Ken Russell thought he was all washed up after his 1977 film Valentino failed at the box office. Things became so bad that “nobody in Hollywood would give me even a B-movie to direct,” he told Nancy Mills at the Guardian in 1981.
Then he was offered a second chance - to direct a troublesome script called Altered States, by the Oscar-winning author of Marty and Network, Paddy Chayevsky .
“I was the twenty-seventh director Warner Brothers approached for Altered States. Arthur Penn had stuck it for six months and then left. They tried everyone else before they dared risk me.”
Strange to think that a man of Russell’s genius was considered a risk. A sad reflection on the lack of quality at the very top of Hollywood. Eventually, the studio did take the risk and Russell was appointed director.
“They wanted a director who has a very visual imagination, and they knew I had that. They were a bit doubtful about my ability to handle actors. I must say, I don’t bother about actors too much. The Warner Brothers people screened two of my films that showed I could handle actors if I had a mind to - Savage Messiah, which was just two people talking, and Song of Summer about Delius. Between the two, they thought they’d take a chance.”
Once on board, Russell came to “loggerheads” with Chayevsky, which ended in the writing walking off the picture, as Russell explained:
“I couldn’t work with someone else judging everything I did. Chayevsky told me, ‘I’ll just be on the set as a benign influence.’ The producer said, ‘How do you spell benign, Paddy?’ He answered ‘W-I-C-K-E-D’ He was joking but he wasn’t joking.’
Russell thought Chayevsky’s script ponderous, pretentious and labored. He had the actors mumble their lines, or give speeches in between mouthfuls of food or wine. It worked as the film centered on the relationship between Dr. Eddie Jessup (William Hurt) and Emily Jessup (Blair Brown). It also allowed Russell to concentrate on the incredible visuals.
“There are scenes in Altered States that are on screen for a third of a second, and they took perhaps three days to shoot. That’s $30,000 or maybe $300,000. They are expensive. In this case the studios realized the visuals were very much key to the story.”
Yet, when it came time for the film to be released, the executives at Warner Brothers started to get worried. But when the film was first shown to a preview audience of mid-western housewives, they were left mystified, which confirmed the studios unease. But when a young audience saw the film, it received a highly favorable reactions, leading the cinema manager to assure Warners they had a hit.
He proved to be correct, and Altered States proved Russell was a far greater talent than Hollywood had ever imagined.
These are pages from one of my scrapbooks on Ken Russell, looking at the response to one of the most daring and original Hollywood films of the 1980s.