Many years ago, before I’d managed to get anything going with my career, I did some writing on assignment for the straight to video market.  I’m talking about B movie, Roger Corman-esque (and a couple times, actual Roger Corman) films that basically boiled down to one of two categories.  Either they were low budget, genre, action films or they were “erotic thrillers”, which basically is just a euphemism for soft-core porn. 

I had a friend who was working for a guy named Andrew Stevens.  Andrew had been a pretty well known actor in the 70’s and 80’s.  In the 90’s Andrew reinvented himself as a producer of these straight to video movies.  His first hit was called “Night Eyes”, which he also acted in.  If, like me, you watched a lot of late night Cinemax (or Skinemax as it was also known) then chances are you came across Night Eyes and/or its many sequels at some point.  The movies all followed a kind of format.  There was a noir-ish plot involving a private security guard and a sexy woman he’d been hired to protect.  Inevitably, they’d both wind up nude and simulating sex in a way that was more tasteful than hard core porn but that still showed a lot of boobs and a little bit of man ass.

This friend of mine who worked for Andrew Stevens mentioned that they were looking for a writer for “Night Eyes 4”.  Yes, this was to be the fourth installment of the successful series.  This one was starring Paula Barbieri who had recently gained some measure of fame because of her association with the O.J. Simpson case and her appearance in Playboy.  I had spent a little time with Andrew Stevens socially and for some reason (probably because I was willing to do it for $2,500) he agreed to hire me to write Night Eyes 4.  I really had no idea what I was doing but Andrew was patient with me and somehow I got through it. I wasn’t sure how having “Night Eyes 4” on my list of credits would affect my career so I decided to be credited as “Henry Krinkle”, a reference to the film, “Taxi Driver”.

One of the things about Andrew was that he was very busy so he preferred to work with the same people over and over again. But he didn’t really negotiate with writers. He’d call you up and tell you what he was going to pay you and that was it.  If you mentioned a lawyer or an agent the deal was off.   If you expressed the slightest hesitation the deal was off.  You were to write the script, write it quickly and write it to his specifications.  At one point I was in the bathroom at his office standing at the urinal and he sidled up to the one next to me and said he had a quick, really low budget erotic thriller he was making.  He needed a script written in a week and he’d pay me $1,500.  I took the job before I’d zipped up my pants.  That was the low end of the scale.  The high end was $7,000.

At first I went into these experiences thinking that I’d manage to bring something special to them; that somehow I’d elevate the genre.  Andrew had no time for this.  If you tried to give a bad guy a little dimension he’d be on the phone, “What is it with this character? We don’t need all this complexity.  Just make the good guys really good and the bad guys really bad and leave it at that.”  I quickly gave up on trying to elevate anything and just tried to get the job done. 

If a film wasn’t about action and effects it was about sex. In the erotic thrillers there were times where in an 80 page script there would be 8 sex scenes.  And this wasn’t because I loved writing sex scenes.  This was the number that was asked for and that it was my job to deliver.  At times it felt like a man and a woman rarely entered a room together without having sex.  It was a challenge to, again and again, get two people into a conversation that could plausibly lead to them taking their clothes off within minutes of coming across one another.  It wasn’t like hard core pornography where the TV repairman shows up and next thing the characters are having sex.  There was always some kind of story.  But it was close.

Twice, I wrote scripts for movies where Andrew had teamed up with Roger Corman. Both of these scripts I co-wrote with the friend who had originally introduced me to Andrew. We never met Mr. Corman but his notes were relayed to us.  Both times it was the same note: “Put in two more nude scenes”.  In one of the films this presented a real challenge because it was set on a military submarine and women weren’t allowed to serve on submarines at that point.  We’d already put in 2 nude scenes where one of the male characters fantasized about sex he’d had in the past.  We couldn’t do this again.  What we wound up doing was having a band of bad guys raid the submarine.  How they actually managed to board this submerged vessel was never explained.  Among the bad guys was a sex crazed, psychopathic bad girl.  She more or less raped one of the sailors (though rape may be too strong a word since he only resisted for a few seconds and then kind of enjoyed it) and then killed him right after like a black widow.  Everyone seemed relatively pleased with this solution.

Another thing that often went on was that entire films were written around a piece of footage that had been purchased.  I once was called to the home of Fred Olen Ray, a legendary B movie director who did a lot of work for Andrew.  He screened a scene for me from Airport ’77 or ’79.  I can’t remember which one.  Somehow, he’d bought this piece of footage and now it was my job to reverse engineer a story that used this, which I did.  I wrote the whole script and then a week before production I got a call from Andrew.  He had managed to hire Ice T for 3 days.  It was now my job to figure out a way to write in a part that was heroic and important where Ice T could be a bad ass.  But he couldn’t be too heroic and important because he could only work 3 days and whoever wound up playing the lead would have to get most of the good stuff.  The solution I came up with was that when the action started Ice T kicked some ass but then he was unfairly ambushed by the bad guys and left for dead.  Of course, at the end, he came back to life and aided the lead good guy in saving the day.

Yet another thing we commonly did was take a movie that was a hit in theaters and downscale it.  For instance, you may recall the movie “Con Air” where a group of prisoners are being transferred on a plane and they somehow take it over and wreak havoc.  We took the exact same plot except our prisoners were being transferred not by plane, but by train.

A big part of doing this work was just submitting to the process and not getting too caught up in the desire to do something special or artistic.  This was business. Once you agreed to write one of these scripts you were stepping into something that was already in motion.  Often you were writing a script that was being cast at the same time.  Crew had already been hired.  A shoot date was often not more than a week or two away.  There was no time to work out problems.  There was no time to get everything perfect or even mostly good.   You had to just accept that given the content and the limitations some of the work you did was going to be hacky, derivative or just plain ridiculous. 

The work I did for Andrew wasn’t art.  At times it was fun. Just as often it was drudgery. That said, I am grateful to Andrew Stevens for hiring me.  Nobody else was hiring me to do anything and Andrew could have found lots of other guys who would have been thrilled to be in my spot. Most of the people I dealt with were nice and considerate.  Andrew was a funny, charming, dynamic guy.  Directors I worked with like Fred Olen Ray and Rodney McDonald were genuinely nice people.  Jim Wynorski, another legendary B movie director, was something of an exception.  One time, he called me on the phone to give me notes on a script and after a bit I heard the toilet flush on his end of the line.  He’d been speaking with me for 10 minutes and made no effort whatsoever to conceal that he’d been sitting on the pot the whole time. 

I used the pseudonym Henry Krinkle twice but I kind of got the feeling that not using my real name was a little insulting to Andrew and the other people who worked on these films.  No one ever said anything to me.  I just sensed it.  I needed the work and the money and didn’t want to give anyone a reason to not hire me.  I started using my own name.  This caused some problems.  Once, I was in a video store with a girlfriend when we came upon a film called “Sexual Roulette”.  I picked it up with a laugh and said, “Look, I wrote this”.  She didn’t believe me until she saw my name on the box and she wasn’t amused.  The movie wasn’t as bad as it sounds.  It was a rip off of “Indecent Proposal” with the genders switched.  Instead of Robert Redford playing the owner of a casino in Las Vegas and seducing Demi Moore it was Tane McClure playing the owner of a casino in Reno and seducing some guy who looked like a gay porn star.

Using my real name also came back to haunt me once I started to have a real career.  In 2008 my film, “The Great Buck Howard” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.  Here are the opening lines to one of the first reviews that came out:

"One might not expect a sweet, funny and warm-hearted crowd pleaser from the man who wrote movies like Sexual Roulette, Sonic Impact and Venomous, but I guess filmmaker Sean McGinly has spent the last eleven years churning out shlock flicks just so he could get to something good..."

In a way, the reviewer here was right.  There are lots of people who assume that writing for the straight to video market is how I got my start.  The truth is that the real movie and television business operates completely separate from the straight to video world.  No amount of writing I did on things like “Sexual Roulette” helped me get an agent or start having a legitimate career.  What it did do though was that it helped me pay the bills in a way that was easier and less time consuming than waiting tables or driving a cab. I lived very cheaply at this point. I’d work for 3 or 4 weeks on one of these straight to video jobs and I’d have enough money to pay my bills for a few months. And it was during these months, financed and freed up by my adventures in pornography, that I was able to write the scripts that got me started.
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