Published on October 5th, 2020 | by Neil Jordan0
Co-writers/co-directors Neil Cohen and Zack Norman about their film “CHIEF ZABU”
Recently I spoke with co-writers/co-directors Neil Cohen and Zack Norman about their film “CHIEF ZABU” The film had a very long and unusual path to release and they were kind enough to answer our questions.
When work began on the film, what were the original aspirations that were envisioned for it?
We hoped to make a small film with big ambition (we didn’t know that when making your first independent film in fifteen days with very little money it’s not supposed to have 43 speaking roles, 23 locations, and take place in three cities on two continents) – and of course we hoped the film would be distributed and seen and be part of ‘the conversation’ of indie filmmaking taking place in the 1970’s and 1980’s. It seems to have all worked out exactly as planned – people are seeing and discussing and writing about CHIEF ZABU – except that it took 34 years to happen!
Was there are particular event, occurrence, or peculiar set of circumstances that inspired this film?
Absolutely – it’s based on a true story! We were writing some scripts and one day Zack told the story of being summoned by a money guy to the Sherry-Netherland Hotel in New York to meet a political leader named Chief Kapuuo, a legit guy who was trying to get independence for Namibia from South Africa. Zack walked into this suite and all he saw was every hustler in New York making promises and pitching deals. Every con artist, every shyster in New York was surrounding this guy, along with Warren Beatty and Elizabeth Taylor! At that point, Zack knew this man was doomed and he made a U-turn and left the suite. Hearing this story, we looked at each other and said “That’s the movie we should be writing!”
We took the location from Namibia moved it to the South Pacific where at that time a number of the island nations were trying to break free from France while at the same time France was still doing open-air nuclear testing.
It was a South Pacific fantasy, with the edge of the political comedy of a real estate developer who had pretensions of wanting to be involved in politics – a character who was not very bright but had a lot of energy, and we were certainly aware of Trump because not only was he always in the gossip pages, we always used to see “The Trump Pavilion,” which was the most horrible building in Queens, on the highway to the airport.
When filming stopped and its future was in question, was there any indication that it might one day actually be completed once the ad in ‘Variety’ magazine had stopped?
That’s the funny misconception. CHIEF ZABU actually WAS completed and it was set to open; it was just never released as the film’s distributor went into bankruptcy a couple of weeks before the film was scheduled to open in theaters in New York and Los Angeles – and while rights and other issues were resolved we moved on to other things – Zack acting and Neil writing – always vowing to ‘some day” take another look at CHIEF ZABU. That some day was when a guy named Trump rode down an elevator and announced he was running for president which triggered us to find a print of the film, give it a bit of a trim and test the waters – and we’ve been delighted by the reception.
When the story of the stalling of the film had become almost a myth in the world of movies, how did the cast and crew interpret it?
The cast and crew were disappointed, but they were already much sought-after character actors and moved on to other work in film and television; making CHIEF ZABU was an anecdote in their careers, a fast, low budget filmmaking experience they cherished, and they were no more perplexed than they might be about the many oddities that define show business.
The parallels between the character ‘Ben Sydney’ and a certain real life New York political figure have been mentioned in press and news about the film. Did that have any sort of influence or bearing on the film?
Absolutely! Trump had recently finished building Trump Tower and was always in the news as a gaudy and iconic narcissistic buffoon. Add the facts that Zack was introduced to his wife by Blaine Trump who would soon be married to Donald’s brother Robert Trump, and that a good friend of mine was the co-founder of SPY MAGAZINE which was always lampooning Trump, and yes .. our story about a New York real estate developer who dreams of having political power was most definitely influenced by Trump.
Sadly, some of the cast members have passed away in recent years. What do you imagine their reaction would’ve been that the film had actually been completed?
The film WAS completed but never released. Allen Garfield loved the film when he saw it back in the late 1980’s and was disappointed that it might never been seen by the public, but in 2016 we did show him the revised version in his hospital room where he lived late in his life after suffering a stroke; he was overjoyed seeing the film and hearing that actual humans would finally see his work and he had us decorate his room with CHIEF ZABU posters. Allan Arbus was delighted when he saw an early cut and when the film was finally shown to audiences in 2016 he had already passed but his daughters attended and were delighted. Marianna Hill flew to Los Angeles from London to attend the premiere and was overjoyed to see herself in what was her final feature film performance; she became a great cheerleader for the film in interviews.
Considering the time and what it took to get to this point, do you think the cast and crew would do it all again?
Absolutely. The cast and crew had so much fun making the film – living together in a dormitory at Bard College, eating in the cafeteria, for them it was like they got to be kids again; and Ed Lauter loved being in CHIEF ZABU because, as he explained to us, he had started his career as a standup comedian but once his fame grew as on the of the great mean guys of film no one would offer him a comedic role!
The story of the film has become legendary to the point where it was the subject of a running gag on the cult-classic television show ‘Mystery Science Theater 3000’. What do you think the reaction would’ve been had circumstances been different and they had the opportunity to screen it on their show?
What is hilarious about this is that we never knew there WAS a MST3K connection as neither of us had heard of the show – until one afternoon a few years ago we were walking down the street in the Los Angeles and saw a guy walking towards us wearing a “Zack Norman as Sammy in Chief Zabu” tee shirt with Zack’s face on the t-shirt. We stopped the guy and said “Dude, what is up with that?” – and you can image his reaction when he saw he was talking to Zack Norman, whose face was on his tee shirt. He explained to us the MST3K connection – and that people on the internet were selling “Zack Norman as Sammy in Chief Zabu” tee shirts based on a MST3K catchphrase! When CHIEF ZABU was briefly released in 2016, generating the great review in the Hollywood Reporter and feature story in The New York Times, we reached out to the creators and writers of MST3K to say “let’s have some fun together and celebrate our mutual history” – but splat! – we were totally rebuffed, they wouldn’t speak to us; it seems they were messed up to find out that not only did CHIEF ZABU actually exist but that it’s actually a REALLY GOOD movie … their whole schtick was that CHIEF ZABU must be a bad movie, a joke, and when they found out it was getting rave reviews both in print and on Rotten Tomatoes it seems to have freaked them out and they refused, and still refuse to engage!
When the movie was being filmed in the 80’s, did word of it ever reach the United Nations or any diplomats? Was there any communication of concern from them?
No formal communication from the UN but there was one crazy diplomatic incident in the filming of CHIEF ZABU. The movie was made almost entirely on the campus of BARD COLLEGE with a two days of exteriors in Manhattan (and one day at Zack’s time share on St. Croix, doubling as the island of Tiburaku) – so whenever you see one of the characters walk in or out of a building in New York (The Plaza Hotel, the NY Public Library, a real estate office) the interior would be someplace at Bard set-dressed to match. We have a scene where two spies in the Chief Zabu entourage go to the French Consulate on Fifth Avenue to report on Chief Zabu’s plans for independence. Without any permit we set up a camera on a tripod on 5th Avenue and told our two actors to walk up the street, enter the French Consulate so we could get the exterior shot of a few seconds (with zoom into the French Consulate sign) and the actors were to immediately upon entry walk back out and we would all scramble off elsewhere to get our next shot somewhere else in New York. So, the actors came marching up Fifth Ave, we filming them, they went into the French Consulate as instructed, the door closed behind them and then … they never came back out! Five minutes. Ten minutes. We sent in the line producer who found our two actors being interrogated by the French police! The line producer babbled some nonsense, extricated the actors and we all ran away!
Do you think a movie like this could’ve been filmed present day and if so given that so much has changed? What would be the key differences?
CHIEF ZABU certainly could be made today, and a lot easier … you wouldn’t have to lug around a 35mm camera and cans of film as everyone today with any filmmaking aspiration is walking around now with a movie studio in their pocket – and as long as you film whatever turns you on, rather than worrying about what people will think of the end result, you can do remarkable things. Oh, if CHIEF ZABU was made today, the needful, greedy, idiotic Ben Sydney character would not wind up being a congressman, he’d become the President of the United States!