Going Beserk over Billy Jack
Q & A with Tom Laughlin and the cast of the revamped classic 1970's cult film
(2009 Los Angeles Film Festival)
AMAM-MAGAZINE acknowledges the passing of Tom Laughlin in 2013
Introduction by Tom Laughlin and Delores "Doty" Taylor:
Tom Laughlin: I wanna first thank the L.A. Film Festival and everyone here, and I want to especially thank my daughter Christina and my son Frank for the enormous effort it took to put this together. (Applause) And, of course, my daughter Theresa who flew out on a 'red-eye' to be here, and my amazing cast members who took the time to come in. So, I'm really grateful to you all for one incredibly great Father's Day present.
I have to admit to you as I watched the film, every artist whether you're writing an essay or a poem, knows that the art, in fact, never transcends what's in your mind, it always changes and it's different in some way. I gotta admit in this case that's a good thing, that's a darn good film! I am very grateful for the team that created it. (Applause)
Above all, I am very grateful that God gave me this woman. (Applause) Not only to be my wife for over 55 years, also to be my co-star, and...my god you're magnificent! (Applause)
Marlon Brando saw us at a (Film) Festival and told us, after viewing what Delores (Jean) did after the rape scene, "That's the standard by acting out of our own psyche that every one of us actors has to measure up to." And, John Travolta said at Barbara Streisand's wedding, he came up to us and exchanged congratulations for the work and all that, then he turned to Doty and told her, "You changed my life," John was weeping, "I've been an actor since I was a kid and you formed in me first a standard of acting by portraying every quality I ever wanted in a woman, and then I finally found it all in my wife Kelly." He looked over at his loving wife and tears came down his face.
I can tell you, in all the time we've been married, never once was there a thought of divorce, but, murder...? Only about once a month though. (Laughs)
I was courting Delores at the University of South Dakota. She was from an incredibly small town in South Dakota, just 1200 people or so, and I went to visit her there. We went down to get some ice at a store, and on the way back I noticed there was all the poor, there were some abandoned trucks and cars and the poverty-stricken people were living in mere shacks in the stifling heat. I asked, "What the hell is this, they live out here in the heat and in the freezing winters?," she replied, "That's the Indians."
From the time she was a small girl, she'd grown up there right next to them. They would come to her house to ask if little Yellow Head could come out to play. So, she had a passion for them, and that's where we first got the inspiration that someone had to do something about this condition, it was a crusade of hers and we tried to do something for them. They were such marvelous people. (Applause)
Delores Taylor: We had so much fun (Filming) and we just really made it up as we went along, one of us would simply play off the other one. It was just a blast, it was just so much fun.
The idea for the progressive "Freedom School" in the film came from the successful Montesorri we opened up when we first came to Los Angeles. We had heard some interesting things about Montesorri, and we had kids, so we decided to open up one of our own. Tom went to Europe to try to bring back some teachers because there were none here, and we thought, "How the heck are we gonna bring them back here to America?" But, he was able to get four of them that came over. So, we opened up the school and it was absolutely wonderful. We started very small in a very small building and then all of a sudden, everything kind of exploded.
Tom Laughlin: Art Linkletter had a T.V. show and had heard we were gonna put on a conference at the Santa Monica Auditorium, he came in to the class with his big cameras and these kids wouldn't pay much attention to him, they just kept on doing their work.
Delores Taylor: Anyways, that's how it worked. All our kids were just so brilliant! (Applause)
Tom Laughlin: By the way, I wanted to comment...you never saw Doty nude in the picture, she would never do that...I'm proud to say that you can tell this because the girl in the picture had too big of a buttocks! (Laughs / Applause)
Questions & Answers
1) AMAM: Please tell us about some of the many behind-the-scenes obstacles you were faced with during the making and releasing of your "Billy Jack" films.
TL: There were so many of them. It took us seventeen years to write the script about the Natives, but no studio would touch it. At the time, no one wanted a film about them...Indians were poison at the box office.
So, I came home one night and Doty told me she had heard a report of the Hells Angels, a biker gang who'd been accused of raping a young girl in a small Northern California town, so we decided to make a picture called "The Born Losers," a film based loosely on that.
Then, hopefully we'd get the money to make the (Billy Jack) movie.
It was all her idea, and we did it.
Also lemme tell you, at first she refused to act in it, so I told her I had a cast and invited them all up to the house for rehearsals and they all came up for reading and stuff. I asked Doty to read the lines with us until the actor I'd hired could finally get there. And then, the day before we started it, I informed her that the actor I hired quit. (Laughs)
At that time, we had a deal with 20th Century Fox, where one of my idols, Darrell Zanuck, was sitting at the mixing console with me back in New York where he took a look at the footage we'd made. And, when the scene where Billy first comes in to camera view came up, he reaches over towards me and said, "You son, are a film-maker." Higher praise I'll never get!
Finally, after long battles over rewriting screenplays, we went through three studios (AIP, 20th Century Fox, Warner Brothers) trying to get the picture made. When we made the picture, Ted Ashley of Warner Brothers, took me in a room and he said the studio hated the picture.
We had ten screenings around the country and we had preview cards that were better than any picture had, in my knowledge. We had over 80% of the people saying they'd recommend it and 65% saying they'd see it again, now that's phenominal!
But, nobody from the studio paid any attention.
So, my lawyer sent a copy of it to Ted Ashley's to see it at his home, and while he hated it, his wife Linda loved it! So, she snuck a print to Steve Ross at Warner Brothers and he loved it too. Steve said that he'd once told Ted that he would never interfere with any of the pictures, but, because he really loved it so much, it was the only one he ever made Ted Ashley take.
The head of distributions at Warner said, "Don't worry, I'm gonna save ya," and he opened it up in a porno theater! We literally had to take it off at the Pussycat Theater! (Laughs)
So, I went to court in Chicago and fought to regain control of it. They had 50 lawyers, while Doty and I had only two representing us, and we were sueing Warner and NBC over it! (Laughs / Applause)
After two years, we finally got back the ownership rights to distribute it and we decided to do our own campaign.
2) AMAM: The way your production company chose to distribute "Billy Jack" was considered way ahead of its time, debuting it in multiple theaters all at once on the same day, revolutionizing the way movies were released, can you please elaborate on that process?
TL: Yes. So, we went back and forth with more than one film company until we could finally afford to buy back all the publishing rights to our own film and began to distribute it ourselves, totally unheard of in those days. We had a unique way of doing market research and decided to do things different than the way most films were being released and distributed...most making their debut in one main dowtown theater in each major city, but we found if you'd open up in 1200 smaller theaters all at once, which allowed much more people to see it all over the place, it would do a killing.
For two years we tried to sell this idea, but no one was buying it.
For the first time in our lives we now had some money, so we decided to back our beliefs by making 1200 prints of the film, it was beyond anything anyone had ever heard of before in the industry, and opened it in 1200 different theaters on the same day. This hadn't ever happened up to then, it just wasn't being done, this was a revolutionary concept at that time.
It made possible what was then called a "mega-multiple blitzkrieg" distribution campaign. We spent around seven million dollars to promote our film, which would be like seventy million today, on the ads and so forth. We broke every box-office record (Produced for $360K, going on to sell 50,000,000 tickets!) ever in the business and made it possible, for the first time, for films to do hundreds of millions at the box-office in the U.S. alone!
We are pleased and proud to have made that contribution to the business. (Ovation)
By the way, my son Frank is responsible for putting the films together on DVD.
He once said, "Every star that gets $20 Million for a film owes a piece of it to my father." (Applause)
3) AMAM: Will there finally be another film added to the legacy, are the rumors true?
TL: We are about to make another "Billy Jack" film, and our claim is very modest...it's gonna be unlike any film ever made in the history of the industry! (Laughs) I invite you, perhaps by next week, to go to our website to view about 1/2 hour of video of the scenes we've already shot for it. (Applause)
4) AMAM: I just hope it won't be starring Tom Cruise! (Laughs) Why has it taken so long to finally produce another sequel?
TL: We needed a good script. We are currently looking for the right finances to complete and distribute it. I was gonna say that it will be the best film we've ever made, but after watching the original again tonight, how can it possibly be? (Applause)
5) AMAM: Will you please reminisce about your martial arts training with the late great Bong Soo Han, did you enjoy learning Hapkido for your films?
TL: Doty (Delores) and I took our kids to the Palisades park in Santa Monica for the 4th of July fireworks and this Korean fellow was doing a martial arts demonstration. I thought to myself, that's it! I don't want the usual Hollywood fighting stuntmen, this is the kind of fighting I wanted in my film.
I worked with Bong Soo Han for about seven months to become proficient enough for the film.
By the way, I got very good, superbly good, but not good enough to do that kick to the face without some accidents. I could do that kick, but I might hit you in the jaw or the nose. That's why I am concerned about using stuntmen, they'll do it no matter what, even risking themselves to get it done. But, I remember practicing that cresent kick with Bong, it was amazing, amazing how his foot would flash only a fraction of an inch right in front of your face!
When we were filming that sequence in the park, I had no idea it would become some sort of a legendary status thing, we were just doing what felt right at the moment. I knew it was gonna be superb, but only thought about what was gonna be right for the film while we were doing it.
PeopIe still quote some of the dialogue, so I have to credit my son Frank for giving me the line in the scene where I told Bernard to "drive your car into the lake or break your elbow." We now have a shirt for sale on our site that Corvette owners love, that says "1-2-3, floor it!" (Applause)
6) AMAM: If asked, would you wish to donate Billy Jack's trademark hat to the Smithsonian Museum?
TL: We have turned down the Smithsonian many times. Maybe one day my children will feel different about it and decide to donate it?
AMAM: You can always give them a 'hat' to satisfy them! (Laughs)
TL: After the first picture, that hat was always in demand and it kept disappearing from the set. I had to hire a guy whose only task was to hold on to that darn hat to keep it from being stolen, while I was directing.
7) AMAM: In the Commentaries recorded for "The Trial of Billy Jack" DVD you speak of a dream you had that may've been related to the snake scenes in that film, could it have actually been a sub-concious bad memory of dealing with certain 'Hollywood' studio executives?
TL: What Hollywood executives are you referring to? (Laughs)
8) AMAM: In addition to your many connections in Hollywood, you also have a history with famed director Robert Altman, in fact, you even starred in one of his earliest films, which is now rarely ever seen, called "The Delinquents," will you tell us a bit about that experience?
TL: Yes. I was cast to star in that film and shortly in to the production, I started to take over as director because Altman began to not show up to the set on schedule. I always wanted to direct, so it came on naturally to me. I would be directing for a couple of hours then Bob Altman would show up and he'd be pissed, he was furious!
9) AMAM: Will the rest of the "Billy Jack" films also be remastered and re-released?
TL: I hope so.
10) AMAM: Mr. Laughlin, you and your contributions have been a big inspiration to actors, filmakers and martial artists all over the world...if you had a magic wand, what would you wish to do with it?
TL: I'd like to wave it over this panel of my fellow cast members to get them to join in more on this Q & A, I feel like I've monopolized it too much! (Laughs).
We are honored that you all came here to honor us, thank you all very much, I am very grateful to everyone for being here! (Standing Ovation)
AMAM-MAGAZINE acknowledges the passing of Tom Laughlin in 2013