From his directorial debut in 1971 to his most recent exploits on the SyFy Channel, Mark L. Lester has covered a lot of cinematic ground. Even if you don’t recognize the name right off, you know the movies: Roller Boogie, Class of 1984 (and its pseudo-sequel Class of 1999), Firestarter, Commando, Showdown in Little Tokyo. He’s worked with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Drew Barrymore, Linda Blair, George C. Scott, Pam Grier, Dolph Lundgren, Brandon Lee, and countless others. Somehow, through it all, he’s managed to keep his sense of humor and perspective, remaining an incredibly affable and accessible gent.
On the eve of Shout! Factory’s release of the Collector’s Edition Blu-ray of Class of 1984, Lester took a brief time out from his crazy schedule to chat about juvenile delinquents, killer androids, fiery catapults, and the dream team of McDowell and McDowall.
Dr. AC: It’s been 33 years: How does Class of 1984 hold up for you?
Mark L. Lester: This is still my favorite movie that I’ve made. I conceived it, wrote it, produced it, directed it, it was my baby all the way and it turned out to be very prophetic. You see the description at the beginning of the movie, the card that says, “This could happen here someday”? That was way before Columbine or high school shootings; it predicted the whole future. I intended it as a warning and it turned out to be accurate.
AC: Did the success of Class of 1984 take you into a different league as a filmmaker?
ML: Oh, yes, it catapulted me into the next level. Big Hollywood producers saw it and hired me to do Firestarter and Commando and things like that.
AC: You say that the events were inspired from real life, what you could see happening in a not-too-distant future – literally not-too-distant, as you were envisioning this only two years off from when you shot it in 1982.
ML: I got the idea from visiting my old high school, Monroe High School in the San Fernando Valley, and I saw that what had formerly been this quiet, pleasant, idyllic place where maybe the car clubs were the most “dangerous” people. When I came back, there were gangs roaming the hallways, no dress codes, undisciplined. . . Someone could bring a weapon to school and they would just give them a couple days suspension, just a very liberal environment. When Perry King’s character visits the juvenile officer at the police station, that dialogue was taken directly from when I had visited a police station here in the valley and asked the officer “What if this incident happened? What would you do?” and I just took his response and put it in the film. A lot of this was from real life! It was a very liberal attitude back then and it hasn’t panned out too well.
AC: Would you say that there is some element of fantasy in terms of seeing it played out on a larger scale; it feels like an action or genre film than a strict social drama?
ML: Yes and no. I wanted it to be like “Death Wish at a high school.” I was a fan of the movie Blackboard Jungle, so it was kind of an homage to that movie. They fought with knives and a flagpole at the end; my film was just more violent in keeping with the times. And we updated it with all the punk rockers, which I think gave it a heightened quality. Of course, it seems kind of tame when compared to what’s happening now! All the incidents in the film were based in reality: I’d heard about a kid who committed suicide while on drugs at school, there was a teacher who brought a gun to class, etc. So, just took that and exaggerated it, saying, “Well, what if the teacher is ‘teaching’ with the gun,” things like that. And again, that exaggerated reality in the movie turned out to be not even an exaggeration considering all the crazy incidents that have actually happened!
AC: You came up with the story concept. How did you know Tom Holland to have him work on the first draft of the script?
ML: I had seen something that he had done before, maybe The Beast Within, which my friend Philippe Mora had done, and liked it, so I reached out to him. I didn’t know him personally, but I liked his work. I had a basic storyline and then Tom pieced it out into a script. Ultimately there were other writers who worked on it [such as Barry Schneider, who created some of the punk rock dialogue but refused to take a screen credit].
AC: You’ve stated on numerous occasions how much you respected Roddy McDowall. How was that to reach out to him and have him accept the role?
ML: It was really exciting. He’s an amazing person and he was a good name at the time. I was such a fan from his work with the Planet of the Apes movies and all the way back to How Green was My Valley, so I was very excited to work with him. He’s such a legend, a totally brilliant actor.
AC: He’s been a favorite of mine for years, with Legend of Hell House and Fright Night as well as the films you mentioned. With Perry King, you had seen him in Andy Warhol’s Bad, correct?
ML: I saw him in Bad and also in Mandingo, where he played a really nasty character. The funny thing is that during the shooting, Perry, who’s a huge pacifist, really didn’t want to do this particularly violent scene where a kid’s arm gets sawed off. He said it was just too much, with the blood splattering in his face, and he didn’t want to do it. I said, “Hey, Perry, don’t you remember in Mandingo when you put a put a slave into a boiling pot of water alive? This isn’t any worse than that!” (laughs) Perry was great and he was perfect for the part.
AC: Michael J. Fox, who plays a kind of dorky music geek, had just started on Family Ties when you got him, right?
ML: He was also Canadian, which was good for us because we needed a certain number of Canadian actors in order to shoot in Toronto. We shot most of the movie at Central High in downtown Toronto. I hired him off of seeing a scene from the television show; it was his first season, I think. He came on board and he turned out to be great, really easy to work with, really nice guy.
AC: Lisa Langlois, Joseph Kelly, and Erin Flannery are all Canadian as well. What made you pick Toronto as your location?
ML: Because the financing came from Canada; they wanted it to be a Canadian-certified production, so we had to meet certain requirements, hire a certain number of Canadian actors, crew, etc. But we shot it as though it could be any school in America. The opening street scenes and extra footage were shot in L.A., actually.
AC: How did you get Alice Cooper to do the opening theme song, "I am the Future"?
ML: Lalo Schifrin and he were friends, so Lalo suggested him and I was very happy when he said he’d do it. I was there the day they were recording. They said to be there at 9am but Alice didn’t show up until about 12 hours later after some cases of vodka had shown up. He finally showed up, but we had to pay for the studio all day long! But once he started singing, he was great!
AC: That’s rock and roll for you. Any chance we’ll be seeing a Blu-ray release of Class of 1999 anytime soon?
ML: I’d like to. Lionsgate currently has the rights to it; it was originally a Vestron movie and they sold their catalog to Lionsgate. But I’ll be approaching them to see if they’ll put out a Blu-ray.
AC: It’s such a great companion piece, being that it’s clearly a souped-up fantasy as opposed to the reality-based action of Class of 1984.
ML: I had the crazy idea to use robots for the teachers. After Terminator came out, I thought, maybe we’ll go in that direction, that the teachers were actually robots. These days, that wouldn’t be too far from reality, what with all the computers and internet, but back then it was pretty far out there.
AC: What is your feeling about Class of 1999 nowadays?
ML: I still love the movie, but it was hard because I was trying to make the gangs into the heroes this time around, and the teachers were the bad guys; it was just a flip of the first film. It became like a fascist state I was presenting, but, again, that was taken from reality, because there was actually zoning in L.A. where the police wouldn’t go. They would just allow the gangs to control those areas. They’ve cleaned that up a little bit, I think, but it’s still partially true. That was the premise that I took from the actual news stories: gangs running certain areas of Los Angeles, making it official. Again, just taking real life incidents and slightly exaggerating them. I do hope that Class of 1999 doesn’t prove to be as prophetic! Teachers with rockets in their breasts could be bad!
AC: Although I wouldn’t ever say no to seeing a Pam Grier android running the show. How was she to work with?
ML: She was fantastic. I had met her over at American International a while back, when she was doing her classic films like Coffy and Foxy Brown, and I was in love with her back then. She’s amazing and I was so happy to have her in the movie. John P. Ryan was great as well. And Malcolm McDowell! A Clockwork Orange had been a huge influence on me with Class of 1984; there are actually shots in that movie where they’re riding in the car where I was trying to duplicate was Kubrick did. Same lens, same shots. So for the next movie, I thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to get Malcolm McDowell actually in the movie?” And that turned out to be very interesting because the lead actor in Class of 1999 was not very likeable in the first scenes we shot. I thought, “Oh, no, this guy’s supposed to be the hero.” So I asked Malcolm, “What is this guy doing wrong? In Clockwork Orange, you were so villainous but we loved you.” And he said, “Just tell him to be charming.” That was it, and it helped a lot.
AC: Talk a little about how you became involved with Tobe Hooper’s The Funhouse, on which you served as an executive producer.
ML: Tobe and Derek Power brought me the idea and needed money to have script written, so I helped fund it. Tobe was great to work with. We brought in a carnival and set it up out on the backlot of the Ivan Tors studio in Florida. It’s a classic now, but the finished film was a little slow in the first 30 minutes, so they shot a new opening scene back in Los Angeles, which really helped the picture. It’s the Psycho spoof where the kid sneaks up on his sister in the shower. The film really holds up and is being remade, but I’m not directly involved.
AC: Then came Firestarter, which was the first film you directed after Class of 1984.
ML: Dino de Laurentiis saw Class of 1984 and he called me in and said, “I want to do a movie with you. Do you have your next picture?” Originally, I wanted to do Year of the Dragon. I remember a story where Orson Welles, who was trying to put together financing for his Shakespeare films, found The Lady from Shanghai on a paperback book rack. So I found this book, Year of the Dragon, and I was going to make that, but then Firestarter came up and he said, “Well, you're going to make this one instead,” and he took over Year of the Dragon [eventually directed by Michael Cimino in 1985 starring Mickey Rourke]. John Carpenter was originally supposed to direct Firestarter, and he had a script that had no relation to Stephen King’s novel. When I took it over, I said, “Let’s just make the book into the movie, and not change it much.” When they got the drafts of [Stanley Mann’s] script, they loved it. I had a good time making that. It was the first Hollywood film to shoot in North Carolina.
AC: Was that the highest level of special effects you’d worked with up to that point?
ML: It was spectacular. It was a $15 million budget, which doesn’t sound like much, but back then was a lot. And there was, of course, no CGI, so when you see fire racing across the lawn, that was all piping underneath the ground we had to build and the fireballs were extremely difficult – they’re actually real fireballs that we created and put on wires to shoot through the air – and there’s a set that burns down. All of it was done for real! It’s pretty amazing when you look back. It’s kind of an antiquated way to make a film now but at the time it was all practical locations and shots. We had catapults and we’d set the stuntman on fire and shoot the catapults off. Completely dangerous stuff!
AC: There was something magical about knowing that it was done for real; even when you knew it was a stunt person, you were amazed that someone was actually doing that! Finding the creative ways to pull those illusions off. Nowadays there isn’t any sense of “How’d they do that?” The answer’s just “CGI” and our brains shut off.
ML: It becomes numbing. You see things that are just impossible. I just saw the latest Fast and the Furious movie and it’s impossible to drive a car through the air, skydiving, and all that. When we did Commando, we did the stunts right there on set. There’s still a comic book, cartoon feeling, but it also feels more real and more entertaining.
AC: How was the notoriously cantankerous George C. Scott to work with for Firestarter?
ML: (laughs) He was a lot of fun, but you had to shoot him before 2pm because he liked to drink a little. But he was completely cooperative and wonderful to work with. In the original script, he only killed one person, and all the other people were being killed by these CIA agents – even in the book it’s like that. So I went to Dino de Laurentiis and said, “How much are you paying George C. Scott?” and he said, “Oh, a million,” and I said, “Well, for these four days [when we were doing these killing scenes] he’s just sitting in his hotel room. We need to have him do all these killings! He’ll be more in the movie and he’ll be working instead getting paid for sitting around.” And Dino says, “Yeah, well, you tell him.” So I went to George and said, “Hey, you’re going to kill all these people instead of these day players doing it; it doesn’t make any sense.” He takes a moment and then says, “You’re right. I’ll kill them all.” And he ended up killing more people than in the script or the book!
AC: More George C. Scott is always a good thing. Any good stories from the Commando set?
ML: Arnold was fabulous. He did a lot of these stunts himself. But the big scene in the movie where he carries Sully from the car and carries him over and holds him over the side of the cliff and says, “I lied,” and he drops him? The night before we were going to shoot that scene, I called Schwarzenegger and said, “Listen, Arnold, I know you’re the greatest weightlifter in the world and I purposely got a really tiny guy, only like 140 pounds, so you can just carry him and hold him over the cliff.” And he said, “That’s impossible. That’s insane. I can’t do that!” I said, “I read that you lift 300 lbs!” He said, “That’s straight up! I can’t do that with a real person! That’s impossible.” So I had to scramble all night to get this giant crane to the set to hold David Patrick Kelly over the cliff with wires. I was totally taken in by the mythology of Arnold! It happened another time where I wanted him to throw a phone booth with a guy in it and we had to build one out of balsa wood!
AC: How was that to work with him in that post-Terminator era?
ML: He was totally cooperative, great guy. I’m sure he still is. He was still somewhat inexperienced as an actor, so he really appreciated direction. Plus, he hadn’t done a lot of comedy or humor before, and I was thinking that we could make this a kind of James Bond film, which I had loved as a kid, and I could have him say these one-liners, so I kept coming up with more of them for him to say. He was really funny in real life, but he’d never done it onscreen. He kept that kind of persona the rest of his career.
AC: Looking at some of your more recent credits, it looks like you’re edging back into the horror/sci-fi realm with Pterodactyl and Poseidon Rex.
ML: I started doing films for SyFy Channel; I did Pterodactyl, which was a huge success, so I produced more for them like Lost Colony and Jabberwock and Sinbad and Beauty and the Beast, and then I directed Poseidon Rex and Dragons of Camelot which just came out on DVD.
AC: Do you enjoy doing those? They're kind of like this generation's throwback to the '50s-'60s-era drive-in monster movies.
ML: They’re a lot of fun! Yes, that what they are. I mean, Poseidon Rex was really a Godzilla movie, with the creature coming ashore. I was also paying homage to The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, the Harryhausen flick. The screenwriter, Fred Freiberger, was a friend of mine. Of course, we didn’t have the rollercoaster at the end.
AC: What’s up next?
ML: I have a remake of Class of 1984 that I’ve got a script for, written by Jason Lester, my son, who went to private school, which is where this new one is set. You could never get away with the stuff that we showed in a public school nowadays; one day of bringing a knife or gun to class and it’d be all over, you’d be thrown out immediately. I’m also looking to do a really good horror film – I just saw It Follows and was really impressed with it. I’d like to do something like that. I love the horror genre because the fans are so devoted and so loyal. You don’t need stars; you can just make a really good scary movie and the fans will support it.
AC: We do what we can! Thanks for your time, Mark!
ML: My pleasure, AC!
The Collector's Edition Blu-ray of Class of 1984 (reviewed HERE) arrives Tuesday, April 14 from Shout! Factory.