Steve Cuden (Director - 'Lucky')
'Luck of the Drool!'
Director, Steve Cuden, co-created the acclaimed international hit musical, 'Jekyll & Hyde,' which ran for four years on Broadway, and has earned more than $200 million worldwide. Steve is also a successful screenwriter credited on more than seventy teleplays, including series such as 'X-Men,' 'Starship Troopers,' 'The Mask,' 'Godzilla,' 'Beetlejuice,' 'The Pink Panther,' 'Wing Commander,' 'Manhattan, AZ, and many others. A graduate of the USC School Of Theater, Steve has worked theatrically with such Directors as John Cassavetes, Abraham Polonsky, Monte Markham, Mimi Leder and Donna Deitch. His latest directorial is the Redrum Entertainment / MTI Video DVD release, 'Lucky'.
'Lucky' is the story of Millard Mudd, who is a failing cartoon writer who lives hermit-like existing on a strict alcohol diet. But one day everything changes when a dog named 'Lucky' enters his life. You see, what makes 'Lucky' no ordinary dog is his ability to talk! But what makes 'Lucky' dangerous is his ability to get inside Mudd's head and turn him into a serial killer.
Chatting with Steve recently, I first wondered why his slob-of-a-character had been so verbally deep in the opening minutes of the film? "You mean deep, and obtuse, and off-the-wall, don’t you? LOL! People often wonder what the hell they’re hearing in the opening sequence. As many times as I’ve read it and watched it and heard it, I’m still unsure what some of it means. It’s the ramblings of a guy who’s not exactly what you’d call stable. You should ask Steve Sustarsic, who wrote the truly unique screenplay, about what was in his mind regarding Mudd’s philosophizing, and what his underlying intentions were. Though I’m not sure even he can tell you. Believe it or not, he and I have never discussed the “meaning” of what Mudd is saying. I’ve always approached it as an alcohol-soaked mental purge. But since you’re asking me, I think Mudd’s philosophical ranting serves a number of purposes."
"First, Mudd is an externally closed off character, isolated, not really in touch with humanity, but he has a very rich – and very twisted - inner life. So rich that he fantasizes most of his worldly desires into a demented kind of alternate “reality.” Exposing his thinking like this sets up – right at the top – that he isn’t just some loser-moron, that he actually has deep inner thoughts, even though they are, in many ways, scattered and offbeat. It’s of note that in the original script - in fact all the way up through our first cut - Mudd’s long philosophical outpouring, which I always call “the driving sequence,” was placed some twenty-five pages (or about 25 minutes) into the story. But then we didn’t get to meet 'Lucky' until after that scene, and the movie just dragged on for too long until Mudd finally hits the dog. So, a big decision was arrived at during post to move the sequence up to the beginning, and it made all the difference in the world. What the driving sequence does, more than anything else, is lull the viewer in. You think, “What kind of movie am I watching,” and/or “What the hell is this guy up to?” The driving sequence is purposefully hypnotic and dreamlike – made even more so by Ken Mazur’s evocative music and Chuck Smith’s shimmering sound effects. Just as you get sucked in, bam, Mudd hits Lucky. The whole movie shifts gears, and the rug we pull out from under you never quite settles down evenly again."
How long did the shoot take and whose idea was it for all those beer cans to be scattered around - and why and where did they all come from?! "We shot the movie in nine twelve-hour days. We did over 420 set-ups, which is around 45-50 a day, or about a set-up every twelve to fifteen minutes. We were really flying. And the only way I could manage to do that was to be overly prepared. I spent three months in pre-production. I drew my own storyboards, which ran over 170 pages. And I worked extensively with our excellent D.P., Byron Werner, on a detailed shot list that ran some 25 single spaced pages. I spent ten months with the truly gifted Tim Stepich cutting the movie at night and on weekends (Tim is a staff editor at E! Entertainment, and we worked around his schedule). I think you’ll agree that the movie is a real editor’s piece. I mean, there are over 2000 cuts in around 83 minutes. But all that intensity really lends itself quite nicely to Mudd’s mania."
"The script called for Mudd’s house to be a sea of beer cans and bottles. And all those cans and bottles were provided by Steve Sustarsic. He began collecting them when he started writing the script. It took him around three years to save them all. I believe he personally emptied quite a few of them. Of course, you’re welcome to verify that with him. I actually wish we’d had even more cans so that in certain places in the house Mudd would have had to wade through them hip deep. Even though we added a lot of other junk, those cans become almost a character of their own. They always get a big laugh. But they were a nightmare to work in. We spent an entire week tromping around in cans, and all that clanking drove the crew nuts."
Was there ever to be another name for the dog/movie? "Not that I’m aware of. I think it’s perfect in so many different ways. Don’t you?"
What were some of the funnier behind-the-scenes aspects of filming the sex scenes with the naked/dead girls?! "Well, to be perfectly honest, we were moving so fast, and shooting so much footage, that I have no recollection of there being anything weird or funny or crazy about shooting the nude scenes. It was totally professional. We slowed down and were a lot more sensitive to the needs of Piper Cochrane, who played Misty, and Maureen Davis, who played Wendy. We were shooting at the end of January, the set was very cold, and they were very vulnerable. But we did our best to make sure they were as comfortable as possible. If there was anything that stands out as being funny, it was setting up the scene where Piper is on all fours, and wears a collar and a leash. And she has a dog bowl in her mouth. The scene only lasts a moment on screen, but setting it up, it just got bigger and bigger. But, again, things happened so fast from shot to shot that we really didn’t have time to dwell on anything for long – including the nudity. The truth of it is, once you get past the first moments of someone being undressed, it just settles into a working routine."
Will that Liquor Store get residuals from the sales of this movie and why choose that exact one? "No, the Liquor Store signed off on our usage. I don’t think many if any locations share in movie profits. That would be unusual. We shot everything at that store – inside and out – in less than 45 minutes. We carried no lights with us, and shot using available lighting only, which wound up being just the unaltered fluorescent fixtures in the store. And as to why that store – they were the only one near our location that allowed us to use their place for free. We didn’t shut them down at all. In some quick shots you can see customers inside the store. They were actual customers. The store has two cash registers, and Maureen Davis, who played Wendy, was standing behind a register that the store only uses intermittently. One of my favorite “found” moments in the movie is in the liquor store. Late in the movie, just before he follows Wendy home, there’s a shot of Mudd standing absolutely still against the back coolers. It looks like he’s catatonically staring at Wendy, like a hulking, burnt out shell of a man. That shot was pure serendipity. It was the moment before I called “action,” when the camera was rolling, and Mike was just waiting for a cue. When I saw that shot in dailies, I told Tim it was going into the movie. To me, it’s one of the creepier moments in the whole piece."
Why the Nazi 'sign' on Millard's chest when it could have just about anything else - and why did he do it anyway? "Ah, yes, the swastika. The script called for Mudd to shave his head bald, then cut a swastika into his forehead, much the way Charles Manson did. What we ran into was a logistical problem. That scene comes late in the movie, so there aren’t many scenes to shoot after it. If we shaved Mike’s head, then we would have had to wait until near the end of the shoot, and we couldn’t do that because of the compressed nature of the shoot. We were shooting completely out of sequence, and it just wouldn’t work out. And we absolutely did not want to use a bald cap. More often than not they look like crap. We also had a problem with coordinating when the swastika was on his head – or not. And while we were very well organized, we decided not to risk having continuity errors so easy to spot. So, instead of a shaved head with a swastika on it, we opted for a swastika on his chest, which, naturally, was only visible during the one scene. As to why it was a swastika, once again, you would need to ask Steve Sustarsic. I think he found it eerie, funny, and sick. Fits in with the rest of the movie, doesn’t it? Also, I think the notion of 'Lucky' being upset by the swastika is pretty amusing. Why should he care? But he does."
What was the most uncomfortable scene for you to witness being filmed .... and the one that really came off better than expected? "The most uncomfortable scene is easy. It was when Mudd strangles Wendy. It took thirty to forty minutes to shoot all the angles, and it was actually as grueling to watch as it must have been for Maureen and Mike to play. Our script supervisor, Lisa Latham, left the set in tears. Maureen did an amazing job handling being tied up naked and acting like she was being strangled like that. Simply awesome."
"Two scenes came out better than I expected. The first is the scene where 'Lucky' sits on top of the refrigerator, and Mudd wants to know where all his beers went. Sydney, the amazing pooch who played 'Lucky,' did all those moves on her own. She (yes, 'Lucky' is actually played by a female), was unprompted during the scene by her trainer, Tasha Zamsky (of Paws For effect). Sydney hits marks that look staged, but they aren’t. What you’re seeing is a single take, uncut, and, for my money, perfectly improvised by Sydney. The second is the scene outside on the steps when Mudd admits to Misty that his dog writes his scripts. That turned out to be more heart wrenching than I thought it would. It leaves an emotional resonance that lasts the rest of the movie."
With all that money pouring in why didn't Millard ever move, or buy better beer ... or get himself a better computer/monitor?! "What, and give up all that luxury? I believe it’s because Mudd only dreams that his world has gotten better. It’s all in his head. He has no way out of his hideous reality. This place is his whole world. Even in his imagination, this is as good as it gets."
The ending seems to cheat us out of the possible slaying of the dog - were different endings either thought of or filmed? "Sorry you felt cheated. There was no intent on our part to do that to you. The ending actually changed a number of times in pre-production, during production, and in post. Ultimately, I believe this ending tells you that the entire movie – from the very beginning to the bitter end – is in Mudd’s head. Everything we see in the movie happens while he’s in that empty red bedroom preparing to end his misery. This is his hell. The original script was more open ended than the finished movie wound up being. It was even more truncated. We expanded Mudd’s thought process through voice over. So, what you see is actually a longer version of the ending that Steve first wrote. The only additional thing we really considered was finding a mansion overlooking the ocean in Malibu so we could shoot Mudd’s last days there, as if he really had hit it big. Of course, we had no budget for such an extravagance."
"But ultimately I think that would’ve been a mistake. This ending keeps Mudd’s world insular, which I believe reflects how deep he is in his own shit, and how helpless he really is against himself. Also by not seeing the slaying of the dog – who is already dead, and only a figment of Mudd’s imaginings – we’ve left open the possibility of sequels. LOL! By the way, I really wanted to put Sinatra’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” over the end credits, but we couldn’t afford the rights. But if you listen to the lyrics of that song, every single line plays perfectly into the movie in the most hilarious and poignant way."
Finally, with regard to the film, did 'Lucky' even exist?! "I don’t believe anyone in the whole movie exists except for Mudd. As I said before, everything’s Mudd’s fantasy. But this is intentionally left ambiguous and is subject to a wide range of opinions. You are welcome to wholly disagree with me. Your opinion will be valid. 'Lucky' exists if you believe he does. He doesn’t if you don’t think so. You choose."
Tell me what work went into you co-creating the Broadway hit, 'Jekyll & Hyde' - and if you'd ever do another one again! "I came up with the idea of adapting Robert Louis Stevenson’s groundbreaking “The Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde” many years ago while working with composer Frank Wildhorn. He and I were musical theater writing partners for almost ten years. Back then we were both big fans of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” (I still am), and were inspired by that show to write a gothic horror musical. We considered “Frankenstein,” “Dracula,” and “Phantom Of the Opera” (Andrew Lloyd Webber kind of beat us to that last one). We wrote two entirely different versions of “Jekyll & Hyde” on and off during eight of our ten years working together (we also wrote various other musicals, some complete, some not, none of which went anywhere). The first version of Jekyll sucked, but the second version, written a few years after the first, is what the show that ultimately wound up on Broadway for four years (and now plays to acclaim all over the world) is very much based upon. I was bought out of it a number of years ago, but I still have both conceptual credit on the whole thing, and lyrics credits on certain numbers. Leslie Bricusse edited and rewrote what Frank and I did, but my work is still strongly evident throughout the show. To date, it’s made over $250 million worldwide, and continues playing in numerous venues all over the world. The hardest part about writing the musical version of Jekyll was, if you’re familiar with the book (it’s just a novella, really), there are no love stories, no women to speak of, and no plot to hang your hat on. So, we had to concoct a love triangle whole cloth out of nothing. That made it particularly challenging. To me, there’s nothing harder than writing a musical. Putting characters into a story told through music and lyrics is a killer. It’s almost impossible to do, and even harder to do extremely well. But it’s also very fulfilling. I actually have three really cool ideas for musicals, but I’m so deep into screenwriting and trying to get my next directing gig off the ground that I don’t know when I’ll ever find the time. I also need to pin down a good composer, because I’m just a wordsmith, not a musician. Maybe one of these days I’ll churn out another one. One can always dream."
What's next for you? "I've never been busier. I have four scripts currently working their way around L.A., three of them in collaboration with Steve Sustarsic. One of them, if you can believe it, is a modern, urban retelling of 'Jekyll & Hyde,' only with a young woman in the lead. It’s definitely a horror story. Actually, this is being set up right now as my next directing assignment. We also have a romantic comedy called 'Fraudulent Styles' that’s about a lying insurance claims adjustor, and a hilarious comedy called 'Unleashed,' that’s about a shy scientist who accidentally turns a dog into a man, and then the dog teaches the man how to be a man. I know you’re thinking, oh, no, another talking dog story?! But this is so totally different from 'Lucky' that the two can’t really be compared. The dog’s character is human almost the entire movie. And it’s much more of a traditional Hollywood comedy than 'Lucky.' Not dark at all. I’m also working on setting up directing that one, too. And I have another script that I’m very proud of floating around town called 'Scouts.' It’s an all out sci-fi action piece about humanoid aliens taking over earth for extremely heinous purposes. I’m also working on a half-dozen other projects that are in various stages of development."
Interviewed by Russell A. Trunk
To win a brand new copy of this excellent new DVD 'Lucky' just tell me in which movie Piper Cochrane starred in alongside Kevin Costner? Just send us an e:mail here with your answer and the subject title 'LUCKY' to:
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