‘Road House’ Director Rowdy Herrington Reflects On His Classic Film

I recently wrote about Road House, the greatest and only piece of culture my hometown ever produced. It was fun, writing a love letter to a favorite movie and small towns in general, but there were a lot of great stories from my interview with Road House director Rowdy Herrington that didn’t fit into my story. And how could I rob you of those?

Herrington, who got his nickname not because he was particularly Rowdy but because it was a garbled take on his actual real name, Howard, had gotten some buzz on the strength of his first film, Jack’s Back, a riff on Jack the Ripper starring James Spader. That got him the meeting with Joel Silver for Road House, and the rest, as they say, is history. He made seven movies between 1988 and 2004, including the not-Ridley Scott version of Gladiator (his was a boxing movie co-starring Cuba Gooding Jr.).

He taught in the film department at USC for a time and these days lives mostly in Montana, where he still writes for various creative endeavors (when we spoke he was working on an interactive, choose-your-own-adventure style feature). But of course he’ll probably always be best known for Road House, a movie that began its life as a five-Razzie-nominated punchline and eventually morphed into one of the most celebrated cult classics of all time. Herrington told me all about it, from Patrick Swayze’s bum knee to Ben Gazzara’s titanic appetite for eggs benedict to his later work with the notoriously difficult Bruce Willis (“I didn’t enjoy it at all, and that’s putting it nicely.”).

So tell me how Road House first came about.

I got a call from Joel Silver, the producer. I had directed one film and I was signed with the agency that represented Patrick Swayze. Because Patrick was already attached to the script, they submitted my name. They watched my film (Jack’s Back, with James Spader) and decided they would like to work with me. When I first read the script, I wasn’t very happy. I thought it was too broad. Joel actually called me because I was going to pass and said, “Would you come down and meet me? Even if you don’t do this, I think you’re talented. I have other things going on.” So I said, okay.

He set up a meeting at midnight. They were shooting Die Hard on a lot at Fox. I met the whole bunch of guys, Bruce Willis and everybody and McTiernan. Anyway, Joel and I talked about it and he said he understood my concerns about the material and that’s why he wanted me to do it. I told him what I would do to it and he said, let’s go.

What did you tell them you would do differently?

It was too broad and that I felt like Patrick coming off of Dirty Dancing was going to have a large female audience. And as it turned out in the end, Joel put a lot of the stuff back in that I cut out. As he told me, “I make movies for 13-year-old boys.” That was the mentality. We had a disagreement about that. But otherwise, he’s a really smart producer and he made it easy for me.

We needed somebody to play Wade and we wanted Sam Elliott and Sam looked at the material and said no. I had learned from Joel. So I called up his agent and I said, “Listen, I’m a big fan of Sam’s and he may not want to do this, but I’d like to meet him because I have other things going on.” He agreed to meet me and so we sat down in the commissary at Sony and we got to know each other a little bit and he saw I wasn’t crazy. At the end of this meeting I told him, “Look, I’m working on the script and I’m going to make it a little smarter.” And I said, “Sam, if you don’t do this movie, I’m fucked.” And I told him to ask for more money.And he got it?

He ended up doing it and then we got Kelly [Lynch], she already had a deal in place with United Artists because she was supposed to go do a Sam Kinison film. We got lucky there. And we got Jimmy Iovine as our music supervisor. Jimmy read the script and said, “Oh my God,” he said, “I know who this blind guitar player is.” It turns out the original writer of the script had seen Jeff Healey in a bar and wrote him into the script.

That would have been a hell of a coincidence otherwise, that you just found this guy.

Right. Anyway, we got Jeff and I cast a whole bunch of guys that were martial artists and so that the fighting would be really great. And fortunately, we got Benny The Jet Urquidez to work with our stunt coordinator, Charlie Picerni. My production designer, I asked him to do a lot of stuff in with primary colors because I felt like it was kind of a cartoon.

You said you initially cut some stuff out that Joel Silver put back in.

Well, there’s some stuff I cut out that never made it back in. There was a castration in the script. Pat takes one of his men who’s skimming, out into the woods and they chop it off. I refused to shoot it. And Joel did some second unit stuff, but we didn’t put it in and I think he understood that it went too far. And well, I’ll give you one example. There’s a scene at the bar where Julie Michaels comes up to Patrick and she says, “Why don’t we go to my house and f*ck.” And then Jimmy jerks her arm around and walks her out of there. The way I cut it was, she says, “Why don’t we go to my house and–” and that’s when Jimmy jerks her around. But, of course, Joel put it back in.

I read the original cut was three hours long. Is that true?

Yeah. I mean, the script was long. It was like 140 pages or something. And my first meeting with United Artists, I went in with Joel and Tony Thomopoulos is sitting at one end of this long conference table. We’re at the other, and he’s got his people on each side of him. And I was totally unprepared for this because Joel didn’t give me a clue what was going to happen in this meeting. We go in and sit down and he said, “Tell him what you’re going to do.” I was like, oh fuck.

Anyway, I did a couple of minutes on what I was going to do with the script and the stuff that I thought was really going to be hit scenes, why this picture should get made. And Tony Thomopoulos just said “The script’s too long.” And of course I agree. And I told Joel, I wanted to cut scenes and he said, “No, just shoot everything. You don’t know what’s going to work and what’s not going to work until the end, just shoot it all.” And anyway, Tony said, the script’s too long and Joel slid it all the way across this long table that Tony had, and he said, “Take anything out you want, but when it’s a bomb, it’s your fault.” Joel said, “What do you want, a hit or a bomb? Choose now.” Well, we didn’t cut anything out of the script.

It sounds like that negotiating tactic worked.

Yeah. And we had, I don’t know, I think over nine major fights, we cut an entire sequence out with Keith David, who plays the black bartender. There was a whole sequence where he comes in to hear the music with his wife and some rednecks get after him and then Patrick joins in a fight with him and it was a big brawl and Patrick ends up hiring him as a bartender. That just went in the dump. I think the one scene Keith is in, he’s just seen behind the bar, he’s there…

Yeah. He just sort of shows up.

Yeah. We realized as we were cutting that that whole sequence could be lifted and it didn’t change anything. And then we just tightened things. Frank Urioste was the editor and he’s a genius. We had another guy, I don’t remember the other, there were two Franks. I don’t remember what the other Frank’s name is. I have to think about it. But I had Frank Urioste recut everything. He was just really smart. And we whittled it down and whittled it down and that was the final picture.

Part of the reason I wanted to write about it was, I grew up in Reedley, California where part of it is shot. And I was just wondering if you remembered anything about the location and why you chose it and if you had any memories of that.

Which location?

Reedley, where like the Kings River is, between the…

Oh yeah. Well, we went around looking for a river because it was in the script and we went out to Austin and scouted there and then we went up to Northern California and we found that house, it’s on the Kings Ranch and they built the barn and loft and the facade for Emma’s place on the other side of the river because there was plenty of open space there. That worked out really well. And I think, trying to remember, I guess we did the exterior drive up there with the clock, the shot where we crane off the clock.

Right. That’s the main street, G Street, in downtown Reedley.

Yeah. We had Patrick’s motor home, which was parked on the street and I was waiting for him to come out with Tim Moore, who was an executive producer. And when Patrick came up, this mob of girls came and they were trying to rip his clothes off. I mean it was like Elvis. we really had to shove them away, it was like a physical deal. He was a little freaked out. He was like, this fame, this is crazy. He’s married to a beautiful woman, Lisa, and it’s crazy.

You brought up Julie Michaels. I was going to ask you about her. I know she became a stunt woman. Was she a stunt person at that time? Where did she come from?

No, she came in and auditioned and she did a very clever thing dealing with Joel Silver. She lifted up her dress and on her thigh was written “Property of Joel Silver.”

That sounds like it would work.

Yeah. That sealed the deal.

No one else tried anything crazy like that?

Not that I know of. I mean we had some Playboy bunnies and a lot of really pretty girls in the Double Deuce. As Joel said early on, “See a girl? See a pretty girl.” He had a lot of really great one-liners. (Editor’s note: The character of Les Grossman played by Tom Cruise in ‘Tropic Thunder’ is a parody of Joel Silver.)

Was there a boob quota?

Not per se, just “see a girl, see a pretty girl.”

Did you think of it as a martial arts movie when you were making it?

I only thought of the fact that there were so many fights in it that they needed to be really realistic. That’s why I wanted to make sure that the guys that were playing the henchman could [do the stunts]. I mean, even the guy who played Tinker [John William Young, who was portly and bearded], he could move. It was just about making it as realistic as possible.

Is it a Western?

Oh yeah. It’s a modern version of a Western. When you think about it, there’s a bad guy running the town and the new sheriff comes in. Or like Shane, just this gunslinger, that’s tougher than the rest. Structurally it’s totally a Western, there’s just no horses.

And then the idea that there are these bouncers that are one-name famous, I like that idea. What were you going for there?

Well, that was in the script. I mean, the name Dalton, everybody knew it. First of all, it’s an unusual name. It was in the script that his reputation preceded him and Sam [Elliot’s character] was his mentor. At some point they had come up together and Sam, Wade Garrett, was famous, I mean, all the guys knew who he was.

Is the idea that Dalton is kind of like a monk?

Well, he sort of is for sure. We had him doing Tai Chi. My wife is a Tai Chi teacher and of course Patrick is a dancer. He did it beautifully, we gave him that beat, but he is sort of this Zen bouncer, I mean, kind of a Buddhist. Supposedly had a degree in philosophy. I mean, it was all pretty broad.

I’m trying to remember if we ever see him eat. I know in the beginning he turns his nose up at breakfast and I don’t remember if he ever eats in the rest movie.

Yeah. No, he turns down eggs benedict with Ben Gazzara. We went through about five plates of that.

Wow, so he was just eating?

He’s a consummate actor. He is unfortunately no longer with us. That’s another story. Joel said, “We’ve got to get somebody to play our villain.” And so he said, “We’re going to go see James Garner.” And we went to James Garner’s house in Beverly Hills and set up by the pool. And Joel did, I don’t know, five minutes on all the success he’d had, and was like, “$100 million on this picture, did $200 million in that picture. I got $100 million in this picture…” And finally James Garner just looked at him and said, “Success don’t interest me.”

He said, “If I was going to play a villain it wouldn’t be this guy.” And at the time I was 35, I probably looked 30, and we had a writer with us and he was younger than me. And James looked over and he said, “Who’s directing this?” And I said, “I am,” and he’s just staring at me. At the end of the meeting I just said, Mr. Garner, I just want to tell you The Americanization of Emily is one of my favorite films. And he gave me a nod and said “Me too.”

Well, you got something out of it, I guess.

Yeah, no, it was a nice meeting. And Red West, Red did a great job. Red was Elvis Presley’s bodyguard. We were sitting out on the curb just before we’re going to blow up the auto parts store and our guys were rigging the explosives and all that, and we were pretty well into the movie at that point. And I hadn’t asked him anything about Elvis, but finally we were just sitting there and I said, “Red, what was it like?” And he knew exactly what I was asking. He said, “Rowdy, you wouldn’t have believed it.” He said, “We walked into this theater, we came on stage in Atlanta.” He said, “The whole building shook.” He said, “Don’t let anybody ever tell you he wasn’t a wonderful man. Most generous man I ever knew,” he said.

How was Patrick at doing all the martial arts stuff? Was that sort of new for him?

Not at all. No, he’s a martial artist. I mean, he was absolutely brilliant at it. The toughest thing for Patrick was that he quit ballet dancing because he had blown out his knee. He blew it up playing football and then he continued to dance. And I mean, literally every few days he had to have his knee drained. Marshall Teague who played Jimmy, Marshall, of course, wasn’t in every scene like Patrick was. Benny The Jet worked with Marshall on the choreography for the big fight at the river. And then Benny and Marshall had to teach it to Patrick. Well, the things that they were in together, they both were sort of method actors. There just were some hard stares at each other. At lunch, they would not talk, they would walk past each other and they just kept that whole thing going the whole time.

And then Marshall had to teach Patrick a lot of the choreography and it was fits and starts when we’d get Patrick away to learn this stuff because this is a huge fight. And periodically, Patrick would make a mistake and whack him because Marshall knew to duck here but Patrick threw the punch there and that kind of stuff. And anyway, they worked their asses off and we shot over the course of two nights to finish that fight. At the end, they were brothers and they were best friends until Patrick died.

When it came out, what was the reception like and what was your reaction as that was going down?

Well the reception was, we open number one. But I think it was not as big an opening is Joel was hoping for. It was nothing like Die Hard or anything. And of course the reviews for the most part, I would say probably universally they panned it. And I know that, what was his name? The CBS guy with the big hair…

Gene Shalit?

Yeah. Gene Shalit called it “Out House.”

(Laughs). I mean, funny at least.

[Not laughing] I was kind of mortified, to be honest. Because it’s like my worst nightmare about some of the things that I thought at the very beginning. It was very difficult to turn down a studio movie when your whole goal is to get into that system, and with the agency telling you, “Look, this is really big payday and after this, you’re on the A-list directing movie stars.” But that does not mean that it doesn’t hurt when the chickens come home to roost. The real surprise about Road House is its longevity. That people actually appreciate it for what it is, which is broad as hell. I was very surprised by it after our opening and having the literati essentially say, “don’t waste your time.” It’s just ultimately entertaining. And we’ve broken the record for the number of screenings on television. It’s number one of all time of any movie, which is remarkable. [Ed note: I can’t find a source for this claim, but I do see a Wall Street Journal report that says Road House aired 65 times between 1994-2002, which it uses as an example of a movie that airs a lot on cable].

When you say broad, to me, it somehow feels like it takes place in an alternate universe. But then it’s also really familiar in some ways. It’s like I’m completely in a different world where bouncers are one name famous and… I don’t know, I like that idea. It’s fun.

Well, it’s not like we didn’t know what we were doing. We had our tongue planted firmly in our cheeks. I knew what the script was, and like I said, I wanted it to be in primary colors, and it was a bit cartoony in some ways, but we played it straight. And it is remarkable the life that it’s had. I never would have thought that, especially after it came out. I mean, while we were making it, we just had a lot of fun. It was a great set and at lunchtime Jeff Healey would rock the house. John Doe was on the cast and I was a fan of X, so it was great just to hang out with him. Patrick is a gentlemen and so talented, he wanted to do every stunt.

The only stunt I wouldn’t let him do was what they call a bulldog, where he tackles Jimmy off the motorcycle right before the big fight in the river. That was the stunt man that tackled him. I said, “No, I can’t afford to have you hurt. You got this big fight coming up, forget it.” He was mad at me.

In the aftermath of Road House, do you think it helped or hurt future projects that you were trying to get made?

Well, first of all, I got the nickname Rowdy. My name is Howard and I’m named after my uncle. And so when I was a boy, because Howard was the one who already existed, I was Howdy. And I made the wrestling team in ninth grade, the varsity, and they bust me up to the high school and the captain of the wrestling team said, “What’s your name?” And I said, Howdy. And he said, “No, your name is Rowdy.” People thought I was a stunt man or I came out of that world. I came up in a really weird way. I started in television, I got into the director’s guild just as associate director at NBC in Washington. And when I came out to Los Angeles, I couldn’t work as an AD because, when they allowed television people into the director’s guild, the rule was the associate directors couldn’t become ADs until they had lived there six years.

They were afraid that you’re going to come out there and take all the AD’s jobs. I started out at WQED in Pittsburgh, working on the crew. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and all that. We did lighting and I do some lighting. I got on as an electrician and eventually became a gaffer. And I wrote my first script that sold, Jack’s Back, that’s the James Spader film. But after Road House, I got offered lots and lots of action stuff. Most of which I didn’t think was very good. I decided I was going to write my own script and I wrote a script called Three Rivers, which we sold to Columbia Pictures, and that ended up being called Striking Distance. We got Bruce Willis attached. First it was Robert De Niro and I worked for three months on the script with him, but he didn’t want to do any of the jokes. And the action. He told me Midnight Run would have been a great film if they had cut all that action out of it.

So anyway, I mean I was dealing with Robert Fucking De Niro, man. I did what he asked me to do and I cut a bunch of this stuff out and the studio hated the script. It became a drama about a family of alcoholic cops and one of them became a killer. And they said, no no, this not the script we bought. So Bob passed and he said, get Mel (Gibson). And Mel was busy. We ended up making an offer to Michael Douglas and Michael Douglas passed. He said, “No, I just did this guy, in Black Rain.” So, my agent also represented Bruce Willis and Bruce got the script and the rest is history.

Later on, there were stories about Bruce Willis being difficult. Did you find that at all?

Yeah, he’s very difficult. I didn’t enjoy it at all. And that’s putting it nicely. Well, he got the De Niro script and that’s the script he wanted to do. He kept bringing scenes that I had written for De Niro in to plug into this picture. And at the same time, Frank Price, who had bought the screenplay, got fired and Mark Canton came in. And Mark Canton, this was his first studio head job. He was scared to death. He saw me coming down the hall in the Thalberg building and he ducked back in his office like he’s afraid of me. I was like, “You’re the head of the studio, what the fuck are you afraid of?”

Anyway, he was very upset because Bruce was calling him and complaining about what I was doing, and I was doing what the studio asked me to do, which was just try to make an action picture with humor. And Bruce had done it and he was over it, so he was miserable. He shouldn’t have taken the job. But it was $13 million. I tried being nice and it was the biggest lesson I ever learned in the business. You have to win the first one. Because otherwise they start walking on you. I was trying to be nice, and make it work. And about halfway through I just said fuck it. I just put my foot down. “No, I’m not doing that. Fuck you.” And then that studio came in and we had the meeting and anyway, it was just kind of fucked up and it’s my least favorite film actually, I think we ended up with a feathered fish. You know, it was neither fish nor fowl.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can read more retrospectives here.