Filmhounds Magazine

All things film – In print and online

John Irvin talks ‘Raw Deal’ and working with Arnold Schwarzenegger (The FH Interview)

10 min read
Arnold Schwarzenegger in Raw Deal

At the peak of his 1980s powers, nestled in between Commando and Predator, starred in 1986's Raw Deal. While it may not come up in conversation too much when considering Schwarzenegger's defining hits, the action-crime movie – which sees Arnold's ex-FBI agent infiltrate the Chicago mob – represents a shift in Arnold's star power, pulling away from the stoic nature of Conan and The Terminator.

It's well worth another look, and there's never been a better time to do so, as StudioCanal is releasing a brand new for Arnie fans both old and new to enjoy. To mark the occasion, we got on the phone with the film's director, British filmmaker and had a spirited discussion about his incredible career and what it was like working with both Arnold and the film's producer, Dino de Laurentiis.


I watched it again last night and it's a hell of a cleanup on the film – how involved have you been with StudioCanal on the restoration? 

I haven't. But I'm very happy that they've done it. Alex Thomson, [the cinematographer], he's dead so he couldn't have helped, they've gone without my magic wand.


Have you managed to take a look at it yourself yet? 

No, not yet. I'm always very reluctant to look at my films when I've finished them. I'll go to the premiere, go to the opening, and then on to the next one [laughs].


Is it a film you've really thought about over the 30-odd years since its release in 1986? 

Well, a lot of people admire it, it's extraordinary how many people do admire it. I made it in a fit of pique. I was so angry with The Rank Organisation for their very dull and rather disinterested promotion of the film I had just made called Turtle Diary with Glenda Jackson, Ben Kingsley and Michael Gambon, with a script by Harold Pinter. It's a really, really sweet film, and is now considered a small classic of British cinema. 

The Rank Organisation had a Royal premiere – I was out of the country at the time – and that was all they were concerned about I think, the head of Rank just wanted to meet the Queen Mother [laughs]

Anyway so, Dino De Laurentiis then came to me and tried to get me to do Dune. And I said I didn't want to do that because I couldn't see how you could make a film about a worm, no matter how big! And then he came to me with Mutiny On The Bounty. As much as I was tempted to do it, I knew it was David Lean's passion and he worked years on doing it, and to come in and do a cheaper version was like sort of, you know, like stealing his wife, so I turned that one down [laughs]

He then offer me another one, what did he call it… Gordon Flash, he couldn't even get the name right [laughs]. But he got me in a weak moment and I thought if I make this film with Dino and its got this big star at least it'll get released – so I said yes, of course I'll do it. 

I then rewrote the script, I got Gary DeVore, who I did The Dogs Of War with to rewrite the script. And I must say I enjoyed every minute of it.


I think that shows in the film, for sure! It's very much a film that knows what it is and has a really good time playing with and delivering audience expectations. 

Yes, that's what I thought. If they want a hamburger, I'll give them a deluxe hamburger.


Yeah, absolutely!

It's interesting, Pauline Kael in The New Yorker gave it a very interesting review saying ‘this is John Irvin at the height of his powers having fun, so much more entertaining than Turtle Diary where he was straining for significance!' [laughs]


Hard to know how to take that! [Laughs]

My agent rang up to say, ‘she loves it!' It was so funny. But I enjoyed working with Arnold and it was a great crew. And Dino had this really rather crazy studio which he had somehow convinced North Carolina to give him some kind of grant. He took some land and built a studio slam-bang next to Wilmington Airport. The soundstages weren't brilliant so every time it rained we had to stop shooting! Plus we were going into hurricane season so it rained quite a lot [laughs]. But it was a lot of fun. I liked doing the stunts. Pauline Kael was right. After the intensity and the delicate high-wire act of working with Pinter and all these wonderful English actors, it was a blast of Hollywood and a bit of madness. It was a bit of a holiday. 


More to that point, looking over your filmography, it's very eclectic. You make a lot of interesting choices that feel like reactions to the previous thing you worked on before. 

Yes, that's quite observant of you. I just love the process of making films. I never made a film that didn't in some way take my fancy. My late dear wife and I were at a dinner party, and Huw Wheldon was there and I had worked for Huw at the BBC, I had known him since my early 20s. My wife said to him ‘Huw, you've got to tell John not to do this film! He's doing a film with Arnold Schwarzenegger, it'll ruin his career!' He looked at her and said ‘You are married to a film director, and if it takes his fancy, there's nothing you can do about it!'. 

David Lean said it best, ‘never come out of the same hole twice.' I've always admired virtuosity and I wanted to have a go at practically every genre. The only one that slightly alluded me really was a Western, I always wanted to do a Western. John Ford and Howard Hawks, when I was growing up, these were my heroes, I really admired them. 


Well, this film does open almost like a neo-Western, a small-town Sheriff taking down criminals, before going into a 1940s gangster movie in 1980s clothing. You spoke about your influences there, who were the movie stars you admired growing up?

I loved John Wayne in Wagon Master: ‘Saddle Up! We're moving out of here.' That's one of the greatest definitions of courage ever portrayed on film, because they know they're heading out into Indian country and they're going to get attacked. Wayne in The Searches was a big influence as well. And I loved Humphrey Bogart obviously, his cynicism and his put-downs, he was certainly a hero. Marlon Brando, Paul Newman and Montgomery Cliff when I was a student were my big heroes of mine when I was a student. I think that they defined screen acting for decades to come, and still in a sense do define it.


I think it's interesting that you're working with Schwarzenegger at this point in his career where he's coming off Conan the Barbarian, The Terminator and Commando. Even for himself, this feels like a reaction to previous roles; he gets to wear suits, he gets to smoke cigars. 

It is a bit of a transition. When I met him I showed him Dogs Of War, to reassure him I knew where to put the camera. He admired it and liked it a lot. He said ‘I know I'm not a great actor, I'm no Larry Olivier! But I'm getting married to Maria, and I won't take my shirt off in this film!' He was determined to make a transition. 

Obviously, he's not Olivier. What I did with the casting director, what I think was quite clever, was I cast really good New York character actors around him. He's not very reflexive, he's not very fast, and he's big. There is something very robotic about his movements. So what I did was I kept him fairly centre screen and bounced these other actors off him. He made him look good, all he had to do was react [laughs]. And he was good at that. His great hero was Clint Eastwood, and his modus operandi was ‘say very little'. So that led to a lot of his famous lines, what was the main one?


(I put on my best Arnold impression) ‘Don't drink and bake.' 

Yes, exactly! It was keeping his lines smart and funny. He has a very good sense of humour and is very down to Earth, he's not remotely pretentious. The only time I've ever really seen him get hard in terms of demands was in regard to promotion and publicity. 

I had a very good relationship with him. He invited me to his wedding to Maria, but I declined because I thought ‘what am I going to buy?' [laughs].



What are you going to get the couple that has everything?

That's right, it would take my whole fee to live up to his expectations! I bumped into him some years later in Cannes and we had a great reunion. What I like for instance, at Cannes, I was promoting a film and Stallone came in. It was like the President of Israel had come in, about 25 bodyguards who sort of slammed everybody against the wall and pillars and in came Stallone in his high heels to get into the elevator. Totally unnecessary. 

Then about five minutes later, Arnold walks in with Maria just holding his baby, this huge bear with this tiny baby. That really does tell you the difference in the way they both deal with their celebrity. He was just looking so proud, this huge bear with his baby (Laughs).


That's a very sweet image actually. On the other side of filmmaking, how did you find the action sequences? There's a lot of complicated action here, from the quarry shoot-out to the chase sequences. How was it working out that muscle? 

It's interesting when I was a drama director in England on things like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I worked with the best English actors and writers and I was very much considered an actors director. But when I was given The Dogs Of War by Norman Jewison, I let it rip, the little boy, I let it rip. 


Here's Hollywood, let's go! 

It's an element I've always liked. When I was with my gang at school I was always inventing action stuff. The other thing is I spent most of my 20s making documentaries, and you learn where to put the camera. So, I had a natural instinct for elevating or enhancing action. You can't bring the action to the camera in documentaries, you've got to take the camera to the action. And that's how I got this reputation in America for being an action director.


They're very clear action sequences, the geography is very established. Comparing them to some modern-day over-edited action, the difference really is night and day. 

Well, thank you. I always storyboarded it before big action scenes, apart from anything else I was very concerned about safety. So I made sure everyone knew where we were going, what we were doing and where the camera was going. We tried to get as close to the action as we could. If the action isn't in the right place, you won't get the right effect. It was, as Pauline Kael said, I was letting rip in my nursery with toys I never had [laughs].


You followed up this film with what is one of my and my Dad's favourite war films of all time, Hamburger Hill. I really recommend readers seek it out, as I do think it's one of the more underrated Vietnam moves out there. 

Thank you. Well, in America it's really not underrated, it's constantly listed as one of the best War movies ever made. It doesn't get such a reputation here in the UK I think due to Vietnam or whatever. But in America, it is very highly regarded. I was very proud of it, a really hard film to make. People died on it, I lost 24-26 pounds in weight. It was hard. I had to send a lot of the crew back because they weren't fit enough for it. It was very hard. 


Did anything from this film help prepare for that kind of experience or even be it being able to get the film made in the first place or when you were actually on the ground shooting?

No, the last documentary I had made for the BBC was about war photographers and the major part was about Vietnam. I was shocked and appalled by the attitudes that American politicians and generals took toward the 18-19-year-old men and boys who were expected to do the most extraordinary things. I remember we helicoptered into this battle when it was over, or at least when it had calmed down a bit. These young boys going out into enemy lines looking for body parts to send back to their hometowns. 

I felt they hadn't been honoured, understood or respected. These boys right out of high school being handed M16's and sending them up against the men in black pyjamas. They were very dedicated and very determined fighters, but also they were guys who really enjoyed basketball. They were suddenly being confronted by stuff their worst nightmares couldn't even conjure up. So Hamburger Hill came out of that. 

After that documentary, I went into television drama and successful docu-dramas. I was luckily very successful there and after Tinker Tailor with Alec Guinness, Hollywood was beckoning, and I started receiving offers. I was 40 and impatient to get stuck into the feature film business. But in the back of my mind was ‘I've got to do Vietnam, I've got to do it the way it was and the way I saw it.' 

Luckily, I was having lunch with producer Marcia Nasatir and she asked what I wanted to do and I said I wanted to do Vietnam. She said ‘well, I've got this script, the studio doesn't want to make it but we'll find a way.' My agent Sam Kearn did find a way, and the rest as they say is history. 


Well, I'm very glad that you found a way. You've had an incredible career and such a fascinating trajectory, and I really appreciate you taking the time to chat with us today.

Thank you, I've enjoyed it, I always enjoy talking about Arnold!


Raw Deal is out on  ™ Edition, Blu-Ray and DVD from October 24th from StudioCanal