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Q&A: Stacy Keach talks “THE NINTH CONFIGURATION”

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Defying genre to provide a one-of-a-kind film experience, 1980’s THE NINTH CONFIGURATION is a twisted, trippy film experience from the creator of THE EXORCIST. To celebrate a special screening at New York City’s Lincoln Center this week, which will include a Skype chat with star Stacy Keach, Fango talked to Keach about his experiences on the Budapest-lensed production.

Also released in a different cut as TWINKLE, TWINKLE, “KILLER” KANE, the movie was written, produced and directed by EXORCIST scribe William Peter Blatty from his novel (also issued in distinct versions under the two titles). Keach stars as Colonel Kane, the new head doctor at a military insane asylum located inside a remote castle. Chief among his patients is Billy Cutshaw (THE WALKING DEAD’s Scott Wilson), an astronaut who went mad during a moon mission, who begins to suspect that Kane may also be crazy. The supporting cast is as eclectic and eccentric as NINTH CONFIGURATION itself, sporting THE EXORCIST’s Jason Miller, EATEN ALIVE’s Neville Brand, PSYCHO II’s Robert Loggia, MANIAC’s Joe Spinell, NIGHT OF THE CREEPS’ Tom Atkins and BAD DREAMS’ Richard Lynch. NINTH CONFIGURATION will be shown at Lincoln Center’s Howard Gilman Theater (144 West 65th Street) with Aram Avakian’s END OF THE ROAD as part of a “Stacy Keach in the Bughouse” double feature tomorrow, March 19 starting at 6:30 p.m., with Keach doing the Skype Q&A and ROAD introduced by Steven Soderbergh; go here for more details.

FANGORIA: THE NINTH CONFIGURATION was shot in Budapest—a frequent location for American-backed productions now, but not so much back then. What was that experience like?

NINTHCONFIGURATIONKEACH1STACY KEACH: That was, at that time, still a communist country, and I was told there were frozen funds from Pepsi-Cola in Hungary that were used to finance the shoot. It was great being there, but you know, being in a communist country, you had that feeling of restriction. It wasn’t a very laissez-faire attitude in the streets; there was tension. The communists had very wisely, from their point of view, left all the bullet holes from the Hungarian Revolution in the walls all over the city, so the remnants of that war were still very present. It was an intense time.

We were sequestered, in a way. We all got on a bus in the morning to go to work, and there was security. The only time when we were able to sort of let loose was after work; we’d go to the local bars—and with Joe Spinell and Jason Miller, it was hard to keep up, I gotta tell you! We had a great time. That cast was an extraordinary group of actors, and they were all perfectly suited for the roles they were designated to play. It’s hard to believe that most of them are gone now. I’m in the process of writing a memoir, and we were just going through NINTH CONFIGURATION stories, and I was remembering specifically the bocce games we used to play between takes and in the halls of the hotel as a form of relaxation. Or backgammon. We had softball games—it was a very athletic group of guys, we were all young and active. Good memories.

FANG: Do you have any specific recollections about Miller or Spinell?

KEACH: Well, I love Jason. He and I became very close friends, and as a result of my relationship with him, we did THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON some years later. It was hard to keep up with those guys! I mean, they could put it down. I’m not a heavy drinker, and it was tough to keep up. But every night, we’d go out and talk about film and the world and carry on, and it’s amazing to me that everybody survived that experience!

FANG: With such a varied cast, did you have to deal with co-stars who might have had different individual approaches to acting?

KEACH: Well, Scott Wilson and I had done THE NEW CENTURIONS together, so we were friends and knew each other and were familiar with one another’s acting styles. Everybody had their own way of working, but they were all wonderful film actors. And Bill Blatty was an excellent director in the sense that he wanted everyone to find their own means of expression, but then he would tweak what they came up with in a way that was conducive to what we were trying to do. In my case, he wanted me to kind of flatten things out and make the lines very kind of monotonic—except for the one time when Kane explodes, when he’s in the Nazi uniform and blows up with the red eyes. That was a very different kind of experience, that scene. It was a wonderful piece of direction; he wanted that moment to be so startling, and that’s why he wanted everything else flat before that, so it would come as a shock and surprise, and show a different side of Kane’s nature.

One of the things Bill did that I thought was revolutionary and innovative was, he played the music that had been scored for the scenes prior to shooting them, as inspiration. Barry DeVorzon wrote the music, which was great, and it was a wonderful way of getting into character.

NINTHCONFIGURATIONKEACH2FANG: The whole film has an interesting balance between humor, spirituality and moments of darkness.

KEACH: Exactly, and I think that balance is one of the virtues of the film. I always thought of THE NINTH CONFIGURATION as the flip side of THE EXORCIST. It’s like, THE EXORCIST is about the devil, and this is really a Messianic, almost Christian rendering. It’s ultimately about faith, I believe, and Bill told me once that he structured the story based on the Catholic Mass. I found that fascinating; I never completely understood it, but his theological background is very, very present all through that movie.

[SPOILER ALERT] The big dilemma, the question Bill wrestled with for a long time, was whether or not Kane commits suicide, or if he dies protecting Cutshaw. The ending was changed a number of times. I’m sure you know about that; it has been talked about a lot on websites.

FANG: Well, it has been released with different endings in different media.

KEACH: Exactly. And I haven’t talked to Bill in a while, but I’d be very curious to know what his current feelings are about it.

FANG: There are two versions of the book as well; did you read either one to prepare for the role?

KEACH: Yes, I read the book in preparation. Interestingly enough, Bill wrote the screenplays for both THE EXORCIST and THE NINTH CONFIGURATION prior to the books. He’s very innovative—he did the scripts first, and then the novels.

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About the author
Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold has been a member of the FANGORIA team for the past three decades. After starting as a writer for the magazine in 1988, he came aboard as associate editor in 1990 and two years later moved up to managing editor, the position he holds to this day while continuing to contribute numerous articles and reviews.
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