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Growing up in the ‘50s with duck-and-cover drills in grade school, Steve De Jarnatt would have terrible nightmares about the end of the world.
“I was absolutely certain we were going to have this war,” the writer/director tells The Hollywood Reporter about living with the fear that a hostile foreign power could rain bombs or ICBMs all over our land at any time. The disturbing conviction prompted him to write the screenplay for 1989’s jarring “what if” thriller Miracle Mile, which celebrates its 30th anniversary on May 19.
In Miracle Mile, Anthony Edwards plays Harry, a young musician who finds love with Julie, a server who works at Johnny’s 24-hour diner on Wilshire & Fairfax, played by Mare Winningham. Late for their midnight date due to chance circumstances, Harry’s world is turned upside down when he picks up a ringing telephone in a phone booth and a soldier on the other end, having dialed the wrong number, informs him that “nuclear fucking war” is breaking out: “This is really it! This is the big one,” cries the frantic man. “It’s for real, dad, it’s no drill. We shoot our WOD in 50 minutes!” But is it true? Harry’s next move will decide his fate.
“In some ways, this film was me exorcising that [Armageddon conviction], giving other people nightmares,” says De Jarnatt. “I think when I wrote it the intention was to wake people up and, you know, change the world.”
“It was just so topical at the time,” says Edwards of Miracle Mile’s release at the tail end of the Cold War. It opened two years before the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the fall of communism. “It goes back to the reality of what war is, what this incredible use of power of violence is. Because I remember when I was growing up as a little kid in the ‘60s and the Vietnam War going on, I was terrified. It was like, ‘That’s where I was going to end up.’ I think it resonates because unaddressed fear like that is really powerful and detrimental.”
Before it was filmed, the Miracle Mile script was infamously in development for close to a decade. Listed as one of American Film magazine’s 10 Best Unproduced Scripts in 1983, De Jarnatt pitched the idea to the head of production at Warner Bros., Mark Rosenberg, who put it into development. With a mind to polish the script with some big industry writers, the studio was unsure how to improve on it.
“In the end I asked for it back and they gave me a free year of an option — and then I had to buy it outright or somebody else could buy it,” says De Jarnatt. “I gave every penny I made [as the writer of] Strange Brew to Warner Bros. and bought it back outright. I was briefly the director on Strange Brew too, and I think they paid me 50 grand to not direct it when it went as a Canadian movie.”
Then Rosenberg, who had an idea to use the Miracle Mile script for Twilight Zone: The Movie before it became an anthology, wanted to buy it back and offered a fortune for it.
“It was like $400,000; ‘Whatever William Goldman or Robert Towne are getting, I can get you that,’ De Jarnatt recalls Rosenberg saying. But he declined the king’s ransom. “I think I said if George Miller, after The Road Warrior, wanted to do it I would say yes. But that was the only thing.”
“It really wasn’t a fight as much as just choosing to stick to my hardcore vision of what I thought it should be and waiting that out, which took nearly nearly 10 years,” he explains.
For the Twilight Zone movie concept, De Jarnatt says Warner Bros. wanted to preserve the whole storyline and make one key tweak: “The only change they wanted to make was that [Harry] woke up and it was all a dream, and then it started happening again. I don’t think it would have satisfied the movie audience that wanted The Twilight Zone, or the Miracle Mile audience that wanted it to play out like it did.”
During this stretch of time, De Jarnatt rewrote the first act of his in-demand screenplay multiple times. But the moment that phone rings and Harry picks it up, the film’s story was locked: “From the phone call at Johnny’s to the end of the movie, that was in every version of the script. But how you got started into the characters, I went through many versions on that.”
“It is such a subjective movie, by choice,” he continues. “You are Harry Washello. You never leave a scene that he’s in. You never cut to the other end of the phone call, you don’t cut to the airport to see if [the other characters] made it to Antarctica. You are with him.” In fact, the original approach to shoot the film was as one continuous shot, “like Rope or Birdman,” but that particular cinematic conceit proved to be too restrictive.
The casting of the film also evolved during that stretch, with Harry at first being an older character geared for the likes of Paul Newman or Gene Hackman.
“The original script was an older Harry, it was a guy who hadn’t been in town 15 years, the trombone player in [L.A. to see his] kids who are playing in a jazz stage band. And so the reconciliation story of the grandparents [a subplot in the final version] is the main story,” explains De Jarnatt. “That would have been the early Warner Bros. version, not two people meeting. I changed the script. Nobody made me change it. That was my choice.”
Once Harry became a younger character, De Jarnatt met with Kurt Russell multiple times as well as other top names of the late ‘80s. “There was close to being a $2 million version with Nicolas Cage and Jennifer Tilly, who was brand new, but I don’t think that we would have gotten that onscreen. Physically we only had $3 million to make the final movie, to get footage on screen. It was like $4.4 [million] all in.”
Even if De Jarnatt was able to afford Cage, strong obligations of the then-rising star’s family ties stole him away. The writer/director says he received a call from Francis Ford Coppola and his attorney, who told him that he had to delay his “little movie” for a couple years so Cage could star in Peggy Sue Got Married. “It was a weird, very Hollywood sort of bluff/power play,” but De Jarnatt took it seriously and went on to direct Cherry 2000 during that time, which turned out to be a difficult shoot.
After the release of that post-apocalyptic tale, starring a young Melanie Griffith, De Jarnatt was back on track with Miracle Mile at Hemdale Film Corporation, with John Daly producing alongside Derek Gibson. He then set his sights on two actors who would define the roles of Harry and Julie, Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham.
“After Top Gun, you could get a movie made with Tony,” says De Jarnatt of Edwards. “And to me, it all was worth waiting the entire decade to end up with those two. The film wouldn’t work without them, without Tony’s humanity and sort of Jimmy Stewart innocence. They both have tremendous acting chops. We fought hard to get to get Mare on there, and it was worth it.”
“I clearly remember getting sent the script and reading it on an airplane,” remembers Edwards. “And when I got done I just like threw it on the ground and I was like, ‘Well, that’s bullshit! The hell? Come on!’ I was really angry. And then at that point I went through every detail of the script [to the person next to me] because it’s just stuck with me. And by the time I got to the end, he was like, ‘Um, sounds pretty good.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, it really is, isn’t it?’ Because it’s so offensive in a storytelling way. And that’s what Steve’s challenge was. He could have made the movie five or eight years earlier if he just changed the ending. Now, of course, when you see it he was right.”
Of the title setting for the story, which has changed very little amid the evolving landscape of Los Angeles (if you don’t count the additions of the Petersen and Academy museums on Wilshire), Edwards notes, “Miracle Mile is always going to be Miracle Mile, and the truth is a lot of that has to do geologically and historically with those tar pits. That has been a gathering place for beasts and evolution and change forever. It’s hard to find places with deep historical character lines in them, and I think Miracle Mile has that, because it really is the center of L.A. And then there’s the juxtaposition of that spectacular LACMA. We were shooting that when it was really new.”
“Once you meet Steve De Jarnatt you really get on board because his passion and intelligence and all of it was so infectious,” says Edwards. As for his co-star, he says, “Hiring Mare Winningham was perfect. She’s such a great actress, and everything needed to have a real, grounded sense of reality to it, because you were going to be in such an unreal world.”
With six weeks of night shoots in the schedule, filming Miracle Mile in the spring of 1987 proved to be an unreal experience for all involved.
“[Los Angeles] becomes an alternate universe,” says Edwards. “I very distinctly remember that phenomenon of driving home after work at 6:30 in the morning when everybody’s going to work, so you’re going opposite rush hour, having been up all night, working in the world of the end of the world, and then seeing the world in the morning going to work. That was a surreal thing.”
Despite a tight budget, De Jarnatt says that he got to make Miracle Mile his way from a creative standpoint, but notes, “I was under tremendous pressure to stay on schedule, and they didn’t think that that was going to be possible, but we were very prepared.”
“It was a very clear road map,” agrees Edwards, who was thankful to have the luxury and necessity of being able to rehearse beforehand. “That rehearsal at the diner scene is really the critical setup. … The surprises were in the depth of the performances. Mykelti [Williamson], his death scene on that escalator was just heartbreaking. He was just so vulnerable and honest and then incredible. I think because [the script] had such a strong center to it, you had the ability to have these wonderfully crazy characters that really seem so outrageous. Kurt Fuller on the top of the [Mutual Benefit Life] building at the end, Kurt’s just so unbelievable where he goes. Steve let people go where they needed to go. He didn’t have performance regulations. He knew where he needed to be visually, but he trusted in letting us play.”
Edwards acknowledges that probably the biggest challenge for him as an actor in Miracle Mile was to nail that phone booth scene: “Character-wise and story-wise, it was having to get that phone call right and knowing that it was going to play in one shot, that there was nothing to cut away to. We shot that early on, and knowing that we had gotten that foundation was really important. The biggest challenge, technically, was the very last scene in the helicopter as it’s going down, because it was so difficult to shoot that in water on the budget that we were on. We reshot that ending several times to try and get it right, with sparks and things and underwater cameras and pieces of helicopter. To get it all right was really tough.”
Another memorable chore during filming that is taken for granted now was capturing the break of dawn over and over again, which Edwards deems, “big challenges in a basically analog environment.” De Jarnatt explains, “We’d always be going out and grabbing a dawn shot after an interior. And that made it a difficult shoot, but we had fun. It was rigorous, but way less tension than working on Cherry 2000.”
Getting to play in the sandbox of a story about the end of the world by mankind’s hand, De Jarnatt layers his mise-en-scène with little touches that foreshadow impending doom, from “stunt rats” falling from a palm tree onto the hood of Harry’s car to a cockroach scuttling across his arm when he’s in that fateful phone booth.
“Steve always had references like that,” remembers Edwards. “He put cockroaches in because he wanted to say, ‘These are all that’s going to be left.’ There’s a million rats living in the palm trees of Los Angeles, so hitting that palm tree [with] the rats coming down on the hood, that’s a very De Jarnatt image. In this picture of beauty, he was always looking for that contrast.”
When Harry picks up a dazed Julie in a shopping cart to take her to safety through LACMA towards the end of the movie, one may notice a strategically placed, long-stemmed red flower in the cart and then in Harry’s hand. Edwards explains, “It’s what Julie brought from her grandmother’s. That’s where that flower originated. So it was a bit of taking the grandparents with us. It’s her trying to grasp on to something as she’s trying to know where she’s going or what she’s being led to.”
Keen eyes may also recognize a blink-and-you-miss-it appearance by a then-unknown Peter Berg in the first act, playing in the jazz band with Edwards. Years before becoming a prominent actor and director, Berg was Edwards’ stand-in and double for certain shots. “He’s the clarinet player,” explains De Jarnatt. “I got him his SAG card; I gave him a bit and got him into SAG.” Edwards adds with a laugh, “Peter Berg was my stand-in on the movie. And I was like, ‘Why is this young actor asking so many questions about everything technical going on in the movie? And there he was, not even knowing he was preparing to become a director by getting involved that way.”
After principal photography wrapped on Miracle Mile, De Jarnatt kept going — on his own dime. He filmed about 10 minutes of “little connective tissue” pick-up shots for the following year with $150,000 of his own money, tapping Edwards and Winningham whenever he could. “It became a joke where you’re like, ‘Tony, Mare, I’ve gotta grab this shot at dawn, and I’ve got some extras!’ I was always tweaking something.”
In addition to its stunning storytelling canvas, Miracle Mile is notable for its very ‘80s synth score by Tangerine Dream, whose soundscapes punctuated such films of the era as Risky Business, Thief, The Keep, Firestarter, Near Dark, and Ridley Scott’s Legend.
“I wrote the Miracle Mile script in the middle of night, blasting Billy Friedkin’s Sorcerer soundtrack,” says De Jarnatt. “When you do a rough cut, you put in music that you hope you would get something like that, and lot of people fall in love with their temp music. So I of course put in a lot of Sorcerer and other Tangerine Dream scores, maybe a little of Peter Gabriel’s Birdie for a couple of undertone cues. And we were very low budget — Hemdale, notoriously cheap — but sent the rough cut over to them and they wanted to do it. And John Daly stepped up and paid whatever their price was, because they were the kings of the ‘80s. And I got to go over to Vienna and work with them for a week and it was just the greatest experience.”
An intimate story that grows in scale as the survival stakes get higher and higher, Miracle Mile employs minimal visual effects, with lighting and sound effects to imply much larger devastation. De Jarnatt reveals that more dramatic, climactic elements were attempted but ultimately left on the cutting room floor.
“We tried to actually have a bomb, a mushroom cloud in the valley, but our total effects budget was $25,000, so that doesn’t buy you much,” says De Jarnatt. “It’s in the outtakes on the Blu-ray.” There’s also an effects shot at the very end of the film, after Edwards and Winningham’s helicopter sinks into the La Brea Tar Pits, where “the white light coalesces into two diamonds that spin away with a little twinkly noise. It’s a two-second shot. That’s the happy ending. It was a little oddity to make it a little more upbeat.” Despite De Jarnatt’s optimistic flourish, he says that Daly stepped in to cut the brief-but-telling moment: “He said, ‘Let’s cut that out. It’s too upbeat. Let’s rip their hearts out.’ And you don’t get a lot of studio heads who decided to do that.”
The director jokes, “The only thing I’d change now if I had a big CGI budget would be the mullet on Mare’s head. That will haunt me, and I guess audiences, forever. I guess it puts you in the ‘80s. It seemed like a good idea.”
De Jarnatt also says he struggled with filming the emotional, final scene that takes place in the elevator of the Mutual Benefit Life building, specifically an allegorical moment that he knew just wasn’t going to work even as he shot it.
“Joe Turkel from The Shining and Blade Runner gets on with a woman and they go down instead of up, and he quotes the levels of Dante’s Inferno,” explains the director. “They get down to the bottom where there’s a whole bunch of horrible things happening, and then they go up. And I knew when I was filming that it didn’t work and it was never going to be in the movie. And Anthony and Mare, who were the greatest to work with, were getting a little antsy because their big elevator scene’s coming up and I’m kind of wasting time trying to make this scene work. And I had to pull the plug. And people advised me to do that, but I should have probably done it sooner. We still got the goods. But sometimes you just have to let something go.”
The raw, emotional performances by Edwards and Winningham in that final elevator scene are incredibly relatable, and the onset chemistry between the pair proved to be the real deal off-set too.
“Who she is as an actress and who she is as a person, she’s incredibly honest and real,” says Edwards. “She just doesn’t make false moves. And I’ve always just respected her so much for that. And we got along great, and that was the beginning of a very big friendship.”
In fact, as many know, Edwards and Winningham reunited many years later and are now a couple, thanks in part to De Jarnatt’s film: “After 30 years of both having separate lives and yet always staying friends, we actually got together right when Steve was releasing the Blu-ray of Miracle Mile. We hadn’t talked in years, and so this kind of miraculous conversation happened. And Steve in his sweet, wonderful way, he calls us his diamonds. He’s got a huge heart.”
“They’re diamonds now. They’re together,” confirms De Jarnatt with a smile.
With the Cold War now in the history books and a new, post 9/11 generation getting to see Miracle Mile for the first time, many without any knowledge of how it plays out, it’s interesting to study just how the cautionary tale has stood the test of time.
“Young audiences really embrace it; I think it’s an affection for the ‘80s,” says De Jarnatt. “I know that people like to run it for their friends, or their new relationship or something, without letting them know anything about the movie. And I always tell audiences when I run it [at film festivals] that it’s sort of an ‘80s, fluffy, John Hughes romantic comedy, but then gets a lot less fluffy as it goes along. … It’s an odd romance that that doesn’t pull its punches and takes you a journey you’re not expecting.”
Whether or not it fits perfectly as a Twilight Zone episode or as a real-world-reflective thriller, De Jarnatt is not adverse to the idea of remaking or rebooting Miracle Mile, and reveals that there has been “a lot of talk the last couple of years” about redoing it.
“I would like to help re-conceptualize it, but I don’t want to remake it myself,” he says, offering, “Whether it’s a feature or a six-hour limited series, you’d have to get rid of the cell phones. You’d have to have a solar flare taken them out or something the month prior, because you just don’t want to speed it up and have it all be on cell phones. You want it still majorly unknown. I think it needs to remain objective and be about what your priorities are if you are Chicken Little and the world really is ending. And have it be two in the morning to six, running around Los Angeles at night. Maybe you’d have it be a woman, or a woman director. Something majorly different. But just pass the baton to some other creative people who will run with it.”
In the meantime, De Jarnatt has assembled a variety of interesting Miracle Mile production artifacts and related career memorabilia on Indiegogo in order to build a dedicated website that promises to catalog VHS dailies, rough cuts, casting sessions, location scouts, script versions, correspondence and budget documents, pre-production artwork, preview cards, rehearsal stills, and much more.
Pondering Miracle Mile’s present-day relevance, Edwards concludes, “With all of the gun violence in the country, and then also this kind of sashaying around in relation to North Korean or Russian, whatever the threats are — we’ve proven over time as a species that we do big mistakes. And it’s insane that we have all of these nuclear weapons and that we have all of these firearms that are considered an expression of freedom? To have the ability to carry 100 rounds of ammunition? Steve was really addressing real anti-nuclear sentiment, and I think that’ll always resonate because there’s always that ability for people to act so inhumanely.”
And as for the possibility that his nightmare scenario could still manifest itself, De Jarnatt notes, “It’s more likely to happen tonight than back when the film was made, or when it was written. Everything was on high alert then. Today, the missiles are still pointed. And who’s really minding the store these days, both here and in Russia?”
There will be an 30th anniversary screening at The Billy Wilder Theater (Hammer Museum ) presented by the UCLA Film & Television Archive July 14 at 7 p.m., featuring a Q&A with De Jarnatt.
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