Miracle Mile: An Analysis of a Cult Film and a Discussion with Director Steve De Jarnatt

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A phone rings.

A phone rings and you answer it, expecting a call. A wrong number. The person on the other line, you think, is pulling your leg. The end of the world, they say. The nukes are coming and it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when—only a few hours and the world as we know it will end. What do you do? Do you say anything? Is the ensuing panic justified, as the death rattle of civilization, or is it a lot to do about nothing… innocent lives being lost in a senseless riot?

This is the reality of the criminally underseen 1988 film, Miracle Mile, a masterpiece that is receiving newly-found cult appreciation.

The film is haunted by a loneliness, taking place in a Los Angeles, as beautifully written by Jessica Ritchey, populated by the up-all-nighters, the occupants of a coffee shop at 4:00 a.m. while the rest of the world is asleep. The score by Tangerine Dream floats somewhere between surreality and waking life, perfectly capturing a moment in between dreams and in between life and death.

In a way, Miracle Mile almost seems to represent a sort of anti-Armageddon, or anti-Transformers, where destruction isn’t celebrated; it’s shown as being an absolute hell on earth. In today’s modern era of Hollywood blockbusters where entire cities are destroyed for the sheer spectacle of it, it’s hard to imagine there was an era of the 80’s that was terrified of the reality of the Cold War going nuclear. Movies like The Day After, Threads and even Terminator 2 (though it had fun with destruction, the nuclear blast dream sequence is intentionally unpleasant by design) portrayed annihilation with a fearful eye.

When you see a great film, you always remember the events surrounding its viewing. You remember who you were with, where you saw it and on what format. I remember reading about Miracle Mile from Videohound’s Cult Flicks and Trash Pics. The review drew me in and I remembered thinking, “I have to see this movie.” Months later, my girlfriend and I were talking about those Sunday afternoon movies on network TV that sometimes accidentally play weird, legitimately great movies. The movie she told me about sounded vaguely familiar and it clicked.

“That’s Miracle Mile!” I said.

“Well, let’s go rent it,” She replied. “I haven’t seen it since I was a kid.”

We got the DVD from Netflix in the mail and I don’t think a word was uttered between us throughout the showing. We watched it again the next morning.

The emptiness and the expansiveness of the Los Angeles as seen in Miracle Mile reminds me of Night of the Comet in the best possible way. In the same way that Springfield in The Simpsons and Baltimore in The Wire are characters unto themselves, I feel that LA in Miracle Mile is a living, breathing entity. It shows the city in a way that’s more real than we typically see in other movies that take place in the city, but it has an otherworldly, ethereal quality.

Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham, as the couple in the middle of the chaos, are perfectly cast. The set of circumstances that bring them together in the beginning, and together in the end, lead to a finale that is somehow as romantic as it is suffocating. It’s simultaneously the sweetest moment and pure, personified fear. In its own way, Miracle Mile might be one of the most romantic tragedies ever told.

Steve De Jarnatt, writer and director of Miracle Mile, had initially written the movie as what was to be the Twilight Zone movie, but refused to change his bleak ending. As such, the version of The Twilight Zone: The Movie that we have now is much, much different—focusing on different stories instead of one standalone plot. Despite objections from various studios and various backers, De Jarnatt stuck to his guns and made the movie exactly the way he wanted to. And we thank him for it. Miracle Mile is a hidden gem just waiting to be discovered by new generations of film viewers again and again, thrilling, charming and scaring the absolute shit out of those not knowing what to expect.

Mr. De Jarnatt was gracious enough to answer some questions for us we had about the film and its legacy.

The ending, in which Harry and Julie find themselves trapped in a helicopter at the end of the world, sinking into a pit of tar, is absolutely terrifying… yet, the way he consoles her and tells her that a direct hit by a nuclear explosion will turn them into diamonds, is incredibly sweet. It’s almost a perfect scene, balancing so many emotions without missing a beat. Do you remember how you thought up that scene? You fought very, very hard to keep the ending as you wrote it—was it a personal scene for you?

It must have been a primal thing. I never considered another ending. The couple meets among extinct species – and at the end they are those species (as will all will be). As you pointed out – I turned down many possibilities to make a different movie. Even Warner Brothers who developed and supported it – would have allowed this ending to take place – but then Harry would wake up – and it was all a dream – and it all started happening again. Even that seemed too compromised to me. And I don’t think an audience would have liked it either.

What else is there at THE END? Other than to be with someone – and in this romance – Harry found the ONE. We all will have the same climax of our life stories – but when the time comes if there is some shred of hope (which is what humanity has that more noble [less cognitive] creatures do not) – we can endure it a little better.

There are certain films that create an atmosphere, dependent entirely on the locations where it’s filmed. What drew you to the locations, namely the diner and the La Brea tar pits, all within just a couple miles of each other?

The tar pits. This bubbling crude in the middle of the metropolis fascinated me from the first time I ever saw it. A portal to the past. Tried to stay true to geography (and came very close to doing that)

Johnie’s Coffee Shop is as we left it a quarter of a century ago. We were amazed when we were able to get back in there for a supporting cast reunion for the Blu Ray extras. It was ghostly – and all the bulbs we put in the signage outside – still working.

In recent years, Miracle Mile has enjoyed newfound status as a cult film. It seems people have really identified with its themes and its characters and the music. Why do you think it’s had such an enduring legacy?

While tainted with some 80s affect (hair, etc.) – it seems to appeal because it breaks expectation formulas that few Hollywood movies do anymore (or even did back then). It is not a ride everyone enjoys and I know there are as many ‘haters’ as well. But that to me is better than being something that is easily forgotten. Word of mouth was out there – but a book by Walter Chaw (who does commentary with me on the Blu Ray) and a bunch of fans who made friends watch the film had built slowly over the years. The Blu Ray of course has amplified the fan base now. Hope to have a website up in the near future with more.

What other films, books or television shows influenced you when you were making Miracle Mile? It has such a unique visual style, we would be curious to know what, if any, films and filmmakers you were paying homage to.

Day of the Locust – the book, not the film. The Last Wave – (Peter Weir) haunted me with it’s premonitions of an ‘end’. Cornell Woolrich stories. The empty streets of LA have their own magical imagery and though it’s an 80s film – we did not do a street wet down or use a lot of smoke (the tropes of most films of the era). Though the score gods of the 80s – Tangerine Dream are an essential ingredient. Any film or story where one journey – spins off into another darker one – with compounding moral choices – (Dog Soldiers – made into Who’ll Stop the Rain, say – or Deliverance, North By Northwest – many others)

Outside of Miracle Mile, you’ve had quite a career. You co-wrote Strange Brew with Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas; you directed Cherry 2000; and you directed a remake of the “Man From the South” story on the 1980s revival of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (the same story was also kinda-sorta retold in Quentin Tarantino’s segment of Four Rooms), as well as tons of other TV shows including ER, Nash Bridges and Lizzie McGuire. I also hear you’re writing fiction, too. What’s next? Anything you can tell us?

I may or may not write more scripts (and am just beginning an academic career – teaching in Ohio University’s MFA Film Program) but I got my own MFA in fiction a few years ago (made the Best American Short Stories, etc.) and that is my forward trajectory, working on that craft — no meetings, studios notes, spending years scraping up budgets. I had a good long run – 28 straight years of work – so no complaints whatsoever.

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