One family, the movies and a magnificent obsession
by Steven Mikulan
Vol.19 No.52 November 21-27
Photographs by Debra DiPaulo
They had all driven out to the farm near Tahlequah for Tom Gulager's wedding, which by Cherokee County standards was a little on the unconventional side. For one thing, it was held in a wheat field at night. For another, the hired musicians eschewed the traditional Mendelssohn wedding march in favor of Ennio Morricone's Days of Heaven soundtrack. This film flavoring was appropriate, since the groom's family were Hollywood people out here to make a movie. Tom's father, Clu, was a veteran TV and film actor, and Clu's wife, Miriam Byrd-Nethery, was also an actor; the two were a true "show" couple - their first kiss had taken place onstage, some 40 years before, in a college production of One Touch of Venus.
As a silent procession of bridesmaids holding candles wound through a corridor that had been cut through the tall grain, the wild Oklahoma sky suddenly opened and a spring rain fell. The ceremony was moved inside a barn, where Tom took the hand of his bride, Lisa Cardone, whom he'd met back in L.A. one New Year's Eve at the cocktail lounge where she worked. Miriam and Lisa's stepmother were dressed in 19th-century nightgowns and sleeping bonnets; the bride wore a Salvation Army wedding dress and motorcycle boots caked with mud from the sodden field. The preacher was related both to Clu and to local Indian outlaws dating all the way back to Territorial days, and later, during the reception at the Round Up Club, a young Cherokee would put on an exuberant feather dance, helping to make this an unforgettable night. For those who look for good omens, it could be noted that the bar where the newlyweds had met, Boardner's, was located on Hollywood's Cherokee Street, and that the bridesmaids' candles had remained lit during the cloudburst.
Still, it had rained . . .
There had always been The Film. Even when rent was long overdue on their homes in slummy east Tulsa, even when the French camera they'd spent so much money on shorted out, even after they abandoned Oklahoma altogether, the idea of the film had kept the Gulager family going. It was a dream that shimmered like something metallic on the prairie horizon: a movie about man's ravenous thirst for blood that would be family-written, -directed, -acted and -edited. But, three frustrating years after Tom's wedding, the Gulagers finally drove their black Voyager back to L.A. empty-handed. Before leaving, they rigged up an editing bench in the back of the van - other Interstate 40 drivers looking their way might have seen a short promo being cut from some of the meager footage already shot, like a premature baby being delivered in an ambulance. But how to set up a trust fund for that baby? After all, how much money is lying around out there for a movie titled Fucking Tulsa: An Excursion Into Cruelty?
The 20-minute short would be one disturbing promo. At its end, a young serial killer named Jake, played by Tom Gulager, enters an old lady's home at night. He falls asleep watching TV while she slumbers in her room. When she awakens the next morning, a now naked Jake orders her to strip and shoots her in the stomach, then in the face. As she lies on the floor gurgling blood, the killer urinates along her nude body and into her mouth.
Would-be angels who weren't scared off by this scene would usually ask to read the script, and that's when their blood (and feet) got cold. The screenplay hemorrhages sex, disfigurement and murder: On one page, the killer's girlfriend, Maureen, masturbates with a gun ("The barrel re-insinuates itself into Maureen's POV. The metal is tinged with crystalline moistness"). In another scene, after Jake's father is poisoned and castrated, his penis is tossed into a garbage disposal ("A sliver of Pop's pee-wee splashes onto the lens . . ."), and in yet another, a woman pulls out her own eyeball ("Out comes the gooey organ, ganglia [optic nerves, etc.] dangling a la Grand Guignol"). It also has, for good measure, a child-abuse scene and a loving closeup of a murdered girl's vomit streaking down the side of a bathtub. And there is one unsettling casting choice: The naked old woman Jake shoots and urinates upon is played by Miriam Nethery - Tom's real-life mother.
"I've always wanted to put on shows," says Clu Gulager. "That's how I got into film." A professorial-looking man with a trimmed white beard, Gulager was a familiar face to anyone who ever sat near a TV set in the 1960s and '70s - The Tall Man, The Virginian, San Francisco International Airport - and, indeed, beyond. But a decade ago the actor, now 69, gave up his lucrative profession to devote all his a time to writing and directing films. As of today, none of these projects has been made. The story of how Gulager and his family moved to Tulsa and languished there for eight years, many of them in poverty, is a tale of faith and devotion as strange and touching as a wedding held in a dark wheat field, a tale about the love of movies and a costly loyalty to artistic vision.
The Gulagers' story "fades in" in 1988, when a relative's will left Miriam some money - enough to buy a home. Clu, Miriam, Tom, Tom's older brother, John, and John's wife, Diane, were then living in a rented Venice beach house, and the idea of owning a bigger place appealed to a family living in close quarters in a city of rising rents. But then another, quite different idea came to Clu - to make a film outside the restraints of the studio system for which he had worked most of his life. To make an independent - now, that had a kind of warm, rain-on-a-vacant-lot aroma of promise about it.
Tulsa was no blind dart toss. Clu had once worked on a movie there and was impressed by the cooperation the local police had given the production company, a definite plus on locations. And he had a loose, standing invitation from that company to return to Tulsa to write a script. Too, he was acquainted with the state's film commissioner, Mary Clark, and knew she could open necessary doors, make introductions and find the family a place to stay. But perhaps most important was the fact that Clu had been born in Oklahoma - on November 16, its statehood day - and knew the lay of the land.
Part Cherokee Indian (Clu means "red bird"), he grew up as an only child on an uncle's farm near Tahlequah, in eastern Oklahoma. To him nothing is more important for an artist or actor than the act of dreaming, and it was on these 340 acres of oats, wheat, corn and alfalfa that Clu began to dream as a defense against a frightening world. His mind would drift while shucking wheat or when chasing the rabbits and snakes that ran ahead of the reaper, and, especially, whenever he and his two cousins would go to the carnival in town and see the old full-bloods who still wrapped themselves in blankets and wore their hair in braids.
Other families were being dust-bowled during the Depression, but for Clu these were golden days of the imagination. They were also fearful nights whenever his Uncle Chris returned on horseback from a bender and Aunt Mary ordered the boys into the cellar. "Take the shotgun and point it at the door," she'd instruct Clu. "If Uncle Chris opens it, shoot him. Because he'll kill you if you don't."
Clu and Tom drove a truck and a Caddy out to Tulsa in August 1988 to lay the groundwork for the move. "It was a beautiful drive," Tom remembers. Now 32, he speaks in an almost painfully soft voice, lending an ethereal reverb to his conversation. "One day we drove through a wild storm. All the cars had pulled over to the side of the road, but we didn't know anything about driving conditions out there, that we could have been hit by this very low lightning."
The rest of the family followed in October, and at first things went fine. Clu researched and wrote his screenplay, teaching well-attended acting classes on the side. He and Miriam rented a nice house with a big porch on East 19th Street and were welcomed by the local arts circle. And around Halloween, Lisa Cardone, a San Fernando Valley native who had just turned 21 and who was seeing the country on an Amtrak All Aboard, America! pass, got off in Tulsa to move in with Tom.
Six months later, when Clu's script was rejected, he decided to try to make the movie himself. As a neophyte producer, however, he had trouble raising money. For one thing, a local attorney told the family it could not solicit investors without a license, and an entire year was wasted maneuvering to obtain such a permit. By the time the family decided to ignore the lawyer's advice, no piece of paper on Earth would have helped.
Tulsa, the Gulagers learned the hard way, was not a town that could support the film's $3.5 million budget. (The state's oil economy had flatlined by this time.) But the nature of Clu's script, The Secret Life of a Law Enforcement Officer, may have had something to do with the lack of investors. Like that of Psycho, his story was modeled on the gruesome career of serial killer Ed Gein, along with some similar cases. "Clu ran some images by me one day," Tom says. "They were so strong, so offensive. The idea that someone would take off someone's face and put it on their own and wear pieces of flesh over their own body - I said, 'Well, let me think about it.' I did for a few days. For some reason it hit me that this could work in a popular vein, and I told Clu, 'Why don't you make the killer a police officer?'"
Tom's father liked the idea, but making the homicidal maniac of his story a cop (to be played by Tom) was hardly likely to win over the Tulsa constabulary, whose help he was getting in the form of ride-alongs and technical information. So in the end Clu kept the TPD in the dark about the central character, who, among other pursuits, kills a woman, freezes her corpse, beheads it with a chain saw and later burns its skin with a branding iron. As Tom remembers: "I was riding along with one really nice cop and he said, 'You know, it's really good that your father is making this movie, because we need more family films.'"
Other problems gathered. Clu refused to pay the license fee required to teach his acting classes in Tulsa, and was forced to conduct them sub rosa and without advertising. And the locals who had initially welcomed the Gulagers turned against them - partly because the family was now old news and partly, says Diane, because some of these same people were teachers in competition for the tiny pool of local acting students. Even Miriam, a professional singer, experienced a setback one night when her voice cracked during a friend's play - the first time this had happened in her career. Low lightning seemed to be hitting the Gulagers from all sides.
"We were all in a rage, the whole family," Clu says. "It seemed that we just couldn't get anywhere. We had no money. I was pissed and everyone else was." So, in a pique of frustration, Clu scrapped the psycho-cop film and began a new project in January 1991, a work he thought "could be the cruelest film ever made." He finished the script in one month, and gave it the starkly alliterative title Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!
That he was undertaking a new film without having gotten anywhere with the last one didn't faze Clu. If anything, it confirmed his own rather fatalistic view of art.
"An artist is an artist is a failure," he says. "All artists are constant failures - that's the only way their art can continue. If they ever feel their art succeeds, write them off, they're finished as artists! So, we are constant failures. And maybe it's good that I try to start a project, screw it, stop it, start another one, try to sell it, can't, start, stop, go - on and on. And maybe strength comes from failing."
Maybe. Clu had finished a short subject in 1969, called A Day With the Boys. Shot with backing from Universal Pictures' Sid Sheinberg, the movie follows the dawn-to-dusk adventures of a pack of preteen boys as they roam through fields, slide down grassy hills on pieces of cardboard and eventually enlist the company of a businessman/establishment figure - whom they roll into a pit and bury. The final scene is of the boys frolicking naked in a lake, their bodies glistening in the warm twilight.
This film, which features a 12-year-old John Gulager and was shown at Cannes, has no dialogue but is told through the lush cinematography of Laszlo Kovacs, who was about to become famous with his work on Easy Rider. Although some parts of it may seem dated today, A Day With the Boys remains a strong entry by a promising filmmaker.
In Rock Opera, a story told in song that Clu wrote with John in 1977, the violence quotient was increased tenfold. In the first scene of the lavishly shot 35mm demo for the film, John's character pounds a beach bully literally to a pulp. Later, we find him peering through a bedroom keyhole to watch his mother (played by Miriam), dressed in a satin teddy and gartered stockings, dancing with another woman and threatening a 12-year-old Tom Gulager with a whip. Tom's character is ordered into girl's clothing, which he puts on. The scene ends with Tom, now out of drag and possibly naked, watching John, clad only in briefs, wander away from their home.
The last of the demo's scenes takes place in a bank, where Tom, again dressed as a girl, passes a holdup note to a teller. He ends up shooting both her and his mother, who is wearing Edwardian men's attire, while John's character flees the bank - but not before firing his own gun point-blank into a young boy's crotch. These scenes were privately shown around town, but found no takers.
"I think it was a little ahead of its time as far as violence goes," Tom reflects. Henry Deas III, who is the U.S. director for Moving Pictures magazine, has known Clu since the 1970s and agrees. "He was so far ahead that no one could figure it out," he says. "Look at a film like Priscilla, Queen of the Desert - today people are doing what Clu was 20 years ago."
The rejection of Rock Opera irrevocably placed the Gulagers' projects outside the gates of mainstream filmmaking, and orphaned them from the Hollywood community they had known for so long. There was some very concrete fallout, too: The family lost its West Valley house, which had been used to finance the filming of the demo segments, and Clu resigned as the honorary mayor of Woodland Hills. Their next address would be in downtown L.A.'s loft district, where an elaborate production of Hamlet, featuring a multitiered set of Plexiglas floors, was scuttled before its premiere for lack of city permits. By the time they got to Tulsa, the Gulagers were used to operating as a self-contained enterprise.
Gulagers have always been dreamers. The family's progenitor, Christian Gulager, was a Danish-born artist who once painted a portrait of President Washington. He lived in Brooklyn and Philadelphia, but a restlessness eventually led him to desert his family and head South, where he took up with an Indian woman. It is show-business dreams that animate the modern Gulagers; Clu counts Will Rogers as a cousin and influence, and his father performed on Broadway in a George M. Cohan musical. But TB cut short the father's promising career with the Keith Orpheum circuit, and he returned to Oklahoma to become a lawyer and judge.
Clu's acting epiphany came during an abbreviated hitch with the Marines at Camp Pendleton in 1946, after which he enrolled in collegiate drama programs on the G.I. Bill. He met Miriam Nethery, of Pine Bluff, Arkansas, at Baylor University; they married and went to New York, worked in theater and then on live TV before heading for Hollywood, where the family set up home in an apartment on North Kingsley Avenue. It was a good street for a young actor to live on then: The Gulagers' neighbors included Michael Landon and James Darren, and whenever Clu did his exercise run, a teasing, cigar-smoking Peter Falk would call out, "Hey, having a good time, Clu?"
John and Tom grew up surrounded by "the business," and from earliest childhood were immersed in filmmaking and acting classes. "I was always dreaming about film," Tom says. "I was channeled into acting since childhood, that's why I was never good at school - I dropped out when I was 16." John sold hot dogs up on "the Mountain," as Universal City is known to its employees, at the same time his father, a longtime contract player, was with Universal. As he remembers: "In the seventh grade Clu snuck me into the Universal backlot so I could make a movie for school there. Dad would keep an eye out for police carts."
"I don't know what a 'regular' family is," Clu says. "We've always been on celluloid and on the boards. Miriam and I are both pros, the kids have been around show business all their lives. It's difficult for them and us to cope with things outside of the business. We don't understand other things."
And yet except for a few minor childhood roles, Clu did not let his sons act professionally, the extension of a protective love that had seen him fiercely warn them against liquor and drugs (he is a lifelong teetotaler) and shield them from the violence endemic to Los Angeles. (Manson Family victim Jay Sebring had been Clu's hairstylist.) "We were told to never get in the back seat of a stranger's car - especially if it was a Trans-Am," Tom recalls. But sometimes it seems that Clu was protecting his sons more from actors than acting. He admits that his friends have tended to be writers: "I love actors, but you've got to watch them - they'll cut you, they'll eat a you. They're like locusts."
"My father kept us out of the acting world when we were children," says the soft-spoken Tom, "because he didn't want us to get abused or to see that side of the business where we would experience burnout. He wanted us to hold on and jump in later in life." The springboard for that jump would be films directed by their father. "Clu always planned on putting us in his movies," Tom continues. "It was a good plan, because he's a wonderful director. He's become a fan of my work, so he tries to write for me a lot. Which is amazing, because I guess financially it's not the best move in the world."
Nevertheless, both Fucking Tulsa's 20-minute promo, which was shot, scored and edited by John Gulager, and Tom's performance in it are small masterpieces of craft. Although Clu's screenplay is long on descriptive violence and short on motivation and structure, John skillfully set the script's atonal mayhem to an impressive visual melody: The scenes are a dreamweave of telephoto-angle shots of Tulsa's people and urban terrain, countered by brooding "nature" in the form of sun-dappled trees and disconsolate twilights. Tom's moody character, Jake, is a homicidal dreamer sleepwalking through this parallel waking world of diners, automobile traffic and swept porches. There is at least as much menace in Tom's few grainy minutes onscreen as in any two hours of villainy by John Malkovich or Anthony Hopkins.
But there are those disturbing scenes, including one of a man rhythmically drawing the bloody head of a dead rooster in and out of his mouth ("cock" sucking, anyone?). They italicize a puzzling contradiction: How can this gentle family - respectful of one another's work, welcoming and open to friends and strangers alike, notoriously soft touches for stray animals - involve itself in such brutal projects?
"There are scenes that even shock the filmmakers," Clu says of Fucking Tulsa, "but if it works, it belongs."
"We all grew up with films like In the Realm of the Senses," says John's wife, Diane Ayala. "I was 19 years old when I saw that film, and I didn't think anything was wrong with it - none of us do." A striking woman of Mexican and Russian-Jewish ancestry who grew up in L.A., Mexico City and Orange County, Diane was to play Maureen, Jake's thrill-kill girlfriend, who becomes so friendly with a gun barrel. "It was surprising and shocking to me that everyone had such a problem with our film. They read the script and said, 'Diane, how are you going to do that?'"
By the time Clu had finished writing Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill!, Tom and Lisa had left Tulsa for New York; later they returned West and settled in San Francisco. Despite the pleasurable familiarity of the Bay Area, things did not take off professionally for Tom, who found himself earning money by wearing a Corona beer-bottle costume. "They'd send me out to the theater district at night before the curtain went up," he remembers. "One night I saw Paul Winfield and called out, 'Mr. Winfield, I'm a great fan of yours!' He jumped back and looked like I was going to kill him. He ran off to the stage door."
In the fall of 1991 Tom got a call from the family begging him to return to Tulsa - they had stopped trying to find a producer for Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! and had decided to shoot it on their own. Toward that end they had obtained a camera, lights and a Nagra sound recorder; Clu wanted Tom to play the lead role, a young Oklahoma serial killer. At first Tom turned them down, but not without hesitation.
"I desperately wanted to work with Clu as director and John as the cinematographer, because that's a double whammy of talent," he recalls. "I really didn't want to go back to Tulsa to live. I love that part of the country - the spring storms are beautiful - but at the time I needed a different kind of support system that would help me get some projects on. But my mother got on the phone and said, 'I just feel this will haunt you forever if you turn this role down.' And so I went back."
The Tulsa he and Lisa returned to was not the same for his family as it had been when they first arrived. They had far less money, and lived in a kind of Gulager archipelago of two neighboring houses and a garage "cottage" in a rundown part of town near Tulsa University. Enrollment in the acting classes that Clu and Diane were now teaching had dwindled, and they found themselves conducting classes in such far-flung cities as Austin, Wichita, Kansas City, Shreveport and Lubbock.
Diane and John scraped some extra money together by photographing actor head shots, while Diane also worked as a waitress and as a masseuse. Despite their near poverty, Clu turned down an acting role in a pilot, and even when the family was down to its last $150, according to Lisa, he would take everyone out to dinner at Tulsa's most expensive restaurants. Most of the time, however, the family ate at a place known for its chocolate-cream pies, the Family Diner, where it had a monthly tab that ran into the thousands.
From private investors and from Clu and Miriam's pensions and Social Security checks, the Gulagers managed to raise $35,000 for Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! - against a projected budget of $100,000. The investors were mostly local acquaintances, some of whom were acting students promised roles in the film. Recalls John: "There was a group of restaurateurs from Perry; one student's mom put in a $5,000; a fellow here who owns a Porta-Potty company gave us $10,000."
Although Clu's refusal to take on Hollywood acting jobs would create tension in the cash-strapped compound, the family was together again, living and working as one company, which renewed Tom's confidence in Clu's vision. "The fact that Clu was directing and John shooting this film swayed me," Tom says. "There was really no question, because they're such great filmmakers. It's like working with Merchant Ivory." He and Lisa were married in Tahlequah in May 1992.
The empowering sense of togetherness also proved a tonic for Diane, who in the diary she kept of the time often swings between feelings of resentment and worthlessness to giddy confidence. "Despite the disharmony and the difficulties, I feel more positive being a part of the family. I see all kinds of possibilities," she writes at one moment. Then, at another: "I really wonder what my life would be if I hadn't hooked up with this family. Would I ever have found the guts and the courage to be an artist?"
Around this time Clu changed the film's title. Recalls Tom: "When Clu dropped the name Fucking Tulsa on us, John and I looked at each other and said, 'Why not?' We thought it sounded so good, so literary."
The name change didn't help get the movie made any faster, though, thanks both to the family's obsessive attention to craft and to their peculiar choice of shooting. To begin with, they were using Super 8 film, a format the videotape revolution pretty much wiped out in the 1980s. Also, the Gulagers bought all their equipment instead of renting it; there were some practical considerations for doing so, but this decision nevertheless ate up an enormous amount of resources. By far the biggest problem was the camera, an expensive Beaulieu that, like the rest of their equipment, had been purchased in L.A. Beaulieus have always been considered the finest Super 8 cameras in the world, but the Burbank outfit that sold them theirs had jerry-rigged a belt-worn battery pack for it that did not run on exactly the same current as the French camera. Before long the Beaulieu was shorting out, necessitating several trips back and forth to California, with Clu losing volunteer film crews in between. With camera downtime a regular recurrence, the Gulagers' half-year project, which they began filming in 1992, stretched into a three-year ordeal. The scene in which Jake shoots Miriam's character, for example, was filmed in two segments - a year apart and at different locations.
As Tom remembers, everything was fine whenever the family was on the set - they just weren't there that often. "We spent our time pretty much the same way we do [in Los Angeles]," he says. "There were coffee shops, we'd discuss dreams and films. We'd take refuge with friends. We took waiting jobs, and worked at the local art house - a small movie theater located at an ice-skating rink." There were costlier distractions, such as whenever various family members drove to L.A. or New York for business or just to get out of Tulsa. One is astounded by how much the family drove their van, Cadillac and two pickup trucks; the Voyager, purchased new in 1991, is today on its third engine. Sometimes Diane's diary captures the sullen regimen of these epic drives: "Monday, Oct. 8th: 2 days on the road and only Arizona. The clutch is broken on truck and Clu doesn't want to drive the van too fast. We lost each other for a few hours and recontacted . . . by calling Tom in NYC."
Life dragged on into a frustrating waiting game, during which rent deadlines were missed, nights were spent baking prosthetics for the film, and the owner of a house the Gulagers had painstakingly wallpapered and redecorated for use as a set kicked them out. Sometimes they couldn't afford the gasoline needed to drive to their locations. Once embraced as Hollywood celebrities, the Gulagers were now dismissed by their former hosts, and even accused by some neighbors of practicing satanic animal sacrifices, a misunderstanding arising from the 10 cats and five dogs Miriam cared for and the fact that Clu, Diane and John sometimes taught "monster" classes with horror makeup and lighting effects inside their garage. On Halloween 1993, some locals hung a dead dog in front of the Gulager compound.
This could not be what Clu had envisioned for the twilight of his career. If his professional life had had its share of regrets, it had also been filled with so many moments to cherish: Charles Laughton watching him appear in Hamlet at Baylor; the penniless days in Paris, where Clu and Jean-Louis Barrault discussed the importance of dreaming, or Lee Marvin tipping him to a gag he was about to play on Ronald Reagan during rehearsals for The Killers; and that time when a tall servant entered a screening room, placed a bundle of clothes on the seat next to Clu, and the bundle turned out to be a sick old man who began talking to him as though Clu were a longtime friend because, in truth, he admired Gulager's work, and Clu would always think it a shame that he'd been born too late to have joined the legendary acting crew used by this dying man, who was John Ford. But perhaps the most golden of those moments was the day, so many years before any of this, when Clu had staged a play he'd written for characters wearing Roman togas on the front lawn of the farm in Tahlequah, so all the kids were dressed in bed sheets, and his cousin Catfish's sheet came off in the wind and he stood there naked and surprised under the Oklahoma sky.
Enough got to be enough. The low point for Tom came one day when he desperately wanted a drink. "Clu was working in the garden, which was his way of easing his mind," he remembers. "I went up to him, my father and director, and said, 'I need money for a drink, I've got to have a drink right now or I'm not going to make it to tomorrow.' He said, 'I'm sorry, I'd give you the money if I had it, I just don't have it.' He kind of went on working on his garden then. It was a funny low point. Maybe not that funny."
Finally, in late 1993, Tom gave the other family members a deadline of a few months to finish up. He couldn't take Tulsa anymore, and his wife, Lisa, was showing alarming signs of emotional stress - he wanted to get her back to California as soon as possible. But something even more oppressive had been weighing on everyone for a longer time. When Miriam's voice had cracked during her friend's play, she went to local doctors to see if anything was wrong. They found nothing, ascribing her vocal flaw to either "female problems" or a thyroid condition. But then the seizures began. In 1992 the family had driven back to L.A., where Miriam was given an MRI. It took no time at all for the Los Angeles doctors to discover the problem - a tumor in the lining of Miriam's brain, massed near the optic nerve.
"A lot of things were kept from the children, although we were adults," Tom says, looking back on his life as a Gulager son. "They had the philosophy - and they still do - that we're the babies and they want to protect us psychologically." But nothing could shield them from Miriam's illness, which even after three surgeries and a program of radiation therapy was never fully alleviated, and resulted in the loss of sight in her left eye.
Eventually it was decided that John would edit a 20-minute promo from the footage already shot, and the family would leave Tulsa; they would show the promo around L.A. and New York to try to get enough money to return to Oklahoma and reshoot the entire film in Super 16, which could be bumped up to 35mm prints. In the meantime, Tom and Lisa returned to San Francisco in January of 1994 to restart their lives there.
It was too late. According to Tom, his wife unraveled after the years of living cooped up in Tulsa. "She just had that craving to go wild, and so she did," he says.
"Tom, I know we said we'd get straight jobs when we got here," she told him, "but I'm going to strip now." So Lisa worked as a stripper around town, adopting the stage name "Lilith." She also began doing speed and, perhaps most painfully for her husband, started an affair with a neighbor - a woman named Soozie. "My affair was really terrible for Tom," Lilith-Lisa says today. "I guess I just had an itch."
Tom tried to keep a semblance of home life by working as a bellhop at the trendy Hotel Triton, but despaired of the toll Lisa's drug use was taking on her. One day there was a knock on the door of their Lower Haight home. It was a neighbor telling him that his wife was on the building's roof. Other people were there too, checking out the commotion - the SFPD.
"I remember walking up to the roof," he says. "It was a beautiful time of day, about 4 o'clock in the afternoon, the fog was rolling in. And there was Lisa, wearing a yellow '70s prom dress with a plastic wreath on a wig that she wore from the days when she first started to strip. Her whole face was twitching. I knew she wouldn't come down for me, so I told her Soozie wanted her down. She said, 'Really?' and I said, 'Yeah, she'll be really upset if you don't come down,' so she did."
In September 1994, Lilith-Lisa was institutionalized for a few weeks at San Francisco General Hospital following a nervous breakdown. The strain was becoming unbearable for Tom, and the family came out to bring him to L.A., while Diane remained in San Francisco to care for Lisa. The family found Tom a Studio City apartment, where he stayed for two months to recuperate from his shattered marriage. "They drove me to this white apartment with no furniture, a place that had a pool with sea horses painted on the bottom. It was just what I needed," he says. "I never thought my life would be this corny, would be another Beat novel - I'd wanted it to be more subtle."
Tom eventually rejoined the family in Tulsa, and from there they all went to New York to find backers, spending the winter of 1996 crowded into the East Village flat that John and Diane have kept for years. Everyone but Diane returned to Los Angeles in the spring, moving with all their film equipment and prosthetics into a one-bedroom apartment in Silver Lake: Clu, Miriam and John, Tom and his new girlfriend, Sissy, whom he met during his last stop in Tulsa. As they lived in these cramped conditions for the next year before finding their own places, they continued to screen the Fucking Tulsa promo.
"It was pretty, pretty wild," laughs Bingham Ray, the October Films co-president who saw it in New York. "It was extremely tawdry and sordid - really out there."
"It was like a fiery car accident," says Matt Wall, who was an acquisitions executive at New Line Cinema when he saw it in L.A. two years ago. "It wasn't pleasant to look at, but I couldn't take my eyes off it."
On the Gulagers' Web page (http:// home.earthlink.net/~gulager/), director Jonathan Demme is quoted as saying: "I found the filmmaking tremendously powerful and exciting to witness, while being totally appalled and distressed."
Regardless of this - or because of it - the Gulagers found no takers.
"I like extremes, they're really interesting," says Ray. "I really respect that. There might be someone out there who would do Fucking Tulsa, but not us, so I politely passed on it. I really felt bad, terrible - I got a kick out of them."
"I loved it," says Moving Pictures' Henry Deas III. "It's definitely something great, something incredible - and it breaks my heart that no one's giving [Clu] the money to shoot it."
Not everyone was completely encouraging. At one small screening for Kids' Larry Clark, a viewer jumped up from his seat soon after the film began, declaring the movie to be unmarketable, although Clark offered the opinion that it would find a niche in the exploitation field. Others had practical advice for the family, emphasizing the need to make video dupes of the film and to stop insisting on personally setting up the screening room, and to get an agent to find a distributor. Even after adjusting for the chromed hyperbole of Industry conversations, it's apparent that some movie people are impressed by what they've seen of Fucking Tulsa. Deas believes the only thing about it that should go is the scene of Tom pissing on Miriam (Tom's "penis" is actually a prosthetic): "I would just tone it down to get the money to do my film - not because it's unnecessary. But it's definitely produceable."
The family, for its part, remains unperturbed by the wall of rejection it has encountered. In fact, Clu is busy finishing a screenplay for another family project, a four-hour film called The Woman Who Would Be Jesus.
In a note accompanying the screenplay to Fucking Tulsa, Clu describes filmmaking as a religion "based on three tenets: (1.) A great story (2.) The finest actors (3.) A brilliant cameraman. Everything else is a void we don't understand."
Even to the casual observer, the Gulagers have Hollywood Gothic stenciled all over them. But it is a mistake to dismiss them as cranks and their work as "weirdo," for if their screenplays and uncompleted films are gorier and more pornographic than anything a mainline studio is prepared for, they are also more original. After all, aren't the Gulagers, in their own bizarre, Super 8-home-movie way, fulfilling an important rule of art - to present the viewer with something never before seen? How many films do we pay money to see that remotely meet this challenge?
"They wouldn't tell Picasso, 'Don't put that bull in Guernica!'" exclaims an indignant John in response to potential producers and censors who would tone down Fucking Tulsa. At least the Gulagers say they are not wedded to the film's title, and would show the same flexibility they had when it was changed from Kill! Kill! Kill! Kill! - if they got money to reshoot it. "We're not idiots," John says.
Addressing complaints about the scene in which Tom urinates on Miriam, Clu says, "To be perfectly candid, I think penises are pretty good to put on film. An artist's compulsion is [what's] really pornographic - not the penis pissing on the old lady, or forcing the child into sexual abuse. What's pornographic is the artist's nature to gamble everything - everything - to destroy everything to get the art. The work is the important thing."
By anyone's ledger, Clu Gulager and his family have gambled everything. And there have been losses along the way. One unspoken assumption is that Miriam may have had her tumor diagnosed sooner - and her left eye saved - had the family remained in Los Angeles. And there is the matter of people's careers. John is almost 40, while Tom is 32. For all their immersion in filmmaking, neither is anywhere near where their father was at 30. "Tom could have been a Tom Cruise or a Matt Dillon," Lilith-Lisa says, but apart from a couple of TV gigs as a very young boy, his acting career has been almost completely confined to his father's projects.
"Tom's just getting started in acting," Clu says. "He's a brilliant actor, one of the best in the world, in my view. John is one of the best actors in the world, but they are both filmmakers and want to make films in the worst way. I've written John a major, major role in my next picture. He'll be shooting the film too, so when he's in a scene we'll get a surrogate cameraman."
Married on the same farm on which his father spent so much time dreaming, Tom wonders about his own postponed dreams. "My own projects have been on hold for years," he says. "The fierce macho attitude of the young filmmaker is gone, and now I'm a little more Zen." With Fucking Tulsa behind him, Tom is considering revisiting his long-ago ideas. "One I started on when I was 19 or 20 is about the son of an actor who's part Indian. The son goes back to a reservation to find his roots."
Nevertheless, he would have no qualms about working on The Woman Who Would Be Jesus. "Clu gave us such great childhoods," he says. "He gave us so much love that we wanted to give him something back by helping him make films, because he's so gifted. But it took over our lives."
sked to name the lessons of his family's ordeal, Clu pauses a moment and replies: "Those with obsessions never learn. Those with a compulsion to make films are fucked in the beginning, fucked in the middle and fucked in the end. You can call it madness, you can call it being an artist, or you can call it ruining your life. But we have not learned one goddamned thing."