Say the last time you walked out during a movie was 20 years ago, and say that movie you could no longer put up with was an interminable comedy named "The Super." Joe Pesci plays a slumlord, ordered by a court to live in one of his own questionable buildings and learn valuable life lessons; though, of course, it's hard to say whether Pesci learned many of those life lessons because you left after 45 tedious minutes. Say there was only one other time you walked out of a movie, and that was two years before "The Super." The movie was named "K-9" — something about Jim Belushi and a police dog.
Anyway, now let's say you heard that a retired filmmaker recently moved to Chicago, the guy who directed the original "Teen Wolf" movie.
Curious, you look up his other credits. Remarkably, he also directed the only movies you ever bailed on.
His name is Rod Daniel, and though I had never heard of him, a scan of his filmography revealed that he had stolen an inordinate number of hours of my leisure time. His resume, which begins in sitcoms, graduates to features, then turns toward TV movies, is a monument to mediocrity, to unambitious vehicles and exhausted franchises, to the cannon fodder thrown on weekend TV between the Super Bowl and opening day of baseball — anonymous, impersonal work.
Indeed, though it's hard to believe one man was responsible, Daniel made not only "Teen Wolf," "K-9" and "The Super," but the Kirk Cameron-Dudley Moore body-swap comedy "Like Father Like Son" (1987), "Beethoven's 2nd" (1993) and the made-for-TV "Home Alone 4" (2002). Daniel also directed 33 episodes of "WKRP in Cincinnati" (though, alas, not the beloved Thanksgiving episode). The rest is a smattering of failed pilots and brief stints directing episodes of TV series as varied as "Newhart," "Caroline in the City," "Everybody Loves Raymond" and "Magnum, P.I."
Daniel's was a marginal career. The new "Teen Wolf" series on MTV (which he has nothing to do with) is as close as it gets to relevance. And yet it's all so consistently blah, you wonder — well, I wondered — was it indifferent by design? Who is this guy? And did he know what he was doing?
'I hold no illusions'
I called him. Not wanting to sound cruel, I cringed as I asked if he knew what kind of a filmmaker he was.
"I hold no illusions," he said quickly. "It's going to sound like a cop-out, but when I retired, I never once thought about it. Does that answer your question? I don't rank with the greats. I made these (expletive) movies because I could, and because they paid me a great deal of money. Which is not to say I didn't believe in what I did. But I hold no illusions. I wouldn't buy a ticket to any of my movies."
Rod Daniel sees himself as a remnant of a fading tradition — the working, rank-and-file, bang-it-out-move-on director, the kind of anonymous filmmaker who comes to the job without pretense, an independent film background, a film school pedigree or even a real love of movies. He was a director because it was a good job, and because someone has to make the cinematic flotsam that occupies movie screens until blockbusters and Oscar bait take its place.
He's 67 and has been married to his wife, Marti, since 1968. He moved into a condo off Michigan Avenue in the spring. A Tennessee native, he retired from filmmaking eight years ago and settled here because one of his two sons, a technology executive, lives here, and, after initially leaving Los Angeles for rural Tennessee, he missed city living.
We met a few days later.
He came to the door of his River North apartment wearing a sleeveless T-shirt and jeans and, though the view from his place overlooked boutique shops and expensive hotels, he had the sweaty pallor of a guy who just finished plowing a field. When he spoke, his Tennessee roots poked through — he spoke fast, but it sounded languid, Southern.
Before I could ask a question, he squashed the palm of his hand to his face, tilted his head back and began: "My movies were content movies, first of all."
High-concept, I said.
"High-concept. Brandon Tartikoff (the late television executive), had this line: 'Don't show me the movie, show me the one-sheet,' the poster. That was true for what I made, movies easily understood, easy to watch. Couple that with the fact you got to feed your (expletive) family, and if you sit around and (expletive) say, 'I'll wait until the right movie,' forget it. If I made two movies in 20 years …"
Like a Terrence Malick, who has made only five since 1973, most recently the art epic "Tree of Life."
"Exactly. Like a Malick. Was he begging for (expletive) food all those years between movies or what? Did he have a (expletive) trust fund? I had to make a (expletive) living. I held out as long as I could (for better scripts), until my family would run out of money if I didn't direct. I had a responsibility to my children long before I had a responsibility to the (expletive) movies.
"'The Super'? Perfect example. I took the movie knowing we had script problems, but if you have script problems you're not going to solve it (during production). The problem was Joe Pesci wasn't a fish out of water — he was a fish in water. That was the problem. Larry Gordon (the producer) said to me, originally, 'Look, get Chevy Chase, put him the ghetto.' That was the concept, but it was too pat — take a really white guy and run him through standard jokes about gangs and rap music, and since it's Chevy, comedy's there? I remember sitting in my suite at the Regency in New York with cards from the (expletive) script all over the place and Nora Ephron, who wrote a lot of it, curled up in a fetal position under the dining room table. Because we could not solve the problem at the center of this movie.
"So we just started shooting it. And you can't do that. But you get in a bubble on a movie. I mean, I gave (the studio) a 21/2-hour cut! Can you imagine 21/2 hours of 'The Super'! You'd shoot yourself in the (expletive) head."
We sat in his living room. There was a card table, some furniture and a feeling of abandonment. Daniel and his wife moved in last spring, and then spent most of the summer at their vacation home outside Traverse City, Mich. The only acknowledgment of his filmmaking career was a Panavision lens with his name inscribed on the barrel and a 1981 Humanitas award, given to uplifting TV work, for an episode of "WKRP." He spread his arms wide across the back of his sofa and kept talking.
He said he grew up the son of a respected surgeon, "a big-deal doctor who plucked out my mom, this retiring little country girl, and then couldn't get out of the hospital. The man never wanted to come home. He was unavailable. God knows, I went to the graveyard many times and told that (expletive) off. Because that was something I had to work out. Anyway, it's right there in 'Like Father Like Son,' and in 'Teen Wolf' too.
"See, a whole lot of 'Teen Wolf' is who I wish I could have been, who I wanted my father to be more like."
For those unfamiliar with "Teen Wolf": It was an early fall hit in 1985. Michael J. Fox, then 24, plays a high school kid who learns he's a werewolf. He also learns his father (James Hampton) is a werewolf, and that being a freak of nature is an easy way to become popular in school. It's a sweet, light comedy that cost $1.4 million and earned about $80 million worldwide and solidified Fox's star status. (His other hit that year, "Back to the Future," came out a few months earlier, though it was shot after "Teen Wolf.")
Daniel came to it this way: He was directing commercials ("badly"), which led to directing "WKRP," which led to Mary Tyler Moore hiring him for her (short-lived) sitcom "Mary," which led to a restlessness with TV: "I could teach you to direct sitcoms in 30 minutes. It's outrageous how easy it is, like stealing money. What do you say to a (expletive) Bob Newhart — 'OK, be Bob Newhart'"?
He said he was hired for "Teen Wolf" because Fox asked a bunch of potential directors what the movie was about. They all said "A werewolf." Only Daniel said, "It's about a father and son."
Later I called Rod's Chicago-based son, Lucas Daniel, an associate partner at Gravitytank, a local innovation consulting firm. He said he had a great childhood, "probably because my father was able to work out his issues with his own father by making stuff like 'Teen Wolf,' and though I don't know how much he knew that he had this ability to channel those issues, I watch that movie and those ideas are all in there."
By chance, I caught "Teen Wolf" recently on cable. It didn't seem to contain anything angsty. It was watchable, pleasant, and so lacking in the reflexive snark and irony of contemporary teen movies that it almost played like outsider art. Or as Lucas Daniel said, explaining its charms, "It's like a reminder of the simple idea realized simply."
Time to bow out
"You know how I said I wouldn't buy a ticket to one of my own movies?" Daniel asked me. "Truth is, I wouldn't buy a ticket to any movie now. Two reasons. I'm in the Academy (and vote for the Oscar awards), so I get screeners of everything now. And because, well, I saw 'The Dark Knight.' I didn't quite get it, and everyone else did. But it wasn't them. It was me. I'm watching it and I'm feeling like I'm just getting old."
But everyone feels like that sometimes, I offered.
"Yeah, but it was me," he said, resigned. "I've always been great with exits, and when I watched that I knew my uncoupling from directing was done. I didn't understand what it was saying. I couldn't hear it.
"See, I did a movie of week for ABC (in 2002), 'Home Alone 4.' We shot in South Africa. I delivered funny — and on time and under budget. The president of ABC sent me a note and said she loved it. I thought, 'Here comes the work.' But the work stopped. And I know why: If you work in the arts for a living, you are paid to know what's in the air, what the mood is, the whole societal thing. And I don't care how (expletive) hip you are, when it's over, it's over. I couldn't artistically reflect how the world changed. And that feels like you woke up one day and were thrown out the (expletive) window. Heard the phrase 'the dogs bark but the caravan moved on'? A generation has changed. Time has moved on. Now graciously bow the (expletive) out."
I asked, didn't the resurgence of "Teen Wolf" as an MTV series, albeit a grim one, make him feel connected to the zeitgeist? He said he hasn't seen it, can't watch it. "It's violent, right? I was in Vietnam, and when I came back I saw 'Bonnie and Clyde' and promptly threw up. I can't go there. It's just not in my bones."
These days, retired, Daniel shoots photographs, somewhat as a hobby. The hallway of his condo is lined with melancholy examples, depictions of decline, an abandoned hotel, a boat at low tide. Only two pieces on his walls, neither of them his, remind you of movies. One is a candid of Daniel perched on a crane, in his director's chair during the filming of "Teen Wolf." The other is a painting of the inside of a movie house.
"What do I think when I look at that, the theater? Well, it invites you in. I like things that invite you in. I want to be in that room."
It's a mostly empty movie house, a few moviegoers scattered in the seats, nothing on the screen. It's an image as sanguine as anything that Edward Hopper might have painted.
But not as memorable.
"An empty movie house, huh?" he said. "Interesting. You're seeing a picture of a movie house right before the movie starts — nobody turned out and all that. But I see a movie house an hour before the movie begins."