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Sitting in the 5,000-volume, custom-built library of his baronial estate in the wooded tranquility of Davidsonville, Md., Mahaffey invites comparisons with Wall Street Week in Review host Louis Rukeyser sooner than fellow low-budget film directors Richard Linklater or Kevin Smith. But director he is, having recently shepherded the likes of Corey Haim and Ami Dolenz through the filming of Life 101, a coming-of-age tale due at video stores this month.
Mahaffey wasn’t inspired by Spike Lee’s guerrilla success, nor did he come to filmmaking via USC or NYU film school. Instead, Mahaffey stepped behind the camera after hanging up the lab coat he wore as a physicist designing “Star Wars-type stuff” at the Naval Research Lab.
Open, friendly, and articulate, Mahaffey is “semi-retired” at 46; his doctorate in physics, degrees in business, and scientific awards serve only wall duty. Leaning back on his couch, the former knowledge worker announces with some satisfaction that “my profession now is “filmmaker.’ ”
Indeed, Life 101 is the third movie to carry a Mahaffey credit. His involvement with show business grew out of another career, that of entrepreneur. After toiling for several years in the lab perfecting “electron accelerators and very intense X-ray sources…I’ve got five patents in all that kind of stuff,” the fun wore off. “There’s a lot of politics in physics, too,” Mahaffey reveals. So Mahaffey formed his own company.
“I started selling scientists and engineers to the government,” he boasts. The nefarious-sounding scheme is actually better defined as subcontracting—Mahaffey provides free-lance Einstein support for short-term high-tech projects. The advantage to Uncle Sam is that tax dollars aren’t spent on health care for tenured bureaucrats. The advantage to Mahaffey is that his company swelled to more than 200 fee-producing brainiacs and allowed him to reduce his workload to one day a week. At which point the thrill faded again.
By that time, Mahaffey’s name had been added to some high-rolling mailing lists. In addition to government subcontracting, Mahaffey had been making money in real estate, even before the real-estate-mad ’80s. He’d purchased his first house while still in grad school with the $3,000 he saved “from being a paper boy and an electrician and stuff like that.” In other words, Mahaffey had a pile of discretionary income.
Not surprisingly, Hollywood began sending letters inviting Mahaffey to drop some of that cash into a film venture. “Well, this was something I was always interested in finding out about,” Mahaffey says. He called a funding-hungry director on the West Coast. “It sounded like he had a decent business plan, so I made a small investment.”
Having leapfrogged over the tall gates that even the lowest of power players erect to keep out the desperate and unconnected, Mahaffey let slip that he was also a writer—when not buying land or building lasers, Mahaffey has seen his novels and poetry published, and has even won something called the International Literary Awards Contest.
The fact that Mahaffey had been a friendly investor may or may not have swayed the producers, but soon there was a deal to turn his novel into a $100,000 film. (His book is “full of “gotcha’s’ and “grab-ya’s,’ ” he says.) Of course, that figure doesn’t buy a lot of marquee value in a time of $20-million actors. A friend who wanted to invest suggested that Mahaffey put his own money into the pot as well. Mahaffey resisted, because “it would look like I’m buying a picture.” However, a bigger budget would allow them to lure cable-level talent like Andrew Stevens, Joe Bologna, Richard Roundtree, and Margeaux Hemingway. Mahaffey ultimately saw the wisdom of protecting his investment. He and his pal ponied up 50 grand each, a production company in Miami invested, “and all of sudden we’ve got $400,000 dollars instead of 100,000.”
Andy, Joe, Dick, and Marge signed, and the result was Deadly Rivals, available at Blockbuster. If the Academy ignored it, the investors were well satisfied and so Mahaffey set about writing another script—one perhaps only a trained scientist would conjure—about the Eureka man, Archimedes. “It basically answers the question, “How did Leonardo Da Vinci get to be so smart?’ ” explains Mahaffey. “And why is Archimedes considered one of the greatest scientists of all time when we only have four manuscripts of what Archimedes did?”
When that Indiana Jonesish production, Quest of the Delta Knights, went over-budget and behind schedule, Mahaffey stepped in as second-unit director. “I realized, “Hey, I can do this! This is very interesting!’ ” A second epiphany was that he could bring a little scientific method to the madness of making movies.
Precision being paramount in any experiment, Mahaffey realized that one could “prioritize” a script, making sure the most important scenes get shot first, and pre-editing that which has been prioritized. “If you know you’re going to cut to a close-up at a certain line, once the master shot is done there’s no sense having the actors redo the entire scene,” he explains with clinical clarity. His system brought Life 101‘s 18-day shoot in a half-day ahead of schedule and under-budget.
Life 101 is based on Mahaffey’s book, Higher Learning, which is based on his college experiences at the University of Maryland in the late ’60s. It was a story he “knew so intimately, I figured that if I’m ever going to direct a movie, this is the one.”
“I had a very unusual roommate in college. He was a real prankster. So I started writing about his pranks. And I realized very early on that I could improve on what actually happened. What happened was a nice basis, but they always say, “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a nice story.’ ”
Mahaffey’s nice story was filmed largely at his alma mater and features a surprisingly unpretentious turn by Haim, aided greatly by the delightful presence of Dolenz (a “cutie-pie,” says Mahaffey). Life 101 boasts no grand Spielberg camera flourishes, no unexpected Scorsese angles, no fresh Tarantino edits. It is a modest, gentle tale, told clearly and crafted with workmanlike skill. Having spent so much time in classrooms, Mahaffey is a quick and attentive student. In conversation, he speaks the lingo with a casual authority that does not seem forced or contrived.
“I went out and read a lot of books on how to direct and how to act,” he says. “And I learned how to talk to actors—which I thought was going to be very difficult, but it turned out to be very easy.”
The extensive experience of his young stars didn’t prove problematic. “I’ve been on three sets, and Corey—he’s been doing this since he was like 13 years old,” says Mahaffey with some awe. Because he is “very story-driven,” Mahaffey concentrated his efforts on explaining his story to the actors in abundant detail.
“They said I talked to them more than any director they’d had.”
Like every other aspect of society, Mahaffey’s Maryland film has an O.J. connection. Co-star Louis Mandylor also co-starred in Simpson’s unreleased last film, Frogmen, where they were trained in, um…knife-fighting. And Traci Adell, a Playboy playmate who has a role in Life 101 as a woman with large breasts, was called by Simpson the night of the murders.
“It’s very strange,” admits Mahaffey, who feels that Adell lost her bid to be Playmate of the Year because of her “scandalous” connection to the Juice.
Though he maintains an apartment in L.A. for use when casting, Mahaffey disdains the L.A. hustle of meetings, meetings, and I’ll-call-you. “I don’t want to spend the next three years to make my next film, and then have it fall through because some vice president got fired,” he says impatiently.
And he doesn’t have to. “My idea is that you raise $3,000 from this neighbor, and $5,000 from my brother, and $10,000 from this business associate, and pretty soon I have several hundred thousand dollars. I put in some money and we can do a million-dollar film. Or less. And hopefully get our money back and a reasonable return.”
Mahaffey is currently at work on a “Hitchcocky,” Death Wish-style story that examines the emotional and psychological effects of taking revenge. He quotes Roger Bacon: “Revenge is the black seed that eats at the human heart.” Sounds cable-friendly for sure.
If Life 101 is more talky than action-oriented, it is due to Mahaffey’s “voracious” reading habits. “I would read three novels a week and one or two nonfiction works,” he declares. “Why go to the bathroom and sit when you can go there and read?”
“I’ve been in people’s houses in Hollywood. You look around and there’s not any books. And these people are storytellers?” Mahaffey asks in bemused shock, adding dismissively, “But the context of their storytelling is that they’ve seen other movies.”
Scientifically speaking, a very flawed equation.