Zip up your padded silk jumpsuit and strike up the sequined dance squad for The Running Man, the 1987 film that's celebrating its 30th birthday today.
As one of the oft-forgotten Stephen King adaptations, The Running Man has aged well in today's media-obsessed, extreme sports world and is now regarded as a celebrated cult classic far ahead of its time, showcasing a corporate-run game show streaming live to a bloodthirsty Internet audience via a ruthless and sadistic host. King wrote the prophetic 1982 novella of the same title, published under the horror master's pen name, Richard Bachman.
Starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, Yaphet Kotto, Jesse 'The Body' Ventura, Richard Dawson, Maria Conchita Alonso, and perhaps the greatest football player to ever roam the gridiron, Jim Brown, The Running Man was directed by Starsky of Starsky and Hutch fame, Paul Michael Glaser — after Andrew Davis (Under Seige) was abruptly fired one week into filming.
Assisting Glaser in his first feature film was Emmy Award-winning cinematographer Thomas Del Ruth, the sharp-eyed shooter of such classics as The Breakfast Club and Stand By Me and the main visual stylist behind The West Wing and the pilot episode of The X-Files. Now retired, Del Ruth is a seven-time American Society of Cinematographers nominee who was mentored by the great Conrad Hall (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Road To Perdition) and Jordan Cronenweth (Blade Runner, Altered States).
The Running Man was released by Tri-Star Pictures on November 13, 1987 and was a mild success, endearing audiences with its violent, comic bookish look at a 2017 that's not far from our own today. It cost $27 million to film and scored $38 million at the box office.
To mark the 30th anniversary of the pun-tastic pleasures of The Running Man, SYFY WIRE spoke to Del Ruth on his memories of working with Arnold in his prime, handling the rest of the testosterone-fueled cast, filming in an abandoned steel mill, and the lasting legacy of the fun sci-fi thriller which has become so relevant once again.
How did you get hooked up with The Running Man project?
Thomas Del Ruth: I was approached by the producers and was excited about the possibility of doing an action film. As the cinematographer I hadn't had an opportunity to do wall to wall action yet, and with Schwarzenegger and a large budget and production value this could be only be a boost to my career. I read the script and I though that this was an extraordinary amount of action and I was wondering if I'd be able to pursue this on the same kind of level that I normally do a narrative film. So I met with the director, who at the time was Andy Davis [who went on to direct Under Siege (1992) and The Fugitive (1993)], who had replaced a French director previously assigned to the picture but left due to creative differences.
How do you think the movie predicted some of the Internet's social media proliferation, extreme sports culture, and reality-based streaming entertainment?
From my perspective, much of what the film had to say has come to pass. You now have essentially a game show host running the country. (laughs) And he's creating these staged scenes and creating all this hyperbole and animosity in some cases throughout the nation and that makes it a very unsettling situation for a lot of the population. So it does parallel that. On the other end of the film, so far, people have not risen up in rebellion against this. They simply listen to him and say "oh well" and went back to Facebook. The end of the movie had this triumph over the tyranny and in our case today there's apathy, so there's the difference between the cinematic reality and actual reality.
How was it working with Paul Michael Glaser on his first feature film?
Of course he was the star of the Starsky and Hutch television series and I'm certain he had directed a number of those episodes and done some other episodic work as well. No one wanted to step into a film that was already in production with the size and scope of action sequences that were required and the amount of preparation needed, without the two or three months of preparation, but to go in and take over the reins immediately. So none of the action directors that were well known or any of the other drama directors wanted anything to do with it unless they started from scratch again. And that was unacceptable to the production company.
What sort of discussions on the visual style were decided upon when Glaser stepped in after Davis was replaced?
The look and feel of the film had already been established with the producers, production designer, and Andy Davis and we were already into production. At that time I had a certain reputation of being able to carry out a lot of visual implementation without any guidance because I had an innate sense of what imagery would be appropriate for what particular set of circumstances. Paul Michael Glaser had too much on his plate to sit down with me and discuss the nuances of the cinematic stylizations. I'm sure he was more than willing to go along with the themes and trends I and Andy Davis had established and hooked his wagon to the train and we rolled down the track. Glaser had his wits about him and he did a good job for a television director, not being as familiar with the deeper nuances of story found in features.
Did Stephen King ever visit the set and did you meet him?
He did visit the set once and I did meet him, merely to say hello and comment on the wonderful book and exchange the usual niceties.
What was it like with all the macho cast of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jesse Ventura, Jim Brown, and Yaphet Kotto?
They did get along very well and I think it was fun. There was a lot of locker room humor on those kind of films. It's boys with testosterone. I'd come out of my room at 5AM to make an early call and walk down the hall and I'd see Arnold and one of the other characters jostling around and laughing and grabbing at each other. It was like a fraternity. As far as practical jokes went, those would occur off-set and I'm so busy on the set that I'm never a part of that. Everybody operated very professionally.
Arnold was at the peak of his career in 1987 after The Terminator, Commando, and Predator were released. What was it like interacting with him during production?
He was an ultimate professional and he was highly intelligent too and intuitive. With the idea of a muscle-bound showpiece, as much as he was in the early days of his career, you have a tendency to hang a label on him as maybe "not quite so bright" but he is extraordinarily astute and extremely smart. His business ventures and his acumen on a variety of different subjects is quite extensive. He's really a Renaissance kind of guy and I'm not surprised he wound up being governor of California. He knew how to get along with everybody. It was a miraculous rise to fame and during the '80s that was the start of the big-budget, action-adventure, sci-fi type films and he was at the forefront to ride that wave. He was quite lucky in terms of the time when he came along because that might not be the case if he came along ten years earlier. He was a big name, a big star, and he always said good morning to everyone and was always on set and never whined or complained.
What were some of the toughest shots or set pieces to shoot during The Running Man's filming schedule?
Well the most difficult sequence was the exterior night of the steel mill. That was an abandoned Kaiser Steel Plant in Fontana, California and it had been unused and in the process of being deconstructed for six to eight months prior to that. There was a lot of destruction to the main building, a lot of glass had been broken, and the foundries had had the result of bulldozers blowing out walls so it had the right look.
However the problem was that after running fifty years of steel, all the rust had accumulated and all the bricks were black. So the question for the cameraman is, how do you photograph black at night? Well, the only way to do that is to get it to sparkle, to allow it to kick back light rather than absorb light. I came up with the idea of hiring a crop duster and filling the tanks full of glycerine, which is highly adherent and also reflects light. So I had him spray the entire twenty-five acres that we were shooting with glycerine a couple of times until the sets started to glow. So when I turned on the lights from the back, it lit up the set up very nicely because of that particular technique. It was expensive and time consuming, but and that's what I had hoped would happen.
Who were some of the cinematographers that inspired you while developing your own visual style and craft?
When I started in the mid-'60s after getting out of the army, you started as an assistant cameraman or camera loader, and you were employed by the studio as opposed to working independently. I was a 20th Century Fox employee but Conrad Hall came along and did a picture called Guide For A Married Man back around 1966-67 and he was an up-and-coming cinematographer. Fox had a camera department and this old gentleman there told me to take the opportunity to strike out on the independents because the studio system was dying. So Conrad took a liking to me and and he mentored me and took me along with him all through his career. And his camera operator was Jordan Cronenweth, also a brilliant cinematographer later in his own right, who went on to shoot Blade Runner.
I started working for both of them and did almost 125 television commercials with Jordan and eight features with Conrad Hall as his assistant and camera operator. So I was very fortunate in the people I've been associated with. They influenced my stylizations and I learned my craft from them. I'll add one other, Bruce Surtees, another cinematographer, and he used to take me to grade school in the morning when he was in high school. I'd known Bruce all our lives and he passed away about eight years ago. And I'd always had an interest in cinematography and had a leg up because my dad and mom were well-known and I had a certain show business pedigree so in some ways that helped.
What do you make of this sudden wave of '80s nostalgia with the popularity of things like Stranger Things and Stephen King's IT?
I think it has everything to do with nostalgia. From present day audiences' perspective, the '80s were the old days, and everything was always better in the olden days, and it really wasn't, but it's just viewed through the prism of nostalgia.
Where do you think the longevity and appeal of the cartoonish, superhero-like, gaming appeal of The Running Man stems from?
It's a combination of all of the elements that you've just mentioned. All of those are very appealing to modern day audiences. It's a good rattle, it's a good popcorn movie and it's something that anyone can identify with. And it's a fun ride. So, why not?!