Director of the film
Mojave Phone Booth
[This interview took place in July (2005). I'd have posted it sooner if I weren't been in a race to finish my book about the Mojave Phone Booth before my interview subject finishes his film Mojave Phone Booth, because cross-promotion of two products is so much less effective when there is only one product. As things stand, both film and book are estimated to be finished by the end of the year.]
Deuce of Clubs: I'm looking forward to seeing the completed film.
John Putch: I want to thank you. You've inspired me with your site and what you wrote. It made me want to capture the weirdness of that whole thing. That's what made it become part of my movie. My movie isn't about the booth, which I'm glad about, I don't want it to be. I like that it's part of it.
I'm delighted. A lot of stuff has arisen from my silly little project.
It's been really strange. But I like it when someone has a vision and goes out and does something about it. I like it when someone adds to a project, thinks of something different, as you've done. You've got the booth almost as a character in your movie, as a sort of binding factor.
And you started it. Which is cool.
It's an odd thing.
Yeah, I wanted you to know about it the minute I sunk into it, so I was very grateful that you were communicating back with me.
There still seems to be quite a bit of interest in the booth, actually. I still get quite a bit of email from the Mojave Phone Booth website, which is kind of strange, since it was destroyed about five years ago now. When did you first hear about the Mojave Phone Booth?
I'll tell ya, I was in VegasI don't know, must have been 2000, or right when the booth was removed or somethingand I read an article in the Sun-Times, or whatever the Vegas paper is. It was the first I'd ever heard of it. I thought the article was really interesting. Typically, the booth is gone now, and I didn't get a chance to see it or look at it or call it or anything. So I got home and I started looking it up on the web and I found your siteand everybody else's, the blogs or whateverand I just read a whole mess of shit on it. I guess what interested me were the same things that interested other people, and that was just this wonder aspect of it, that people actually connect, strangers so far away, and the best part is that you're in a weird, surreal setting, you know? So I just never forgot it, and thenI'm a film maker, and I work in crappy television [Laughs] Fuckin' sellout business. But I make good films. Or used to, when I could afford it. So a year ago I got a residual check, which is, you know, a royalty check when they re-run a show. It was the first one I'd ever gotten, 'cos I was never in a labor guild but now I had to joinanother evil empire! Anyway, so I got this check and I went, oh fuck, I've gotta make a digital movie. I have to make a movie, and I can do it for twenty grand if I really, really set my mind to it. So I hooked up with this writer guy I met [Jerry Rapp (Johnny Come Early, What to Do with Your Dead Hooker)] and said, "I want to make a movie and it has to be like these kind of films, it's gotta have . . . episodic-ness . . . to it. Because I like the desert, I like Vegas, I don't want to shoot in California. And we were pitching all these storiesthere are about four stories in the movieand we were pitching stories and I pitched the booth story and I said, "Well, I love this story. I don't know what to do with it," but I told my writing partner the story of the booth and he liked it and we decided to use it as the thing that all the other stories intertwined with. So all our characters in the movie have one thing in common: they're people that go out there and make phone calls, or wait for phone calls. So that's how it started, and in our movie it became better as an interstitial, rather than a whole story about the booth. . . . It's sort of a background for [the movie] and everyone goes there and they fuckin' talk to this woman in Belgium or London orit's to be determined, 'cos I don't have a voice yet, for herbut they all speak to this one woman who has called at random times and gotten these people, and they've actually made appointments, really, to talk to this woman again and again. So I have one voice on my phone that happens to talk to the same people and they're all intertwined somehow but they don't know it. That's how it turned into what it is. I dig it. I think it's a good place. I wasn't taking the booth and telling the booth's story, I was taking my story and putting my people near the booth.
So I hope it'soh, good. 'Cos I couldn't see trying to make a movie about the booth. I read all about your . . . what happened, how you documented it, and I just saw nothing interesting there
Uh. . . .
in terms of dramatics, I mean! You know? Other than it's fact. And to do the movie about the story that happened, you'd have to get permissions, and it'd be just horrible. So I thought, let's just set the film there.
I think that's better, yeah. Otherwise, you'd have to make up stuff. You'd have to do the thing that people complain about when filmmakers do "Based on a True Story" stories. Or else it would have to be a documentary. Did you have a hard time finding a suitable location?
If I could have shot [at the location of the real Mojave Phone Booth], I would have. But knowing that [the National Park Service] would've come and shut me down . . . they wouldn't have allowed it. But yeah, up at Lancaster/Palmdale, there's nothing but Joshua trees, it looks just like it. But I shot a lot of my driving stuff out there, and the site of the [prop] booth was at the end of an unpaved, dirt access road that went up into sort of like a hill. It's a little hillier, probably, than the original site. There's a ton of slope.
Well, no, there are hills near the Mojave Phone Booth site, too.
There's mountains behind it, I noticed, in the photos.
But if you were standing in the booth, you could see people coming from a long way off because they were coming down a hill toward you. You could see them before they saw you. Especially at nightyou could see the headlights coming.
That's spooky. So I found three places. If you try to shoot in LA, there's just a bunch of fuckers trying to get in your way. They don't want to help you and they don't care that you're making a film on your credit card, they don't give a shit. They charge you a thousand bucks for a "film permit." A thousand bucks? I said, the movie's only costing $30,000! Give me a break! There's four of us out there with a camera! That whole rant, I could go on about it. Anyway, I found this spot in Palmdale. It wasn't my first choice, but it was, like, a block away from my first choice. The terrain was great and it served us well. And I have the booth. I had it built. It's in my garage. It came out great. I gave this guy pictures, this art director that I did a TV movie with. I told him what I was doing. I said, "I can't rent a phone booth from these prop shops. They're too big, they're too bulky. They don't look like the original. Can you make me this?" And I handed him a piece of paper with some drawings that I made, to put it together, three sides, with pin hinges. And he made me the booth. Of course, he aged it, and we tried to put the same bullet holes. It's basically the same coloration. The blue panels. And the broken-out windows. It looks like a booth. We strung this extension cord off of a phone pole down to the top of it, to make it look like a phone line. It worked great. I left the slab, by the way, in honor of . . . leaving something behind.
You poured a slab?
No, I bought a slab, at Home Depot. [Laughs] They're these three-feet square slabs that you put air conditioning condensor units on. And it's perfect! And I had the guy build the booth to match it within an inch. I threw it down, put the booth on it, I didn't even strap it down, it was great! So I left it behind.
Your booth was actually metal?
No, it was made of wood. It's not sturdy. But, man, you can put it together in, like, seven seconds by yourself.
The real ones are heavy. You need at least four or five people to move them safely. I had a phone booth, and I actually took my booth out to the Mojave Phone Booth one time.
Really? If you need this booth, just let me know and you can take it.
Cool. It'll come in handy for book promotion, I'm sure. Did you ever make it out to the actual location where the Mojave Phone Booth was, like you planned?
I got halfway there and I had to turn around 'cos I didn't have a 4x4. You were exactly right, and since I don't have one in my family right now, I would have to borrow one. I'll get there. I'm going up this week to shoot pickup shots and some shots of Vegas and some desert crap. I want to see it. I'm going to see if I can get to it. Is that tombstone still there?
Oh, no. That only lastedI don't even know if that lasted a month.
Anything that showed up, the National Park Service destroyed. In fact, after the National Park Service had the booth removed, people were still going out there because the concrete pad was still there. So they came out and broke up the concrete pad and took it away. They took everything away.
Oh my god.
But they didn't get very far. It's dumb, because there are thousands of poles going across. But they were going to get that one pole. I think I know who did that, actually.
When you contacted actors to be in Mojave Phone Booth, did they think you were nuts when you told them the story? Had they heard of the Mojave Phone Booth before?
Only one actor knew of it, and it was the guy in the video who explains what it was, a guy named Larry Poindexter. He had heard of it. No one else had heard of it. Which shocked me. And I told all of the actors that part of their homework was to go to Deuce of Clubs and poke around and look at it. Nobody did it. Of course. [Laughs] But only one knew about it previously; one or two, I think.
Were they interested in the story, though?
Oh, yeah. See, these are all people I've worked with before. I called them on the phone, I said, "Okay, I'm making a digi movie, I'm making a Dogma-style thing. I'm gonna do it this summer. I want you in it." Nobody said no, because we've worked together before and I pitched them on the whole, we're-not-telling-anybody, we're-just-gonna-go-make-this-movie thing. And I sent them my guidelines. Not included on the site was a Dear Participant letter that laid out the whole spirit of the idea. And everybody said, "Yeah! In!" And they all liked the script, too, so that helped. There was only one guy that . . . originally, I had another actor involved [but] . . . he fell out early on, and I replaced him with Bob Romanus, from Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
I LOVE that guy!
He's so awesome. He's an old friend, and he's been in so many of my movies, and I can't believe I didn't just go to him first. Anyway, so everybody was in. They were not threatened by it, they knew they would be taken care of, they knew the film would be polished and professional because I was making it. So there's no downside, really. I worked the schedule around some people, so they could take jobs. Luckily, I didn't lose anybody.
You've had a long acting career yourself.
Yes, I have. I've been around.
What were some of the favorite roles that you played?
Oh, man. You know, when I was a younger man, I was really . . . when I didn't know a lotI know too much now, but when I didn't know a lotI was very excited about being an actor. I enjoyed all the roles I played. I achieved some success on One Day at a Time, which was a sitcom in the 70s. I guess in my twenties I worked a lot and I was really enjoying it. I can't really pick one that was my favorite. I'm really happy I don't have to act any more. I like directing better. I've never stopped making movies since I was a kid, even during the acting days, when I was making money as an actor, I would use my money to make short films. I just never stopped. I did it in '98, when I made a movie called Valerie Flake, which went to Sundance, and that movie I own with my wife. We mortgaged the house to make that. I don't know, I'm just really happy I'm here doing this now. Even though it's really, really tough in television, to keep your integrity and artistic spark going.
You're working on a remake of The Poseidon Adventure. That's got to be logistically about as different from Mojave Phone Booth as it's possible to be.
Oh, my god. After that, as I said in the little thing on the website, I needed, like, therapy of some kind. I needed something that would bring back my life and my spirit in my chosen art. And this movie is it. And if it works out, I want to do it again. And again. You don't need three hundred people to make a movie.
I liked your rule about never having more than eight people working at a time.
I had less, most of the time. It was great.
Did you end up having to break any of your digital filmmaking guidelines?
Yeah, what did I break? I broke the one about night-for-night, day-for-day. There was one location where there were one or two windows, and rather than wait for fuckin' eight o'clock at night to shoot, we just threw up some black plastic on the outside and shot it. Basically, it meant we didn't have to stay there until four in the morning.
Well, that doesn't really count so much.
Yeah. I could revise that, but I just didn't. Who cares? They're my rules, I can break 'em.
It's an independent film. You can break all the rules.
Just like, the budget. I guessed on the number because it made me laugh. I wanted to be able to say it's $3,469, but it's not. It's gonna be $39,000. I'm trying to keep it under forty, because that, to me, in my head, is a good number. I don't know why. People have made them for less. I'm breaking no new ground here. I'm just doing it the way I want to do it.
Did you contemplate any other titles for the film?
Yeah, I wrote it, directed it, produced it, made it all out of my house here.
No, I mean, besides Mojave Phone Booth. When you first contacted me, I thought that the booth would be incidental to the film. I didn't realize that the film would be named after it. Did you contemplate any other titles for it?
Oh, no. No. Did we? No. Once that title came up . . . well, we didn't have a title. It was called Digital Vegas until we could come up with a title. And then when I talked about that title, Mojave Phone Booth, and the Mojave Phone Booth became the interstitial, it just . . . nah, that had to be the title, 'cos it starts at the booth and it ends at the booth and all these people are at the booth. So it had to be called Mojave Phone Booth. I can't wait to get this thing started, cutting it. I'll pull some frame grabs off of the tapes and I'll be able to replace a lot of those photos on the website and it'll look really, really good.
I really enjoyed watching the behind-the-scenes short you have on the film's website.
Thank you. I whipped that together in a day, because I gave a seminar in Michigan [the Waterfront Film Festival] a couple of weeks ago on how to make an anti-Hollywood movie, and I used Mojave Phone Booth as the guideline.
I thought that the Internet would break the power of Hollywood. That it would be possible to make films that a lot of people would see, without having to have a lot of money or corporate backing. Maybe it will. But I want it now.
Netflix is turning itself into an online delivery system. Hollywood has embraced the Internet.
Except for movie swapping.
Yeah. But I think that's all coming. I wish Hollywood would break, too. When I go to a movie theater, if I go to a multiplex, I can guarantee I'm going to be disappointed in the movie I see. But if I go to some little arthouse that's strugglingthat's where you see stories. I don't know why I gravitate toward those. They make me feel something.
It's more personal.
Yes; it's more personal.
The film is somebody's vision, not the result of corporate marketing.
I hear stories that box office is down because people are complaining that movies are crap now. But they're making crap to feed these people who have been buying the tickets. Kids, basically, twenty-year-old kids. I don't know what's gonna happen, but I'll know how to make and sell my own movie. I don't know that I'll make a profit at it, because of the style of movies I like to make, but at least I have a knowledge now of making movies and getting them through distribution. But with Mojave Phone Booth I'm gonna make sure that I'm in control of all of it this time, instead of giving it to a sales agent and having them rip me off and sell it somewhere and take their cut. 'Cos I have been ripped off. That's the whole fun of it, for me, will be that. I want to do it again. I want to do a houseboat on Lake Mead or something. I want to do a digi movie out there, someplace that looks beautiful, where no one's gonna bother me, on a fuckin' boat.
Better do it quick, before Mead evaporates.
Is it low?
Way low. It has a bathtub ring. Stupid drought. But anyway, I'm hoping to finish this book by the end of the year. Do you know when your movie's coming out?
I want to finish the movie by the end of the year, as well.
That'd be good timing. We could do cross-promotion.
Yeah. And whatever you want me to do for you and your book, anything you want. If you feel that my movie can help you in any way, you just let me know what I need to do for you. I'm just trying to make a good film, get it in the festival circuit. Which is a great place to mention your book, as well. That's how I'm going to end up, hopefully, selling the film to somebody. It'll either end up on cable, or if I get lucky and I get it into theaters, I'll be fucking stoked.
Are you going to try and tour around with it, maybe?
Absolutely. That's the most fun you'll ever have, is taking your movie to film festivals. You get to show your film, the work you've done, to people who are filmgoers, not film critics. When you live in California and you work in this business, nobody wants to see you do good. They just want to cut you down. They want to cut you down, and this whole movie for me is a rebellion. I don't know if you saw my manifesto on the site, my director's statement. It's all, like, fire coming out of my head. These people, they just . . . ugh.
It's the same as in the book business. It's been largely taken over by large corporations with the blockbuster mentality.
That's why there's independent films and books and publishers. People do it themselves. Look at bands. They're fuckin' doing it all in their houses. The smart ones are finding other avenues besides labels to get their stuff out there. I think you've got a built-in audience for your book. And you're the guy that should write about the Mojave Phone Booth, because you're the one that started it all. You're the official guy. I'm glad there's no book prior to yours.
Me, too. Thanks for talking with me and good luck editing the film.
Photos from a screening of Mojave Phone Booth
Internet Movie Database page for Mojave Phone Booth
Internet Movie Database page for John Putch
© Deuce of Clubs