Thursday, February 03, 2011

THE JOHNSONS and the Rewrite Blues

Amsterdam? The Amazon? Psychotic test-tube siblings? Xangadix, evil god of the Mahxitu Indians?!

"I watched it in Dutch and I watched it in English and I still don't quite get it," laughs screenwriter Rocco Simonelli, whose script The Johnson-Blues was the inspiration for Rudolf van den Berg's 1992 Dutch horror film THE JOHNSONS. "There's really not a word of our writing in there -- just the concept and some structural stuff."

Based on an original story by Simonelli's writing partner, Roy Frumkes, the Johnson-Blues script bears little resemblance to Leon de Winter's final draft for the finished film. Although set almost entirely in Manhattan, the Simonelli-Frumkes story begins in the mountains of upstate New York, where Greenwich Village artist Victoria Lucas is enjoying a weekend camping trip with her 13-year-old daughter Emalee. The fun is spoiled, however, when a monstrous, fur-clad mountain man stumbles upon their campsite and attempts to rape Emalee. Victoria decapitates him with a machete, incurring the wrath of his clan, the dreaded "Johnson-Blues" ("They all got blue eyes!" the local sheriff tells Victoria -- three pages before the kill-crazy inbreds shoot him full of arrows and burn the police station to the ground).

"And then the whole clan comes creeping out of the mountain to get revenge," Frumkes explains. "It's CROCODILE DUNDEE for the second act. They're going through Harlem, Central Park, Tavern on the Green -- it's like another world to them." Before arriving at Victoria and Emalee's 9th Street brownstone for a tense, STRAW DOGS-inspired finale, the murderous out-of-towners feast on snow monkeys in the Central Park Zoo, pose for photos with a life-size Ronald Reagan cutout and -- in the script's most outrageous scene -- bludgeon a few of New York's Finest to death with dildos in a Times Square porn emporium! "Just great, great stuff," Simonelli sighs. "We thought it would be so commercial."

Frumkes is no stranger to the genre, having written and produced the outlandish STREET TRASH and directed the George A. Romero behind-the-scenes classic DOCUMENT OF THE DEAD. Simonelli was one of the writers of the 1992 Mafia comedy ME AND THE MOB, featuring James Lorinz from FRANKENHOOKER and early turns by Sandra Bullock and Steve Buscemi.

The Johnson-Blues was born in 1988 at the School of Visual Arts, where Frumkes has been teaching courses in film production and screenwriting for over 30 years. "I had a Dutch student, Richard Abrams, whose father wanted to establish some kind of business so his son could stay [in the U.S.]," Frumkes reveals. "So they put $100,000 into a film development company. The goal was to develop two screenplays and not produce them." Frumkes had recently formed a writing partnership with Simonelli -- "the best screenwriting student I ever had" -- and the two scripts they developed together were The Substitute and The Johnson-Blues. "I wrote The Substitute, and Rocco wrote The Johnson-Blues," Frumkes notes.

"Roy's constantly pitching me ideas," Simonelli adds. "I said, 'That thing you told me about the Johnson-Blues sounds like something we could do.' So I ran with it, and made my own additions and changes."

At one point, the script was almost produced by a Canadian company on a budget of over $4 million, with Glenda Jackson as Victoria and Oliver Reed playing Unk, the leader of the bloodthirsty clan. "It breaks my heart that it didn't get made with them," Simonelli says. "The last time they worked together was WOMEN IN LOVE, right? And he was trying to kill her in that! We could've picked up 20 years later, and he's still trying!"

Abrams' company, R.A. Film Marketing Projects, dissolved after only one year, but settled with the two writers by returning The Substitute to them and keeping The Johnson-Blues. "They went back to Amsterdam, and I figured the thing would never get done," Frumkes says with a laugh. "The way it was written, it seemed to us that it could only take place in New York." (The Substitute was eventually produced and released in 1996.)

The two writers seem pleased with Rudolf van den Berg's version of The Johnsons, although Frumkes admits, "We felt the plotting was a little confused." "But we like the film," Simonelli quickly adds. "We have great fun with it, and I think the women are really very good, especially Esmée de la Bretonière. And visually, it's quite strong. I just don't understand all of it."

The writers have completed over a dozen screenplays together, including several in the horror genre. "We have One Bloody Christmas Eve, and one called The Carriers, which we jokingly refer to as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD meets BABY BOOM," laughs Simonelli, who also hopes that The Johnson-Blues will someday be filmed the way he wrote it. "Who knows -- maybe this article will convince somebody to make the American version." -- Chris Poggiali

(Fangoria #174, July 1998)

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