Clutch is an independent feature film that follows the story of a small town race driver and his single-minded passion for racing. Shot in Seattle and Washington State, the film features numerous classic muscle cars of the past as well as a return to ‘old school’ automotive stuntwork. In this interview for varaces, the film’s director Jay Rowlands talks about its production.
Tico Romao: What motivated you to make your first feature film on auto-racing?
Jay Rowlands: My passion for Muscle cars and my desire as an actor to act in a film like CLUTCH. I didn't see anyone making a car film from a true gearheads perspective. I decided I'd step up and hopefully deliver something my fellow muscle car fans would appreciate.
TR: A consistent feature in auto-racing films is the presence of a character who is absolutely driven to become the best driver. Your film seems to carry on this tradition. What is it about auto-racing and the quest for speed that lends itself to portraying these types of obsessed characters?
JR: Being the best. The fastest. Number one. Auto racing is a demanding, serious competition. There's an addictive adrenaline rush you get from speed, horsepower, loud exhaust, the smell of race fuel and burnt rubber. A strong Alpha male is competitive by nature- so are some women. You mix that up with all the highs and lows, all the variables involved in racing and I think that's how the driven attitude develops. It becomes a serious challenge. Serious challenges call for characters driven enough to borderline or become obsessed to reach their goals. For those types of characters it's life or death.
TR: The credits for your film list you as its director, writer, lead actor, and even stunt coordinator. Given that you assumed multiple roles, car film enthusiasts are bound to compare you with H.B. Halicki when he made Gone in 60 Seconds. To what extent then has Halicki and his films influenced you as an independent filmmaker?
JR: Toby Halicki has had an enormous influence on me. If car film enthusiasts compare me to Toby Halicki I'd take it as a great compliment. I didn't have nearly the financial backing he had to do his films, but I have to say his attitude and drive to make his own car movies and the way he made them definitely lit the fire under my ass. I own a dvd copy of each one of his films. I learned a lot from watching them. Gone in 60 Seconds was his best in my opinion, but I learned things from all of his movies. It's not just his films that have influenced me as an independent filmmaker. The more I learned about Toby and his entrepreneurial business actions he took to get his film distributed and seen around the world, the more I realized ways I could follow in his footsteps from a business standpoint. I especially take a liking to the way I heard he dealt with theater owners who neglected to pay him from the box office.
In addition to that I've even been influenced somewhat indirectly from a friend of mine, Eddie Paul. Eddie worked as a stunt man and stunt coordinator doing an enormous amount of stunts for Halicki's projects. I picked up some valuable stuff from Eddie when we talked about him working on Gone in 60 Seconds and the other films, one of which was Gone In 60 Seconds 2, the sequel that was left unfinished due to Halicki's tragic death on set. It's unfortunate that Toby passed away, who knows what other films may have come from him. Car enthusiasts may or may not appreciate the Gone in Sixty Seconds “remake” with Nick Cage and Angelina Jolie, but you've got to hand it to Halicki's wife Denice for carrying on Toby's dream. Last but definitely not least, one of the biggest influences Halicki had on me was that he was a driver. A car guy. He did all his own driving and stunts. That's something us gearheads seem to appreciate.
TR: The American independent cinema has a rich tradition of auto-racing films, like The Lively Set, Thunder In Dixie, and Pit Stop. Were you influenced by any of these films when making Clutch or were you more inspired by the bigger budgeted and better known Hollywood films such as Grand Prix, Le Mans and Days of Thunder?
JR: It's a total combination for me. I'm such a nut when it comes to car movies. There was a lot of low budget car racing films back in the day and I seem to get my core inspiration from those. I've always liked and been attracted to the whole Southern U.S. moonshine runner/ racer idea, or car movies that seem to have that gritty, down home, grass roots feeling. The bigger budgeted Hollywood films intrigue me because they've always had the latest and coolest techno toys, crew and equipment for filming car action. I'm not much of an open wheels racing fan but I like the film Grand Prix because I feel it was a very well made racing film. I dig Le Mans because I'm a racer who's in love with that era and appreciate the fact McQueen wanted to bring his passion for racing to the big screen. I could go on and on about other car films and things I like about them. Whether it's a low budget B- movie racing film or a mega million dollar Hollywood production I'm sure they've all influenced me somehow, some way.
TR: When most people think of stock car racing culture, they think of the American South. Is there a local automotive scene in Seattle and Washington State and did any of it work its way into your film?
JR: Absolutely. There's a huge automotive scene throughout Washington State and yes, it did work its way into the film. Lots of muscle cars here. Lots of hot rods and race cars in shops, garages and barns throughout this Evergreen state. There's quite a scene for the boy racer import cars as well. I'm not really into that scene but it's here and it definitely has a strong presence among the younger generation of car enthusiasts in these parts.
There's not any one specific car culture type one could use to describe the automotive scene in the Pacific Northwest. We have SCCA Road Race courses and several road race clubs. We have several stock car racing oval tracks in the area. Drag strips, off road and 4x4 courses, cruise spots, car clubs, events and shows of all types. It's a very diverse collection of automobile enthusiasts here.
TR: Seattle is better known for its popular music scene than as a centre of filmmaking. Does Seattle have a thriving film industry and did it provide you with resources and talent to make your film?
JR: Ahh yes, the Seattle music scene. You'll hear some of that on the movie soundtrack. There is a film industry here with plenty of professional production and post production resources. When I'm not working on movie stuff I hang out in race shops, garages and race tracks, not the typical places the Seattle film industry types frequent. Sometimes I feel there's more happening here than I'm in touch with. I can't help but feel there is a true hunger for more professional work opportunities though. All my actors were local talent who hadn't had much work. Not due to their lack of talent by any means. Some of my key crew members moved to Seattle to jump start their film work careers, then once their experience level reached a certain point they relocated to Los Angeles or New York. (For lack of professional paid gigs in Seattle.) I've had to deal with a revolving door situation during the production of CLUTCH. Crew members coming and going.
I believe the city of Seattle had the opportunity to become a thriving film industry “Center” at one time, but kind of missed the bus. Vancouver B.C. , Canada (Just a few hours drive North from Seattle) recognized the potential and did something about it by building a whole film based community and support system. With that said, there are lots of talented, smart, creative individuals that make up the film industry in Seattle. We've got several schools here with film based training like the Seattle Film Institute, the University of Washington's film program and the Seattle Art Institutes film program. All of which I tapped into for crew and additional resources.
There's places like the 911 Media Arts center which offers some equipment & resources for independent film here. Also the Northwest Film Forum, a Seattle based non- profit organization for the film arts which provides equipment, facilities, educational workshops, grants and more for it's members. Seattle has acting coaches, casting directors, agents, writers, editors, various production crew personnel, film camera rentals, a large scale grip and lighting rental house complete with sound stage, one of the best film processing labs in the country and a fist full of professional post studios to round it out. Some director/ producer friends of mine Sam Akina and Josh Cameron have told me they really want to put Seattle on the map and help make it a thriving place for the film industry. Who knows, maybe after a few more breakout films from this town get known things will start to rock like the music scene.
TR: Your film has an impressive range of vintage cars in it. How did you manage to obtain these vehicles for the shoot? What are some of the more notable makes viewers can expect to see?
JR: Networking, busting my ass and trust. It started with a phone call to my friend Bob Morton. He owns one of the original 602 Camaro Z/28's Chevrolet produced for it's 1967 introductory year. Bob's '67 Zee is particularly rare because it never even got registered as a street driven vehicle. Came straight off the truck from Chevrolet to the Alan Green Dealership in Burien, WA where it was immediately stripped, gutted and built into a road race car for competing in the SCCA's Trans- American series. 302 cubic inch motor built by Yenko, car campaigned independently by Driver/ owner Ken Deckman throughout the entire '67-'72 T/A series. My friend Bob restored and vintage races the car. I asked him if he'd be willing to let me use his Camaro as my main character's race car in the movie. Bob said yes and from there I've been off and running ever since.
A few of the movie cars I own or purchased for production. A '68 Camaro oval track racer serves as a stunt car, another '68 Camaro I had to purchase because a friend of mine was going to prison and the only way to keep the car in the picture was to buy it. (That's a whole other story in itself). That car was insane. The powerplant was a 461 cubic inch big block with an 8-71 Hampton blower and dual Holley Predator carbs. When they ran the engine on the dyno it was pushing over 1200 HP, then it exploded the water couplings and various things right off the dyno set up and we never got a final reading. Somewhere between 1200 and 1300 HP- and we put it into a street legal '68 Camaro! All that screaming horsepower was backed up with a bulletproof M-22 Rockcrusher 4 speed and a Currie 9 inch Ford rear axle. I had a blast driving that car. It was a real challenge to keep on the road, scared a lot of people that's for sure. The third vehicle I bought was a Chevy 454SS truck which has been used as a hi- speed camera vehicle and all around production workhorse hauling film equipment, race car parts, and crew members. For you gearheads out there the truck no longer sports the factory throttle body injection and ECM computer. Ripped that stuff out and made it old school. New Crane Cam, Edelbrock Aluminum heads and matching intake, Holley 780cfm carb, Hooker headers with 3” Flowmaster exhaust. It's a got a Hurst dual gate shifted Turbo 400 auto trans with a 3200 stall converter. Corporate 14 bolt 3.73 posi traction rear axle. The truck even gets some screen time during one of the scenes in the movie.
All of the other cars used in the movie I had to find, corral and/ or borrow. The cars you'll see in the road racing scenes are all guys in my vintage road racing club, SOVREN (Society Of Vintage Racing Enthusiasts). A few of my friends in the club helped me network, plan and set things up with other racers and the owner of Pacific Raceways. Some of the most notable makes you'll see here are from the mid to late 60's SCCA and FIA Trans- Am and A-Sedan groups. I'm not going to give it away, but you're going to see some really great specimens from the Trans-Am Racing hay day.
The lead character in the movie, Travis, drives a weathered '69 Camaro RS Z/28 for his every day get around town car. Travis' best friend and mechanic, Bobby, drives a 1972 Oldsmobile Cutlass. The Cutlass isn't a 442, but has a 350 cubic inch engine, 4 speed and posi rear end. The car we used for Travis' girlfriend, Janelle, is a 1998 Lexus SC 400. One of the film's antagonists drives a souped up twin turbo Mitsubishi 3000GT. Another has a limousine. A custom chopper with an S&S V-Twin and a Harley Davidson motorcycle are used. Picking characters' vehicles for a car movie is just as important as casting the actors for the role. You've got to get the right vehicle to fit the character.
Overall there have been well over 100+ vehicles used in the making of CLUTCH. Some I borrowed from friends. Many I had to search for, find and then make friends so I could talk them into the whole deal. Either way it took a lot of hustling and work. It takes a lot of trust for a car owner to put their pride and joy into the hands of another. Especially when you've got a bunch of camera crew and gear zipping all over the place, actors in and out their of cars all day etc. There's just an enormous amount of opportunity for disaster. Puts a lot of pressure on you. Sometimes I'm amazed that I've been entrusted to drive and use so many valuable vehicles. I feel it really helped being a car owner/ builder/ enthusiast myself.
This film is a muscle car enthusiasts movie. Chevy, Pontiac, Oldsmobile, Ford and Dodge are all represented throughout the film. Some Japanese and European makes have been placed in the film as well. Even though the movie is chocked full of American muscle, there's something for everyone.
TR: Although your film focuses upon auto-racing, will there be any car chases in Clutch, and if so will there be a major car chase set piece?
JR: The film focuses more so on the character's drive for his deep rooted passion of racing cars. Yes. There will be a car chase in CLUTCH. Will it be a major set piece? Hmmm. When you say “major car chase set piece” that makes me think of Bullitt. Yates, McQueen, Hickman and those guys really nailed it. We all know that.
The car chase in CLUTCH is actually part of a very pivotal scene in the movie. I've worked real hard to do the best I can with what I've got, which is more creativity than money. I wanted a car chase that the viewer can believe. The driving is real. The stunts are real. There won't be any cars flying over open draw bridges or 200 yard ravines, no police cars barrel rolling through the air because they hit a pipe ramp hidden in front of a parked car- non of that stuff. The car chase in CLUTCH lends itself to the story well and has it's own unique ending. I believe my audience will dig it.
TR: Many independent filmmakers nowadays shoot on digital to reduce production costs. Were there any stylistic reasons why you decided to shoot on 16mm instead?
JR: Absolutely. I hold a firm position on old school. I like my cars to be American made with V-8's, loud exhaust and lots of horsepower. I like my car movies to be shot on film. From the conception of CLUTCH I wanted to shoot on 16mm film to give the movie that gritty, grass roots look and feel I mentioned earlier. Yes, I could have saved an enormous amount of time and money if I shot this project on digital. I even had some people questioning me why I didn't shoot such a challenging project on digital. They simply don't get it. Frankly, I'm not sold on the look of digital when it comes to making a dramatic action film like CLUTCH. In fact, I have a saying “Reel men shoot on film”. However cheesy that may sound I feel there's some truth to it. Not to be totally bashing on digital, I feel it's a great format for a variety of projects. I actually worked on a digital project a few months back at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. We were shooting a TV show documenting my friend Russ Wicks breaking a World Speed record in a Dodge Charger. Some of the images we got were totally amazing and I was truly impressed. I Like the idea of taking the best of old school and utilizing it with the tools of the digital age to get the best of both worlds. There's something magical and mystical about the images you see on film. Combining the use of 16mm color film along with shooting all these beautiful muscle cars and the rural northwest locations really gives the film the retro feel I wanted to accomplish.
TR: When can car chase fans expect a theatrical and DVD release of Clutch?
JR: Summer 2008!!! I'm working hard to reach my personal goal of having the movie finished by July 1st, 2008. CLUTCH is going to have it's World Premiere on the big screen here in Seattle. I'm planning to release the movie on DVD the same night as the Premiere. (One big celebratory party!) DVD's will be available for purchase through the movie's website at http://www.clutchthemovie.com/. I've also been approached to do special big screen viewings at some large car show events. That sounds really fun and I'm looking forward to booking some events like that as well. Who knows, maybe we can book some drive ins too- that would be a blast!
TR: What are your future film projects?
JR: After the launch of CLUTCH I'm going to re-direct focus on the acting area of my film career for a while. I want to act in feature films made by other producers and directors. Movies that I find interesting, appealing- and fun. I have a motorcycle movie that I want to play the lead character in. That project is in the early stages of development. There's a film made in 1968 I'd like to do a remake of (as director & lead actor). I like the story, the characters and there's a great opportunity to shoot a really cool chase scene. I'll be looking into the possibilities of this remake for a future project. I have two completed movie scripts in the Renegade Productions stable. They're not related to cars, however; both scripts would make good movies. I may option them, sell them or actually produce them.
I'm also planning to make a Western/ Cowboy movie a bit further down the line.I'm looking forward to the projects I've mentioned above and others I haven't been offered, made aware of or created yet. In between those I'll be wrenching on muscle cars and layin' some rubber!