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“I have a mantra,” says director Peter Hyams. “It was something me and my camera operator, Steve Campanelli had: each morning before we went to shoot we’d put our arms around each other, like football players, and say four things: 1. Go bigger or go home. 2. If it can’t be fixed with a hammer, it can’t be fixed. 3. If it doesn’t fit, force it. 4. Let’s blow shit up.”
As mantras go, it’s hard to argue with the results. With a career that’s included prescient conspiracy thriller Capricorn One (1977), with Elliott Gould and James Brolin; sci-fi Western Outland (1981) with Sean Connery, the Gene Hackman/Anne Archer actioner Narrow Margin (1990) and Jean-Claude Van Damme’s time-traveling fight film Timecop (1994), Hyams, has secured his place in cult cinema history.
It’s also an approach to movie making that informed the career of Hyams’ son, John, who carved his own path through genre films, including two Universal Soldier movies (2009’s Universal Soldier: Regeneration and Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning from 2012), the 2020 horror mystery Alone with Jules Willcox, and Sick, a pandemic-set thriller starring Gideon Adlon and Jane Adams, which had its world premiere as a Midnight Madness screening at the Toronto Film Festival this week.
The work of father and son, Peter and John Hyams, will be on display at a joint retrospective at this year’s Oldenburg Film Festival.
On the eve of the 29th Oldenburg fest, the two Hyams joined The Outne Reporter for a joint video call to discuss their influences on one another, each other’s favorite movies, and how the business of “meat and potatoes” genre filmmaking has changed over the years.
“I was maybe 6 or 7 when Capricorn One Was being made,” recalls John. “I have vivid memories of being on set in the Mojave Desert, watching my dad when they filmed that aerial chase scene. At the time, they literally strapped him into a chair mounted on the outside of a helicopter, and he shot the entire chase scene from there, with the camera in his hand. It was the wildest thing I’d ever seen, real daredevil stuff. It made a huge impression on me.”
Instead of going to film school, John Hyams took a page from his father’s book and studied fine arts, only later transitioning, via documentary films, to feature directing.
“When John first suggested going to film school, we had a bit of a brush-up and I said: no, you’re not going to film school. Feed your eye on art, learn literature and history. And you’ll learn more than most people do at film schools,” says father Peter. “He was a brilliant painter. He could have actually made his living as a painter…We ended up on a similar path, he started making documentaries, as I did at first. The difference was John was a phenomenal artist. I was one of those guys who people thought was good because I could draw.”
While he says he loves his son’s movies —”my favorite is always the last one I’ve seen” — Peter Hyams says he finds it “very painful” to rewatch his own work. “I watch a film of mine 1,000 times when I’m making it, 1,000 more when I’m previewing, and once it’s done, and there’s nothing more I can do to make it better, it becomes impossible to look at. All I see are all the things I’ve done wrong.”
But in his 50 years behind the camera, Hyams says he has learned a few things, most prominently the ability to get out of the way.
“When I started, I would do charts of where the camera would be, what lens we were using, actually do diagrams, like a quarterback with his playbook,” he recalls. “Then you get on set with a bunch of human beings in front of you and the best-laid plans of mice and men, you know? I’ve realized that kind of planning is stupid. The best work comes when your actors feel absolutely free, and they come up with something you’d never have thought of. It can be Gene Hackman choosing the glasses [for Narrow Margin] that makes all the difference.”
“We make different movies, of course, but I do feel our approach, and in many ways, our aesthetics are quite similar,” adds John. “If there’s one thing I really learned from [my dad] watching him direct was the pride in the craft. Because I always felt my dad was an incredible craftsman. As a musician, you talk about having chops. And my dad, as a filmmaker, he’s always had serious chops.”
What has changed substantially since Peter Hyams began directing, in the early 70s, and since John’s first features from the mid-2000s, is the market for mid-budget genre films.
“They’re what I call the $40 million movie,” says Peter, “by which I mean a film without big movie stars where there’s no indemnity, no guarantee, it is going to work [but] that’s where you get a Star Wars, a Jaws, an Alien. Where there’s no insurance policy and the studio just has to think the movie is good. You don’t have that much these days.”
“When I came into the business, in the late aughts, the DVD market was dying out, and you were already seeing the studios were no longer making those kinds of movies, these $40 million-$50 million thrillers, like Jagged Edge or a No Way Out, which used to be the bread and butter of the industry,” adds John. “Things did look a little dire for a while. But I think the streamers have saved the industry. Now you can do a genre movie, the sort of film that is in my or my dad’s wheelhouse, with someone like Netflix and do it with a lot of artistic freedom.”
Alongside Peter Hyams’ Capricorn One, Outland and Narrow Margin, Oldenberg’s retrospective will include John Hyams’ Universal Soldier films, his first two features: One Dog Day (1997) and the documentary The Smashing Machine (2002) as well as recent horror titles Alone (2020) and Sick.
John Hyams will attend Oldenburg, which runs Sept. 14-18 and take part in a live discussion, with father Peter joining via video, during the event.
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