It is a sunny Friday morning in Manhattan, approaching eleven o’clock. As I look out a twenty-fourth floor bedroom window overlooking Spanish Harlem from my Upper East Side apartment, I take a moment for personal reflection just to consider that, in less than two minutes, I will be on the phone with someone I have long admired since childhood in the worlds of both film-acting and music. It would perhaps be one of those things you rehearse:
Take 1: “Hello, Ms. Marcovicci?”
Take 2: “Hello, Andrea?”
Take 3: “Um…hello?”
I did not go quite that far. I had scheduled an interview with Marcovicci’s assistant the previous week, to discuss with her a rare and latently “cult” film in which she had starred in the late 1970’s, but it was just then that I asked myself if I was limiting the scope of this opportunity. Granted, the film I wanted to explore with her was a film I admired, an exceptionally obscure work and something of a hidden gem, but I felt somewhat dismayed that I was possibly restricting my audience. In the first place, relatively very few have seen the film about which I was to question her and, in the second place, who outside of the film’s small but dedicated micro-cult would care enough to even read it? I then thought about the recent article I wrote about audience. How could I open it up to explore a larger topic while still discussing something as narrow as that single film — and how could I do justice to an interview with such an internationally beloved chanteuse? Also, I felt some trepidation that I was catching my subject at 8:00 a.m. west-coast time, a time when I am barely conscious (if at all), and beholden to remember what I did a previous night spent even at home let alone events surrounding a film production from years and years ago.
‘Well, okay…I’ll take what I can get,’ I say to myself. I dial the number I had been given by her assistant a few days prior. It rings. I mentally prep myself and, with one small gesture, gain my composure. Someone picks up. “Hello?,” a distinctively cheery voice answers. I recognize the voice — O, methinks ‘tis she! Mystified at the spiritedness and sparkling vitality of this single hello, I sputter and involuntarily chuck my composure out the window directly towards Spanish Harlem, leaving its inhabitants to consider the things they will do with some starstruck schmegegge’s discarded composure. “Uh, hello? Is this Andrea Marcovicci?” ‘Ugh, you idiot!,’ I say to myself. Then comes a laugh, an infectious one, one that puts me at ease again. She tells that she has been up since 5:00 a.m. on account of her teenage daughter, then marvels at her husband’s natural ability to wake up so early in the morning to take her to school. When she tells me this, for some strange reason, I am ready to press on with the interview with confidence. It turned out to be one of the most enjoyable phone conversations I’ve had in quite some time.
I encountered the Montreal-shot film Kings and Desperate Men (1981) on VHS at a flea market in 2000 for either one or two dollars. Ever since my first viewing of it, the film became one of those rare, obscure works with which I became unduly obsessed. Slow days on summer breaks from high school were often spent Googling the title for any additional information I could acquire about it, its production, its distribution, anything, at least once throughout the day. I was soon determined to loan it out to others. I would be the one to usher in its reappraisal and joyous rediscovery…well, either that or gauge the extent of my perhaps misguided mania about it. Information about the making of this strange film was a mystery to me, and an exciting one. Reviews are decidedly scattered with critics either loving it or hating it. Never have I seen an “in-between” to any review. It is fair to mention that, at the time it was shot, the film attracted a great deal of attention in the Canadian press for the casting of Canada’s “First Lady” Margaret Trudeau.
So, in framing the true subject of this interview, I came to consider a recent phenomenon: that people who worked on obscure films that were unceremoniously buried, perhaps never to be heard about again, observe folks like me dig them up in an age when excavation has become, more than ever before, a favorite pastime in the cineaste world. Thus, film lovers have seen the birth and fruition of “boutique” home entertainment labels like Anchor Bay, Blue Underground, Cult Epics, Plexifilm and many others, companies that thrive on exhumed lost works like Kings and Desperate Men which I have recently learned is seeing a DVD release in 2010. The wildly expanding video market, one in which everything is becoming available, has opened films up for new audiences more than ever before, even in the age of VHS. As the VHS age dawned, Orson Welles was known to have exclaimed, “We’re collectible!”
I decided that the interview would be an examination of how a person involved in the making of an about-to-be-exhumed uber-obscure film reacts to “strange-folk” like myself thinking as highly of it as I do. That said, it came as something of a surprise to Ms. Marcovicci that not just I loved it, but a “micro-cult” (mostly among The Prisoners BBC series fan circles) thought very highly of it. Note that two of the film’s stars (one of them being the writer-producer-director and one-man band) were alumni of that cult favorite 60’s television program.
Marcovicci had many-a-memory to share about the making of the film, and the interview turned into an account of a near on-set free-for-all. In exchange for this interview, the deal was that I would meet her this coming month at The Algonquin in New York, where she has an upcoming performance engagement, and deliver her a DVD copy of the film (which I ripped from my personal VHS). She claims that she has never seen the film and, in point of fact, she had no idea the film was available in any readily available form whatsoever. Needless to say, I am looking forward to the night I see her perform and hand her a copy of the film. Note: With all hope, there will be a post-scriptum to this interview, which will catch and record her reactions to her long-awaited viewing of the film thirty years after the fact.
Her account below of the film’s making, is just one of those enormously entertaining and exceedingly fascinating production-history stories. Even if I do say so myself, for anyone involved in the world of film production, this interview is not to be missed, even if you have not seen the film! The act of being found and being remembered stirred memories both painful and funny for Andrea.
DK: How did you first become involved in Kings and Desperate Men?
AM: First of all, can I ask how you even saw the film? I didn’t even know it was available to be seen…anywhere.
DK: I got it for two bucks at a flea market in Pittsburgh about eight years ago.
AM: [laughing heartily] Oh dear! Now that is amazing! Tell me, have you talked to Alex [Alexis Kanner] about the film?
DK: Unfortunately, he passed away in 2003.
AM: Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. I wasn’t aware.
DK: So, first of all, can I ask how you became involved with the film?
AM: I actually auditioned for the role in the film. At the time, I was pretty much just starting out and beginning my career as an actress. I remember meeting Alex [Alexis Kanner] and that, initially, there was not much to audition with, and I should have been on my guard right then. There was not much script at all. I had been accustomed to working in a very traditional way of getting a full manuscript, memorizing lines and all that. This was 1977. So I remember the first time I met Alex — he invited me to dinner, and right away I should have felt something was rather amiss, you know. He wound up falling asleep in his soup! I’m not kidding! [laughing]
DK: And what was that a result of?
AM: At the time, I thought it was perhaps due to jetlag or something. What did I know? I mean, it’s not every day that someone passes out in their soup in a restaurant. I soon learned that the jetlag possibility was quite the contrary. I was told that I was going to have to hold a gun throughout the film, and I thought that was just nifty. [laughing] So I was hired for the role and they gave me this gun and I got to point it at Patrick McGoohan, and no sooner did I learn that I was going to have be dealing with two men falling asleep in their soup. I remember there was pretty much an outline, not really a script. It wasn’t until working with Henry [Jaglom] years later that I would begin to see what wonderful things working like that yields. But on Kings it didn’t seem to make much sense at all at the time. There was just an outline, really. I thought the experience was going to be unforgettable because everyone in my family were all fans of The Prisoner. I mean, how could you not be? The show was just one of the things you had to watch. It did wind up being unforgettable, but in a very different way than what was expected.
DK: How is that exactly?
AM: You know, it would probably making me dizzy seeing it again today. But I certainly want to, because you’re not the only one to have approached me and ask me about this film. Keep in mind, though, this is not my only…cult film. Not by a long shot! [laughing] But to get back to the question, there was a joke among those who worked on the film…or really, it was a joke among everyone involved in the film except Patrick and Alex. It was “Kings and Desperate Crew”.
DK: [laughing] That’s hilarious!
AM: Well, honestly, you had two English drunks who really didn’t mean any harm, but they thought they were creating something new, creating an art that was theirs and theirs alone, this profoundly original work. In attempting to mount this, what they were doing so frustrated the crew. Now, it’s one thing if you try to do that and you’re sober, However, trying to do that when you’re not sober didn’t make for a positive experience for anyone but themselves. So everyone starting calling the production “Kings and Desperate Crew”. Alex was a truly fascinating man, though. All those wonderful long speeches at the radio-show microphone were all his, improvised on the spot, I think…and I thought that was marvelous.
Patrick, though, was shockingly mean-spirited, which was a disappointment. Alex and Patrick fascinated each other and it was wonderful to see two men who fascinated each other in such a way. But once we saw how chaotic the shooting was, none of us could really imagine how Alex was going to cut it all together. That was our biggest concern. So little of it was being matched, the script girl (i.e. continuity department, to use today’s nomenclature) was shooed off the set when she complained about it. The sound person was not allowed to do his work accurately. The two of them were really in the world of their own imagination, which was fascinating. Often times, the lighting crew was shooed off the set before they had sufficient time to set up, there was a lot of rushing of the crew, and not getting the necessary coverage. It was a fascinating film to be on the set of, but it was also trauamatic.
DK: Can you tell me about working with Margaret Trudeau?
AM: Okay, so here I have as my pal the Queen of Canada! Every time I walk out of the door with my new best friend, the cameras are clicking. She was like Jackie Kennedy. Today, it would be like hanging with Paris Hilton, with the papparazzi everywhere…and I do mean everywhere. I’m on this stressful set in a strange country and I really need a friend, and here is Maggie with a permanent smile on her face, smiling constantly because she’s a politician’s wife. We’re in chaos on “Kings and Desperate Crew”. We really have no director, no script and Margaret is smiling non-stop, because God forbid the paparazzi should catch her without smiling. [laughing] This is really all just coming back to me, all these feelings. Thinking back on all this now, the time during the making of the film was perhaps the most psychologically complicated time I’ve ever had in my life…but the hotel was lovely. [laughing]
DK: Well, that’s a relief!
AM: The film was shot mostly in this hotel. I now remember that Alex showed up one night at my hotel room for a script conference, which is just funny because a script didn’t exist, and he passed out on the couch. I’d be on set and Maggie and I would laugh and laugh, and we really comforted each other, She was a hoot, a lot of fun, and an extremely fun shopping partner. It would have been traumatic enough doing this kind of improvisation for the first time with sober directors, and I wouldn’t become accustomed to thinking that way of working was wonderful until Jaglom directed me a decade later in Someone to Love. Then, however, at that time, I was frightened. I was in a strange country in this hotel with no one to protect me, Alex is screaming at the crew, we’re improvising absolutely everything. I’m holding a gun and have no real dialogue, this seeming lack of structure. You needed to have a real sense of self in this environment, and I didn’t really have such a thing yet because, like I said, I was just starting out in the acting world. I was twenty-six or twenty-seven. It was scary.
DK: Were you aware of the film’s scattered release, and were you cognizant of the responses the film received from its various premieres over the span of a decade? It was shot in 1978, released in Canada in 1981, premiered in London in 1983, finally made it to the U.S. in 1989 on a video release.
AM: To tell you the truth, I totally lost track of the film after we wrapped. That’s how traumatic the making of it was for me.
DK: What do you think of the film itself in retrospect?
AM: I still haven’t even seen it. Recently, I’ve felt the need to finally see it. Do you think you could make me a copy of it?
DK: Sure thing!
AM: Because I know they had a vision and, despite it all, it could be a really interesting film. I feel I need to see it. I still cannot even begin to imagine how Alex could have cut that film together. It’s mind-boggling to me. Editing must have really been a task, a true undertaking. It would probably make me dizzy seeing it today. [laughing]
DK: Were you at least somewhat aware of the film’s cult following? Also, of the film’s ability to often divide and alienate its audience?
AM: I had no idea really. But you have to remember, darling, that this is not my only cult movie. There was The Hand and The Stuff and…
DK: Airport ’79: The Concorde?
AM: Oh lord! [laughing heartily]
DK: Hey, unintentional comedy like that is rare!
AM: I suppose. But, you now, the really great thing about this interview is the idea that these things can be found, that you for one found this obscure film at a flea market…I mean, some seldom-seen movie I was in the 70’s that I thought dropped off the face of the Earth…it’s astounding to me and I find it really very exciting. Above all, it is important to remember that Alex and Patrick meant well and they really did fascinate each other. Theirs was a wonderful, fierce madness. I am looking forward to finally seeing the end result of our work, after all these years. No one’s art should ever truly disappear.
DK: Did you ever encounter Alexis Kanner or Patrick McGoohan again after the film wrapped?
AM: Never. Truth be told, I actually chucked a glass ashtray at Patrick the moment we wrapped, and that’s not like me at all. They told me, “Okay, Andrea, you’re done.” I said, “Are you sure?,” because you never really knew which end was up sometimes. One moment you could be wrapped, the next moment they’d have you back on camera doing something or other. But they said, “Yep, we’re sure you’re done.” Patrick had been so unpleasant to most everyone during the shooting that I just took it upon myself to strike back and, even though I prided myself in being lady-like, felt he deserved it. The crew applauded. He was almost still in character when he asked me, “Miss Marcovicci, whhhy? Why, Miss Marcovicci? Whhhy?”
DK: You actually got some good notices for your role in Kings and Desperate Men. The film itself got glowing reviews from The Los Angeles Times and at the London Film Festival, among others.
AM: Well that is very nice to hear! I certainly never heard any of it.
DK: I know that you are foremost a singer, an internationally beloved chanteuse, but which movie acting role would you most like to be remembered for?
AM: Marty Ritt’s The Front with Woody Allen is a lovely film. And of course Someone to Love. I’ve been very fortunate to have worked with great directors, and with great people in general. The thing about Kings and Desperate Men was that I was much younger when it was made and all was chaos in my eyes, and out of that came for me a lot of trauma. I remember the scene in the car with Patrick. It seemed to me that that felt good, and that turned out alright.
DK: (quoting that scene from the movie) “A nice, waaaarm, uncomplicated cognac.”
AM: Wow, right! But who knows? Maybe the chaos yielded a good film. We’ll see. I’ll let you know!
Before Alexis Kanner passed on in December 2003, he allegedly recorded a DVD commentary before his death, for a video release of the film that never happened. If this commentary track exists, here’s hoping that it is on the DVD that is released in 2010.