This quote, attributed to director John Landis, is often used as an example of the difference between the ordinary person and an artist. Obsessed and driven, the artist strives to create perfect art and to hell with the consequences or what it took to create the art.
But when such bravado veers into recklessness, tragedy has a vicious way of making such a mentality seem petulant and childish.
And the events that took place in the early hours of the 23rd July 1982, while Landis was shooting his segment of The Twilight Zone: The Movie not only demonstrated that, but helped put an end to an era where the director had complete control over their set.
As reported by The New York Times:
Landis’s segment — which concerned a loudmouthed bigot (Vic Morrow) who gets a taste of his own medicine when he steps into the Klan-era South, Nazi Germany and a Vietnam War battle, and is mistaken for the very people he’d previously derided — was to culminate in a spectacular display of stunts and firepower. Chased by a military helicopter, Morrow’s character was to carry two Vietnamese children across a river to safety as a village exploded behind them. But the sequence was poorly planned and barely rehearsed, and the explosions damaged the rotor blades of the chopper, causing the pilot to lose control. The helicopter crashed into the river, dismembering Morrow and the two children: Myca Dinh Le, age 7, and Renee Shin-Yi Chen, 6.
Watching the footage of the accident is a sobering experience that not only makes you realise how easily something could go wrong but is also deeply chilling because the helicopter blades and water disguise the deaths so effectively, you would swear that you were watching a stunt. But it wasn’t. Vic Morrow, Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen would not get up, put their heads back on, dust themselves off and walk away.
Undoubtedly, the whole thing was batshit crazy to start off with (asking a man in his 50's to carry two kids while waist deep in water and having a helicopter hover over him). Add in the fact that the kids were hired illegally (while probably quite common at that time) adds an extra level of sordidness to the event. Throw in mortar chargers being over rigged and what you have is not just recklessness on a grand scale, but a quasi-suicidal desire to destroy one’s career.
As one of the journalists who covered the case, LaBrecque is in a prime position to detail the trial and to help us understand what went wrong, both on the 23rd July 1982 and the 29th May 1987, when Landis and others were found not guilty.
The first 50 pages, dealing with the event in question, is based on what we know for definitive. Delivered in clipped statements, one feels a sense of wrongdoing and bad portents. Throughout, the reader gets the feeling that nothing was properly communicated as everyone knew Landis was a tyrant who could explode at any moment. Whenever the inevitable occurs, there is a pervading sense of horror at what has happened and a realisation that no-one was willing to throw their hands up and admit they were in the wrong.
For those interested in the mechanics and machinations of courtrooms, the rest of the book will be manna from heaven as LaBrecque provides a fascinating insight into how lawyers (both prosecuting and defending) will take small details and spin them into significant factors for the jury to consider. Angles like whether debris or heat were to blame for the rotary blade buckling or whether a comment like “We'll probably all be thrown in jail for this” is intended as a joking aside or a genuine understanding that what was about to happen was genuinely dangerous.
This angle can be tiresome to a reader looking for courtroom drama, but such details are necessary in order to understand how badly the prosecution handled the case and how, for the defence, all that was needed was to plant a seed of doubt into the minds of the jurors.
Although hard to fathom nowadays why no one went to prison for this case, it’s clear from the text that prosecutor Lea D'Agostino was single handedly responsible for the ‘not guilty’ verdicts, owing to a mixture of bad questioning, a lingering doubt over the credibility of a witness, a demeanour that did not endear her to anyone (least of all the jury) and a desire for headline grabbing. Most of all, by equating the accident with murder, the jury were unable to agree with her case and ended up having to acquit everyone.
This aggressive attitude covered up the simple fact that there was no single document or utterance attributed to the production crew that could be unmistakably taken as an indication of intent to commit a crime. Ultimately it was an accident but one that was very preventable. This should have elicited a differing line of attack from the prosecution and LaBrecque is critical of D’Agostino’s stubborn approach.
He is also critical of the media circus around the case, with both prosecution and defence lawyers trying to grab headlines with histrionic behaviour and comments that were borderline contemptuous, which became worse after the trial when D’Agostino lambasted the jury and suggested that they had been blind sighted by the power of Hollywood (the jury foreman strongly rebuked her on this).
Throughout, Landis comes across as an insensitive, bellicose and closed off child, making threatening gestures in the courtroom and lashing out at people who just don’t understand what it means to be an artist. When discussing the case with his lawyer, he is quoted as saying:
What is shocking to me…is how ignorant people are. About how fucking movies are made. This issue has incredible potential to totally fuck the industry.
Three people died on his film, and that’s what is so shocking to him?
As a further example of Landis’ aggressive nature, and also of D’Agostino’s incompetence, the author was able to find a talk Landis gave to students at the American Film Institute in Los Angeles in 1982, six months before filming took place. Placed near the end of the book, and in typically braggadocio form, Landis boasted about filming The Blues Brothers with an eye for realism: “I was wrong, probably, but I decided we're not going to speed up the camera. We're going to go 125mph with the principals (Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi) in the car…” In 1998, he would elaborate further by admitting that he reshot one particular sequence where a car is going 100mph, with the only difference being that there would be extras in the scene to ensure audiences would realise that the footage wasn’t sped up.
Considering the over the top nature of that particular scene, it’s a miracle that no one was killed.
Long out of print, Special Effects is an even handed, but damning, inditement of the disasters that can occur when inflated egos get out of control and a justice system that fails victims whenever lawyers assume centre stage.
Ron LaBrecque, 1988, Special Effects: Disaster at Twilight Zone, The Tragedy and the Trial, Scribner. ISBN-13: 978-0684189437
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.