The Hitcher (1986) Retrospective

Jim Halsey, a young man delivering a car from Chicago to San Diego, spots a man hitchhiking in the West Texas desert and gives him a ride. The hitcher, John Ryder, is brooding and evasive; when Jim passes a stranded car, however, Ryder forces his leg down on the accelerator. Ryder states he murdered the driver and intends to do the same to Jim, threatening him with a switchblade. Terrified, Jim asks what Ryder wants. He replies, “I want you to stop me.” When Jim realizes that Ryder never put on his seat belt and the car’s passenger door is ajar, he shoves him out the door.
Relieved, Jim continues on his journey. When he sees Ryder in the back of a family car, Jim tries to warn them but becomes involved in an accident. He later comes across the family’s blood-soaked car and vomits. At a nearby abandoned gas station, Ryder corners Jim but simply tosses him the keys he took from Jim’s car. After Ryder leaves with a trucker, Jim encounters him again at another gas station, where the truck nearly runs him down as it crashes into the pumps. As Jim flees, Ryder ignites the spilled gas and causes the station to explode.

At a roadside diner, Jim meets Nash, a waitress, and calls the police. As Jim relaxes, he finds a severed finger in his food and realizes Ryder is present. The police arrive and arrest him, as Ryder has managed to frame Jim for his murders. Though the police doubt his guilt, they lock him up overnight as protocol. When Jim wakes, he finds the cell door is unlocked, and all the officers are dead. Jim panics, takes a revolver, and flees. At a gas station, he sees two officers, takes them hostage, and speaks to Captain Esteridge, the officer in charge of the manhunt for Jim, on the radio. As Esteridge convinces Jim to surrender, Ryder pulls up alongside them and kills the two officers.

The patrol car crashes, and Ryder disappears again. After briefly considering suicide, Jim reaches a cafe, where Ryder confronts him. After pointing out Jim’s revolver is unloaded, Ryder leaves him several bullets and departs. Jim boards a bus, where he meets Nash and attempts to explain his situation. After a police car pulls over the bus, Jim surrenders, and the furious officers accuse him of killing their colleagues and attempt to kill him. Nash appears with Jim’s revolver, disarms the officers, and flees with Jim in their patrol car. As the police chase after them, Ryder joins the chase and murders the officers pursuing them by causing a massive car accident.

Jim and Nash abandon the patrol car and hike to a motel. While Jim is in the shower, Ryder abducts Nash. Jim searches for her outside the motel and is discovered by Captain Esteridge, who takes Jim to two trucks with Nash tied between them with a gag in her mouth. Ryder is at the wheel of one truck and threatens to tear Nash apart. Esteridge tells Jim that his men cannot shoot Ryder as his foot will slip off the clutch, which would cause the truck to roll and kill Nash. Jim enters the cab with Ryder, who gives him a revolver and tells him to shoot, but Jim is unable to do so. Ryder, disappointed, releases the clutch, killing Nash.

Ryder is taken into custody. In the interrogation room, Jim gives his name to the police. When Ryder takes Jim’s arm, Jim spits at him, causing the police to escort Jim out. Esteridge gives Jim a ride, but Jim, believing the police cannot hold Ryder, takes Esteridge’s revolver and vehicle to chase down Ryder’s prison bus. As Jim catches up, Ryder arms himself with a shotgun, kills the deputies, and leaps through Jim’s windshield as the bus crashes. Jim slams on his brakes, sending Ryder through the windshield and onto the road in front of Jim’s stalled vehicle. As Ryder shoots at him, Jim frantically restarts the car. Ryder challenges Jim to run him over, which he does. As Jim leaves his car to observe Ryder’s prone body, Ryder jumps up, and Jim shoots him repeatedly with a shotgun. Jim leans against Esteridge’s car and begins smoking as the sun sets.

From producers David Bombyk’s viewpoint, “Hitcher” represented an American fable: “Eric Red chose these brilliant mythic elements to have this boy traveling across Texas, the great American frontier, and having the hitchhiker emerge out of the landscape–he’s a primal element with no context and you can’t explain him. What does he mean? Why is he doing this?

“In reality, there’s a universe out there that contains danger and evil and tragedy and I think ‘The Hitcher’ is about the process of coming to the reckoning of all this. How do you deal with the enigma of this life you are living? You can’t figure it out, but you’ve still got to do it.”

Ohman described the original script as being “a bloody, wet film, but there was something mythic and poetic about it. I saw it as a suspense Hitchcockian-type thriller.”

Maryanne T. Ziegler, then head of development for producer Robert Chartoff, didn’t share such enthusiasm when she read the script: “This is an exploitation movie which Bob Chartoff has never done nor has any intention of ever doing,” she wrote in a letter to Eric Red. “This blood, guts and gore-filled subject has an audience somewhere but certainly not here. . . . I would like to see future work if the subject matter is something that relates to real life and real characters.”

Bombyk ultimately brought “The Hitcher” screenplay, revised and pared down to his boss, producer Ed Feldman, and Feldman’s partner, former O’Melveny & Myers attorney Charles Meeker. The men knew that the project would be a tough sell to studios, but they had a plan. Bombyk explained, “The challenge was to take something like this movie, which is part of the genre and to elevate it in terms of the way it’s cast, filmed and paced, so what you get back is a suspense film, not just one where you get your throat slit every 10 minutes.”

Even Paramount and Universal passed on “Hitcher,” Bombyk and Ohman recalled late one afternoon as they sat in Simply Paul’s restaurant, gazing across the street at Universal’s legendary Black Tower, the nickname for MCA’s executive building.

“I can’t even remember who we showed it to over there,” Ohman said, laughing. “When you’re rejected 25 times or more, you tend not to want to remember.”

Eighteen months before, the two had worried mainly about getting the script in good enough shape to let Feldman and Meeker simply have a first look at it.

“I was almost afraid of people’s reactions,” Bombyk confessed. “I looked at it again and thought, ‘I can’t show this to somebody and expect them to understand what I’m talking about, because they’re going to view this as an exploitation film, but I know that it’s more than that.’ ”

Although he wasn’t tied to the project, Bombyk continued to work with Red via numerous long distance phone calls to Texas. Finally, the writer moved to Los Angeles.

“A secretary who had read ‘The Hitcher’ came into my office saying, ‘My God, Eric Red is coming in?’ She didn’t know what to expect and neither did I. I mean, we figured he’d arrive with a Soldier of Fortune magazine under his arm.”

But Bombyk said that Red turned out to be personable and charming and agreed to work with Ohman on the script until it was ready to be shown to executives.

” Robert Harmon was out scouting locations and casting the first couple of weeks I was on the film,” Stout recalls. “One day, the production designer came over and looked at what I had done and said, ‘I can’t believe how close this is to the concept the director had in mind! When Harmon returned, he was shocked. He said, ‘That is exactly how I would direct the film!'” – William Stout (production illustrator)

In the original script, an entire family is slaughtered in their station wagon, an eyeball is discovered inside of a hamburger, a woman is tied to a truck and a pole and then torn in half, two teenagers engage in sex, and there is a decapitation as well as several slashings, shootings and car crashes. Although he remembered working with Ohman on script changes, he maintained that his original script was no bloodier than the final draft. “There was never really any graphic violence–it was all off-screen.”

Kip Ohman and Eric Red spent the next six months reworking the screenplay, deleting much of the violence that Ohman thought “repetitive.”

During that time, Red also attended the American Film Institute, where he made another small film, “Trigger,” about a young man who puts explosives in toy frogs and gives them away as gifts. Later in the film, he puts an explosive in a hamburger, which explodes after it is given to an older man.

At length, “Hitcher” looked to be in good shape and, Ohman recalled, “I gave it back to David (Bombyk) on a Thursday and I also gave it to David Madden (then a 20th Century Fox production executive). On Monday morning Madden called and said, ‘Fox wants to make this movie and David called and said, ‘The script is terrific, we’ve gotta do something.’ ”

As Feldman recalled, “There was queasiness at Fox about the subject matter, but even though Fox thought that it was a very extreme kind of picture, they felt that the writing and dynamics of it were so unique and interesting that that it was worth a shot, but as a negative pick-up.”

In this case, a studio gives a film maker a letter-of-intent to distribute a film, which then enables the film maker to get financing. Once the film is completed, the studio reimburses the film maker for the budget. The next move, the producers decided, was to find a relatively unknown (i.e., inexpensive) director.

Director Robert Harmon

Harmon, a still photographer-turned-cameraman, had acquired his agent by making a half-hour featurette called “China Lake.” The stark, beautifully photographed short film about an L.A. cop on vacation in the High Sierra desert who gets his kicks from stalking unsuspecting motorists on deserted roads and running them down with his cycle or locking them in their trunks–and leaving them to perish in the desert heat.

“I remember the night I first read ‘The Hitcher’ very well,” Harmon said in an interview. “Peter sent it over, but I didn’t get home until about midnight and it was waiting on my doorstep.

“I thought, ‘Big deal, another script; I’ll read it tomorrow.’ ”

But Harmon changed his mind after listening to his answering machine and finding a series of messages from Turner: “The first one said, ‘I hope you got the script. I’ll probably give it a read tonight. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.’ The second one said, ‘I’m on Page 30′ and something like, ‘This is unbelievable!’

“Then he left another one saying simply and cryptically, ‘I can’t believe how much fun you’re going to have making this movie.’ ”

Harmon immediately sat down and read the script. He called Turner early the next morning: “All I said to him was, ‘Where do I sign?’ ”

Harmon met with the producers in February, 1984, to discuss his impression of the script. “It (the script) was much more violent than it is now,” Harmon recalled. “Even the exact actions that remained in the script were described in much bloodier and gorier detail. I thought it was generally effective for the read, but would frighten certain studio executives away.”

The producers were impressed with Harmon. Ohman found him “very positive. It wasn’t some guy saying, ‘I really love the idea of the boy picking up a maniac killer–and boy , we’re gonna have blood everywhere!’ He envisioned this as a real Hitchcockian thriller.”

Harmon concurred. “It remained our approach for the entire rest of the production that the film was going to be suspenseful, exciting and classy. We were trying to develop the character’s psychology to be one that was interesting and mysterious.”

Despite Harmon’s enthusiasm for the project, at least one friend and business associate attempted early on to dissuade him from doing “The Hitcher.”

Producer Jim Jax remembered when Harmon brought him the script. “I thought it was a very, very violent piece and (regarding the ripping scene) it was grotesquely so.” Jax (currently exec producer on “Raising Arizona,” the latest from “Blood Simple” brothers Joel and Ethan Coen), added, “I was sure he’d do a great job, but that, finally, it was just going to be a slasher kind of film. I told him he could end up being considered another David Cronenberg.

“I just thought the movie had a vicious streak in it and would not be able to transcend the horror genre as, for example, ‘The Terminator’ did.”

Harmon disagreed with his friend (“I didn’t think he quite got the script”) and proceeded, although he wanted changes.

The director said he objected immediately to the eyeball in the hamburger. “Although I have a black sense of humor, I didn’t see any way to make a disembodied eyeball in a hamburger the least bit funny.”

Harmon found the finger substitution–at least the way he would film it–“slightly funny, because the audience slowly discovers its presence (as Howell munches on French fries). And as far as the girl getting ripped in half: “I never planned to show it on screen.”

Fox finally rejected the project. Explained David Madden, now a production V.P. at Paramount, “It was more or less over money. This was perceived as a straight-out horror movie; a different version of ‘When a Stranger Calls’ or ‘Friday the 13th.’ A studio shouldn’t spend more than $3.5- or $4-million picking up these movies. It is the one genre where you can scout around and pick it up.”

Madden found “Hitcher” to be “a great roller-coaster ride. I immediately got excited. It brought ‘Duel’ to mind (Spielberg’s TV movie about driver Dennis Weaver terrorized by an unseen driver of a giant, sinister truck). It had an allegorical quality that elevated it above the typical slasher movie.”

Although Madden said that the deal never went far enough for executives to consider how to handle the more gruesome elements, he suggested that “I would have argued to soften the movie. There were some people at the studio who thought it was pretty gross.”

Feldman and Meeker optioned it themselves, paying Red $25,000. Still, there was no studio willing to pay for the film.

“The script had gotten a lot of celebrity around town. No matter where you sent it to, they’d say it was great,” Feldman said, “but they never wanted to make the deal. I’m sure some of the young executives saw the future in it and responded to it, but when it got into regular committee, they passed on it.”

Universal passed. Paramount and Warner Bros., Columbia, Orion and New World, too, recalled the producers. Hope was ignited, however, when producer Lawrence Gordon came in as president of production at Fox. The producers brought the script back to the studio. Carol Baum, who worked as a production vice president at Fox during Gordon’s tenure, remembered the studio’s second look at the script: “I loved the script,” Baum explained by phone from her office at Sandollar Productions (Dolly Parton and manager Sandy Gallin’s production company). “It was, viscerally, one of the best scripts I had ever read; it grabbed you and made your blood rush. I thought it would be perfect for Larry, but he passed.”

Baum–who added that she would have tried to remove the ripping-apart scene–was taken to task for her support of the project at a dinner party one evening. “I can’t remember who was there–it was an industry-type dinner and somebody made a comment about the script. When I defended it, that person berated me for liking such a violent exploitation film.”

At Paramount, production V.P. David Kirkpatrick recalled, “Jeff Katzenberg (then president of production, now at Disney) and myself both read the script and liked it. It had sort of a raw energy, a combination between ‘Duel’ and a slasher picture. But Michael Eisner (Paramount’s ex-president and now Disney’s chairman) felt we shouldn’t make that kind of picture.”

Eisner, Kirkpatrick explained, “felt that we already had that kind of movie in our ‘Friday the 13th’ series and didn’t want that diminished.”

“There were at least two studios who said they would consider making ‘The Hitcher’ if we replaced Bob Harmon,” Feldman recalled. “We had no contractual agreement with him, but I have instincts that say that if you believe in a group, once you get a director on a picture, don’t be so quick to abandon him. Our initial instincts were to hire him because he had the vision for the picture. We were sticking with him.”

Harmon was out pitching the script as well. “I had sort of a speech which said, ‘This is a terrific script; however, it is real easy to misread because its so visceral in the reading. All I can say is that everybody has their own images and feelings about reading things–but don’t be put off with the violence, just read it.’ ”

Independent producer Donna Dubrow heard about “Hitcher” while in the midst of problems on “Roadshow” (the ill-fated production that would have starred Timothy Hutton and Jack Nicholson had director Martin Ritt not fallen ill). A friend at Fox asked her what she thought about the premise of a kid and an evil hitchhiker.

“I said it sounded like ‘Duel’ with a person,” Dubrow recalled. Later, when she went to work for Silver Screen/HBO she called up Feldman, a former employer, and asked to see the script.

“I thought it was wonderful,” Dubrow said. “I hadn’t seen a psychological thriller like that in years. I sent it out for coverage and the readers agreed.”

The reader’s report stated: “The writer has created a nightmare and it’s the basis of that fear that makes the nightmare so real. . . . It may be received by some as a slasher film with style. With very little dialogue, it requires a very visual director.”

Dubrow submitted the script to her boss, HBO senior V.P. Maurice Singer, who liked it and sent it back to New York to be read by Michael Fuchs, HBO chairman and chief operating officer, whose approval was needed on every Silver Screen/HBO project.

“The screenplay was an absolute page-turner,” Singer agreed. “Had I not seen (Harmon’s short) ‘China Lake,’ I would have said that the script was written well, but could too easily fall into the exploitation category.

“It was going to be a very tough sell to Michael, because at its face value it was not the kind of material to appeal to him.”

Singer was correct. Word came back from New York to forget it. Dubrow, however, had to go back to New York on other business and decided to visit Fuchs, whom she had never met.

“As we were chit-chatting, he said, ‘So, you really like that picture “The Hitcher”? I don’t know; it sounds so gory.’

“I said, ‘You’re not looking at it right. This is not a cut-’em-up, chop-’em-up, put-’em-in-the-trunk. If you look at Harmon’s short movie, you’ll see how he gets into your deepest fears, just like Hitchcock.”

Fuchs merely nodded his head and the meeting ended. When Dubrow returned to L.A., she said that Singer had news: “He said, ‘I don’t know what you said to Michael, but he called me and we’re gonna make the movie.’ ”

Fuchs said in an interview that he, in fact, was not keen on the script when he first read it. “But everyone (Singer and Dubrow) felt very strongly that it could be a different, offbeat out-of-the-ordinary type movie.”

But Fuchs’ OK came with a dictum–the girl would not be torn apart and the violence would have to be reduced.

For the next few months, dialogues between Silver Screen executives and the film makers centered around two scenes–the eyeball in the hamburger and the ripping apart of Nash, the young woman.

“I changed it to a finger in one of the innumerable drafts we went through and that seemed to meet with approval,” Harmon said dryly. “I didn’t have to run through a whole group of body parts; we just needed some motivation to send Halsey running hysterically out the door and coughing so that he would look suspicious to the cops.”

Harry Dean Stanton

My first choice was Harry Dean Stanton, I loved Stanton’s dark, vulture-esque looks and drew him in my storyboards for the film. I had no say in the casting, however, and Hauer was chosen to play John Ryder. The Hitcher is one of the films I worked on of which I’m pretty pleased with the end result. We had an amazing cast and crew for that film and a good script by Eric Red. I consider Rutger Hauer’s performance a key element to that film’s success. – William Stout (production illustrator)

The ripping apart of Nash was not as easily solved. Everyone at HBO/Silver Screen except Dubrow remained adamant about changing the scene.

“We got into huge arguments,” she recalled. “Maurice (presumably speaking for Fuchs) would say, ‘The girl can’t die.’

“I said, ‘What is our story, then? What if Janet Leigh hadn’t died (in “Psycho”)? If she stays alive, I don’t want to see that movie, because there won’t be a movie.”

Dubrow added, “Then we would talk about her dying differently. I said, ‘Maurice, give us some ideas. Put her up on a cross, wrap her around a tire.’ They were preposterous thoughts, but they were trying to make her death not horrible, when–by the nature of the script–it had to be.”

Harmon shook his head wearily when recalling these meetings.
“It was a tough moment in a tough script,” Harmon said, “and we were constantly trying to be vigilant and not emasculate the script. The structure and tone and whole edifice that Eric created wouldn’t have withstood the removal of that scene.”

Harmon remembered a particularly silly idea at the time: “They suggested that she be allowed to be killed, but we would soften the scene by having a funeral.”

He paused, then allowed, “Maybe I was a little too glib about things at that point, but I said that I would be happy to give her a funeral if I could do it with five caskets . . . or one very, very long one.”

Eric Red recalled talking with truck drivers at the truck stop about possibilities. “I asked them, ‘Well, look, if you wanted to kill a girl with a truck, how would you do it? They were suggesting things like ‘Put her in the back of the transom and run a kingpin through her.’ ”

At the 11th hour, Silver Screen executives caved in and allowed the scene to be shot. Aside from flailing hands and truck tires turning, the scene contained no graphic rendering of the rip. It met with executive approval.
According to Fuchs: “They found a way to make a gruesome scene acceptable.”

As those discussions wore on, casting got under way. The role of John Ryder had changed through various drafts of the script. Early on, the killer had been described as practically skeletal. Along those lines, actors like David Bowie, Sting, Sam Shepard, Harry Dean Stanton and Terence Stamp were mentioned.

John Ryder
In early drafts of the script, John Ryder had been described as skeletal in nature and so actors like David Bowie, Sting, Sam Shepard, Harry Dean Stanton, and Terence Stamp were mentioned. Harmon was set on casting Stamp and even carried around his picture to pitch meetings. Stamp received a copy of the script but he turned down the role. Sam Elliott was offered the role but an agreement could not be reached on his salary. Michael Ironside was also considered for the role. Singer mentioned Dutch actor Rutger Hauer. While in L.A. for a short visit, Hauer read the script. Even though he was looking for non-villainous roles, the script “really got a hold of me … I thought, ‘If I do one more villain, I should do this.’ I couldn’t refuse it”. The one reservation Hauer had was with the scene where the girl is torn apart and Feldman told him, “you are the bad guy and you’ll be the baddest bad guy there ever was!” Red mentioned to Hauer that he had Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards in mind when he wrote the part of Ryder. Furthermore, Red felt that the character should have an electronic voice box.

Jim Halsey
For the role of Jim Halsey, the producers mentioned Matthew Modine, Tom Cruise, and Emilio Estevez. They agreed on C. Thomas Howell and liked his look. At the time, he was being more selective with the roles he took and heard that the script was a generic thriller. Harmon personally gave Howell a copy of the script. He could not put it down and “couldn’t believe the things that happened to my character in the first 12 pages. I knew I wanted to do it”. He also wanted to work with Hauer. Unbeknownst to Hauer, Howell found him “frightening, intimidating, and that he was in a constant state of fear, almost as if he really was John Ryder and I really was Jim Halsey”.

Although no one else seemed taken with the idea (especially Red), Harmon was fixated on Stamp. “I used to carry around his picture to pitch meetings,” he said, laughing at the memory. “When the inevitable question of ‘Who do you see in the role?’ came around, I would open my briefcase, take out the picture and say, ‘This man.’ ”

The script was sent to Stamp’s agent, but the actor refused the role. “He said that he worked very hard to get into his roles, and that to get into the mind of that madman would have been completely destructive to his entire personality,” Harmon said.

Sam Elliot was offered the role, but agreement couldn’t be reached on his salary, the filmmakers recalled. Finally, Singer mentioned Dutch actor Rutger Hauer (“Soldier of Orange,” “Blade Runner,” “The Osterman Weekend,” “Ladyhawke”): “When I thought of Rutger on screen, I thought of somebody who would appear attractive in a dangerous sort of way.”

Hauer arrived in Los Angeles for a short visit soon after and read the script. “It really got ahold of me,” the actor commented. “Although I was looking for work in other areas (i.e., non-villainous, as he is so often cast), after reading it, I thought, ‘If I do one more villain, I should do this.’ I couldn’t refuse it.”

Jeffrey DeMunn

I got to meet him, but I didn’t really get to see him in action, because when he was working, I was off, and versa vice-a. It truly was just meeting a guy, and he seemed fine. My main recollection is that I went down to Waco, Texas and hung out at the Texas Ranger Research Center, got photographs of all the present-day Rangers and put them up all around the hotel rooms wherever I went on the shoot. So I had these 10 Texas Rangers staring at me all the time, when I went to bed and woke up in the morning. I went around Waco and made recordings of people in restaurants, in bars, to get some of that sound going in my ear, and then went to work and had a good time. I met Larry Moss, a really good acting coach and teacher, on that; he was coaching co-star C. Thomas Howell. – Jeffrey DeMunn on meeting Rutger Hauer

With Hauer attached to the production, other actors fell into place. Many young actors read for the role of the terrorized Halsey. For candidates, the producers mentioned Matthew Modine, Tom Cruise and Emilio Estevez (who was said to covet the role). They finally agreed on C. Thomas Howell (“The Outsiders,” “Grandview U.S.A.,” “Red Dawn,” “Tank,” “Secret Admirer”), who, they all agreed, had the perfect look. To that point, Howell said in an interview, he and manager Keith Addis were uninterested: “At the time, we were being very choosy about the roles I was going to take,” he explained. “I had only heard that it was a thriller and I had no interest in that.”

But after Harmon personally took them a script, things changed. “I couldn’t put it down,” Howell enthused. “I couldn’t believe the things that happened to my character in the first 12 pages. I knew I wanted to do it; I’d never had a chance to work on a character’s development in such a role. The other big reason was because Rutger was attached.”

Addis was cooler: “He was always a little unsure,” Howell maintained, laughing. “It isn’t Keith’s type of movie, but I don’t think its one of those type of movies either.”

Howell didn’t think much of the eyeball sandwich (“They told me it would be changed, but not that it would be the finger. I’ve never been comfortable with that.”) but he had no problem with the tearing of Nash in two.
“Hey!” he semi-joked, “in every single film you’ve seen in the past, the damsel in distress has to be saved, but in this film we let her have it!”

Michael Ironside

I wanted to do that character. be reveals, I came in basically second behind Rutger Hauer. Rutger took it in a little bit of a different direction than I would have. This is the way I see the character: He’s somebody who knows he is insane and has enough sanity to realize that he should die for it. He’s grooming somebody to understand what it is that this person’s going to have to kill by taking the man through his owa nightmare of this guy’s life, so he can get him prepared to kill the Hitchcr. It’s not a passing on of the torch. It’s that when the torch is extinguished, to know how hot it was when it was alive. It just didn’t happen because my profile in this industry isn’t as large as Rutger’s. And the director did it the way Rutger wanted to do it.” Michael Ironside

Hauer, on the other hand, was never happy with his participation in that scene. “I had very, very big difficulty with the fact that the girl gets killed,” he said during a recent visit to Los Angeles. “But somehow, this became really difficult because if you don’t do that (kill the girl), the whole script turns into a different thing.”

Feldman chuckled about Hauer’s difficulty with the scene. “Rutger didn’t want to do it; he thought he’d be the bad guy. I told him, ‘You are the bad guy . . . and you’ll be the baddest bad guy there ever was!’ ”

Surprisingly, Jennifer Jason Leigh (“Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “Flesh and Blood,” “Grandview U.S.A.”) was the least perturbed of all. It was her character who was ripped in two. Leigh’s main reason for doing the film, she said, was to work with Hauer again (they co-starred in “Flesh and Blood”).

“I also loved the character of Nash; there was a real person there,” Leigh said. As for what happened to her character: “It was necessary to the film.”

She was vaguely amused by the number of alternatives proposed to the truck-pole rip. “It’s as horrifying as one could possibly imagine and I don’t think one example is better than another. At one point, they wanted Nash to die by having the truck collapse on top of her, but that would have been just as bad.”

She added, “The film’s like ‘Friday the 13th,’ but enough characterization that it made it interesting and more psychological. It was very, very tense.”

Tri-Star (owned by Coca-Cola, Time Inc. and assorted smaller investors) had no say in whether or not “Hitcher” was made. Contractually, it is obligated to distribute any movie produced by HBO/Silver Screen.

When Tri-Star executives first heard about the project, “we liked it very much in terms of its potential,” recalled Stephen Randall, executive marketing V.P. for Tri-Star. “I had seen ‘China Lake’ and thought Harmon was a good director choice, but you always wonder how it is going to come out.

“We knew that that scene (when Nash is ripped in two) would become ‘That Scene,’ but we trusted the producers that it would be handled carefully in post-production.”

The Hitcher was a real important film for me as an artist, but more importantly, for me as a person. I was 17 or 18 when I did that movie, just starting to really understand what it was to be an actor. I’d done some movies prior to that where I really was clueless. I had no idea what I was doing on The Outsiders, I had no idea what I was doing in a lot of those movies I did, whether it was Secret Admirer or Tank or Grandview U.S.A. or A Tiger’s Tale. I was just sort of handed a gift at a young age, and I really only knew enough to get into a world of trouble at that point. The Hitcher kind of was a pinnacle for me, because of Rutger Hauer, who’s an amazing actor; Jennifer Jason Leigh, who’s an award-winning actress and still the most committed actor I’ve ever worked with to this day; and Jeffrey DeMunn, an incredible guy who has trained more in theater and done some great roles. I was working with these people, who really gave me an opportunity to sit down with each one of them and discuss the craft and how to build a character and how to make choices. At that point, I hadn’t really done that. I was just going through the motions, playing these roles of young teenage boys, where the choices are made just by showing up. I mean, you’re a young teenage boy, you’re playing a young teenage boy. There isn’t a whole lot of thinking that goes into that. But The Hitcher was my first step toward adult roles, and the experience of that film is what really made me want to do it for life. It was a time when I was trying to figure out who I was as a human being, as an artist. You’re judged so harshly at that point in your life, not only by yourself, but also by your peers. It’s a difficult time. Being a teenager really sucks. It’s a hard time of life, and I’m about to have two of ’em. I’ve got one kid who’s now 20, but I’ve got a 16-year-old boy, and I’ve got a boy who’s 12 and just about to step into his teens. I recall my teen years, and I remember that as being the hardest time of my life. You just care so much about what other people think, and it’s painful. The Hitcher, for me, was my first step out of that area and into becoming an adult, and I’m so thankful for that role. That experience is one of my favorite experiences in my career, and it’s also one of my favorite films.C Thomas Howell

When Tri-Star executives finally saw an early screening of the film, HBO’s Singer remembered that “David Matalon (Tri-Star president) stood up and said afterwards, ‘It’s the best film that we have for 1986.’ And he really committed himself to seeing that the marketing for the movie was done with vigor.”

Matalon couldn’t recall his exact remarks but confirmed that “I thought it was absolutely striking. I couldn’t believe a first-time director could produce work like that. I immediately rushed back to the office to begin negotiating a deal for him (Harmon) here.”


Robert Harmon

David Bombyk
Kip Ohman

Eric Red

Mark Isham

Rutger Hauer as John Ryder
C. Thomas Howell as Jim Halsey
Jennifer Jason Leigh as Nash
Jeffrey DeMunn as Captain Esteridge
John M. Jackson as Sergeant Starr
Billy Greenbush as Trooper Donner
Jack Thibeau as Trooper Prestone
Armin Shimerman as Interrogation Sergeant
Gene Davis as Trooper Dodge
Jon Van Ness as Trooper Hapscomb
Henry Darrow as Trooper Hancock
Tony Epper as Trooper Conners


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