Interviews

Hampstead Smiles On A Murderer… My Breakfast With JOE D’AMATO

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The incredible Joe D’Amato with his business partner, Donatella Donati.

This account of a “most unusual dining adventure” (to paraphrase Faces Of Death) was originally filed in the aftermath of Eurofest ’95, held in Hampstead on 7th October that year. Thanks are due to the organisers. Both of them.

Aristide Massaccesi, Michael Wotruba, Tom Salina, John Bird, Michael Holloway, Alexandre Borsky, Hugo Clevers, Pierre Bernard, Peter Newton, Federico Slonisco, Richard Franks, David Hills, O. J Clarke, Jim Black, Dirk Frey, Philippe Fromont, John Newman, Robert Hall, Steve Benson, Kent Bruno, Kevin Mancuso, Peter Mancuso, John Larson, Alex Carver, Dario Donati, James Burke, Joan Russell, Jeiro Alvarez, Robert Yip, Hsu Hsien, Boy Tan Bien, Young Sean-Bean Lui, Chang Lee Sun, and most (in)famously, Joe D’Amato (Jeez, I’ve nearly used up my entire word allocation already!): many names, all of which (and more) can be linked to one face. It’s a grizzly, tanned visage, trimmed with silver stubble. The nose is Roman, the eyes are lively, and the mouth is flashing a smile that reminds me of that shark in “Mac The Knife” as its owner emerges from the lift into the lobby of his Knightsbridge hotel to clasp my hand in one of his own disproportionately large mitts and wish me “Buongiorno”. This is the Sunday morning after the busy Saturday before (D’Amato has spent the previous day lapping up the adulation of Britain’s gore-hounds and sexual deviates at the stonkingly successful Eurofest ‘95 in Hampstead; yesterday evening he was wined and dined at a bash held in his (and fellow star-guest Catriona MacColl’s) honour; and his companion, Donatella Donati, has spent the weekend shopping ‘til she dropped). Now, over our breakfast, we’re going to discuss the films that have made many people lose theirs. Eyebrows have already been raised at the spectacle of Joe on his hands and knees, unfolding and signing several of my quads from his Black Emanuelle series, but for the repectable diners of Knightsbridge far, far worse is to come…

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Indeed, my opening gambit concerning the impact of AIDS on the hard-core porn scene having caused much choking on kippers and rustling of Daily Telegraphs among our genteel fellow fast-breakers, I opt to follow up by enquiring about a somewhat less contentious aspect of the D’Amato oeuvre, his stint as camera operator for Jean-Luc Godard. “I worked on Godard’s Le Mepris,  an adaptation of a book by Alberto Moravia”, he recalls: “Godard is  really a genius, no doubt about it”. He’s certainly regarded as a “worthy”, Art-house director, whereas D’Amato’s own approach has always been ruthlessly commercial. “Yeah, that’s true…”, he concedes: “… myself, I have absolutely no interest in being an artist”.

This candid self-assessment has been borne out by D’Amato’s recent return to hard-core porn, cranking out an unlikely series depicting the sex lives of such historical, legendary and fictitious figures as Aladdin, Tarzan, Hamlet, Marco Polo and Al Capone (you get the impression that he’s waiting for Mother Theresa to pop her saintly clogs and pass into history, so he can begin detailing her covert participation in anal sex orgies). “We don’t have much of a film industry in Italy these days, unfortunately”, he explains: “So it’s purely a business decision to go back to hard-core. The market for these films is very big in The United States  and all over Europe… apart from Britain, of course! (laughs) Everywhere else in Europe, people are terribly interested in these movies”. I assure him that we Britons are equally fascinated by the hitherto-undisclosed raunchy antics of these esteemed personages, but the powers that be over here take an unenlightened view of such things.

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D’Amato’s prolific, commercially driven career has frequently led to him being compared with two directors in particular – Jesus Franco and Roger Corman. How does he feel about these comparisons? “It’s OK, I don’t mind these comparisons at all”, he reveals: “I like Jess Franco, he’s just like me in many ways. I’ve never met him, but I know his work” (indeed, he supervised the assembly of a Franco anthology culled from De Sade’s Juliette, Midnight Party and Shining Sex for the Italian market). “For sure, Corman is better than the two of us put together”, he admits. Corman, of course, is famed for his knack of knocking up a film out of nothing in a couple of days, and D’Amato once made the fascinating remark that he doesn’t set much store by a lot of pre-production, feeling that this “flying by the seat of your pants” approach sharpens his spontaneity and creativity. “Yeah, yeah, this is true. If you have everything organised, then you are obliged to shoot that way, but when I come to a place and nothing is ready, I use my fantasy to come up with something and for me this is better, gives more feeling”. Isn’t it risky, though? “Usually we have everything that we need, but I’ve had so much experience I can usually resolve any problem that arises”.

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D’Amato actually made a film for Corman, La Rivolta Delle Gladiatrici aka The Arena, in 1973. “The film is credited to Steve Carver, but was just a supervisor, sent over by Roger Corman. I directed the picture, then it was sent over to The States and edited by Joe Dante”.  His involvement in muscle-man pictures goes much further back than that, though, featuring as he does in certain filmographies as a contributor to Mario Bava’s 1961 Gothic Peplum Hercules In The Centre Of The Earth. Understandably, given the sheer volume of films he’s worked on over the years, D’Amato isn’t sure: “We made so many pictures in that period, about ‘Ercole’, you know, mythological films… Peplums, yeah, and for sure I remember that I worked with Bava, but I can’t remember if it was on that movie. Eugenio, the father of Mario Bava, had a small company that made the credit sequences for the movies and I worked with him, maybe an 85 year-old man then, but I learned so much from him, then later I worked my way though the various jobs, loading the film, and so on until I became a director myself. At one time I was assistant cameraman to the younger Bava, Mario. Mario was… perhaps not a genius, but like his father, a man who knew absolutely everything there was to know about making a movie… he was a craftsman… and in the same way, I’ve worked my way up through all the steps in the industry, and now I can do any job it takes to make a film”.

Again like Mario Bava, D’Amato progressed from cinematography to directing, and another parallel is that their directorial careers both had obscure beginnings, because each in their early days directed several pictures that were credited to other people. In D’Amato’s case, as is usual, there was a sound commercial reason for this: “At the same time as I started directing, I was still working as a Director of Photography, and I wanted to keep that work up, because it was my bread and butter. But a director like, let’s say Alberto De Martino… ” (for whom D’Amato shot The Tempter, The Killer Is On The Phone, The New Mafia Boss, etc) “… would not be happy to have another director working on his film, you know?” This, of course, was the origin of our Joe’s pseudonym addiction…

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“When I first started directing I made three movies, and the credit was going to ‘Dick Spitfire’ or whoever, because I wanted to keep cinematography as my main job, then Death Smiles On A Murderer came out under my real name, Aristide Massaccesi, because I had decided at that point that I wanted to pursue this career in directing. Then there was a period in Italy where East European directors were in vogue, so I called myself ‘Michael Wotruba’ for a while (laughs), purely as a marketing move. Later it seemed that all the successful American directors – Scorsese, Coppola, De Palma – so we tried to find a name that would make people think of an Italian-American director, and we saw the name ‘D’Amato’ on a sexy calendar, so that was it. It was the same thing recently when I made Chinese Kama Sutra, because in Italy movies like The Red Lantern were making a fortune. So I made this movie in the Philippines in 1993, I took a Chinese name, (Chang Lee Sun) and nobody knew that it was me, and when newspapers reviewed the film they said it was OK, ‘too hard’, perhaps, but they warned their readers that the movie wasn’t really Chinese… they said it was Japanese!” D’Amato is particularly tickled by this anecdote, his laughter segueing into an attack of smoker’s cough (the dapperly dressed director is seldom seen without a fag seemingly surgically attached to his lower lip). Presumably just to see how far he could take this gag, Coughin’ Joe credited the same year’s Sex And Chinese Food to Young Sean-Bean Lui (!)

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The first film which our hero owned up to, the aforementioned Death Smiles On A Murderer (1973), was confusingly plotted and more visually stylised than would often later be the case (“I was trying to evoke a certain atmosphere in that film”). It starred the late, great Klaus Kinski, an actor with a reputation for being difficult, but D’Amato disagrees: “For sure he was crazy and yes, not very normal, but he was very professional and would do exactly what you wanted him to do, so to work with him was in fact very nice. We had a good feeling when we worked, it was fantastic for me, though I know some people had a problem with him, because he was crazy…”

Still on the subject of “not very normal” folk, D’Amato shot second unit footage on Lucio Fulci’s White Fang (1973) and some eighteen years later would produce the great goremeister’s Door To Silence. “We also worked together many times over the years, when I was a cameraman…”, D’Amato remembers: “Fulci is nice, really very nice. Maybe he acts the part of ‘the character’ a little, but it is just a part he plays, he’s not really mad, you know… he’s a regular man, and very professional to work with”. D’Amato concedes that Fulci wasn’t too pleased over the alterations he had made to the film and its soundtrack. “Maybe it’s my fault. You saw the movie… when I read the story I liked it very, very much but when I watched the results it seemed a little static to me, so I went back to Louisiana where it was made and tried to shoot a small amount of stuff, just some bullshit that would make the film a little more pacey, you know. I changed the first soundtrack… we spent a fortune on the soundtrack because we used the best jazz band in Italy, but jazz is not to everybody’s taste, so I changed the first part of the music to something a bit more modern”. Fulci was also peeved that the film went out credited to H. Simon Kittay, and one might have thought that his name already had sufficient cult following to sell a film without the benefit of a pseudonym, but D’Amato insists: “Just before this, Fulci had made a couple of shit movies which didn’t do too well in foreign territories, so we thought it was better to use the other name from a sales point of view, you know?”

“Umberto Lenzi is also very professional, another nice guy” opines D’Amato, who produced Lenzi’s Ghosthouse and Hitcher In The Dark. Donatella, who has just joined us at the table, pulls a face that indicates a marked difference of opinion on this score. “Well, Fulci’s mind is much better than Lenzi’s… ” her companion continues: “… though as directors, they’re pretty much as good as each other”.

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One long-time collaboration which D’Amato remains unreservedly enthusiastic about is the one he’s enjoyed with Laura Gemser, the striking Eurasian actress who occupies pole position in his pantheon of sex / horror cross-over stars. Indeed, he’s keen to churn out another batch of Gemser bonk-fests, “… but the man who is now her lover doesn’t like her doing sex scenes. As a favour to me she has appeared  in several small roles in my recent films, because we are good friends, but she doesn’t really want to be an actress anymore”.

I ask him about the history of their association, and he tells me: “Laura made the first Black Emanuelle film with Adalberto Albertini, and the producers of that movie wanted to put her under contract to make ten movies. They were looking for a young director to do the movies, so I went to Holland, where she lived, to make this contract with her. We had this good feeling because she was very friendly, so we began the collaboration. The first movie I made with her was Andrea’s Complex (aka Voto Di Castita – BF), with Jacques Dufilho and a lot of Italian actors, a story about a guy who likes to watch people having sex, which is something that often happens in my movies (laughs). Then I made Laura’s second ‘Black Emanuelle’ movie – we made five of those, altogether”.

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I put it to D’Amato that his Emanuelle And The Last Cannibals (1977) in many ways anticipates Ruggero Deodato’s more celebrated / vilified Cannibal Holocaust from a few years later, and he shrugs a modest assent. D’Amato, like Deodato, has been dogged through the years by stupid rumours about real cannibalism, “snuff movies” and the like, but whereas Deodato has only suffered this shit on account of Cannibal Holocaust, several D’Amato pictures have been scrutinised under the moral microscopes of morons. Blue Holocaust (aka Beyond The Darkness), 1979’s heart-warming, heart-munching saga of a necrophile taxidermist, attracted accusations that a human cadaver had been mutilated in one of its scenes; the South American “snuff” loops unearthed by Gemser’s investigative reporter during Emanuelle In America looked a little too realistic for comfort to some people; and the unforgettable scene from Anthropophagous Beast, in which Luigi Montefiori aka George Eastman scoffs down a skinned rabbit, masquerading unconvincingly as a newly-aborted foetus, has even been screened on News At Ten as “a clip from a snuff movie”!

“Mad, absolutely mad!” declares an understandably peeved D’Amato “Because it was just a rabbit, you know – from the butcher’s shop! And Blue Holocaust was only a movie – we had cow intestines next to the girl, and we shot from an angle that made it look as though they were being pulled out of her body… so no dead body! It’s so funny that people in other countries believe we Italians are really killing people and putting their corpses in our films!” (laughs)

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“As for Emanuelle In America, we shot the ‘snuff’ scenes in 35mm, later we scratched the negative and printed it in 8mm, then blew it up again to make it look realistic… just bullshit, it’s only a movie, you know? I don’t why people would think this stuff is real”. Did he know that David Cronenberg was allegedly inspired to make Videodrome after seeing Emanuelle In America? “Yeah, I heard that…” laughs D’Amato: “Maybe I should ask Cronenberg for some money!”(Laughs) Sorry Joe, I don’t think Videodrome actually made any money…

In the piece I wrote for Dark Side #42 about the many mysteries associated with Giannetto De Rossi, one of the enigmas I pondered (and offered some cynical explanations for) was the fact that this special FX ace appears on the credits of Emanuelle In America only as boom operator, but D’Amato offers a perfectly prosaic explanation for this rum turn of events: “De Rossi certainly did the effects… there must have been a mistake, a mis-translation in the credits of the English-language version”.

Returning to Montefiori’s raw rabbit repast… how did he feel about eating that and all those animal guts at the end of Anthropophagous? Didn’t he ever say “Oh no, Aristide, I can’t do it!”? “Montefiori just takes a bite…”, laughs his mentor: “… he doesn’t eat it really. When he was supposed to be eating the intestines of that cow, he just ran his mouth over it, that’s all!” (laughs)

Most people just see Montefiori as a big, brooding heavy (“Yeah, just put him in a mask and he’s the monster”) but he acts, writes, directs… so he must be a pretty bright guy, no? “No!” guffaws D’Amato, finding this suggestion particularly hysterical. “No, he’s not very intelligent, believe me!” “He’s a good writer” chips in the horrified Donatella, diplomatically.

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“Montefiori has made many movies with me”, D’Amato continues. “He’s a good guy to work with. I produced his directing debut Regenerator, a nice film. He was supposed to direct 2020 Texas Gladiators, but after five days he lost confidence and I stepped in to finish the movie. He wrote a very good script for another film I made about people after the atom war, Endgame and it’s a nice story, with the duel between these two people”.

I put it to D’Amato that Endgame  is one of the best movies in a pretty dire genre, the Italian post-apocalypse cycle, and point out that it and another entry in that cycle, Lucio Fulci’s Rome 2030: Fighter Centurions, were shamelessly ripped off by Paul-Michael Glaser’s big-budget Arnie vehicle, The Running Man. “Sure, I know what you mean”, he replies: “It could be, because I made a movie called Sharks – Deep Blood in The States with Raf Donati, a friend of mine who worked in Martin Scorsese’s archives. He told me that Scorsese has a big library of Italian movies and that sometimes when Scorsese shoots a movie, he calls Raf and asks for something by Vittorio Cottofavi, Riccardo Freda, or Mario Bava, because he wants to screen these movies before he makes his, he wants to achieve the same shot or lighting effect or something as in one of these movies”.

I’m not sure if Martin Scorsese has ever cribbed any plot-points from a Montefiori script, but further evidence for Donatella’s high estimate of the big lug’s writing prowess is provided by the bang-up job he did on the script of Stagefright, providing a solid platform from which Michele Soavi could launch his impressive feature directing debut.

Was D’Amato aware, from Soavi’s days as a bit-part player and assistant in his own films, that this protégé would go on to make it as a respected genre director in his own right? “Sure, and it was me who actually persuaded him that I should produce Stagefright for him rather than the other way… Michele had worked as my assistant on many movies. Before that he was an actor, he was obsessed with being the new James Dean, had his haircut like James Dean and everything (laughs). I gave him his first opportunity to shot some scenes, on 2020 Texas Gladiators, and now for me, he is the best Italian director of these movies, better even than Argento and Fulci, who I would put in third place. He likes to do horror movies more than any other type, but mainly he just wants to make movies. This is very important because some people in Italy just want to be a director, I mean they want to sit there giving orders and looking important, but Michele truly loves movies, he works very hard, he will do anything… he’s just fantastic! Dellamorte Dellamore is a very good movie, and yes, I would love to work with Michele again. It might happen in the future”.

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Although, with Stagefright, D’Amato produced what is arguably the last great giallo, he has never directed a thriller of this type himself. “This is just because I never found a script that was really good” he explains, before elaborating: “ Maybe it’s a little complicated to do such a movie, with a low budget it’s much easier to do some gore effects. To make suspense you need time, you need to think, you need to do many shots and it’s much easier to make impact in a horror movie with blood. In Rome right now we have people very interested to do a classic horror move, not like Nightmare On Elm Street with all these expensive effects, but with the monsters, and I called Montefiori about making another movie, like Anthropophagous or something like this, where the scares would come totally from the dark, the creaking of the door, the use of sound to scare the audience, because I really believe the time is right for this kind of movie”.

A glimmer of optimism there that the current poor state of genre film-making in Italy might be about to pick up? “I don’t believe there is any future, unfortunately”, he demures:  “because now there is just Berlusconi and Cecchi Gori who own all the theatres, and it’s cheaper for them to buy a movie from the United States, any bullshit, really American bad movie, than to produce an Italian one, you can put them in the theatres and then show them on TV for $50,000 – $100,000.” I mention that English fans of Italian exploitation films find it hard to understand how there were so many being made in the ‘80s, and now – nothing! “Yeah, I know!” sighs D’Amato, and the interview winds down on an appropriately down-beat note.

As he signs some bits and pieces for me, we chat about this and that, including the fact that William Berger’s children featured in the cast of Absurd. D’Amato tells me that he worked as DP on many of the late star’s films, and regards him as “a fantastic actor and a very nice person”. “Didn’t Berger live in a hippy commune at one point?”, I ask. “I can’t believe that… he seemed like a really normal person!” frowns D’Amato, momentarily looking for all the world like a scandalised bourgeois… then he’s off, no doubt meditating his latest historical hard-core thrash. Hey Joe, didn’t Prince Albert have a pierced cock? Gotta be some possibilities there… and I did hear that Florence Nightingale was a bit of a goer!

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One of the calmer moments from Joe’s notorious Blue Holocaust…

 

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World Gone West… THE REzORT director STEVE BARKER interviewed

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Nothing, to paraphrase Victor Hugo, is as powerful as a film whose time has come. By the time I caught Steve Barker’s The ReZort at Nottingham’s Mayhem festival in October 2016, it had spent some months marooned in distribution purgatory, a period during which reality seemed to be catching up with its dystopian vision of mindless leisure for the few, victims as villains and an unreconstructed economic / political system spiralling ever deeper into disaster. Having already directed Outpost (2008) and Outpost: Black Sun (2012), Barker was apparently reluctant to be drawn back into another zombie epic but it’s our great good fortune that he was persuaded. Thanks to everyone at Mayhem, particularly Chris Cooke for setting up the following interview which, like our recent conversation with Billy O’Brien, was originally intended for a certain long running genre mag …

Steve, I know you’re busy writing now, are you able to tell us something about what you’re working on?

I’m actually working on three projects, about which I can’t say too much just yet, but everyone seems to be very upbeat about all three of then so fingers crossed.

Hopefully The ReZort will put some wind in your sails in that respect because although the vagaries of distribution have held it up, it seems to be very much a movie with its finger on the pulse of 2016 and presumably 2017…

The distribution thing seems to have resolved itself. The fact that it was a co-production between three countries led to some complicated biz… I finished it at the end of July 2015, everybody seemed happy and the vibe about it was very good, then it sat on the shelf for quite a while, while I got very nervous. Your instant thought is: “Maybe I just got this wrong” but the disappearance of the film had nothing to do with the quality of it and everything to do with the vagaries of how such international co-productions are distributed. Various investors want at least to get their money back and there are different ideas about how best to do that.  Multiple countries and companies talking to each other just stalled the process for a while, meanwhile the reviews were really good and  festival audiences seemed to be enjoying it and being very vocal about it. A lot of credit goes to Charlotte Walls, the producer, who really worked hard on getting it out there. It did help a lot that the Edinburgh Film Festival saw it… even though I’m from the North West of England, I’ve lived in Scotland for a decade now so I kind of count as a local film maker and they were incredibly keen to show it, after which a lot of festivals started showing interest and Charlotte kept working away in the background… I don’t know if it’s been fully confirmed and announced yet, but The ReZort has been picked up by Netflix and comes out on January 17th in The US, Canada and The UK, which is fantastic. I know it’s doing its VOD window now but I never really quite understand VOD, to be honest…

… me neither…

… it’s just beyond me. I know that every major movie comes out on VOD in a certain window before it gets released anywhere else but I’m just a bit too Old School to get it! It’s out and about in certain countries already. I’ll be very interested to see how it goes because I was nervous, when I finished, that there’s this political aspect to it…

Very much so…

When we were making the film, that was much more speculative. This was the first project I’d done that I hadn’t instigated, they already had a script for about a year and the thing they initially sent to me was a pitch rather than a script… I had it in my head that I wasn’t going to do zombies again…

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… but they keep dragging you back in!

I ended up calling two really close friends, one a producer and another who’s actually the production designer on the film, to say: “Try and talk me out of it, ‘coz I think I’m going to do it!” The clear attraction was that the concept was disenfranchisement… in the very first conversation I had, in November of 2013, we were talking about Syria but it hadn’t yet escalated to the level it subsequently did. It was essentially a civil war and an awful humanitarian crisis, the thing that drove me nuts was how quickly that became a political football. The people suffering it were completely forgotten. We were talking about that and the post-economic meltdown situation. I hadn’t seen a zombie picture that dealt with that in the great Romero tradition, where the themes are inherent within the story and not bolted on the side. During a shoot you’re doing 19 hour days, 7 days a week and the outside world just disappears. Then I spent 8 months in post production in Belgium with very little access to the outside world and within a month of coming back to the UK, the real imagery of what was going on in the Mediterranean was all over the news and I was nervous that people would think we were exploiting that situation, though the film had already been finished. We’d come up with the final image, of zombies coming out of the sea, at the beginning of 2014! Timing is important in every walk of life and I wonder if the film sitting on the shelf for that extra couple of months has given people enough distance from it to see it as social comment and satire rather than exploitation.

The world’s awash with zombie movies at the moment and a lot of them are getting spoofy to the point of silliness, so it’s refreshing that you’re taking the genre back to satire and those dark metaphors…

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That was the appeal, very much… the world is indeed awash with zombie pictures and they all seem, to me, to come from a certain point of view, i.e. Lord Of The Flies They’re all about what the world will look like when you take the rules away and what I found fascinating was the idea of how much more terrifying we are as a species when we win! This was the first time I was coming to a picture as a hired gun and I didn’t know how I was going to approach that. They let me run with it but I think the politics were more subtle early on because I had the responsibility to make a genre picture that was still a ride. The only stipulation they gave me was that they didn’t really want a horror picture, they wanted an action-adventure film that had scary bits in it. This was the Michael Crichton thing… the first thing they told me was: “It’s Westworld with zombies” but obviously Jurassic Park, because it’s so much better remembered, became the comparison point. There was a feeling that nostalgia for that would give us a boost, because nobody had made a movie like that for so long and of course while we were making it, Jurassic World came out! That was the first movie I sat down and watched when I returned to the UK and I was just sitting in the cinema thinking: “Oh No!” to myself…

It must be so daunting to find yourself up against the big boys…

I was glad that I hadn’t seen any of their imagery because some of it is so close… my first impression was that we has a boat but they had a proper fuck off Jurassic World boat… the whole scale thing, that we had 3.5 million and they had 175 million! There were certain scenes that, you realise, just come with the thought process. These days, the way you do your research is strangely homogenised by the internet. If you put certain words into google, you’re going to get a certain bunch of images coming back at you. There were obviously certain reference images that both teams had looked at and we’d gone in separate directions with, or sometimes the same direction. Bits of costume design were amazingly similar and there’s an image in the control room in both films that’s essentially the same shot. They were made a year-and-a-half apart, with no knowledge of each other whatever but if you’re being pointed in similar directions those things come together and it fascinates me. I was worried that people would think we were just jumping on the coat tails of Jurassic World but then again, the fact that Piranha is a knock off of Jaws doesn’t make me love Piranha any less…

Certainly not!

Anyway, it’s fascinating to see how somebody with all that money does something that we were struggling so hard to do with a much smaller amount of money.

Despite the obvious discrepancy in budgets, you really did get a lot of bang for your buck. What was the secret in making such a low-budget production look like a much bigger one?

It’s a combination of things. I was coming out of ambitious films on low budgets. The Outpost films had both been done for about a million quid so. On The ReZort I obviously had more money than that but it was a massive jump in scale… the key is to know what you want, to know what’s readily achievable and to be aware of which shots are going to give you the impact and which will eat time and money without giving you the same pay-off. If I learned that anywhere, it was from a whole childhood of watching John Carpenter… look at the scale you get from Escape From New York, with such a small

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budget. The trick is hire well, hire really good people who know what they’re doing. My brief was to make it feel big so as much as telling the story and making the characters work, there was always that in the back of my mind. The big challenge was to make people believe in this multi-million pound facility, which would spend as much on their logo as we could spend on the actual place itself. We had about three weeks to lock down on a logo and get a look and a feel so you make sure that your teams work well together… costume and production design work hand-in-hand. Thankfully I have a “family” crew, I use the same people as often as I can so Ali Mitchell the costume designer and Jamie Lapsley the production designer know each other well and kind of cross-pollinated each other. A lot of credit goes to my brilliant cinematographer Roman Osin. This is the first picture I had done with Roman and I was looking for someone who had never done anything like this, then I went out of my way to make sure that he didn’t watch anything like it for research. The idea was that, for the first half of the film, until the wheels come off, it should look like the people who ran The ReZort would want it to look, as if it was a trailer for that holiday, so it’s very smooth, very slick, we were on dolly and tracks and steadicam until it started getting more and more fucked up… we worked on that from the beginning, essentially it was like shooting a commercial… Mallorca was a magnificent location with fabulous crews that worked really hard and it hadn’t been overshot. Hardly any movies had been shot there but a lot of commercials had, so the crew were used to that look, that vibe and naturally brought that gloss to it. It’s about being on top of a lot of very different things, choosing various shots through the acts of the film, knowing that those were going to be my scale shots and working my way down from there. Does that make sense?

Absolutely. There were some really memorable shots in the film and a couple that particularly stuck in my mind were very high altitude shots… of the boat leaving for the island and then, at the climax, of streams of zombies converging on the last survivor, who’s legging it to get off the island before The Brimstone Protocol is initiated… how were those shots achieved?

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That’s a really interesting one actually. While you have to be strategic and get everything planned out, you also have to be able to manoeuvre your way in and out of stuff as it arises. Those were scale shots, originally we were going to shoot them with a drone but this was just before the appropriate cameras got light enough for that to happen so in fact both those shots are entirely digital, but I actually came to them almost backwards. Originally it was going to cut from the close up of our leading lady to this very high and wide shot, let the audience know that they were travelling to the middle of nowhere and once they get to the island, they’re stuck there. I’m really pleased with how those shots turned out and a lot of the credit, particularly for the boat one, go to our vfx supervisor Dominique Fiore, who was quite magnificent. I grew up reading Cinefex and loving the old school models, foreground miniatures and all that, the illusions you could create that way. There are things you can do now, in the digital world, that are kind of like that in the sense that it’s smoke and mirrors. So the high shot … I don’t want to destroy the illusion here (laughs) … Dominique put it together himself because we were really under the gun trying to finish the movie at that point and it’s effectively a still but with some smoke actually integrated into it above and below to make it seem like undulating water and a layer of highlight plus a cardboard cut-out of a boat and some animated water, yet when you put it together with a bit of artistry… he just took it home from the office and played it to me next morning and I went: ”Wow! I completely buy it!”

It totally fooled me…

I totally buy it and I’ve seen all the elements that go into making it! My favourite thing about movies is those moments where it fools me. Similarly, when she jumps over the cliff at the climax, that’s almost entirely digital apart from a shot of her running which has been digitally looped. I was very lucky that the vfx facility was in Belgium… because we had less money than most movies it was gonna be a lot easier to make decisions quickly if I was actually there, so we put the cutting room right next to me. It was actually in the office next door so I could literally walk between the two every day, which must have driven the vfx guys nuts but it meant that we didn’t go down any false paths, we were always moving in the right direction.

It’s obvious from what you’re saying that although you were this “hired gun”, you didn’t just slide in, film what was in the shooting script and say: “There you go, then…”

I wouldn’t even know how to do that, Bob. It was a fascinating thing to go into, I was wary to start off with and I probably created problems just in terms of how I approach things. I became aware that I was driving the writer Paul Gerstenberger – who’s a lovely lad – nuts! I did that total director / wanker thing of walking in and saying: “I love it… let’s change everything!” What I would do, if I was instigating a project, is push in all directions on the idea so here we were, shooting in four months and I was putting him through it early on. I couldn’t understand a director who would just cynically walk in, take the money and run.

There are plenty of them about.

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I think I’ve just been lucky but all the people I know and work with, once we’re committed to something we’re all in and we’re trying to find the thing that will make it at least stand out from the crowd, as much as that is possible. My philosophy is almost like the old studio system before it went freelance, where directors were under contract, they’d be assigned a picture and would make it the best film they could…

… you still had auteurist directors working in that system…

To be honest I’ve never been the biggest fan of the auteur theory. I don’t get an amazing amount to of joy out of… I can’t watch my pictures when they’re finished because I can’t stand to see how much I did wrong. I don’t get much out of touring pictures around, either, I just say thank you very much and keep my head down. I do love crafting and making the film,  the joy of that for me is working with the people who are making it with me. I’ve never taken one of those “a film by…” credits because I think they’re nonsense, in the end there might be a shot that is incredibly stylish but there are a million different people whose ideas are accumulated in that shot. I understand the propriety credit “a film by Steven Spielberg” or whatever, I get that it’s part of the way things are done in the industry rather than saying “Look, it was all down to me!” There are genuine auteur film makers in the world… David Lynch… I think Kubrick represented a heroic tale of somebody trying to beat the system… David Fincher, these days… but the stuff I really enjoy is when I’ve got something in my head about how the shot should be done but then the DP kind of modulates it slightly or the actor turns round and has a way of playing it that’s completely unexpected yet makes it so much better… then something totally random happens like it starts raining or the sun comes out and all of those things then combine to make it special. I’m not into the idea of fighting all of those things to keep going, I think you should embrace that and hopefully know what you’re trying to do well enough that you can modulate it and accommodate all of these new and exciting things that are happening around you. The thing is that my collaborators are all so much better at it than I am! Every DP I’ve ever worked with understands photography so much better than I do. It’s something I’m interested in but I’m probably only good enough at it to be dangerous rather than helpful. Likewise, when it comes to music…. I’ve never been able to play an instrument, I know what vibe I want but I have almost no vocabulary to talk to composers, they have to speak with me almost like I’m a child because I’m literally talking in terms of emotions. It’s the same with actors, I’ve got no conception of what they have to do to go to the places they go to and I think that’s brilliant, I love them but I still have this certain sense of wonder when they pull it off. I like to trust actors as much as possible, tell what the movie needs and where I think that character is but also asking them what  they want to bring to it.

You got a compelling performance out of Claire Goose, playing somewhat against type…

Oh, Claire’s lovely and deserves so much credit in the sense that she took it really late. There’s always one of those that happens on every movie, one or two roles that, for whatever reason, just never get sorted… whoever you had in mind isn’t quite right or you can’t afford them or whatever. One of the producers thought of Claire, I didn’t know her for that kind of performance and was already well into prep, days from shooting and so had no time to meet her, plus she was working on something else so we literally built it down the phone, had a few core conversations in which I gave her the idea of what I wanted. It really helped that she was able to have a long conversation with Alison Mitchell the costume designer, because Ali and I had discussed at length how we imagined that character. Unfortunately that caused all kind of traumas for Claire, wearing this dress in which she couldn’t sit down because it would have creased instantly. So she was always propped up on set and we didn’t roll until seconds before we turned on her because we wanted her to have this pristine look throughout most of the film. I was amazed at how easily she just slipped into it, with instant confidence but without overdoing it. For this long intro speech she has, where she’s by the swimming pool greeting the guests, she got her lines at about 10am and we were shooting at 6 but she nailed it, instantly. No disrespect to  Paul, who wrote the film, but a writer friend of mine gave me the fabulous line: “Every apocalypse deserves an after party” and she just got that instantly and knew how to play that, how to play against all the zombie stuff. She’s cracking, she really is and incredibly lovely, she’s as lovely in real life as she is nasty on screen.

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We could probably have found a less gratuitous picture of Claire Goose but decided not to…

The film just seems to me to be more relevant to the times we’re living through with every passing day and every time I turn on the news…

I  know!

Dunno if this is pursuing it too far but when you’ve got Claire Goose’s chic, alpha female character being mean to refugees and justifying everything in the name of business, supply and demand… it just makes me think of Theresa May and her thousand pound leather trousers!

Somebody said to me after the screening in Edinburgh, possibly just because of what had been in the news that week, how much Claire reminded them of… I can’t remember her name, now, that hideous fucking woman who thinks refugees are cockroaches…

Katie Hopkins?

Yeah, Katie Hopkins, that truly hideous human being… such a terrible, terrible waste of the oxygen she breathes. People were asking if Claire’s character was based on her…

She should be so lucky as to be played by Claire Goose… but character-wise, yeah, absolutely. You’ve made three zombie movies now… are you at all a buff in this genre and if not, did you research by watching a bunch of them?

(Laughs) This is probably not the thing to own up to in an interview with a horror blog, but although I love genre film making, Horror is probably the genre that I’m least well genned up on. I was never really a horror guy though I’m friendly with people who are, like Paul Hyatt and Jake West… he’s a really full-on horror guy who did that amazing documentary about video nasties. People like that are at one with the genre whereas I go to something like Frightfest and feel like a bit of a fake, they obviously know so much more about this stuff than I do even though I grew up watching these things, pooling pocket money with friends so that we could rent videos and John Carpenter became a massive influence on me… I actually went to see Carpenter play his scores live in Manchester about three weeks ago.

I heard it was a great gig but the venue was awful…

The sound was terrible. I loved it though because it was more like a gig rather than video I’ve seen where they treated it as a classical performance with seating and it didn’t have the atmosphere, but this was real gig with so many people in fancy dress, girls everywhere dressed in the wedding gear from Big Trouble In Little China and a lot of people dressed as the aliens from They Live… amazing! Anyway, from those VHS renting days there are titles that still comfortably in my top 10 or top 20 movies of all time, obviously Alien, Escape From New York but also on that list would be Jaws, The Apartment by Billy Wilder, All The Presidents Men… so I don’t know, I love Horror when it’s great Cinema but also I like it when somebody like Cronenberg pushes the boundaries really hard. Where I’m not so big on it is… I’m not disparaging them because I don’t know them, but I’ve never gone very far into this whole other world of Italian stuff…

Interesting that you should mention that, because… maybe this is down to Paul Gerstenberger as writer or maybe it’s a complete coincidence, but the climactic revelation in your film of what is really going gone, although it’s really effectively handled, is almost identical to the pay off a truly awful Bruno Mattei film called  Zombie Creeping Flesh…

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Zombie Creeping Flesh?!? That’s a hell of a title! If he did pinch, it he never told me about it.

Well, they say that mediocre film makers quote bits from other movies but the great ones just go in there and steal them… it’s done with much more aplomb in your movie anyway, in Mattei’s it gets delivered in this really dead pan: “So, the Western powers decided to solve the problem of world hunger by turning Third World people into zombies who would eat each other” kind of way…

Oh, I can pretty much vouch for him on that then, because the first script I read for The ReZort was actually set entirely within the UK. Then they took the decision to make it international but they were waiting until a director was on board before they agreed on how they were going to do that. Paul’s original version was about the exploitation and eradication of the displaced though just within one nation, but certainly the idea of using the refugee crisis came with me pitching into the job, right at the point that they were making this translation from the UK to a more international setting. A lot of the stuff I built up for that got lost, I actually cut so much of that out because my preference was ultimately for viewers to enjoy the action-adventure ride rather than risk alienating them with too much sub text and arguably we lost a little artfulness and elegance in the process.  There was a lot of stuff about how the world was rebuilt after the Zombie war but what I realised was that, when I started pacing up the opening via montage, you got all that stuff in one line.

However it happened, the film is so on the money as a metaphor for what we’re currently living through… wars, social dislocation on a global scale, victims as villains, the underground resistance and hacking, the glorification of the entrepreneurs who took us down the toilet and are hard at work on doing it again…

The feedback I’m getting is that the film feels very timely to people who are seeing it… actually you could probably release it again in two or three years.

To underscore the cyclical nature of it all?

Yeah. I think there actually is a cycle and it looked like this year was going to be the year of fighting back against globalisation, of a backlash against the way the world is going, but unfortunately it seems to be going in directions that we didn’t account for, which are frankly rather alarming.

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It’s like that old Chinese curse… may you live through “interesting times”! You’ve talked about the pleasure you take in the collaborative aspect of making movies… what about the more solitary business of writing them?

Well, I obviously didn’t write The ReZort but I did as much as any director would do, tweaking it here and there. Even if I had a new element I wanted to introduce, I would turn it over to Paul to do it. I’ve gotta say that writing is my least favourite part of film making in every way, simply because it’s the antithesis of everything I love about the process… working with people in a team to construct something.

It’s a hermetic thing, isn’t it?

I fucking detest it! I learned on The ReZort how much I love NOT writing!

As you mentioned before, you’re not crazy about promoting them either, are you?

The festival circuit’s an odd one because it doesn’t come naturally to me. I love meeting the fans though, particularly at genre festivals, which are just amazing, they’re just like family events. I owe an enormous amount to The Edinburgh Film Festival, who were first to get this one out there but the next one we went to was Frightfest, where I’d been with my previous picture and everyone there knows everybody else, you’re wandering about and folk will come up to you constantly… in fact that led to RamaSkrik in Norway, which was absolutely amazing! One of the guys who runs that saw The ReZort at Frightfest and came up to me with an invite to theirs … it’s in the Norwegian hills in the middle of nowhere, all the film makers go for the entire three or four days, everybody watches everything and there’s a genuine sense of community which you just don’t get with other genres. I think part of that is about being a genre that was, in previous times, maligned. It’s like the geeks have taken over the asylum, so much that’s now massive in our culture has come from these movies and comics. All the stuff that I was considered very geeky for loving when I was a kid is now the absolute norm, a standard Saturday night out. I don’t know if I would even have a career now if it wasn’t for the fact that my first movie, Outpost, was this tiny little film and Sony, thank you very much, bought it worldwide but they were never going give it a big release in The States and kinda just threw it out there … but before they threw it out anywhere else, it was the community that found it. The fans don’t like having something shoved down their throats, they like to be able to find something for themselves and we were lucky that we were little enough for it to be a bit of a surprise and then folks started talking about it and they started talking about it loudly enough so that Sony in the UK noticed and started putting some money behind us so that we got a relatively big release and it did very well, which obviously helped me enormously. As somebody who’s not very good at festivals, I find that  genre festivals are the ones I do OK at because the folk there are so lovely.

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What kind of stuff do the fans talk to you about?

A lot of folk were really interested in and asked a lot of questions about the slow / fast thing. Paul, who’s a real genre fan, came up with that very early on, the idea that this action is set ten years after The Zombie War so the old zombies moved around slowly and the more recent ones were fast. I thought that was cool though I really don’t have any ideological standpoint on it. I think Zack Snyder’s Dawn Of The Dead remake is a belting film.

You got the best of both worlds with that because you had those lumbering masses of slow zombies and also the fast ones to give you those shock moments…

Exactly and I tried to break down the set pieces so you would get the maximum, or as much as I could get anyway, out of each variant… when to use the fast ones, when to use the slow ones and I think some of that was clearer in my original conception of the movie. Any film you do for this kind of budget, you’re not gonna get everything that’s in your head but I got more on this than on any picture I’ve made before.

Because I saw and enjoyed The ReZort at Mayhem in Nottingham, I was wondering how you enjoyed your time there…

Chris Cooke and Steve Sheil are top lads, they really are. It was fab. The only difference from the Norway one was literally that I obviously got to go to Norway for that, which was rather more glamorous…

Well, the River Trent can’t really compete with those fjords…

Mayhem was brilliant, what I love about that was again that it had this real sense of a community for one long weekend… another thing I love about it, that I didn’t know till Chris told me, was that it started as a short film festival and they’ve managed to maintain that at the heart of it and again, this is the kind of stuff that was previously maligned or ignored. I think the good festivals and the good genre festivals have managed to maintain something at the heart of them, the little gem that brought folk together in the first place.

Mayhem is a great festival… did you get a chance to watch anything else while you were there, or were you just in and out?

I was only there for one day. I missed The Greasy Strangler, which I finally caught up with in Norway. That one is…

… interesting…

… it’s absolutely insane, Bob! I actually got to know the producers of that film and they’re lovely, really sweet guys.

I would love to have sat in on the brainstorming sessions for the script on that one…

Yeah (laughs) … I told them, there’s no hiding how fucked up your film is and they said yeah, either people are going to dig it or they’re not. What I did get to see at Mayhem was part of Mario Bava’s Planet Of The Vampires, it was getting quite late and I was tired but I watched the first act of that just to see how it played on the big screen.

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Bava was the king of this thing we talked about earlier, getting more bang for your small budget via amazing key shots and scale shots…

Absolutely. I came to his stuff backwards because I knew Argento from Suspiria and found my way to Bava from there. Stuff like Danger Diabolik… what the fuck? Again it’s got this real grand sense of scale about it and I think Planet Of The Vampires is one that just keeps giving. I mean, everybody talks about Alien but if you take a look at the costume design it’s so close to what they ended up using in Prometheus, amazingly close with the off blue colour and the yellow piping… you know, Ridley Scott has clearly seen this film!

I think The ReZort got a boost at Mayhem by following another film, which shall go unnamed, that was really pretentious and up itself…

It’s amazing, I’d never quite realised the importance of where you fit into the running order at a festival. I do know that one of the few screenings where we didn’t go so well was a festival at which they screened Last Train To Busan and us right next to one another for two nights and on each night, whichever film came on second didn’t go down as well. The movies were too similar… although they had a lot more money than we did.

Reminds me of the Monterey Pop Festival, where Hendrix and The Who were arguing about who was going to close it, because neither of them wanted to have to follow the other…

Yeah. When we screened The ReZort at GrimmFest in Manchester, we went on right after a film called Tonight She Comes by a lovely young American guy, it was his first fest anywhere outside The States and I won’t spoil it for you but it’s got a truly memorable last scene and I thought: “My film is almost polite in comparison to this… fuck!” Yet strangely enough, after everybody had digested that over a drink and come back in they were ready for something a little more “mainstream” as it were. So that was a real learning experience, too…

Programming is a real art in itself…

It is and I don’t think I’d ever considered it, never had an opinion on that before.

Promotion is an art in itself, too… now that it’s finally getting out there and all this stuff has gone on in the meantime, your guys could really push The ReZort as some kind of horror film that’s got this grip on the zeitgeist… I’d like to think it will be seen by as many people as possible and given the credit for what it is.

I have very little say in it but yeah, I kind of like the idea that it’s that kind of film. I’ve only made three films but everything has changed so much since my first one came out in 2008… we had a very traditional low-budget release for that, you’d go out in about 150-200 cinemas for about a week or two weeks and effectively it was a very long, elaborate advert for the DVD and BD releases. Nowadays it just seems like an entirely different world, cinemas have so little interest in those kinds of movies and you can pretty much blanket wall to wall for the entire year a film that’s going to have cost 70-100 million. I kinda dig the idea that if film is meant to break through, the fans are going to find it.

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“Mr Crowley’s Not Himself Tonight”… I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER director BILLY O’BRIEN interviewed

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One of the many pleasures afforded by the 2017 Mayhem Film Festival at Nottingham’s Broadway Cinema was Billy O’Brien’s I Am Not A Serial Killer, a mesmerising Irish-American indie effort that pits a sociopathic slacker against a superannuated serial killer… and once you’ve just about gotten your head around this outlandish premise, out of left field comes one of the least anticipated twists in recent memory. I was keen to have a word with Mr O’Brien but for the next couple of months he was hitting the international festival circuit pretty hard and it wasn’t until the film’s UK theatrical release in early December that I managed to catch up with him for the following…

Billy, I must apologise to you actually for an intolerable breach of urinal etiquette at Mayhem. I’m the guy who was bugging you about how much I enjoyed the film while you were trying to take a leak… dunno if you remember that?

(Laughing) I don’t, actually …

There you go, it must happen to you all the time. I know you’ve been in heavy rotation on the festival circuit and I wonder how it’s been going…

It’s just come to an end, for which I’m grateful because it was pretty full-on but we got an amazing, amazing reception. I was in Korea in July for a big fantastic film festival then from September onwards all the European ones, plus the odd UK one. It’s like, every ten days I’ve been at a festival, you know? At one point I went from the London Film Festival to Sitges and then back to Mayhem, all in a run. Probably by the time I got back to Mayhem I was feeling the effects. I was saying to Chris Cooke at Mayhem, I don’t know how bands do it, I’m buggered after three festivals…

Well, they’re all probably much younger than we are… with the obvious exception of The Rolling Stones. Chris hooked us up and Mayhem is my local festival, so please feel free to big it up a little…

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I’ve known Chris for years, I met him at a dinner for directors because he had just done One For The Road. We kept in touch and he invited me to the festival, it was great to see him again and it’s a great festival, I genuinely enjoyed it. What I liked about it was there’s a real sense of community. Christopher Hyde, my co-writer and I took part in the pub quiz in the bar, and didn’t get one question… that was the hardest quiz I’ve ever done!

That Flinterrogation is tough stuff! (I refrained from mentioning to Billy that I was on the winning team… you don’t want to rub your interviewee’s nose in it! BF)

We were on a table with people from the University and what a great sense of community. What a great venue, too…

The Broadway…

The Broadway, yeah. It’s great and we got to sign the projector which has got Norman Wisdom, Ken Loach… everyone on it.

I’m going to have to check it out, I’ve never seen that…

Yeah, they’ve got a white box around the projector that everybody has signed… Chris and I were kidding them that we were going to get a big sponge and wipe some of the names off to make more room for us…

“Mister Grimsdale!?!”

No it was great, a good craic.

Did you catch anything you liked at Mayhem, or indeed at any of the other festivals?

Not a huge amount and some of the ones that I did catch were the oddities, you know. One was… and you might know this better than I do… the documentary by Paul Schrader’s brother…

… The Killing Of America?

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Yeah, I saw that in Vienna and it was incredible. The ones I kept missing were the ones I wanted to see. The Love Witch… Raw… there was another one as well… and they kept popping up but the schedules just kept clashing. Several of them, but you never get to see everything you want at a festival.

There’s too much other stuff going on in terms of networking, hanging out…

Yeah, I did meet some great directors. In Korea it was really hot outside so everybody hangs out in the bar till 2 o’clock in the morning and you keep meeting these guys at all the various festivals but everyone is on a different schedule. I met the guy who did that Turkish film, Baskin… Can Evrenol… he was just finishing his rounds of the festivals… you meet people at that end of it, others who are just starting up, so it was really good.

How is I Am Not A Serial Killer going down with the viewers? It’s not exactly your formulaic movie. I saw one comment to the effect that it was “a mash-up of Donnie Darko and Phantasm”… which I think is part of the story if certainly not the whole story.

It’s been very interesting. It’s about perceptions before you go in, because the title of the film seems to make people think of Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer, a grim horror film and we’ve been very worried about that. Because it’s based on a book, we didn’t change the name or anything but after the fact, when the film was out there, we thought maybe we should have changed it, for that very reason. We’ll never know, I mean, in five or ten years we might have a better idea about that. What we did know was that we’d lose most of our audience if we tried to sell it as A Horror Film… half of the audience wouldn’t like it because they’d discover early on that it isn’t that sort of film and the other half wouldn’t even go into the cinema. I think the Donnie Darko thing is quite a handy label for that and Bulldog Film, who are releasing us in the UK, referenced that in their campaign… also Under The Skin, another good one. We’re really happy that, having come and gone in America like a blip, it’s getting a really good reaction here. I mean, yesterday we got four stars from The Sun and The Times so now everyone will be thinking this is some kind of right wing film! (Laughs) That’s funny but it seems to be, across the board, three and four stars and it’s coming out today…

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It’s really fortuitous that we’re talking now because I didn’t even realise it was coming out this weekend, if fact I was going to ask you WTF is happening with the distribution…

Yeah, it’s out this weekend. It’s got a bigger Irish release than in the UK, we hit a little bit of a bottleneck because there’s a slightly bigger film coming out on Wednesday, i.e. Rogue One. Every cinema in the country is showing that so this weekend, when Bulldog positioned it, was relatively empty, now there’s also Snowden, Birth Of A Nation and a couple of others there so suddenly we’ve lost lots of screens, unfortunately. We had planned to bring it out on ten but now we hope it’s going be about three or four in The UK and there are going to be a few more, hopefully, opening over Christmas. That has been a been a bit of a setback but in Ireland it’s been released on ten screens and it’s doing fantastic so I’m really pleased about that, coming as I do from Ireland. We’ll see what happens. It’s tough, you know, but we’re a small film…

The auguries are looking good…

Well, a few weeks ago we got all the magazines… Empire gave us four stars, even Radio Times gave us four stars, that made me laugh, you know? It was funny to see that. My first film, Isolation, went straight to DVD in the UK so we never got the reviews. It was interesting, I couldn’t have predicted four stars off The Sun! That was an unusual one and that’s the first time in my life I’ve actually bought The Sun! The three I got, and this is what I mean about the right wing thing, were The Times, The Financial Times and The Sun! Wow…

Maybe you’re just in tune with the zeitgeist of 2016 or something… so what is it that brings an Irishman over here to live, so I’m told, on the moors in Devon?

Yeah, I’ve lived here for about ten years, lived for ten years in London before that… I grew up on a farm in the countryside. My wife and I have friends down here that we’d visit then we came down here for six months just to get out of London, as you do and ended up staying. It’s still actually quite handy for London, you can hop on a train in Exeter and be there in two-and-a-half hours but we stayed and had kids, it’s a great little town for the kids, so yeah… we don’t tend to plan things too much, you know, they just happen.

Are you in Moretonhampstead?

No! No, you must never mention them, they’re the rival town! It’s Chagford, down the road…

“The Jewel of Dartmoor”…

…yeah. There’s been this rivalry since The Civil War when Moretonhampstead went Parliamentarian and Chagford was Royalist. The kids make jokes about Moretonhampstead but really it’s all lovely towns around here on Dartmoor.

I really love Widdecombe, with that little churchyard and the Tors and everything…

The problem living there is that it’s a complete tourist spot…

I’m part of the problem then, because I like to get down there at least every couple of years.

There’s a great writers’ and artists’ community down here. It’s really good, you know, got a really good buzz about it.

Excellent… we talked earlier about selling such an oddball film to audiences, but how did you sell it to the money men?

It wasn’t easy. The fact that it was a book probably made it easier. It wasn’t a best seller… in fact it was a best seller in Germany… but it had already been translated into 15 languages although it wasn’t Twilight, so that didn’t automatically mean that we would get funded. The problem was that it’s a 16 year old kid and a 75 year old man so there’s no Michael Fassbender role in it, also that it doesn’t sit in a neat little “horror” box… it’s a bit horror, a bit black comedy. It’s been six years now but we started off loving the book and the script seemed to work for people so we thought it should be fairly straightforward. In fact it was a nightmare, absolute nightmare… people were very, very dubious about it, it was perceived as being “high risk.” Then the seasonal thing kicked in, re financing, you know? I suppose rich people have money to invest and if you’re not ready to go, they’ll put it into another film and with us, we got to the point where they were putting it in but we were losing the snow and so we thought: “We’ll have to wait till next year” and then the money went and we had to start it all over again. Standard stuff. “Never film in snow”, they say and we got asked if we could do without it. Of course you can do anything without it, but you lose so much from the visual side of the film and the atmosphere in that unique town. The Irish Film Board came in very early on and stood by us all the way through, which was fantastic, because this is not an Irish story shot in Ireland. There’s been a broadening of Irish film over the last ten or twenty years or so, there are Irish people all over the world, that is our history… so this year at the Oscars you have Room which is from an Irish book and an Irish / Canadian company made it and shot it in Canada with Brie Larson, an American actress. And they you’ve got Brooklyn which is half-Irish and half-American, so it’s opening up there and I think it’s a very healthy thing. We shot in America but we did kind of the reverse of the big studio films that come and shoot on location. We went on location then came back for 9-10 months to finish the film in Dublin. It was quite an interesting experience to do that and quite fun, actually.

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It looks so much like an American indie movie, it made me wonder if you had lived in The States for any significant period of time or whether you’ve just watched an awful lot of American indie movies…

I think it’s just the material… among the reasons I loved the book is that the characters ring true, the dialogue is brilliant, they are interesting, damaged real characters as opposed to bland teenagers in a Hollywood film…

The certainly are, yeah…

… and then there are the locations, the towns are just like that. We had no money for art direction really so we went to these towns haven’t changed in years … Virginia and Hibbing, the two Minnesota towns we shot in are old mining towns…

… Hibbing’s the birthplace of Bob Dylan, isn’t it?

It is and those towns haven’t really changed since the ’50s, you know? There’s a ‘70s feel as well because the miners like a drink and so they fill the bars with the old neon signs in the windows. That was very evocative and yet all the Irish and English in the crew grew up on films like that, as I’m sure you did, so every corner you turn it’s like: “Oh my god, this looks like a film!” We just loved it.

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Did you get some sense of this “rust belt” thing, the decline of the towns based on old industries and maybe get a premonition of the advent of Trump?

It’s funny looking back, but not so much at the time… Minnesota itself is an odd one, it’s a very rich state. And they’re very fiscally conservative, in kind of a good way. I remember reading in a local paper that the state was in profit to the tune of a billion dollars or something and they had a referendum on what to do with the money and there were three options… one was to dole out a certain amount to every person and the other two were about investing it and the most rational one of investing it in the State’s future was the one that 70% of the people actually voted for. So what I take from this is that America is a huge, complex country which the headlines are always trying to simplify into black and white.

I’m amazed to hear that they’d even entertain the idea of whacking it out to everybody… I mean, can you imagine our politicians agreeing to hand money out to everybody over here? They’d make sure it went straight into the back pockets of their supporters…

That was just one headline. Minnesota actually voted for Clinton, by a narrow margin… you see they’re all Scandinavians, Swedes and Finns and whatever, second and third generation but they still have that attitude towards money and looking after education and all the rest of it …

… the ideals that haven’t quite died out everywhere in the world…

Now where we were shooting was up near the Canadian border and it was in hard times but definitely, the conversations at the bar were Trump-like, there were quite a few of them like that so there was just a hint at that stage but certainly in retrospect and also before that… me, Robbie Ryan the DP and Nick Ryan the producer (who I know from film school, 20 years ago in Dublin) were driving around endlessly in Mid-West States like Michigan … we were in Ohio about four months before we settled on Minnesota and when we in Ohio we were on the borders with Pennsylvania and West Virginia and there was an awful to of poverty there, like in Northern England, the hopes of the industrial past which were now in tatters… we went to the famous town that all the TV stations went to during the election and Springsteen wrote the song about, Youngstown, the famous industrial town and that was a desert! It’s so sad to see it, it’s just like there’s nothing going on there and it’s a city! Detroit is boarded up, you know it’s a city that doesn’t work… we have areas of cities that don’t work but Detroit just looks like it’s been abandoned, you know… abandoned skyscrapers… it’s gutted. So it wasn’t that much of a surprise when you saw the election result because those people were being overlooked, you know.

Detroit sounds like something out of a J.G. Ballard novel…

Exactly… there were pictures on the wall in my Detroit hotel room from the 1920s… it had more cars than London had, it was one of the boom-time cities of the world and to go from there to just complete collapse…

I know it took a long time to line up all your ducks to make this film and that it was a pretty torturous process but in fact it all worked out very fortuitously for you because you got your male lead, who I know you’d been intent on for some time, when he was at exactly the right age to play that character…

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Nick Ryan who I mentioned earlier, did a short film with an Irish director named Ruairi Robinson called The Last Days On Mars and after that they did another called BlinkyTM, which Max starred in when he was 10. So when Nick read my script he said: “What about Max?” and of course I said: “He’s just a kid”, at which Nick laughed and replied: “Yeah, they do grow up, Billy!” So we met him when he was thirteen and we were in Michigan that year, I think it was 2011 and we did this little test film on 35mm, just me and Nick, to show the finance people that we could do it. So that was in 2011, we all got on and Max was a great kid. At that stage we were being canny, thinking that by the time we got the finance it would take about a year-and-a-half and he’d be 15 as the kid is in the book… and of course he was 17 but the time we made it so he was that bit more grown up and also… it was a tough shoot, you know, it was minus-20 and you were running fast, as you do in a low budget film and Max is in every scene, there wasn’t much down tine for him. It’s a stamina thing, as much as anything else, for a 14 year old to trying do that… it is an intense film, you know, he has to live it, really… and he did an amazing job.

He certainly did. I already mentioned the “mash-up of Donnie Darko and Phantasm” thing but another reference point that was going on in my head while I was watching the unfolding relationship between Max and Christopher Lloyd’s character was Hal Ashby’s Harold And Maude… was that on your mind when you were making it?

No, because to my shame, I haven’t seen it… another one that people have mentioned is George Romero’s Martin, which I haven’t seen either.

Yeah, I get that…

We had a bizarre range of films we talked about… we’re Irish, so we argue all the time, but River’s Edge was one we kept coming back to, the first non-Hollywood teenage film we’d seen, we kept coming back to that because of the sheer grimness of it. The other day I realised that a couple of my story boarded sequences weren’t consciously lifted from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off but, you know… every time we talk about this we talk about a different film, primarily ‘70s and ‘80s stuff because they were our formative years. The book is a strange mix… it’s a high school movie, it’s a monster movie, it’s a psychological drama, there are so many genres in there and that has an effect on the films we thought about when we were conceiving it. I don’t think Donnie Darko came up much at that point, it was only after the fact that we thought more about that one.

How did you set about getting the rights to the book?

We got the rights in 2009…  a producer I know had hired a reader, Irene Ilias, whose job was to find projects for producers and directors… I only met her the once because she knew my agent, Michelle. I met her in the old Foyles Bookshop in Charring Cross Road for coffee for an hour or so and we talked about my favourite films… you know, growing up on a farm in Ireland you didn’t get to see many films so Brazil, Blade Runner and Mad Max were like my holy trinity. Then I went home, she went around the corner and found the book on a shelf as a paperback, which normally means forget it, because somebody else has the option by now, but in this case Dan Wells hadn’t sold the option yet. So I just wrote him a long letter and kind of poured my heart out, telling him what I fucking loved about this story. And he responded and we got the rights so that was straightforward… it was just the 6 years after that, trying to get it to the screen that was the difficult bit!

Have you met Wells?

Oh yeah, several times. He came to London shortly after that and I took him out. What do you for a writer from Utah, who’s obsessed with serial killers, when you first meet him? It was like a blind date kind of thing so we took him on the Jack The Ripper Walk in London and bingo, it was perfect, you know, he absolutely loved it, so that was great. He’s a great guy, Dan and he’s written six books now in the John Wayne Cleaver series which is remarkable. I sent him every script I did and he appreciated that, even if he didn’t agree with everything, because it’s so much different from the book but he appreciated that I sent them to him. He came out on location on the shoot for ten days and met everybody then we brought him to Austin for the premiere at the South By South West Festival and he did that thing of asking for a screener a week before he went. I know what he meant, he didn’t want to have to sit in a cinema with about 400 people or whatever and have his book destroyed, but I had to say to him: “You’re just gonna have to sweat it like everybody else, because there isn’t a screener, it won’t be finished in time.” He did come over and he loved it, you know and he after he came out we were all waiting in the lobby and he said: “Listen, I just want to say something to everybody here, that we had disagreements over the script but Billy was right, because the way he does it works in the film.”

Ah, that’s exactly what you want to hear, isn’t it?

Exactly… one of the things that he questioned from the word go was that we dropped the voice over, because the whole book is first person but when we took that out of it, you couldn’t predict what he was going to do in any scene…. and then Max’s amazing performance made it doubly that way, which was really cool. Dan actually said that when he read the voice over in the book he could see Max’s face, which is a lovely compliment. Also, the ending’s slightly different because in the book there is no funeral but what Chris Hyde and I realised was that there were no moments where Christopher Lloyd’s character, Crowley, realises that it’s Max who’d leaving the notes for him and has been tormenting him. It happens much later in the book, when he’s already transformed, we put in that scene so you’d have the two of them with their secret sitting beside each other and everybody around them not knowing anything. I thought there was a lovely symmetry around that, one of the my favourite bits is the exchange that Chris and I came up with, where Crowley says: “John, you attacked my wife!” and John replies: “You killed my therapist!” It’s almost like a showdown in a Sergio Leone Western!

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Fantastic… has Dan got any of this oddness about him personally, or is it the other cliche of a very straight, bourgeois writer who just has this warped imagination?

Well Dan is a Mormon, lives in Utah which is a real hotbed of Fantasy and Horror… his best mate’s Brandon Sanderson who’s one of the new York Times’ Top 10 Fantasy Writers, he writes all those really fat fantasy books, you know, Lord Of The Rings-type stuff and of course the really famous one is the Twilight author, whatever her name is…

Stephenie Meyer…

… Stephenie Meyer, right. No, Dan’s a lovely guy, wears an Indiana Jones hat that everybody jokes about but he’s a very sharp writer. He told me that he was talking to Sanderson about serial killing and his fascination with it and Sanderson said: “Well why don’t you write something about that, then?” He likes all of that and for me, I don’t have the same passion or interest in serial killers that he has. Chris Hyde and I did some Wiki research when we started writing this and it’s obviously real people who are affected by it, you know and we thought we won’t be able to bring any humour to it if we keep reading this stuff so we decided to leave all that to Dan, after all Dan wrote the book. There’s stuff in the book that is written so well but I didn’t go any further into it.

There’s an allusion in the script to John mistreating animals but you have to pretty much throw away that line because if you depicted it explicitly, there’d no way the audience could retain any kind of sympathy for him…

You’re addressing one of the biggest things about the film, which is getting that balance right. Early on in the process, when we weren’t fully settled on how we were going to adapt it, we met some other writers in London, quite a few of them very prestigious crime writers, of the top BBC / ITV crime things and they all got completely hung up on the serial killer side of things. One of them outlined a scene he wanted to do, kind of a garden shed scene where Max had made a torture contraption with a small animal on it and I told him nobody would ever have any sympathy for the main character if we did that, y’know? It’s just the tone and I had to remind people that John is 15 and it’s not a grown up serial killer’s story. One of the reviews the other day described it as: “The story of a serial killer hunting other serial killers” and I thought: “No, that’s not right because he’s not a serial killer, he’s a kid desperately trying not to be a killer.”

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They’re just getting carried away with the Dexter parallels, aren’t they?

Yeah, exactly… that’s been really boring, actually. I talked to Dan Wells about that the first time I met him, he was aware of it but he’d started writing his book a few years before the first Dexter book came out. Something he mentioned, which I didn’t know, was that halfway through the Dexter books… and I haven’t read any of them … Dexter hears voices and this is something that completely alienated the Dexter audience. Halfway through it be gets possessed by some sort of demon. That didn’t make its way into the TV series obviously but if you look at it, it’s amazing, the consequences of it are hilarious. This is one of the problems we had that Dan warned us about , that crime “fans”, if you like, are very pragmatic, they’re very logical and they want to know what solves the mystery and if you throw in the supernatural, you’re going into an area with no rules… and they absolutely hate this. So from the word go, when (and I’m trying to be careful and not give too much away, here)  the change happens in the book and the film it turns the world upside down, that was what I loved in the book, made me think we’re going into exciting areas here and yet for lot of people that was where it went off the rails, so… you just have to live with that, really.

You pays your money and you takes your choice…

Yeah, exactly.

I read somewhere that his collaboration with you actually inspired Dan Wells to revive the series…

Well, being pragmatic about it, he’d written a trilogy and now he’s gone back and written three more books… he probably already had the ideas to do that but I’m sure his publisher was encouraging him, saying: “Look this film is coming out, so …” I’m not saying he’s written them just for that reason, his ideas are too good for that but clearly it would have made sense to do that. Between the two trilogies, Harper signed him to do books in a dystopian Hunger Games type of series called Partials, so they didn’t come from Dan’s Mind but he wrote them and they’re massive books, became huge best sellers. Once he’d done those, I guess, he had kind of unfinished business with John Wayne Cleaver. When we met him, Chris Hyde and myself, that time in London, he hadn’t got a fully formed mythology about where the Crowley character came from and (again, being careful) by the time the film was made he had the whole mythology, where he’d come from, which would have been too expositional for us and way too deft for us, anyway.  I think audiences kind of lean forward and pay a bit more attention if they’re figuring something out, nobody wants the Lost situation where you realise by the end that nobody actually knew where they were going, that’s never the case here, but also you don’t want a character standing in the street saying to somebody: “Well, clearly the criminal here is…”, you know, those long explanations are so boring and alienate the audience really quickly. It’s about getting the balance right and we used to to talk about it a lot in editing, the editor Nick Emerson and me, about where is the audience in this very scene or this very frame… are they behind us, are they exactly with us or ahead of us? We constantly double checked, all the way through, to make sure they were slightly behind us or with us but never ahead of us, because if they’re ahead of you they get bored and then you’ve lost them.

Even Hitchcock got flack for that, didn’t he? There are people who think that the psychiatrist’s wrap-up at the end of Psycho is surplus to requirement…

Yeah, again he’d done so many great things that you can forgive him.

It works fine for me, I think it sets up Norman’s final nutty soliloquy but it does have its critics… are you gonna do any more John Wayne Cleaver films?

Never say never. There aren’t any plans afoot right now because obviously it isn’t automatically the kind of block buster that dictates further films but it wouldn’t be a great chore to do because the second book picks up a month after the close of the first one so you could certainly delve into it and it would be a genuine reason for doing a film, unlike the situation where you’ve killed off all your characters but everybody wants to to do it for the money. So there’s that and there’s the possibility to adapt it for television at some point because there’s a real wealth of material there. That remains a possibility but as I say, nothing right now.

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I don’t know where the character goes because I haven’t got round to reading the Wells books yet but I imagine part of the draw is that Friends kind of thing: “Ross and Rachel, will they get it together?” only it’s “John Wayne Cleaver… will he kill someone?”

That’s it! The second one definitely gets a lot darker, it’s a lot more straight horror than the first one but I don’t think I’m giving too much away to say that the first one is about love… because that’s what Crowley is killing for, he needs to keep that body going because if he moves on to another one then he’ll be a different person and she won’t love him… in the second one the key isn’t about love but pain, so naturally that’s a lot darker and he’s hunting John so that’s a different and interesting thing… quite brilliantly written, I have to say and when you’ve gone all the way through the book… there’s so much in these kind of books that’s all about plot but with Dan it’s all about characters, he has such a knack of writing teenage dialogue and the relationships are fascinating… and quite funny, you know, that’s what I love about it.

The other angle in this creative constellation is your co-writer Christopher Hyde… from what I know about him, he sounds like a real Renaissance man.

He’s younger than me… we shared an agent and I didn’t want to take on adapting Dan’s book on my own. I write on my own all the time but this one, I just felt it would be really good to discuss it with somebody. It was a pain in the arse because Chris is from Barrow In Furness and I’m on Dartmoor so we chose to do, geographically, a really difficult thing. (laughs) So I pulled the old… “You’re a younger man than me, Chris and I’ve got a family so just hop on the bus and come down, it’ll only take you eight hours!” We just brain stormed… because I come from Irish culture I like to do things visually, get an A1 sheet of paper, put all the characters on it and draw lines between them and figure it all out.

Diagramatically…

Yeah, it was really good. Most of the work Chris did was the first couple of drafts and then I think I did a couple of my own, coming up to the shoot, but the back was really broken in those first couple of drafts. We had fun, a lot of fun and after that we adapted  three books and turned them into one film for Random House. I don’t know what’s happening with that, whether it will ever come to the screen, but it was another adaptation and the material wasn’t as good as Dan Wells’, so that’s problematic but in a way it gives you more freedom. With Dan we were always really careful, being aware that we didn’t want to kill off a character that could come back in a subsequent episode, you never know… but with the Random House thing that wouldn’t have been a problem, shall we say, so we had a lot more freedom with that. Anyway, we worked together just great…

I imagine you’ve got a lot of projects on the go, what are we most likely to see next?

There’s something I’ve been trying to get going for a little while… oh God, the pitch is “a folk musical with horror, black humour and cannibals, set on Dartmoor and based on a 19th Century book called Lorna Doone”… it’s kinda partly a Western as well, so I imagine financers will just banging my door down to get that one done! (laughs) It’s great fun and I never, ever intended to do a Musical but I’ve been listening to loads of contemporary film music while writing this and I’ve made it really darkly funny, more Delicatessen than Cannibal Holocaust, you know? it’s Delicatessen mixed with the Wicker Man and there’s a lot of folk music in it so it’s gonna be a balls to the wind Musical and let’s have a bit of craic with it. So I’m in the middle of that, let’s see what happens. I’ve got a couple of other projects because I can’t afford to spend all my time on one project so I‘ve got other things on the go as well. I’m always keeping my eye out for another good book or another good project out there.

I’d pay good money to see Lorna Doone with cannibals…

Good stuff, just you and me in the cinema, then! (Laughs)

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Christopher Lloyd… did you think you’d actually get him? And how was he?

He was kind of the opposite to Max in that it came quite late in the day. We were trying various actors and each financer had their favourites but once you get into the A List they’re all business and a lot of them aren’t interested in doing an independent film. So we hadn’t approached Christopher Lloyd directly but we’d been getting a bit jaded from getting rejections in general and then it turned out that Robbie Ryan, the cameraman, had been pouring his heart out to somebody and they said: “Give us the script, we’ll have a look and see if we can help” then they came back and said they’d given it to Christopher Lloyd. Less than a fortnight after that I got a call here in Devon from Christopher Lloyd in Santa Barbara. It was great, I was kind of tongue-tied to be honest and he’s also quite shy actually but when he was talking about the script you could almost sense that he had made pencil notes all the way through and it became an actor / director discussion, began to dawn on me that he wasn’t just thinking about it but was talking in a practical way about when we would do it. So he never actually said that but he was just a very practical professional, it was great. We discussed it for an hour and then yeah, he came on board and it was the character, Crowley… he said he hadn’t come across a character like that for a while and he liked it and that got his interest up. When we met him on location I got the sense that he wasn’t being offered such interesting stuff anymore and in a way this is a problem with the gatekeepers, l because if it’s a low budget film they’re naturally shying away from it because there’s not as much money involved. If any film makers are reading read this, the moral is never give up, try and get your stuff to them if you think it’s good enough.

This film is an object lesson in “never give up”, isn’t it?

Yeah but you have to have interesting stuff for them to do, you know… I think that on some of the independent films Christopher Lloyd did over the last couple of years, some of the directors were saying to him: “Just play Doc Brown” and that’s such a shame! So if you have interesting material for an actor that you think would get them excited, do whatever you can to get it to them because if you do, there’s a good chance they’ll say: “Wow, we haven’t been seeing stuff like this!” At that age, from getting into their ’60s on, they’re not going to be offered much of the good stuff and yet they’re still great actors, you know? We did approach Sam Shepherd, I remember, who I love, think he’s amazing, and he just said: “I’ve never done a monster film and I never will” and that was perfectly reasonable… and another one was John Hurt, who wrote us a lovely letter, which shows the class of these guys because some actors, of any age, you just never hear back from them. I can’t remember exactly what John Hurt said but the gist of it was: “My dear boy, at my age and in my state of health I’ve got no intention of being out on a frozen lake in the middle of nowhere!” (laughs) and it’s a joy to get a letter like that, we just roared laughing… you like him even more because its completely reasonable, you know?

I can see how IANASK would pique Lloyd’s attention because it’s so off the wall…

I can’t do straightforward horror films, I get bored when it’s like we’ve been here before, you know? I’ve said before that watching Brazil was like a formative experience in my film making life because… how do you categories what genre that is? I remember that my first film Isolation was described “a horror film”… I don’t remember the term “genre” being bandied about, as much as it is now, as a way of denigrating something. Everything’s become a lot more boxed and where  do you fit in the kind of wild, maverick directors that I like? I’ll watch Terrence Malick one night and then I’ll watch a great comedy the next, anything so long as it’s got a great story and is brilliantly acted. I hate the fact that things have got so compartmentalised. I did an interview for, I think it was a German student radio station, they asked me what my favourite film was and I told them Billy Wilder’s The Apartment…

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I’ve lost count of how many “horror directors” have cited that one to me…

Well, they literally stopped the tape and said: “Could we make it your favourite horror film?” For me it’s just gotta be great films, you know and The Apartment is one of the best direction jobs ever.

Steve Barker just enthused to me about that one… his film The Rezort is in a similar position to yours, in that it was held up but now it’s coming through strongly at festivals…

I’ve heard about that film but I don’t know a lot about it… is it a zombie film?

Yeah, it’s a very clever one that’s got a lot to say about the mess we’re in at the moment, it’s a satire and it’s interesting that these thoughtful films are coming through.

This is another thing about the ten years since I made Isolation… I made other films in the meantime but probably the two big festival films would be Isolation and this one… it’s so much harder now and you’d think it should be easier with social media and so on but the problem is that there’s so much more of everything so getting people’s attention isn’t easy. We’ve had great reviews and there seems to be a healthy buzz right now but none of us are expecting to have people queuing around the block to see the film, there’ll be half filled and empty cinemas this weekend because Rogue 1 and the others are spending a hundred million on advertising, it takes that to get people into the cinemas now because they’ve got so many other things on our minds than film, so many other ways to spend their time…

… and so many other ways to watch film…

… you get a flurry of comment on Facebook and Twitter and people say: “Oh good, finally I’ll be able to see this film” but it’s been on VOD for ages and people only wake up to it when it’s on Netflix… then, they think they can see it… I don’t get this, myself.

Nor me… I’m still a bit too attached to physical media but that’s my problem, I guess…

Well I’ve got a shelf about 8 foot long and 6 foot hight stuffed with DVDs and we were just going through them last night trying to pick a few to watch. I’ve got a projector, you know, I love watching things really big.

You can’t do that on a smart phone.

Exactly… that’s why I would prefer it… if I was Donald Trump, my first rule would be to make everybody watch everything in a cinema!

Yeah, forget about the fucking wall, Donald and get people back in the cinemas! Finally I just wonder if you could tell me something about your effects guy Toby Froud… he was the baby in Labyrinth, wasn’t he?

He was the baby in Labyrinth. His father Brian Froud, who lives two miles from where I’m sitting right now, designed all the amazing creatures in the worlds of The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth and his mum Wendy was one of the designers of Yoda from Star Wars so he comes from a high pedigree of puppetry… Toby now lives and works where Max comes from, that’s Portland in Oregon, sculpting on all these films like King Kong and The Boxtrolls. I’ve known Toby since I met his dad about ten years ago. He was still at school, I think. He’s a lovely kid and really talented. Another person on our crew, William Todd-Jones who has been an amazing puppeteer for years now on all the Henson stuff, introduced me to the Frouds and Todd worked very closely with Christopher Lloyd and Max on the film on location. I guess it was a couple of years ago that Toby designed the monster and Toby was up for it, he did it in his garage in Portland with three or four friends. It’s a puppet so he packed it in a suitcase and brought it over here to Devon. I had decided that it would be chaotic to try and do this in minus-20 in Minnesota in an actually morgue, so let’s do it my garage. During editing, I think it was in October, we brought Toby over and we flew Max over as well because Max really wanted to come and see the monster. So we had great fun in my garage for four days with a puppet monster and a green screen and Robby shot it as usual and it was great. Nick Ryan was very good at the compositing of that, obviously as a great director and producer he put it all together for us. So yeah, it was great and it’s got kind of a “home made” quality this film, from the 16mm we shot on to Adrian Johnstone doing all the music in his chapel, he did everything live while we projected it on a sheet on the altar in his chapel. We just kept the analogue feel because it’s a folk tale really and that kind of all fitted into it, not being a snazzy CGI kind of thing but home made and fairly clunky, I’ll be honest, because of our budget, but it’s a beautiful puppet and the whole film has a very interesting feel to it, you know?

It certainly does, I didn’t know anything about your film when I rolled up at Mayhem and I came out of it very impressed…

Thank you very much, it does seem to be emerging very much as one that people want to go back and watch a second time. When Delicatessen came out I was in film school in Dublin and I used to cycle there on my bike and I can remember cycling to the cinema to see that eight times because it absolutely blew me away. And I must admit… perhaps it’s age as well… that there are not to many films these days that I’d even go back to see a second time let alone eight times…

… there are plenty that I regret seeing even the once…

Yeah, me too but what I’m glad about is that quite a few people come up to me at festivals and say that they’re seeing our film for the second time and that they get so much more because… it’s a very rich film, there’s a lot going on and it is quite hard to take all of it in the first time so that’s very rewarding to hear.

That pleasure awaits me because I’ll certainly be seeing it a second time…

It’s all in the laps of the gods, now.

Well, the gods had better do their stuff because you guys certainly did…

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This was originally written for a long established mass circulation genre magazine which subsequently passed on it. The four star Sun review, Billy tells me, was also pulled. So much for the gods doing their stuff. Chris Cooke did his, though and I’d like to thank him for setting up the interview you just read.

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“Let’s Have A Drink… It’s Margheriti Time!” The ANTONIO MARGHERITI Interview

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Almost as much as he enjoyed his participation in the wild and wonderful world of Italian exploitation cinema, David Warbeck enjoyed hooking up its exponents with those in the fan press who revered them more than all the Speilbergs, Scorseses and Coppolas of this world put together. It’s a bittersweet experience for me to remember the days when I’d answer the phone to find David urging me to hot foot it down to his Hampstead pile because some pasta paura luminary (e.g. Fabrizio De Angelis) was visiting him. Over the years I’ve become vague about the exact dates of some of these delightful days but one in particular is difficult to forget… there were lots of jittery-looking commuters on The Northern Line on 20/03/95, in the aftermath of media speculation over that morning’s nerve gas attack on the Tokyo Metro system and whether it foreshadowed wider chemical assaults on the world’s major transport hubs. Nevertheless…

It’s a real pleasure to meet you, Signor Margheriti… what have you been up to?

I’m talking to Terence Hill about doing a movie, which would be fantastic. I like Terence very much, and perhaps this will be the right vehicle for him to make a change. Terence and Bud Spencer made money In Germany with every movie they made, sometimes they were making movies just for the German market, because they were seen to be too old in the rest of the world. Now they are tired of what Terence did in the western, and this is my way of proposing something different for him, you know? He plays an expert in electronics… very smart, does crazy stuff, but mostly a genius in electronics, and apparently he dies in the middle of the picture… but his ghost, an electronic ghost, carries on through the rest of the picture. Only at the end do you realise he’s spent the last three days covered in rubble but still alive, so they put an electric plug in his body and give him a shock. The electronic ghost disappears and everybody starts to cry because they miss him, but it turns out he’s escaped from the hospital. It is a very funny story, maybe it is good for the new generation…

How is the Italian film production scene now… still very flat?

Yes, everything’s still very flat, and because Berlusconi became a political guy, he doesn’t have anything to do with film production anymore. TV Rai aren’t doing anything… they have a new woman president now, who is very good, but they aren’t doing anything in film production these days… and the Lire’s going down every day.

Even the Japanese economy is stalling these days…

… and the Americans. Everybody but the Germans. What we need is another war, then the world can start all over again… we have to kill people because there are too many of us! Maybe we will fight on the same side in the next war… I didn’t learn English until it was too late, because when I was younger we were enemies… Mussolini called you English “Perfidious Albion” (Laughs). I had to wait until after the war to learn, which was a pity, because now I have terrible English.

Oh, far from it… way better than my Italian, anyway. You’re still making movies, and I think you’re the only still-active director from what people now talk of as a “Golden Age” of Italian horror cinema. I mean, Riccardo Freda is still alive…

Yes, but he doesn’t work now. He’s in his 90’s, lives in Paris…

Were you aware at the time that you were working in this “Golden Age” of Italian popular cinema, or did this only become apparent to you in retrospect?

It’s a great memory, we had a lot of fun… but we didn’t have very big budgets! We had to improvise a lot for the special effects, and so on. I’m lucky, because I forget these things easily at my age – the arteriosclerosis wipes so much from your mind!

How do you remember working with Barbara Steele, Signor Margheriti?

What’s with this “Signor Margheriti”?

(David Warbeck interjects) John is a great admirer of yours, so he’s addressing you respectfully.

Well that’s very nice, but you must call me Tony… Barbara Steele? She was perhaps not a great actress, but she was a great presence. You sensed her presence. She was very good, and she was a real star… in my opinion, she was perfect for that kind of a picture. When she was on the screen she was the star of the picture, and she was a very nice lady, too. She did possibly the best picture of Mario Bava…

… Black Sunday?

Yes, La Maschera Del Demonio, a very beautiful picture I think. That is the best picture of that era…

Your picture The Long Hair Of Death has a similar storyline, and also stars Barbara Steele…

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Yes, Barbara Steele and a Polish girl who’s killed at the beginning of the film but comes back. That was a different kind of picture, they wanted to do more of a historical picture with horror elements … I don’t know if that was the right idea. It’s not a bad picture, but it’s not Danza Macabre – that’s a ten times better picture!

Did Sergio Corbucci work with you on Danza Macabre, as is mentioned in some reference works?

Sergio Corbucci prepared  Danza Macabre. He wanted to do that picture but later he gave it to me, and I gave him another picture on another occasion. We were very close friends, Sergio and I. We’d do one picture with me directing one part, him directing another, and he’d sign it, then another the other way round. The whole period was fun. Sergio did all the Toto pictures, maybe 30 or 35. Sergio is dead, 5 years ago he died, and he’s still made more pictures than me, because with Toto he did one picture every 15 days, editing too because it was direct sound, maybe ten pictures in one year.

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You later remade Danza Macabre (as Web Of The Spider)…

Eleven years later, we were given the opportunity to redo it in colour, with better actors – Klaus Kinski, Tony Franciosa, Michelle Mercier instead of Barbara – which turned out to be a mistake. It was an interesting experience, but didn’t bear much comparison to the first one, in my opinion. Danza Macabre was the first picture at that time, to my knowledge, to talk about lesbianism, and it was so well done, so sensitively handled, that even the terrible censors we had at that time in Italy – guys who used to put on mask and then take an axe to your film (laughs) – didn’t cut a single frame. That element was so important to the story that it was impossible to take it out. They cut just one little bit in the beginning where she made love with the gardener. And the rest of the picture in my opinion was very well done … sometimes you do good pictures, you know, the whole combination of actors, the crew, the script, the right moment and it all comes together – we made that picture in just two weeks, with one day’s special effects with the dead people who become alive in their tombs… a nice picture but not too much work. Everybody did what they had to do and the picture was finished before schedule – why shoot more?

So why remake it?

Well, the producer was so pleased with that picture that after 11 years he wanted to do it again, imagine, with Cinemascope, colour, stereophonic sound, with American, German and French actors, you know … put it all together. It was different you know, completely different, though the script was exactly the same. George Riviere was very good in the first one, Tony Franciosa did a little too much in the second one. Michelle Mercier was very beautiful, she played “Angelica” for years, you remember, but she was no Barbara Steele. She was a beautiful woman from this planet, whereas I always got the idea that Barbara was from some other planet! She had the… I’ve done so many pictures, and I think I can say that when she understood a scene, when she was into a scene 100%, she was perfect. Maybe she was not as great an actress, but she was definitely a star, and absolutely perfect for that kind of picture. In Bava’s film she was great, that was more of a fantasy picture… you remember the scene with the coach at the beginning? Mario’s best picture, together with one science fiction picture he did in this period…

Planet Of The Vampires?

Terrore Nello Spazio – I think that’s the one I meant, yes …

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Didn’t you take over the picture Nude… Si Muore aka The Young, The Evil And The Savage, from Bava?

Nude… Si Muore is an English script from a group called Woolner Bros, and they wanted to do the picture with Mario… it wasn’t a horror picture, just a suspense picture set in a college. It would have been a good subject for a Dario Argento picture, in fact it’s like a Dario Argento picture ten years before Argento started to make movies! Mario didn’t do the picture, I don’t remember why, he was probably working on something else, but because I had done these pictures with the Woolners, we had a company in America together under my name and theirs, and we made the decision to do that picture. I cast Mark Damon and many English actors and actresses, because I came over here to do it. We had a 30 year-old lady to play the part of a 16 year-old schoolgirl… she was so beautiful when I saw her in a stage show in London. They said it is not possible to make her up as a schoolgirl but we got away with it. Very funny actress, I saw her in something like vaudeville, unbelievable stuff. But that was a suspense rather than a horror picture… (looks up her name) Sally Smith… Leonora Brown was the girl who played with Sophia Loren in Two Women, she was the young girl who was raped, you remember? Alan Collins… you know I counted up, and I’ve made 18 pictures with Alan Collins, “the Italian Peter Lorre” as they call him. “Alan Collins”, who is really Luciano Pigozzi, is the actor I’ve used more than any other, he is like my invention, you know?

You also had Michael Rennie in that picture…

Michael Rennie was … Michael Rennie! (Laughs) He had suffered a heart attack about a year before we shot that picture. Every time we had to shoot a scene with some action, he would come to me and say: “Tony, what do you think? Maybe we could have Franco come in with all the policemen running and I arrive later and have a look…” What he meant was: “Don’t make me run, I don’t want to die!” (Laughs) A terrible story. He would open the door and step out before you could tell him to jump out, because he was really  sick, you know?

Your other giallo was 7 Deaths In The Cat’s Eye

…with Jane Birkin…

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… and Serge Gainsbourg.

It was a suspense picture, a story in a castle, good story. Venantino Venantini was dressed as a priest, it was only revealed at the end that he was the killer. That was quite a nice picture, with Hiram Keller (the American actor who was in Fellini Satyricon)… Anton Diffring… they were all very good, I have a very good memory of that picture.

Was it because it was a French co-production that you had Gainsbourg and Birkin?

Well, it was a French co-production, but Jane was very hot at that moment in America too. Alan Collins was in there again, of course. In my opinion it was a good picture… not so successful in Italy, but it did very well in France and not bad in America. When we started with that picture the producer wanted a suspense film but also he wanted horror, and he wanted me to do something elegant, not crude. There is a violent murder at the start, but the rest of it was really quite stylish, with the set, the scenes at the dinner, etc… not Visconti, but it was very well done, elegant, and it turned out very well for that producer because he made a lot of money from it in France, but under a very strange title: Les Diabeleusses (“Two Devil Women”), which is nothing to do with what was in the picture!

What was Klaus Kinski like to work with?

Together with Werner Herzog, I think I’m the director who made more pictures with Kinski than anyone.  I did six pictures with him and in the first one I shot him with a Winchester, in the second one I tried to poison him, in the third I tried to kill him another way, because he was so infuriating, but I must respect the memory of him, he was wonderful, the  most talented actor I ever used in my life… completely crazy, of course, but a fine actor. Nobody believes me when I tell them how beautiful the crazy Klaus Kinski looked when he was young, but look at this photo I’ve got of him… it’s from my first picture with him (And God Said To Cain…), a suspense picture with a mysterious American arriving in a western town one night and killing six people during the course of that night, but each time in an intriguing way. He shot down a bell to kill Alan Collins, for example…

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… another good picture I made with Alan Collins was The Unnaturals in London, with terrible weather and the characters have to stop at a castle. Inside is Alan Collins with his terribly old mother, a German actress and during that night, obviously full of lightning (acts out the sound effect), they start to do a seance – is that the right word? During this seance there are murders and we start to realise that everything we are seeing has happened before and will happen again, these people are already dead… a very strange picture, very nice and very well done, with a very good German actress, Marianna Koch… Joachim Fuchsberger was very good in it too… Claudio Camaso, who was the brother of Gian Maria Volonte, one of the very best actors, who died a few months ago..

Gian Maria Volonte died ?!? Good grief, it didn’t even get a mention in the press over here!

Yes, they had nearly finished a picture when he died. It’s has just opened, a crazy picture about a dictator…

Like yourself, Volonte worked with Sergio Leone …

In the first Dollars movie, yes …

What are your memories of Leone?

Very good! To me there is no question, he was a genius. He did really fantastic films. I particularly like the last picture he did, Once Upon A Time In America, unfortunately they sold the film to the Alan Ladd company in America… I can’t understand their decision to cut out so much of it. They said the picture was too long. Remember when Bertolucci did 1900, he made it in two parts because the audience would not sit down for five hours to watch a picture? That was a big mistake, because if they’d shown it with two big intermissions, with music, it would have been a great spectacle, like Napoleon by Abel Gance.

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The Americans also cut down Leone’s Duck, You Sucker!, on which you worked…

Yes, it’s very difficult to please everybody. If you try to do that, you please nobody, so really you must have your audience in mind when making a picture, then everything is possible, it might catch on in other markets. But if you do the picture and you have an adventure story with a revolution, and great special effects also, it’s maybe too much, that was perhaps Sergio’s mistake.

You were responsible for all the miniature work on that film…

Yes, all the stuff with the train. Only when the actors go into the train is it full size, all the rest is miniatures, and I insisted to Sergio that it be like that… he didn’t want it, but I made him understand. When you see the train for the first time, almost in the middle of the picture (makes train sound effects), the light coming towards you in a long shot, then you see the miniature. From this moment, every time you see the train, that’s what your frame of reference is, and then when at the last moment the locomotive goes against the other train, everybody’s expecting to see the join, because normally you would change photography, everything, but here nothing’s happened, because it was the same. For more than one hour in the picture, you’ve been seeing this miniature. In my opinion that’s the only sensible way to do this, because you don’t have the big change, you don’t see the join, and this increases the impact.

Your colleague Alberto De Martino also did some work on Duck, You Sucker!!

He was shooting second unit in the last battle, because they were over schedule and Sergio was also the producer, with many other things to do, so Alberto had to finish it: all the adventure after the explosion of the train, the train on fire, when he takes the machine gun and starts shooting, all the fight… that sequence was all Alberto, but Sergio’s personality was so strong that Alberto shot exactly what he wanted anyway, and even if they hadn’t, Sergio would just have cut it out. I shot more footage on that picture, just to do the train, than I would have shot for the whole of one of my own pictures. There was so much material to edit, and unfortunately when I saw the finished film later that year, I realised that some very good special effects stuff I shot had not made it into the picture, like big close-ups of the train wheels, etc.

You say Leone was a perfectionist who shot a lot of footage… is it true that you also worked with another perfectionist – Stanley Kubrick – on 2001?

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No, I was over there at this time to see the president of International Metro… previously I had made a package of four science fiction pictures for Metro one of which – Wild, Wild Planet (above) – was very successful. Everyone was so happy about my little picture that they wanted me to work on 2001. But it was two completely different film worlds, you know? One was all about perfection, professionalism, whereas mine is about coming up with something at the last moment, because otherwise I’m going to kill myself, you know (laughs and mimes pointing gun to head)… So for one reason that was a good idea, otherwise no. I was talking to them in London, in Los Angeles… it was very good for me anyway because I got to know the English effects guy who also directed Silent Running … what was his name?

Doug Trumbull…

Doug, yes, he had the idea to use just one light in space, which was the key to the success of that kind of special effect… anyway, I was in America waiting to hear abut 2001, until somebody offered me work on another picture and I said to the 2001 people: “Sorry, I’ve got to work”. I like to keep working, you know?

Is it true that in 1966 you actually directed the film Spara Forte, Piu Forte… Non Capisco (Shoot Loud, Louder… I Don’t Understand), which is usually credited to Eduardo De Filippo?

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I directed much of that picture, yes, with Marcello Mastroianni  and Raquel Welch. Raquel was very young then, and so beautiful… I had to shoot a dream sequence with her naked beneath some netting, but it didn’t end up in the picture because I just couldn’t shoot it. Everyone said: “Oh never mind Antonio, the back projection was wrong”, “this was wrong”, “that was wrong” or whatever, but I think the truth was just that, for some reason, I couldn’t keep my mind on my work that day! (Laughs)

Another couple of films you worked on with another director were the Andy Warhol pictures Flesh For Frankenstein and Blood For Dracula: there’s a lot of confusion about who actually directed what on those pictures…

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The thing is, they were ready to do the picture… Carlo was very scared because originally they wanted to do both in 3D, and… Andy Warhol was a genius, yes, and Paul Morrissey was a very intelligent man, but he had previously directed movies like Flesh, pictures like that with no technique at all, no chance to get something coming from out of the screen at the audience. Carlo was very scared that things wouldn’t work out, so he worked a kind of blackmail on me, he said: “Tony, you want to make that picture in Australia? If so, you have to make this picture for me. You have to be with them before you can shoot the other picture”. But it was a great human experience for me on that shoot… in the beginning I was kind of a supervisor, but as it went on I was doing more and more because we had to shoot a lot of sequences with special effects and I took care of all that. When the first edit of the first picture, Flesh For Frankenstein, was finished, Carl said: “But What’s happening with the kids? You have to take care of that”. So I wrote a new story about the kids, and later I shot all the stuff at the beginning of the picture with the spider and them playing with the hand, and so on. We put more story in and with the two kids I had a chance to bring it all together and do more special effects and stuff. It was just friendly – I got my money for sure – but it was an informal thing, not to be creative. Carlo needed the picture to have an Italian nationality, which was impossible with that picture – there was Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey from America, Udo Kier from Yugoslavia (Germany actually – BF)… not one Italian, with the exception of “Anthony Dawson” (Laughs). But Carlo says: “No, I want it to be an Italian picture”, so I signed it for Italy and some parts of the world, and Morrissey said to me: “Do you want the credit as director everywhere else?” I said: “No, open with your name in America”… in the rest of the world they think it was mine, but in America it was Paul Morrissey’s and I have another credit. But it was a very funny adventure because they didn’t have a script, just 14 pages of what was to happen, and they made decisions with the actors what the dialogue would be, re-writing the script all night for the next day. That was another bad idea, because they left out so much good stuff…. hey, what do you call that thing in David’s garden?

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It’s a squirrel, Tony…

Squirrel? Squirrels are beautiful – when they are fried, ha ha! But those films were a great experience for me, lots of fun, and Carlo kept his word – as soon as we finished that I got to make the other picture.

Which was Hercules Vs Kung Fu… with that one and pictures like The Stranger And The Gunfighter, you were one of the first to mix western and oriental cinema in a manner that is now very much in vogue…

Well, that was more down to Carlo Ponti than me, that was how he wanted to go, and I was just doing it for the money, you know? The Stranger And The Gunfighter was originally entitled Blood Money, it was a fun film to make, a nice script and beautifully shot, with a lot of Chinese locations in the second half. Columbia did OK with it in the US, so I made another picture with them.

You’ve made so many movies with our host, David Warbeck

I first saw him in Duck, You Sucker!, you remember he is the IRA man who betrays James Coburn, and I said: “What a fantastic face! I must have that face in my movies”… so we talked and then we made our first film together, The Last Hunter, also known as The Deer Hunter Part 2…

With John Steiner…

John, yes… he’s in real estate in LA now. I was there last week and I wanted to see him, but it was not possible because I had to go off to St Louis. I was trying to find his number, but all those people had to change numbers when the big fire destroyed much of LA last year… some of them became millionaires because they had a very good insurance arrangement! Richard Harrison owned three villas in Malibu, completely destroyed, and many people I knew lost their house because it was such a terrible fire.

Harrison’s the guy who turned down the Clint Eastwood role in A Fistful Of Dollars…

I don’t know if that’s true or just a story, but he was always saying: “Sergio offered me A Fistful Of Dollars but I said no, I’ll do Giant Of Rome with Tony because it’s more secure.” He was always telling me that story but in my opinion when we were making Giant Of Rome, Fistful Of Dollars was already done. I think I did Danza Macabra just before Giant Of Rome, and Danza Macabre had its opening at SuperCinema, I think, a few months after the opening of Fistful Of Dollars. Maybe I’m wrong… but no, I’m quite sure. Anyway, you know, all actors and directors have some sad tale to tell. It’s a part of the fantasy of our work – if you take out all the fantasy then you’re just left with the truth… with shit, you know!

Is it true that you gave Ruggero Deodato his chance to direct?

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I was working on so many movies simultaneously at that time, and Ruggero was my assistant director. I wanted to concentrate on shooting Giant Of Rome with Richard Harrison, so I let Ruggero take over Ursis, Il Terrore Dei Kirghisi, but he experienced a kind of crisis and I had to return and help him out. So I was shooting Giant Of Rome during the day, then I would take a shower, go to Cinecitta to shoot the other one, work till 2 AM, then a few hours later it was time to start on the other one. And I did that for two weeks… I understood, because Ruggero had really been thrown in at the deep end, and you know he was the only assistant I had in my career – and I’ve had many – who was very good. He understood things, picked up what you told him immediately, and in my opinion as well as being a very nice, charming person, he’s a good director, technically one of the best, though he hasn’t been lucky in his career.

As a boxing buff, I’m really interested to hear how you found working with Marvelous Marvin Hagler in the Indio films…

Very good – the first picture wasn’t too good though, because he had only a small part and also he was working with Brian Dennehey, who is a great actor, and he hit him!  Dennehey’s a great actor, also on the stage, but poor Marvin the boxer, who arrived for the first time on a film set after doing just a coca-cola commercial…  but he resisted, he didn’t fall over. Marvin says his secret is that, although he isn’t very tall, he had very big feet, so when you hit him, he doesn’t fall over! (Laughs) But Brian hit him, and he didn’t have much to do in the first picture, but the producer gave him the chance to do the sequel, and when he got the chance to act he was very good, so he will be the partner of Terence Hill in this new picture I’m going to do, a black / white, salt’n’pepper teaming. I think it will work because he’s such a strange guy, Marvin, so weird, and he’s not bad… did you see the tape of Indio 2? He did quite well. Sure, he’s not an actor but he’s not a boxer who has problems after the boxing… his mind is straight, perfect, you don’t get many like that. He destroyed a lot of people. I remember when I saw him the first time he had this little beard, you know, to look tough. I go to meet him in the Manila hotel because I didn’t have time to meet him in America. The first thing I said to him was, I think you should shave the beard and he was so angry he became white, if that is possible (laughs). I don’t know what is wrong with this man, he looked at me like I was crazy, like he wanted to kill me, and later he started thinking about it, and he said: “Maybe”.. I said: “What do you mean, maybe? You  have to do it!” (Laughs) I risked my life! The production manager, an Italian guy, was very tall, and all the way through this exchange with me and Marvin, he was getting shorter and shorter! (Laughs) So funny… that was our introduction. The same thing happened when I met the other black guy who killed loads of people …

Tony King?

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That Raquel Welch gets everywhere these days…

No, Tony King was an angel, he never killed anybody…. it was Jim Brown (above), who I had acting in a Western. One day I was in a canyon with him and the other guy, Big Fred Williamson (a very nice guy), and I said to Jim that he was to say to Fred: “Cover me” or something, while he ran to his place… so Jim comes to me, with all the production people and crew behind me, and he says: “Tony – I don’t like that.” I said to him: “You have to do that, because the story is that you run over there and get a machine gun and kill your opponents – that’s all in the script”, and he said: “OK, we’ll shoot it, but tonight we must discuss it.” And I said: “Let’s discuss it now – what’s the point of shooting it, if we’re not going to use it?” Anyway, he started making these noises like he was really angry, came over to talk to me and I turned round to get a chair for him… and everybody was gone, including the producer –  they had all run away! Why? Because in the picture before, 100 Rifles, somebody said he had thrown his girlfriend through a window, so everybody was very scared of him, and if you see him, so big… but he’s also very clever and one of the best chess players ever, unbelievable! When I turned I started to laugh because nobody was there and that was the moment, it eased the tension, so we discussed it there and I convinced him, he said OK, OK. Only then would they all came back. From that night on, every night we would sit in the hotel discussing everything, but very nice to be with him.  Afterwards, after the picture opened and everything, a friend of mine was in a party and somebody introduced Jim to him and he said: “I am a friend of Antonio”, and there was a long moment’s silence – suspense (laughs) – and Jim said: “He’s really a man”… from him that was the greatest compliment ever. I liked Jim very much, but unfortunately he was not lucky, had some problems to do with the Black Panthers, he kind of disappeared… I saw him recently on television in the States, it was about the player who killed his wife…

O.J. …

O.J., yes, and they went to Jim’s house and interviewed him about the case –  he was fat with white hair, very sad to see him.

I recently discussed a lot of these movies with Quentin Tarantino… I don’t know if you’re aware of this, but he’s a big fan of yours, collects everything you’ve ever done on video…

Why would he want to collect all these terrible movies? (Laughs) I’m lucky, because at my age, the arteriosclerosis has wiped most of them from your memory… hey, maybe he could get me a copy of Danza Macabre… that one’s very hard to find, you know. But I’ve made some terrible pictures, like Yor in Turkey with prehistorical animals, a very stupid picture though it did very well, in fact it’s probably my most successful…

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… and this one (he’s signing my Japanese programme for Cannibal Apocalypse – BF)… not a great picture, but that boy Lombardo Radice was a good actor… I sometimes do pictures, when I need the money, where I just read the agreement and not the script, I say: “OK, that will be a very beautiful picture” and afterwards maybe I am ashamed, but I keep working. You do it because you want the house in town, you want the house in the country, you want this, that, maybe a beautiful girl… whatever you want, everything costs a lot of money, and that’s the reason why I’ve made 70 pictures! People ask me: “Why so many pictures?”, I say: “Because I want money… and I’m not about to rob a bank or anything!”

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Slashing Budgets Was His Pleasure… House Of Freudstein Is Proud To Present The FABRIZIO DE ANGELIS Interview

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(This interview was conducted at David Warbeck’s Hampstead pile, The Convent, in 1996.)

How do you remember that remarkable director, Lucio Fulci?

I used him as director for four or five pictures by my production company, Fulvia. I went around the world with Lucio, a fantastic man and a fantastic director. He has become an increasingly popular director, but I think many people still don’t realise how good he was. Although Lucio only made “B” pictures, he was one of the ten best directors in Italy.

The timing of his death was so sad, because he was about to undergo this major critical re-appraisal… books are being written about him, he was about to collaborate on a film with Dario Argento…

Fulci was the best director, not only for horror, but also for adventure, comedy… whatever: a complete director, better even than Argento. The master is Fulci. Argento comes after him, and so do all the other Italian directors. Fulci is the teacher for all.

Did you have any problems with Argento, the producer of Dawn Of The Dead aka Zombi, when you brought out Zombi 2 aka Zombie Flesh Eaters?

Yes, we had problems, we had to go into court with our lawyers against the lawyers of Dario Argento, over the title. We won because we were able to prove that the legend of zombies has existed for years, it cannot be copyrighted.

You first met Fulci when you were both working for the producer Edmondo Amati?

Yes, Amati was my master, I worked as his production manager for three or four years. I think I made ten or twelve pictures with him as executive producer. Later I started to produce myself, after I left Fida, but I still have a very good relationship with Amati. Anyway, in this time I met Fulci, who was making pictures like Lizard In A Woman’s Skin for Fida, and when I was about to make Zombi 2, I decided to call Fulci to direct it, because at that time he was very down: after Zombi 2 he was up again, he was doing very well.

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At one point I gather you were considering Enzo Castellari to direct Zombi 2…

This is true, Originally we called Castellari, later we decided on Fulci. This is the real  story.

How would you compare and contrast Fulci and Castellari as directors?

Castellari is a good director, very good for action pictures…

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… a real pro, though as I keep saying, Fulci was a cut above all of them.

When you started working together, did you see any evidence of Fulci’s famous eccentricity?

(Laughing) I already knew that Fulci was a strange man… the first morning when we were shooting Zombi 2 in Manhattan, with the boat in the harbour, we had many problems… which is pretty normal for me. Fulci seemed to be very angry as we were trying to get the first shot, and suddenly he announced that he wasn’t going to do it. I called Lucio over with the rest of the crew, and I said: “Bye bye, if you won’t do it, then the picture is finished” Suddenly he was no longer furious, he said: “I’m only joking, I’ll get to work”… a fantastic character!

I heard that the original guy who was made up as a zombie to fight the shark underwater had a panic attack and ran away…

Yeah, that’s right! (Laughs)

Is it true that some footage which Fulci shot for Zombi 2 ended up in Zombi Holocaust?

No, not true.

What did you think of the way the American distributors re-cut Zombi Holocaust before releasing it as Doctor Butcher M.D.?

Really? I don’t know anything about that… very strange!

Zombi 2 was a huge international success…

Yes, in the United States, all over the world… but I think The Beyond is a better picture.

That one is widely recognised as a cult classic, now…

But originally you know, it was not a great success. After two years or so, people started picking it up. If we had made that picture two years later, it would have been a big hit. It never became a big hit in terms of money, but eventually it did become a big critical success. I think it’s definitely the best picture of Fulci.

Fulci told me he was very upset about the fact that the Italian video release of The Beyond leaves out the famous pre-titles sequence…

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Maybe. I never saw the video but if Fulci said that, it must be true…

What did Fulci and Sacchetti contribute, respectively, to the conception of The Beyond?

On every picture that I made with Fulci, the idea to make the picture was mine, then I would call Sacchetti and Fulci. I gave them the idea, and then together we wrote a treatment, then the script. On The Beyond for instance, I called them and said: “Let’s make a picture about people in a house where they discover The Beyond”… this is the idea that we set out with. Sacchetti is very good for this type of picture, Fulci too of course, so it was really a collaboration between those two, to develop this idea, so when we set out to make the picture we knew what we were doing.

I know Fulci attributed much of The Beyond’s success to the fact that you were a “hands-off” kind of producer, who didn’t interfere on the creative side…

Yes, but I always stayed very close to Fulci – and also my other directors, Castellari or whoever – observing what they were doing, so when I myself started directing I knew what it was all about.

After the success you and Fulci had with Zombi 2, how come he made City Of The Living Dead for Dania / Medusa?

In this time I made many films with Fulci. I had like an exclusive contract with him, but I gave him a permit for two or three months to go and make that film with somebody else… mostly in that three or four years, however, he worked only with me, and we made five pictures together.

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You had censorship problems with The New York Ripper…

Where?

It was banned in the United Kingdom…

I don’t remember this. We didn’t have any problems with this picture in other markets… I remember I was producing New York Ripper at the same time as one of Castellari’s Bronx Warriors films, and I had the Fulci troupe and the Castellari  troupe together in the same hotel…

I don’t think Fulci was very fond of Castellari…

They were OK. I think he was jealous because some evenings I went to dinner with Castellari… other evenings I would go with Fulci. Maybe there was friction because they were both very strong characters and I had both of them in the hotel, during the last week of Fulci’s shoot for New York Ripper… Castellari was looking at locations for the Bronx Warriors film, which we were going to start the next week.

I believe you and Fulci argued over the Egyptian prologue to Manhattan Baby, which he didn’t want to shoot…

Yeah.

I actually love that movie, though it’s generally regarded as your weakest collaboration with Fulci…

I like the movie too, but it wasn’t very well understood. It wasn’t a particularly strong movie, but a good atmospheric one. I like it a lot, and I think it will be rediscovered one day.

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Why was your working relationship with Fulci not continued after Manhattan Baby?

We didn’t collaborate again because many producers called Fulci, he went on to make Conquest for another producer… Giovanni Di Clemente gave him a contract for two years.

It didn’t work out very well for him, though… I gather they ended up fighting each other in court!

Yeah, they did.

Are you surprised that all these movies you made such a long time ago have this growing cult following, all these magazines dedicated to them, and so on?

No, I’m not surprised that people are still interested in these Fulci movies, in fact I am convinced that with the passing of time, more and more people will discover Fulci, realise how good he really was and learn from his work.

In retrospect, was Fulci as “difficult” a man as he’s been painted?

Sure, Fulci could be difficult to work with, but a lot of this was down to the fact that his first love was the movie, and people came a very definite second with him. To me he was a nice man, a nice collaborator, but he was certainly a perfectionist, he always wanted to get the best out of the people he worked with…

He had this fantastic team around him for the pictures that he made with you…

Fulci knew very well the right people to make a picture with. Sometimes he would tell me that there was a particular person that he didn’t like, but he knew that the person was good for the picture, so he would call him. He always called the best people… everybody says that Lucio Fulci was difficult, but the really difficult person is Umberto Lenzi… a very, very difficult person.

In the early days of your career you were production manager on Lenzi’s crime flick Violent Naples (1976) …

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Later I produced his film Cop Target, with Robert Ginty… Umberto is a good director, but not a very nice person.

You’ve also worked with Aristide Massaccesi…

I worked with him about twenty years ago, we produced two pictures together (Emanuelle And The White Slave Trade and Emanuelle And The Last Cannibals – BF). He’s a good man, a good technical director, though not on the same level as Lucio Fulci. Now, many years on, Massaccesi works in only one line, the “sexy” line, and I think he is the star of that line, as “Joe D’Amato”…

He only makes “hard” pictures now…

Yes, he changed directions, and he is a big name in sexy movies.

That’s the only way he can make money now… it’s a bad time for film-making in Italy, isn’t it?

Sure, it’s not a good moment for our type of picture.

What went wrong? Even ten years ago, there were so many pictures being made, now virtually nothing…

The problem is the dominance of American films… the Italians only do comedy films with no international appeal, the American pictures come along with their 100 million dollar budgets… it’s impossible for us to make the same picture. We can compete with the United States for ideas, but not with the money, it’s impossible. Our type of picture is finished, mostly because the Germans are not buying them anymore. They’d rather buy one American picture that makes lots of money than ten of our little pictures. The same in Japan, they know it will make a lot of money theatrically and on TV. Now we make just comedies and some pictures for television.

Do you have any hopes for an improvement in the situation?

I hope that in two or three years we will make the money with Europe, it will go well. We need two or three years…

What, more co-productions?

Yeah… another two years, also because the new generation of film-makers is not ready yet. Right now they’re young, they don’t speak German, Spanish or whatever. Another two years and we will be making big productions with Europe…

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Looking back again, you produced Alberto Martino’s picture 7 Hyden Park… I gather that he and the star of the picture, David Warbeck, didn’t get on very well…

Yeah (laughs)

You produced another of David’s pictures, Quella Villa In Fondo Al Parco aka Ratman, supposedly with Giuliano Carnimeo directing, though I’ve heard that you actually directed most of the picture…

Yeah…

Was he not up to the job?

Carnimeo was a director of Italian comedies, and he could not adapt to this different type of picture…

Unlike Fulci, who was so versatile…

Yeah.

How did you find this tiny Guy, Nelson De La Rosa, who plays Ratman?

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This was strange – I was in Santa Domingo to produce a picture called, er…

Overthrow?

Overthrow, yeah…  and one time I was in this bar with two actors, setting up a shot. They were sitting at a table, and suddenly I noticed that the table-cloth was moving. I was wondering what was under there, and suddenly a very little man ran out from under the table. Immediately I said to one of my crew: “Get the number of this man, I’m going to make a picture with him… I’ll call it Ratman!” So I got on with the job, and at the end of the day I was given the number. I called him, and we made the picture three months later…

David Warbeck had already made a movie called Panic with Tonino Ricci, a few years earlier. In that one he also fights a rat monster, and he even has the same co-star…

Yeah, Janet Agren.

Some sources claim that a sequel was made to Quella Villa, but I haven’t been able to find out anything about it…

No, there was no sequel.

You worked with Luigi Cozzi on Paganini Horror…

Cozzi is really a writer… he has a lot of good ideas about effects and so on, but I don’t really consider him to be a director. He doesn’t understand anything about timing…

What was the exact extent of Daria Nicolodi’s participation in that picture?

Nothing much… Cozzi knows her, and because she was the partner of Dario Argento, we thought it would help to sell the picture to have her name associated with it.

Why did you start to direct your own pictures, from Thunder onwards?

I was in America and I had just completed the last of the Fulci films and the last Bronx Warriors film, and my plan was to make another film, three months later, in Arizona. That was Thunder.

You had the same actor, Mark Gregory a.k.a. Marco De Gregorio…

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Yes, and I wanted Castellari to direct it again, but by this time Castellari had signed contracts with other companies… you know, when I took Fulci, Fulci was down; when I took Castellari, Castellari was down… after they made pictures with me, they were doing well again. Fulci and Castellari are the best directors for my type of picture, but  they were both committed to other projects. There were no other available directors that I liked, so I decided to direct Thunder myself, that’s all there was to it.

Did you find it easy or difficult to step into directing?

Not difficult, because I always watched my directors closely and was able to pick up what they had been doing. Thunder was an adventure film and it went very well, having great success in the United States and all over the world.

When you are producing and directing the same picture, does De Angelis the director fight with De Angelis the producer over budgets…

Yeah, there is a conflict… I tend to give other directors bigger budgets than I give myself.

Whatever happened to Mark Gregory? He was a crazy, mixed-up kid, by all accounts…

He was stupid because I wanted to send him to the United States to study English and sign him to a 2-3 years contract, but another producer called and offered him a lot of money to do one picture, after which he was finished.

A bad career decision…

Yeah, he disappeared after that.

I interviewed another actor that you worked with, Giovanni Lombardo Radice…

Oh yes, he was a nice boy…

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“Who, me? Aw, shucks!”

He said that you gave him a really hard time on the film Deadly Impact…

Yeah?

Was he complaining too much, or was that true?

It’s true, yeah (laughs).

You directed Killer Crocodile, then you produced the sequel with make-up effects ace Giannetto De Rossi directing…

Yeah…

Has he got it in him to succeed as a director?

I don’t think so. It was my fault, I needed to have a big crocodile, and the only man in Italy who could make it was Giannetto de Rossi. He really is the top man for special effects, and he should stick to what he is best at, but I knew that he wanted to direct, so I called him and told him that if he made me a big crocodile for the first picture, I would let him direct the second… my fault.

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You were dissatisfied with the job he did on Killer Crocodile 2… is that why the film is padded with a lot of footage from its predecessor?

Yes, to cover the gaps.

You recently made Favola, a kind of fairy-story, again with David Warbeck…

Yeah… Favola is a TV Movie. We used the girl  Ambra Angiolini, because she is a real phenomenon with the young people in Italy right now.

What about our host today, David Warbeck… what are the qualities that have led to you using him in your films again and again?

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David is the best actor I know, there is no type of role that he cannot cover. He is such a friend, I can call him from anywhere in the world and he will arrive, even if he has not seen a script, because there is such trust between us, you know? This is very important…

Do you have any projects that you are keeping up your sleeve until the market is ready for them?

For some time now, maybe five years. I have been making pictures for young people, 10-15 years old, and now I feel that I want to make something stronger, like the films I did with Lucio Fulci.

Some of your former collaborators, when I interviewed them, complained that you made a lot of money from these films, and they didn’t. I think it’s only fair that I give you a chance to reply here…

Well, I pay as much as anybody else pays and you know, many of the people who complain are still working for me, so I can’t be that bad. Another thing – they only remember the pictures that went well, but they shouldn’t forget that for every Zombi 2, there are several Manhattan Babys!

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“The Ruthless Logic Of Commercial Production”… THE SERGIO MARTINO INTERVIEW

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Sergio Martino interviewed in March 1997.

Were you surprised to learn that Quentin Tarantino was one of your biggest fans?

When I first read his comments in Giallo Pages, yes – but after reflecting a lot on it, I realised that he was paying tribute to myself and also to a whole generation of Italian film-makers who knew, above all, how to improvise,  and use their imaginations to overcome restricted resources and shooting schedules. Tarantino started off in “low budget” cinema himself, so he appreciates only too well what it takes to get good results under these circumstances.

Are you aware of the increasing “cult” status of Italian genre films in America, England and Europe?

Yes, because with increasing frequency I’m hearing from journalists like yourself, who want to interview me about films I’ve made in the past… I hope that in the future I’ll get to make some more that will also be of interest to you!

Me too, but the present state of the Italian film industry isn’t very promising… what is the reason for this? And can you see any remedy?

The present state of Italian genre cinema is, indeed, very sad. The cause of our decline has been the massive economical and technical superiority of Hollywood, which you can only fight with improvisation and imagination for so long. The investment sources that we used to have in Italy have just dried up. If we could get a million and a half dollars to make an action film, then perhaps we would again be able to get the attention of the international market, but there is no Italian producer in a position to risk such a sum. Perhaps the future lies with more European co-productions, though these bring difficulties due to differing languages and national taste.

Have you managed to keep making movies during these last few difficult years?

I’ve been offered opportunities to shoot a few films on which the budgets would have been disgraceful, so instead I’ve been concentrating on making TV series.

I believe that in the early days, you worked as an assistant to the great Mario Bava… how do you remember him, and what did you learn from him?

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I worked on the shoot of Mario Bava’s The Whip And The Flesh (1963) as a production assistant. I remember his technical ability, his expertise in constructing scale models and how skilfully he used lighting and camera positioning to make up for certain deficiencies in the acting department. He had previously worked as a cinematographer, so he knew that a shaft of light or a lower positioning of the camera lower could heighten the dramatic impact of a line. Also, he knew exactly what he wanted to shoot and would never shoot anything superfluous. If a film was to last 90 minutes, he would scarcely shoot any more than that.

You also worked with Antonio Margheriti and Umberto Lenzi on some of their films…

I have very positive memories of them as two real pros, who had mastered the technical side of film-making.

Your earliest directorial credits were “mondo” efforts such as Mille Peccati… Nessuna Virtu (1969) and America… Cosi’ Nude, Cosa Violenta (1970)… how do your remember those?

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Extraordinary memories. These films allowed me, while very young, to live through unrepeatable experiences… this was the time of the youthful rebellion in 1968, the hippies, the anti-war movement, women’s liberation and the first men on the moon…

You also worked in a genre, which is a descendent of the “mondo” documentaries… cannibal movies: how would you compare and contrast your Mountain Of The Cannibal God with the cannibal pictures of Umberto Lenzi and Ruggero Deodato?

I saw one of Deodato’s films, though unfortunately I don’t remember what it was called. It was made before my Montagne Del Dio Canibale…

That would be L’Ultimo Mondo Cannibale, then…

 … but it was trying for the same sort of ambience. I think Lenzi’s films in this genre  were made after mine, but I must confess that I haven’t seen them. I think that between all of them there was some affinity… once one such film has been successful, the producers obviously want you to come up with something similar.

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Did you, your cast and crew encounter any real dangers in the jungle?

The only problem was the wasps, really. I made Montagne Del Dio Canibale and The Great Alligator in Sri Lanka and Malaysia. The most effective jungle scenes were actually shot in the botanical garden of Kandj, in very comfortable circumstances. I remember though, shooting in the cave in Montagne Del Dio Canibale… it was so hot and humid, even more so under the lights. In addition, we’d just had to climb 500 metres up a mountain!

Because she’s such a big star, did you have problems convincing Ursula Andress to have all that crap rubbed all over her?

Ursula had already experienced a lot in life and made other films in the jungle, so she was not worried on that occasion, nor indeed  in the scene with the python, which she insisted I shoot without using a double.

How do you respond to the charge that such films are “racist” or “cruel to animals”?

Racism? This is a first for me, but the things critics come up with never cease to amaze me! As far as I’m concerned, these films were inspired by American adventure cinema of the 4O’s like King Solomon’s Mines, and other American and European adventure cinema. I can understand the “cruelty against animals” charge, but the scene in which the python strangles the monkey, for instance, was shot almost by chance. Admittedly, the monkey was put next to the snake, but it had every opportunity to escape… there was nothing inevitable about it being killed. Anyway, in the jungle the law of life is the law of survival. I don’t believe, moreover, that the makers of all these “respectable” nature documentaries we see on TV just shoot what they find… I think that many of their violent scenes of jungle life are contrived and reconstructed.

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Were you surprised that your brother Luciano put some of your footage from Montagne Del Dio Canibale into Umberto Lenzi’s Eaten Alive?

Not at all – it’s the ruthless logic of commercial production. Would it be more just to shoot another scene of violence to animals? So it seems right to me to re-use the footage, as it suited the purposes of that film so well.

Is it more or less difficult working with a producer who is also your brother?

As with any other situation, there are both advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side I have managed to keep working in a field that is otherwise rather precarious, and I am allowed to make my films with a certain autonomy. The disadvantage is that, I’ve made so many films with my brother that other producers are less inclined to call me for their projects.

How would you define the term “giallo” and assess the Italian thriller’s influence on the thriller genre internationally?

It’s obvious that directors like Romero and De Palma have been influenced by their viewings of Italian gialli. In essence, these are thrillers based not only on the intricacies of uncovering the identity of the culprits, but also on the use – and, at times misuse – of violent imagery. As for myself, the biggest influence on my own gialli has been Clouzot’s Les Diaboliques.

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That influence is very apparent in a film like Your Vice Is A Closed Room… what are your favourite and least favourite of your own entries in this genre?

My least favourite would certainly be Murder In The Etruscan Cemetery, my favourites are All The Colours Of Darkness and – my absolute favourite – the sequence at the end of Torso in which Suzy Kendall is locked in the room, being stalked by the killer. I think that I was very successful in generating a lot of suspense there.

Was Kendall cast as an hommage to her role in The Bird With The Crystal Plumage?

Suzy Kendall is an excellent actress, and at that time she was very bankable, internationally. The film was shot in English, and her casting was partly motivated by this, though of course the fact that she had been in Argento’s film was also a major factor.

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Do you agree with the assessment that Torso represents a transition from the stylish gialli of the ‘60s and early ‘70s to the brutal “splatter movies” that came later?

I don’t really know how to answer that, because I don’t recall the kind of films that were being made at the same time or just afterwards… in fact I followed Torso up with a comedy and two tear-jerkers.

How did you find the experience of working with Carlo Ponti?

It was a very positive experience. There was a great deal of trust between us. I was then a very young director, and not particularly self-confident… it’s fair to say that I became one of his pupils. Unfortunately we only made a few films together… three, and all successful. Soon after this, he had his tax problems, and could not work as a producer in Italy for a long time. A pity from my point of view, but above all for the Italian film business, because he was one of the most intelligent producers we ever had.

What did you think of the alterations that American distributors made to your films, e.g. Joseph Brenner with Torso, the way that All The Colours Of Darkness lost its opening nightmare sequence in America, and the way that more gore was added to Island Of The Fishmen?

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For a long time, I was not even aware of this. I was later told that these changes were made to make the films more appealing to an American audience. It’s not that the distributors found the content of these films below par, just that different audiences are looking for different things.

The theme of female masochism in your The Strange Vice Of Mrs Wardh echoes that in Mario Bava’s The Whip And The Flesh, which as we mentioned earlier, you worked on…

Possibly so… the films shared the same writer, Ernesto Gastaldi. But the real inspiration for Strange Vice, of course, was the commercial success of Argento’s first film.

What was Nora Orlandi’s inspiration for the haunting theme music to that film?

Nora Orlandi is a woman of great musical sensitivity and passion. I thought it was right to use her because she would be better able to interpret the sensations of the female protagonist.

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Murder In The Etruscan Cemetery and Delitti Privati are both, in their different ways, “TV gialli”. Is the genre suited to this medium?

In a TV series, which runs longer than a feature, it’s more difficult to keep suspicion moving between the various characters… the plot must be much more intricate to hold the viewer’s interest and persuade them to tune in next time. In the case of Delitti Privati, I think we managed this quite well.

Sergio Stivaletti worked on Etruscan Cemetery and other  of your movies… how do you rate this FX man-turned-director?

He’s a young man with a fantastic talent. I think that it’s a good move for him to start directing, and I’m sure that he will be successful.

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Giovanni Lombardo Radice from Etruscan Cemetery told me that he found you a very “cold” director, but later realised that you had made him give one of his best performances… do you have a set way of working with actors?

I think that the rapport between director and actors is determined, above all, by the quality of the story and by adherence to the truth of the characters’ motivations. In genre films the stories are often very mechanical and the characters are moved not by true reactions to the situation, but by the necessities of moving the story along. For example – why, in giallo films, do so many beautiful and vulnerable girls sleep alone in sinister, isolated  castles instead of comfortable and secure hotels in the towns nearby? Because otherwise, it would not be possible to generate any suspense. The characters are motivated by the will of the writer and the director. In this respect it is difficult to communicate to the actors how they should be interpreting their roles, when it’s mainly a matter of mechanics. Perhaps my “cold attitude” towards actors in certain films was determined a little by my own natural timidity, but also from my awareness of the limitations on creative possibilities in these circumstances, where all you want from them is a routine “fearful” expression, or whatever. If Lombardo Radice believes that this brought out the best in him as an actor, so much the better.

Was it important for you to keep a regular cast (e.g. Edwige Fenech, George Hilton) from picture to picture?

It produced a great sense of camaraderie among us, which probably helped everybody to give their best to the production.

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What are your memories of working with Fenech?

Very agreeable and positive. I hope to work with her again in the future.

What did you think of her appearances in gialli made by other directors, like Giuliano Carnimeo and Andrea Bianchi?

I don’t think it’s my place to judge the work of my colleagues, in the giallo field or elsewhere. I will say though that these are excellent professionals, who have worked well in most genres, not just the giallo.

Do you think Fenech is better as a giallo ingenue, or a comedienne?

Her sunny face and Mediterranean beauty inclines me to think she’s more suitable for comedy. On the other hand, Delitti Privati demonstrates just how well she can do in a dramatic role.

Any memories of Barbara Bouchet?

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Another actress with a great comic talent. I think it’s a real pity that she doesn’t seem able to get roles in the cinema and on TV these days. She works mainly in the theatre, now…

Presumably you used international actors like Marty Feldman, for example, in Sex with A Smile, in an attempt to make the Italian comedy a less domestic affair and more saleable abroad?

Yes, obviously. Marty Feldman in particular was a great comic. In fact, at this time Italian comedies did have a certain amount of international success, and actors like Buzzanca and La Fenech became quite marketable.

Your cop films – like Milano Trema: La Polizia Vuole Giustizia (The Violent Professionals) with Luc Merenda – were criticised for being “fascistic”…

I remember that in Italy at the start of the seventies there were moves in  parliament to disarm the police, and sociologists were arguing against putting people in prison. But the man in the street wanted strong, decisive action against crime. All the cop films of the time had this same theme, like the American films of Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson – are they, then, “fascistic”?

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In 2019: After The Fall Of New York, you tried to put a new slant on the hackneyed “after The Bomb” scenario, with Wagnerian allusions, and so on…

To be honest, although the Wagnerian tone is a suggestion that pleases me, I’m not sure how intentional it was.

Well, you’ve got a character named “Parsifal” in there, for starters… what are your memories of the Westerns you made?

Arizona Si Scateno was my first non-documentary film. I remember with nostalgia how green I was in those days. I think that with Mannaja (A Man Called Blade) I made a good film with some beautiful sequences, though it came a little too late in the great “spaghetti western” cycle.

Can you tell us something about Claudio Cassinelli’s tragic death during Vendetta Del Futuro (Hands Of Steel)?

More than ten years later, it still feels like an iron in my soul! Claudio was one of my dearest friends, a sensitive and gentle person. The circumstances of his death were really absurd… I don’t want to go over it all again, because no amount of that will bring poor Claudio back. I prefer to cherish the beautiful, personal memories I have of him.

What can you tell us about your 1993 film Craving Desire, with Serena Grandi?

It’s a film that I was able to make after the TV success of Delitti Privati. Serena did play a part in that film, though the star was Vittoria Belvedere. Serena had already played some small roles for me at the beginning of her career, so I knew very well how good she was.

Has Queen Of The Fishmen been completed yet? Is Edwige Fenech in it, as announced?

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The film was shown, with some success, at the Cairo Film Festival in 1996. It’s a kind of fairytale that uses repertory footage from Island Of The Fishmen and 2019.  La Fenech did not appear in the film, because at the last moment she decided that she couldn’t face wearing a heavy costume in the equatorial climate that we would be shooting in.

Why do you use two American-sounding pseudonyms (“Martin Dolman” and “Christian Plummer”) instead of the customary one?

The name “Plummer” was used only for the abridged version of Etruscan Cemetery, the feature that we “salvaged” from the TV series. At this time there were so many films by “Martin Dolman” on the market, we thought that another pseudonym was in order, so as not to devalue the name.

Any future projects that we should be anticipating?

Some TV projects, then another “giallo” serial.

Sergio Martino, thank you so much for your time.

You’re very welcome.

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In Memoriam, Luciano Martino (22.12.33 – 14.08.13)

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Blood, Shit & Sperm… The DARIO ARGENTO Interview

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“Where’s Sperm?”

Dario Argento visited The Scala in 1991 for the launch of Maitland McDonagh’s Broken Mirrors / Broken Minds tome (first published in the UK by Sun Tavern Fields.) I got the job of showing him around and introducing him to various folks. If you remember how people gawped, gobsmacked, at The Fab Four in the 1966 concert film Beatles At Shea Stadium (or indeed at Adolf Hitler in Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph Of The Will, 1935) then you’ll have some idea of how they reacted to the presence of Dario Argento. I was virtually foaming at the mouth myself… bear in mind, though, that this was 1991.

While Inferno or Opera or whatever was screening I taped the following interview with Argento. The interview was also filmed, with some pretty nifty Suspiria-esque lighting. My subsequent efforts to turn this footage into a documentary met with enough fuck-ups, fuck overs and rip-offs to themselves fill a book… not exactly Jodorowksy’s Dune or Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote, but a missed opportunity nonetheless and one that I very much regret. 

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The interview appeared shortly after it took place, in radically abridged form, as The Blood, Shit And Sperm Of Dario Argento in issue #1 of Andrew Featherstone’s short lived fanzine Blood & Black Lace, on which I served as an associate editor (whatever that means.) The full version subsequently appeared under the title Profondo Argento in the 1993 debut issue of my own fanzine, Giallo Pages.

Thanks to Mariano Baino who put me up for the weekend, acted as interpreter and even threw in a few crafty questions of his own. Probable credit for some of the Scala photos used here should go to Andy Bark, no relation (as far as I know) to Peter Bark. Thanks, Andy.

But hey, enough of my yackin’. Here’s (ta-da!) the Dario Argento interview

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Ah, there you are, Sperm…

Your big career break was on Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West with Bernardo Bertolucci… How was the collaboration between three such giants of the Italian cinema worked out?

Well, Leone brought me and Bertolucci together, we already knew each other, we were friends, but it was Leone who enabled us to work together. It was wonderful! I got to spend many months working on a Western, a genre that I had always loved but never dreamed that I would actually get to work in. The first thing we did was watch Johnny Guitar six or seven times and The Searchers with John Wayne, we also watched that several times, and then we started writing. I bought a gun, a colt…

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A real one?

Yes, a real one! I needed to feel the weight. So, alone in my house I would play with the gun, turning it around and around in my hands. I bought a cowboy’s hat too, and I used to wear it in front of a mirror. It was all done to try and get into the spirit of the thing, and it worked very well, in fact the opening, you know all the stuff with the fly, that was my idea. It came from studying the gun and the hat.

Could you tell us something about the influence Mario Bava has exerted over your career?

I knew Mario Bava since I was a small child, and I also know his son Lamberto very well… he’s been my assistant on three films. Mario was a technical genius, a real master who discovered many tricks – in the use of lenses, camera movements, and so on – that nobody else could do. His father was a cinematographer at the time of the silent films, and he taught Mario many tricks. It was a family tradition of tricks, special effects – underwater effects, fire effects, etc – it was a wonderful experience working with him on Inferno. For instance, he would say: Do you want to make a film where there are 50,000 people killed in a battle? I’ll do it for you, give me a week and I’ll do it for you, and he would draw them. He was a master of the mirror effect, a technique widely used in films but difficult to master, and he knew it perfectly. He could make things appear using glass panes. The glass is transparent, but when the light strikes it at a certain angle, it becomes like a mirror and you can reflect things into it but you’ve got to find the right angle. And sometimes he would draw on these panes of glass… he would draw little cities and he’d build it up and you’d have an actor in close-up and a city behind him, alive with lights and movement… he was a marvellous man!

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While we’re on the subject of such hi-tech trickery, what were the difficulties involved in shooting the slow motion car crash decapitation that closes Four Flies On Grey Velvet?

Well, it took a long time, I used this camera from… Dresden University, the department of engineering. It’s called Pentaset. This camera reaches a speed… I don’t remember now, I think it’s about 25,000 frames per second. It’s unique, radically different from another camera, otherwise the film, at that speed, would burn, it would disintegrate immediately. I think the film is travelling at something like 400 KM per hour. But in this camera the film is immersed in an oil-bath, and there isn’t an ordinary shutter… it’s got prisms, glass prisms that can reproduce the same image 25 times. The prism rotates at an incredible speed, and so does the film. It’s a very complex piece of equipment but it was the only way to get that extreme slow-motion.

Are technical innovations always at the forefront of your mind when writing a screenplay?

Yes, in the script I put lengthy technical notes, and also musical annotations… it’s a very complete screenplay, as I’m writing it for myself… I’m not going to hand the screenplay over to somebody else, so I write down everything that comes into my mind… the colours, the costumes… everything!

Is there any scene that you would like to have shot differently, but couldn’t, for want of the proper equipment at the time?

There have been so many… so many times I’ve had to abandon some good idea because the right equipment wasn’t available. In my next film there’s a segment shot from an animal’s point-of view… not the whole film, just a small segment of it is from the animal’s point of view… the point of view of a lizard. I did have a project to be shot entirely from an animal’s POV, but it would have posed far too many problems, technically.

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On Opera you came up with several novel camera effects, and to achieve them you worked for the first time with a non-ltalian director of photography…

Yes, RonnieTaylor… I met him when I shot a commercial in Australia, a car commercial for Fiat. He was the DP on this commercial, which was shot in the Australian desert. We worked together for two or three weeks, quite a long job. We got to know each other and I discovered he was a fantastic man. When we finished the commercial, I started shooting Opera straight away and I asked him to work on it. We became great friends… a great friendship was born there.

Opera, particularly the end of the film, seems to reiterate the themes of its predecessor, Phenomena…

No, in fact I think that Opera ends where Phenomena begins, even if I made Phenomena first. Opera is the story of a director who leaves the theatre to make a film about insects in Switzerland… that’s how Opera ends. In reality the director does make the film Phenomena! The order in which I made them is not important – it doesn’t really matter which order you watch the videos in, does it?

Phenomena, your least well-received film, is the most personal of them all…

Yes, the story of Phenomena is the story of this girl’s spiritual odyssey, but in reality it’s my own odyssey… it was me… I’ve told it through the story of a 13 year old girl, but I wanted to tell my story… I was coming out of a certain period in my life… nobody understood it.

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Is this because your films are often viewed purely from a technical standpoint by true critics, completely disregarding their substance and subtext?

When the critics are confronted by a different way of making cinema, one that changes the rules a bit, they are puzzled and don’t understand what they’re experiencing. All the critic sees is the surface… he sees the surface of the water, which we could call the technique, the style… but he doesn’t go under the water’s surface to discover what lies there… and there’s a lot! It’s deep… there’s politics, there are symbols… for example I had the idea, for Phenomena, that reality was not what it is today, but a different reality: I imagined that, at the end of World War II, the Germans had won, not the English and the Americans, and that a new order had been established… a sinister order, in which people are reduced to nothing more than children, and teachers who behave as if in an S.S. camp.

Does it worry you that your fascination with the dark side of the psyche could end up consuming you, as in the case of your inspiration for Two Evil Eyes, Edgar Allan Poe?

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That’s something that has always worried me… not only Edgar Allan Poe, but also Cornell Woolrich… he had a tormented life… and others… Lovecraft… nobody knows where he’s buried. That’s because they… it was a different age, you know. It was the times, I think. Today it wouldn’t happen… and of course Poe probably had this tendency towards self-destruction… whereas when I finished Opera, for example, I was so shattered… my soul was shattered… that I had to go to India for two months. I went to Katmandu, then I toured India…

Alone?

Yes, it was very important for me to do it… otherwise I would have gone mad! It wasn’t exactly a holiday, more a pilgrimage, a self-renewal. But when I’d done it, I felt able to get out and socialise again. I’m not some kind of recluse. I love to meet my fans. I travel around a lot, in fact I’m a globe-trotter! Wherever one of my films is released, I go… always! I love people… they interest me.

You have such a tremendous cult following among young people… do you make any special effort to appeal to this young audience?

No… it just happens. I tell my dreams, and if that’s the way my dreams come out… (shrugs). But I am devoted to my public. It is because I need to have this dialogue with my fans, and for that reason only, that I am prepared to make some compromises. You have to accept compromise if you want to make films: cinema is the art of compromise… especially today.

Is it difficult for you to accept these compromises?

I don’t accept all of them, more often I find that I have to fight the system… that’s why I keep saying we should abolish censorship and set the directors free.

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Those who criticize you for the violence in your films take particular exception to the violence you direct against women, they accuse you of misogny… and yet your films are full of strong female characters…

It’s true that there are killings in my films, and women often get killed… but plenty of men do too! Apart from anything else, of course, you have to remember that it’s not real… it’s fantasy. But these women aren’t just poor victims anyway… think of Phenomena: the two female characters, the teacher and the girl – the girl has got these supernatural powers and the teacher is a ‘fury’…

Suspiria, too…

Suspiria, as well. I think it’s a perceptual error… a small one.

Do you think that increasing international censorship is to blame for the poor shape that the horror genre currently finds itself in?

Yes, I think that’s the case… especially in America, where horror films have disappeared. A year ago… no, three years ago, let’s say… there were lots of American horror films being produced. This year? Nothing! And certainly, censorship has played a part in all of this. That’s why I say that censorship must be stopped. It’s absurd!

Isn’t the Italian horror scene in an even worse state than the American one?

In Italy, horror cinema has virtually disappeared. There’s only me and my small ‘factory’ now… Lamberto Bava, Michele Soavi, special effects man Sergio Sivaletti… a few script-writers. There’s just a handful of us left doing it.

Are you comfortable in your role as a producer? Do you find it hard, for example, to walk onto Michele Soavi’s set and see somebody else direct the picture?

No, no, I find it very easy. We know each other well. I’m comfortable with them, and they’re at ease with me. I go on Soavi’s set without any problems… but he makes his film, not my film… he makes it and I produce it. Otherwise I would direct it myself, I show him that respect.

It’s said though that you don’t have much respect for actors…

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No… maybe it’s my attitude. Some directors who make… (pause)… comedies or other kinds of films, have a very complex and deep relationship with the actors, they practically live in symbiosis during the making of the film. But my films are very mathematical and the actors have got to do what’s required of them exactly, without deviating. They have to do what’s been written and drawn for them. I haven’t got such a close relationship with the actors, I tell them what they’ve got to do, explain things, and then it’s everyone to their own devices. So they think I despise them… but I don’t. Hitchcock used to, but not me.

Did you experience any problems with Harvey Keitel, given his ‘method’ approach, on Two Evil Eyes ?

No, not at all! Everybody told me I was going to have problems with him, but I didn’t. One actor who did give me plenty of problems though was Tony Musante, in my first film, The Bird with The Crystal Plumage. We fought all the way through the shoot. For me, getting up in the morning to go to work became a nightmare, because I knew that I would have to fight with Musante… everyday, day after day! When we finished the film, we met again, and this time we had an actual fist-fight… as he was much bigger than me, he gave me a good hiding!

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And that was your worst ever experience with an actor?

Yes, luckily I’ve never had to work with anyone that obnoxious again.

There’s a shortage of really top-notch special effects people in Italy…

Well, Sergio Stivalettii is pretty good… and we had Rambaldi, the great Rambaldi.

Yes, but you used the American Tom Savini on Two Evil Eyes…

Well, Tom Savini is an artist, a great artist… he’s a sculptor, he builds models that nobody else in the world could do… his models are truly unique. He also does animatronics exceptionally well. For example, the cat head he did for me on Two Evil Eyes… it was about this big (makes sweeping gesture)… the head moved… the eyes, the ears, the nose… but Tom was born a great artist, it could have happened anywhere… in America, or France, or wherever… sometimes a genius is just born.

Will you be using him on your next film?

Yes, because I’m shooting in America again.

Can you tell us something about the picture?

It’s called Aura’s Enigma (released as Trauma – Bob). I had the idea while I was working in Pittsburgh during the three months it took to edit my Black Cat segment of Two Evil Eyes… I find editing very easy, it doesn’t take too much out of me. So I was all alone in my room for long periods, and I spent the time writing the story, then I wrote the screenplay, and now I’m shooting it.

Are you still, in the words of Sergio Leone, “full of cinematic sperm?” Are you still in love with film?

Yes, it feels like my career has just started, like it started only a moment ago. Yes, I am still “full of sperm!” (Laughs) For me it’s really like a natural function… if you didn’t shit you would die, and it’s like that. I’ve got to do it, because if I didn’t, I would die… it’s a necessity!

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“Now I have a mission in my life…”

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“I have become like a monk…”

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“A monk of…”

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“… AGAINST CENSORS!!!”

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A Penny For Guy’s Thoughts… The GUY PHELPS (BBFC) Interview

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Alongside the splat pack luminaries on the star-studded guest list for The Scala’s Splatter Fest (24.02.90) and among its rabidly anti-censorship attendees, BBFC examiner Guy Phelps might understandably have felt like Daniel entering The Lion’s Den. But he was cool in every sense of the word and happy to discuss the censors’ doings with us. There was a sense even then (still under the purview of James Ferman) that the Board and social mores were gradually loosening up… though we could scarcely have foreseen then that the likes of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Exorcist, Straw Dogs, Death Wish, Salo, Last House On The Left, et al (not to mention such Johnny-come-latelies as Baise Moi, Hostel and the Saw series) would be freely available in the UK in the 21st Century.

Guy, you’re aware of the strong passions aroused on each side of the censorship debate. How do you feel for example, when the BBFC certificate comes up at an event like this and the audience starts booing?

Well, you’re talking about very different situations with film and video. Most of the kind of stuff you’re interested in comes to us on video because so few horror and low-budget films get a cinema release these days. I think at the cinema a very specialised audience come to see this particular sort of film in a very particular way, whereas the same images released on video are going to have a different life in front of a different sort of audience. The whole way they are going to be seen will be totally different.

When an ‘18’ tape is taken home, anyone can see it, because the Video Recordings Act only operates at the point of supply. They also see it within their own home and the interpretation seems to be that seeing it at home gives a very different meaning to something. It’s one thing to go to the cinema – partly it’s a matter that you’ve gone out and chosen, made a very deliberate choice to see a film – whereas getting a video is nearer to broadcast TV, where it just comes straight into the home and there is less deliberate choice. Also, you’re seeing it in a situation at home where things look different to how they do in the cinema, or even in the office, in our case. We often find that if we take a tape home and watch it, it looks different than when watching it in the clinical surroundings of an office. So it’s very difficult to go from the position of a film screened at the cinema to a video released widely through the rest of the country, I don’t think one can draw any conclusions from one event to the other.

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Weren’t there particular problems with one of the films being screened here today… Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer?

A few. But I felt it was a very good film, and it would have been even better had it continued to investigate the more interesting psychology it discusses earlier on. On the whole, I think it’s an interesting account of a bizarre case. I didn’t find it exploitative, I think it was interested in the psychology of the character and the extremely depressing life-style he was leading. Some of the scenes were problematical but I don’t think the film as a whole was exploiting its material in a way that one could find unacceptable, in the same way as we didn’t think Cold Light of Day was doing that. (*)

This ‘tone’ thing is reminiscent of the BBFC’s feelings about The Texas Chainsaw Massacre…

I would have thought that Henry and Texas Chainsaw Massacre were very different cases, personally. Henry has more of a documentary style, though it isn’t an actual documentary, as the film-maker very clearly says in person and on film, whereas Chainsaw Massacre is very much a “chasing around and screaming” film, though with Chainsaw Massacre you never get quite what you think you’re going to get, curiously. But Henry is a kind of cold, beady stare at a curious individual, it doesn’t have any of the chasing around, menacing scenes. The scenes of violence, on the whole, are fairly brief and they vary in a way that they are presented, but a lot of them are not particularly visual at all.

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Still on the subject of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, can you give us a definitive answer as to what happened to the sequels? Because everyone’s got a different version of the story…

The second one came to us on film from the distribution company and as far as we were concerned, we were looking for a “soft” version that we could consider passing. Then the whole distribution network collapsed, for various reasons, the departments fell out. The company appeared to lose interest in it at that point. It was a film that didn’t do very well in America, and the third one didn’t do well either. Most of the films that don’t do well in America never reach this country.

Are you under instruction not to talk about specific cases you’ve worked on? An ex-member of the Board gave me that impression.

It’s difficult to talk about specific cases because we’re a monopoly. The companies have to come to us and we deal with their material… it’s not necessarily anyone else’s business what goes on between us. It doesn’t mean I can’t talk about individual cases at all, but there is a slight constraint, especially with something that one has worked on very recently. I can’t really go into too much detail about business relations between us and a company.

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The same ex-member told me an interesting anecdote about Lucio Fulci’s The New York Ripper being kicked out by the Board because its distributors submitted it without any cuts at all, hinting that if they had taken the trouble to approach you with, as you say, a ‘soft’ version, the Board would have considered passing it, possibly subject to further cuts.

I’m not sure. There were a lot of problems running through that film. (GP had opined in a previous interview that “…with people like Fulci, certainly, when the movie comes up one gulps slightly and reaches for the sick bag” – Bob.) Violence towards women is something that we’re increasingly worried about. It’s an area where there’s a great deal of research which suggests that the media really do have an input on the way that men think and behave towards women.

But isn’t there also the experience of Japan which has little regulation of horror movies, nor indeed of ultra-violent pornography, and yet has a negligible incidence of sex offences.

I think it’s very difficult to make comparisons across different cultures. Japan is a shame culture whereas ours is a guilt culture. Their whole attitude towards things like that is quite different, so I think one’s got to get into quite profound cultural studies before one can start wondering why certain things are more worrying to us than to the Japanese. We were very worried about violence against women in a way that the Board wasn’t twenty years ago So we continually find that when we’re were watching material on video, certain stuff that was cut back in the ’60s for instance doesn’t worry us at all now, whereas scenes of violence towards women which worried nobody back in the ’60s, apparently, we are now concerned about. That’s something about censorship generally, that it changes all the time, and I think one’s always going to look foolish in twenty years time, whatever one’s stance.

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Yeah … Mondo Cane was considered absolutely mortifying in its day, but now it looks ridiculously tame.

I can’t say I’ve seen it.

It contains stuff like Rossanno Brazzi having his shirt ripped off by frenzied female fans…

(Laughs) Well, that sounds absolutely disgusting to me!

No cheap thrills at all , there…

I’m sorry to hear it. But going back to The New York Ripper, it contained a scene where a broken bottle was used as a weapon, and there is a tendency to find something like that a bit more worrying in that in a moment of anger one’s unlikely to lay one’s hands on an axe, but one could pick up something like a bottle.

Does the Board have a list of unallowable “trigger images”, or is that just a myth?

Nothing’s ever as simple as that, no. It’s always context, treatment, why it’s being done… Film cutting is a delicate job!

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Jose Mojica Marins cocks the trigger in Embodiment Of Evil (2008)

Blood on breasts has often been cited as precisely such  a ‘trigger image’.

That’s certainly something that we would tend to worry about, but once again it would depend on whose blood and why it’s there. We would have to look at it from the point of view of what the director was trying to say with that image, which is as important as the image itself. One of the reasons that we have no book of rules is because there’s no reason why one particular shot shouldn’t be used. It’s how and why it’s used, the purpose to which that shot is put, that’s so important. For example, a shot in a horror film will have a quite different function and appearance to the same shot used in a documentary about a horror film, so it’s really the how and why that counts as much as the content.

How can you possibly justify passing some of the extreme stuff that was in Peter Greenaway’s Art-house movie The Cook, The Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, including cannibalism and the protracted torture of a child? Scenes like that just wouldn’t be allowed in a horror film. Doesn’t this reflect the elitist, class-bound attitude that is at the heart of the British censorship system?

Well again, I think that was more to do with the power of the film-making. Good, clever film-makers can get away with more because they know how to do it. In the Greenaway film you didn’t actually see very much and I gather he shot more – which is always the case – but what was actually shown on the screen was a lot less than the impact it had. That’s the way that a clever director can create an enormous impact without showing very much, that’s the important thing. Inferior film-makers, in my view, have to show the blood and guts because that’s all they can do. They don’t know about structuring a scene and creating an impact without all the splatter. I think that is one of the problems with the modern horror film, there are too many directors reduced to that kind of level because their imaginations don’t allow them to get any further. This is very much my personal view.

To paraphrase a notorious observation by one of your predecessors at the Board, there is a class judgment, isn’t there, in saying that a factory worker in Manchester, for instance, would be depraved and corrupted by seeing Andy Warhol’s Trash but a sophisticated, middle-class Londoner like yourself could handle it with ease?

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Not necessarily, no. We watch the films in a certain way. We distance ourselves from them through the way we watch them, to some extent. One watches them in a sort of academic manner, looking to see what the film is doing, how people are going to see it and deal with it. So one is, all the time, debriefing oneself from the experience. At the same time one is trying to see it in the way that other people will see it when they watch it – it’s a hopeless exercise if, through the debriefing, you don’t get the experience at all. So it’s actually a very difficult matter of trying to do two totally different things at the same time. But I think the fact that one is sitting at a desk, writing away, makes quite a difference, obviously, to the way you see it and one sees a lot of films. We will have a particular expertise brought from other experiences which gives us different ways of looking at the films. So we would hope that there is enough between us and the material we see, which is occasionally very unpleasant, to make sure that we’re not depraved and corrupted too quickly (Laughs).

What do you think about the whole “video nasties” hysteria in retrospect? Wasn’t the whole thing blown out of all proportion?

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1984-5 was obviously a very difficult period. There were a small number of video nasties, not many, and in the years before there was any regulation at all there was genuine concern that young people in particular were seeing material that they were probably not able to cope with. Whatever one might think of “video nasties”, so called, or other horror films, the thought of young children watching them in particular is, I think, fairly horrifying. It’s easy enough to make the case that there was a certain media and public panic that got slightly out of proportion to what was actually happening, but since regulation, to which there was so little public opposition – perhaps surprisingly – at the time, I think that the situation has sorted itself out, on the whole, to the satisfaction of most people. I think the government is more concerned with the look and presentation in video stores now than with what is being released and certainly the video industry is much happier – in this country it’s grown very much faster since regulation, whereas in many other countries where there is no regulation, there has been much less growth. This may or may not be a good thing, whether the industry grows or not may not be relevant, but certainly the industry is happy with regulation and I think there are plenty of sound reasons for supporting some form of it.

There was a perception at one point, not so long back, that perhaps the Board was loosening up a bit, with the likes of Society and Bad Taste being passed un-cut…

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We try and draw a line between horror that is fantastical and horror that’s inciting the audience to take pleasure in the spectacle of pain and enjoy the pain of the person who is suffering on screen. Films like the ones you mentioned, those are good examples of films that are pure fantasy. I don’t think anyone could extrapolate from them to real situations. That’s the main plank of our policy really. But there are particular problems with horror due to its history during the period of un-regulated video and the fact that the Video Recordings Act was brought in specifically to control horror films. As you know, before the VRA a lot of horror films were convicted under the obscenity legislation. This is something we can’t ignore – were not above the law and if the courts have judged that certain material is legally obscene, we can’t say: “We’re going to disregard this, we know better than the law”. We’re not allowed to know better than the law. We have to take account of these decisions.

In fact, we don’t see that many horror films at the moment. The genre seems to be in a bit of a trough, I would say. Not so many horror film are being made. We don’t actually see that much obscene material, most countries have some kind of idea of the standards we apply – presumably if there is that much material we don’t get to see it, or too much of it anyway.

There’s been a feeling for a while in America, which has been going through its own censorship travails, that the BBFC is now in some ways more liberal than its own MPAA.

I hope that’s right – the MPAA has a problem in that their cinema categories are entirely voluntary. Over there, apart from the ‘X’ and ‘NC-17’, their normal cinema categories exclude nobody. One of the advantages of our system of legal regulation by age is that we have a pretty firm idea of what the audience is, whereas they don’t – they can pass something ‘R’ and anyone can go in, as long as they’re accompanied by an adult, so that gives us a lot more flexibility – although ours seems a more rigid system, the end result is in fact greater flexibility, in that respect.

We sometimes hear about left-wing journalists who are supposedly working at such right-wing rags as “The Daily Mail”… is there any sort of contingent acting as anti-censorship “moles” within the BBFC?

Well, there’s no one consensus of opinion within any body, or even between any two people. Virtually everyone has a bottom line of what they would allow or not allow, so to that extent everyone is pro-censorship. Everyone would draw the line somewhere, and above that there’s a great level of disagreement over where the line should be drawn. The strength of our organisation has been employing a number of very different people who have different ideas and one argues constantly as a result, but I think that’s a positive rather than a negative thing.

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(*) When Henry was finally released in the UK shortly after this interview, it was only because its distributors had agreed to a version that had been personally re-edited by James Ferman, himself a failed film maker, to get certification…. out-fucking-rageous!

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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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Independents’ Daze… The ROY FRUMKES Interview

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September is Scalarama Month here at The House Of Freudstein… and all over the world! Throughout the month we’ll be sharing treasures and treasured memories from that fabled King’s Cross pleasure palace. The following interview with Roy Frumkes was conducted at the star-studded Splatter Fest that unfolded there over the 24th-25th Feb, 1990. This also happened to be my first date with the current Mrs Freudstein. As my sister sarcastically remarked at our wedding: “He’s always known how to show a girl a good time!” Thanks, Sis. Mr Frumkes is an affable and (as you’ll see) very talkative guy. I did actually get in a few questions here and there but as he was on such a roll, it seemed to make more editorial sense to omit them and just let him go… like the man said: “If you get good talent you should just let them go!” Take it away, Roy…

I was teaching film making and there were just no films out there for independent film makers. 80% of American film making is independent, you know… the Hollywood thing is a facade. All over the U.S. there’s this independent film making going on, of which John Cassavettes was the leading figure. Now it’s Romero and I wanted to make some short teaching films that would be of value to my students because they’re not going to go to Hollywood, that just doesn’t happen. Spielberg had an uncle at Universal and he’s one out of maybe 100,000. Generally my students end up kicking around for usually about ten years, just working their way up through the pecking order, y’know?

There is tons of work out there because of home video, MTV, cable TV… I don’t know any students that don’t get jobs but they don’t get Hollywood jobs, if that’s what they come to school thinking about and I wanted to make something they could relate to… non-union, low budget, how to get things cheaper, etc. But the only things available were like “The making of Star Wars”, $20 million films, which just didn’t make sense. So I pitched my idea at New York State’s official film school and they were… y’know, relatively unhelpful.

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They must have slaved for months on that campaign…

We started a thing called Tales That Will Tear Your Heart Out, seven little stories… Wes Craven did one and I was going to do one. That ran out of money and wasn’t in any state to be completed, though a distribution company called Aquarius bought some of my footage and turned it into a new prologue for an Italian import called Zombi Holocaust, which they renamed Doctor Butcher M.D. Then a few years later, I figured:”Let’s just do one story.” I proposed it to The School Of Visual Arts in New York, who went for it immediately… sent me a cheque the next week for what became Document Of The Dead… except that I nearly went for Earl Owensby’s The Wolfman instead.

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Earl’s a great guy. I met him a few years earlier and he was like… The King Of The Bible Belt! He made these movies, one after another, none of which has ever made any of the big cities but they all make their money back – and tons more – through The Bible Belt.

I needed to get on a non-union film. Nowadays non-union people are allowed onto a union set but back then they weren’t. Owensby was very helpful, he said he’d give us his private plane and we could circle, upside down, over the set on which he’d built a runway. He also had a motel, he’d built this huge complex down there. He was a big entrepreneur, into many businesses… a Trump kinda guy, you know? He was starring in all his films and shooting them himself. It sounded great, he said he’d let us film the wolfman transformation, like he wasn’t uptight, like he wasn’t uptight about giving away any of the goodies.

Then the chance to make a film about Dawn Of The Dead also came through. Richard Rubinstein was somebody I’d known socially and obviously it was clear what I was going to opt for… I mean, Dawn has gone on to be the epic of the horror genre, you know? The Monroeville Mall has gone on to be like this shrine for horror fans.

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Anyway, I had this fantastic cast of real characters… Savini has this wonderful, hyper personality, Romero came through like a real star, y’know and Rubinstein is a real shark, a scary guy. The other producer was Dario Argento. He obviously had such faith in George. I guess George is his favourite American film maker. Argento was never there when I was on set, he just flew over once to say hello. He put the money up, that was his part in it. It was a co-production deal and he was supposed to be putting up half the money but in fact Rubinstein, from what I gather, was getting half through services. So in return for putting up virtually all the money, Argento had foreign rights. George took domestic rights and that put them in a tough position, which is made very clear in Document Of The Dead… Argento’s cut version, with the Goblin music, did great in Italy, Japan… everywhere. George had his slightly longer version, without that music… and nobody wanted to release it, because it was too strong! Well, everyone wanted it but they all wanted it to be R-rated. George had to fight tooth and nail, for a year, in Document Of The Dead you can see that he ages more in the year from filming to distribution than he does from the distribution of Dawn to Two Evil Eyes, eight years later – he was under such enormous pressure.

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So anyway, I soon realised that I had enough wonderful material here for a feature. The School had put no strings on me, I just turned it around and started raising more money. While we were raising additional money we kept shooting Romero in various stages of production, post-production, securing distribution and so on… we shot the film’s opening on Broadway. So finally I had this unique three year record, chronicling an independent film from beginning to end.

Then in 1981 it was done. By this time we had put in $35,000 and because video was in its infancy back then, people were offering us derisory sums. Because I’d gotten another film going – Burt’s Bikers – I wasn’t compelled to get Document out, there was no executive producer, no money people screaming at me to get it out, so I just put it on the shelf and showed it once a year to my class. So although it hadn’t been released, word started getting round about it, y’know?

Then an ex-student of mine, a Jamaican guy named Len Anthony, who’d seen the film in my class about six years previously, called me up. By now he was the head of a thriving distribution company, releasing all these Filipino things like Lady Terminator and he said: “I really want a class act… I absolutely loved Document Of The Dead but can you get Romero to autograph 2,500 video boxes?” I told him that was really unlikely, that Romero lives on an island off Florida, like a hermit… but I said I’d try.

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So I rang George and he said: “Sure, but I thought you were ringing to do an addendum.I’m getting ready to shoot another living dead thing, you can do that too if you want to.” I said: “What?!?” So I called Len and it was like… you could see the rocket to Nirvana, y’know, with this guy strapped to it so two months later I’m back in Pittsburgh again with Romero and his whole old crew, it was like the weirdest form of deja vu, you know? He was doing Two Living Dead, in which he’d hidden the solution to the living dead series. It’s like he’s rewritten the Poe story to give an explanation , that he never made in the series, to what the hell was going on!

So they’ve got the zombies walking around again and I’m shooting again… I shot another 23 minutes of stuff. My contract stipulated that in order for it to be considered a feature abroad, it had to be 75 minutes or more and it was only 66 but you get twice the amount of money for a feature, so Len begged me to get it up to 75 minutes. I had it put in my contract that for every minute over 75, I could cut a minute out of the original, because the original always did seem a little long to me… scenes were making their point then going on for another 20 seconds, y’know and I always wanted to trim it.

But we were out of money. I shot an additional 23 minutes so I had a lot of freedom and I cut 5 minutes.  Now it moves like crazy, y’know then we put the new 23 minutes on the end and I’ve got this wonderful statement. I’m really proud of it because – filmed over 12 years – you see Romero reflecting on what it was like doing Dawn, what his career and the independent scene is like now and you’ve got this really long interview. The thing is doing really well in The States and my stubbornness / pigheadedness is starting to look like some kind of savvy… which it sure wasn’t!

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What I learned from Romero – and this became my forte – was making something look big for nothing. With Street Trash, which only cost $850,000, it was the steadicam that did it. The director, Jimmy Muro, was a sophomore student of mine, whose Uncle died and left him some money which he invested in a steadicam rig. He had done a 16mm short version of Street Trash in my class, using some of the same people, but it was just a string of gags, there was no real story. He approached ne about if I wanted to write it up as a feature, because writing wasn’t one of his strong points. We got an offer of $60,000 from some little distributor to just blow up the 16mm and add some new scenes but steadicam begs for quality so I said: “Let me produce it, I’ll raise a relatively large amount of money and we’ll do it right.”

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It took about a year. Jenny Aspinall, who did the make-ups, required 3 months advance work, because there’s a ton of make-ups in there. most of it good. She actually started getting paid out of the development money that we had raised to put together the corporation and financial structure to raise the actual money to make the picture. I volunteered to do one of the castings, to keep her busy for a week, that’s why I’m in there as the yuppie who gets melted under the fire-escape. I’d already done prosthetic make-up in two other films and it’s not fun! The whole idea of putting on that horrible adhesive, then using ether to get it off, an awful feeling – then never really getting it off – yuch! In order to have those prosthetics made up, you go under all that gloop and it comes on freezing cold, and you’re completely covered, they put tubes up your nose, then it dries and shrinks and goes hot and for half an hour it’s like being in a deprivation tank.

Some people really can’t stand it. They flip out, they rip it off… so Jenny and Mike Lackey, in particular, who had a great bedside manner, would sit and talk them through it, ask if they needed a massage or anything. They’d always have a paper and pencil handy in case the actors were having trouble, particularly trouble with breathing. because we’d want to make the attempt to have the passage opened rather than just let them rip it off.

We had a lot of difficulty getting actors because traditionally you advertise in Backstage magazine but if you’ve seen Street Trash, you’ll know that these are very odd people, right? For the role of ‘The Winette’ we put up pictures in anorexia clinics for actresses and models and Nicole Potter turned up… she’s fabulous! She was probably one of the most powerful actors in the film. Bill Chepil, who played the cop, was an actual cop for 16 years in Times Square, which is considered one of the worst beats in the world… two homicides every night! I’m doing a book on Chepil’s life now, which is actually a bit more raw than Street Trash!

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These street people are pretty much crazy, I did about six months research with the police about the homeless and I learned a lot. I mean, the character of ‘Black Suit’ came out of my research… about half of them are riches-to-rags stories. They live in the outskirts of New York, doing pretty well and then something goes wrong, they lose their jobs or something and they can’t face their families anymore. They just crack… it takes about a year. They end up on the streets of New York and their families call the police once a week or so just to check that they’re still alive, but there’s never any contact with them.They send them money, whatever has to be done. The Black Suit guy is a good example of that, someone who’s still wearing the same suit he was married in.

That role was written as a very existential piece, it was supposed to be delivered in a very surreal manner and I wrote it for Patrick McGoohan. We approached him and he considered it for a while, apparently, but turned it down. Then we considered Elton John for the role, thought he’d be great in it but didn’t know quite how to get to him. We’d obviously hit on something there, though, because I later learned that he had requested a screening of Street Trash, having missed it while he was on tour and said it was the best film that he had ever seen! (Laughs)

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The guy who finally did play the role, Morty Storm, was like a Borscht Belt comedian, one of these Catskills kind of guys and he just massacred what I’d written, but it was wonderful… it was like throwing the words into a computer and programming it to rearrange them, they were coming out reversed, backwards, repeated over and over again and I was just looking at him, aghast. But it’s great to put stuff on paper, which is just a blueprint anyway and see what happens. I’ve done two films with Rodney Dangerfield, The Projectionist and An Evening At Dangerfield’s, a 90 minute TV special when his night club opened. Rodney had not been discovered when we found him, he was going under the name “Jack Ray” and he was testing at little clubs like The Improvisation. He was great to work with and there are some stories about Rodney that I’d better not tell you while that tape is running, you know? (Laughs) But he was another one who improvised about half of his material. I’m a firm believer that if you get good talent you should just let them go, y’know? All that matters to me is getting the scene and if we get it, I’m satisfied. Then we can try it again, leave them to let rip and see what we get out of it.

We sold Street Trash in Europe first, because in America you rarely get much money upfront. You usually get a percentage on the back end and you know, over there they say: “Net means niet”, you never get any of that back in money because they’re allowed to deduct for (sneers) “reasonable expenses.” That could mean anything, you never, ever see any money off the back. So the sales in Europe helped to get the investors out, while I fought to get a good deal over there. I went to the Cannes Film Festival in ’86 with Howard Goldfarb, who was my foreign sales agent and the film was not finished then, we thought we’d just test the water and see how it went.

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I had cut a three minute trailer and put together a really nice portfolio of colour stills … now at Cannes, MIFED and the AFM, which are the three big marketing festivals, they don’t really look at finished films. They’re paid not to, because there are 2,000 films at any given time and as many distributors running around trying to buy them. What they do is, they look at your promo, your trailers and stills and, if they’re still concerned, they either fast forward your film on video, to make sure those scenes are really in there, that you’re not cheating them, or they’ll go into the screening, sit for five minutes and leave.

So we showed it to “Scandinavia”, which represents four countries in one… this guy comes in with his 13 year old kid and when Howard ran his trailers the kid was just sitting there until the one for Street Trash came on and he started going berserk! The guy’s looking at him like his kid’s the barometer, y’know? He immediately offered us 75 grand, which was 25 above my minimum offer and it was totally down to that kid’s reaction… I didn’t know what I could do for that kid, I took him for ice cream, the works!

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I also sold the film to Avatar in the UK. They did a really good job and selling it to those two territories, a year before the film came out, was enough to reassure my investors… because we had gone over budget… that we really had a saleable commodity. Then what happened was, every foreign country has a censorship clause, you have to refund all the money if the government itself won’t allow the film to be shown. In the case of England, Australia and South Korea, Street Trash was given the deep six. However, Avatar figured that this would only increase its chances on video, that it would be good publicity and so did Australia. So they went for it anyway… Korea wanted their $5,000 back!

I’m surprised that we got off so lightly, censorship-wise, in England… that was extremely unusual. It might have been because we were so democratic, I know there’s some concern about violence against women but I felt that our rape scene was balanced by the castration – we had a three-and-a-half-minute castration! The UK had it a minute longer than it was in America. The longest version was, I think, two minutes longer than you had and that was in France. Japan also had it that long but they airbrushed about four minutes of nudity. That was certainly weird. They had to use a lot of airbrush on Miriam Zircher, the gangster’s girlfriend. The demanded a thousand dollars back, just for the airbrushing!

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In America Street Trash went out unrated so we did our homework, had lunch with the people who released all these films like The Evil Dead and Texas Chainsaw 2. They were doing about a thousand prints and hiring kids in every town to give out leaflets if the newspapers wouldn’t advertise an unrated film and they still didn’t do well, y’know, so for a major company to take George’s Dawn Of The Dead was an incredible break… and it did great, which was a miracle. I hate to defer to the MPAA, so I’m not, but in fact that film should not have made money.

Censorship-wise, there’s definitely an increasing right-wing backlash, in The States and all over the world. I mean, you know about the serial killer in Japan who was caught and he had a closet full of splatter films… now they’ve banned splatter films in Japan. I’ve kept in touch with that scene through Screaming Mad George, who was one of my students. It’s all over the world, not just in the U.S. It’s OK though, it’s alright because all films are made under warlike conditions of creative compromise and I don’t see any difference in that.

Y’know, if they play something on me, then I’m going to get around it. That makes it better, in an odd way. You’re always going on the set with twenty ideas, ten of which go wrong and end up being better! A good example of that in Street Trash is the death of Bill Chepil’s character, the fight scene. He’s supposed to take the tarpaulin off and Bronson was supposed to slash him across the throat. His jugular’s severed, he sticks his hand in, plugs it up and fights Bronson one handed! We shot the ending, with Bronson standing over his body and there was no blood on Bronson’s shirt! I saw it in the rushes and went: “Oh, Jesus Christ” and so we go to shoot it and I thought: “OK, we’ll put the Winette under the  tarp so that Bill’s back is to Bronson when he gets his throat cut, y’know, it was better and I think it was a wonderful scene… so I’ve never had any problems with creative compromise!

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Please consume Viper responsibly. Or else…06_street_trash_promostills.jpgstreet-trash-1987.jpg

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