Next Tuesday Fox Home Entertainment releases a revamped DVD of the 1971 cult classic Vanishing Point in both standard definition and Blu-ray editions. Both look very fine indeed, but if you've got the equipment, the Blu-ray is the one to get. The film itself is an oddball piece that's very much of its time. Point is the story of an enigmatic driver, one "Kowalski" (played by Barry Newman, seen below with Lee Weaver), who, for reasons that remain known only to himself even after we get his back story via a series of flashbacks, is compelled to attempt a Denver-to-San Francisco jaunt...in 15 hours. Naturally his efforts attract the attention of law enforcement officials in a number of states, not to mention a blind radio DJ named "Super Soul" who becomes Kowalski's cheerleader and confessor. A combination crazy chase movie, Easy Rider-esque examination of "America," and a one-part-existentialism/one-part-mystic philosophical statement, Vanishing Point remains both compelling...and breathtakingly beautiful. Director Richard C. Sarafian followed the film with another picture chockablock with memorable imagery, Man In The Wilderness, and went on to direct and act in many other pictures, but Point remains a unique high for him. We recently spoke about it with the director, who turns 79 this year. Some spoilers are revealed in the interview, just so you know.
SCR: Vanishing Point is a movie that has fantastic imagery; you worked here with the first rate cinematographer, John Alonzo. The screenplay was written, under a pseudonym, “Guillermo Cain,” by the great Cuban writer Gabriel Cabrera Infante. I wonder if you'd just give me a little bit of the background as how this very unusual film came into being, and then maybe let's talk about the process by which you created the visuals.
SARAFIAN: Yeah. Symbolizing death, and warning him that where we are now in our existence here is an absurd bind. I mean, we're all moving through this dimension at our own speed, some of us, like Kowalski, faster than the others, you know, on to another level. That's how I thought in terms of his ultimate so-called demise, and that in terms of him moving on and to another plane. That there's more to it than this.
SARAFIAN: It was a joy. I was with a short crew, 18 man crew, we were able to travel from hundreds of miles a day to get the right light, to get the right location and to do the photography. We didn't have any money but we had an exceptional crew and John Alonzo, of course, collaborating with him was like …well, without him it would have been a half pair of scissors. And it was almost instinctive. We did a lot of improvisation, particularly the scene in the desert with the prospector. Delaney and Bonnie and Friends, when that group came out to the desert for their scene, they didn't want to do the scene because it was against their beliefs--so I rewrote it on the spot.
I mean, I got to a point where Zanuck called me and he says, you know, you're going over budget, you got to help me, cause Mom and Dad, they're threatening to fire me. And I said, well Mr. Zanuck, I'll do what I can. I went back and did a lot of trimming of the script. And I took 20 pages out of it. He had tears in his eyes at the moment. He ultimately did get fired.
Max Balchowsky, who was my mechanic, is unheralded; he kept the cars alive. He exchanged parts at night. But he was famous during the early 60's from building the car called Old Yeller 2. Carey Loftin, the stunt coordinator, of course, famous for Bullitt before that I had met him when I did a documentary for the National Safety Council in the early 50's. But there's no question, I mean so many directors, they all have the great crew. But how many can say with an 18 man crew? And no money; $600,000, $700,000 below the line doing a studio movie. It was amazing. But it was a joy.
SCR: Now about the car, the white Dodge Challenger that Kowalski drives. Quentin Tarantino, in the picture he made last year, Death Proof, paid homage to Vanishing Point and particularly with regard to the car. You're thanked in the credits of that film. Did you consult with Tarantino at all on this re-release of Vanishing Point?
SARAFIAN: No, I'm disappointed. He had an opportunity to participate in the Blu-Ray but walked away from it. But the car…well, the car came about partially because of the actor. At first I balked at Barry Newman being the star, ‘cause I had other possibilities and I felt…all I wanted was the adult male that looked like he belonged behind the wheel. And I had several major actors in mind that might have made a difference. It didn't turn out that way. It came back to me that either I use Barry Newman or Zanuck wasn't going to make the picture. I said, “Well, Mr. Zanuck, I'm going to make the car the star.” And he said, “I knew you'd see it my way.” And he took me out to the parking lot and he showed me a whole bunch of cars that were out there. At that moment I didn't know what the hell I was looking at. The final decision came from stunt coordinator Carey Loftin, and Chrysler, and his choice was the Dodge Challenger, which was a 440 V-8 without the hemi. So there again, here was a challenge of making that car perform what it had to do at that time. And Max Balchowsky of course being the genius mechanic who was able to make whatever modifications necessary in terms of suspension and more, because no cars were actually built to do what we were making them do! I think we used up four. Four or five cars. I'd like to own one today. I heard one went at auction for a million.