Sam Lai, Private Ai
1987

I know a lot of you who own copies of Sam Lai, and maybe even some of you who worked on it are saying, “Hey! Waitaminnit! That movie is finished!”

Um, no. It isn’t.

For the uninitiated, Sam Lai, Private Ai was a short parody of the hard-boiled detective genre. Like everything I’ve ever produced, written, directed or shot, the production had its problems, some minor, some less-so. There was drama about casting, drama with the cast once we had them in place, drama replacing the ones who just didn’t work in the roles (sorry Tom), and drama writing around the ones who quit or vanished during the year (what the fuck were we thinking?!?) it took to complete filming, reshoots, and then more reshoots.

At one point, our relationship with Doug Harms, the star of the movie, had deteriorated to the point that he was flaking on shoots and not returning calls. Somewhat panicked at the thought of losing our lead with two-thirds of the movie shot, Ken & I arranged a conference call with Doug to discuss where he stood and how he felt about the project. Doug skipped that call, and we got his answering machine.

Ken & I left Doug a message, disconnected him, and then stayed on the line with each other to discuss our options. As we talked over the next half-hour, we got more and more belligerent about our wayward star, eventually descending into outright insults, kidnapping scenarios, and fantasies detailing funny, but violent, retribution. It was during a lull in the conversation that Doug’s machine finally beeped… because its tape was full… and Ken & I realized with shock that we’d just become characters in a modern update of I Love Lucy.

Amazingly, that phone call seemed to have been the kick in the ass needed to get Doug back on board, and we finished the film. Well, I say “film,” but the fact was we’d settled for videotape. VHS, to be specific, which wasn’t an issue until we got into post. In actuality, the movie looked pretty goddamned good. We processed it in black & white, and the softness of the VHS gave it a bit of a film feel. One short film festival we showed it at even had the film professor at Scottsdale Community College (go Artichokes!) assuring his students Sam Lai  was shot on 16mm.

If only.

In those days, there were only two ways of editing half-inch tape. One was to get out a helical scan block and physically cut the tape with a razor once you measured out your shot. The other was to sit down in an editing suite with big, flying-erase head machines, and do a straight-up assembly edit. The fact that we had about 20 hours of raw footage made it rough. The fact that the technology at the time was such that each edit left a pop on the audio track was a total fucking disaster.

We tried everything we could imagine to fix it, work around it, or hide it. In the end, we cut the picture, and looped the entire fucking movie. Given the janky-ass, Jerry-rigged, redneck tech setup we used to record the dialogue, it’s a fucking wonder that it worked at all. And the cast really did their best to recapture the performances of the original footage. When it was finished, Ken & I told each other that no one would know the difference, and that really, it had all worked out for the best for xy or z reason.

The truth is the sound sucked, and we knew it. But there was nothing we could possibly do about it, so we lied to ourselves and called it done. As I mentioned above, we screened it at a few places, and people enjoyed it. Cast & crew seemed happy. I was so sick of the damned thing, I don’t think I’ve watched it in 25 years. But I can’t help thinking…

Enough people liked Sam that I’m convinced there’s something funny in there. If it was good with that shitty dubbed audio, it should be great with the live sound. All it would take would be getting those VHS masters (which I have) digitized so I can put them in Vegas and go to work. I bet the end result would be fairly fucking awesome. Certainly, the sound would be a revelation compared to what exists now. It’d be like hearing the un-dubbed Mad Max for the first time.

But with the constant barrage of projects demanding my full attention, there’s simply no way to even consider stepping past putting this on the To Do list at the moment. I do hope that, someday, I get to revisit this little rough gem from my past so I can polish the fucker up.

Whatcha think?

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