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Roel Reiné, Director of Admiral

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Roel Reiné found his calling early: When he saw Blade Runner at just 11 years old, he instantly knew that he wanted to be a filmmaker. After honing his craft in his native Netherlands, he made the jump to Los Angeles, helming direct-to-DVD movies like Death Race Inferno, The Marine, and The Man With the Iron Fists 2, among others. He released Admiral, a movie about Dutch naval hero Michiel de Ruyter, in Europe last year. We talked to the director about making inexpensive movies look like more than a million bucks, the challenges of filming on the water, and how consumer technology is changing movie-making.

What made you want to make movies?

I grew up in the Netherlands and I grew up with American movies. I saw Blade Runner when I was 11 and I knew I wanted to become a movie director. So from that moment on, I did everything that was needed: I started reading about making movies, I sneaked on to movie sets in Holland when I was 15 and 16, and I used my father’s 8 millimeter camera to do stop motion of my puppets.

Then I kind of found out that, in Holland, making genre movies wasn’t really done. I had to get my chops going in television.

I started in local television, and when I was 23 years old, I became the director of this action TV series in Holland—a prime time, really well-watched TV series. I did many TV shows in Holland before I developed my first screenplay, The Delivery, when I was 28. It was an English language road movie that I made with a Dutch cast. That movie basically took my career to the next level. I won this award in Holland called the Golden Calf. It’s kind of the Oscars in Holland for the best director.

Then the movie was sold to Lionsgate and that was my ticket to Los Angeles. It was very difficult to get my first American movie off the ground. So I said to my agent and my manager, “I really believe in the 10,000 hour rule: If I want to become a really good director, I need to be directing for 10,000 hours. Anything that is in front of me I will do.” So I jumped into the sequel and prequel business. I made 16 American feature films in 7 or 8 years, like Death Race 2 and The Marine and Dead in Tombstone—these are action movies that cost between $5 and $8 million for the studios to make.

Two years ago, I felt like I had done my 10,000 hours, and I wanted to make a really big, cool movie. So, I went back to Holland and developed this movie, Admiral.

When you came onboard to Admiral, was there a script already?

The producer, Klaas de Jong, was developing a screenplay about Michiel de Ruyter. He did that for 5 years, and he spoke with some Dutch directors, but he could not find one. They were very scared that they could not pull this off technically because of the sea battles.

I always wanted to make a movie about the golden age of Dutch history because, at that time, Holland was the only republic in the world. We were surrounded by kingdoms that were trying to stop us from being a republic. We were like a small empire—we had 20,000 ships on the oceans, while France had only 400 ships on the ocean.

So I called Klaas and said, “Let’s talk.” Then when I read the screenplay I said to him, “All those sea battles, those are easy. But we need to find a story because it’s too much of a history lesson.” So, I brought in a writer friend and we developed a new script over two years that was more story, more character, more heart and emotion. I also started developing the sea battles and how we had to do them technically.

When you start working on a project like this, how much research do you do? Do you feel like you have to be really historically accurate?

My research is massive. There’s a lot of stuff known about the 17th century—many museums have books and letters from that time, and there are a lot of paintings that show you this world, the sea battles and the killing of our prime minister. So, there’s a lot of material visually you can use as inspiration, but there’s also a lot that was written down that we could use. So that was really cool to tap into.

I wanted to be as historically correct as possible, but we’re making a movie and not a history lesson. The biggest thing I did was let go of the ages of all the characters—because if you want to follow the story of a character over a period of 20 years, it gets complicated. Maybe you need to use different actors and they have kids that grow up and they’re going to have wrinkles in the face and all this makeup and prosthetics. Then the movie becomes very … from a distance you cannot connect with these characters as a viewer.

What I did was give all the characters an average age, and told the story in a period of nine months—but in those nine months, we gave the audience 22 years of Dutch history. All these historical moments are happening to these characters in a period of nine months, and you can connect better to these characters.

We also made the language a little modern. If you go to old Dutch language, it’s really boring. But everything else—even the details in the sea battles and the details in set dressing and the ideas that the main character has to destroy the English fleet—all these things are historically correct.

Why was it important to tell Michiel de Ruyter’s story, and why was it important to make it in Holland? 

I think the most important reason is that he’s the No. 1 hero in Dutch history. Schools are named after this person. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to Amsterdam but on Dam Square in the middle of Amsterdam is Nieuwe Kerk [New Church], and in this church is his grave. It’s a beautiful, big grave. Everybody knows this person and nobody has done any movies about him. So I definitely wanted to make a movie that the Dutch people could be proud of. 

The main goal was to make a really good Dutch movie and to make it accurate. The Dutch speak Dutch, the English speak English, the French speak French so hopefully an international audience also finds that appealing.

There are a number of battles at sea in the trailer. How much of that was real, and how much of it was computer generated?

I really love doing stuff in camera. I think Death Race Inferno has some of the coolest action in racing out there because we did all the stunts in camera—we only used computer animation to clean up stuff. I wanted to do the same thing with Admiral. We had three 17th century ships. One is from Holland, one from Russia, and one from France. We brought them to a really big lake in Holland, where you can’t see the shore on the other side. With these three ships we did a real sea battle, with all the crew and actors on the ships and cannons firing. I didn’t use any green screen because I wanted it to feel real.

But then with computers I surrounded the ships with more ships so you feel the hundreds of ships around them. And we have some kind of Google Earth kind of perspective of the sea battles that is full CG where you can see kind of the logistics of it.

But it was a bit challenging. There are the three Bs: You don’t want to be on boats, you don’t want to use beasts, and you don’t want to use babies on movies. So, we did a lot of boats and we went on the water. Then you have to think about currents and wind direction. So, it makes it all very complicated. But I like to do complicated stuff. It’s my hobby.

Did you do a lot of the shooting yourself?

I’m the director of photography on all my movies, but sometimes I don’t get the credit because of union rules and that kind of stuff. It’s kind of part of my style. I don’t believe in sitting in another room behind a monitor. I like to be with the actors on the floor, feel what they feel and interact with them directly. And, because I’m operating the camera, I can participate in things that happen on the set and correct them or direct them really close by. That makes me very fast—but also all the actors really like it because they never get so much attention from a director as from me because I’m there.

You choose a location, you choose a script, you choose the actors, you block the actors. For me, moving the camera with specific lenses in that environment is one thought. It is one idea. It’s very much about having control over all those elements to make the movie really cool. So that’s the reason I’ve done it on all my movies.

It cost 8 million euro to make Admiral—which is not a ton of money. What lessons did you learn from making direct-to-video films that you applied there?

Movies like Death Race Inferno, they cost $6.5 million dollars. It’s very low, but I learned a way to make them look like $20 or $30 million: Use smaller crews, be my own DP, and never use studio sets—find the production value in the locations that you shoot. I always shoot with four cameras and therefore I get a lot more coverage—which makes the movie feel much richer because we can cut more and show more angles.

I brought all that knowledge to Admiral—it looks like a $40-50 million movie. We did it for 8 million euros because we used the same techniques. We were very smart in the way we planned, scheduled, and shot it. I shot that movie in 42 days and it’s a 2.5 hour movie with hundreds of extras every day—lots of costumes and horses and big sets. But if you surround yourself with a really good crew and you have a plan with stretching the dollar in a smart way, then you can pull it off.

You’ve used drones in some of your shoots. Is there any other sort of emerging technology that allows you to do really cool things as a director?

Many years ago, I think on my Scorpion King movie, I started learning flying the drones myself and they crashed all the time. It was a big disaster. But in the last few years, drones have became so sophisticated and very easy to fly. In Admiral, there are three shots flying over the water that I shot with a $600 consumer drone with a GoPro camera underneath. Then with this GoPro footage we went to the visual effects company. We CG’d in ships and other stuff and then we blew it up in 4K in cinema and nobody sees that this is like a GoPro shot in between the epic shots that we use for the whole movie.

So, it’s also using that technique and daring to use it in a bold way. I operate the drones myself. It’s fun.

On Admiral, we had two days on choppers because we were on the lake and I could have more control. But even when I’m shooting on choppers, I never use gyroscopes. I wear ropes and harnesses and I’m hanging half out of the chopper with the camera on a bungee rig from cables because I can control it much better, and stabilization you do in post with computers. So also there you use a combination of techniques to get the best result.

You love genre movies. What genre do you really want to work in?

I really would like to do science fiction. But also I really like historical movies. I’m going to do a few more historical movies out of the Netherlands. But I also want to do a movie, for example, about Waterloo and the whole battle to kick Napoleon out of Europe. I also had this Second World War movie that I want to do. It’s different stuff. That’s the great thing about making movies—I don’t want to stick around for one genre. I want to mix it up. It keeps me sharp and keeps it fun.

What’s one movie that you think everyone should see?

The Godfather and Once Upon a Time in the West and Blade Runner. Those are the movies that people should see—but I think everybody’s seen them already.

Since you got your start in TV, are there any TV series that you’d want to direct an episode of?

I love House of Cards, True DetectiveGame of Thrones and Vikings. Hollywood is making the big $100 million tentpoles and some sequels and some smaller movies. But the really daring movies—[movies with] political statements—a lot of studios are not making those movies anymore. You see a lot of moviemakers going to television to do it there, and I really like that. The Newsroom and all those kind of series I really like, because they dare to do something edgy and controversial, and they also do it in a style that is very filmish. These series look really cool—they look like feature films.

If you’re a big Game of Thrones fan, you must have been thrilled when Charles Dance, who plays Tywin Lannister, signed on to be in Admiral.

Of course. He was on my list, and I was like “I don’t know if we will succeed but let’s give it a try.” When he read the script and he said yes I was so excited because he’s such an iconic figure in that series. But he’s also a very iconic actor. He’s the villain in our movie and every time you see him, it’s so cool because he’s so powerful. It works so nicely. So I was really proud that he was part of this movie.

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12 Surprising Facts About Bela Lugosi
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On October 20, 1882—135 years ago today—one of the world's most gifted performers was born. In his heyday, Bela Lugosi was hailed as the undisputed king of horror. Eighty-five years after he first donned a vampire’s cape, Lugosi's take on Count Dracula is still widely hailed as the definitive portrayal of the legendary fiend. But who was the man behind the monster?

1. HE WORKED WITH THE NATIONAL THEATER OF HUNGARY.

To the chagrin of his biographers, the details concerning Bela Lugosi’s youth have been clouded in mystery. (In a 1929 interview, he straight-up admitted “for purposes of simplification, I have always thought it better to tell [lies] about the early years of my life.”) That said, we do know that he was born as Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó on October 20, 1882 in Lugoj, Hungary (now part of Romania). We also know that his professional stage debut came at some point in either 1901 or 1902. By 1903, Lugosi had begun to find steady work with traveling theater companies, through which he took part in operas, operettas, and stage plays. In 1913, Lugosi caught a major break when the most prestigious performing arts venue in his native country—the Budapest-based National Theater of Hungary—cast him in no less than 34 shows. Most of the characters that he played there were small Shakespearean roles such as Rosencrantz in Hamlet and Sir Walter Herbert in Richard III.

2. HE FOUGHT IN WORLD WAR I.

The so-called war to end all wars put Lugosi’s dramatic aspirations on hold. Although being a member of the National Theater exempted him from military service, he voluntarily enlisted in the Austro-Hungarian Army in 1914. Over the next year and a half, he fought against Russian forces as a lieutenant with the 43rd Royal Hungarian Infantry. While serving in the Carpathian mountains, Lugosi was wounded on three separate occasions. Upon healing from his injuries, he left the armed forces in 1916 and gratefully resumed his work with the National Theater.

3. WHEN HE MADE HIS BROADWAY DEBUT, LUGOSI BARELY KNEW ANY ENGLISH.

In December 1920, Lugosi boarded a cargo boat and emigrated to the United States. Two years later, audiences on the Great White Way got their first look at this charismatic stage veteran. Lugosi was cast as Fernando—a suave, Latin lover—in the 1922 Broadway stage play The Red Poppy. At the time, his grasp of the English language was practically nonexistent. Undaunted, Lugosi went over all of his lines with a tutor. Although he couldn’t comprehend their meaning, the actor managed to memorize and phonetically reproduce every single syllable that he was supposed to deliver on stage.

4. UNIVERSAL DIDN’T WANT TO CAST HIM AS COUNT DRACULA.

The year 1927 saw Bela Lugosi sink his teeth into the role of a lifetime. A play based on the novel Dracula by Bram Stoker had opened in London in 1924. Sensing its potential, Horace Liveright, an American producer, decided to create an U.S. version of the show. Over the summer of 1927, Lugosi was cast as the blood-sucking Count Dracula. For him, the part represented a real challenge. In Lugosi’s own words, “It was a complete change from the usual romantic characters I was playing, but it was a success.” It certainly was. Enhanced by his presence, the American Dracula remained on Broadway for a full year, then spent two years touring the country.

Impressed by its box office prowess, Universal decided to adapt the show into a major motion picture in 1930. Horror fans might be surprised to learn that when the studio began the process of casting this movie’s vampiric villain, Lugosi was not their first choice. At the time, Lugosi was still a relative unknown, which made director Tod Browning more than a little hesitant to offer him the job. A number of established actors were all considered before the man who’d played Dracula on Broadway was tapped to immortalize his biting performance on film.

5. MOST OF HIS DRACULA-RELATED FAN MAIL CAME FROM WOMEN.

The recent Twilight phenomenon is not without historical precedent. Lugosi estimated that, while he was playing the Count on Broadway, more than 97 percent of the fan letters he received were penned by female admirers. A 1932 Universal press book quotes him as saying, “When I was on the stage in Dracula, my audiences were composed mostly of women.” Moreover, Lugosi contended that most of the men who’d attended his show had merely been dragged there by female companions.   

6. HE TURNED DOWN THE ROLE OF FRANKENSTEIN’S MONSTER.

Released in 1931, Dracula quickly became one of the year's biggest hits for Universal (some film historians even argue that the movie single-handedly rescued the ailing studio from bankruptcy). Furthermore, its astronomical success transformed Lugosi into a household name for the first time in his career. Regrettably for him, though, he’d soon miss the chance to star in another smash. Pleased by Dracula’s box office showing, Universal green-lit a new cinematic adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Lugosi seemed like the natural choice to play the monster, but because the poor brute had few lines and would be caked in layers of thick makeup, the actor rejected the job offer. As far as Lugosi was concerned, the character was better suited for some “half-wit extra” than a serious actor. Once the superstar tossed Frankenstein aside, the part was given to a little-known actor named Boris Karloff.

Moviegoers eventually did get to see Lugosi play the bolt-necked corpse in the 1943 cult classic Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man. According to some sources, he strongly detested the guttural scream that the script forced him to emit at regular intervals. “That yell is the worst thing about the part. You feel like a big jerk every time you do it!” Lugosi allegedly complained.

7. LUGOSI’S RELATIONSHIP WITH BORIS KARLOFF WAS MORE CORDIAL THAN IT’S USUALLY MADE OUT TO BE.

It’s often reported that the two horror icons were embittered rivals. In reality, however, Karloff and Lugosi seemed to have harbored some mutual respect—and perhaps even affection for one another. The dynamic duo co-starred in five films together, the first of which was 1934’s The Black Cat; Karloff claimed that, on set, Lugosi was “Suspicious of tricks, fearful of what he regarded as scene stealing. Later on, when he realized I didn’t go in for such nonsense, we became friends.” During one of their later collaborations, Lugosi told the press “we laughed over my sad mistake and his good fortune as Frankenstein is concerned.”

That being said, Lugosi probably didn’t appreciate the fact that in every single film which featured both actors, Karloff got top billing. Also, he once privately remarked, “If it hadn’t been for Boris Karloff, I could have had a corner on the horror market.”

8. HE LOVED SOCCER.

In 1935, Lugosi was named Honorary President of the Los Angeles Soccer League. An avid fan, he was regularly seen at Loyola Stadium, where he’d occasionally kick off the first ball during games held there. Also, on top of donating funds to certain Hungarian teams, Lugosi helped finance the Los Angeles Magyar soccer club. When the team won a state championship in 1935, one newspaper wrote that the players were “headed back to Dracula’s castle with the state cup.” [PDF]

9. HE WAS A HARDCORE STAMP COLLECTOR.

Lugosi's fourth wife, Lillian Arch, claimed that Lugosi maintained a collection of more than 150,000 stamps. Once, on a 1944 trip to Boston, he told the press that he intended to visit all 18 of the city's resident philately dealers. “Stamp collecting,” Lugosi declared, “is a hobby which may cost you as much as 10 percent of your investment. You can always sell your stamps with not more than a 10 percent loss. Sometimes, you can even make money.” Fittingly enough, the image of Lugosi’s iconic Dracula appeared on a commemorative stamp issued by the post office in 1997.

10. LUGOSI ALMOST DIDN’T APPEAR IN ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN—BECAUSE THE STUDIO THOUGHT HE WAS DEAD.

The role of Count Dracula in this 1948 blockbuster was nearly given to Ian Keith—who was considered for the same role in the 1931 Dracula movie. Being a good sport, Lugosi helped promote the horror-comedy by making a special guest appearance on The Abbott and Costello Show. While playing himself in one memorable sketch, the famed actor claimed to eat rattlesnake burgers for dinner and “shrouded wheat” for breakfast.

11. A CHIROPRACTOR FILLED IN FOR HIM IN PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE.

Toward the end of his life, Lugosi worked on three ultra-low-budget science fiction pictures with Ed Wood, a man who’s been posthumously embraced as the worst director of all time. In the 1953 transvestite picture Glen or Glenda?, Lugosi plays a cryptic narrator who offers such random and unsolicited bits of advice as “Beware of the big, green dragon who sits on your doorstep.” Then came 1955’s Bride of the Monster, in which Lugosi played a mad scientist who ends up doing battle with a (suspiciously limp) giant octopus.

Before long, Wood had cooked up around half a dozen concepts for new films, all starring Lugosi. At some point in the spring of 1956, the director shot some quick footage of the actor wandering around a suburban neighborhood, clad in a baggy cloak. This proved to be the last time that the star would ever appear on film. Lugosi died of a heart attack on August 16, 1956;  he was 73 years old.

Three years after Lugosi's passing, this footage was spliced into a cult classic that Wood came to regard as his “pride and joy.” Plan 9 From Outer Space tells the twisted tale of extraterrestrial environmentalists who turn newly-deceased human beings into murderous zombies. Since Lugosi could obviously no longer play his character, Wood hired a stand-in for some additional scenes. Unfortunately, the man who was given this job—California chiropractor Tom Mason—was several inches taller than Lugosi. In an attempt to hide the height difference, Wood instructed Mason to constantly hunch over. Also, Mason always kept his face hidden behind a cloak.

12. HE WAS BURIED IN HIS DRACULA CAPE.

Although Lugosi resented the years of typecasting that followed his breakout performance in Dracula, he asked to be laid to rest wearing the Count’s signature garment. Lugosi was buried under a simple tombstone at California's Holy Cross Cemetery.

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Hey, Vern: It's the Ernest P. Worrell Story
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Mill Creek Entertainment

In her review of the 1991 children’s comedy Ernest Scared Stupid, The Washington Post film critic Rita Kempley described the titular character, the dim-witted but well-meaning Ernest P. Worrell, as “the global village idiot.” As portrayed by Kentucky native Jim Varney, Ernest was in the middle of a 10-film franchise that would see him mistakenly incarcerated (Ernest Goes to Jail), enlisting in the military (Ernest in the Army), substituting for an injured Santa (Ernest Saves Christmas), and returning to formal education in order to receive his high school diploma (Ernest Goes to School).

Unlike slapstick contemporaries Yahoo Serious and Pauly Shore, Varney took a far more unusual route to film stardom. With advertising executive John Cherry III, Varney originated the Ernest character in a series of regional television commercials. By one estimate, Ernest appeared in over 6000 spots, hawking everything from ice cream to used cars. They grew so popular that the pitchman had a 20,000-member fan club before his first movie, 1987’s Ernest Goes to Camp, was even released.

Varney and Ernest became synonymous, so much so that the actor would dread going on dates for fear Ernest fans would approach him; he sometimes wore disguises to discourage recognition. Though he could recite Shakespeare on a whim, Varney was rarely afforded the opportunity to expand his resume beyond the denim-jacketed character. It was for this reason that Varney, though grateful for Ernest’s popularity, would sometimes describe his notoriety as a “mixed blessing,” one that would come to a poignant end foreshadowed by one of his earliest commercials.

Born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1949, Varney spent his youth being reprimanded by teachers who thought his interest in theater shouldn’t replace attention paid to math or science. Varney disagreed, leaving high school just two weeks shy of graduation (he returned in the fall for his diploma) to head for New York with $65 in cash and a plan to perform.

The off-Broadway plays Varney appeared in were not lucrative, and he began to bounce back and forth between Kentucky and California, driving a truck when times were lean and appearing in TV shows like Petticoat Junction when his luck improved. During one of his sabbaticals from Hollywood, he met Cherry, who cast him as an aggressive military instructor named Sergeant Glory in an ad for a car dealer in Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1981, Varney was asked back to film a new spot for Cherry, this one for a dilapidated amusement park in Bowling Green, Kentucky, that Cherry considered so unimpressive he didn’t want to show it on camera. Instead, he created the character of Ernest P. Worrell, a fast-talking, often imbecilic local who is constantly harassing his neighbor Vern. (“Know what I mean, Vern?” became Ernest’s catchphrase.)

The spot was a hit, and soon Varney and Cherry were being asked to film spots for Purity Dairies, pizza parlors, convenience stores, and other local businesses. In the spots, Ernest would usually look into the camera—the audience shared Vern’s point of view—and endorse whatever business had enlisted his services, usually stopping only when Vern devised a way to get him out of sight.

Although the Purity commercials initially drew complaints—the wide-angle lens created a looming Ernest that scared some children—his fame grew, and Varney became a rarity in the ad business: a mascot without a permanent corporate home. He and Cherry would film up to 26 spots in a day, all targeted for a specific region of the country. In some areas, people would call television stations asking when the next Ernest spot was due to air. A Fairfax, Virginia Toyota dealership saw a 50 percent spike in sales after Varney began appearing in ads.

Logging thousands of spots in hundreds of markets, Varney once said that if they had all been national, he and Cherry would have been wealthy beyond belief. But local spots had local budgets, and the occasions where Ernest was recruited for a major campaign were sometimes prohibited by exclusivity contracts: He and Cherry had to turn down Chevrolet due to agreements with local, competing car dealers.

Still, Varney made enough to buy a 10-acre home in Kentucky, expressing satisfaction with the reception of the Ernest character and happily agreeing to a four-picture deal with Disney’s Touchstone Pictures for a series of Ernest features. Released on a near-constant basis between 1987 and 1998, the films were modest hits (Ernest Goes to Camp made $28 million) before Cherry—who directed several of them—and Varney decided to strike out on their own, settling into a direct-to-video distribution model.

“It's like Oz, and the Wizard ain't home," Varney told the Sun Sentinel in 1985, anticipating his desire for autonomy. “Hollywood is a place where everything begins but nothing originates. It's this big bunch of egos slamming into each other.”

Varney was sometimes reticent to admit he had ambitions beyond Ernest, believing his love of Shakespeare and desire to perform Hamlet would be perceived as the cliched story of a clown longing to be serious. He appeared in 1994’s The Beverly Hillbillies and as the voice of Slinky Dog in 1995’s Toy Story. But Ernest would continue to be his trademark.

The movies continued through 1998, at which point Varney noticed a nagging cough. It turned out to be lung cancer. As Ernest, Varney had filmed an anti-smoking public service announcement in the 1980s. In his private life, he was a chain smoker. He succumbed to cancer in 2000 at the age of 50, halting a series of planned Ernest projects that included Ernest Goes to Space and Ernest and the Voodoo Curse.

Varney may never have gotten an opportunity to perform in a wider variety of roles, but he did receive some acknowledgment for the one he had mastered. In 1989, Varney took home an Emmy for Outstanding Performer in a children’s series, a CBS Saturday morning show titled Hey, Vern: It’s Ernest!

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in 1991, “because it's as hard to escape from it as it is to get into it.''

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