Vanishing Point

Richard Sarafian talks about the film, the potential remake and more

Richard Sarafian's 1971 film Vanishing Point has long been seen as a cult classic and now a whole new generation can experience the film when it's released on Blu-ray for the first time on February 24. I had the chance to speak with director Richard Sarafian over the phone about his film and here's what he had to say.

So how did this script first come to you? I heard you turned down a Robert Redford movie, Downhill Racer, to do this film.

Richard Sarafian: I turned down three movies: Downhill Racer, Serpico and Love Story. All because of my wife. She says, 'You don't want to do another cop story." And I said, 'No, I don't.' She said, 'You don't want to do Love Story. It's corny.' Vanishing Point, she said, is a director's piece, that will give me a chance to really stretch and get into pure movie-making. I said, 'Well, what do you mean by that?' She said, 'Well, it's got a lot to say.' Downhill Racer, I was going to do it and get into the essence of speed. Why was Jean-Claude Killy, at that time, faster than anybody else? She said, 'Well, allegorically, you've got a shot with this thing. You can really get into the dance.' Well, the dance is now, you know. It's the same dance. It's all an absurd dance. What's going on today is absurd, right? Don't you think so? Completely absurd. I figured, well, we're all traveling through this planet, each one at our own speed, hopefully, to another destiny from beyond the road here.

So I read that you had originally cast Gene Hackman for Kowalski but Richard Zanuck insisted on Barry Newman. Why was he so insistent on Barry Newman and do you think it worked out for the best that way?

Richard Sarafian: I think a lot of that came out of Barry Newman, or his father's relationship with Sinatra. Zanuck was allowing me some choice, but I think ultimately, as the word came down, either to use Barry Newman or I wasn't going to make the picture. Why, that's a question etched deep in my heart. My paranoia is that, somehow, the mafia got into it. As far as Hollywood is concerned, if you're paranoid, you're right 98% of the time. I told Mr. Zanuck, 'I'm going to make the car the star.' He said, 'Sarafian, I knew you'd see it my way.'

So when you did start working with Barry, how did you enjoy working with him on the film?

Richard Sarafian: The best thing you can do with an actor is insert him and give him a sense of time and place. Put him behind the wheel and set up situations so I could get close-ups so the audience knew it was him driving. I had very little faith in him. Very little. He wasn't my concept of what I might have had, but it turned out great. When I had actors like George C. Scott, who wanted to do it. He had just finished Patton, you know, and he liked the script very much. Gene Hackman, I don't know. It would've been a different film maybe. Maybe the different actor might have brought another dimension to the film. I don't know. Probably not. All I wanted, actually, I think the stunt driver would've been OK. All you need to do in Vanishing Point, is it's a lot of driving places. All I cared for was to have an adult male sitting behind the wheel of that car and the rest of it is just going through the great West, which was an extraordinary experience for me because I don't know how many times I traveled that road with my camera, taking pictures of various times of day with John Alonzo.

So what was it like working with Cleavon Little and Dean Jagger in the film as well?

Richard Sarafian: Oh, they were great. We would go to these joints and have a couple of drinks and he'd get up and dance. With Dean Jagger, you could fold your arms and I think with most of the actors in this movie. You just sit there directing and watch them perform. He was terrific. He brought a dimension to the film, in terms of helping to make it real, giving it that texture. So many of the actors in it are non-actors. We brought them in from Hollywood, some of them, friends of the casting director, Mike McLean, who had just cast Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and other pictures and was at my side at all time. It had that texture. The movie had that bit of texture, the old faces peering out from the windows and it gave it an honest look.

I believe this new Blu-ray contains the scene deleted in the American version, with the hitchhiker played by Charlotte Rampling. Was that scene deleted for time reasons? I read that it was included in the U.K. release.

Richard Sarafian: After I left the picture, even though I had a promise from Zanuck to be able to shoot one of the sequences with Vicky Medlin, I think, a guy by the name of Elmo Williams came in as the head of the studio and took Zanuck's place. Elmo Williams' claim to fame was doing the hard cutting for High Noon and made it work after Kramer and Zimmerman failed. He came in and brought in the element of the clock. So, for him, that scene was an anomaly, I guess. I never had a chance to talk to him, to Elmo.

The film has really achieved a pretty big cult status and it's been referenced in music and other films like Grindhouse. When you were making this film, did you have any idea this would retain that kind of status for this many years?

Richard Sarafian: Oh, I had absolutely no idea that this thing would survive all these years. We were just trying to make the day. It was a party. We worked hard in the hot sun and we partied at night. You just hope, like everything, that you blow the audience a few kisses and try to fulfill your vision of what it's about, you know, freedom, an endless road and let the cards fall where they may. I had no idea. I was finishing up with Richard Harris and I found out it was playing at a local theater, the Odion. I ran down and there were lines around the block. People playing music. I was like a child. I showed them my license, 'I directed this movie.' (Laughs) Can I get in free? He said, 'Go on,' and Richard Harris was jumping up and down with the audience. I mean, every director should have that moment, of seeing his work and being appreciated. I had no idea that this would happen. I never knew then how good I was. The Italian press said, 'Sarafian, you've gotta work with us. We appreciate you, but not America.' The critics, Pauline Kael and Judith Crisp, they destroyed it every chance they got.

Oh yeah. Pauline Kael was a tough one.

Richard Sarafian: Yeah. They're trying to make their money, you know. She is tough. I made one little film, years before that, called Andy, about a retarded 40-year-old. It was an experimental film for Universal and the result of that was a critic in New York said, 'Well, as far as discovering new talent, that question is open. As far as discovering un-talent, here it is.' I went through a lot of my career being told that I was a loser and struggling to find a next gig. But I'm not feeling down on myself. It's been a great ride. I've been fortunate to help create some classics, one especially, The Twilight Zone, The Wild Wild West the pilot, so it's been a good ride, and it's not over.

I read that Richard Kelly is writing a remake to Vanishing Point for Fox. Have you heard anything about that or will you be involved with that film at all?

Richard Sarafian: Oh, I see. They're writing another Vanishing Point? They did one before and it was a failure. I know nothing about it. Nobody calls me. You're the only guy. As far as I'm concerned, why piss on a Rembrandt?

(Laughs) That's a good point.

Richard Sarafian: Why make it more linear or whatever? It bothers me. It really bothers me. Leave it alone. There was a possibility that I might do something to help them and myself get another job, make more money, they said, 'No, we won't touch it. It's an archive film, Richard.' Whatever that meant was we don't release it alone. As far as I'm concerned, leave it alone. I have just written a film about drag racing. I just finished it this week.

Yeah. I was just going to ask you if you have anything in the works right now.

Richard Sarafian: Yeah. It's about a couple of migrants, a couple of Mexicans who come to California in the 50s who build their own drag cars. I just finished it. It's a very inspirational film, fish-out-of-water, and it's in the early days of drag racing so there is the challenge of taking eight or nine seconds and making it into entertainment. I don't think it'll ever come up to Vanishing Point, but it's about something. It's about pride, it's about all the love and devotion that goes into something. There is no pride in a drag racer, or there wasn't at the time. It's a story that I learned something. I'm excited about that, but I've been taking some of the blood stains off of the script that I just finished.

So will you plan on directing that as well then?

Richard Sarafian: I think I'd be the best director for it, yeah, even though I limp around with a cane. But I've been down on the canvas recently. I've had three operations but I'm up and yeah, I can direct from a chair as well as most people can today. I didn't realize I was that good until now.

Well, that's about all I have for you, Richard. Thanks a lot for your time.

Richard Sarafian: Thank you.

Vanishing Point hits the shelves on Blu-ray on February 24.