T

he year is 2020, and Kino Lorber Studio Classics has just released a Blu-ray of Heartbeeps, the bizarre but weirdly riveting 1981 robot rom-dram starring Andy Kaufman and Bernadette Peters. Director Allan Arkush has since moved on from the movie’s disastrous reception, helming and producing hundreds of well-loved episodes of TV shows such as Ally McBeal, Heroes, and Nashville. But in 1981, Arkush was kicked off of Heartbeeps, his first big studio production and a gig he landed after his work on the Roger Corman-produced Rock ‘n’ Roll High School caught the eye of award-winning producer Michael Phillips (Taxi Driver, Close Encounters of the Third Kind).

Heartbeeps is a weirdly sentimental, quasi-hippie-ish drama about two service robots (Kaufman and Peters) who run away from their warehouse home, chased by Randy Quaid and a tank-shaped, artificially intelligent cop car named “Crimebuster.” The movie’s failure was a major blow to Arkush’s ego and career, despite the heroic contributions of pros like: editor and Arkush mentor Tina Hirsch; special makeup effects supervisor Stan Winston; composer John Williams, who only entered the picture after Arkush was forced off of it; and a supporting cast that includes Paul Bartel, Christopher Guest, Dick Miller, and Mary Woronov.  

Heartbeeps has, in the intervening 39 years, become a cult favorite, screening at repertory theaters such as the Cleveland Museum of Art for a 1999 Andy Kaufman retrospective and as a midnight movie at San Francisco’s famous Castro Theatre. Also: While Arkush blames himself for the film’s many shortcomings, its production was a confluence of uncontrollable events, including a three month-long actors guild strike and the burning down of Arkush’s home. Here are some excerpts from our recent discussion with Arkush about what went wrong with Heartbeeps.

On recording a Heartbeeps audio commentary for Kino Lorber

I was conflicted about doing it, because I hadn't seen the movie since the day it came out. And that was Feb. 18, 1981. So at first, when [Kino Lorber] asked me to record an audio commentary, I didn't want to do it. But then I started thinking about it, and I said to myself: You know what? Man up and take another look at it. My perspective has changed so much since 1981. I've directed 240 hours of television and movies. And as both a producer and director, I have looked at other people's cuts, other people's episodes, and my episodes, and given notes on what works, what doesn't work, and why. That’s also what I do as a graduate studies teacher at the American Film Institute [AFI]. All of these experiences gave me a new way of looking at Heartbeeps; I could sort of divorce myself personally from how painful the experience was.

Finding Inspiration in Frank Borzage’s 7th Heaven (1927)

The parts of John Hill’s Heartbeeps script that I latched on to and that resonated with me most was the two leads’ love story. It reminded me of 7th Heaven, because I was watching a lot of Borzage's movies then. The connection between my film and Borzage’s made sense at the time because both movies are about how love conquers death, which is a Borzage theme. So I was trying to put that aspect of Borzage’s movie into our film, because I was doing a big Universal Studios picture for Michael Phillips. It was hubris, on my part. I was overwhelmed. I didn't realize, at the time, why they hired me, or why I was doing this picture, let alone what the essence of this picture should be. I didn't have enough skills to make a genre comedy with those big themes in it. That's what I should have done. 

Projecting Insecurity

I was going very slow, in terms of the shooting schedule. I didn’t know all the shortcuts and tricks that you have to use to go faster and get the job done. In a Corman movie, you just go, go, go, but this was a different situation and the DP was going slower than a Corman DP. I also didn't project, as a director, enough of the energy required. The process overwhelmed me.  

I also don't know if there was a bad feeling about the dailies before the actors’ strike. I know that I felt some of it wasn't working, but then we went on strike, and I made some comment like, ‘I hope we go back’ to someone. And that comment got back to Michael Phillips. He said to me: “Don't ever say anything negative about the picture.” So, there may have been an issue with the dailies or what people thought before the strike, but they didn't come to me with it. And I don't know how I would have taken those kinds of comments, either. Imagine that you're in an editing room with your friends. With a Corman movie, we basically worked out of the editing room. I had [Rock ‘n’ Roll High School co-director Joe Dante] there and so many other people I know really well. And I had Roger's notes, too. So, it was a very different atmosphere. 

Also, Allan Arkush’s House Burned Down

That was the night before the strike began. We were shooting out in the studio backlot, and when I came back home, my house had been set on fire by this lunatic in my neighborhood. He had set a bunch of things on fire. So, there was that. I had to move in with my girlfriend Joanne, who is now my wife. Now, please understand, these are not excuses. I made every decision I thought was right. There's a thing in directing, which is called: It seemed like a good idea at the time.  I mean, if you look at so many directors’ filmographies, there might be some movies or a scene in a movie that you know is caca, that makes you go, ‘What were you thinking?’ Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany's … I mean what was Blake Edwards thinking? 

Why Not Use Real Robots? (Beyond an Estimated One Million Dollar Per Robot Price Tag and No Guarantee That They’d Work)

We investigated that possibility. We had this guy working with one robot, Phil. His name was Jamie Shourt, and he went on to work on the animatronic puppets in Jurassic Park. The problem was that they didn't have advanced-enough control systems to control robots at the time. We were working off — let's see if I can remember this — radio frequency controllers, like they have for toy airplanes when you fly them around and you make them go up and down and everything? That's how the robots’ motors were controlled. So you essentially had to have a bunch of puppeteers doing this stuff. All working together to make it look like the person was thinking and doing. But there was constant signal interference. If an airplane or a cop car went by, those radio frequencies would jam up. So, Phil’s actions were very limited. That took us away from using real robots.  

The other thing was that the premise — that the robots in Star Wars are so great, why not do a movie all about them — was a false premise. That's like saying: Boy, I really like Indian food, let’s just have a menu based on curry! But typically, you’re eating other stuff with your curry. We were only making curry! 

And Featuring Jerry Garcia’s Guitar as Philco’s Singing Voice

Yeah, that didn't work, either. Philco was made from a radio, so he talked, and he did stuff like a radio. I got this idea that his voice would be Jerry's guitar, because I was friends with Jerry. Then Jerry made the suggestion that he would lay down all these guitar riffs for Philco’s voice. The plan was: We would have all this dialogue written for Phil, but what should he be saying? And should we have an actor speak his lines? I didn't think that through enough. I never really got a good balance to what I was looking for there. And Phil was actually a really good idea. He's just not realized enough.  

What About the Scene Where Kaufman and Peters Touch Each Other’s “Pleasure Receptors”?

You're absolutely right, that's one of the best scenes in the movie. But it needed to have some extra elements, so that it wasn't only about that. The problem with the movie is that each scene is only about one thing. Whereas in a good movie or TV show, there's 12 things going on at once. And the script wasn't layered enough, nor was my understanding of it complex enough. Right now, we are having a longer, more analytical discussion than I had with anybody on this picture. But I didn't know how to have those discussions yet!  

And Then Tony Clifton, Andy Kaufman’s Alter Ego, Showed Up.

By then, we were well into the shooting. It all seemed so predictable, you know. Okay, now I'm gonna do this alter ego thing that everyone knows about. It all seemed beside the point. And distracting. I generally found Andy fun to be around. He was really funny, though he also was kind of distant as a human being. The way he's portrayed in Man on the Moon is really dead on. All of these elements add up to a movie that doesn't really connect with the audience, except, as you're pointing out, in an intellectual way. You can watch it and say, "Oh, I see that.” But it doesn't take you there. 

Is Heartbeeps a Guilty Pleasure?

I don't like the guilty pleasure thing myself because you see what's good about a movie, right? At the same time, you are aware of what doesn't work in the movie and what kind of movie it is. And how they're overreaching or not overreaching, or whatever. Take for instance Where the Boys Are, a movie that I like very much. That title is an interesting description of where young women were in the early ‘60s. You know, these college girls. Is it wrongheaded and sexist? Oh yes. But the movie’s overall humor! The fact that these things were even attempted to be talked about! And you have a guy like Frank Gorshin, doing a thing about jazz. So it's chock full of stuff that I embrace. Then there's the stuff that’s not really working, but that's okay: the other stuff is working. So, to me, that's what a guilty pleasure is, where you're going through the chocolate box and only taking out the pieces that you like.

The Editing Process

I made a very slow movie. I don't know why I kept insisting on it. I say this to my students all the time but pacing starts on the script page. By the time you get to the editing room — it's too late. Pacing is what's on the page. It’s also in the blocking, and Heartbeeps is very poorly blocked. There should also not be spaces between the words until they're needed. When you look at His Girl Friday, which is always used as an example of great pacing, there are some moments in that movie where the pace comes to a halt. But that's because they build to those moments and earn the right to have those moments of silence, where things can play out. Heartbeeps, the way I directed it, never earned that. It was all at this sluggish pace, and I resisted any attempts to cut it faster.  

So they finally fired me after two preview screenings and re-cut the movie. But they could only do so much, because the characterizations are not that funny. [Joe Dante] has a print of the movie, the preview print. And I really don't want to see it. Because it's everything that's wrong with the movie. Actually, if you look at the trailer, the one that Universal cut for the movie — that's the movie I should have made. I have not looked at the trailer until the other day. And by the way, I'm doing a Trailers from Hell commentary for the movie, too. How's that for balls? 

I made the wrong movie. The trailer is the right movie. Because they've cut it really fast and they've added new footage and so forth. Tina did her best, but what's her name took over? She cut Jaws. Verna Fields. Verna was really put in charge of it. She’s worked with so many great directors, Spielberg and Lucas and everybody. Uh … I don't think she thought much of me as a director and I don't think anybody did at Universal, once we were making the movie. They liked me as a person. They liked Rock 'n' Roll High School. But ultimately, I didn't deliver. Everyone was nice to me at lunch, but it was no longer the movie I envisioned. I wasn't furious, like Sam Peckinpah after they took away Major Dundee. I was more consumed by my failure.

Heartbeeps’ Afterlife as a Cult Movie

It's nice to hear that people like Heartbeeps, but I'm sure glad it didn't stop there. I would have felt differently if that movie had signaled a slow deterioration of my career, or if it had been a warning sign that I did not have the talent to be a director — that Rock 'n' Roll High School had been an aberration, right? Thankfully, I recovered, and then I started getting into what I really learned to do best. The lesson I've learned there are some things that you do that just don't cut it, you know?