Larry Bishop Captures Bikie Genre of the Past
by Paul Fischer
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The son of comic Joey Bishop, Larry Bishop grew up surrounded by show business, not to mention his father’s “Rat Pack” pals such as Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin. Bishop jnr decided to try acting, but for more than 25 years he languished in the obscure world of small parts until, in the ’90s, Bishop began writing his own screenplays—often tales of the mob—and made his directorial debut with Mad Dog Time (1996). The latter was the story of a mob boss who is released from a mental ward. Bishop also wrote the script and played a key role. Also in 1996 came the release of Underworld, which he wrote and had a role. Bishop was born in Philadelphia and raised across the Hudson from Manhattan in New Jersey, but by high school was in Beverly Hills, where he met such future filmmakers as Richard Dreyfuss, Rob Reiner, and Albert Brooks. After graduation, they performed together in an improvisational group, but it soon disbanded. Bishop turned to acting, making his feature film debut in Wild in the Streets (1968), the American International Pictures low-budget effort about a teen revolution which has become a cult classic. That same year he appeared in two other AIP movies, The Savage Seven and The Devil’s Eight. But his parts were small. Bishop played a pilot in Angel Unchained (1970), and a motorcycle gang member in Shanks (1974). Buddy Richard Dreyfuss gave Bishop a featured role in The Big Fix (1978), which Dreyfuss also produced, but by 1982, Bishop’s film career had sputtered to where he was playing a bit role as a guard in The Sting II. TV also offered unrewarding roles. Bishop guested on such series as I Dream of Jeannie and Kung Fu, and in 1979 had a co-starring role in an unsold CBS pilot about a retail establishment called Beanes of Boston. Bishop also had roles in the 1970 TV movie High Midnight (CBS) and The Girl From Left Field (ABC, 1973). Like many others, Bishop decided that if he was to get meatier roles, he would have to write them himself, but in case, unlike so many others, the attempt worked. He raised the money to make Mad Dog Time, and it was picked up by MGM/UA earning good critical reaction.
His latest film is Hell Ride, on which he serves as star, writer and director, a gritty drama about two rival bikie gangs. It was a very talkative and in-depth Bishop that spoke to Paul Fischer.
Paul Fischer: How much of a fan were you of these ’60s and ’70s bikey movies that Quentin obviously loves?
Larry Bishop: Well, I always felt like—you know, I made a handful of them as an actor. I mean, it was a cool thing that—I was around 18, 19 years old at the time, and I got the chance to star in—they were making—AIP was making youth exploitation movies. So I got a chance to star in maybe about eight or nine of them. And a handful of them were motorcycle movies. I felt that there was an element of—well, when I started doing them, people stopped talking to me. In other words, my friends and family, stuff like that, they stopped talking. Because they were kind of so out of the mainstream of what filmmaking was supposed to be about, both in terms of sensibility, and also the cheapness of it all. You know, they were done very, very inexpensively. And it was kind of like, “What in the world are you doing? Why are you doing those movies?” But I actually saw something valuable to them. I felt that, in an—I’m not saying they—intuitively, they hit a nerve with me, because they were so marginalized, and they were such an outsider, regarding the film industry. I think this is why Quentin likes them, too. That I just gravitated toward the rebellion of doing them. I just loved the idea that no one wanted me to do these things, except for me. In a way, it was—I mean, I got the idea that they weren’t great movies. But there was something that was such a fuck you to everything, that it seemed to be—and in the movie Hell Ride, there’s a book that I write called The Rebellion Against All There Is. That’s what it seemed to me. So I was actually in heaven while I was doing it, even though no one for the last 40 years ever said a nice thing about them, except for Quentin. So that was interesting to me.
PF: Is there a danger that these will be seen as part parody of the genre?
LB: Oh, I don’t know. In other words—you know, the genre itself was borderline that to begin with, in a certain way. There was—you wouldn’t say that—even if you watched The Wild One. Have you ever seen the Marlon—
PF: Of course, yes.
LB: Well, if you look at that gang—in other words, I don’t know where they got that gang. I mean, the actors—I don’t know where that came from. It was kind of like borderline parody right from the very beginning, in a certain way. But, I mean, I don’t think it had a—that there was an authenticity. I think that’s the kick that a lot of the bikes who are real bikers got a kick out of watching them, because it was kind of fun for them. It wasn’t exactly as deadly as their own real lives, in a certain way, you know? So it was kind of like, just enjoyment, that’s all. For them to take a peek at them.
PF: Maybe the character Pistolero, that you play in this movie, seems to have a certain—I mean, even the name of that character seems to suggest a certain kind of self parody. What is your take on this character, and the way that that character was created?
LB: Well, what I wanted to do was, I felt like I had—because I had Quentin Tarantino’s seal of approval, I knew I could get away with murder, okay? I knew that as long as I kept the budget at a certain level, no one was going to fuck with me on any level making this movie. I had a rare opportunity, actually, both as a director—well, as a writer, director, and actor. But one of the things I did want to experiment a little bit with regarding Pistolero was, I didn’t feel like I had to woo the audience at all. You know, in normal movies, they’re always worrying—particularly the marketing divisions—about how likable is the character, and how much is the audience going to respond to the heroic value of this thing or that? All stuff that has to do with meaningfulness, okay? So Pistolero was not into meaningfulness on any level. And I felt as long as I did the one thing, which is honor my word to this murder who had been murdered 32 years ago, I could get away with murder, in terms of how the audience perceives me. Meaning that, if I’m the biggest asshole that ever was in any movie as the lead actor, they will still have to acknowledge—and it did happen this way, too. In the screenings that we had, no matter what they said, they always came back to, “Yeah, but he kept his word. He kept his word to that woman.” So in a way, I read it correctly from the very beginning. Which is that they would forgive me for being either a nasty prick, or a this, or a womanizer, misogynous. Or whatever the hell you want to call me. But I felt like I had a license to do that, because—one, Quentin’s seal of approval. And two, I just didn’t want to conventionally—when Quentin and I watched that Savage Seven together for the first time—we were watching it in 2001—the one thing that he was really impressed with, and I guess I was too, was the idea that the lead actor and the lead character in one scene was a good guy. Then he turns into a bad guy in the next scene. Then back to a good guy. You know. So I was always interested in how much you can play with an audience, knowing what the criteria is for motion pictures, lead-wise. How much you can play with. And I felt like, “I think I can get away with murder with this one.” Well, I want to see if I can or not, you know? So that’s why I played it the way I played it. I didn’t want to schmaltz up anything. I didn’t want to wear any emotion on my sleeve. I didn’t want to ever even indicate that it meant anything to me, whether anybody ever acknowledged that it was a good thing that I had done for this woman, keeping my word. When really, what difference would it have made, if I didn’t keep my word, except to me? That would be the only difference. You know, it’s not that kind of a world, in the world that I created for this thing, where it would have made any difference to anybody. So I felt like—“Let’s just try it.” And let’s see how meaningful me taking that necklace is off at the end, and moving on. You know? But I didn’t want to—I guess what I didn’t want to do was make a big deal about any of it. Pistolero knows what he has to do.
It’s like the bike that I’ve got in the thing. My bike is the nastiest-looking bike of anybody in the movie. Nasty in the sense that it looks like—it’s the only one that nobody worked on, you know? But what I asked Justin Kell, who was our bike guy, to do, is—the bike that I want for me is, I don’t want it to be at all pretty. I want Michael Madsen’s bike to be pretty. I want the appearance of it to be pretty. I want my bike to look like it’s ridden 100,000 miles. It can ride another 100,000 miles, and then it’s always going to get you to wear you want to go. And I felt like that’s what Pistolero is to me. You know, it’s not—he’s not into the appearance of things. And it just came into play.
Getting back to the nothingness thing. I was a little bit of a philosophy major when I went to UCLA. So I had been influenced by Schopenhauer and Kant’s notions of the numina and the phenomena. So I felt like Pistolero should be the essence of things, which would be the numina. And the thing that’s invisible. And let everybody else take care of the thing that has to do with appearance.
PF: To sustain the visual look of this movie, and keeping with the tone of the film that was exemplified during the ’60s and ’70s, how important was it for you to try and keep the budget low, so that the film’s visual look would appear that it was low budget?
LB: [laughs] Well, I didn’t have to work too hard about that. But, what was driving me forward was that Bob Weinstein said, “If you keep the budget on this level,” he will not interfere with me on any way, shape or form, creatively. Nothing creatively will—he will not say one more word to me regarding creative aspects of the film, if I keep it at this budget. So I was hell-bent on making sure nobody said anything to me about anything. And I did. No one said one word to me about anything. Probably in—I don’t know. Probably in movie history, I don’t know anybody who’s had such carte blanche. I mean, look, I had to do it for a certain price. But I got to make the movie that I wanted to make, without any interference from anybody. You know, a lot of it had to do with just the presence of the idea—let’s say the presence of the idea of Quentin Tarantino. That nobody really wanted to fuck with him, and in turn didn’t want to fuck with me, because they were fucking with me. So, that was really, really an extra advantage. I didn’t play that, but I was aware of it. I was just aware of it very early on, that nobody was going to fuck with me.
PF: When you were writing this, did you always intend to act in this movie?
LB: Quentin ordered me to do that. In other words, I did—no, he said, “Larry. You’re starring in this movie, okay? You are starring in it. You’re writing it, and you’re directing it, and that’s what you’re doing, okay?
PF: So how did that influence your writing, when you know you’re going to be starring in it?
LB: Well, I’m writing certain things in a very pure way for myself. Meaning that I don’t have to please anybody. And to this day, the only person that I really felt I had to please—I mean, I wanted to honor my word to Bob Weinstein, regarding keeping the budget exactly what we agreed on. But in terms of—the only person I had to please in that sense, although he wasn’t acting for it, but—but I felt I should, is Quentin Tarantino. So when we got to Sundance and we had the screenings, the first thing he said to me when I got there, he said, “You know, you hit the ball out of the park here, man.” That was it. So that’s all that I really wanted to hear from—let me put it to you another way. If everybody loved this movie and Quentin didn’t, that would be really bad for my brain. If Quentin is the only person that loves this movie and no one else does, that’s actually good—that’d be okay for my brain.
PF: Tell me about the rest of trying to get this cast. And the irony, I suppose, of getting Dennis Hopper to be in this film.
LB: Yeah. Michael Madsen I’d known about 15 years. He was easy. I just made a phone call to him. Dennis—you know, 20 minute walk and chat, and he—he loved the script. Dennis really loved the script. And he was in, after 20 minutes. I mean, I’m an actor, so I know how to—something that I want, I know how to get, okay? Especially when things are stacked in my favor. It’s not so difficult to do. David Carradine, I’d developed a relationship because of all the Kill Bill’s events. And he was—just jumped on board. Leonor, I just wanted to make sure that she was comfortable with what I wanted in terms of the sensuality and sexuality. So that worked out. You know, we had many, many conversations about that. So that worked out good, once I felt like—well, I felt, she’s a woman. I liked her woman-ness, more than any—I didn’t want a girl for that part. I wanted a woman. So she was perfect. And Vinnie, of course—I instantly liked Vinnie Jones the second he showed up. So it was easy. It was all easy. The casting was, like, really, really easy.
PF: Are you working on—how big a role are you playing in developing the DVD? Particularly the BluRay.
LB: Oh, no, we’re done. In other words, I did all the stuff already. I did all the audio. There’s great extras. We’ve got a lot of cool extras on that thing, you know. But I did the audio commentary about three weeks ago, and that worked out really good. And I also gave, like, a five-hour interview. And they’ll use whatever parts of it they want when they put it together, for the different things. They’ve got a lot of segments. They’ve got “The Women of Hell Ride,” “The Bikes of Hell Ride.” There’s a lot of different segments on it.
PF: Have you seen the BluRay visual quality of the movie?
LB: No, I haven’t seen it yet.
PF: What are you looking for as an actor these days?
LB: You know, once I started writing my own screenplays for myself as an actor—I did this—I would say the turning point is somewhere around ‘85. Nineteen eighty-five is where I woke up one day—I don’t know where it came from. But I just woke up and announced to my wife, I said, “I’m never going to do another person’s movie, except for—I’ll only star in my own movies that I’ve written. And she looked at me crazy. She said, “You never wrote a script before.” I said, “Today’s the day.” And I did. I actually wrote a script in about three weeks, and it was actually—it was one of those lucky things. The first meeting I had, they optioned it. So that was the beginning for me, knowing that I could do that. Then I wrote another one in a month, and then I had another one out there. But they were like—it was funny. Because a lot of people that were interested in me as a writer, just hiring me for different things, didn’t know anything about me as an actor. And it was an odd mindset. Alberto Grimaldi was a great producer. He did the Sergio Leone westerns. He produced the Sergio Leone westerns. He was doing an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest. I don’t know whether you’re familiar or not. But Stephen Frears had read one of my scripts and suggested to Alberto Grimaldi that I am the perfect writer to do this thing, right? So I went over to—to show you where my mindset was. It was really—to this day it makes me laugh more than just about anything. I go over to Alberto Grimaldi. And within about ten minutes, he won’t let me or my manager leave until he gives me a check. He won’t let us leave the office. He wants me to do it. You know, a lot of it had to do with Stephen Frears. But he understood that I really knew a lot about Dashiell Hammett. Dashiell Hammett was a major influence on my writing style. But—the first meeting that I had after he wrote me the check, was, I’m sitting in the hallway, and he says to one of his assistants, he says, “Is the writer here yet?” I go, “Oh my God. They got a writer here for this thing.” I said, “I thought it was just going to be me talking to him.” I didn’t realize he was talking about me. That was one of the weirdest things to think about. In other words, I got—I was hired as the writer. But my brain was still thinking—you know, I’m acting in movies. And I didn’t think that when a person says, “Is the writer still here”—I thought he meant, like, “I gotta talk to another writer about the writing.” You know? So it was like, hysterical that I hadn’t—actually, it was the first time that I made the transition from going, “No.” Here’s the guy, Alberto Grimaldi, one of the great producers of all time. He did Last Tango in Paris. He did Good, Bad, and the Ugly. This guy is actually—I am a writer to Alberto Grimaldi. You know, which was, like, quite a bit—it was like, an honor. But I had to come to the conclusion that that’s my new identity. So it was good that I was an actor all that time, and the acting aspect of it, of course, I would never give up acting. Because I think it’s a good way of going through life no matter what. Because I think it makes your brain very, very fluid. You just are very—your identity is very flexible. Which I think—it’s more healthy, in the long run. I think a fixed identity is very—first of all, I believe it’s delusional. But the more you’ve got to protect the delusion of that, I think the unhealthier it becomes. Whereas an actor is just used to changing so quickly. That I just felt like, it’s a very healthy thing to do.
PF: Are you writing at the moment?
LB: Yeah, I’ve got a number of things that I’m going to do. Sweating Bullets is next. I’ll do the same thing I did with Hell Ride, all four things. And then after that I’ve got a project that is way the fuck out there, called The One-Way Ride. And it’s kind of like—oh, it’s about sex and death, but like—it’s out there, okay? It’s really, really out there.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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