funny."
He's touting two screenplays, the prehistoric parody It's a Lost Lost World with a role written for Xena star Lucy Lawless, and a horror comedy called The Horribleness. "Whether it's Scary Movie or Epic Movie, comedies make money," Becker notes. "Comedies have legs. Even crappy comedies have legs. I can direct a sci-fi movie or do an action picture as well as the next guy, but I can do comedy better. And it's taken me nearly 50 years to go, 'Why don't you try doing the thing you do best, asshole?' Besides, everybody I know is making horror movies, and I don't like violence. I think that's just adding bad vibes into the world. I'd rather make people laugh."