|Date of death:||January, 1994|
|Place of death:||San Bernadino, California|
|First:||Zombie High (1987)|
Firefighters dread a call from one of their own. When the report of a structure fire in progress came into the Pine Cove fire station on December 1, 1993, Ray Martinez wasn't sure who lived at 52875 Cedar Drive. He knew he would find out soon enough-the blazing house was so close by he could almost have stretched a long hose to it without moving either of the town's fire trucks. Within minutes he was outside the stone-and-shingle cabin, surrounded by the familiar stench of charcoal and melting plastic. Flames leaped form the first floor as sooty clouds engulfed the second story, dulling the glow form Christmas lights strung above the front porch. Martinez recognized a green Toyota 4-Runner parked outside the burning house. The car belonged to Becky Vollsetdt, on of the Pine Cove's volunteer firefighters.
"He was here, he was in the house!" a teenage boy was screaming. "I saw him lighting the fire!"
"Where's Becky?" a woman yelled. "Anybody see Becky?"
Martinez had no time to talk to the terrified neighbors, who in their panic had made one thing clear: People might be trapped inside. He called for backup and tried to recall the gossip he'd heard about the perky volunteer. She had moved from LA up to pine Cove with her three kids. She taught school in Anza, had gone through a though divorce. The ex-husband worked in Hollywood, in the movies, a producer or something.
The flames were quickly put out, and the firefighters began searching the house. In the dark they stumbled over toys-a Batman doll, a stuffed monkey, a Frisbee. By the time the police arrived, the firemen had informed them they were dealing with an arson and a homicide. Upstairs, under a partially burned sleeping bag, Becky's body had been found, curled in the fetal position. One hand shielded her face. Blood streamed from her mouth, nose and ears, and crusted in her yellow hair. The inspection had also yielded a five-gallon gasoline can in the master bedroom and a small, bloodied ax outside the house, near two beer bottles containing gas-soaked rags.
By interviewing neighbors and studying the physical evidence, it wasn't difficult for Detective Jeff Mullins, the investigating officer, to reconstruct the day's events. Becky's estranged husband, Aziz Ghazal, had driven up from to the mountain from Los Angeles that morning. It was Wednesday, and Aziz would have known that many of the houses clustered in the wood cul-de-sac were vacant during the week. He broke into the empty cabin, then spent the afternoon methodically filling beer bottles with gasoline, stuffing them with gas-saturated rags, and placing them around the house.
The couple's thirteen-year-old daughter, Khadijah, had been elected to the cheerleading squad that day and after school had rushed to a friend's house to share the good news. Just before 5 o'clock, she went home. Becky arrived a short time later with Khadijah's brothers, six-year-old Chad and eleven-year-old Nazir. When they entered the house, the smell of gasoline was strong. Becky called to Khadijah, but her daughter didn't answer, so she took the boys next door before walking the few yards back to her house to look for the source of the odor.
When an hour passed and Becky's didn't return, the boys and their neighbors, thirteen-year-old twins Bridgette and Michael Sahlin, became concerned. The older children went to check on her, and through the front window of Becky's cabin they saw Aziz splash gasoline onto the floor, then light a Molotov cocktail and hurl it up the stairwell. In an instant the second floor exploded, knocking out windows and throwing the teenagers off the porch. Aziz ran from the house, and Michael confronted him: "Why are you doing this? Why are you terrorizing your own family?"
Aziz looked at Michael, pointed a finger at him, and stared, saying nothing. Then he turned and fled.
Aziz Ghazal was no stranger to the police of Riverside County. He had been arrested in May 1993, and on several occasions had been charged with a number of offenses: child endangerment, spousal abuse, and repeated violations of a restraining order.
So the next day at dawn, Detective Mullins and three other deputy sheriffs set out for West Los Angles. There was no sign of Aziz outside the beige stucco bungalow where he and his family had lived before the divorce. Inside, the police found a November 30 receipt for the purchase of a five-gallon gasoline can. They also found even more disturbing proof of premeditation: the typewritten will and testament of Aziz Ghazal, dated September 4, tacked on a bulletin board. Aziz, an immigrant from Israel, the son of a Jewish mother and an Arab father, had left all his property to his father. There was no mention of his children. Copies of his journals and screenplays had been packed in several cartons, which were labeled and ready for mailing. Mullins looked trough them and one script in particular caught his eye.
It was called The Brave. Based on the novel by Gregory Macdonald, it chronicles the last days of Rafael, an impoverished, illiterate man who agrees to sacrifice himself in a snuff film so that his family can begin a better life with the $30, 000 his screen torture will earn. Mullins couldn't imagine why anyone would want to make this movie, let alone see it. But the powerful story, informed with the creepy inevitability of a horrible yet strangely heroic death, had gained the attention of Touchstone Pictures and the production companies of Oliver Stone and Jodie Foster.
Aziz had optioned The Brave from Mcdonald, the mystery writer whose Fletch adventures were the source for two films starring Chevy Chase. For nearly a year, Aziz had been circulating the script in Hollywood. According to a journal Mcdonald provided to the police, the day after Becky's murder he had received a call from a business affairs executive at Touchstone. She had been asked by the head of studio security to inform Mcdonald that Aziz had fatally bludgeoned his wife, set fire to her house, and escaped, possibly with a child. Aziz had sounded so distraught on the telephone that previous week that Mcdonald invited him to his farm in Tennessee for the Thanksgiving holiday. Police believed that Mcdonald's place was among several destinations Aziz might try to reach.
The more Mullins talked to Aziz's friends and business associates, the more he became convinced that this murderer was a con man-people were vital to him. Confidante after confidante would tell the police, "He shared this with me, but I don't think he told anyone else."
"Nobody knew where he was," says Mullins, "but they were all positive that he was headed toward them." Aziz's large network of friends and acquaintances stretched from the campus of the USC School of Cinema-Television, where he worked for eleven years as manager of the production equipment office, to several Hollywood production companies and studios, where he pitched projects. The grapevine worked faster than the media: An article about the December 1 murders wouldn't appear in The Hollywood Reporter until December 3, but by the time Mullins showed up in their offices, most of the people who'd had dealings with Aziz know at least an approximate version of what had happened. As word spread, anxiety traveled with it: The short-fused guy who'd been hustling the snuff-film script was actually homicidal.
Back in Pine Cove, a hamlet nestled 6, 200 feet up in the San Bernardino Mountains, the residents were also frightened. And with good reason: Eight hours after Becky's body was discovered, arson investigators combing the house with flashlights noticed blood dripping onto the floor from a sodden area of the living room ceiling. Upstairs, they hacked through the plasterboard wall of the master bedroom to expose a crawl space used for storing Christmas decorations. Dijah, as her friends called her, was hidden inside the wall, wearing white Nikes, a gray T-shirt, and jean shorts printed with pastel flowers. Like her mother, she had been beaten to death. But before or after? Only one person knew the sequence of the killings.
The Defining Aziz Ghazal scene would be the temper tantrum: EXT.-USC CINEMA SCHOOL LOADING DOCK-DAY
A reel of extension cord is deposited on the dock by a pale, sleep-deprived student. A small, dark-haired, bearded man with long arms and a short torso appears. He screams in accented English.
Aziz: You think that's how to cable that up? You come back here and do it right. I'm gonna charge you for this! You gonna be sorry!
From 1982 to 1993, Aziz was the czar of the stockroom and controlled access to the prized HMI lights and Zeiss lenses that could make a neophyte's film look as good as possible. His outbursts were impressive and effective-without the obedience they ensure, chaos could easily have reigned and equipment would have been damaged, lost, or permanently borrowed. And although his rampages were frequently monstrous, a tender side could be glimpsed when he brought his children to work.
"He was the way I thought a professor would be when I got to film school-you know, like John Houseman in The Paper Chase," a USC graduate says. "You sort of had to pass through the Aziz wall of fire. Gaining his respect was part of being taken seriously, part of being in the loop at USC." Aziz had to be tough in the face of the incipient cineasts, many of whom behaved as if they had a divine right to be supplied with the best equipment.
Those who got along best with Aziz learned to speak the patois of negotiation. "Everything was a deal to him," a recent alumnus says. "It was like, 'If I let you take this light overnight, what will you do for me?' " Today's film students were tomorrow's professional contacts.
Aziz's ambition was to produce and direct, and the same furious energy that fueled his efficient stockroom operation made him a capable producer of low-budget film even while he maintained his job. He was the driving force behind a cheap horror film made on the USC campus by students and a theatrical director during the 1986 Christmas break. Aziz Ghazal is one of three credited producers on Zombie High, which was financed by Cinema Group Pictures. "It played for a week at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood," says Tim Doyle, who wrote the original script. "I still have a piece of paper saying that Aziz owes me $10, 000, but that's okay. I was a kid in film school and I got to see my name up on the screen."
Many USC students were grateful when Aziz brought a guerilla filmmaking spirit to the school. For several semesters he taught a class, Independent Feature Production, as an adjunct professor. In addition to the student films he made while getting his master's at USC, he had produced The Natural History of Parking Lots, a feature that was screened at Sundance in 1990. You do whatever you have to do to complete a movie, he told his students.
Paul McCudden knew that Aziz was a guy who got the job done. When McCudden was a student at USC, he had worked in the stockroom and considered his old boss a friend. At the end of 1992, McCudden was working as an assistant at Michael J. Fox's Snowback Productions when a colleague showed him a book review of The Brave. To him the novel was an uplifting loves story, poignant in its depiction of Rafael's dwindling days with his unsuspecting family. McCudden knew he wanted to write the script and recognized that the story's simplicity would make it a perfect low-budget project. It wasn't a stretch to ask Aziz to get the rights to the book and produce the film.
For around $25, 000, Aziz obtained a one-year option on the novel. McCudden finished the screenplay in January 1993, and he and Aziz sent it to everyone they knew-independent producers, agents who'd lectured at Aziz's seminar, USC alumni in development positions all over town. The script was disturbing enough the make coverage on The Brave positive: In the first twenty pages the snuff-film producer describes for Rafael in sickening detail how his torture will transpire. On the merits of the screenplay, McCudden was signed by Barry Mendel at United Talent Agency. But the story that McCudden had found was gradually becoming Aziz's movie.
Someone close to the project says the producer had apparently convinced himself, and told others, that he had written The Brave, and although he had kept his intention secret from McCudden until the script was completed, he began to include himself as director in The Brave package. "Aziz screwed Paul," this person says. "There's no question of that".
McCudden wasn't the only victim of Aziz's mendacity. Oliver Stone's Ixtlan was one of the first production companies to express interest insisted on directing, but he continued to drop Stone's name for months. In reality, The Brave didn't need anyone's high profile; the success of Reservoir Dogs and El Mariachi had made violent, shot-on-shoestring movies all the rage. By March, Mendel was getting 25 requests a day for the script.
Mendel began representing the project for Aziz-looking, he thought, for a director and production financing. Jodie Foster's Egg Pictures promised Aziz a $200, 000 producer's fee, but when he suggested himself as director, the company made it clear that it wasn't willing to put the picture in the hands of a novice. Mendel nursed negotiations with Egg for nearly three months. Agreement was reached in August 1993, guaranteeing that Aziz would be consulted on the choice of director, and a deal memo was signed.
Neither Mendel, McCudden, nor anyone at Egg knew that Aziz had his lawyer and a pair of producers who offered financing (Charles Evans, Jr. and Carroll Kemp) working on another home for The Brave, and that they were close to coming to terms at Touchstone. When a story in The Hollywood Reporter on September 1, 1993, announced Egg's acquisition of the script, all the participants in the other deal were astonished. Touchstone executives were especially irate-they hadn't denied Aziz's appeal to direct. A call was made to the people at Egg. They too were flabbergasted to hear that Aziz had pursued another company after he'd signed a legally binding deal memo with them.
Body of work Edit
|Zombie High||1987||Producer; Co-writer|