Can Victor Salva Move On?
CONVICTED OF MOLESTING A 12-YEAR-OLD CONCORD BOY, SALVA HAS SERVED HIS TIME AND SAID HE’S SORRY. NOW, HE JUST WANTS TO GET BACK TO MAKING MOVIES. ARE WE READY FOR THAT?
by Glenn Lovell
Los Angeles — VICTOR Salva — the director of “Powder” and the “Jeepers Creepers” movies — is a big, genial, baby-faced man who, despite his considerable girth, enjoys giving and receiving hugs. He’s also a natural-born storyteller who can hold a listener rapt with tales of ghosts, hobgoblins and children abducted by UFOs. Salva’s specialty: dark fables about being persecuted for being different.
Like a lot of kids growing up in the East Bay town of Martinez in the early ’70s, the adolescent Salva lived on a diet rich in horror and sci-fi. His favorite monster movie: ”Creature from the Black Lagoon.” In 1975, the local newspaper reported that a kid named Salva had sat through ”Jaws” a record 68 times. But unlike most of his movie-going pals, Salva, who was gay and overweight, didn’t identify with the hero or the monster hunter: He empathized with the monsters.
He recalls now, ”When someone in the movie pointed and screamed, ‘Arrrrgh, he’s so hideous! He’s so ugly!’ I thought, ‘No, the monster is the most interesting thing about the movie. I wonder what he’s thinking and feeling.”’ Today, in some eyes, Salva is the monster. The 40-year-old writer-director has been at the center of a public safety-vs.-civil liberties debate Hollywood would just as soon not have with itself. Francis Ford Coppola and Mary Steenburgen have spoken out on Salva’s behalf, but they and a few others are the exceptions. More typical is director Nora Ephron, who waves off the Salva issue with, ”I wouldn’t touch that with a 50-foot pole.”
Salva is a registered child molester who, in 1988 at age 30, was sentenced to a correctional facility in Soledad for having sex with a 12-year-old Concord boy who starred in his first feature, a low-budget horror film. He pleaded guilty to lewd and lascivious conduct, having oral sex with a person under 14 and procuring a child for pornography. He was released in 1989, after serving 19 months of a three-year sentence. Six years later, with the release of ”Powder,” a bizarre fable about an albino shut-in with telekinetic powers, Salva’s past caught up with him. ”Disney Movie’s Director a Convicted Child Molester,” screamed a representative headline in the Los Angeles Times.
Disney brass and at least one ”Powder” producer immediately distanced themselves from the filmmaker, denying knowledge of his criminal past. But the bad publicity, in one of those strange twists, may actually have boosted the box office. “Powder” returned $77 million on a $10 million investment and, on video, became a must-rent with teens touched by its pariah hero.
Life imitated art as a ”devastated” Salva retreated to his Hollywood Hills home. He told a friend, ”I’m going to have to crawl into a hole; I’ll never be able to walk out of my house again.” Associates deserted him, studio contacts didn’t return calls. He got by on residual checks and, between bouts of depression, tried to write himself out of his predicament.
Now he has another movie, a low-budget, independently financed thriller called ”Rites of Passage.” He says he’s ready to return to work as a studio director. But is Hollywood, and society at large, ready to take him back?
”Victor Salva deserves another shot,” insists ”Rites of Passage” producer J. Todd Harris. ”He has a lot of fans, a lot of fans around town…. It [his past] was never a consideration in our moving forward on this film.”
Salva, in his first interview ever, is, by turns, defiant and contrite. ”It’s not like I don’t know the terrible ramifications of my actions,” he says. ”I’ve been very upfront with the family. I’ve been very upfront with everybody about what happened. I’ve done my time. I’ve paid restitution. I’ve done everything possible.”
But ”everything” in this case may not be enough. No matter how talented Salva is, or repentant he now appears, his crimes may have been too heinous for most of us to contemplate, much less forgive.
Victor Salva has been making films since age 12. His childhood goal was to become ”the thinking man’s Spielberg.” Like his idol, he was a movie prodigy: His 35-minute short ”Something in the Basement” took first place at a video competition at the American Film Institute. One of the judges, Francis Ford Coppola, was so impressed that he produced Salva’s first feature, a $200,000 cult item called ”Clownhouse.” The then-12-year-old Nathan Winters, who had starred in ”Basement,” played Salva’s adolescent alter ego, a pudgy, incontinent kid whose fear of clowns proves well-founded when escapees from the local asylum don fright wigs, red noses and big floppy shoes.
Winters as Casey is systematically terrorized in ”Clownhouse.” The film ends with a brother cradling Casey, assuring him, ”Nightmare’s over, Case.”
For Winters, the nightmare had only begun. Suspicious behavior on and off the set caused Nathan’s artist mother, Rebecca, to question her son’s attachment to Salva, a close family friend and a former day-care worker. The boy told of ongoing sexual abuse and videotaped sex acts at Salva’s nearby home. A search warrant was issued by Concord police and Salva was taken into custody on the way to a dubbing session at Coppola’s Napa studio. Salva’s lawyer, acknowledging his client’s ”inappropriate relationship with a young boy,” plea-bargained 11 felonies down to five. Coppola’s Commercial Pictures, which produced ”Clownhouse,” was sued by the Winters family for $5 million. They settled out of court for an amount ”barely over $100,000,” according to Rebecca Winters.
As all of this was unfolding, ”Clownhouse” had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. Salva did not attend. He was in prison.
At the California Training Facility in Soledad, Salva says he was beaten ”beyond recognition” for his Hollywood ties and his crimes against a child. ”I was never more scared or closer to death than I was in prison,” he says. ”I received no therapy there. Prisons are not places for rehabilitation or learning to understand yourself or your actions. They’re monster factories.”
Behind bars, Salva poured his rage and confusion into five scripts. One became a creepy little road picture called ”The Nature of the Beast.” Though well-executed, with intense performances by Eric Roberts and Lance Henriksen, this homage to Spielberg’s ”Duel” went straight to video. ”Powder” fared better. After being passed from studio to studio as way too strange, it was produced by Caravan Pictures and distributed by Disney’s Hollywood Pictures in late October 1995. The cast included Steenburgen, Jeff Goldblum, Henriksen and, as Salva’s tormented, sexually conflicted alter ego, Sean Patrick Flanery.
Salva insists he was upfront with everyone about his crimes, including the Disney brass. Still, he knew it was only a matter of time before his past caught up with him. And sure enough, in September, a month before the film’s release, Bay Area entertainment writers (this one included) received an anonymous e-mail, asking, ”Did you know Disney’s new ‘Powder’ was directed by a convicted child molester?”
After weeks of media silence, Daily Variety checked Contra Costa County court records and ran an item on Oct. 24 slugged ”Disney Dilemma.” The next day, the New York Times and Los Angeles Times reported on a Westwood preview of ”Powder” picketed by Nathan Winters and five friends who shouldered signs that read ”Writer, Director, Child Molester” and ”Disney Supports Child Molestation.”
Salva’s friends and handlers attempted to defuse the situation by evoking the names Tim Allen (who did 20 months for selling cocaine) and Roman Polanski (who fled the country in 1978, after being charged with having sex with a 13-year-old girl). Steenburgen waved the flag and said ”the chance to redeem [ourselves]” is every American’s birthright. Salva released a statement through his lawyer: ”How deeply I regret my actions. I paid for my mistakes dearly. Now, nearly 10 years later, I am excited about my work as a filmmaker and look forward to continuing to make a positive contribution to our industry.”
The story traveled around the world when the Winters family went public (they appeared on ”Geraldo Live” and other talk shows) and the religious right, once again, called for a boycott of Disney (a target since the company agreed to significant-other benefits for gay employees).
I’m moving on
We’ve arranged to meet at a patio restaurant in the lobby of a hotel, just off Sunset Strip. Salva, his bushy hair now gray at the temples, arrives alone, 10 minutes late. He’s friendly but guarded. He requests an armless chair to accommodate his 350-pound frame. At first, it didn’t look like our meeting would come off. ”I have to be frank,” said Salva’s assistant over the phone. ”When he heard from you, he thought it was happening all over again. When ‘Powder’ opened, he felt like O.J. Simpson, that the press was out to get him.”
Salva says his agent’s last-minute admonition was: ”Don’t let [the interview] turn into a therapy session.”
Why has Salva agreed to talk now? Since his arrest, he has been called many things–”con man” (Contra Costa County Deputy D.A. Patricia Sepulveda), ”stone-cold pedophile” (Rebecca Winters), ”talented young director” (Coppola). Salva wants it known he’s not a pervert or a threat to society. ”People don’t know who I am,” he insists. ”They have the strangest ideas about me. I want them to know, just for the record, that I admit to all my mistakes and I’m moving on.”
He adds evenly, for the record, ”I do not advocate inappropriate sexual behavior with children.”
Now with what he euphemistically calls his ”little hiatus” behind him, Salva hungers for mainstream acceptance, the opportunity to exit a preview screening in style, not through a side door, as he did for ”Rites of Passage.”
”Rites,” a drama about a father (Dean Stockwell) and two sons who bond while staring down the barrel of a gun, had been screened for friends and industry types the night before. The recruited audience responded with nods and murmurs. Not a good sign. ”Rites” will most likely go straight to cable, then video.
Prior to the screening, ”Rites” producer Harris gingerly skirted the minefield that is Salva’s past. He admitted to not knowing all the facts in the case. ”I won’t tell you everybody flocked to work on this picture,” he said, pacing his office. ”I did have people who said they wouldn’t work with me when I told them I was working with Victor. The venom in their voices! It’s so ironic because Victor is such a gentle man.”
Harris went on to stress that ”Rites of Passage” was never meant as family fare. And, though 10- and 12-year-old boys figured in a flashback shot at Big Bear Lake, Salva was never alone with them.
”Yes, [the parents] were told about his record–they made an informed decision,” said Harris. ”I didn’t do the telling. Our casting director did the telling. We made sure that that was addressed.”
Like Salva’s other pressure-cooker dramas, ”Rites of Passage” is disturbingly candid, purgative. It draws on the director’s strict Catholic upbringing, his ”falling out of the closet” (at age 17, when gay magazines were found under his bed), his time behind bars, and, most of all, his ”warlike relationship” with a stepfather who, according to Salva, had washed his hands of his stepson long before the Concord arrest. Betrayal by a father figure is a unifying theme in Salva’s work.
As dark as it is in places, ”Rites of Passage” shows Salva in a more affirmative mood. The gay son (Jason Behr) and hard-case father finally reconcile, in a prison yard during visiting hours, no less. This is Salva proffering and asking forgiveness, a second chance. ”This movie,” he acknowledges, ”is about me forgiving my stepfather” (who still resides in Martinez).
Salva knows Disney isn’t about to forgive or forget. But he hasn’t given up on the other studios. He has two ambitious sci-fi scripts he’s shopping around town. One, described as a ”’2001′ for the millennium,” was pitched to 20th Century Fox. He also has been trying to interest Universal in a remake of ”Creature From the Black Lagoon.”
Salva concedes that, with his ”little tag,” he remains a financial liability. ”I’m not sure people are comfortable being seen with me…. But I think [studio execs] saying, ‘He’ll never work again’ was all for show. My God, if they were to take the [arrest] records of every filmmaker or actor, they’d have to shut this town down.
”Let’s face it,” he adds with a hollow laugh, ”anybody can work here who makes money.”
While Salva’s cynical assessment may be right, it angers those who argue Hollywood has always put profits before the public good.
It also angers his victim. Nathan Winters, now 23 and delivering newspapers in Clinton, Wash., is outraged by the turn of events: ”It’s just ridiculous that he served 19 months. I deal with what he did every day. It makes it hard for me to function normally. I have problems with depression, like getting really down on myself … feeling extremely bad.”
Nathan and Rebecca Winters don’t want to see their onetime friend blacklisted; they just want to make sure he never again directs children. ”As far as the law goes, he’s paid his debt,” says a resigned Rebecca Winters. ”But I don’t think he should be around kids. Period.”
Child-abuse experts say ongoing treatment can help men who have been diagnosed as pedophiles, but that there is still a high rate of recidivism, as high as 50 percent, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
”Clinical studies tell us [pedophilia] is an addiction, a repetitive compulsion,” stresses San Jose child therapist Lucia Chambers. ”Therefore, even after prison time, [Salva] should be watched all the time.”
But in Salva’s mind, he’s cured, the nightmare is over, a ”painful memory of something that happened over a decade ago.” He doesn’t buy into Justice Department surveys or, to borrow child therapist Chambers’ metaphor, the argument that pedophiles are like alcoholics–always one drink away from a relapse.
”If you accept yourself as any kind of statistic, I guess there’s truth in that,” Salva responds. ”But I would never say that. It’s just more political hokum, legislation passed to take away more rights. I don’t think [the clinical studies] are true. The more people believe them, the more they become self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Is Salva now tailoring his scripts to not include children? Salva thinks about this, then says, ”I don’t choose my subject matter, it chooses me. In the very early part of my filmmaking, I wanted to see every story through the eyes of a child. In ‘Rites,’ the boys are grown. My movies now are about younger men, not children. But–this is difficult to say–I would never allow anything to get in the way of anything I wanted to say. If that means: Would I tell a story about a child? I probably would.” Salva fully expects more fallout, more opening-night pickets. ”It’s something I have to deal with for the rest of my life, unless [Winters] gets tired of it or the press says, ‘Hey, we did that.’ It’s just my cross to bear, I guess.”
Nathan and Rebecca Winters don’t have more demonstrations planned. ”We told the world,” says Rebecca Winters. ”If any parents allow their kids to work with him, that’s on them.”
Echoes Nathan, ”Basically, it’s up to the public: His career is in their hands. If they choose to support him and go and see his films even though they know that his trip is, what he’s about — it’s in their hands.”
First published in San Jose Mercury News’ Sunday magazine, March 28, 1999. Also see Lovell’s “Victor Salva Proves H’w’y ‘Powder’ Keg” (Daily Variety, 3-29-99).