W.D. Richter
W.D. Richter on the set
of "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai
Across the Eighth Dimension."

The Adventures of W.D. Richter
Across the 'Buckaroo' Dimension

Producer and director talks about his unusual film
and the devoted audience it has developed

By John Orr
January 25, 2002

For W.D. Richter, there was a great side of making "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension,'' and there was the dark side.

"What was very pleasant was the creative side," Richter said by phone from his Vermont home on January 9. "Dealing with the people, the crew, the actors.

More on "Buckaroo'

Actor Clancy Brown talks about playing Rawhide and his life as an actor.

Review of "Buckaroo Banzai."

Buy the DVD.

"The dark side was having someone like David Begelman hovering over me. He was taking a lot of the joy out of it ... I tried to compartmentalize it, and remember the joy and not having to focus on the painful part. I tried to remember, 'He'll be gone and the movie will be around.'"

On the great new DVD of the movie -- and over the phone to me -- Richter tells fascinating stories about Begelman, the studio boss who'd already been known for ripping off a check meant for actor Cliff Robertson, before he gave the green light to make the odd sci-fi comedy that Richter had commissioned from writer Earl Mac Rauch.

For instance, that Begelman threated to close the production if Buckaroo was seen wearing red glasses too many times. "Heroes don't wear red glasses," Richter remembers him saying.

And Begelman switching camera crews part way through the production.

And Begelman, perhaps, running something of a scam ala "The Producers."

"The budget was $12 million," Richter said by phone. "You'll hear it was $25 million, because that's what Begelman let out. He did that for a very specific reason. He was doing a kind of 'Producers' on this movie. He raised a lot of this money independently, because Sherwood (Begelman's production company for the movie) wasn't fully funded.

"He took me to Cannes and had me pitch this thing, in the middle of preproduction, to all kinds of foreign distributors. And he told me, 'You're going to hear me say it's a $25 million movie. Don't worry about that. If I don't say it's that high, then they won't want the movie because they'll think it can't possibly look good.'

"But what I didn't realize ... he just literally raised more than the budget of the movie. And I think he stole it. I think I was standing in the middle of it and didn't understand it at that time.

"Begelman was a huge pain, and he took himself out (suicide) for the rest of us one day -- that was a weird thing to hear."

But, we don't remember pain as well as we remember pleasure, and Richter has plenty of pleasure to recall about the making of the wonderful film, which pretty much tanked at the box office initially, but that went on to develop a base of devoted fans.

Ellin Barkin, John Lithgow In his commentary on the DVD, and over the phone, Richter sounds almost in awe of, and certainly grateful to John Lithgow, who created the funniest role of his career in Dr. Emilio Lizardo, who is possessed by the evil Lord John Whorfin from Planet 10.

It hadn't occurred to Richter -- what with all the other details he had to consider, as producer and director, that Lizardo would have an Italian accent.

But it had occurred to Lithgow, who found his own dialogue coach in Roberto Terminelli -- a tailor who had done some fittings for Lithgow on other movies. And, Lithgow watched speeches by Mussolini as inspiration for his amazing scene with the Red Lectroids in the Yoyodyne spaceship factory.

Lord John Whorfin: Where are we going?
Red Lectroids: Planet Ten!
Lord John Whorfin: When?
Red Lectroids: Real soon!

Quoting the dialogue does nothing to truly describe that scene, in which Lithgow is crouching and hissing and screaming, in a frenzy to get his troops excited.

Richter remembers being on the factory floor below Lithgow, desperate to not laugh out loud and spoil the live microphone take. He was stunned by what Lithgow brought to the role.

Lithgow's Lord Whorfin makes his Dick Solomon, on "Third Rock from the Sun," look like Ward Cleaver.

And Richter recalls the overall creativity on the set, a creativity that wasn't constricted by craft unions or crew jealousy.

"People got the sense," he recalled, "That there didn't seem to be rules on the set," which led to a lot of tasty bits in the movie.

Such as production designer Michael Riva giving free rein to property manager Eric Nelson, who came up with the bubble-wrap eyeglasses sent from Planet 10 to view a hologram, the "Declaration of War -- The Short Form" used by the U.S. president, and many of the other goofy things that make "Buckaroo Banzai" such an unusual film.

Ellen Barkin, Jeff Goldblum"Buckaroo Banzai" is filled with droll jokes delivered with wry seriousness that was screamingly funny. The great cast included Christopher Lloyd, Jeff Goldblum, Dan Hedaya and others. It was at once a genuine adventure film and a parody of adventure films, and its irony-charged dance between genres made ''Buckaroo Banzai'' an instant cult favorite.

For way too small an audience, at least initially.

''You never know how a show's going to do,'' said actor Clancy Brown (who played Buckaroo's best friend, Rawhide) by phone on Jan. 5, the day after the DVD of the film was released. ''"Buckaroo' didn't open well in the states. ... and even then, back in the '80s, if you don't open well, you were gone.''

Richter, by phone, said a friend of his who was an executive in the 20th Century Fox distribution division at the time ''to this day apologizes to me for how the film was released.''

Robert ItoHumor-challenged film critics who just couldn't deal with the movie's mix of wry wit and over-the-top bizarreness -- such as Lithgow's spitting, screaming John Whorfin, or Carl Lumbly as a Black Lectroid emissary who looked and sounded like a Rastafarian, mon, or the completely illogical but hilarious production design -- trashed the movie.

''But every year,'' Richter says on the DVD itself, ''it got more interesting when the fan base kind of coalesced and they started newsletters and then the Internet really let everything loose and now I'm thrilled to have made this movie, because it's really obviously made a lot of people happy.''

On the Internet Movie Data Base, fans have rated ''Buckaroo Banzai'' the 22nd best movie of 1984 -- out of 3,695 titles for that year. (''Terminator'' is No. 1; ''Amadeus'' is No. 2. ''Buckaroo'' bests some interesting movies, including ''Starman'' at 24, ''All of Me at 35 and ''Broadway Danny Rose'' at 45.)

It's that fan base, in effect, that forced the making of a well-done ''Buckaroo Banzai'' DVD.

MGM, while looking through its catalog for possible DVD properties following the studio merger mania of the late 20th century, found ''Buckaroo Banzai'' on the list and hired sound producer Chris Johnston to clean it up. Turns out Johnston is a fan.

Johnston was disappointed that MGM had no plans for anything other than a quick and dirty DVD and got in touch with Richter, who started making calls. In the meantime, MGM was finding its recent release of the film on VHS was selling better than anticipated.

So, MGM hired Michael Arick to produce new DVD features, Richter found the original negative and other material and a number of people volunteered to work on it. The resulting package is a real treat.

It's a clean and pretty widescreen transfer with excellent 5.1 audio track and can be seen in the original release length, or in a longer version that includes an entire opening sequence with Jamie Lee Curtis and James Saito as Buckaroo's parents that had previously been deleted.

The ''Declassified Documentary'' is a making-of feature from 1984, but there is also new material with Richter, who also provides an audio commentary track. Helping out on that track is Earl Mac Rauch, who wrote the script. The commentary track is fascinating.

Jamie Lee Curtis, James Saito, Greg MiresThere are deleted scenes, a goofy subtitle track that can be selected with "Pinky Carruther's Unknown Facts" -- such as that Buckaroo carried Albert Einstein's brain with him in the jet car. Plus, plenty of other material, factual and fictional, including a photo gallery, a feature on jet cars, character profiles and much more.

"I don't go in thinking [the DVD] will light the world on fire," said Richter, "But it will be lovingly passed around among its fans, and will continue to find like minds for a long time."

Buy the DVD It would take a half-hour to describe it. So see it for yourself. Because, as Buckaroo says, ''No matter where you go, there you are.''


One of the jokes -- or perhaps some wishful thinking -- in "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension'' comes at the very end, when we see the Hong Kong Kavaliers, including the recently deceased but apparently revived Rawhide, marching along a concrete Los Angeles riverbed. The titles promise a sequel: "Buckaroo Banzai Against the World Crime League."

(That scene, by the way, was a sort of last-minute gift from Begelman, who fronted the extra bucks to film it, thereby pretty much shocking Richter.)

But, promised sequel or no, the film tanked at the box office, at least initially. And some of its stars, including Peter Weller, John Lithgow, Christopher Lloyd and Ellin Barkin, went on to make much bigger money in other movies.

A sequel with the same cast now would probably cost more than the GNP of Brunei, even if they were all available and interested at the same time.

"We'd have to be liberated from the notion that you're using the same cast," Richter said by phone. "If you wrote a script that required all those people ... I don't know.

"They did it with Tarzan [used different actors in the key role]. That's our precedent."

Richter has only directed one film other than "Buckaroo" (1991's "Late for Dinner") and considers himself more a writer than a director (several of his screenplays, including "Big Trouble in Little China," "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" and "Needful Things" have been filmed), and is not at all sure he would want to direct a sequel.

"Life is ultimately much too short," he said, to go through what he went through with Begelman on the original film. He might meet with a studio, but it's more likely he would take a sequel on as producer rather than as director, almost certainly working again with Earl Mack Rauch. "Several things have been happening in a positive way," Richter said. "The DVD, a reprint of the novel and a three-book deal for Rauch. If the books sell well enough there's always a possibility for a sequel.

"Whether as a TV series or a movie, it's anybody's guess.''

But a sequel will be made, says Richter's wife, Susan, who played a key role in getting Rauch to write "Buckaroo Banzai" in the first place, and who serves as Richter's business manager. By phone recently, she was plain spoken about it.

"We're never giving up on having a sequel," she said, "Either on film or on television."

You don't think so? As Lord Whorfin said, "Laugh-a while you can, monkey boy!"