In 1995 on New Year’s Eve, Josh Becker had an idea. Born out of a session pondering Alfred Hitchcock’s legendary, true crime classic, Rope, he decided that he was going to improve upon the master of suspense’s legendary concept of shooting a film in real time. A daunting task but Becker was up to the challenge.
What resulted was perhaps one of the most ambitious efforts to ever grace the silver screen, Running Time. This neo-noir thriller about a heist gone wrong and a small-time criminal who rekindles his love affair with his high-school sweetheart was a hidden gem that didn’t get the recognition that it deserved. Written expressly for Becker’s childhood friend and Super 8 cohort, Bruce Campbell, the pair were once again, doing gonzo-style filmmaking just like when they were growing up in Michigan with the likes of Sam Raimi and Rob Tapert.
Josh Becker was and is an adventurous soul who does things his way, just like the director gods of old. When I think of his work, the names of John Ford, William Wyler and John Huston readily spring to mind. There is something admirable about his driven determination that was the heart and soul of this black and white throwback to another era which is ultimately endearing. Yes, I have a special place in my heart for Running Time because it is honest and not filled with “tentpole” tendencies. At the core of it is the written word. The end result is one of the most overlooked masterpieces of both Becker’s and Campbell’s careers.
What is truly amazing is that this flick was shot in two weeks and that everyone went home early. It was like having a 9 to 5 job. No 18-hour-days, just fast, efficient, run and gun style filmmaking that resulted in a production that could stand toe to toe with noir classics from a bygone era like The Petrified Forest and Desperate Hours.
Prior to Running Time, Bruce was known predominantly for his work in the horror and science fiction genres which can sometimes be limiting for an actor. Becker gave him an incredible script to work with that really showcased his range as a thespian. Behind the smart-ass quips and bravado lies a talented individual who takes his craft seriously. He is capable of creating complex characters and he is most assuredly fit to be a romantic lead.
I had the chance to sit down with the major players in the restoration of Running Time (Josh Becker, Bruce Campbell, Don May, Jr. and Gerry Kissell) to reminisce about the journey of this film from its humble beginnings to preserving this indie classic for future generations.
The Director and His Muse
Diabolique: Bruce, I have to start off by telling you that Running Time is my favorite out of all of your films.
Bruce Campbell: It’s a cool, little flick. Too bad it sort of escaped, it wasn’t released as the old joke goes.
Diabolique: What I like so much about it is the neo-noir aspect. It’s a throwback to the 40’s and 50’s. In Josh’s book, Rushes, he talks about how he convinced you to be in the film. You weren’t getting paid and you invested in it. What was his pitch, how did he sell the concept to you?
BC: The pitch was that it was NOT McHale’s Navy. I just spent 11 weeks in Mexico just sort of bullshitting our way through that film where we would make up our lines of dialogue because there was nothing written for us. In the script it would say things like, “McHale and his guys get off the boat,” “McHale and his men go to Cuba.” Which means they hadn’t thought anything up for you. I did it because I liked the show as a kid. It was a very popular thing; it was from Universal. It made sense at the time. It was just a case of when something is underwritten, the problem that it causes actors. I had just come off of that, and Running Time was very ambitious, low budget it was meant to be this conceit of being done in one shot so it was cinematic. So, I was like, okay, yeah. It was like the anti-studio movie, small crew, fast moving and yet no money. Basically, I invested the money that I was paid back into the movie in order for them to make it. It was definitely for a love of the movie type deal.
Josh Becker: I’ve known Bruce since we were twelve and I’d seen him in a number of plays. I knew that he had a much bigger range as an actor than he’d had a chance to show at that point. Plus, he’s a pleasure to work with. Once I pitched him the idea, he was all for it, partially because the long takes are a way for an actor to really show their ability.
Diabolique: Thinking about your filmography, Bruce, you haven’t played a traditional romantic lead. Do you see Running Time as a love story of sorts?
BC: What’s funny is Josh had Carl come back. In a proper film noir, he would have gone, you would have heard the tires squeal and she would be sitting there crying and the credits would roll and that would be it. It would be bleak, but Josh deep down is a sentimentalist and I think I am too. We had no issue with the happy ending. We wanted to make the audiences think for quite a long period of time that it’s going to be a sad ending. She packs her bag and then she unpacks it. The whole thing is quite an extended piece but I thought it was well worth playing just to kind of throw a little wrinkle in it. Maybe even in a criminal story you can have a happy ending.
Diabolique: In terms of the storyline, Josh, we all know that Rope was the blueprint for Running Time. You hadn’t made a film in 7 years. What was it about that production that captured your imagination besides the challenge of the “long take”?
JB: Part of my inspiration was simply getting another feature film made after seven years of working in television, which was never my goal. But as I thought about Rope, I wondered why the continuous, real-time concept didn’t really have any impact on the story. Then it occurred to me that there was no time element involved. Two young men—ostensibly Leopold and Loeb—have killed another young man for the fun of it, put the body in a chest, then invited people over for a party, including a cop. Well, if the chest was spring loaded and had a timer on it so that at some point it would pop open and reveal the corpse, that would be a time element. So, I thought, how do you use the real time technique and add a ticking clock? The first story that came to mind was a heist which generally has a time element—we’ve got to get the money and get out of here before we’re caught.
Diabolique: Running Time was shot in sequence like a play. Did it pose any challenges for you as an actor?
BC: I liked what Josh was trying to do. These long uninterrupted takes from an actor’s point of view, you know stuff can get really choppy these days. My complaint from Burn Notice is they wouldn’t let a full sentence stay on camera; they would have to cut away to somebody else. It felt like they had to keep cutting, cutting and cutting. This movie was no cutting for like ten minutes at a time. It’s great from an actor’s perspective because you can feel the juices flowing. It’s like a play. You can work on the pacing; you can have something build over a period of time and minutes to play out in literally real time. It’s a real time crime drama. I liked it conceptually and it was challenging. There was a fair amount of dialogue because my guy, Carl is calling the shots. I thought it was a good premise. Guy gets out of prison turns right around and robs the prison because he knows how the prison laundry system works. I thought that was pretty sound. I am always sympathetic for the low budget independent movie. I always will be.
Diabolique: Were there any other films that influenced you and your writing partner, Peter Choi? The entire concept is very noir and the desperate situation that Carl finds himself in is reminiscent of any number of films from the 1940s.
JB: My main inspiration was Straight Time with Dustin Hoffman, an overlooked movie from 1978. And though I didn’t think of it at the time, several folks brought up Joseph Lewis’s Gun Crazy after it came out, and I do see that. The film has one long take in it during a bank robbery, and even though the camera stays in the backseat of a car, it has that same feeling of a real time event.
Diabolique: I know you are a fan of classic movies, Bruce and in a sense Running Time reminds me of Desperate Hours or The Petrified Forest especially when the robbery is botched and the situation is escalating in the enclosed office. Did you find any inspiration from the noir genre for your portrayal of Carl?
BC: No, but the classic tough guys were always awesome. We loved them all, Bogart and Robert Mitchum…the fact that Josh shot the film in black and white was perfect. Because it really helped lend itself to a look of that time period when Jack Palance was a leading man.
Diabolique: In your book Rushes, you talked about your decision to shoot in 16 mm Kodak ASA 64 black and white stock. You get sharper images due to the finer grain of the film, but did that pose any problems in terms of showcasing your work at that time since most people weren’t shooting in black and white?
JB: I didn’t think of it regarding showcasing my work. I thought it was appropriate for the subject matter and that it would be visually striking. Also, moving the camera from inside to outside in color posed the problem of adding or removing filters which would not be an issue with black and white.
Diabolique: You shot over a period of 10 days which was unheard of even back in the 90’s. How were you able to keep things moving along?
JB: It was based on pre-planning. I knew exactly what I wanted. We rehearsed the film and the actors were all very comfortable with the dialogue. Then it was just an issue of getting the complicated camera moves in regard to the actor’s blocking to work right, and that didn’t turn out to be all that difficult.
Diabolique: As an actor, did you enjoy working on an accelerated timetable?
BC: It was exciting to do and so different. The toughest thing was the technical demands. It wasn’t like there were explosions and stuff like that. But in order to do blocking inside of an apartment, the camera is moving in circles, well, the crew had to move every object behind the camera before it got there and then had to put it back before the camera saw it again. So, there was a lot of voodoo, a lot of magic. We would rehearse and rehearse and rehearse and we could never get it right. Finally, we were like fuck it. Let’s just start shooting because everyone gets a little more alert when you shoot. That did it. That allowed us to conquer the impossible. After 3 or 4 takes if we got it, we were done even if it was 10:30 in the morning. I don’t think we spent more than two thirds of a day getting that particular shot. The end result is cool. I’ve seen the cleaned-up version without all the scratches and the dust marks. You can’t even tell what year it is. It almost seems like its videotape transferred like those teledramas of the 60’s that were done on TV. There were moments in the film that weren’t perfect, and that’s okay.
Diabolique: When I revisited Running Time recently, I was impressed with how well it holds up because some efforts don’t. With the 2K restoration, Bruce, this will give your fans a chance to see it. For some, it might be their first time. Do you have a scene that you are particularly fond of?
BC: There’s some scenes that are fun to do. After I get shot, I am in Janie’s apartment and she’s trying to put me together, that fainting on the toilet while she’s trying to patch me together it felt kind of real, playing shot and being delirious. Stuff like that. Just fun to be able to take the moment to do it.
Diabolique: Josh, do you feel shooting in black and white made the 2K restoration more challenging?
JB: Slow speed black and white film stock has a lot of silver in it which creates an inordinate amount of static electricity. When I did the initial film transfer back in 1997, the negative kept getting covered with dust, causing us to have to stop and clean the film every 30-60 minutes. Since the transfer was $375 an hour—in 1997 dollars—I could only stop so many times before it became financially prohibitive. Dust on a black and white negative shows up as white dots. Using the newest technology, Don May was able to remove all of the dust digitally. Therefore, the film has never looked as good as it does now.
Diabolique: What excites you the most about Running Time getting restored, Bruce?
BC: I am always happy when something gets re-released which means in this case, it gets preserved. It will look fantastic in 2K. That’s why with all these reissues fans are like, “Why should we care?” Like well, if you care about preservation, this means it will be the latest version of a movie that is fairly obscure. Sometimes a movie can die on the vine because no one will pay the money to keep it current. Now, we can show the sucker, hopefully, anywhere.
Diabolique: Josh, do you have any plans to showcase Running Time once the restoration is completed? This is a great film that fans should definitely see.
JB: We have no plans at the moment, but then the film isn’t out yet. When it’s done, we’ll see what happens.
Breathing New Life into Running Time: The Art of Restoration
Don May, Jr. along with Jerry Chandler and Charles Fiedler created Synapse Films in 1997. Known for their work in preserving unique genre classics, May had previously collaborated with Josh Becker when his company restored the director’s 1985 production, Thou Shalt Not Kill…Except.
Gerry Kissell was the official artist on Running Time and will be reprising his role for the 2K restoration. He has been friends with Josh since the Freaky Film Festival where he and Bruce premiered the film on the University of Illinois campus.
Both gentlemen were kind enough to take time out of their busy schedules to talk to us.
Diabolique: Were you able to obtain the original negative for Running Time?
Don May, Jr: Yes, thankfully. Josh Becker is a true movie fan and loves the filmmaking process, so we were fortunate to work with him. He kept everything stored properly in a climate-controlled vault, as a man who cares about his movies should.
Diabolique: Can you talk about the scanning process for 2K?
DMJ: The 16mm negative was separated into A/B rolls, so we had to scan a lot of reels separately at Prasad in Burbank, CA. Luckily, because of the actual nature of the “one-take” aesthetic Josh utilized, there were only a total of about 30 cuts in the entire film… hidden in editing, of course. So, we basically scanned the 30 separate shots, and then assembled them digitally using DaVinci Resolve. We had to be VERY careful the way we put the 30 cuts back together, making sure the shots were frame accurate and of the proper length. Unlike a film that has a conformed negative separated into 10- or 20-minute reels, Running Time was all in separate pieces, with each shot edited on separate reels. It was a challenge, but we were able to use a previous master as a reference and most of it went together without a hitch. Being shot in B&W also helped in color correction to hide the edits properly to make the real-time aspect as seamless as possible. Once the film was properly assembled, we were able to ship everything off to India for restoration. Because Josh had everything stored properly for decades, the negative itself was fairly free of a lot of dirt and scratches, but we did carefully sonically clean all the pieces before scanning commenced.
Diabolique: How long does it take the digital artists to fix debris or scratches on the original negatives?
DMJ: There’s a lot of data wrangling involved. Copying data for safety. Making backups, etc. But we have a great working relationship with Prasad. They have worked on such classics as Lawrence of Arabia, How the West Was Won, A Fistful of Dollars, Gandhi, The Red Shoes, etc. They do the lion’s share of my output, and I put a lot of trust in them. They’ve never failed me. We do ship the film scans to India and that takes time. I think Running Time took about 4-5 months. I let them take their time, though, because I don’t want to have to keep sending things back for fixes. With Running Time, they did an excellent job, right from my first restoration test reels. But, again, Josh had taken very good care of his materials, so it wasn’t much of a challenge.
Diabolique: Gerry, what artwork did you originally provide for Running Time and what can we expect from you for the 2K restoration?
Gerry Kissell: I did promotional art that ended up on tee-shirts. It included the shot of the three main characters, which I called Tres Hombres, on one, Jeremy Roberts aiming the pistol at the camera on another, and the last, which you’ve seen of Bruce’s mug all heroic and chinny. All of the art was done on Bristol cold press illustration board. The new painting for the Synapse release is me, 20+ years later, a tad bit better at drawing and painting, lol.
Diabolique: Besides the idea of preserving Running Time, Don, what attracted you to the project?
DMJ: We had worked previously with Josh on Thou Shalt Not Kill…Except, and we had a lot of fun with that one. I like working with Josh. He’s a great guy, and I love that he’s so passionate about film. He loves movies, and he loves MAKING movies. It’s so great to see people like Josh doing things like Running Time, back when using computers to do a “one take” approach was non-existent. You see things today like the film 1917, which is a fine film in its own right, but they cheated a lot of its “one take” aspect using computers. Josh did Running Time, but used his brain, and actual organic film splicing and editing to achieve the same result. He’s smart, funny, talented and I love working with people like him. It also doesn’t hurt that Running Time stars Bruce Campbell, so… yeah… of course, we jumped at the chance to do it.
Diabolique: When can fans expect to see the Running Time 2K restoration?
DMJ: I would imagine late summer/early fall 2020. We’re wrapping up extras and artwork now.