Road Games (1981) Retrospective

SUMMARY

The film opens on truck driver Patrick Quid (Stacy Keach) as he pulls into a motel for the night. Quid notices a man in a green van checking in with a female hitchhiker he had passed earlier because the trucking company policy forbids it. Nevertheless, Quid is upset at the man for taking the last room in the motel and picking up the attractive hitcher. In the motel, the hitcher strums a guitar naked on the bed, while the unidentified man unpacks a new guitar string. He winds the string around his gloved hands and uses it to strangle the woman.

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Quid wakes the next morning in his truck. His pet dingo sniffs relentlessly at the garbage outside the motel, and Quid notices the van driver watching the dingo from the window of the motel room. Quid picks up a load of pigs from Universal Meats. He sets off for Perth with his load and passes various characters on the road: a nagging wife and her family, a cautious man hauling a sailboat, and a station wagon crammed full of toy balls. He repeatedly passes by another female hitchhiker.

The nagging wife creates a roadblock by streaming pink paper across the highway. When Quid stops at the sight of it, she climbs into his cab and orders Quid to catch up with her husband who left her at the side of the road. They play What’s My Line? to pass the time. The woman informs Quid about the grisly murder of a woman, and his nonchalant answers start to disturb her. She suspects that he might be the serial killer from the news. Quid stops the truck when he sees the green van parked along the road. Its driver has several trash bags. He appears to be burying the bags. When the van driver notices Quid watching him through binoculars, he abandons his work and drives away.

At a roadhouse, the van driver assaults Quid’s dingo while he is inside. Quid gives chase, but he encounters the slow driving boat owner who refuses to let Quid pass. Eventually, Quid destroys the boat, but the green van is too far off to catch.

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Quid picks up the female hitchhiker, Pamela Rushworth (Jamie Lee Curtis), that he has passed before. She gradually reveals that she is the daughter of a powerful American diplomat. Quid urges Pamela to let her father know that she is alright. The duo eagerly discuss the serial killer. At a service station, they notice the green van parked near the restroom. Quid sees a pair of feet in the toilet stall, and he thinks he has the killer cornered. Pamela investigates the green van while Quid tries to get the man to exit the stall. As Pamela reaches for the cooler box inside the van, she realizes that the driver is sleeping on the floor. In the restroom, a biker emerges from the stall and rushes outside. Quid rushes outside to see that the green van is gone.

When he catches up to the van, it appears that Pamela is happily in the passenger seat. Later that night, Quid notices the van parked off the side of the road, and pulls over to investigate. He hears people giggling in the bushes nearby and assumes that Pamela and the van driver are engaged in sexual intercourse. When he breaks into the van to investigate, he finds that the cooler box only contains food so he rests his suspicions.

Quid arrives at the outskirts of Perth, and while reporting to the weigh station, sees the green van. The proximity of several police cars revives his suspicions, and he follows the van through the streets of Perth, trailed by the police. Eventually the van reaches a dead end, and Quid’s truck becomes stuck in the narrow alleys.

The van driver approaches Quid’s truck and attempts to strangle Quid with a garrote, but Quid manages to disarm him. When Quid starts to strangle the van driver with the same weapon, the police arrive and falsely assume that Quid is the killer. Upon freeing a gagged and bound Pamela from the van, the police learn that Quid is innocent, and Pamela’s actual captor is caught whilst trying to escape through the crowd.

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When Quid finally delivers the meat shipment, he relates to Pamela that earlier after he had found his trailer door open and discovered the load weight a few kilos over, he had presumed that the van driver had killed her and disposed of her inside his trailer. Back at the meat facility, a woman cleaning out the back of the trailer is brushed by a guitar string hanging from the ceiling and, on pulling it, gets a nasty surprise as a human head, presumably that of the murder victim, falls from above and lands in her soap bucket.

 

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DEVELOPMENT

Roadgames (often spelled Road Games on the poster art), which is often mistaken for another in the long line of early ’80s slasher films usually starring Curtis after her breakthrough lead role in Halloween (1978). However, the influence here goes straight back to Alfred Hitchcock thanks to director Richard Franklin, an admirer of the Master of Suspense who frequented the set of Topaz (1969) after meeting him during a Q&A session at USC. Hitchcock’s beloved “wrong man” plot device is the obvious borrowed element here along with the gradual evolution of a hero’s suspicions about a murderer found in titles like Rear Window (1954). However, what sets Roadgames apart is its unique Australian locations, which place this squarely in the middle of the Australian New Wave which resulted in a slew of commercial, artistic, and exploitation films with a distinctive Down Under flavor. The drive-in side of Aussie cinema had already produced some notable films such as Mad Max (1979) and The Chain Reaction (1980), which featured groundbreaking, high-octane car chases and stunts. Roadgames was part of this trend as well with some nail-biting road chases which owe as much to Steven Spielberg’s Duel (1971) as they do to George Miller.

While making the film Patrick Richard Franklin gave Everett De Roche a copy of Rear Window as an example of how he wanted the script typed. De Roche loved the content of the script and expressed his desire to write a film with a similar plot but set on a moving vehicle. He developed the idea with Franklin in Fiji, where the latter was co-producing The Blue Lagoon (1980). De Roche wrote the first draft of Road Games over a period of 8 days in a hotel, with Franklin visiting periodically during breaks in the production of Blue Lagoon.

De Roche and Franklin both worked on the early ’70s TV crime series Homicide (no relation to the later American show), and both made the leap to mainstream feature films in 1978 with Patrick, one of Australia’s first breakthrough horror films, about a comatose young man wreaking telekinetic havoc from his hospital bed. Franklin had dabbled in lightweight soft-core comedies such as Fantasm (1976) and The True Story of Eskimo Nell (1975), but Patrick was his first foray into the suspense genre which he would be identified with for most of his career. Meanwhile, De Roche was writing thriller scripts which wound up in the hands of other directors as well, including Long Weekend (1978, directed by Colin Eggleston), 1980’s surreal Dark Forces (directed by Simon Wincer), and the 1984 killer boar cult favorite, Razorback (directed by Russell Mulcahy).

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Shot on location in the Nullarbor Plain and in Melbourne, the budget of $1.75 million was the highest ever for an Australian film at that time. Avco Embassy paid $500,000 for all rights outside Australia, and the balance came from the Greater Union, the Australian Film Commission, the Victorian Film Corporation, and the Western Australian Film Council. Franklin wanted to cast Sean Connery in the lead, but was unable to afford his salary, and the role went to Stacy Keach instead.

As was common practice in both Australia and Europe at the time, American “name” actors were imported for several weeks to star in films for added international value or brought in for short periods to film enough scenes to be prominently featured on the poster and attract moviegoers. Roadgames features examples of both tactics, with lead Stacy Keach appearing in almost every scene of the film (in a part originally envisioned for Sean Connery). A colorful presence who first made an impression in a key supporting role in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968), Keach had amassed one of the most surprising title rosters of any of his peers by the time he stepped before the cameras in Australia. Films such as End of the Road (1970), Fat City (1972), The New Centurions (1972), The Long Riders (1980), and even two Cheech and Chong vehicles (Up in Smoke from 1978 and Nice Dreams from 1981) had proven his extreme diversity in front of the camera, but rarely was he given the chance to play a “normal” leading role. Roadgames was the closest thing to an average Joe character he’d had in quite some time, though even in this film he gets to spend much of his time performing eccentric monologues in his truck with his pet dingo.

Australian actress Lisa Peers was cast to play opposite him, but the US distributors insisted on an American co-star, so Franklin cast Jamie Lee Curtis. The film ran into trouble with (Actors Equity of Australia|Actors Equity) when the Melbourne branch of the union approved the importation of Curtis, but the Sydney branch opposed it. “We found ourselves as the ping-pong ball in a game of politics between Melbourne and Sydney, and it nearly resulted in the film closing down,” said Franklin. Franklin later acknowledged wishing he had increased the size of Curtis’ part to take more advantage of her.

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We decided to shoot Road games in Panavision because it is the shape of the truck windscreens. I was very conscious that what we had was an image of a man on the inside looking out. The voyeuristic thing has to do with subjective involvement with a central character. You have to see things through his eyes. Of course, if he gets very close to people you inevitably go into two-shots, which are no longer subjective. – Richard Franklin

 

BEHIND THE SCENES

Interview with Director Richard Franklin

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Stacey Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis look like they were having a ball on the set as well. Was it a good shoot?

It wasn’t as good a shoot as Patrick, but it wasn’t a bad shoot. We were a long time away, out on the Nullabor, and the weather wasn’t terrific. It rained a bit, believe it or not. And then when we came back to Melbourne, we had a lot of night shooting. And night shooting can be quite tiring. Now I do it as little as possible, and I always flip the shoot. So I shoot in the afternoon, and then up to say midnight. But in those days we would start at sunset and shoot till dawn. And we did it for about two weeks and it was very tiring. But Stacey and I got on very well, and Jamie had fun when she was there. In retrospect I’m disappointed she wasn’t in the film more, but that was how the script was written, you know. And she wasn’t the star then that she is now, so it didn’t occur to me, you know, you’ve got Jamie Lee Curtis, you should enlarge the part. It was more than a cameo, but I’m sorry she didn’t do more.

That was pretty much her first non-horror role too. I wouldn’t really call Road Games a horror movie.

Oh, nor would I. But you know, an interesting thing happens here. Since Psycho, the word ‘thriller’ mean ‘horror’ in America. They are synonymous. Whereas what I do, they would refer to as psychological suspense, or psychological drama, and of course Psycho II is on the cusp. As was the original. Hitchcock just redefined the genre with that film, and Psycho was very definitely a B picture, you know.

Was Stacey Keach much of a handful? Because he’s always labeled a ‘problem’ actor.

Oh no, he was very easy to direct.

Because he’s a great actor, I’ve always loved his stuff.

A great actor; one of the few American actors to have studied at RADA and performed on the London stage in Shakespeare and the like. A really fine actor. And no, I would say that the two actors I have found easiest to direct were Stacey and Tony Perkins.

Total professionals?

Total professionals who were willing to collaborate but who could take care of their own part themselves.

And in both cases the two actors pretty much have to carry the films by themselves.

Yep. I did say ‘actor’, and I know the term covers females as well, but I was really referring to the males that I’ve directed who I’ve found the easiest to direct.

How was Road Games marketed overseas? Was it classed as an Aussie outback suspense thriller? Was it ever marketed as a horror film?

Yes. And it annoyed me a bit. Avco did sell it as a slasher movie, probably because of Jamie Lee Curtis, and as a consequence it didn’t do very well in the States. You can’t offer someone an apple and then give them an orange. They feel cheated. And I thought they made a real error there. On the other hand Bob Raimi, who was the head of Avco, went on to become the head of Universal, and was instrumental in me getting Psycho II, so I couldn’t complain.

Bloody hell. I mean it would have been a real shame to market it as a horror film, because the stuff that’s great about Road Games is where Stacey Keach is just flipping out and becoming ultra, ultra paranoid, and seeing things that aren’t there.

Well, I’m glad you said that, because that’s what Visitors is about.

Did [co-financier] Avco Embassy make any demands, in terms of scripting or casting, when agreeing to invest in Roadgames?

Yes. They had right of final script approval, but they so liked the first draft that they didn’t interfere. They also had the right to approve the casting of the lead actor. Had I been able to give them Errol Flynn as Pat Quid, I have no doubt they would have accepted an Australian, but that wasn’t possible. They never specified that the lead actor had to be an American; they just said he had to be of international standing, as opposed to standard. There is no doubt that our actors are of international standard; it’s just that they don’t yet have the standing. Avco also has the right to change the final cut of the film, but I have the right to release whatever cut I want in Australasia. So, regardless of what they do for the rest of the world, my version will exist. I suppose I can’t complain, as no American director I know of has final cut.

Do they have any rights in terms of dubbing?

No.

So it will go out as shot here?

I can’t say that yet. But I’ll be a party to any decision that is made to do otherwise. I don’t believe there will be any problems.

The screenplay of Roadgames reads as if it were written with Stacy Keach in mind. Was he the first choice for Pat Quid?

No, but when I looked into it further he became the obvious one. He has the rugged looks of a truck driver, while his considerable legitimate theatre background gives him the credibility to carry off the poetry Quid quotes early in the film. This is an attempt to legitimize the character. Everett de Roche and I, after talking to a lot of truck drivers, felt they were a race apart, and to make an audience identify with one of them we had to make him atypical. So, in the opening scene, he tells us that he doesn’t take uppers, which makes him hallucinate more than any other truck driver.

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Why did you select Jamie Lee Curtis, who is relatively unknown apart from her work with John Carpenter, for the role of Hitch?

It is difficult to be relatively known at the age of 21 and Hitch is an ingénue part. There aren’t really any ingénues here who are experienced and established. Of course, we could have used an overgrown and overblown child star like Jodie Foster or Brooke Shields, but we felt Brooke, who is still only 14, was too young to be a potential partner for Quid, the way Lauren Bacall was for Humphrey Bogart in To Have and to Have Not (1944).

Jamie, I felt, was in the middle ground between being a child star and a romantic heroine. She has also done four features, which no girl of that age has done here, and one of them, John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), is the most successful non-studio film ever made. It was also nice, after Hitchcock died, to be able to write to Mrs Hitchcock (Alma Reville) and say that we were making a film called Roadgames, in which Janet Leigh’s daughter was playing a hitchhiker nicknamed Hitch. We asked whether she would accept this as a tribute to Mr Hitchcock, and she wrote back and said she would. All in all, it’s been ideal.

I think that was the first time that Jamie Lee Curtis wasn’t being chased around the house with a knife, or getting ravaged by zombies. She looks like she’s having a great time just acting, acting her heart out.

Yeah, she had a good time, we got on well. I remember when I made Psycho II, a lot of people asked why we didn’t use her in the lead. The answer was, it was too obvious. And I screened, one of the first screenings I had of the film was for Jamie and Janet, who came and saw it. But I haven’t seen her a lot since.

What was Actors Equity’s reaction to your wanting to bring in two American leads?

We had a great deal of trouble with Equity, not because there was concern about us bringing in two overseas leads, but because the Melbourne executive approved the importation and the Sydney executive disapproved it. We found ourselves as the ping-pong ball in a game of politics between Melbourne and Sydney, and it nearly resulted in the film closing down.

Everett De Roche
Everett De Roche

In a interview, Everett de Roche said that if one gave him $1000 he would write a $1000 script, and if you gave him $10,000 he would write a $10,000 script. Is the script of Roadgames as good as time and finances will allow?

Roadgames is Everett’s best work and he was paid a higher fee for it than he has had before. We spent a lot of time on it, and he came to Fiji when I was working on The Blue Lagoon and worked in a hotel on the mainland while I was on the island. I would go into town twice a week and go through what he had done. We also did some work at the studio at Burbank.

Time is really the main thing, though if one gets paid low fees, one has to do a lot of work and that runs the risk of spreading one’s talent a little thin. Everett had been on holiday in the US for three months before beginning Roadgames, so his creative batteries were fully charged. Everett is a very inspirational writer and the first draft of Roadgames was written in eight days. He is very strong on ideas, while I am quite strong on discipline and structure, so we tend to work well together.

At the moment, I am looking for a way in which to stage the final fight between the two characters. I have come up with lots of ways, but I don’t feel that any of them is inspiring. So I have asked Everett to write me an expansion of the fight, with every punch described. That’s not to say that I will use it exactly as he writes it, but there may be some little thing he sees that will bring the whole sequence to life for me.

You are one Australian director who storyboards his films. How important are they?

Very important. I used to work off a script, which I broke down like a continuity mark-up, but I didn’t find it particularly satisfactory, especially when someone asked me which way I wanted a door to open on the set. I then turned to blocking diagrams, but found them not particularly satisfactory either, because I ended up with very complex drawings with lines and numbers everywhere. So I tried the approach I had seen Hitchcock use, which is to storyboard scenes. On those sequences of Roadgames that rely heavily on atmospheric lighting, I have had my art director John Dowding draw up storyboards with me. I don’t storyboard dialogue sequences unless they have complex blocking. I think dialogue is a thing of the theatre, and I try to encumber actors with blocking as little as possible, so as to allow them to do what they are good at, which is acting.

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At what point do you start talking to your cinematographer about the way you are going to shoot a sequence?

We discuss the overall feel in advance, then, in the case of simple sequences like dialogue scenes, I will even rely on the cinematographer to suggest improvements on my shots on the set.

As for more complex scenes, like the closing alleyway chase in Roadgames, [DOP] Vince Monton and I would have already spent six or eight hours in discussion. And he is now going through my storyboards with the gaffer in advance of doing the sequence. So, a lot of time and thought goes into the planning, as I believe it’s only very occasionally that good things happen by accident.

Road Games Trailer

 

Quentin Tarantino and Others Discuss Road Games (An excerpt from the excellent documentary NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD)

 

Interview with Actor Stacey Keach

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If one were to define your persona it would be of a laid-back character who has a capacity for sudden violence. He is not a lover, and he is very detached, but there is a soft side that comes through occasionally. How does that correlate with your perspective?

I think it is a pretty fair assessment, though I would hope one day it would also include a satirical or sardonic view of life. I haven’t been allowed to express this sense of absurdity so far.

I suspect that in my case it is going to be the latter part of my career which will allow me to do more things. And, more often than not, I am going to have to create that material. This isn’t the case with theatre, of course, because there I have had a much greater opportunity to explore a different range of characters.

A lot of actors are victims of what they look like. We have all encountered the paradoxical situation of people like Vincent Price, George Raft and Edward G. Robinson playing awful creatures on screen, but being wonderfully warm people in life. In your stage performance in “Hughie you also conveyed a strong sense of threat. It was a disturbing edge …

Perhaps I had been influenced by something Elia Kazan told me. I was doing Falstaff in Central Park when he invited me to his house to discuss a film his then wife, Barbara Loden, was hoping to direct. While I was there he said. “The greatest thing about Brando’s success was the sense of violence behind his eyes that were not yet house-broken. You possess a similar quality to Brando in this respect.” I have never forgotten that and have tried to subjugate that quality in a lot of my work.

Actually, one of the reasons I find Quid in Roadgames such an attractive character is that he has a lighter side to his nature than most characters I have played. I usually have to play very serious roles, or intensely caricatured comic ones, like in Sargeant Stedenko, Brewster McLeod, and Judge Roy Bean Producers seem to distrust my ability to play roles of the David Niven/Cary Grant comedy-of manners type.

Do you think film producers and directors cast according to type, whereas theatre directors are more flexible and open?

Exactly. This is a reality I desperately tried to challenge as a young actor, because, by definition, an actor isn’t any one type of character. I have therefore tried to develop an ability to deal with all kinds of material.

How often have you had a good response?

I think Walter Hill is a good director, but he is still developing his ability to deal with behavior. He has a very specific moral code that has been continually expressed in his films, and that does not allow for any vulnerability or lightness. However, when we shot the scene in The Long Riders which comes after the Northfield raid, Walter did it a couple of ways. And to me that is a sign of an intelligent director.

Richard Franklin has developed this quality during Roadgames. At the beginning he had very specific ideas about the film and was reluctant to experiment with other styles. But he has come a long way, and today, for example, we were discussing whether the character should articulate his thoughts by talking out loud. Quid has a dog with him, so this gives him the licence to soliloquize, but my feeling is that it is an intrusion; it creates a kind of feeling in the audience of being accosted. So, I talked of the possibility of having an interior voice, whereby you hear the character’s thoughts and you see him, but he is not saying anything.

Richard was very resistant initially, but he has seen the virtues of such an alternative and we are shooting the material both ways. I feel very good about this because it gives Richard the flexibility during editing to use either style. When you have finished shooting, the best thing a director can have is a number of choices. If you are stuck with only one thing, you can be in trouble. But God knows, it is easy to talk about such things. When you are on the set and you have to catch up a day to get that extra shot, it can be tough.

How difficult is it shooting out of sequence, particularly for a theatrical actor?

It is a difficult convention to learn, but once mastered it has its values. Even in theatre, once you have the flow of a play, you go through it and work on things in isolation, I don’t think shooting out of sequence is the enormous problem people think it is. A more difficult problem is coming to terms with the realization that there is no way an actor can have a higher priority in the director’s mind than the cameraman. That takes time to learn.

What is most important is understanding the progression of a piece. On Roadgames, for example, it’s fairly easy, because it is very relaxed at the beginning. Then there is an event to which the audience is privy but Quid is not. Thus, the tension builds. If you are shooting something near the end of the film, you know that Quid has to exhibit a sense of desperation. If you are shooting three-quarters of the way through, he’s still desperate, but with some distance to go.

We were shooting a scene today and Richard kept saying: “He’s too aggressive.” My feeling is that Quid is probably a little more aggressive than Everett and Richard visualized. But I think it is through aggressive behavior that you really get a chance to see vulnerability. It’s a mistake to say confusion, or an inability to deal with things, creates vulnerability. Quid is doing everything he can to get some place and it’s the not being able to get there that shows you what it costs. But you have to know what it costs to empathize

How confident do you have to be of a director to proceed?

It is much more important to be confident of yourself to know that you can withstand the worst director in the world. And the only way you can do that is to work with a few of the worst, and I have.

It must be increasingly risky, therefore, for you to accept projects by largely untried directors. “Roadgames” must have presented that challenge …I accepted Roadgames for three things: the role, which I think is wonderful: the script, which is very good; and Australia.

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Had you seen any of Franklin’s work before you accepted?

No, but I had heard from people in the U.S. that Patrick was very well directed. When I finally saw the film. I was very impressed. Richard has a good sense of building suspense and characters. But Road games is more an action oriented film, and it is a new challenge for him. So, I am grateful that Grant Page is working on it, because he is super. Like Francis Coppola, Richard has surrounded himself with really good people, and that is the key to the success of many people in this business. Film is a collaborative art, and you must have the best people around you. Equally, you have to be open to their ideas and not close yourself off from them, as so many directors do because they feel threatened Ego often has a lot to do with it.

 

Why is Quid such a good role?

It is a combination of toughness, romantic indulgence and vulnerability. There is a range in his character. I would have liked to have used different sections of poetry than those in the script, but ultimately it’s not that important. After all, it isn’t an in-depth study of a truckie. Quid is just a character who is involved in an action adventure.

 

Have you changed Quid’s character much in your collaboration with Richard?

No. I have added embellishments, but what can a truck driver do besides say the things that are written, and play the harmonica? I didn’t want to smoke a cigarette or a cigar. but as I like to use my hands. I decided to eat celery, carrots, asparagus and things like that.

 

Have you been conscious of James Stewart’s character in “Rear Window” in your preparation?

Very much, but not in an imitative way, mainly in terms of that flustered quality Jimmy Stewart has. I have taken that out and applied it to Quid’s character It is an exasperation and confusion and anger. but one that can be harnessed into a direct line of action.

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CREDITS/REFERENCES/SOURCES

“Kangaroo Hitchcock: The Making of Road Games.” Featurette on Road Games DVD, Anchor Bay, 2003.

Richard Franklin: Director/Producer Scott Murray  July 2008  Dossier on Australian Exploitation, Special Dossiers  Issue 48

Originally published: Cinema Papers, No. 28, August-September 1980, pp. 242-6, 299.

Starburst Magazine 046 1982

  

Road Games (1981)

Directed by   Richard Franklin

Produced by Richard Franklin

Screenplay by Everett De Roche

Story by Everett De Roche Richard Franklin

Starring

Stacy Keach

Jamie Lee Curtis

 Music by Brian May

 

 

 

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