In March, UnionDocs presented a rare screening of Thys Ockersen’s Don Siegel: Last of the Independents (1980) as part of our ongoing Docs on Auteurs series. Prior to the show, co-programmer Cullen Gallagher prepared an interview with Ockersen. purchase skelaxin information
For more information on Thys Ockersen or to order his movies, please visit his website
Cullen Gallagher: How did you get your start as a filmmaker? Purchase
Thys Ockersen: I entered the Dutch Film School in 1965 after graduating from high school in Heemstede (near my hometown of Zandvoort). The problem with the Dutch Film School was that not many teachers were qualified because we didn’t have a proper film industry. However, many young directors from that school started a Dutch Cheap online nouvelle vague, very much influenced by the French New Wave and young Italian filmmakers. I had already done a lot of 8mm fiction films with my classmates who were in acting classes with me in high school. At the Dutch Film School I made my first two 16mm short fiction films. One of them, Key, was shown for about 13 weeks in an art cinema in Amsterdam. My graduate film, Surprise Surprise, was shown on Dutch TV and it also received a student award at the Chicago Film Festival in 1969.
CG: How did you first come to see Don Siegel’s films? What is his reputation like in The Netherlands?
TO: Like in other countries, Don was already a cult director because of his early work. I hadn’t seen those films, but in 1968 I saw Madigan and thought it was great. Then his films with Clint Eastwood followed and they were great, too. In 1973, I was a film critic for an important Amsterdam newspaper, Het Parool, and I also wrote for a film magazine called Skoop. Every time I went on vacation to London I did some interviews with stars and directors and also visited movie sets. When I heard that Don Siegel was directing The Black Windmill (1974) in London, I went to see him. It was a rather quiet day. Unfortunately, Michael Caine was not on call, but Clive Revill and Denis Quilley were, and they played police officers bugging the telephones in Caine`s house. Don had all the time in the world to talk to me and I think he recognized a fan who loved his work. The first thing he said was, “Sit down and watch how I direct a movie,” and he showed me the beautiful directors chair, a gift from Clint Eastwood. That day was not very exciting as far what was shot, but at least we got acquainted and that probably gave me the idea to tell the people at Universal (whom I knew rather well) to invite him to Amsterdam because of the release of Charley Varrick (1973). So, he came over with his wife, Doe Avedon. We had dinner and the group split up. Some critics took Doe out, while others (like me) spent the rest of the evening with Don in a pub listening to his stories.
CG: How did you come to make Don Siegel: Last of the Independents (1980) Cheap ?
TO: Over the years, I met him a few times in Hollywood. After I made Sam Fuller and the Big Red One (1979), people asked me if I wanted to do another documentary and I proposed one about Don Siegel. You must understand that Fuller was totally unknown in Holland and with Dutch filmmakers. So, I never asked the Dutch film fund for money. With Siegel it was easier to get money from Dutch TV, plus a little bit from Belgian and German TV. Both docs I made for $30,000. We contacted Don and luckily for us he was supposed to come to Holland for Rough Cut (1980) and he said it was okay to shoot the doc. The title was more or less his idea. He thought he was one of the last persons left, like Charley Varrick, who had an independent mind of his own. For me, like with the Fuller doc, this was an independent movie because I kept the copyright on it.
CG: How long were you on the set with Don Siegel? Did he give you total access during the shooting?
TO: Don was very cooperative, but the picture he was working on was a mess. Before he came to Holland, he was fired by producer David Merrick. I had met Merrick on the set of Cheap The Great Gatsby (1974) and he told me than that he didn’t trust film people. Great, that’s a good start for producing pictures. Don had a reputation of fighting with producers, and he fought with Merrick. In London, over the telephone, Don told me that he was fired. Of course, I thought that my documentary was falling apart, too. Later, I heard from a friend that Peter Hunt (director of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service ) was already scouting locations in Amsterdam to take over. How things turned around, I don’t know. I think that Burt Reynolds—who had waited a long time to work with Eastwood’s favorite director—didn’t agree with Merrick’s decision. Moreover, Don told me that he had a share in the film.
When I got to the set in Muiden (outside Amsterdam), they were shooting a scene with Burt Reynolds and Lesley-Anne Down in a garage and outside of it. The weather was very bad. Burt was in a rather bad mood because he didn’t like the Dutch weather and Lesley was apparently on drugs and out of control. There were only a few days to go and I heard stories that Don had collapsed and Burt had taken over. The public relations department told me that Don had refused to make any publicity for Escape from Alcatraz (1979), which had recently premiered. I shot my scenes for
the documentary and went to the Dutch Cinetone Studios (outside Amsterdam) where they had built a street from the red light district with an apartment of a prostitute. Don was shooting a little scene of a visitor negotiating with two prostitutes (one of them played by his new wife, Carol Rydall). For me it was essential to get an interview with Burt Reynolds and I succeeded because Don asked him to. Don also asked me to invite the Dutch critics to the studio because he wanted to talk to them about Escape from Alcatraz. You can understand how surprised the Public Relations lady was. Since I had just left my job as a critic, I still knew all the other critics and they showed up. The publicity was great and everybody loved Escape from Alcatraz. Later, I heard that many people had directed on Rough Cut: Siegel, Peter Hunt, Burt Reynolds, Hal Needham (second unit), and when the ending of the picture had to be re-shot, it was done by Robert Ellis Miller. It was the beginning of Don’s downfall with bad health. Later that year, I shot my interview in his house in Sherman Oaks.
CG: What was the biggest challenge in making your documentary?
TO: Clint Eastwood. Don told me in Amsterdam that he would tell Burt that Clint would be in my documentary. So, we contacted Clint officially in his office in Burbank and his producer Robert Daley promised my producer that I could come over and things would be arranged. But when I got to Hollywood, Daley wasn’t there and we had to start all over again. The secretary had no clue who we were and she asked for my contracts. When she got them they couldn’t read them because they were in Dutch and German, of course, so I had to translate them. The first week passed and my cameraman and I could only stay for 3 weeks. I got nervous and the second week passed. We had done the interviews with Don and Sheree North, and Don asked me how things were progressing. No progress, I told him. He then told me that he had just done a favor for Clint, so Clint should do a favor for him and give me an interview. Now I could tell the secretary that Clint was okay. She was quite surprised. On Tuesday she said to me, “When do you want to meet him?” “Thursday,” I said, and everything was okay. We went to Burbank and he welcomed us. I gave him Dutch cheese (which is always a good gift) and he told me that he was of Dutch origin. That makes his name “Oosterhout” for Eastwood. I had to sign a contract that I could only use 5 minutes of the interview in non-English speaking territories. I still have the original contract. I was very pleased that he was in my documentary, but it limited sales, of course. In fact, we never sold the film because of copyright problems with the clips.
CG: Where has your documentary screened? It was made for Dutch television, right?
TO: It was hardly screened in the USA. I showed it at NYU and Siegel’s first wife, Viveca Lindfors, and their son, Kristoffer Tabori, were there. Viveca got angry over what Don said in the movie and I still don’t know why. A shorter version of the doc (only one hour long) was shown on Dutch, German, and Belgian television. Recently, a digital Dutch channel showed it again. I am very proud of this documentary and I understand that it’s the only one about Siegel. Last year, his daughter Anne Whamsat-Siegel contacted me about getting a DVD, but after that she never told me whether she liked it or not, it was very strange.
CG: Did you stay in touch with Don Siegel after your documentary was over?
TO: I did stay in touch with Don. One time on the phone in Hollywood, he told me he was ready to begin Jinxed (1982) and already he didn’t like Bette Midler. It was another failure that cost him his health. Then he invited me to his home in Sherman Oaks and we had lunch. He was very nice and he told me that he really was interested filming a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac, the guys who wrote the novel Vertigo (1958) was based on. Don asked if I could help him set it up. I was very proud that he asked me and I managed to get the book from the French editor. I read it, and it was a modern Frankenstein story about a criminal who is executed and his limbs are used for other people. Then, the rest of the dead body starts collecting the limbs and kills for it. I didn’t really think it was good material for Siegel, but when I called to talk to him from Holland his wife told me that he was really too sick to do anything. Some time later a Dutch producer called him and asked if he could be interviewed for a documentary about Casablanca (he had done some montages for it), but he didn’t want to do that. He was too weak but he talked to her about some projects that were offered to him. Of course, the movies never happened.
CG: What are the qualities that you admire in Don Siegel’s work?
TO: He did a lot with impossible budgets and all his pictures are both interesting and entertaining. I like watching them all over again. He had a great sense of humor. If you want to know how he talks and you haven’t see my doc, you just have to look at Walter Matthau in Charley Varrick, he plays Don Siegel.
CG: Do you have any particular favorite films of Siegel’s?
TO: I think Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) is one of the best Science Fiction films ever made. It’s like an episode of Peyton Place where everything goes wrong—it’s magnificent. I think Clint has never been better than in the Siegel films, and Siegel’s influence on his directing is obvious. The Beguiled (1971) is a gem because it diverts from the other films made with Clint. It’s a very dark film.
CG: On your website, it says that you run a film society in Zandvoort and host a radio show. Can you say something about these projects?
TO: The film society is in the local cinema. We have about a 100 members and most of the time about 50% shows up on Wednesday nights when we show an interesting film and I do the introduction. Recently I have shown Up in the Air (2009), Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Micmacs (2009), Millenium 2 (also known as The Girl Who Played With Fire) (2009), so it is not only art-films but also good entertainment films that have little chance in the regular programs in Zandvoort. I have been doing this for over 15 years. I stopped the radio show because there was not a large audience.
CG: What films are you working on at the moment?
TO: I am trying to get money for a doc about a seaside resort near Rotterdam called Hook of Holland. This doc would be a little bit like my Zandsvoort doc. I am also in negotiations with a producer to do a little feature film based on a book. A documentary on Westerns never materialized because I need a Dutch TV station to co-produce it and they are not interested in Westerns anymore. I also interviewed Roger Corman when he was in Amsterdam three years ago and I spent some time with him.