Twenty questions with martyn Burke - director of 'the last chase'

Martyn Burke
Image © Martyn Burke

For those that don't know him, Martyn is an award winning documentary film maker, winning a Peabody Award in 2012 and was short-listed for an Academy Award for the film 'Under Fire: Journalists In Combat'. He was named winner of the Auteur Award by the International Press Association in Los Angeles in 2015 and in 2018 he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate by McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario.

He has produced, written and directed various movies and documentaries from the mid-seventies to the noughties and is now a well renowned author in his own right.

For Lee Majors fans, he is probably best know for the SF actioner 'The Last Chase', which starred Lee, Burgess Meredith and Chris Makepeace.

Made in 1981, between 'The Six Million Dollar Man' and Lee starring on 'The Fall Guy', the movie is set in the future when cars are outlawed and Lee's character. a former race car divers yearns again for the open road. In a last ditch attempt he reassemble his old racing car and heads across America for 'Free California', chased by an old Korean War veteran who has been ordered to stop him, at all costs...

Anyone that managed to see the special edition of the movie released on DVD by Code Red, some years ago, will have been lucky enough to listen to Martyn's audio commentary on the disc as well as well watch an interview where he talks exclusively about the making of the movie.

Martyn was gracious enough to spare some time recently, to talk about his career as well as give us another insight into the making of the movie and working with Lee,,,

20 Question with Martyn Burke

1. What were your early inspirations or heroes when you were growing up?
When I was a boy the International Cinema on Yonge Street in Toronto would have Saturday afternoon screenings of old English films. Being British, my parents made this a regular part of our week. I thrilled to the old black & white films like The Third Man and expecially the Ealing comedies with Alec Guiness and Peter Sellers. It was the story telling that registered most, getting me into worlds I would otherwise never have had

2. Is there any one thing or person that set you on the road to being a film maker?
Two moments: A filmmaker named Gordon Sheppard came to my university to screen an old documentary he made called "The Most" a film about the early days of Hugh Hefner. It was insightful, fascinating and at times devastating in ways that Hefner would never have understood. Sitting on the floor, watching that film, I told myself that was what I wanted to do. Second moment: watchng Dr Strangelove. Taking the most terrifying issue of our time and making it horrifyingly funny was sheer genius.

3. Tell us how and why you made the move from making documentries in Canada for CBC Televsion, to feature films?
Ever since I was a boy I'd written stories and been obsessed with cameras and what they could do. It was a natural progression.

4. Given the breadth of names and talent you've workled with across your films from Sophia Loren, Peter O'Toole, Donald Pleasance, Peter Cushing and Omar Sharif to name a few, who did you most admire for their work ethic on-set and who was the most fun off-set and why?
Anyone who knows him will not be surprised when I say that the best work ethic I've encountered in films has been Sylvestor Stallone. His public image as a Rambo-type of personality belies his enormous preparation. Being dyslexic, puts more work into his understanding of a script than anyone I know. My two favourites, hands-down would be Peter O'Toole and Anthony Quinn. Peter was gloriously daft and incredibly challenging --in a good way. I am deeply grateful to him for taking the chance he did on me, a very untried young fillmmaker. And then for being so supportive. And Anthony Quinn was someone I formed an instant bond with. It was a friendship that touched a part of his spiritual side (in ways that would way too long to explain) and on his deathbed, he wrote me a letter just hours before passing away. I have kept it in a private place. I would also put Lee Majors as one of my all favourites --but I'll go into that later.

5. I was sorry to see that George Touliatos passed away 3 years ago. He was in 'Power Play' which you wrote and directed, as well as with Lee Majors in his 1980 movie 'Agency' which was also filmed in Canada. George and Lee didn't share any scenes but did they meet at any time during filming?
In some ways George was a tragedy. One of the most talented -and cantankerous, actors I've ever worked with, he should have had a huge career. I used to love working with him, just to see a kind of genius in action. I saw a stage version of "Death of a Salesman" where he played Willy Loman. He was brilliant beyond words.

6. If you had had a bigger budget on 'The Last Chase', how would you have spent it, anything in particular you would have done bigger or had more of?
Of all my films it's the one I want to remake. The advances in technology would be a huge benefit to the story. Back then we were a scrambling low-budget Canadian film unit landing a jet fighter on an Arizona highway and then having it keep going, skimming the speeding race car in front of it --making for a shooting day of sheer terror. The chance for disaster was ever-present

7. I was impressed with the practical effects in the movie, in an era before CGI, especially some of the plane/car scenes. Did Lee do all his own driving?
How did you the fact that Lee was often in close proximity to the plane in some of the scenes sit with your insurance on the movie, with Lee being your leading man? Lee probably did more driving than was safe. He was always game for anything when it came to that car. Naturally on the really dangerous scenes we used professiona stunt drivers

8. In the movie and on the DVD documentry you talk about pandemics in the future and the general breakdown of society and law and order. How do you feel now , given what we 're going through in 2020 with COVID-19?
It seems another quite prophetic glimpse into the future. Another reason why it's the one movie I'd like to remake. Back then when we made The Last Chase the pandemic element of the story was regarded as being almost science-fiction. Now it's a grim reality, leveraging the plausibility factor of the story immensely.

9. I know you said you got some moulds of the car from Porsche, how did you settle on a 917 Can-Am? Interesting that most of them are right-hand drive as well.
We settled on that car partly for the design and camera angles we could get on Lee and Chris Makepeace. But also there was also a practical reason as well: a tough old Czech named Vasek Polak had a Porsche dealership in Hermosa Beach California, just outside of L.A. He was a racing fanatic and loved the idea of us using movie versions of one of his favourite race cars. So we took the real car and had identical fiberglass copies made of the body; and then jammed them on top of various frames and engines

10.Any colourful anecdotes or stories from the filming that you remember?
Too many to go into now: Just a couple: Before the film began shooting I flew to LA from Toronto and stayed with Lee and his then-wife Farah Fawcett, (at that time America's pin-up icon from the Charlie's Angeles poster) in their large ranch-style house on Antelo Drive. Lee threw a party for me for which he invited Ryan O'Neal, wanting to patch up a feud and get back to being the old friends they once were. When the party was over, Lee, Farah Ryan and I were sitting around as Lee talked of leaving in a few days to fly to Toronto to begin filming The Last Chase. As Ryan was leaving, in complete innocence, Lee said something like "Look after Farah for me while I'm gone." A few weeks afterwards, while we were filming in Toronto the tabloids began coming out with blaring headlines and photos about Farah cheating on Lee with Ryan. Week by week it got worse until even major magazines like People were running cover stories about Ryan having stolen Lee's wife while he was way making a movie. We had to ban all those publications from the set. Every day when Lee showed up, the set.was filled with a strange tension, not to mention an overwhelming protective sympathy toward Lee. But it was never talked about or even acknowledged. It was obvious that he was going through his own personal hell --but as with other things, he would never show it. For weeks it was like working with an invisible 800 pound emotional gorilla that no one could talkj about. By the end on the shoot most of the cast and crew would have given Lee a big hug if they could have...............Another brief vignette : While filming the War Room scenes in a huge unheated studio, there was a week of unseasonable (even for Canada) cold weather. It got so cold that we could see the actors' breath as they spoke. To counteract that we had to have them suck on icecubes right before I called Action.

11.Were the any scenes that were written but didn't get filmed, or any deleted scenes left on the cutting room floor that you would have liked to have left in?
None that I remember. I'm sure that if I see the film again there will be a lot I'd want to revise or update.

12.Lee pretty much went from film to film for a few years after his time on SMDM to The Fall Guy. Did he ever talk about how he found the differences between the schedules for a weekly TV show and the more relaxed one of movie-making? Was it more relaxed given he was the lead on most of the films he was in the last few years before 'The Last Chase'?
There was nothing relaxed about filming The Last Chase. I forget the exact budget but it was low enough that every day was a scramble. We were operating differently than a network TV show, but it was grueling from start to finish.. And Lee was able to adapt and meet whatever challenges came up.

13.How would you describe Lee in 3 words?
Complicated. Decent. And in a way that seldom came through in the work he did: Talented.........I say this because whenever I got Lee to shake off the bad acting habits that almost every network TV actor got into in those days, you could see the actor that he could be when he was stretched.

14.Given Lee's popularity at the time, was there a desire to put Lee's image bigger on the poster to push the movie or not? Who was resonsible for promoting the film amd were you happy with how it turned out?
The distributors did not want to put him front and center because of his TV-fame, which in those days was a big negative for a movie. I was very unhappy with the marketing of the film. Even when it began getting some really positive reviews, they wanted to play up the action alone.

15.Various sources say you filmed through October and November in 1979. How was that for weather given it was Fall and coming into winter? Did that help or hinder?
See above answer

16.You rightly say the film keeps getting 're-discoverd'. The last release was the ultimate edition by Code Red in 2011. It's great to see proper aspect release and have the interviews with youeself and George on there as well as the audio commentary. Has there been talk of a Blu-Ray release at all, as Id love to see a full restored picture release?
I am really out of that loop

17.For me the music in 'The Last Chase' is almost another character i the film. The main theme is very recognisable. How did Gil Melle get involved?
He was one of about a dozen composers whose work I listened to. I really knew little about him before, but something in his demo reel gave me the sense that he could make the music into an emotional background all its own.

18.Were you aware he did he music for the orignal SIX MILLION DOLLAR MAN pilot movie, as well as THE SOLID GOLD KIDNAPING. in 1973. With him winning a Golden Globe Award in 1972 for THE ANDROMEDA STRAIN, it sounds like it was quote a coup to have him onboard?
Yeah, I was aware that we were lucky to get him. There was a mutual enthusiasm though; he seemed to really like the concept and the rough footage he saw.

19.Congrats for the Peabody Award for the amazing documentary 'Under Fire: Journalists in Combat'. Totally well deserved and a sombering and eye-opening watch. Do you feel you came full circle with that documenatry from paying your way to go across to Vietnam for one of your first journalist and photography jobs to making that documentary?
For me there is no real full circle because I've always gone between my three work lives --books; films and documentaries. Right now we are stalled on the feature I was scheduled to shoot in Havana Cuba. It's locked up tight because of Covid-19 so we can't even go to Cuba right now. I left LA in late March and since then have been mostly on a lake near Bracebridge, a small Canadian town a hundred miles north of Toronto. I've been working intensively on my next novel, a story of a German woman in the wildest days of 1920's & '30's Berlin.

20. Happy birthday for a couple of weeks ago, by the way. After your last novel, 'Music for Love or War', what are you working on currently, how are you spending your days?
Thanks - but long ago I subscribed to Picasso's dictum" "After forty, you choose your age. & See above

Lee & Chris makepeace on 'The Last Chase'
Image © Martyn Burke