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Untold Tales of Hollywood #98

Film #20: The Hitcher(1985)
Directed by Robert Harmon
Production Designed by Dennis Gassner

The experience of making The Return of the Living Dead was so brutal, that I quit the Film Biz for nine months after making that film.

Then I was sent the script for The Hitcher. It was a terrific screenplay by a young new writer, Eric Red.

As I recall, Eric was hitchhiking from the Midwest to Hollywood to break into the Film Biz when he got stuck in the middle of nowhere with only enough money to make one last phone call. He used his very last quarter to make a call to set up a meeting in regards to his screenplay for The Hitcher.

Eric miss-dialed and called the wrong number with that last quarter.

The number he accidentally called was that of an agent — Dan O’Bannon‘s agent. The agent listened to Eric’s pitch over the phone and immediately wired him the money to complete his trip to Hollywood. Red’s screenplay was sold immediately and his career in film suddenly skyrocketed. What are the odds?

Robert Harmon was signed to direct The Hitcher. When I got hired, Robert was out of town on a location scout.

“Since Robert’s not here, what would you like me to board?”

“Start with Page One, Scene One and go.”

Which is what I did. I began to fill the walls with my storyboards for The Hitcher. Members of the film’s crew would occasionally pop in to see what I was doing. From every single one of them I got the same bizarre response. Each person gasped looking at my boards and said something to the effect of “Holy cow…” or “Oh my God…” Then they would leave the room. I was mystified as to their response. It felt really weird.

The line producer came to see me.

“We want to show you Robert’s first film as a director. It’s a short called China Lake. We’ve set up a screening for you at 6:30 PM over at Technicolor.”

I drove over to Technicolor. I had the screening room all to myself. I told the projectionist he could roll film.

China Lake began to unspool.

I was shocked. China Lake looked like a film I had directed but had forgotten I’d directed it. Robert Harmon’s visual storytelling and screen composition styles were exactly the same as mine. Now I knew why I was getting such weird reactions from The Hitcher team.

Robert Harmon got back from his location scout a couple of weeks later. He came in, briefly glanced at the boards, and proclaimed, “Yup. That’s exactly how I’m going to shoot it.”

I pictured the hitchhiking monster as a skeletal, vulture-like character and drew him that way. I thought Harry Dean Stanton would have been perfectly cast as this devil-like hitchhiker. Here’s how I boarded the film’s opening:

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