Hollywood is rife with horror stories regarding the struggles of first time filmmakers. We’ve heard of neophytes being skipped over, frozen out, and physically removed from their pet projects. But would you believe me if I told you the account of a first time filmmaker who managed to direct his own script free of struggle, impress his bosses and the studio still managed to screw it up? Such is case with PULSE (1988), a science fiction thriller written and directed by Paul Golding.
Growing up, I was familiar with PULSE due to the eye catching VHS cover. Oddly, I never saw it as a kid and only caught up with the film this year. Telling the story of a young boy (Joey Lawrence) who must fight a seemingly evil electrical current in his father’s California home, PULSE took me by surprise and shocked me. It was an incredible well made science fiction film that was as scary as it was intelligent. Not only that, but it worked as an impressive allegory of man succumbing to technology, a sentiment that is even more relevant today. Emerging in a decade fondly remembered for its sci-fi masterpieces, this was no easy feat. Surprisingly, there was very little info on both the film and Golding online. Hoping to correct this, I contacted Mr. Golding and expressed interest in the history of PULSE. Thankfully, the genial Golding was more than happy to discuss his lone feature film.
In order to trace the pathway to PULSE, we have to go all the way across the country. A native of Troy, New York, Golding grew up with a love for science fiction and the desire to become a theoretical physicist. He would express his creativity as a kid by recording reel-to-reel comedy tapes with friends and this eventually led to an interest in filmmaking. “One of my friends suggested we get a camera and film this weird stuff that we were laying out on audio,” he explains. “So I got my mother to get me an 8mm camera. I started shooting stuff and it was weird stuff. I’ve always loved movies, but to me movies were always Grace Kelly and Jimmy Stewart. What I was doing was like ‘The Waste Land’ by T.S. Eliot on 8mm set to a piece of music.”
After briefly relocating to San Francisco, Golding returned to Los Angeles to get into the film industry. He met Zalman King in the early 1970s and the duo struck up a creative partnership when King asked Golding to rewrite his screenplay, BAKERSFIELD BLUES. The resulting script was titled POWER and revolved around carnival worker running a machine that was literally the thing of nightmares. “The Dream Machine was this visual thing,” he explains, “a way of terrifying people, making them believe something was happening.” The script was optioned by RSO (Robert Stigwood Organization) in 1975. Although it attracted several high profile directors including Michael Apted and Bob Rafelson, the project never got made. In fact, the highly prolific Golding/King collaboration saw several screenplays developed – SWAGGER at 20th Century Fox and GODSHEAD at Mutual Pictures – but none ever found their way before the cameras.
It was a move that could surely earn Golding the Indian sobriquet of “Quick on his Feet” as it worked. The revised project was soon given the green light and shot under the title of THE SECRET OF LOST VALLEY under the directorial eye of actor Vic Morrow. It debuted in two parts on WALT DISNEY’S WONDERFUL WORLD OF DISNEY in April and May 1980. While Golding was not satisfied with the final product, he did earn a Writer’s Guild award for the script as the Guild judged nominated screenplays based solely on the writing and not the film itself. The experience would also steel him for dealing with executives who might want to change his PULSE script.
Helping expand that seed of an idea was the story another friend told Golding about a computer he built for the telephone company that eventually reprogrammed itself to avoid the very problem it was built to detect. Those ideas combined with Golding’s desire to tell a tale about our increasing dependence on technology resulted in the story of a married couple trapped in a house by an evil current. “The film did evolve,” he says of his script. “It wasn’t until the later stages that I solved the ultimate problem in the film. The ultimate problem in any ‘haunted house’ film is why they just don’t get out. To hell with the mortgage, you’re going to die if you stay. The solution to that was making the main character a kid because he simply just couldn’t get out. That solved my problem and the last couple of drafts were with the boy as the main character in it.”
One of the screenplay’s best (and most admirable) elements is that Golding refuses to explain just what exactly the evil electricity is. It just appears in the grid after a lightning bolt hits a power station. We don’t know if the current is of alien origin, man-made or even a ghost in electrical form. Naturally, such ambiguity is frowned upon by movie executives. When asked if he was told to change his script to explain it more, Golding replies, “Endlessly. They always wanted to know more. Take a film like POLTERGEIST (1982), which I really enjoyed up until the end. It is very well made and a very good story. I hated that there was this burial ground explanation. Whenever you see the monster, it is always a letdown.”
The ominous lightning bolt in the opening of PULSE:
Regardless of the ambiguity, the script drew immediate interest. “I really don’t know what the actual number is,” he states, “but I’ve been telling people that I sold it nine times. Maybe it was eight or it was ten. I sold options on it basically. I sold a first look on it before I wrote it to some people.” Golding even once sold the script outright as a TV movie, a move that thankfully never panned out.
By the time the 1980s rolled around, Golding reasserted the idea of getting PULSE off the ground. A kink emerged early on when POLTERGEIST opened and several people deemed PULSE as too similar. Golding had also worked with friends Andrew Davis and David Gilbert on writing the hip-hop film BEAT STREET (1984). It was seeing Davis, who was the film’s original director, fired that steeled his trepidation of directing his own script. “I sat with him at the bar that night after he had been fired and I saw the pain,” he discloses. “I thought to myself afterward, ‘Well, that is about as bad as it gets and he’s alive.’ So I thought I can’t do any less and that kind of stiffened me.”
Golding set out to cast the film and a number of familiar faces including Tommy Lee Jones auditioned for the role of the father, Bill. Golding relays an amusing anecdote with regards to one casting session. “Our casting agents had done ST. ELSEWHERE,” he explains, “so we got a number of people through them for various parts. And one of them was David Morse. It was amazing. He did a scene and after he left we all looked at each other and were like, ‘Wow, he’s it. That’s fantastic.’ He killed it. There was a power in that room that came from him and that was just awesome. And then we looked at the tape and [the great performance] wasn’t there. It was the strangest thing I’d ever encountered.”
The acquisition of Lawrence also proved to be a bit of a package deal as his younger brother Matthew also snagged the role of friendly neighbor Stevie. “When Joey’s parents came in, they said, ‘We also have Matty here.’ Matty couldn’t read [but] had memorized that whole long speech that he does on the curbside with Joey and he just knocked it out of the ballpark.”
Editing ran concurrent to shooting and, despite his background as an editor, Golding put full trust in his cutter, Gib Jaffe. Fans of the film will be interested to know that the original cut ran 2 hours and several scenes found their way onto the cutting room floor. “There is a scene,” he divulges, “that was alluded to where Joey says, ‘Yeah, [Ellen] took me riding.’ That was a scene up in the hills with these big electric transmission lines and she tells the story of when she was a little girl and they put these power lines in and then these tract houses happened after that and she somehow thought that there were signals that caused that to happen. It adds to his thought process. It just wasn’t a good enough scene and we decided the film moved better without it. That was the most important [cut]. We also had some scenes that we shot in Colorado of him with his mother before he comes. We just see suitcases in the hallway and him playing with other kids. At that point early in the film we just felt it was going on too long.”
When film wrapped, Golding had come in one day early on principal photography and one million dollars under budget. While most would consider this a feat to be lauded, Golding found out that in Hollywood it wasn’t considered desirable. “I was informed by someone who knew these things that that was not good,” he says. “I thought it was great! We made the film and I got everything I wanted and it is a million dollars less. But they said when the studio sees you’ve come in a million dollars under budget they’re going to feel cheated. They know that that script ought to cost six million dollars and if you only spent five, you must have cheated them somehow. So we found ways to spend the other million dollars. I understood what they were saying, it made insane sense.”
Various PULSE video boxes (click to enlarge):
Golding eventually used this money to secure what is perhaps one of the film’s best technical features, Macro photography. While they did discuss the effects with his pal Lucas’ ILM (Industrial Light and Magic) studio, Golding eventually went with a more unconventional choice. “The people from Oxford Scientific Films came to us when we were looking for people to do it and they had a wonderful reel of material. They had designed this rig over in England that could do extraordinary close up, macro photography. They definitely wanted to bring their equipment over to Hollywood and get it done here, but that was at the point in time when we really needed to add money to the budget, so I said, ‘No, we’ll all come over there.’ It was all done at their studio at Oxfordshire.
“They are all extreme, extreme close ups. We didn’t build any models to photograph. We used real microcircuit and regular circuits. The only trickery we did is in the scene inside the television set where the electronic pathways are reconfiguring themselves. That was photographed and then played backwards.”
Several examples of the Macro-photography,
creating an almost alien-like landscape:
Columbia's early 1988 release schedule
(notice the number of February & March dates):
The unceremonious dumping of PULSE obviously bothered the filmmakers. So much so that a lead article in Variety on March 8, 1988 appeared under the title “PULSE Makers Charge Columbia Is Dumping Film.” It was doubly disappointing as the film received excellent reviews from The Houston Post and Variety. Golding, however, had little time to mourn as he was soon onto his next project, co-writing and directing a film adaptation of BREAKFAST OF CHAMPIONS. “At that point, I had been on a new journey of discovery with Kurt Vonnegut,” he details of his time post-PULSE release. “He had been my hero forever, so the idea of working on a Vonnegut novel as a film was very cool and it kind of put behind me what had just happened.”
Golding continued to write with the screenplay EUDAEMONIC PIE (“a bunch of brilliant young scientists who go off to take on Las Vegas with a computer in the sole of their shoes” he says of the plot). Soon, however, he found himself like a character in PULSE and at the mercy of modern technology. “My wife and I ended up taking the advice of her son,” he explains of his post-Hollywood work, “and opening a store because she had a business background.”
Together they opened an internet store right as it was taking off and ended up literally catching a “wave” at the right place at the right time. “We sold a little of this and a little of that,” he says. “Then we put a product called the Leatherman Wave on there. Leatherman didn’t have very good distribution, but it had an enormous reputation; when we put that online, we literally started receiving orders faster than we could print them. We got a faster printer.”
Twenty six years after PULSE’s inauspicious release, it is a testament to the film and Golding’s filmmaking skills that people are still talking about the film. Golding has even screened it twice in Schenectady to appreciative audiences. “It is nice that other people have seen it. It is nice that people say good things about it to me,” he says.
As for his own thoughts on the film, Golding is modest in his assessment. “I thought it was pretty good,” he says. “I’d give it a B+.”