DEATH WISH WEEK: An interview with Paul Talbot, author of Bronson’s Loose!: the Making of the Death Wish films

As I wrote this week worth of Death Wish, Paul Talbot’s Bronson’s Loose!: The Making of the Death Wish Films was an amazing resource. It’s packed with stories and anecdotes from director Michael Winner, actor Kevyn Major Howard, novelist Brian Garfield, and interviews and articles from when the films were originally released. There’s also a sequel, Bronson’s Loose Again! On the Set with Charles Bronson, that I’ll be grabbing.

I had the opportunity to conduct an interview with Paul about the films and am so excited to share it with you.

B&S: How did you come to be such a fan of not only Death Wish, but Charles Bronson?

PAUL TALBOT: When I was a little boy in the 1970s, I’d watch a lot of Elvis Presley movies on TV with my mom. One weekend we watched Kid Galahad in which Elvis plays a boxer and Bronson played his trainer. It was the first time I saw Bronson and I was fascinated by him.A few days later, I watched The Great Escape on TV with my dad. It was his favorite movie. And I was fascinated by Bronson in that.

The mid-70s was the era of Bronsonmania when he was hot at the box office and his older movies and TV episodes were constantly on TV. This was way before cable TV and way, way before VHS and you had to find older movies and TV episodes on obscure local channels called UHF channels. I used to always look at the movie ads in the newspaper and I was intrigued by the image of Bronson at the bottom of the stairs and I was disturbed by a review that described the plot. In elementary school, one of best friend’s dad took him to the drive-in to see it and my friend described the images to me. But I was way too young to see it then.

I grew up in Beverly MA, which is a suburb of Boston. There was a local theater called the Cabot and they showed 2nd run movies (i.e. movies that had already played the big cities). I would walk there a lot to see matinees. In the fall of 1975, a friend and I went to see Breakout. It was the first Bronson movie I saw at a theater and I loved it. I saw Hard Times at the same theater a few months later. From then on, I saw almost every movie Bronson made at a theater until his last feature Death Wish 5. I didn’t get to see the original Death Wish until around 1981 when I saw it late-night on a cable station. (I think the station was a Washington, DC station.)

I loved Death Wish and I thought it was very disturbing. I did see Death Wish 2 thru 5 on their first theatrical run.

B&S: We’re from a town not far where Bronson was born, and some restaurants here still have his photo up on their walls and bars (I always request said tables). How much do you think his hardscrabble beginnings created his personality?

PT: That’s cool about the restaurants. He came from a dirt poor background and I think that had a lot to do with his stoic persona. He didn’t really trust people. He had a strong work ethic.

B&S: There are a lot of legends about the actor — Andrew Stevens shares one in the intro, after all. What are a few of your favorites?

PT: I interviewed dozens of Bronson’s coworkers for my two Bronson books and I collected lots of good stories. One of my favorite anecdotes involves Bronson’s mysterious oldest brother. Bronson wouldn’t see him for years and then the brother would show up on movie set. The brother lived on the streets and he would only accept small amounts of money from Bronson whenever they would meet. The brother ultimately ended up dead in a sleazy hotel in the Skid Row area of Los Angeles.

B&S: Do you have a favorite of the five movies? A least favorite?

PT: The original Death Wish is a flawless masterpiece and one of the best films of the 1970s. It is not an action film, it is a gritty, dark psychological drama. The sequels became progressively more absurd and more cartoonish, much like the James Bond and Dirty Harry movies did. But the sequels work on their own level as efficient comic book programmers. My least favorite is Part 2 because of the horrifying rape scenes and because it is a disappointment coming from Michael Winner.

B&S: What I find interesting about the films is that they each reflect the changing climates of the times they are made, going from introspective analysis of what it would take to make a man a vigilante to out and out high action epics. How do you feel about the shifting narrative tone of the films?

PT: The original Death Wish was shot in early 1974 when crime was rampant in the major U.S. cities—especially in New York. I remember that some of my classmates’ parents didn’t allow their kids to go on field trips into NYC. Death Wish audiences, particularly those in New York and especially those who had been victims of crimes themselves, screamed and applauded with delight as Paul Kersey responded on screen the way they wished they could have in real life. DWII was released in 1982 during the Reagan era when Americans were in a right wing, eye-for-an-eye mood. By the time DW3 went into production in 1985, every action film was copying the Stallone’s epic First Blood and Kersey was turned into a Rambo-like character with unlimited firepower. DW4 was released in 1987 during the heyday of the VHS boom when young men stayed home and watched an endless supply of action epics. DW5 hit video shelves during the last gasp of the video rental craze.

B&S: My theory is that all the films are in the same universe, unlike today’s films that often move in and out of canon with reimagining. That means that Paul is the most Jobian hero ever, constantly facing more misery than perhaps any fictional character ever. How does he keep going?

PT: My theory is slightly different. I see Kersey as only the same character in the first two movies. I see DW3 as being set in a bizarre alternate universe that bears no resemblance to Earth. That movie is totally insane and is like no other. DW4 and 5 I see as not sequels to DW but as sequels to The Mechanic with a retired skilled hit man assuming the name Kersey.

B&S: I love that! Have you seen any of the films inspired by Death Wish, like Il Giustiziere di Mezzogiorno, Mohra, the 1975 Turkish shot for shot remake The Executioner or Sex Wish?

PT: I’ve seen parts of the first, second and fourth movies on that list. I didn’t want to finish them.

B&S: I’m sure you’ve been asked this a ton of times, but please indulge me. What are your feelings on the Eli Roth remake?

PT: I have not seen it nor do I intend to. I read the script a few years before the film went into production and I thought it was not good. It had nothing to do with the novel or the original film. It was just another vigilante story but it was commissioned by the studio that owned the rights so the character was called “Paul Kersey.” I did try to watch the trailer but I couldn’t get through the first 2 seconds.

B&S: So much of the press for it was very reactionary — articles that said, “There’s no good time for a remake of Death Wish.” What are your feelings?

PT: A better phrase is “There’s no good time for a remake starring Bruce Willis or one directed by Eli Roth.” A remake should be set in the era of social media. Kersey’s teenage daughter gets bullied on Facebook and she commits suicide. Kersey goes after the kids that bullied her and breaks their fingers so they can’t type on their phones anymore.

B&S: Have you ever been in a personal situation like the film? Does that inform how you feel about the movies?

PT: I don’t want to go into the details. But, yes, I have been mugged and I have been a victim of crime on several other occasions and I got no help from law enforcement or the (in)justice system. I certainly understand Kersey’s rage in the first film. But I never suffered as bad as he did.

B&S: What inspired you to write the book?

PT: The first Bronson’s Loose! book came about when I re-watched the original Death Wish in the early 2000s. I hadn’t seen it in many years and I was shocked at how great it was. I then decided to revisit the sequels. This was before any of them were on DVD, and I had to go to several mom and pop video stores to find VHS copies of each sequel. I re-watched all of the sequels in one marathon weekend viewing. I thought, “How did we get from the original masterpiece to these bizarre sequels, especially since the first three were directed by the same man?” I decided to write an article on the first three movies. I did a lot of research on the first three and then I tracked down an address for Michael Winner and wrote him a letter. His assistant sent me an email with a time to call for an interview. He lived in London and I had to do the interview at around five a.m., my time. We talked for about an hour, and Winner told me some great stories. He was hilarious. I wrote an article on the first three movies, included Winner’s quotes, and sent a query to numerous movie magazine. I got no response. No magazine editors wanted to read the article. I then decided to track down more people from the series, do more research on the sequels, and write a book.

B&S: So how did the sequel to the book come up?

PT: I hadn’t done any extensive Bronson research in awhile. But around 2013, I did an interview with The Evil That Men Do screenwriter John Crowther and wrote an article on that film. I couldn’t find any magazines that were interested in even reading that article. But, that research got me thinking about a sequel to Bronson’s Loose! and I decided to try and interview as many living actors and crew members who worked with Bronson as I could. So over the course of two and a half years, I interviewed over three dozen actors, directors, producers, and writers and I put the book Bronson’s Loose Again! together. That book came out in 2016. Many of the people I’ve interviewed have since passed on and I’m grateful that I was able to capture and document their Bronson stories.

B&S: Thanks for answering our questions. I learned so much more about the films (and had already learned so much from the first book)!

PT: Thanks for talking to me, Sam. If people want to learn more about Bronson, they may want to read my books Bronson’s Loose: The Making of the Death Wish Films and Bronson’s Loose Again: On the Set with Charles Bronson.  I’ve done commentary tracks for the Blu rays of the Bronson movies Death Wish 2, 4 and 5 and Mr. MajestykCabo Blanco and The Stone Killer and I just recorded two more this month that will be out in early 2019.

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