McNaughton Rules… JOHN McNAUGHTON & STEVE JONES Interviewed

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Deep in the bowels of The Scala, I taped several great interviews at the star-spangled Splatter Fest in February 1990, including a cracker with Brian Yuzna, the transcription of which seems to have gone AWOL from The House Of Freudstein archives. Sometime in the distant future when I’ve located that or had the time to undertake a fresh transcription, I’ll post it on this site. In the meantime here’s another memorable Splatter Fest encounter, with director John McNaughton and producer Steve Jones, whose Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer was starting to generate much interest and controversy in the UK.

The ending of Henry is a real kick in the teeth…

SJ) We didn’t want to end it by having Henry removed by the police or put in jail or something, we didn’t want to let anyone off the hook that way. Henry goes off into the distance and he’s the one person who’s still out there and we thought that would add more to the horror of the business.

JM) Well again, the real Henry claimed to have murdered… was it 36o people? I forget… over a 7-9 year period in which the police pretty much never had any idea who this character was. I do find it a bit strange that people like Freddy are becoming mass heroes, but it’s usually the bad guys who are the interesting characters to me, y’know?

People find H:POASK so hard to take because watching it, they find themselves identifying with Henry…

JM) That’s the idea…

Yeah, but to me it was as though you kept dangling the idea that this guy could somehow be redeemed and then you snatched it away at the ending… I felt that ultimately he remained inaccessible.

SJ) I don’t think there’s any redemption…

JM) I think that all of us are capable… we’re all connected to The Beast in some way or other and some of us are born or formed along our lines of development in such an unfortunate way… again, I think the traditional way to deal with somebody like Henry is to say: “Look how bad this person is! He shouldn’t have done it, he’s bad and he should have just said no and not done this…” I think that’s kinda silly. I think there are those who are born so malformed… maybe they get pressure put on their skulls when they are born or something, nobody knows… but there will be another Charles Manson, there will be another Henry Lee Lucas… somewhere, somehow. I think as long as there are human beings there are going to be disturbed ones who are somehow missing that mechanism which stops them, when their anger rises, from reaching out and slaughtering someone.

I do think Henry had a code. Some people have a problem with drugs and can’t control themselves and it might even cause someone to die, it might cause someone in their family to die, it might cause them to lose control of an automobile… it might not, but that’s something that is compulsive and which they cannot control and in a person whose compulsive, uncontrollable behaviour happens to be incapability of stopping themselves from killing… well, it’s his problem but I also think we try and point out that there’s a difference between him and Otis, who just lets go, totally, to The Beast. With Henry it was like… “I can’t help myself from doing this… but this, this and this are wrong!”

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Henry Lee Lucas & Ottis Toole

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So what was Henry’s problem?

JM) We did a fair amount of research… oh, it was his mother, a line here and a line there were taken from actual quotes and woven into the dialogue but, y’know, I read Henry giving his life history to ten different reporters, printed in ten different newspapers and the basis of the story was always the same but the details were always different. Henry was diagnosed as a pathological liar, so I don’t think he knows himself exactly what he did. He has now recanted and says that he didn’t murder anyone – including his mother , for whom he served a nine year jail sentence.

SJ) They have hard evidence on a few of his murders, which is why he’s in jail, He claimed many more, in a lot of ways to get better treatment in jail – he just kept admitting to murders and police would come in from all over the United States and say: “Did you do this one?” and he said yeah, it just helped them out, cleaned their slates of unsolved murders and so when he got up towards 400 murders, he just recanted and said: “No, I didn’t do it!”

JM) To me, in many ways the more interesting story is what happened to Henry after he was captured, which we talked about doing as a picture, subtitled Superstar Of Crime, because you take a man who’s from such a deprived background and who’s so low on the social scale in every way and now he’s arrested for murder and every time he starts opening his mouth and confessing to another one he becomes more popular with the press and he also becomes the police’s buddy because each police jurisdiction has a book of unsolved murders, So they just call Henry up and they say we’ll blame it on him and cross it off the books and Henry went on TV, they were writing about him…

SJ) He’s got a phone in his cell…

JM) … right, they’re flying him around the country, various police jurisdictions and then he starts making demands, y’know… I must have a fresh carton of pall mall cigarettes, I must have a hot thermos of coffee… I won’t eat hamburgers any more, I must have steak and I want a VCR in my cell at all times… so it’s very strange that it was in many ways the best thing that ever happened to him.

It’s like the situation we have over here with The Moors Murderers, who sexually tortured and killed kids back in the ’60s and ever since they’ve been in jail milking it for all they can, hinting that they might reveal the burial sites of some of the victims and so on and the media has turned them into… well, as you say, “Superstars”…

SJ) It keeps people off Death Row in the USA also, y’know, as long as they can come up with a new crime to solve every now and then, most of them get away with it.

Given Henry’s tie-in with real life events, is there any litigation going on at the moment?

JM) There was never anything. We did some legal research, very little… enough to establish that what Henry can come after us for is basically defamation of character, but I mean… he’s convicted!

SJ) our lawyers, in typical lawyer fashion, had preconceived ideas about what could happen so we had to adjust to those things. That’s why there’s a disclaimer at the front of the thing.

JM) Right, in terms of our deal with Vestron, they were concerned about possible litigation.

SJ) You’re talking about the victims’ families…

How did  you feel about that? Were you concerned about the feeling of the bereaved?

JM) Well, because none of the killings in the film are based on the actual killings at all, no.

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You’ve talked about setting out to re-define Horror in the most extreme way possible with Henry and the quasi-documentary way that you did set about that task reminds me of The Last House On The Left, which was not a slaughter fest but instead focussed sharply on a few ghastly events and their aftermath… was that an important film for you?

JM) I didn’t see it until it came out on video and by that time I felt it was a little bit dated but again it was the grittiness, the reality of it… the forest preserve scene, if you remember that, was very, very effective. It think the score aged very poorly, it really hurt the film for me, took my attention away and made me think how dated this music sounded on this picture…

… and there were ill-advised comic sequences that just shouldn’t have been in there…

JM) Yeah. Again, to me, you have to be very careful. I mean, there’s Horror which is fantasy, where you can be comic and it’s great, but when you get into reality… we didn’t have the money to make Henry horrible through special FX so we made it horrifying by making it real. Pull the fantasy out and then you can’t run from it and when you do that you have to be very careful about humour… it can’t be gag-type humour, where they turn around and say a gag to the person next to them… to me that really takes you out of the story.

SJ) John’s original idea was to do a documentary-style depiction of a week in the life of a serial killer. By staying with the idea of being documentary-style, I think that’s what makes it as mean as it is. . There’s no frills – we didn’t have any money for frills – but we used it to our advantage for once.

So how would you compare and contrast that with the very flashy style they used in a film with a similar subject, Michael Mann’s Manhunter?

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JM) I can comment on that because I read the book, Red Dragon, about four times… thought it was the best mystery, thriller, psychological thriller… I don’t know how to genrify it, exactly. I thought that book was wonderful and I formulated the script in my mind and y’know, it’s hard enough to make a film and I don’t want to talk bad about other film makers but I didn’t care for the film at all. I really think it was a TV treatment of an incredibly rich book, so I didn’t care for it. I don’t like Silence Of The Lambs as a book as much as I like Red Dragon, because it focussed more on the good person and I find the good people usually lead boring lives. I’m looking forward to seeing what Demme does with the movie because I really rate him as a director.

I got the impression in your movie that Henry didn’t even get off on what he was doing, he just had to do it.

JM) That probably came from Michael, the way he chose to play it. It was very, very low key.

How did you set about getting all those glowing testimonials from people like Richard Pryor?

SJ) That was kinda second hand… we didn’t have it in writing.

JM) We had it in writing from John Waters, who is a big fan of the picture and sent me a few postcards praising it and I sent him a few back. He seems like a great guy.

He’s been itching to play a serial killer for some time… has he sounded you guys out about that?

JM) He’s got a great face and a great look and I’ve always loved his pictures, they’re hilarious… more power to John Waters for what he’s done.

You got an amazing quote from Stuart Gordon…

JM) Steve worked  with Stuart Gordon in The Organic Theatre, he did video stuff for two of their plays. The Organic Theatre is like, I dunno if you’re familiar with The Living Theatre, they were like the wild men and women of the theatre in their era and Chicago theatre, which is incredibly wild and wonderful and produces an incredible amount of excellent actors and actresses… The Organic Theatre was kind of like these wild dogs, y’know, they did the crazy stuff and Tom Towles came out of their, as did Richard Fire, Joey Montaigne and a whole bunch of other people who’ve become famous and successful. They were quite a crew.

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Gordon said something along the lines of: “Makes what I’ve achieved on far bigger budgets look pitiful!”

SJ) Yeah, that’s what he told me. Right after we got done with Henry, he saw one of the original cassettes and he said that for five times the budget they weren’t getting as good movies out there and that we should be working immediately…. and three years later, we finally got another job!

JM) Henry’s original budget was $100,ooo and it went over budget to the tune of of about $111,000, but that was before it was blown up. With the blow up, legal fees, etc… I dunno what it is but the finished product was $111,ooo. The Borrower was 2 million… it was easier for us to make a movie for $120,000 in Chicago than it was to make one for two million in Hollywood!

SJ) We had really dedicated people for Henry…

JM) … nobody looking over your shoulder and saying: (whines) “Well I dunno, shoot it from another angle, get a covering shot for that, do this, do that, etc…” When you work in an entertainment corporation, it’s like working in the advertising business, you’ve got a lot of people looking over your shoulder… do this, do that, everything costs more, everything’s more complicated.

Does all this make you reluctant to work the Hollywood system?

JM) N-o-o-o! I’ve already shot my mouth off and put my foot in it in print and I’m hoping not to do it again, because Hollywood is where the deals are made…

SJ) … that’s where the money is.

JM) $5 million to make a picture… try and raise it from your friends and family and see  how far you get!

SJ) On Henry, the fact that there was no money at all meant that the people who worked on it just wanted to do a good job. The Borrower was done more in the studio way of doing things and the people who worked on it, that was their job and that was what they did week-by-week. It was not…

… a labour of love…

SJ) … by any means. That meant some people were good at their job, like in any job and some people were lousy at their job but would get another job and continue to work and earn their living and feed themselves and their families. On Henry there wasn’t any money.

JM) Nobody fed their families on Henry, believe me!

SJ) Unless they had real small families…

JM) … like a family of gerbils or something.

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I was wondering if Michael Rooker, now that he’s got “respectable” credits under this belt, has shown any signs of trying to distance himself from Henry…

JM) No, Michael is in a kind of position where Hollywood is typing him a little bit in bad guy roles, I don’t know when Hollywood is  going to get hip to the fact that he can be a very effective leading man… today Henry is his only leading role.

SJ) He also turned up at the Telluride Film Festival in Colorado and basically made friends with the entire town and the entire film community. Y’know, they see him in this horrible picture and then they meet Michael Rooker, who’s this gentle bear of a guy… he did a great job.

What happened with The Borrower?

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SJ) The Borrower was a logistical nightmare. We started in Chicago, ended up doing it in L.A., three different regimes of executives came and went before the picture got done, the company that we were doing the picture for went bankrupt… it’s kind of a miracle that the picture ever got completed and now it is, we just have to let it go until they finally decide to release it.

JM) In some ways that turmoil and strife worked to our advantage because all  the executive teams kept leaving, due to the collapsing nature of Atlantic entertainment. Consequently we had no interference during post production and editing, so it’s pretty much untouched. I mean, its director’s cut is the cut that’s going to go out, unless whoever buys it decides to recut it, which is certainly a possibility given the history of the film but so far each time they would try and have us alter the film, they would leave the company within a week or so… it worked out for us in that respect, at any rate.

But there were so many problems you came up against while you were making it, up to and including forest fires… earthquakes…

JM) It was not a blessed project!

SJ) We had a pretty big earthquake…

JM) There were a lot of problems. It was the first Hollywood production for both of us and we really got … it was like waking up every morning and getting punched in the face until you went to bed again at night, basically. Making that picture took about two years, start to finish. We were always skin-of-out-teeth, one micron away from disaster but we managed to complete the picture. It’s got a totally different tone to Henry and the more I’ve seen it, the more I’d have to call it a Horror Comedy although it’s very tongue in cheek, not gag humour.

SJ) It’s much more of a fantasy, also.

JM) You’re right, much more of a traditional sci-fi fantasy…

SJ) … more palatable to audiences generally while it’s a fantasy. All these heads get ripped off… it’s nothing like Henry, not as real…

JM) … but again, Tommy Towles opens the picture and Tommy’s original training in Chicago was with the Second City Company. If you’ve ever seen Saturday Night Live, that’s basically what Second City have been doing on stage for years… skit comedy. Tommy came out of this improvisational comedy school and he’s quite a comic, quite a funny guy and he’s great in The Borrower, it’s pretty funny, it’s more of a rock’n’roll movie for teenagers rather than something that makes you think or affects you very deeply.

In the projects that you’re working on now, which of those strands are you going to develop?

JM) We’ve got two or three things… we’re hopefully about to conclude negotiations to buy a William Burroughs book called The Last Words Of Dutch Schultz, Dutch Schultz being an American gangster of the 1930s and I think that when we get back on Monday we’re going to take a ride out to Lawrence, Kansas and talk to Mr Burroughs. Unfortunately, Mr Burroughs doesn’t own the book. If he did, I think he would have made a deal months ago.

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That property has been around a long time, hasn’t it? I seem to recall that at one point Keith Richards was being touted to play Dutch…

JM) I talked to a producer in L.A. and he told me that Keith Richards had optioned it or has tried to option it or had talked about optioning it at one point… another time, Elliot Gould was going to do it. Yes, it has been round for some time. Richard Fire (who co-wrote Henry) and myself have just finished a script, last Friday, called Step Right Up, which is about a young man whose life falls apart then he joins a travelling carnival.

This is from your own personal experience, isn’t it?

JM) Yes, this is an autobiographical piece and I just bought a book, optioned a book, called Carney Kill which isn’t horror, it’s more of a noir, murder-mystery thing  that takes place in a carnival in 1961 and there’s a screenplay on that which is out.

Can you tell us something about your own experience with carneys?

JM) They run games and have freaks and rides – crazy rides – so it’s great fun, y’know, there are a lot of people in the carnival who are pretty disreputable, but that core of people I hung out with in the carnival that I traveled with were some of the most trustworthy and solid people in terms of people you could count on in a fix or a scrape. The rest of the world might not see them perhaps as the best of citizens but there were some really top-notch folks in the  carnival I was with. I was running a game called the glass pitch. I was also taking pictures while I was there so I have a series of photographs of that which we are going to use in our next rewrite of the script.

Have you seen Jodorowsky’s Santa Sangre, a film largely set in what I would imagine is a similar milieu?

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JM) I didn’t buy into it the way I did with El Topo… but someone always comes along in the horror genre with a new picture, a Chainsaw Massacre or  A Day Of The Dead and blows it wide open again. I think it’s like film in general or literature or the music business, there are landmark works that blow it open, then the imitators come along and it kind of peters out for a while. I don’t know what to think of Horror now because the MPAA has so castrated the genre. Again, when I read Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3 – which at one point there was the possibility of me directing – The Borrower is like a fairy tale compared to that and it came to me round about the time we were on our fourth ‘X’ rating for The Borrower. Fortunately The Borrower was not damaged badly by the MPAA… a little bit, but not badly. They were sort of lenient with us, in a way.

Is this because you personally sought out Richard Heffner, the chairman of the MPAA?

JM) We had to, because we were in a bind but he was pretty fair with us, in my opinion.  But really the Texas 3 script, it’s like, New Line have been in the business for a while now and I couldn’t see why they wanted to shoot it because it was quite obvious that none of that stuff was going to make it onto the screen and this was indeed the case. I haven’t seen it but I’ve talked to the writers and, from what I understood, they’ve cut everything.

SJ) I think that technically, they can do anything now, as far as showing you anything, they can show you heads coming off realistically… bodies being ripped apart realistically, so maybe it’s time for the imagination to take over again and the stories to get a little better. Horror doesn’t just come from seeing that kind of stuff. I think everyone’s going to get immune to all this blood and gore. I think what’s really horrifying is what’s in your mind and what people do to each other as opposed to see what you see just splashed on the screen.

JM) Yeah, but I guess there is something about just delving into blood and guts and revelling in it that is just… part of being a human being!

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McNaughton & Rooker yock it up on the Henry set…

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