Maximum Overdrive oral history

Trucks + Sentience – Compelling Narrative = How Did This Get Made?!?!

Nobody sets out to make a bad movie. But the truth is, it happens all the time. Every time it does, there’s a fun misadventure and cautionary tale lurking somewhere behind the scenes. This is that story for Stephen King’s directorial debut-turned-conclusion: Maximum Overdrive.

How Did This Get Made is a companion to the podcast How Did This Get Made with Paul Scheer, Jason Mantzoukas and June Diane Raphael which focuses on movies so bad they are amazing. This regular feature is written by Blake J. Harris, who you might know as the writer of the book Console Wars, soon to be a motion picture produced by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg. You can listen to the Maximum Overdrive edition of the HDTGM podcast here

Synopsis: After a freak cosmic occurrence, machines everywhere come alive and lash out against their human makers. As a result, a group of survivors (led by Emilio Estevez) holed up in a North Carolina truck stop are eventually forced to go toe-to-toe with a fleet of homicidal trucks.

Tagline: The Day Horror Went Into Overdrive

In July 1973, Cavalier magazine published a short story called “Trucks” by a relatively unknown Maine-based writer named Stephen King. The piece was about a group of strangers, trapped together in a freeway truck stop diner, who must eventually try to combat a posse of killer vehicles. Five years later—following the monster success of King novels like Carrie (1974), ’Salem’s Lot (1975) and The Shining (1975)—“Trucks” was republished in a short story collection called Night Shift.

Given these earlier iterations of the story that would eventually be adapted into Maximum Overdrive, it’s tempting to believe that the origin of this film begins around the time of either publication. But in actuality, the true start of Maximum Overdrive—and the on-set hijinks and horror that would ensue—begins a few years after that, with the filming of a different Stephen King book (Firestarter) and the legendary producer (Dino De Laurentiis) working to get it made…

Here’s what happened, as told by those who made it happen…

Maximum Overdrive Poster

Maximum Overdrive Oral History

Featuring:

  • Roberto Croci Translator
  • Joe D’Allesandro Grip
  • Silvia Giulietti Camera Assistant
  • Chip Hackler Production Assistant
  • Laura Harrington Actress (Brett)
  • Martha De Laurentiis Producer

Photo Credits: All the on set photos featured in this Maximum Overdrive oral history come thanks to Silvia Giulietti unless otherwise noted.

Dino De Laurentiis

Part 1: Dino’s World

One of traits that made Dino De Laurentiis an excellent producer was his audacity to film in locations outside of Los Angeles. Especially in an era where most movies were being shot inside of Hollywood studios. But Dino—who grew up the son of a spaghetti factory owner in Naples, Italy —saw things differently. He was fearless, always. And that relentless temperament is part of what later earned him the personal and professional affection a stunning bookkeeper-turned-producer by the name of Martha Schumacher.

Martha: Dino made King Kong in Los Angeles. In the back lot of MGM. But he wasn’t afraid to make pictures elsewhere, whether that meant New York, Mexico or Morocco.  He was one of the only Western producers to shoot in the Soviet Union. He would go wherever he needed in order to get the most value up on the screen. That’s always what it was about: value on the screen.

To her point, Dino De Laurentiis produced several NYC-based classics in the 1970’s.  

Martha: He was very successful with Serpico, The Valachi Papers and Three Days of the Condor. You had all those great pictures, each showing off a different side of the city by taking it to the streets. And that transitioned to the stories as well. They became very gritty, and you had the neo-realism of New York.

Roberto: [speaks with a fast-paced, frenetic Italian accent] The reason, also, that he did all of this—shoot outside Los Angeles—was to make the movies for less. In California, there are all these laws, taxes, bullshit. So Dino just went to other places. That’s the smart business guy Dino was. He was basically the guy who invented the role of the executive producer. I worked with him for 20 years and one thing he like to say was: “If you’re going to make a buck…why not make more than a buck?”

Dino De Laurentiis

For 20 years, Roberto Croci served as a translator to Dino De Laurentiis. Although Dino spoke with a bit of an accent, his English for the most part was fine. It was passable. So why did he frequently have a translator by his side? To translate scripts into his native language and, because he kept close ties with the filmmaking community in his homeland; frequently working with the best talent that Italy had to offer.  

Roberto: When Dino came to America, he was already the biggest Italian producer ever. He did epic movies in Italy—like War & Peace, Barbarella and La Bibba with Charlton Heston—and then he had also done Flash Gordon in London. But even after he came over here—running an American company with American rules—he always retained his Italian quality. In any building, or in any office where he set up tent, he always had to have the biggest corner office. And always there would be red-color carpet and an oversized desk (so people would feel a little smaller than him).

Martha: Being an Italian, Dino favored highly the Italians. Though I think Italian cinematographers were—and very well still might be—the best in the world. And, in fact, we had an Italian director of photography [Giuseppe Ruzzolini] on Firestarter. We had really great people on that one—and Drew Barrymore was just adorable—but what we struggled with was where are we going to shoot it? Dino was actually looking at an issue of Southern Accents magazine—to search for places that looked “south”—and he saw a picture of Orton Plantation, which is right outside of Wilmington [North Carolina]. And it looked beautiful. With this big white mansion that could be a bucolic façade where, you know, behind the walls, the worst things imaginable happened. So Dino thought this was perfect and said, “Let’s go there!”

Roberto: When Dino offered me my job he said, “Okay, three things: no union, no politics, two weeks vacation.” I said, “Okay. Okay. But three weeks vacation…because I’m Italian.” That was it. That’s how I got started with Dino. And it shows also a little bit of why Wilmington, North Carolina.

Martha: One of the major advantages to North Carolina is that it was a Right to Work state. As was South Carolina. Meaning that you weren’t obligated to bring in union people. And so that was kind of the pea of the idea. And it led to a bit of a war between the governors of North and South Carolinas–they both wanted our business—but, in the end, because of that magazine cover Dino that had seen, we decided to film Firestarter in North Carolina.

firestarter

With a budget of $15 million, Firestarter’s domestic box office ($17 million) might seem like only a modest success. But at the crux of De Laurentiis’ business strategy was his talent for pre-selling foreign rights. So when considering all the many territories out there—and the fact that Dino was one of the few producers who could actually close those kinds of deals—the success of Firestarter was anything but modest. In fact, it proved to be the beginning of an entirely new business plan. 

Martha: During Firestarter, we just kind of fell in love with North Carolina and the idea of setting some roots. Really starting a film base down there and making a life for ourselves as well. That was really important to Dino: that we enjoyed living where we shot. So we ended up building a fifty-acre film studio in Wilmington and a home over in Wrightsville. And the town embraced us. There wasn’t a sense of them trying to say no you can’t do this or that. And that’s what filmmaking used to be. You have an idea. You have a handshake. Let’s do it. And that’s what this was. We didn’t go in and take over. There was a cooperativeness to what we were doing and a love of us being there. There was a honeymoon feeling and it was just the best time. The best time. The booming ’80s!

Roberto: Dino loved Martha. He loved Martha, there was no doubt about it. The first time I heard about her was when I went from Los Angeles to New York. Dino had an office there—at the Gulf and Western Plaza—and people there told me about her. “Martha,” they say, “is something that Dino likes.”

Martha: When I was a little girl, I used to watch Perry Mason. And I loved the character of Della Street. I loved how she always brought in those clues—those clues that solved the mystery—and how she helped Perry Mason be the success that he was. So I thought: that’s what I want to do when I grow up. I want to be contributory to someone’s success. ‘Cause in my generation—of little girls who graduated in the 50s, 60s and early 70s—unless you had parents who were doctors, lawyers or of a higher profession, you were basically encouraged to either be a nurse, a teacher or a secretary. And so, just like Della Street, I decided to be a secretary.

Roberto: I do believe, but am not completely sure, that Martha started with Dino in the accounting department.

Martha: That’s right. Because it just so happened that after I graduated from college, I moved to New York and modeled for a short time. I had actually gotten a modeling contract in high school but after college, for that now to be my career, it proved not to have that exalted goal of helping someone to be great. It was not my cup of tea, so I used the accounting experience that I had from college to look for some other jobs. During the days, I would do bookkeeping for a few different companies and then, at night, I would waitress at Rick Newman’s “Catch a Rising Star.” It was a famous comedy club on the Upper East Side. Larry David came out of there, Jerry Seinfeld too. And Richard Belzer used to emcee. It was just a great time! And what happened was that a waitress friend of mine—who was working for an extras casting agency—she told me that a bookkeeper over there had left and their accountant was all in a tizzy. She said, “You can do that, right?” From a technical standpoint, yes, I was capable of doing the job. But I had no idea what went on in the film industry. Because really it wasn’t a pure payroll job—there were union restrictions, fringe benefits, this guy has to get paid before that guy—but I liked the idea of helping other people make movies. Help them deliver the goods. So finally I said, “…sure.” And that’s how I got into the film business.

Marta Armando Stephen king

Almost immediately, Martha fell in love with the job. 

Martha: Because in our industry, two plus two does not make four. Interpretations take everything in another direction. And a lot of times, locations are lost, or overtime kicks in, etc. There’s always something.

Roberto: Plus everything can always be changed. Because, you know, the script can always be changed. Dino is the only producer I ever met that read every single line of every single screenplay. And he did it because every page tells you how much money you’re going to spend. So say, for example, page one says: We open on a wide panorama of sunny Los Angeles with our hero in the middle of a helicopter chase. Dino would read this and then say, “Roberto! Change it to cars. Make it a car chase. Oh, and switch it to sunny North Carolina instead.”

Martha: One of Dino’s first meetings every day—before even going on to set—was with the accountants. He needed an update on where everything stood with the cash flow. Credit-wise, document-wise, delivery-wise. He needed to know what a particular movie was going to cost on that particular day. And what happens if we go over budget? What could cause that to happen? Can we anticipate it? And if we were under budget—which we better be—are we getting what we want creatively? Are we getting what we need? That was Dino. And being with Dino in an office—him asking you questions like, and you being able to give him the information—it just gave you a major sense of fulfillment.

Roberto: Unofficially, at some point, we knew that the two of them were an item.

Martha: The first movie I worked on with Dino [initially as an outside employee] was Milos Foreman’s Ragtime. I ended up effectively taking over the post process on that, as well as the delivery. And at some point along the way—in 1981—Dino asked me to join his company. So in addition to accounting, I started supervising the other films that Dino was making: Death Wish and Conan the Barbarian (which his daughter Raffaella was producing). It just became a nice working relationship with Dino. And, around this time, there had been some unfortunate events in Dino’s life. He lost his son—I don’t really want to talk about it—but he lost his son to a tragic plane accident and his life fell apart. His marriage fell apart. And so eventually, in his building his life back, I became part of that. So we just did everything together.

Roberto: Speaking honestly, Dino could have had any woman in the world. And when he met Martha, I knew it was Italian love. Because the first thing he did was purchase the rights to several novels from the most successful novelist in the world at the time. And that man was Stephen King.

Martha: Stephen’s a master. He’s the best.

Roberto: But the reason that Dino get the novels was—on one side—to make movies, yes, but—on the other side—it was to teach his woman, the one he fell in love with, the business. So that 1) no one could say to him “you’re an asshole” and 2) nobody could say to her “you don’t know what you’re doing.” Because who could argue with buying the rights to the most successful, most read novelist in America? So we end up doing Firestarter, Cat’s Eye and Maximum Overdrive. 

On those latter two movies, a British filmmaker named Milton Subotsky earned a credit as co-producer. That’s because, a few years back, Subotsky had purchased the film rights to several stories from Stephen King’s Night Shift collection. 

King, however, wasn’t a big fan of Milton Subotsky. According to Scott Von Doviak’s book Stephen King Films FAQ, King referred to Subotsky as “the Hubert Humphrey of horror” and someone who thinks, “all horror pictures should somehow be uplifting.” And with “Trucks”—not unlike Cat’s Eye, which was an anthology of three unrelated King stories—the plan was to package this one with “The Lawnmower Man” and “The Mangler” to create a compilation called The Machines. Subotsky moved forward with this idea, to the point that he even had a script drafted by screenwriters Edward and Valerie Abraham. Ultimately, however, he was unable to secure financing. As a result—and because he was in the midst of an unrelated lawsuit—Subotsky sold the rights to Dino De Laurentiis. 

Martha: Stephen actually recommended to Dino some stories from the book Night Shift that he had sold back in the 70s to Milton Sobotsky. So it was that suggestion and the fondness that Stephen had for Dino—Dino was very charming, and he loved storytellers—that led to Maximum Overdrive. But before that film actually, on Cat’s Eye, Dino had given Stephen the opportunity to write his first screenplay So Stephen wrote this great script and then came and stayed with us during production and post-production. So we considered him family. He gave us his passion and his talent—and trusted us—and I hope that we always did that reciprocally. But getting back to Maximum Overdrive and your whole big question—how did this get made—it’s because Stephen later said to Dino, “I want to direct.” And Dino said to Stephen, “Why not? You should.”

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