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A-Ron’s Film Rewind Presents: “8 Million Ways To Die” (1986) – The 35th Anniversary

1986’s “8 Million Ways To Die” had everything to be the next L.A. crime noir of it’s time and become a bona fide box office success. It starred Jeff Bridges (son of “SeaHunt” star Lloyd Bridges), who was coming off a string of successful films including “Against All Odds”, “StarMan” and “Jagged Edge”. Bridges was also four years past his appearance, starring in Walt Disney’s groundbreaking “Tron”. Jeff Bridges’ co-star Rosanna Arquette, was coming off of “Desperately Seeking Susan” and Martin Scorsese’s “After Hours”. While Andy Garcia, playing the films big bad drug dealer villain had not reached success until a year after “8 Million Ways To Die”, when he starred in Brian De Palma’s classic “The Untouchables”. 

If the acting talent alone doesn’t attract you to “8 Million Ways To Die”, then the screenwriting talent should. The script was written by filmmaker and screenwriter Oliver Stone and co-written by an uncredited Robert Towne (more on that later). Oliver Stone who by the time had written “8 Million Ways To Die”, was already one of the most powerful names in Hollywood. Having penned the screenplay’s for “Midnight Express”, “Conan The Barbarian”, “Scarface”, “Year Of The Dragon” and “Salvador”.

“8 Million Ways to Die” also turned out to be the final film of one of the most endearing filmmakers from the New Hollywood era. Joining filmmakers like Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg and Brian DePalma and while they all may have made more recognizable films during the 1970s, Hal Ashby had a streak of human scale masterpieces that are truly unprecedented. Beginning with 1970’s “The Landlord” and ending with 1979’s “Being There”, while “Harold and Maude”, “The Last Detail” and “Shampoo” came in-between. 

Then, almost overnight Ashby was out of fashion with Hollywood. When the 1980s came around, Ashby’s modest humanism in films like “Second-Hand Hearts” and “The Slugger’s Wife” had failed to connect with audiences. The 80’s also saw Ashby’s stature as a filmmaker labeling him as “trouble”. By the time Ashby got the job directing “8 Million Ways to Die” it was seen as a last ditch effort for Ashby to make a hit and become a fallen master’s attempt at redemption.

Jeff Bridges plays Matthew Scudder in “8 Million Ways To Die” who is a private investigator in the long-running series of novels written by Lawrence Block. Scudder was introduced in 1976’s “The Sins of the Fathers” as an alcoholic ex-cop working as an unlicensed private investigator in the famed neighborhood of Hell’s Kitchen. The novel “A Walk Among the Tombstones” published in 1992, which also featured Scudder as the title character was made into a film and released in 2014, written and directed by Scott Frank (“The Lookout”) with Liam Neeson playing the lead role. 

Block’s novels featuring Matthew Scudder totaled 17 books, with the last being “A Drop of the Hard Stuff”, published in May 2011. Scudder’s backstory is more crime noir being an alcoholic former NYPD detective who resigned when a stray bullet from his gun kills a seven year-old. The guilt-ridden Scudder accepts work as an unlicensed private detective from the nearest barstool. His drink of choice? Coffee laced with bourbon.

For “8 Million Ways To Die”, Oliver Stone’s script relocates Scudder to Los Angeles, because Hal Ashby felt more at home in California versus New York City. Stone made him a member of the L.A. Sheriff’s Department, constantly drenched in sweat, he’s the definition of an alcoholic and always sports a Hawaiian shirt. For the film Oliver Stone, Hal Ashby and Jeff Bridges all represent Scudder’s alcoholism and recovery in a very straight forward approach.

Whether it’s the novel or film version of Scudder, he is very much a product of the ’70s and ’80s. Ashby used the Block novel (and the initial screen adaptation by Oliver Stone, David Lee Henry and the Robert Towne rewrites) as a jumping-off point for his take on the modern L.A. noir. “8 Million Ways to Die” has car chases, intense verbal showdowns, shoot outs and all the things required in your standard cops and drugs thriller. Ashby directs all of these things with a no fuss finesse. While there are shoot outs, they aren’t Ashby’s first priority as much, as seeing his characters under action and seeing them do something against their will or under their better judgment.

Before Hal Ashby was hired to direct, director Walter Hill (“48 Hours”, “The Warriors”) was attached to direct, with Nick Nolte in the starring role. The project ended up falling through and was later reworked in a joint deal between producer Steve Roth and producing company Sales Organization (known as PSO) to star Jeff Bridges and Jamie Lee Curtis. Curtis was eventually replaced by Rosanna Arquette, although singer and actress Cher was in consideration for the role.

Even though set in L.A., production was originally to shoot on location in New York City, but would have pushed the budget to $16.5 million and filmmakers considered moving the action to Miami and Chicago, before shooting it all in Los Angeles, which lowered costs by $1.5 million. Stone’s modified script was ultimately thrown out, as he was already committed to directing the James Woods drama “Salvador” and was unavailable for the films future rewrites. 

As a result, producers hired the legendary screenwriter Robert Towne; writer of “Chinatown”, “Days Of Thunder”, “The Yakuza”, “The Firm”, “Mission Impossible” and “The Two Jakes”. Robert Towne provided uncredited revisions and despite production delays, Towne had completed less than half of the script by the time principal photography was set to begin in late July of 1985, which left Ashby to frantically work out the rest of the story on set each day. This improvisational process irritated studio executives, who demanded to see completed script pages and Towne eventually completed the script work in mid August 1985 and was paid a fee of $250,000 (a quarter of his usual amount). 

Before Towne was brought on to replace Oliver Stone on re-writes. Hal Ashby started to write his own script for “8 Million Ways to Die”. Ashby worked from what Stone had scripted and the original novel by Lawrence Block as well as based on his own research. The fifty pages that Ashby wrote had neither the fiercely evocative color of Stone’s screenplay nor did it have particularly exciting dialogue. Ashby gave the fifty pages he wrote to producer Stephen J. Roth (who said he liked them) but abruptly stopped work on his screenplay when he discovered that, without his knowledge, PSO had hired R. Lance Hill (he opted to use his pseudonym of ‘David Lee Henry’ for his work on the film), to rewrite Stone’s script. Ashby, who had confidence in his own screenplay, felt hurt and told Roth, “I don’t think I have ever had that one happen to me before”. Ashby was further upset on learning that he was cut out of the rewriting process completely.

Two weeks after shooting was completed, Ashby was fired. It’s said that Ashby’s disregard for genre tropes is just one of the factors that led to his firing after shooting was completed. Ashby handed the negatives to his frequent collaborator Robert Lawrence, who moved them to another editing facility. However, the studio decided to hire Stuart Pappé instead and Lawrence refused to participate. Pappé assumed the job without consulting Ashby, who believed he was allowed to determine the final cut once post-production was completed. 

Although Ashby pushed for arbitration with the Directors Guild of America, the motion was rejected and Ashby only received monetary compensation for his involvement in the film. Oliver Stone has expressed with how displeased he was with the final version of the film that turned out to have little to do with his original script. At one point, a draft of the script contained a huge gun battle climax in an airport which would have inflated the budget to at least $16 million.

It’s known that the production company grew unhappy with what Ashby was shooting on “8MWTD”. Ashby may not have had a hit in years, but his reputation as an actors’ director was still untarnished. That’s how he was able to attract people like Jeff Bridges, Rosanna Arquette and Andy Garcia to the project. Stories of Ashby allowing actors to improvise on earlier films had reached the point of urban legend status by the time of “8MWTD”. It is rumored that Ashby discarded the script and had the actors improvise all their lines. This seems highly unlikely and hasn’t been proven.

The final edit of “8MWTD” was done without Ashby’s involvement and this has led to the final film not representing his vision. Ashby would’ve chosen different takes and allowed for more character development than the released theatrical cut. But what is presented in the theatrical cut isn’t awful either, as most critics have perceived it to be. In fact “8 Million Ways to Die” currently has a zero percent rotten score on the rotten tomatoes website. Ashby’s film is one of the best films you’ve never seen and there really is no cult following around “8MWTD” and there should be one. But if there isn’t one by now, then there likely will never be. It is worthy of rediscovery and it may not be his finest swan song of Ashby’s career, but for me it’s still a great one for Ashby.

Several significant changes were dictated in the editing room, such as the addition of 200 lines of dialogue written for actor Jeff Bridges to record in looping sessions. Rosanna Arquette told LA Weekly in 1986, that important scenes explaining her characters backstory were omitted or altered to change the character’s demeanor, while composer James Newton Howard was instructed to rewrite his score to resemble the soundtrack of the popular television series, “Miami Vice”. Producer Steve Roth blamed himself for the outcome and regretted going into business with PSO. Meanwhile, PSO founder Mark Damon claimed the actors were involved in the editing process and changes were made based on the actors comments.

According to producer Lawrence Block, “The set was not a happy place”. Ashby’s style of directing, according to Block, involved letting the actors do takes where they had overacted their emotions, before bringing them back in for subsequent takes. Since Ashby did not have final cut, only some of these “dialed up” takes were used in the film.

For Bridges, “8 Million Ways to Die” represented an interesting entry in his filmography at the time. Signing up for a quirky cops and drugs drama is not the kind of thing an actor does when he has that much momentum going in Hollywood as Bridges had at the time. But Bridges’ inherent goodness is what the movie needs and is in keeping with Ashby’s fascination with broken men putting themselves back together. In the opening scenes Bridges is sporting his “King Kong” look. He isn’t really given much to do in the scenes of him falling down drunk. But when the movie picks up after Scudder has been sober for six months, Bridges (now sporting what looks like William Hurt’s mustache from “Body Heat”), settles into the role and carries us through the more unsavory sections of the film. 

Scudder comes across as a joyless prude, compared to the swaggering coke dealer Angel Maldonado (Andy Garcia), who has a snow cone machine built into his limousine or Sunny’s pimp Chance (Randy Brooks), whose hilltop mansion boasts a miniature railroad, where the climatic shoot out happens. The scenes between Bridges and Garcia are real good guy can bad guy and are great. It’s something that Oliver Stone really wanted, telling producer Lawrence Block that he wanted a “Mr. Big” antagonist for Scudder.

Like a scene where Scudder repeatedly attempts to buy into Angel’s drug business. Angel seems amused, then angry, then unreasonably confides that he murdered Sunny to send a message to others. The scene devolves into a banal exchange of threats and endless f’ you’s. Or an intense standoff in a warehouse, when Scudder has recovered Angel’s cocaine and has rigged all 125 kilos with gasoline, threatening to set it on fire if Angel doesn’t hand over Sarah. Scudder in a verbal showdown, screaming back and forth to “Cut her loose” and “Give us the coke”.

Arquette, Bridges, Brooks, and Garcia all have strong moments in the film. While Alexandra Paul (best known as the virgin Connie Swail from “Dragnet”) is miscast as Sunny, the sex worker who hires Scudder to protect her. She is just too innocent looking, but that changes as soon as she’s in Scudder’s house as Sunny attempts to seduce him by delivering true Oliver Stone dialogue that I can’t put in print here. 

Alexandra Paul said in an interview years later that when she first auditioned for the roll of the call girl, she didn’t think they would cast her because she had been playing the sweet girl next door types up to that point and didn’t think she would be sexy enough. But they kept calling her back, she finally gave a screen test and they hired her. When asked if having to perform totally nude made her nervous, she said it did at first because she’d never been naked in front of a group of people before, especially men. 

But she really wanted the role and would do anything for it. She also said her acting teacher at the time told her to always be the bravest person in the room when she acted. So that’s exactly what she did. When the camera started rolling, she took off her robe and walked around the set stark naked knowing Jeff Bridges and the all male crew were staring at her. But she ignored them and read her lines as if she’d been performing nude her entire life.

It wouldn’t be until the following summer’s gangster throwback “The Untouchables” that people started to take notice of Andy Garcia, but for the few who saw him here it was impossible to shake his scary but sexy performance. While Tony Montana had yet to achieve a permanent place in pop culture, Angel Moldonado is clearly cut from the same cloth. He’s the complete opposite of Scudder. He’s clean-shaven, well-dressed, completely in control of every situation. 

When Angel seems to lose his temper we can see he is still in control of his emotions. It’s his hot tempered Latin drug dealer that makes him so frightening. He’s extremely likable but clearly a man not to be taken lightly. Garcia is clearly having a ball with the kind of young-actor role. I particularly like how Garcia uses his accent to purposely mispronounce certain characters’ names. Scudder becomes “Scooder,” and Sarah becomes “Sa-DAH”. 

Released or should I say…dumped, in the early part of the summer of 1986. The movie only received a VHS release in the United States after it died a quick death at the box office. It was finally released on Blu-ray for the first time on June 20th, 2017 by Kino Lorber. On a budget of $18,000,000, a huge amount by 1986 standards, this only grossed a disappointing $500,000. 

Maybe if the execs hadn’t taken the final cut away from Ashby he could have sculpted the footage into something that would have been welcomed by everyone. On paper it seemed as a can’t miss aggregation of success and talent. Veteran director Hal Ashby working with rising stars Jeff Bridges, Roseanna Arquette and Andy Garcia. The script written by Oliver Stone, was adapted from one of the most celebrated detective novels of the time. Ashby’s film tries to be the greatness that the L.A. noirs director Michael Mann (“Heat”) is so great at. Being cut from the same crime fiction playbook, “8 Million Ways To Die” still remains one of the great L.A. crime films that doesn’t get and/or never gets any love.

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About Aron Medeiros

Aron Medeiros
Aron Medeiros is the movie critic for Maui Watch. He lives on the beautiful island of Maui and is also a member of the elite Hawaii Film Critics Society and an active cast member of the NerdWatch pod cast. He is a 2003 graduate from King Kekaulike High School. His favorite film of all time is “Back To The Future”. He has worked at Consolidated Kaahumanu Theaters for nearly 13 years as a Sales Associate and making his way up to Assistant Manager. He has loved movies since he was a young boy, where his Grandfather started his love for the movies.

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