Mark Hartley on Ozploitation, genre and the Cannon canon

First published (in a shorter version) by Grolsch FilmWorks

Mark-HartleyMark Hartley is the Australian director behind rambunctious genre documentaries Not Quite Hollywood: The Wild, Untold Story of Ozploitation! (2008) and Machete Maidens Unleashed! (2010) and a 2013 remake of classic 1978 Ozploitationer Patrick. Groslch FilmWorks caught up with him as he was promoting his latest (and supposedly last) documentary, Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films, which deals with producer-cousins Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, and their upstart company that both challenged and changed Hollywood.

Words by: Anton Bitel

GFW: What’s the appeal to you of exploitation cinema, given that all of your films in one way or another revolve around exploitation?

Mark Hartley: To some degree they do. The large majority of the Australian films featured in Not Quite Hollywood are just genre films, but because in Australia everyone embraced the arthouse, anything that wasn’t arthouse was considered exploitation. Certainly you wouldn’t say that films like Road Games and Long Weekend are exploitation films.

GFW: But your passion is with genre films?

Mark Hartley: Not necessarily. I’m very, very broad in the films that I love. It’s just that after Not Quite Hollywood I was pushed in that direction, with Machete Maidens and with the Cannon film. I never really thought of the Cannon films as being exploitation. The majority of them aren’t. It’s like saying, well, The Expendables movies are exploitation movies. People don’t think of Die Hard as exploitation. They think of it as being genre films, action films – and a large majority of Cannon films are action films, arthouse films – and every so often there was a sex film in there that got a very exploitative tone. The Cannon films were made for overseas distributors who would get locked out from the major studios and couldn’t get American product, so I don’t think they thought of them as exploitation films either, they just thought of them as American films – American-style films – that they could put on in their cinemas. Look, there is kind of a graph where the worse the films, the better the stories. I’ve read Michael Winner’s autobiography, and it’s very unfashionable to say, but I was a huge Michael Winner fan, and he had great stories about working with Cannon, and that was kind of the spark that made me think there’d be a good documentary there. When I first started researching the documentary, I thought it was going to be much more of an inspirational story, a David versus Goliath: you know, these knockabout Israelis producers going over, outsiders trying to break into the almost impenetrable American studio system. When we started interviewing it became something very different, it became much more of a cautionary tale, and ultimately I let those interviewees dictate the story I was telling, so it did change quite dramatically. If there is anything of me in that documentary, I’ve tried to bring an irreverence to it. I think that happens through the counterbalancing of footage and interviews, but also taking that sort of Rashomon style where you’ve got five people telling one story – all conflicting.

GFW: The texture of this documentary is very different from your other two in that a majority of the talking heads are in fact pretty negative about the product…

Mark Hartley: I think they’re honest and they’re candid, I don’t think at all that that’s negative. I think the big difference between this and the other documentaries is that in this documentary every single person featured in it was there at the Cannon trenches. There’s no scholars, there’s no fans, there’s no people who had no first-hand connection with the subject matter, so I think you have to trust the people who are telling the stories this time. I think everyone would certainly admit that Menahem [Golan] in particular loved movies, and was trying his best, but these guys were more just into quantity versus quality, and they couldn’t tell good rushes from bad. I mean there’s no doubt that they were deluded. No-one’s going to argue with that. And they loved movies and they just wanted to keep making them. And part of that was to do with their financing structure, part of it was just that they wanted to keep making movies. The thing that you should appreciate about Cannon now is that no other studio – mini, major, independent or anything – had such a diverse production cycle. I mean, they were making a ninja movie back-to-back with a Charles Bronson Death Wish movie, back-to-back with an impenetrable arthouse film, back-to-back with a breakdancing movie. You know, they were running those ads in Variety side by side. It’s insane! A lot of directors and particularly talent agents did take advantage of Cannon. You either worked with Cannon on the way up or on the way down.

GFW: The fact that they worked with Godard but can’t spell his name is just hilarious – and then he seemed [with King Lear, 1987] to be taking the piss out of them…

Mark Hartley: For Menahem, it was all about having some sense of prestige for the company, and unfortunately they thought they could buy that respect in a way, by working with these directors. Menahem also honestly in his heart of hearts thought of himself as a European arthouse director, and he loved other directors and wanted to associate himself with directors that he admired. And the directors that he admired were Godard, Zeffirelli, Cassavetes, Altman.

GFW: You’ve now made three documentaries that are about genre filmmaking. What’s your next project? Are you still searching for a corpus of exploitation cinema?

Mark Hartley: This is my last documentary.

GFW: Patrick obviously is a remake of one of the great Ozploitation titles. Is it your intention to continue in that vein?

Mark Hartley: I’d been trying to get the go on a feature for so long, and these documentaries were part of a weird, accidental sidestep. Patrick happened because we’d just been doing a bit of research on Not Quite Hollywood and I’d forged a great relationship with Tony Ginnane [producer of the original Patrick]. He wanted to do a remake and we said yeah, let’s try to turn it into something that we’d like to make. It’s very different from the original. It isn’t the case that all I want to do is remake Australian exploitation films. Hopefully the next one will be a lot more broad. It’ll still be a genre film, but Justin [King, writer of the Patrick remake] and I are working on sort of a Duel meets Straw Dogs kind of chase through the desert.

GFW: Not Quite Hollywood dealt with one of the most productive periods for genre cinema in Australia’s film history, but it could be argued that we’re in another period like that…

Mark Hartley: In Australia? I wouldn’t have thought that at all.

GFW: It’s possible that we get a very skewed picture here in the UK of what the national product is like in Australia, because we only see what is released here which isn’t all the product – but there’s a lot of horror material coming out from Australia, and has been for the last five or so years.

Mark Hartley: When you say a lot, what do you mean a lot? I mean, there really isn’t. It’s very hard to make a genre film in Australia. It’s particularly hard to get financing for a genre film because audiences don’t embrace genre films in Australia. And the only way to trigger finance is to get distributors and exhibitors behind your film, and they’re not going to get behind your film if they know that no audience is going to go and see it. So it’s very, very difficult. It’s probably harder now than ever before to get a genre film financed in Australia. And obviously, you know, there’s been films like The Babadook that – I mean, I’m seeing giant subway posters in London – Babadook went out on 12 screens in Australia and made nothing. Wolf Creek 2 – they thought was going to be a huge hit – made nothing. Well, it didn’t make nothing, but it made far, far less than they imagined. These Final Hours went out on 161 screens, didn’t make a dent. No audiences are going and seeing these films.

GFW: Wolf Creek 2 had a very negative critical reception in Australia, as I recall. [Renowned Australian critic] David Stratton…

Mark Hartley: Well David Stratton refused to review it. David Stratton gave Patrick one star, and said that it was torture porn, which is the last thing it is, so, yeah, I dunno.

GFW: In other words, this is a bleak time, really, for you to be doing…

Mark Hartley: It is a very bleak time. I doubt I would be able to get a film up in the next five years in Australia. That’s the reality of going back to Australia.

GFW: Have you thought about working abroad?

Mark Hartley: Yeah, of course I have, yeah. Everything’s getting complicated at the moment.