Interview with C. Courtney Joyner: Cult Movie Screenwriter
by Lee Sobel
C. Courtney Joyner wrote one of my favorite post-apocalyptic action movies, CLASS OF 1999 (1990) directed by Mark L. Lester. I have the feeling that a lot of people are unfamiliar with this movie so I am on a personal mission to try to get people to see it. It reminded me a little of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, how Kubrick commented on technology and its dehumanizing effects. In the case of CLASS OF 1999, it's teachers as punitive androids instead of brainwashing out your Id. While CLASS OF 1999 would never otherwise be compared to a work by Kubrick, it instead delivers the goods of an old-fashioned drive-in movie -- the era that director Lester cut his teeth on. Plus it has Malcom McDowell in it so you know Lester was acknowledging Kubrick's masterpiece of ultra violence. Joyner has written many movies, among them PRISON (1988) which was the American feature film debut of director Renny Harlin and the debut of star Viggo Mortensen and it's a bit like if you rewrote John Carpenter's HALLOWEEN and set it in a maximum security prison. Joyner is also the author of several novels, director of one movie and actor in several others -- a renaissance man if ever there was one and someone who you should know if you love B-movies like I do!
Lee Sobel: Tell me about your early days in the movie business.
C. Courtney Joyner: I was an extra in the Charles Bronson movie MURPHY’S LAW. I had a buddy who did the extra casting for Cannon Pictures, and he asked me to be an extra, and I tagged Jeff Burr – to be in a Bronson flick, directed by J. Lee Thompson??? We couldn’t get to the Chinatown location fast enough. As soon as we arrived, we saw Bronson – much shorter than I thought he was – and he wasn’t happy. He’d been brought to the set hours before he was needed and an assistant director was making excuses, and Bronson said, “Now you’re just fucking me around!” And walked off. They were shooting on the second floor of a Chinese restaurant they’d turned into a strip joint, and I wasn’t chosen to be in the part of the scene they were shooting, although my buddy was. I sat outside – absolutely alone, except for a random production assistant – and I went to get some water and saw Bronson. I knew I’d never have a chance to speak to him again, and he was still pissed off, but I went up to him and stammered how much I loved RIDER ON THE RAIN.
Bronson just looked at me.
At least I got it said, and went for my water. Bronson vanished. I was still hanging out, and half an hour later, got some more water and I turned around and there was
Bronson – and he told me about shooting RIDER. It was only a few minutes, but pretty damn cool. Later, I was put into the strip club scene as a patron, leering at Angel Tompkins (as C.B.’s wife), as she danced. She finishes, grabs up the singles I’ve thrown and Bronson comes at her, telling her “looks like a whore, and your boyfriend looks like a Pimp!” That’s “Pimp” with a capitol “P.” He put so much emphasis on the “P” that I laughed, and spoiled the take. J. Lee Thompson, who had the habit of walking in circles, tearing up pieces of paper – a nervous habit he developed when he’d stopped drinking, apparently – wasn’t happy about me blowing the scene. But for some reason, Bronson kept saying it over and over – and always adding the extra “PPP” to “Pimp!”
I was on and off the set for the rest of the shoot, and then a month or two later, went down for some re-takes that were needed with my pal, Lawrence Tierney. I knew Larry well – truly well, for many years; before DOGS and all the rest, but that’s a book in itself. Larry was doing a scene with Carrie Snodgress, who was a lovely lady, and he took me with him into the production trailer for the rehearsal. Larry told everyone I was “all right” and I sat on a tiny couch, trying to be a fly on the wall, with Larry, Miss Snodgress, Charles Bronson and J. Lee Thompson around the trailer, looking over the script. They ran the dialog, talked a bit about a small change, then Bronson sort-of nodded in my direction and left. Lee Thompson looked to me and asked what I thought, since I didn’t know anything about the movie, and I
said, “It’s like CAPE FEAR meets DIARY OF A MAD HOUSEWIFE!” Carrie laughed, and Lee Thompson said, “Well thank God you didn’t say NAVARRONE!”
After college, I went to work at Universal with one of the big directors of episodic TV, Virgil Vogel. We worked together for years n scripts – sold a few – and I got to know the in's and out's of Universal TV, as it was in the 80’s. I
worked on an episode of AIRWOLF and one of the guest stars was Greg Walcott who had been in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE. I’d loved him in flicks going back to his days with John Ford, but had to ask him about Ed Wood. Greg wouldn’t swear when expressing himself, and one day he told me, “That Ed Wood, he surrounded himself with the strangest bunch, and well, cheese and crackers! I just didn’t think he knew anything about directing!” I always think of “cheese and crackers!” when I watch a Wood flick.
I wrote all the episodes of WILLIAM SHATNER’S FRIGHT NIGHT for the Syfy Channel, where Bill hosted movies from Charlie Band’s Full Moon catalog, with intro’s, special material and even a special guest who was interviewed. We had some great folks, like Roger Corman, Stan Lee, Stuart Gordon – and I wrote the wacky stuff with Bill and all the interview questions. There were also some monster characters that Bill interacted with, and frankly, he was great. Very kind to me, as there was always a lot to do for each show in very little time. But, we had a small issue because we were filming on a stage in the valley that was used for a lot of adult movies. It was large, and had a green screen, and was perfect for us, but was owned by a huge porn outfit. We didn’t want Bill to know, but there were a few clues, including our starlet make-up girls and signs on the walls that declared, “Please do not enter the front office unless you’re fully clothed.” Finally, we had to
admit to Bill what was going on, and he looked around the stage, and said in pure Shatner-Use: “You – mean – people – have had – orgasms – right where I’m standing?” Absolutely classic.
Lee Sobel: Of the movies you wrote, which are your favorites?
C. Courtney Joyner: Of course it was an honor to write dialogue for Vincent Price on FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM aka THE OFFSPRING (1987) which was my first movie produced. PRISON (1987) opened so many doors for me, especially my long friendship and mentor-ship with Irwin Yablans. Of course, we gave Viggo Mortensen a lead role, and what a fine guy he is. And, I loved having a flick shot by Mac Ahlberg. PUPPET MASTER 3 with Dave Decoteau was great fun because we shot it at Universal, and we got to kill Nazis in a period setting, which I always love. When I did the Ma Barker movie with Mark Lester, PUBLIC ENEMIES, we had a great cast and they got amazing action stuff on a limited budget; also, Eric Roberts, who was really excellent in the film, sent me a silver picture frame with the movie’s production dates engraved on it. No other actor has ever done something that kind, for me, as a writer.
Off movies, I wrote the CD-ROM for The Rolling Stones’ VOODOO LOUNGE, and got
C. Courtney Joyner
to work with them. Working with the Stones? That tops the list. But, all of these movies were made for short money – the biggest probably CLASS OF 1999 or some of the television – and so what I loved was working within the budgets, and creating something on paper that could be shot for the cash-in-hand, rather than trying to cram an unshootable script into a lower-budget box. I will say, that the late, and very nice, Larry “Flash” Jenkins arranged for a theatrical revival of PRISON at the Egyptian Theater about two years ago, and we had a great reunion, and seeing the movie on the big screen again – that was a blast. And I do think it holds up really well.
Lee Sobel: You wrote a lot of movies for producer/director Mark L. Lester - what can you tell me about how you worked together and specifically do you have any interesting stories about CLASS OF 1999 which I thought was an excellent post apocalyptic action movie.
2019 book signing at The Autry Museum in L.A.
C. Courtney Joyner: I got the job writing CLASS OF 1999 because Mark L. Lester had seen PRISON, and Irwin Yablans recommended me. Mark’s partner on the film was the great screenwriter Stanley Mann, who was my mentor on the project, and what a fabulous guy he was. We were working out of the General Service Studios, which Coppola had owned, and had a very nice office. I came in one morning and my pages were being read by Stanley and Mark, and I peaked in the office, not wanting to interrupt and Stanley stood up with, “Court, get in here! You’re one of us!” From the man who wrote EYE OF THE NEEDLE, and CONAN – KING OF THIEVES, and THE MARK, and all the rest – it made me feel like a million dollars.
There were a lot of drafts of the script, and I was on and off the project a number of times, but Mark always came back to my original script and I wrote the final shooting draft, so I guess I did something right. I loved that Pam Grier -who was so cool - and John P. Ryan were in the cast, and Malcolm McDowell and Stacy Keach were absolute gentlemen. Just wonderful. We shot the movie in Seattle, and I was able to bring my parents to the set
when we were filming the final assault on the high school, and they were impressed. That was great fun, and so satisfying.
I loved seeing the creation of the effects from Eric Allard and the Burmans; these were all practical, on-set effects. True movie magic. The flame thrower arm for Pam Grier, the rocket launchers, the robotics. All real, and all amazing. The original ending had the robot teachers being blown apart and then all of their separate parts coming back together as a spider/tank creature. I was thinking of the great E9 robot, animated by Phil Tippett at the end of ROBOCOP. It just wasn’t in our budget, so I re-imagined it and Eric built the full-scale robot, that was suspended from a track over the set and was terrific. Great fun to see such a wild creation come from my pages, and actually be there – for real.
The charge I got out of long conversations with DP Mark Irwin about shooting for Cronenberg and John Ryan about FIVE EASY PIECES and RUNAWAY TRAIN was incredible. John had the suite next to me in the hotel, and we started having breakfast together – and I think he’s a blast in the movie. Just loved him. All these talks, these memories bring up one thing: I’ve never lost the feeling of movie-geek thrills. And never will.
Vestron declared bankruptcy before the movie was released, but we got picked up by UFD, who handled Romero’s films, so I was quite pleased as we received a wide theatrical release and it’s the only movie I’ve done that had billboards, including a giant one on Sunset Boulevard. At the Pacific Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, CLASS played on the big screen downstairs and PRISON played in one of the smaller houses; that was great, to have them there at the same time. Of course, the theater later went out of business – but I got in there!
That film led to all the other collaborations with Mark – I think seven produced movies - and they worked out well, even when we were making films strictly for cable. Mark and I had a
Stacy Keach in CLASS OF1999
Viggo Mortensen in PRISON
communication, that allowed me to lay out action on paper just as he would direct it. This happened over and over. One night we were driving to a location and started to talk about it, and he felt we were just “in sync.” One film, WHITE RUSH, which was a nice, low-budget crime flick with Taylor Sheridan in the cast, had a big shoot-out at the end between a cop and a hired female assassin that took place in a refinery. The location was a last-minute “get,” so the scene had to be altered from what I’d originally written, and Mark and I just walked the location that day, talking through the scene and I wrote it – and it was how he did it, shot-for-shot. Never missing a beat, or a moment. I was proud
of that. Even these smaller films, for the home market, you can find things to be proud of.
Lee Sobel: PRISON, which you wrote was not only Viggo Mortensen's first starring role but also Renny Harlin's first movie in the US as director. What kinds of memorable incidents can you recall about making that movie?
C. Courtney Joyner: Through a recommendation of a USC classmate, I got the chance to work with Irwin Yablans, and his then-partner, Bruce Cohn Curtis, on PRISON. They didn’t stay together as producers, but remained a huge influence in my life, and great, great, friends. The impact that Irwin had on me for years was
Vincent Price in FROM A WHISPER TO A SCREAM
John P. Ryan in CLASS OF 1999
enormous, and as I went from movie to movie, he was the guiding force. Absolutely. Of course, Renny Harlin and I got together for the first time working on this film, and then we became house-mates when his friend moved back to Finland. It was a great house in the Hollywood Hills, and the business was already circling Renny, as he’d made BORN AMERICAN and folks were talking about him and he was being groomed by his reps for bigger stuff, which certainly happened.
A Hollywood true-ism: Renny Harlin and I wanted to go see COBRA, starring Sly Stallone and playing at the Chinese Theater in a 24hr. “COBRA-THON.” We had no money. Truly, as we hadn’t gotten our first cash for PRISON. So, we went through our jean pockets and the
couch cushions to find some admission cash, and maybe something for a soda we could split. We lived in Hollywood a few blocks from the theater so we walked, and it started to rain. We got to the Chinese and waited, soaked, in a long line for the VIP’s – Frank Stallone and others – to go inside first, private security guards making sure we didn’t get too close. And maybe five years after that, Renny’s directing DIE HARD 2, and then a few more years, and CLIFFHANGER with Sly. Freezing to death, wet, waiting for a chance to get in the theater and out of the storm, and who could predict my shivering roommate would make it to the top of the Hollywood mountain?
Casting on that film was a real process, especially when looking for someone to play the Warden. Tony LoBianco
CLASS OF 1999
CLASS OF 1999
came in, with notes about the script that he had recorded and made us listen to the recording of his changes and suggestions – his voice – while he sat there with us. Very strange. Barry Newman came in, and we just had a ball with him; sun-tanned and ready to go. We didn’t cast him, but had a great afternoon talking about FEAR IS THE KEY.
The big one though, was Robert Culp. He came in, looking ten feet tall, with that high hair, and looked down at me, took a breath, and said “So…you…wrote…this…screenplay…?” I squeaked out that I had. He took another long pause, looked to the ceiling for a beat, then down at me, with, “Interesting.” Wow. I got slammed by Bob Culp in
genuine Culp-contempt style! That was great. And when I see him on COLUMBO, getting ready to blow up at Peter Falk, I always think, "Hey, I got that look directed at me!"
For casting, to find Lane Smith and Viggo Mortensen for the film were just gifts. Wonderful people and wonderful performances. During a script reading, I was sitting on the floor next to Tom “Tiny” Lister, as we’d run out of chairs. He leaned back and whacked his head against the sharp corner of a desk, and blood was running down his shirt. I was startled, and he put his fingers on the wound, came back with blood and just shrugged. Never even felt it.
Stephen E. Little, who played “Rhino,” was an actual prisoner from the Wyoming State Penitentiary. We shot the movie in Rawlins, at the old territorial prison – which was amazing, and exactly what I had written, and had finally been closed in the 70’s, after being used for more than a hundred years. We hired extras from the newly built prison just down the road, and Stephen Little had a SAG card. He had a background in stunts, and was working on CENTENNIAL, when he got into a bar fight and the guy he was fighting was killed during the melee. The victim was from the Cheyenne Nation, and the crime was publicized and Stephen got a maximum sentence for manslaughter.
We hired him, but he was in shackles and cuffs when the cameras weren’t turning, and an armed guard around him all the time.
Lee Sobel: I know you were a fan of Famous Monsters and loved comics and the Aurora models as a kid, as did I and I still do. Why do you think people like you and me still cherish these things?
C. Courtney Joyner: The reason so much of these things – silly or valuable – have such importance, is they not only represent a bygone era, but they were the images and words that inspired us to pursue our chosen field of writing or directing or acting – the creative arts. And hopefully, make a living at it. But, the reason that these things have stayed with us is because none of this was available with the touch of a button. If we wanted to see a movie, we had to find where it was being shown. If we wanted to read a comic or a book, we had to hunt it down, and if it was old, that meant haunting libraries or old book stores. No kindle, no remote control. No Amazon. These are wonderful things, but this time in the 60’s and 70’s – the great time of the monster kits and readers and movie lovers – was a time when you had to work for your passions, and I think that’s why they’ve never left us. They certainly have never left me.