Documenting A Cult Classic


“Greg? This is Ferde Grofé,” says the voice at the other end of the phone. “What can I do to help you with the documentary?”

He had the voice of a well-trained actor—a charming, cultured, intelligent voice. I knew he was a member of the Academy and an emeritus member of the Writers Guild of America, but still… this wasn’t what I’d been expecting.

Could this be the same person angrily described to me by a former colleague as a task-master on set with a legendary reputation for penny-pinching? A pioneer of guerilla moviemaking? A bona fide cult movie director?

The cult movie in question was the low-budget heist flick, Day of the Wolves. Shot on location in Lake Havasu City, Arizona in 1971, it tells the story of a group of bearded thieves, known to each other only by their numbers, who attempt to fleece a small town but are thwarted by the town’s ex-sheriff. Targeted at the U.S. television market, the movie ends ambiguously at a time when television still rigidly adhered to its self-imposed version of the “Production Code.” Grofé was thumbing his nose at the establishment even then.

A cult movie is like a really obscure joke that hardly anyone else gets. You don’t care that they don’t get the joke, because for you it hits the spot (in fact, it makes it cooler when others don’t get it). Day of the Wolves is like that. Some people see it as a scrappily made TV movie with low production values. For those of us under its spell, though, it is a gem.

The storyline is mesmerizing, the action sequences hit the mark and the baddies look great in their numbered jumpsuits. Richard Egan, Jan Murray and Rick Jason are outstanding in the lead roles. In fact, the movie’s unique vibe is heightened by local amateur actors working side-by-side with Hollywood stars and character actors. Sure it looks like it was made for $1.50 and the beards that the “wolves” wear could have been purchased at a convenience store, but that doesn’t matter because the movie works. To see it is to be quickly convinced of its influence on Quentin Tarantino’s tour-de-force debut, Reservoir Dogs.

“Okay, I’ll give you an interview if you agree to bring us down to San Diego,” Grofé says.

The “us” was he and his wife. It was a gift—the offer I couldn’t refuse. For the cost of two coach tickets from the Pacific Northwest, I could interact with Grofé at my leisure in my hometown and arrange a mini-reunion with assistant director Peter Macgregor-Scott.

The idea for my documentary, Return to Lake Havasu, came a few months earlier when my production partner, Erika Paul, and I found musician Sean Bonniwell’s Website by chance. Better known as the leader of the 1960s rock band The Music Machine, Bonniwell scored the haunting theme music for Day of the Wolves. The rock soundtrack is one of several reasons why the title stands out from other movies of the period. I shot him an e-mail to ask him about his score for the movie. He wrote back telling me how Grofé exploded when he first heard the score (“This is not what I asked for at all. It’s a rock score!” Grofé had apparently shouted at him). It sounded like there was an interesting backstory to the production.

Before committing to a full feature, I needed to talk with some of the cast and crew to get a feel for whether there would be sufficient material.
Technical associations such as the Society of Camera Operators can be very useful sources for tracking down crew members; they put us in touch with Mike Scott and Cal Roberts, the movie’s grip and assistant cameraman, respectively. While most of the professional crew were in their early 20s at that time and are still alive and well now, many of the actors have since passed away or dropped out of sight. The Screen Actors Guild has a phone service that can provide contact information for an actor’s agent, but that isn’t a lot of help if the actor doesn’t have representation.
Day of the Wolves was the first movie for a lot of its crew who went onto greater things, and Macgregor-Scott (credited as AD on the production) is a good example. He’s now a major Hollywood producer whose list of credits includes The Jerk, The Fugitive, Batman Forever and The Guardian. Would he want to be reminded of his ultra-low-budget start? He answered the phone with a terse “Yeah, Peter,” and I nervously explained our project to document his first American movie. There was a pause that seemed to last forever, and then he burst out laughing. There was the inevitable “Why on earth would you want to make a documentary about Day of the Wolves?” But he quickly asked what he could do to help. Through him we were able to contact Andre Marquis (Wolf No. 3), Frankie Randall (Wolf No. 2), Smokey Roberds (Wolf No. 7) and, finally, Grofé.

If a production team can be considered a family, then this one still has some unresolved issues, with complaints from some about pay and working conditions. That said, everyone we spoke with was glad to have had the opportunity to work on the movie; one of the more enjoyable aspects of making our documentary was being able to put cast and crew in contact with each other after 37 years.

The importance of being able to show relevant clips and music in a documentary like this one can’t be over-emphasized; we were fortunate in that both the movie and its music rights were privately owned, so securing a deal to use these was tenable. I’ve lost count of the number of threads in online discussion groups that I’ve seen where new moviemakers talk about using studio-owned footage in documentaries or their favorite Sheryl Crow song in the soundtrack. Don’t go there unless you’re making a home movie or are rich enough to pay the tens of thousands of dollars that route will cost. Similarly, there seem to be wild misconceptions about “Fair Use” of copyrighted material in commercial productions. It’s cliché to say, “Consult an entertainment lawyer,” but anyone thinking of working on a doc should do just that. We did, and for $250 we were able to shoot questions at a local entertainment attorney for one hour.

At the same time we were hunting down cast and crew in Los Angeles, we were also tracking down people in Lake Havasu City. Dan Delasantos of the Lake Havasu High School Alumni Association sent out an e-mail to members and Lake Havasu’s Today’s News-Herald wrote articles about our documentary and also gave us permission to use the articles they had written about the film in 1971.

Our biggest break was finding Floyd Hamilton. Hamilton was the president of the Lake Havasu City Theatre Guild when Day of the Wolves came to town. (He and Michael Biehn of Terminator fame, then a high school student, used to play father and son in guild productions.) Hamilton played a key role in recruiting local actors to the production. He acted in the barely-seen roles of chauffeur and pilot, but his most prominent role was behind the camera as a production assistant. His memory of that period is as sharp as a needle; from a brief phone conversation I could tell that he would be a great interviewee. He mentioned as a side note that he had a set of pristine condition 35mm slides taken behind the scenes that we could use; this turned out to be critically important since Grofé had no production stills.

By the time Grofé came to San Diego in August of 2007, we had gotten almost all the interviews that we’d wanted and just needed to get the most important interview in the can: The director’s.

A distinguished looking man in his mid-70s with a very personable manner, it’s difficult not to immediately warm to Grofé when you meet him. Devoted to his wife, Constanza, and she to him, it’s evident that they work as a team and have done so since his earliest days as an independent movie director in Manila.

It’s possible that time has mellowed his inner rogue, but I doubt it; he still has the fire and ambition of a young moviemaker needing to prove himself daily, which manifests itself in the stream of screenplays and stories he writes for the audio narrations he makes. Needless to say, he was a great interview subject.

While in Southern California, he used the opportunity to pitch a screenplay he’d just written to a contact at one of the major studios. They weren’t buying, but did ask him why he was in town, to which he explained that an old movie of his was now being lauded as a cult classic. The studio promptly started negotiating with him for the rights to remake it. I hope they remake it well.

I never did get to ask Tarantino what he thinks of Day of the Wolves, and it’s unlikely that this documentary will ever make us rich. But we got to document a classic film the way we wanted, and in the process made many new friends. We got to discover a beautiful town in Arizona and in a small way became part of the history of a cult classic.

For more information on Return to Lake Havasu, visit www.returntolakehavasu.com.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.