Posts Tagged With: BBFC

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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Children Of The Revolution… DAVID HESS & GUNNAR HANSEN interviewed in 2000.

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Keep telling yourself, “it’s only a photo-opportunity… only a photo-opportunity… only a photo-opportunity…” In fact somebody tell Gunnar Hansen, because the big lug is threatening to throttle me to fucking death! That’s right folks, the currently glowing crimson countenance of your intrepid reporter isn’t attributal to the warm glow of bonomie occasioned by yocking it up with two of the big screen’s baddest bogey-men, nor to any intake of intoxicating liquor. The only nip I’m feeling the effect of is the one Hansen’s exerting on my carotid artery and vagus nerve. Marilyn Burns’s reminiscences of his heavy hand with that Texas Chainsaw, which I’d previously dismissed as a bit of memoir embroidery, start ringing in my ears… or is that just my pounding blood? Careful with that hack, Eugene. Who will survive and what, indeed, will be left of me…

It’s the 25th of June in this Year Of Our Lord 2000 and we’re at Leicester’s splendid Phoenix Art Centre for Last Chainsaw On The Left, a groundbreaking extravaganza organised by Phoenix honcho and ace anti-censorship crusader Alan Alderson Smith, Exploited mainman David Gregory and laddish academic Xavier Mendip. The event comprises the UK’S first ever public screening of Last House On The Left (apparently in defiance of furious rearguard action by our pals at the BBFC) supported by Texas Chainsaw Massacre (and Gregory’s Shocking Truth documentary about the making of the latter), personal appearances by David Hess and the aforementioned Scandinavian strangler, while Harvey Fenton is here to launch a raft of excellent FAB Press publications. I’m also here to shoot some footage with David Flint (who’d like you to know that he prefers the billing “Britain’s most eminent sex film historian” to being described as “filthy”) and Louisa Achille. Really guys, you shouldn’t have missed this one…

The following conversation with messrs Hess and Hansen was taped in between on-stage appearances and signing seesions, as they familiarised themselves with the delights of Yorkshire pudding and Theakstone’s ale. “Old and peculiar”, mused the now silver-haired Last House psycho: “… just like me!”

Bob Freudstein: Well, you’re looking pretty well on it.

Hess: Really ? I’m alive anyway, and very much kicking, 40 films and numerous films scores later… well, six scores but I am a musician, essentially.

Bob Freudstein: You wrote stuff for Elvis, yeah?

Hess: Right, started working when I was 14. I sometimes look back… you look at yourself and you ask what you did in your life, right? And I think, do I remember as little as everybody else remembers or is it just me that doesn’t remember a lot? I  don’t remember a whole lot of my life is what I’m saying, what do you think? I remember bits and pieces but here I am. I’m going on 58… I look back and I say where do all those years go? Where have they fucking gone?

Poor Mari

Bob Freudstein: They say if you can remember the 60’s you weren’t there… but what was that led to all of these tough movies coming out in the early 70’s? People say Vietnam, people say Manson…

Hess: All of the above, you know… in the 60’s we were the love generation and they took our love and just crushed it with all these assassinations and everything. That was really the first generation in the US that was idealistic and socialistic and they just crushed this whole innocence out of us. So when that happens people get a little harder and they become, you know, a little pessimistic about things. I think that is reflected in the kind of film that comes out… not just film, but art in general. I mean, look at Andy Warhol’s art… look at it! What is it, it’s total pessimism… it’s not even two dimensional, it’s one dimensional. I think that a lot of it had to do with us growing up in our 20s and 30s and having this counter culture… kids always have that, you know, have to push against authority, but they do it in a way that’s optimistic. We had our optimism taken away from us and it reflects in the way that we, as artists, reflect society. That’s the best answer I can give you. Did I answer your question?

Bob Freudstein: Spot on… do you know if the makers of Texas Chainsaw Massacre were influenced by Last House?

Hess: Well, no doubt Gunnar will shed his light on this when you talk to him, but I feel that Tobe must have been influenced by it. But TCM is such an original piece… Gunnar and I were discussing this last night, I’d been in to see a bit of the film and I hadn’t seen it in such a long time. Last House is really an urban horror film… even though a lot of it takes place in the country and a lot of it takes place in the house of the victims, it has an urban feel.

Bob Freudstein: They adjourn to the country to do what they do, but what created these people was an urban environment…

Hess: Exactly, whereas TCM, on the other hand, is very much a rural film. I think Tobe was probably a country boy and Wes was a city boy. That’s the essential difference between the two, but the films make very similar statements. Your cutting edge usually does come from the city and makes its way out into the country so it doesn’t surprise me that TCM followed on the heels of Last House… (enter Gunnar Hansen) Hey Gunnar, we don’t need you any more, I’m answering this guys questions for you!

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Bob Freudstein: Hi Gunnar, it’s great to meet you at last. How are they treating you here today?

Bob Freudstein: Terrible! No, great. The audiences are really up for it, it’s amazing for me to see how many people know Chainsaw, despite it being banned over here for so long and also Last House, at every screening it was apparent that most of the people there had seen the movies. David says they must have been to the pirates.

Bob Freudstein: I  was just speculating with David as to whether Last House had exerted an influence over the makers of TCM…

Hansen: Well I dunno, I’d never seen Last House when we were making Chainsaw, but it’s certainly feasible – and I think probable – that Tobe had hit upon using the chainsaw from seeing the end of Last House. There is it’s first use in a movie, I would expect. Makes sense.

Bob Freudstein: We were also talking about the factors that contributed to this eruption of really tough films in the early 70’s.

Hansen: I think it’s hard to say, and certainly we had no ideas about this when we were actually making the film. There’s a scene in the van where the kids are discussing a period when horrible things are going to happen because of the influence of the stars, so you can certainly see that as a statement about the times in general. Another way to look at it is to say everyone knew that horror movies were really moribund, they were going nowhere… we’d had Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein, “The Three Stooges Meet The Space Monster”, whatever… so quite apart from what was happening in any sociological context, in the medium it was obviously time for the horror film and the business to break free. After Psycho in about 1960, whatever the politics or the zeitgeist of the thing, it was time to move on. Texas Chainsaw didn’t actually change the horror film industry, Last House didn’t either, but certainly they and some other things were part of this big change.

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Hess: Last House busts a lot of balls and breaks a lot of taboos… it’s the end of an era, of that big ’60s love-in, and the first of the neo-horrors… that realistic strand of horror film-making. We ended up with this intense docu-drama style, I don’t think consciously, but actually because we had less time and material to work with… and probably less money.

Bob Freudstein: Wes Craven has admitted that he didn’t really know anything about shooting a film, he didn’t even know to do cover shots, and so on…

Hess: What we did have, though, was this family atmosphere on the shoot. I mean, it was a love-in. It was like we all grew up on the ’60s and went through all that loving counter-cultural revolution so it was the natural thing, to be friends, and out of this friendship evolved a repertory, ensemble kind of film, and that ensemble thing is what you’re feeling.

Bob Freudstein: Both movies are so raw and in your face, but they came out of very different circumstances: Last House from this very “comfortable” production, as David has described it, Chainsaw from a notoriously gruelling shoot…

Hess: The exact opposites, totally. Gunnar and I have been talking about this throughout the tour and we’ve talked about it before, but it’s really coming through.

Hansen: I’m not convinced that Texas Chainsaw could have been the movie it was if everybody had been happy on the set.

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To Avoid Fainting

Bob Freudstein: Is it true that everybody hated Paul Partain?

Hansen: Oh yeah, everybody hated Paul because he was so into his character, and he talks about this in David Gregory’s documentary, that he was so afraid of losing the character that he stayed in it. So everybody was glad to see him go. I don’t know about anybody else but I didn’t like John Dugan much, the guy who played grampa, because he was so difficult… his refusal to wear the make-up more than once is the reason that we had that shoot which went on for 28 hours non-stop, or whatever it was. Ed (Neal), Jim (Siedow) and I got on just fine, but I don’t think that the film would have turned out anything like as good under other conditions, without that total state of sweaty exhaustion.

(As if drained by the memory, Gunnar wanders off to sort out some food)

Bob Freudstein: David, the similarity of your dialogue in different films for different directors suggests to me that you improvise a lot of it…

Hess: Absolutely! I’m a very organic kind of guy in general and my training is Actor’s Studio, so improvisation is my strength. I mean, I can do a script, but if I’m allowed to improvise, then something might pop up which is very original. Wes was wonderful that way, he let me loose and he let me improvise… Ruggero (Deodato) didn’t speak a word of English so I had to improvise. With Franco (Nero) and Pasquale (Festa Campanile), Franco spoke a certain amount of English but I was the only native English speaker on the set, so a lot of what you see in both Hitch Hike and House On The Edge Of The Park are my ideas.

Bob Freudstein: So, were you directing set ups?

Hess: It’s not directing… I know set ups and I’ve directed before, but it’s similar to doing a play, giving reasons, establishing motivation and all of the things that go towards making up a scene. They asked me to do that and I felt very honoured to do it.

Bob Freudstein: You did Sartre’s No Exit on stage, which has a similarly claustrophobic feeling to your most noteed film roles…

Hess: I did No Exit just before Last House and I was off Broadway doing Dark Of The Moon, you know, the Thurber piece…

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Bob Freudstein: Did you study any real-life serial killers as preparation for your roles as Krug, Alex or Adam?

Hess: You don’t study, per se. I’ve had a lot of disparate experiences in my life, not the least of which was that when I was at college at Columbia I worked at the Ellison Clinic for Schizophrenic Children over the summer… I was able to take some notes and really integrate myself with those kids. A lot of what psychosis is, is not being understood. You may well be understood, but it’s your personal interpretation of what being understood is.

Bob Freudstein: How you’re coming across…

Hess: Exactly, that creates a psychosis. So I used that and I dug into my own past and found situations where I was really put up against the wall, so to speak, physically or emotionally and tried to use that. How did I react? What did I do? I’ve always been a very physical kind of person, and at the time I was playing rugby. When we were filming Last House I was actually captain of my rugby team…

Bob Freudstein: I didn’t realise that rugby was such a big game in the States…

Hess: I was the captain of the US team for a couple of years. I was a pretty good player and reached a good level. If you know anything about rugby, and I’m sure you do…

Bob Freudstein: Sure, they made us play it at school.

Hess: … you become an animal, The only way to can survive on a rugby field is to become an animal. I was a number eight and I never took or gave any quarter. I shook hands before and after the game, but in those 90 minutes in-between… if you got in my way I tried to kill you! That was a very good metaphor for Krug Stillo, and as I was playing rugby at the time, I just transferred a lot of that energy and that animalism into the role. Most people don’t know that, but it’s an awful large part of Krug’s character.

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Bob Freudstein: What about the ridiculous plot twist that closes House On The Edge… was that in the script when you signed to play it?

Hess: Yeah, that’s the way he wrote it.

Bob Freudstein: It’s just so far fetched…

Hess: Well, he’s crazy anyway. Ruggero and I always had a love / hate relationship. When he’s OK and I’m OK, we’re bosom buddies, but he’s very schizophrenic, has a very sort of Hitlerian attitude towards the world… and having been brought up as a nice Jewish boy, and been through all that for years, I wasn’t about to buy all that fucking shit.

Bob Freudstein: Never again, right?

Hess: Exactly. So we butted heads a lot. I have nothing but good things to say about him. He is an idealist, he has wonderful, wonderful ideas… it’s hard for him sometimes to bring them to fruition because it’s kind of hard for him to explain what they are. The idea of a social counter culture is what House On The Edge is all about, going amok when you have such social and class division and such obscene and arcane concepts with the class structure. I think it’s wonderful, I love that and I loved it when I read it, which is why I agreed to do the film. It’s very ironic that the upper class, with all their ennui, has to descend to the same level as the underclass, that’s what the film is all about.

Hess On The Edge

Bob Freudstein: Were you aware of Ruggero’s contoversial filmography up to that point… Cannibal Holocaust, and so on?

Hess: That’s his whole thing, the clash of cultures.

Bob Freudstein: When I interviewed him…

Hess: What did he say about me?

Bob Freudstein: “Big crazy American guy… big presence”… he didn’t say anything bad about you…

Hess: I wouldn’t say anything bad about him and I feel badly that we don’t speak. Maybe that’s a question of proximity more than anything. We didn’t get on during the last thing that we did, the TV series with Bud Spencer and Paul Michael Thomas… We Are Angels… I finally got a chance to do that, you know, to do some comedy. We were probably under the gun and it was very pressured. I got on very well with the producer and I’m gonna meet with him when I’m in Italy, which is where I’m en route to right now.

Bob Freudstein: Is there much film making going on over there these days?

Hess: There’s fucking nothing going on anywhere, because the studios have finally got what they wanted. They’ve taken over the whole goddamned business, they’re making multi-billion dollar films and they can stick it up their asses as far as I’m concerned, because they’re destroying the film industry in my opinion.

Bob Freudstein: You went to the former Soviet Union with Castellari… what was that like?

Hess: Incredible experience, the film notwithstanding… I think Jonathan Of The Bears is a really good film…

Bob Freudstein: And nobody’s seen it!

Hess: And nobody’s seen it… we filmed 24/7, like a guerilla production, and Franco (Nero) had put his own money into this film so he wanted to make very sure that it got done. We would drive on Saturday and Sunday to the set, and this was about 15 kilometres outside of Moscow, in a place called Alibino, and they had the major tank force for the Soviet Army. We would drive in the mornings and actually see dead bodies littering the highway between Moscow and Alibino. I was just totally shocked because these were people who got drunk in the night and they just couldn’t cross the street and they’d get hit by a car and the car would just leave them there. I’m not talking about one, I’m talking about dozens.

Bob Freudstein: This is what you were saying, about society breaking down

Hess: Unbelievable, I’ve never seen so much drinking in my life. The Russian women are not to be believed, they’re the most gorgeous, giving, loving, sexual, sensual creatures that walk the face of the earth. They are unbelievable. The men are wrecks, total wrecks.

Bob Freudstein: My friend Mariano Baino made a horror film – Dark Waters – in the Ukraine, and he was up against corruption, people in the crew stealing the film stock and selling it, you name it…

Hess: We had that problem. The story about the money changed every day, every day they would turn up and there would be some new problem. But I think a lot of that had to do with the fear in that country, I mean you have no idea how terrified those people are. They have no money and they have no idea of where the next meal is coming from. They’re sitting in their apartment which is owned by the government, or the government just sold it to some landlord, and they have nothing, they have no security whatsoever. Consequently, the energy level is very high and I think it would be the best place in the world to make a horror film because everybody is a leaping, screaming paranoiac!

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(Gunnar Hansen reappears)

Bob Freudstein: Do you guys have any thoughts on the dialectical process by which the likes of Last House and Texas Chainsaw start off as pariah movies and end up being embraced by the Art-house set?

Hess: Movies have a long shelf life, they are timeless so they don’t follow the generational time frame we all have to follow, and generations change their opinions…

Hansen: The very same thing that cuased the controversy, which is the movie’s power, is what keeps people wanting to see it thirty years later…

Bob Freudstein: … and other people from trying to stop them seeing it.

Hansen:  I was here several years ago on a promotional trip and people were bringing me all these Texas Chainsaw sleeves to sign and I remarked that they were all photo-copies, at which point somebody told me that the movie couldn’t be released over here. I was amazed. I mean, what is the mind-set of the people who decide these things? Do they think that British people who see the movie will all become serial killers? How can they defend such a preposterous position? All of these people were finding ways to see it anyway, and they seemed OK to me. So what’s the point?

Hess: I’m not surprised that censorship exists, anywhere, but it’s silly. Your censorship committee have been particularly silly  to ban Last House because it’s just a film, you know… to coin aphrase,  “It’s only a movie!” You don’t have to watch it, you can walk out… leave the theatre. If you want to see what happens though,  you’ve got to stay to the end. There’s a chance that you might see something which will shake you up. But that has to happen if a film is going to be an educational experience, be worthwhile.

Bob Freudstein: So are people in The States shocked when they learn about the state censorship that goes on over here?

Hess: I don’t think they give a fiddler’s fuck, to be honest with you. But I’m not worried about censorship… it’s a passing thing, so I don’t really pay too much attention to that shit… and there’s always this loophole, be it pirate copies or whatever. The authorities are always going to be fighting a rearguard action on this. In the US at the moment there is a kind of ultra-Republican backlash, but it’s clear that at the grass roots level the people will not accept this kind of fundamentalism. The revolution is still going on…”

TCM Climax

Stillo crazy, after all these years…

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