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. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.”
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!
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)
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.
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!
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!
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!