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Terry Gilliam had The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, and independent filmmaker Michael Worth has Bring Me The Head of Lance Henriksen. After a shoot that lasted for around three years and a protracted round of distribution hassles, the ‘Boyhood’ of ‘That Guy’ pictures looks like it’ll finally be seeing the light of day.
AHEAD OF THE GAME
When actor/writer/director Michael Worth first came up with the idea for Bring Me The Head of Lance Henriksen, he knew it was something that wasn’t going to happen overnight.
The mostly improvised film – in which Tim Thomerson (of Near Dark and Trancers fame, among others) plays an actor called Tim Thomerson who finds job opportunities are drying up while, perplexingly, his Near Dark co-star Lance Henriksen (played by Near Dark’s Lance Henriksen) seemingly never stops working – was always going to be a guerilla shoot.
It was going to be shot on weekends when the schedules of Worth’s still incredibly active cast would allow (others donating their time included Cobra’s Art LaFleur, Terminator 2’s Robert Patrick, Nightmare on Elm Street’s John Saxon and Escape from New York’s Adrienne Barbeau), with a number of scenes and ideas thought up, and shot, on the fly… taking its lead from such diverse sources as This is Spinal Tap, Curb Your Enthusiasm and Candid Camera.
“I knew it was going to be an extended shoot. It wasn’t going to be something that’d get done in a couple of months,” Worth said.
“I was going to be grabbing people on weekends... at different places... so I’d always projected a year and a half to get it done.”
That year and a half ended up being overly optimistic, with the loose, improvisational nature of the film contributing to an even lengthier shoot well before the film got held up in a battle with its then-distributor.
“At the time, I didn’t realise just how far I was going to go with it,” Worth said.
“We ended up shooting over two to three years. And then there was the editing and you’ve got to understand, I’m still working while I’m cutting. So I’m getting called up to do a movie in Bulgaria or in Belize or wherever, and - in some cases - I’m coming back to another movie I’ve got to prep and direct, like Apple Seed. Then it got caught up in a distribution issue for a while, and I just let it set there on the shelf because I didn’t want to lose it to somebody I thought was going to mishandle it.”
For Thomerson, the window of six-years-and-counting from inception to (potential) release is just another example of the vagaries of filmmaking, which seem to be part of the territory - regardless of whether the film’s budget is five dollars or fifty million.
“When I worked on Air America, I was away from my family for four months. I dig it, but it was difficult, because I didn’t like being away from my son for that long,” he said.
“Once, I was working with Albert Pyun overseas - he was shooting two different movies, one in the Philippines and one in Hong Kong. So we’d shoot one half of the day in the Philippines, and fly to Hong Kong to try and get last light and shoot there. That was nuts. And then there was a shoot in Mexico; we were doing a Western, and we were shooting for 22 hours and never got a single thing in the camera. The thing with Lance and Bring Me The Head… was there was nothing difficult about it - other than just getting together on the day, figuring out where the camera was going to be and Michael giving us the seed of something that we could run with. I mean we weren’t getting paid, we did this for free. There was no money involved, we just did it for the hell of it… and it was really fun to do.”
Given the subject matter and its origins, it seems somewhat fitting that the making of Bring Me The Head... involves a combination of no-budget filmmaking, post-production woes and a question mark around both how and when the finished product will be seen - although Worth is now confident the film is close to being released in some way, shape or form.
FROM STRAIGHT TO VIDEO TO MOCKUMENTARY
An abandoned screenplay, an idea for a surreal short film and a low budget documentary all helped give rise to Bring Me The Head... according to Worth.
“There are so many movies about Hollywood and they almost all deal with the studio system - the big studios and how they work,” Worth said.
“I know from coming up in this world, there’s another group of people - actors, directors and filmmakers - who work in this independent world, and it never gets discussed or shown that much. So I started writing a script, a comedy called ‘Straight to Video’, which was about that world and stuff I’d experienced - like not being able to afford professional head shots, and going to a photo booth and then blow up those tiny shot with a xerox. But about 30 pages in, I realised that wasn’t what I wanted to do. Around the same time, I was out at a used record store in Hollywood, and there were these guys shooting a documentary. There were like four or five guys behind two cameras, and there were the two people they were interviewing in the lot. I looked at it for a minute and thought, ‘If I was to watch this, it’d look like a professionally shot film. So why can’t I do that with a film?’ My acumen with cinematography, lighting and staging was good enough. I knew I could make it look right, so why not?”
The final element was a short film idea Worth had been kicking around.
“I did a movie with Tim (Thomerson) and Lance (Henriksen) called Sasquatch Mountain,” he said.
“We were talking and I said, ‘You guys have done Near Dark and that was great… but we should try and break out of horror’. At first, I was thinking about a doing a short film called Bring Me The Head of Lance Henriksen, which was going to have Tim carrying Lance’s head around in a bag, and every time he opened it up, the head would be talking to him. It was pretty weird. So I sort of punched those ideas together. Tim was 100% behind it... he was like ‘Let’s go for it... I’m half-retired anyway, let’s go have some fun.’”
Thomerson said he’d enjoyed working with Worth in the past, and was ready to venture into the unknown with him.“I really got to know Michael on a western called Dual,” Thomerson recalls.
“He’s a funny kid, and a real cinephile. He likes a lot of Godzilla movies, which I don’t give a shit about, but he’s also a savant with the crap I like too. Steve McQueen movies and that kind of stuff. He’s also got this great capability of getting people together - he just hustles you into it. He’s very creative, he knows what to do with a camera and he’s got a knack for shooting quickly, getting it done and having fun at the same time. There’s no money in these movies, but I don’t give a shit about that because he’s so much fun to work with and I get to play roles that I’ve never done before. I was semi-retired anyway and was at the point where I’d rather surf than fucking act, but we got together and talked about it, and Lance loved anything experimental and off the wall, so Michael went with the mockumentary.”
By adopting the no-budget documentary style, Worth felt it would give his cast more freedom to experiment.
“If you don’t have 20 people behind the camera staring at you, I thought the pressure on the performers would be less,” he said.
Thomerson agreed the looser structure gave the cast the freedom to mess around.
“None of it was scripted, because it really didn’t need to be,” he said.
“That loosened us up. I’ve worked with Lance on other movies, and I know his rhythms. It meant he could say something completely off the wall, and I’d run with itor vice versa. We knew what we were doing, we’d spent enough time in front of a camera that we could just riff it; we were like jazz musicians. To give you an example, there’s a very famous location caller Vasquez Rocks that’s been in the movies since silent movies - everyone’s worked there. Michael had a scene where I’m walking along through these rocks trying to find him. He’s just laying there in this trench and he jumps out and scares my character Tim - fake Tim. I jump out of my skin and he just looks at me and says ‘Hey man, you didn’t see van Damme around here, did you?’ It was a line he just threw in there and we just went off and did this whole riff about van Damme - whether he’s still working, whether he’s still got his moves. And we’re just walking along, talking. Michael’s got this steadicam unit behind us with this beautiful sunset. So it’s things like that and invariably, something funny would come out of it.”
AN OLDER PERSPECTIVE
Shifting the focus to Henriksen and Thomerson, instead of the young characters of ‘Straight To Video’ also gave Worth the opportunity to look at the idea from an entirely new perspective.
“When I started shifting over to this idea and telling my older friends about it, they’d say how tough it was, and how it was a young man’s game,” Worth said.
“And I thought it’d be interesting to do a movie that dealt with ageism in Hollywood to some degree. Even though all the people I used in this film were working constantly, there was still an element of truth behind it.
“Tim and I were just hanging around and talking about Lance, and Tim was cracking some joke like ‘It’s like I’m chasing Lance’s shadow. Everytime I turn around, there’s a Lance Henriksen movie on TV’.
“When it was still going to be a scripted piece, I’d envisioned Lance as this Apocalypse Now Marlon Brando figure.
“Tim was going to be Martin Sheen, heading up the river to try and find Lance. I can’t remember if I said it or Michael said it but one of us said ‘Bring Me The Head of Gary Busey’ because there’d be plenty of people who wanted his head,” Thomerson said.
“He’s just one of these guys who worked a lot. Michael ran with it, and talk turned to Lance and he said ‘Bring Me The Head of Lance Henriksen’... now that’s a great title.’ I’ve been around a bit - some people know me, some people don’t. But everybody knows Lance. Everybody who watches movies knows who Lance is, or they know that face, he’s a phenomenon. The man literally does not stop working. I don’t know how old he is, he’s like a hundred years old or something, but he doesn’t stop working. And he loves to work - because he has to pay a lot of alimony, that’s what he tells me. He always says ‘it’s an alimony movie, I gotta pay the alimony!’ He once told me he was going down to Australia or somewhere to do a beer commercial and I remember going ‘Really? You fucker! You get to go down there to do a beer commercial?’
“So the idea came out of me and Michael bullshitting about ‘well, what if my guy, what if Tim Thomerson - because we were playing ourselves - was going ‘why is that sonofabitch always working? I should be playing that guy!’ So it’s a version of me where I haven’t retired and I’m bummed out in my room somewhere, petting my old, fucked up dog, going to the gym, trying to do MMA and thinking ‘I can do this, I can make a comeback!’”
As the idea evolved, Worth said, the core concept remained but the feel became much looser - giving Thomerson, Henriksen and an ensemble of legendary character actors the chance to flex their acting muscles.
“To me, the challenge would be to not use a script, to give the people in front of the camera the chance to just do what comes to them naturally in the moment,” he said.
“I had two or three cameras going each time so I wouldn’t have to do it twice - because I wanted it to be what it was.”
Thomerson said Worth’s ‘one and done’ aim for the shoot fit well with both his and Henriksen’s acting styles.
“I’m only good for one or two takes, then I’m done,” he said.“If you take me to five takes, I’m out of itthe spontaneity’s gone, the guy I’m trying to play is gone, and I’m just there - babbling in front of the camera. That’s how I work, and Lance is like that too.”
“As a filmmaker, I always try to take these people and put them in films that aren’t genre specific, like Apple Seed or Broken Memories ... I get them in to give them a chance to stretch themselves,” Worth said.
“And with Bring Me The Head..., it was very different for all of them. They’re playing themselves in a way, but - as actors - they’re getting to do something different... an exercise they don’t normally get to do. Adrienne Barbeau is being Adrienne Barbeau, but her moments on camera are outside of the realm of the genre pictures she gets offered. She’s such a talented actress, Tim’s a talented actor, Lance is incredibly talented. Lance usually gets these intense, really hardcore roles... but in real life, he’s absolutely hilarious. I had no idea just how much fun it was going to be to do this with him.... watching Lance let loose and play with his image was one of the most fun things I’ve experienced in my career.”
ALL ABOUT THE CHEMISTRY
According to Thomerson, one of the keys to being able to pull off the loose, improvised nature of the film was his longstanding relationship with Henriksen.
“After I got out of the army, I went to acting school in New York,” he said.
“Eventually, I said, ‘I don’t want to be a theatre guy hanging around New York, I wanna go shoot people. Or get shot.’ Lance was one of the actors who helped me get out of New York. When we first worked together on Near Dark he was the easiest guy on that set to work with. Those guys were so tuned in to each other because they worked together on Aliens- Jeanette Goldstein, Bill Paxton and Lance. But for me, he was the easiest guy to work with, even though he’s this real method guy, and I don’t really do that. I just sort of say the words, get my cheque and try to get the hell out of there. While we were shooting Near Dark, for example, we were having dinner at this Ramada Inn. It was about ten miles from the border - serious Arizona cowboy country. Anyway, we’re at this real trucker stop, and I’m sitting there eating a salad and Lance was there, saying in character. He had these fingernails taped on his hands and dreadlocks in his hair - he didn’t bathe, and he stunk. And he just comes in and sits at my table. He pulls this fucking pistol out and starts twirling it, saying shit like ‘I got em today man. I’m gonna get one today, yeah’. He’d do stuff like that, which was fun - and working with him, he was really available.“
Worth said his ultimate goal was to take the actors out of their comfort zone, putting them in awkward situations and seeing how they’d respond.
“Reality shows do this in a way, but I wanted to take it a step further. The soul of the movie was ‘how do I create an artificial scenario, but build in as much reality as humanly possible’,” he said.
“It was fun trying to devise ways of catching those awkward, real life moments on camera. We did a sequence at a comic book convention, and we called them up and got Lance listed as one of the guests. And so Tim shows up to try and see him at this signing, and there’s this gigantic crowd, everyone’s waiting in line and when Tim’s going in and I got Tim to get the tickets, but I didn’t tell Tim that the guy was going to resist him. I told the guy ahead of time to tell Tim that he’s not on the list and you’re not even sure who he is.”
“I’m standing there and I’m saying to this guy ‘Wait a minute, I’m supposed to be in there, I’ve got a table’,” Thomerson said.
“The guy’s going ‘Well, sir, you’re not on the list’ and I’m scrambling to get out these headshots so I can try and get him to let me in so I can sell these pictures. Then when we get inside, I find Lance and say ‘Hey, how’s it going’ and he yells out ‘Tim Thomerson! Jesus! I thought you were dead!’ All these people around us had no idea what was going on.”
Thomerson’s fictional quest to understand the secrets of Henriksen’s success also takes him to a beauty salon (“Lance went fully on board with that, he was getting his toes painted and everything,” Worth recalls), an ugly confrontation with’T2 villain Robert Patrick at a book signing (“The crowd were freaking out because it looked like Robert was going to eat his face off,” according to Worth) and a series of awkward training sessions at an MMA gym.
“I got Tim to go to an MMA gym to study martial arts and we got Lance down there too,” Worth said.
“We did this whole sequence with (ex-UFC fighter) Justin McCauley, and Lance was in there screaming and yelling and acting like a nut.”
“Michael loved to shoot this stuff,” Thomerson said.
“He put me in the ring with this MMA guy. I tried to throw a couple of jabs at him the next thing I know the guy had me all tied up and I was getting tapped out.”
And while Worth is happy with the end result, and thrilled with the on-screen ensemble he’s assembled, he says he does have one regret; a reunion between Henriksen, Thomerson and their fellow Near Dark compatriot Bill Paxton.
“I used to know Bill - we trained at the same gym together,” Worth said.
“I’d brought it up with him, and I think he was on board with the idea but then he got onto the show Big Love and got really busy and it didn’t work out.”
Eventually, after a shoot of nearly three years, Worth said he was ready to put the film together in between other jobs. But distribution hassles would soon see the project put on hold, as Worth fought to retain control of the film.
FIGHTING FOR A FINAL CUT
“After it was complete, we got into a situation where I’d prematurely agreed to things that I shouldn’t have,” Worth said.
“And I always believe a director should be open to any and all ideas and hear people out, but you should still have the kind of control where you can say ‘You’re probably right’ or ‘I’m not going to do that’. In the end, you should still be the creative decision maker.”
Worth said the agreement he’d entered into with the distributor meant he’d sacrificed some of that control.
“I’d presented what we had - the film wasn’t completed, but it was enough footage for them to say they wanted to do it,” he said.
“But I gave up a little bit too much, and they were able to take the movie and go ‘We think you need to get rid of this, add this and do it this way’. They wanted to take enough out of it that it would’ve had a more scripted feel to it, and I was like ‘No, this isn’t why we did this… it’s going against the spirit of the movie. We want that looseness, we don’t want to contrive it into something else. All my friends had devoted their time and energy for free to this, and I wasn’t going to allow the film to be put into that scenario.”
Worth said some other, bitter experiences gave him an understanding of how he could fight back and preserve the integrity of his film.
“I found a loophole that basically said as long as I had reasonable delivery holdups to delivering the sound - and it took three years to deliver it - then there was nothing they could do,” he said.
“So I basically held the sound file hostage ’til the deal ran out. I was constantly going ‘whoops, I screwed this up, whoops, this broke’. There was enough legal space for me to wiggle out of it by allowing that stuff to never be delivered, unless they wanted to release the film with no sound… which they could’ve done I guess… they could’ve subtitled the whole thing. I don’t like to do things like that, I’d rather everyone was up front but it’s clear to me that these people were looking to change it.”
In some ways, Worth said, the intervening three years were something of a blessing.
“In that time, in the last three to four years, there’s been a change in the way things are done and the advent of short-lived miniseries on platforms like Hulu or Netflix or Amazon has really shifted things,” he said. I think that could really benefit this (Bring Me The Head…) better than anything. Because one of my issues when I first cut it was that it was so long.
“I was like ‘God, this is two-and-a-half, three hours long and I don’t want to lose anything!’ but I can’t do Bring Me The Head of Lance Henriksen 2 that would be ridiculous. So I’ve started doing another cut and I’ve started to cut it into three segments of, like, a limited series. I’ve got the first three episodes, and I think it works really well. If one of these companies picks it up and wants to do it, great we’ll release it on one of those platforms. If not, it’s OK. I’ve got the feature version more or less cut, I like the way it looks and I can still go the film festival route over the next year.”
2 HEAD 2 HENRIKSEN?
And while Worth says the idea of a two part film is somewhat ridiculous, he would be keen to bring Henriksen and Thomerson back for another round of loosely improvised escapades.
“About a year or so after we’d wrapped, the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood was doing a screening of Near Dark, and Lance was going to be there afterwards to do a Q&A with the audience,” Worth said.
“So I called Tim up and said ‘Buddy, once again they’re not calling you in!’. So we called the theater, checked they were OK for us to shoot there, and so while Lance was talking to the crowd, he looks out into the audience and does this whole ‘Who’s that guy with the silver hair, Tim, is that you?’ And Tim does this whole ‘Me? What?’ thing and gets up on stage, and it was a great, fun moment. And at that moment, I started thinking and came up to them afterwards and said ‘We could easily turn this into the Odd Couple of the future. Tim’s Felix Ungar (the fastidious, straight laced New Yorker played by Jack Lemmon in the film and Tony Randall in the TV series) and Lance is Oscar Madison (Felix’s slovenly roommate, played by Walter Matthau in the bigscreen version and Jack Klugman on TV). We could make a great series out of this! So if it was released as a movie and there was enough interest, we could do it that way, or if it’s a limited series, maybe season two just picks up five years after the first ‘season’.And while Thomerson says he’s mostly retired from acting, he’d be willing to return to give “Fake Tim” some more time on screen.“Shit, I’d love to do it. Just shore it up and put the final nail in that coffin, so to speak,” he said.
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“It’s been over three years, I don’t look the same. I’ve had four heart procedures and I’ve got diffuse back pain. So I’m walking like a question mark. I look like Boris Karloff, man.