On Corman’s Front Line: Travis Rink

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If Roger Corman was the commander-in-chief, and Mike Elliott his field marshal, than Travis Rink was among the front line troops who actually had to carry the fight.

Writing several scripts for Concorde in the early 1990s, Rink had a close-up look at the factory-like process which made Concorde’s prodigious output possible.

Rink had made a number of short films and written small comic pieces as a teen back in Poughkeepsie, New York, and headed to Los Angeles in the late 1980s intending to go to film school with the idea of becoming a director.  Rink was not in L.A. long before he became diverted.  “That was Hollywood at the absolute height of the coke craziness,” he says.  Rink became involved in the motel business, wound up with his own place on Sunset Boulevard.  He was making good money and got caught up in the coke-fueled party-and-club scene which didn’t leave him much time for film studies.

In time, he reined himself in and began to focus on why he’d come out to L.A. in the first place.  An acquaintance who had done some television work made a suggestion:  “You know, you’ve written in the past.  A good way to get into Hollywood is to write a script.” Rink picked up a copy of Syd Field’s book (Screenplay:  The Foundations of Screenwriting) and began taking film classes here and there, including classes at the American Film Institute.

“I started putting together some scripts.  Probably the first three were complete crap! I don’t even have copies anymore.”

But, the more he wrote, the more his writing improved.

He began turning out short stories, little hard-boiled mysteries and thrillers, some horror pieces, and was able to regularly place them in men’s magazines.  “I found,” he explains, “that men’s magazines paid the best compared to magazines like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Twilight Zone. I wrote the same kind of stories – I just tossed in two sex scenes.” The men’s mags were buying Rink’s stories for $500 apiece, and he was managing to place one a month.

But, in time, the market changed.  Whatever obligation skin publications had once felt to offer something worth reading along with their T & A was dissipating and his story sales were tapering off.

Rink knew a woman hired as an assistant to a producer who’d optioned a Western novel.  “This wasn’t a Louis L’Amour,” Rink says dryly.  “This was more of a Grade D, loosely based on historical fact, set in Denver in the mid or late-1800s.” The novel’s author had insisted on writing the screenplay himself although he had no screenwriting experience.  The producer had tried circulating the author’s script around town without any luck.  Rink’s friend talked him up to the producer who finally decided to give Rink a shot at rewriting the script.  “I did a complete overhaul,” he says.  “I turned it from a straightforward Western into something like a gangster film, kind of like (the HBO series) Deadwood.”

When the producer began sending out Rink’s version of the story, the project finally began to get some traction.  “We got a lot of response,”  says Rink.  “There were a lot of meetings.”  Unfortunately, the producer’s option on the book was running out, and the very interest the material was getting — thanks to Rink’s script — began to work against them:  “Now the author thought he had this hot property because of all the response.  He wanted more money to renew the option.”  The producer couldn’t raise the money and the project died.

Still, it had been a paying project for Rink, had earned him membership in the Writer’s Guild, and landed him with a good agency, Paul Kohner, Inc.  Rink set about writing an original screenplay and came up with the mystery thriller Cold Comfort.  His agency began circulating the script, the responses were good, but potential buyers had a problem with Rink’s killing off his protagonist three-quarters of the way through the story.  “They had a problem with that,” he says, and the Kohner agency couldn’t make a sale.

Still, the agency’s efforts on Cold Comfort had gotten Rink’s name out among a widening circle of contacts, and the quality of his writing gave those contacts reason to remember him.  Rink put aside Cold Comfort and focused on a new piece of material inspired by a walk through a cemetery and a magazine story he’d saved about a police corruption trial in Italy.  He came up with a tight little neo-noir he titled, Caroline at Midnight.

A producer took a six-month option on the material and introduced Rink to Scott McGinnis, a TV and film actor looking to move into directing.  The producer tried to get the project off the ground but the option expired without Caroline having found a home.  The producer dropped out, but Rink and McGinnis stayed in touch.  In the hopes of making the screenplay a more attractive prospect to potential buyers, McGinnis showed it around his circle of acting acquaintances and was able to attach some talent to the property including one-time Brat Packer Judd Nelson, Clayton Rohner (who would play the male lead), and Mia Sara (playing the female lead) .

As it happened, McGinnis had contacts over at Concorde New Horizons and sent the script over.  Although Rink didn’t object, privately he wasn’t completely comfortable with the idea of Concorde as a home for the project.  He’d heard stories about new talent being taken unfair advantage of, and of financial shenanigans.

It was early 1994 when Concorde production chief Mike Elliott saw the script.  He was interested, but there was a hitch:  Concorde only wanted to put up half the budget.  However, if McGinnis and Rink took too long to get another party to step up for the other half, they risked losing their attached actors.  “The actors were only available for a short window,” explains Rink, “so it was now or never.”

Rink called Lance Robbins at Saban Entertainment.  The scripts for both Cold Comfort and Caroline at Midnight had been in front of Robbins and he’d liked Rink’s work.  Rink told him Concorde was interested but was looking for a partner.  If Saban came in for half the money, Saban could have the international rights while Concorde retained domestic rights.  “I’ll put in up to $1 million,” was Robbins response.  Rink put Robbins and Elliott in touch and by the end of the day a deal was in place to shoot Caroline for $800,000 (Rink estimates that because Concorde owned all its own equipment instead of having to rent it as did many other production companies, the $800,000 budget was actually buying $1 million worth of production value).

Those were the days when Elliott was submitting one-pagers of prospective projects to Corman.  Corman ok’d the Caroline synopsis, but the material would require some changes.

Rink, Elliott and McGinnis met in Elliott’s office one afternoon.  Despite the whirlwind pace at Concorde, Rink found Elliott –  as he would always find Elliott – “cool, calm, collected.”   “These are the changes we need,” Elliott told him.

“There were two kinds of changes,” says Rink.  “Most of them were for budgetary reasons, and I had to add in ‘The Corman Style’…which meant one car chase.”

There was one other mandate for the rewrite.  Again, for cost reasons, Rink had to eliminate as many of the more-costly-to-shoot exterior settings as possible.

With that, Elliott reached into his desk and held up a check.  “We want to do this movie,” he told Rink and McGinnis.  “I am prepared to pay — ” and he gave Rink a number.  “This check is for 80% of it.  You’ll get the rest when the rewrite is done.”  They sealed the deal then and there and Elliott handed over the check.  “What do we need to get started?” Elliott asked.

“I can be ready to start in one hour,” Rink told him, then took the check to his bank, made sure it was good, deposited it, and headed back to the office.

There’d been no bankers, no lawyers, no agents involved.  The deal had been sealed with a handshake.  Despite Rink’s early trepidation about becoming involved with Concorde, he would find his dealings with them candid and forthright.  “Mike Elliott was a straight shooter,”  Rink remembers, never promising what he couldn’t deliver, always delivering what he’d promised, and all of Rink’s dealings with Concorde followed suit.  In retrospect, Rink thinks of his work with Concorde as “Kind of an ideal.  I’d been skeptical because of all the things I’d heard about how (Corman) ran his business.  However, I have never dealt with nicer people.  All I can attribute it to, is they loved what they were doing.”

After depositing his check, Rink returned to the Concorde offices.  “It was 6:30 (in the evening),” Rink remembers.  “I had a portable word processor with the script on it.  They asked me what I needed.  I said, ‘I need Chinese food, a six-pack of beer, two packs of cigarettes.’  Elliott and McGinnis went out and got the supplies.  I wrote from about seven that night to five the next morning.  And that was it.  Except for some minor things Saban needed – maybe an hour’s worth of work –  not another change was made to the script.”

With a finished screenplay in hand, the Concorde gears began to whir.  The company’s in-house casting director immediately began sending out casting bulletins.  Within two-three days, the rest of the cast filled in, among them Tim Daly who was then starring in the popular TV sitcom, Wings. The script also provided a number of small but attractive roles which would require only a few days work.  As Concorde and McGinnis continued to pass the script around town, Caroline at Midnight began gathering buzz as a “cool little project” and those juicy supporting parts quickly filled in with a still up-and-coming Virginia Madsen, Paul (American Graffiti, 1973) LeMat, Zach (Gremlins, 1984) Galligan, Tom (Back to the Future, 1985) Wilson, Xander (A Few Good Men, 1992) Berkeley.  So many actors were calling to get on the film, says Rink, that, “It got to the point people were calling and we had nothing left to give them.”

Just three weeks after Rink and Elliott had shaken hands on Caroline in Elliott’s office, the film was in production.  The company shot the movie’s few exteriors first.  Rink was invited to come down and see them shoot the first scene, a night scene in a parking garage between Tim Daly and Xander Berkeley.  It was, as Rink remembers it, an unforgettable feeling:  “As I pulled up, I saw all these trucks, these generators, all these people.  I thought, ‘Wow, this is because of me!’”

Out of a trailer popped Mike Elliott and his assistant.  Elliott had his assistant take Rink up to the garage level where the crew was filming.  She introduced him around and then Rink watched them shoot the same scene from various angles for about two hours.  Rink remembered why he’d come to L.A. several years earlier, and had an epiphany.  He looked around at the dozens of people, the equipment, the juggled logistics, the grind of filming.  “I decided then and there I’d never want to direct in my life.  It was about 11 at night:  I was bored, I was cold, and I wanted to go home.”

After the exterior shooting was completed, production moved to Concorde’s  “studio” – a converted warehouse in an industrial part of Venice.  Another production had been shooting on Caroline’s soundstage the day before – Sunday.  A crew had worked all night striking the old sets and building the sets for Caroline. The sets were ready by the time the Caroline crew began shooting on Monday morning.

For some reason, Rink would always remember the “Costume Department.”   “It appeared to me to consist of clothes people had left there and forgotten to take with them.  There were virtually no costumes!  All the actors wore their own clothes.” Every few days over the course of the 21-day shoot, Rink would stop by to see how filming was progressing, and usually ran into one of the actors heading into the studio for his or her scenes carrying a bag of their own clothes.

Although McGinnis always invited Rink to stay, the tedium of shooting was too much for him and he never hung around, but he did begin to spend more time at the studio when Caroline went into its 14-day editing stage.

Concorde’s editing facility was in one of the outbuildings around the warehouse studio.  The editing rooms were rooms in name only:  “It basically appeared to me to be one big room divided by drapes (into individual editing suites).  You could always hear dialogue and car crashes from the next bay over.  Each ‘room’ was about the size of a bathroom.  Two people could fit in one room kind of comfortably, and that was usually the director and editor.  You could add a third, but then you had to drag in a chair from another room and sit behind them.  One time (on Caroline), they squeezed four of us in there.  We were literally knee-to-knee.”

There was one “assistant editor” to serve all the various editors at work.  Rink remembers her constantly running from one editor to the next grabbing new reels as the editors called for them.

There was a small screening room of maybe ten seats at the studio.  Directors could view their dailies there, then, if necessary, take a short walk across the lot to the editing building to make changes (there was also a larger projection room at Concorde’s offices which, according to Rink, had “…forty chairs, but only 20 seats.  They were regular movie theater seats but only 20 of them had cushions”).

Editing completed, a few prints were struck and it wasn’t much later before Concorde was cranking out VHS copies.  Rink estimates that, from the time he finished his early morning rewrite to the time the VHS was appearing in stores, was a span of “probably three months.”

What made such speed possible, Rink says, was passion.  “It was because Corman owned his own stuff, but he also had a lot of talented, young people there who loved movies; they were definitely not there for the money!  Go there morning, noon, and night, and they’d be there.”

Caroline at Midnight did good overseas business for Saban (which would go on to continue doing co-productions with Concorde including a series of made-for-cable movies under the umbrella title, Roger Corman Presents) and for Corman’s company in the U.S., even nabbing a pay-TV sale.  This was all no doubt was why several months later – around the end of November or beginning of December of that year – Rink received a call from Mike Elliott.  “We have a hole in the December schedule,” Elliott told him.  Lance Robbins at Saban had sent over Cold Comfort (which Rink had rewritten and re-named Unfaithful – no connection to the 2002 Diane Lane starrer). “We want to do it.”

“What are we talking about money-wise?” Rink asked.  Elliott offered a little more money than Rink had been paid for Caroline. They struck the deal right then on the phone.

The process of getting Unfaithful done was even faster than that of Caroline. Rink had one script meeting with Elliott, Robbins, and the director, Catherine Cyran.  They presented Rink with their notes.  Unfaithful required less rewriting than Caroline.  “But in this case,once I turned in the rewrite, I was out of the loop.  I didn’t even know who was in it until I called up Elliott in mid-January to ask him how things were going.  He said it was done! He said, ‘If you want, come over and pick up a screening copy and copies of the posters’ which were already made up.”

When Rink went over to get his copy, he got a taste of Cormanesque salesmanship:  according to the posters, Unfaithful had been rechristened, The Heat of Passion II:  Unfaithful “ — even though it had nothing to do with (Concorde’s) In the Heat of Passion.”

Several years later, dealing with World International Network (WIN) — a production company aspiring to be something more upscale than Concorde, and which was offering Rink a chance at his first theatrical release — Rink was almost constantly dismayed at how unfavorably his WIN experience compared to dealing with Corman’s outfit.  “You’re sitting in a room with six people all shooting notes at you,” he says unhappily.  “You can be in a room with six people all working for the same company, all having six different opinions.”  Trying to keep the project alive, Rink kept rewriting his script to try to satisfy the development notes.  But with each draft, he found his script – a twisty-turny bit of neo-noir – being hammered into something more formulaic, familiar, and forgettable.  No matter what he did, there were always more notes as if there was a concerted effort on the part of WIN’s staff to make sure anything distinctive about Rink’s material was sanded off.  He eventually came to despise the rewrites and finally walked away.

In Rink’s opinion, what happened at WIN is representative of trends in the motion picture industry at large.  At the larger movie companies, there exists, he says, a bureaucratic layer of development people “…who’ve never written anything in their lives…” who justify their existence by meddling with material.  There are, he says, too many “…chefs trying to make the meal who you go into a meeting with, and come at you with their own set of notes and take on what the film should be.”

In the majority of studio films, Rink adjudges, the results are movies with “…vast holes in the logic of the story…Holes big enough you can drive a truck through,” as well as movies – with very few exceptions – which “…do nothing to challenge an audience’s mind.  The audience is vastly underestimated as to their intelligence.”

He contrasts that with his experience with Concorde:  “Elliott and them trusted what the writer was trying to do.”  The quick efficiency of Concorde, as well as their cost-effectiveness has often left Rink wondering just how much of the cost and energy involved in major studio productions is wasted.  At Concorde, moviemaking was, “All very straightforward.  It wasn’t brain surgery.”

But there’s another difference Rink sees as well.  At the major level, there are, he speculates, too many money people involved.  “Even the (major) studios answer to stockholders; even they can’t just greenlight anything they want without thinking about their bottom line.” As for financing outside the studio system, that comes from “…investment groups who can range from a group of dentists to some rich businessmen who want to get into the movie business.  And those people really know nothing about and don’t really love film as much as Corman and people like Mike Elliott.”

– Bill Mesce

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