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Interview with Mark Lester

ANNES, FRANCE - Halfway through the new high school horror movie "Class of 1984," certain members of the audience began slipping out of their seats and tiptoeing down the aisle into the lobby. It was hard to see them in the gloom, but they looked like standard Mediterranean businessmen in slippery gray sharkskin suits, patterned white silk shirts and the kind of glasses that automatically darken in the sunshine.

They were film distributors. They were not walking out on the film. They were leaving early for instant conferences in the lobby, to be sure they could buy a piece of the action. No doubt they have never heard of the late Illinois Secretary of State Paul Powell, but they would have understood in an instant his expression for a big cash, deal on the horizon: "I kin smell th' meat a cooking."

In the cutthroat and utterly realistic world of the film marketplace here at the Cannes Film Festival, "Class of '84" is a big hit. It will never play the Palais des Festivals, the gigantic deco stoneheap on the Boulevard Croisette where the new works of Antonioni, Godard and Herzog were unreeled. But on the little Cannes backstreets along the Rue d'Antibes, where the local cinemas run day and night with the new film product that is for sale here, "Class of '84" is just what they're looking for: classy, stylish, very violent, highly promotable. By the end of the movie's first screening, its owners had offers from every major film marketing territory in the world.

Meanwhile, I remained inside the cinema, totally absorbed by a film I gradually realized was really very good. "Class of '84" is not likely to make many critics' "Best 10" lists next January, but after a week of anemic, disappointing and boring "serious" films in a so-far disappointing Cannes Festival, it was a reminder of what movies are, and what they can do: It was a strong story, well-acted, confidently directed, exciting, moving and controversial.

Coming out of the cinema, I ran into Jack Kroll, the critic from Newsweek and we had one of those standard Cannes conversations:

Kroll: "Seen anything worth seeing?"

Self: "Well, to tell you the truth, 'Class of '84' is the best film I've seen so far."

Kroll: "You've got to be kidding."

Self: "Not really. What have you liked so far?"

Kroll (sighs): "Not a whole hell of a lot."

Kroll said he would check out "Class of "84" at a later screening, and marched, off toward the Palais for the official French entry, which was a movie about a rock-'n'-roller who goes on an odyssey around France carrying the body of his twin sister in a bass case (I exaggerate, but only slightly). Meanwhile, later the same afternoon, I met Mark Lester, the director of "Class of '84" for a quick espresso in a dim little joint behind the marketplace. He also co-authored the screenplay for "Class of '84," which is about a deadly duel of the wills between a hero high school music teacher (Perry King) and the dope-dealing punk rocker who runs the school (Timothy Van Patten).

In the course of the movie, King surprises Van Patten and his gang dealing drugs in the graffiti-covered lavatory of the high school, after which a kid on angel dust climbs to the top of the school flagpole, recites the pledge of allegiance and plunges to his death.

Other memorable scenes in the film include the massacre of all the animals in the high school's biology lab, the sudden mutilation of one of the gang members on a buzzsaw in the shop class, an episode in which the grief-crazed biology teacher (Roddy McDowell) terrorizes a class at gunpoint, and a climax during which King chases Van Patten across the skylight above the stage where King's student orchestra is playing the 1812 Overture. "This movie was only finished two days ago," Lester said, stirring two lumps of sugar into the thick black espresso. "We didn't even have time to dub in the 1812 Overture before I got on the plane to bring the print over here."

"The audience reaction was amazing," I said. "The distributors were cheering the teacher, and the young French film buffs were cheering the dope dealer."

"This audience was tame," Lester said scornfully. "At Cannes, they're jaded and cynical. We had a sneak preview of a rough-cut of the movie out in Culver City, in a blue-collar neighborhood, and the kids in the audience went berserk. This movie is going to do for high school what 'Jaws' did for oceans."

"Apart from the fact that it's a very violent exploitation film," I said, "I also thought it was a good, strong piece of filmmaking, and with a lot of visual imagination."

"It's not altogether a fantasy," Lester said. "You know where I got the idea for this film? On a visit to my old high school, out in the San Fernando Valley. I graduated in 1964. When I was there, I was on the debate team, I took the class in international relations. You think they have those things now? Ha. We used to have a dress code. I saw kids in the hallways who weren't even wearing any shirts. I did some research, and found out there were 287,000 assaults in American high schools last year. In Boston, they put the kids through metal weapons detectors. In Florida, they have closed-circuit television scanners. 'Blackboard Jungle' was sweet compared to this."

"That was some scene where the kid got his arm cut off in the shop classroom," I said.

"We researched that, too. What happens when you cut an arm off. That was an artificial arm, you know, that we had built just for that scene."

"I hope so," I said.

Lester sipped his coffee. He looked like the prototype of the young American directors who have been cleaning up at the box office in the last few years: thin, tough, wiry, tanned, with a paramilitary sport shirt and an adolescent grin. I asked about some of his previous films.

"I started making films when I was 19," he said. "I had a documentary about a tribe of Mexican Indians that won an award at the Venice Film Festival; my first well-known film was rather scandalous: 'Tricia's Wedding,' an anti-Nixon satire that, according to John Dean's memoirs, the White House seriously considered going after. My other credits include, ah, let's see. 'Truck Stop Women,' 'Bobbie Jo and the Outlaw,' 'Stunts,' and my most successful, 'Roller Boogie,' with Linda Blair."

"'Class of '84' stands totally apart from that work," I said, sounding like the typical film-crazed, sunstruck movie critic at the Cannes halfway point. "It's my best work," he said, proudly, because he knew (as I knew, for that matter) that "Class of '84" was good work, and that, perhaps more importantly, it was likely to be very successful at the box office. "Where do you go from here?" I asked,

"Well," he said, "we're here at Cannes for two reasons. To stir up controversy, and to sell the film to the entire world, territory by territory. It will open in the United States in July or early August, in 1,000 theaters on the same day, with an enormous advertising campaign, and it will clean up."

"Who is your American distributor?" I asked.

"We don't have one," he said, "We're talking to several of the major studios." He got out some francs to pay for his espresso. "At this point, " he said, "it's basically just a question of who has the best offer."

Paul Powell would have received a lot of genuine enjoyment out of the Cannes Film Festival.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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