W.D. Richter shares his side of the new Buckaroo Banzai franchise dispute.
By JJ Stratford
W.D. Richter is the director of the 1984 cult docudrama, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension! Despite his brilliant work bringing Banzai and his offbeat world to life with writer Earl Mac Rauch, MGM Studios intends to create a spinoff series without their permission. Now living “at the end of a dirt road in Vermont,” he talks to The Front about these legal battles, filmmaking that defies all logic, how a (legitimate) sequel might go down, and finally answers the question: “Why’s there a watermelon there?”
In 1984 director W.D. Richter and writer Earl Mac Rauch brought The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across The 8th Dimension to life in a film that would bomb at the box office but become a deep cult classic. One that would go on to influence the future video store generation with the mantra “No matter where you go, there you are”.
The hero “Buckaroo Banzai” is a brilliant neurosurgeon dissatisfied with a life devoted solely to medicine. He roams the planet studying martial arts and particle physics, amassing an eccentric group of friends and hard-rocking scientists, The Hong Kong Cavaliers. With his highly engineered Jet Car he can break any dimensional barrier while remaining cool, calm, and collected.
Earl Mac Rauch created the character in the 1970s. For almost a decade before the movie went into production, he built a meticulously detailed world surrounding Buckaroo. The first person to believe in the film’s potential was W.D. Richter, who optioned the first Buckaroo Banzai script by helping Mac pay his rent while he worked on the screenplay. He later went on to direct the motion picture and today remains to be one of Buckaroo’s most loyal fans.
Despite conceiving of Banzai and his offbeat world, MGM intends to create a spinoff television series without their permission. (Evil! Pure and simple, from the Eighth Dimension!) Now living “at the end of a dirt road in Vermont,” W.D. Richter talks to The Front about legal battles with MGM, filmmaking that defies all logic, how a (legitimate) sequel might go down, and finally answers the question: “Why’s there watermelon there?”
JJ STRATFORD: I read in the Hollywood Reporter that MGM filed a complaint in California Federal Court against you and Earl Mac Rauch over the rights to the Buckaroo Banzai franchise- the day before Thanksgiving, this year.
W.D. RICHTER: Yes. Well, I’m learning that filing is not the same as notifying the person who has just been… I don’t know how to put it… challenged?
So, when did you first hear about a Buckaroo Banzai TV show happening?
I learned the same time anybody else learned. I have a lot of contacts in the world of Buckaroo Banzai. It’s a great group of fans, who maintain the Banzai Institute website and Facebook page. One of them emailed me earlier this year and said, “Did you know that Kevin Smith is developing a Buckaroo Banzai TV series for MGM?
I live at the end of a dirt road in Vermont and I don’t get that buzz. We waited to see what Kevin Smith was gonna do, and I thought for sure that he would contact Mac Rauch to get him involved. I never expected to be contacted because I’m not an active director now, but Mac is an active writer and is writing books and doing all sorts of stuff. But no call ever came; no contact was ever made.
So, kind of with resignation, we said “I guess, nobody’s gonna invite us to participate; let’s look at Mac’s contract because there are usually residuals in it.” We had a good lawyer look at it and they think MGM had simply forgotten to acquire the property. They certainly did not reference the other four stories Mac originally pitched- the Buckaroo Banzai sampler, a group of stories about this small cluster of continuing characters
I consider Buckaroo Banzai to be a realm full of limitless potential, along the lines of Harry Potter. The 1984 film Adventures Across the 8th Dimension! is only a fraction of the Banzai-world. Even within the film itself there are references to the Banzai realm existing beyond the movie. In the opening scene somebody steps on a Buckaroo Banzai comic book and later, mental patients are playing the Buckaroo Banzai video game. These scenes prove that there is a lot more mythology beyond what’s seen in the movie
If [controversial Hollywood producer] David Begelman had believed sufficiently in the overall concept, he would have bought the entire universe of Buckaroo Banzai. Instead he said this, “I don’t get this thing! Let’s develop one script and see how it turns out.”
Mac Rauch is kind of an underdog version of JK Rowling. Like Rowling, Mac is gifted with a crystal clear vision of fantastic new worlds. Too bad the studio or his publisher didn’t bank on him.
That’s an interesting example, because who knows what her original contract said? Maybe they were prescient enough to actually buy the world of Harry Potter, but the situation here is that the studio didn’t buy the world. They only bought the original treatment which was ‘Lepers from Saturn’, which mutated into ‘Lectroids from Saturn,’ and which changed to, ‘Lectroids from Planet 10,’ which eventually become ‘The Adventures Across the 8th Dimension!”
Let’s start from the beginning, before all of this legal noise. All through the 1970s you were a young screenwriter working your way up the Hollywood ladder. How did you first come across the tales of Buckaroo Banzai?
We were all sort of stumbling around at the time, trying to figure things out. Films were changing. We came in at the beginning of The Godfather, so the movies were getting edgier and more interesting. I did a lot of rewrites. I did adaptations that didn’t get made. Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Dracula almost occurred back-to-back, not that they were wildly successful movies, but it raised my visibility. At the same time Susan, my wife, and I were looking around for talented writers to see if there was any way we could push them forward. We contacted Mac and he moved out to LA . He started talking about this guy Buckaroo Bandy, who he wanted to write about; a country western action hero.After a while, Mac was talking about it so much I said, “I don’t know where you’re going with this, but you should write it.” Susan and I optioned the first Buckaroo Banzai screenplay, unwritten. We gave Mac option money so he could pay his rent and write a script, and then we would see what it amounted to. He wrote five episodes; one was a full screenplay, one was a 57-page treatment, others would be a 25-page script where you could tell where the narrative was going but you would never anticipate how Mac would get there.
The screenplay for Adventures Across The 8th Dimension! is very packed. There are layers of jokes, meaning, and visual references.
Not only did Mac build the realm, he built the banter. There are so many classic lines from the screenplay. He is a truly unique human being. And he’s the shyest guy I know too, so this is something I’ve never been able to get my head around.
He wrote his first novel in high school. Then he took a bus into New York City, with the manuscript, called, “Dirty Pictures from the Prom,” and left it on desks in publishing houses, in the sort of places where manuscripts never go anywhere but into the waste basket. But this is a remarkable work. The title is just Mac being ridiculously provocative; it has almost nothing to do with the book. It was a wildly complicated story. You would never think that an 18-year-old had written it.
Critics of Buckaroo Banzai tend to note that the plot drifts, but do movies truly have to have a clear beginning, middle and end?
People have been trained that way. All screenwriting manuals talk about is a three-act play, an exciting event, all that stuff. Mac doesn’t write that way, he just sits in front of the page and makes up a story as he goes along, and then he’ll rewrite it. He does a lot of rewrites.
The script is so rich in detail that it doesn’t matter.
It does take a more creative imagination as a viewer to accept that, without being thrown by it. I’m more stimulated by the unknown. When I don’t really get where something’s going, I think it’s good. I stay with it and it’s delightful when it surprises me. Surprise is one of the things that Mac and I spoke about. Don’t be concerned if you’re gonna get your hero into a corner. Writing by numbers, with outlines that exist before the script’s due and before the characters breathe, isn’t creative. We’ve been taught to know exactly what the characters are gonna do next.
While Buckaroo Banzai is centered around the hero, he’s surrounded by this really unique group of friends who represent a diverse and harmonious vision of humanity.
It was imperative to me that being on set felt exactly like what you’ve just described. All these people were collaborating on this grand adventure and being encouraged to take real chances in their areas of expertise. In the film, the president of the United States is given a “short form” declaration of war.
Yes! That came from a prop guy who read the script, and knew somebody had to walk in with an envelope and hand it to the President. I just assumed it would be a blank piece of paper or something with gibberish typed on it, but I try to encourage people to go out on a limb. So, in the rehearsal, the prop guy delivers the envelope, the President opens it up and he starts laughing. I said, “What are you laughing at?” He shows us, ‘Declaration of War: The Short Form.’ So we added a close up. I have to thank Eric Nelson, the prop guy, for getting the spirit of it and then enhancing it by doing that.
I didn’t think that up, Mac didn’t, it just came out of the energy of the group, and that’s the model for the Banzai Institute, for the Hong Kong Cavaliers, the Blue Blaze Irregulars, it is the way the world should work.
Does the sequel, Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League actually exist or is it just a concept?
Oh, yeah. Mac has more information on the villain Hanoi Xan in some ways, than on Buckaroo Banzai! Hanoi Xan happens to be running a very illegitimate criminal organization, the World Crime League, with tentacles all over the world, and he runs it from a very strange lair. He’s a freakish kind of crazy guy who may not be mortal.
There are scenes in there that are pretty funny, where he’s standing there, trying to pitch this idea as if it’s some kind of wacky startup company, to these sinister people. And watching on a video monitor is Hanoi Xan, somewhere in the building, sitting in this strange bathtub full of snakes… you’re into deep villainy there! It’s kind of spooky. You have the tension between the ludicrous side of Lizardo, who’s completely out of control and has probably invented something that won’t ever work, and Hanoi Xan who you feel could squash him like a bug. Xan has his minions running all over the world, pulling a lot of very dark strings. Buckaroo’s going to have to take on Hanoi Xan, sooner rather than later…
Buckaroo Banzai was not a commercial success but it is a cult favorite and beloved by the fans. How does that sit with you?
There’s nothing wrong with having a wildly successful film commercially. It frees you to do more stuff and it gives you financial security. The most important thing I did in Hollywood was make Buckaroo Banzai, and the fact that it’s excited so many generations of people, well, that’s what art should be doing all the time. If you like Buckaroo Banzai, I suspect you’re gonna do good things, because it’s a good-hearted movie and it advocates cooperation, fearless exploration, crazy possibilities, and has a strange sense of humor about the way this planet works. We might as well be able to laugh at it as well as take it seriously.
Where did the line, “No matter where you go there you are,” come from?
Mac put it in the script, and I’ve learned over the years that he just makes stuff up. He reads the weirdest books, and whether he read that somewhere or not, I don’t know. There is also a dark version of it. It’s Lizardo who says, “Character is what you are in the dark.” It sounds like a sinister statement, but it’s actually true. When you’re alone, and you can be as bad as you want, that’s the test of your character. Buckaroo is saying a similar thing. He wants you to accept who you are and remember that, “We don’t have to be mean, ‘cause no matter where you go, there you are
Buckaroo Banzai is the son of two scientists: Masado Banzai, a brilliant Japanese research physicist working in theoretical quantum mechanics and Sandra Willoughby, the daughter of the eccentric Scottish-born Texas mathematician. After becoming an expert in her own right in the field of negative mass propulsion. The couple fled Japan at the outbreak of World War II and eventually settled in Texas. Their son grew up in Colorado and Arizona and was named “Buckaroo” because of his father’s love for the American West.
What people respect about Buckaroo is knowing that he didn’t always have it easy.
Things go badly for him. His parents were murdered, and so was his first wife. But when he’s confronted with these things, I think the whole spirit of the Banzai institute and the movie, and everything Mac’s written is, “Don’t Panic.” You’re relying on your creativity half the time, but you’re also a reasonable human being, and you rely on your powers of deduction. There’s a powerful sense of rationality and penetrating intellect that is at the heart of who Buckaroo is, and that’s why he’s able to attract all these interesting people around him. He’s not an asshole. He’s just a genuine guy endowed with all these amazing intellectual abilities, so that he can handle five careers simultaneously, but never brag about them. It comes gracefully to him.
Why is Perfect Tommy so perfect?
Perfect Tommy might seem to have a very limited intelligence but he supposedly designed the Jet Car’s suspension system, that’s why when he says, “She’ll hold, don’t worry, she’ll hold.” You have to feel, “My God, this guy built that car.” On the other hand, why is his hair that color? Perfect Tommy had a dark history as a “knight of the broken boulevards”, and the Banzai institute is supposed to be a second chance for extraordinary people who’ve screwed up their lives. If they come there and work their way into Buckaroo’s inner circle, they’ll realize maybe more than their full potential.
What’s up with Lizardo’s metabolism? And how did he get addicted to electricity?
Lectroids eat electricity. I’m not sure of the biology, but I know that that’s why this guy’s sucking on a battery in the back of the van Bigboote’s driving. Somehow nourishment is coming through the electricity, whether it’s just stimulating them and allowing them to metabolize other stuff they’ve eaten, I didn’t get into that alien biology. But Lizardo is inhabited by Lord Whorfin who was somebody who probably had a massive appetite for electricity. That’s why he’s in an insane asylum ’cause he’s not one person anymore and he’s using way too much electricity in that place.
Buckaroo is not a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist, but Buckaroo is a practicing neurologist. He could look at the president’s brain to see if there’s some abnormal growth in there pressing on things. Buckaroo could probably go in there and fix it.
One crucial question… what is that watermelon doing there?
Well, we were extremely concerned that Begleman was gonna shut the movie down. Every time we did something we were proud of, he would hate it. He really hated Buckaroo’s red glasses, he said, “a hero doesn’t wear red glasses.” He hated that there was a certain anarchic logic that he couldn’t get onboard with. So the watermelon is there just to see if he had gotten so disgusted with us that he wasn’t watching our dailies anymore. And it proved to be true, because early on in the movie, he would’ve shut it down for that little moment of the watermelon. But, he’d given up in despair.
Wait, that’s why the watermelon is there? It’s a symbol of artistic defiance?
The production designer, driving into work, went by one of those roadside fruit stands and bought a bunch of watermelons. He said, “I don’t know what I’m gonna do with these things.” During that day, we were blocking out little bits, and wandering around this abandoned factory and there’s this amazing machine sitting there, looking as if it’s ready to crush something. So I said, “Let’s put a watermelon in that.” And then they improvised those lines of dialogue, and it became extraordinary.
We never heard a word about it from the studio, so that was our way of recklessly saying, “They’re not even looking at our dailies anymore, and we’re far enough into the movie that they won’t shut it down, so let’s just do whatever we want.” And that was it, it was license to make the movie we wanted to make. To defy all logic, and just be.
This gives more meaning to the fact that the watermelon is being squeezed…
It’s a symbol of getting squeezed, but it’s also a test about the strength of the watermelon. It can take the pressure. It’s saying, “Go ahead. Squeeze me, I can take it.” I was ready with an answer in case the phone rang; it was semi-logical in the context of the story, and it was that the Banzai Institute is involved in the development of products, one being a strain of watermelon that can be airlifted and dropped by parachute into areas where people are starving, and it won’t explode on the ground. Watermelon is, in fact, a very nutritious large, red, wet object. It was one of many tests going on in the exciting Banzai Institute. Nobody ever asked, so we never had to tell anybody anything, other than, “I’ll tell you later.”
All photos courtesy of the Banzai Institute